The counterintuitive God

clockCounterintuitive: different from what you would expect (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). Like a clock that runs backwards, there’s little doubt: God is counterintuitive.

Take the incarnation, the eternal Christ clothing himself in human flesh. If the choice had been up to us, we might have chosen huge and flashy. Instead, to bear Emmanuel – “God with us” – the LORD chose someone humble and unknown.

Luke 1:28 (NIV) tells the story:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Who was this “highly favored” person? Mary was a young Jewish girl. There was nothing noteworthy about her. She had no powerful connections, no high birth to commend her. Yet God – who has a habit of doing the unexpected – chose her to bear the Christ child.

Besides using the unknown Mary as Christotokos – the mother of Christ –  another counterintuitive element of Christmas is tactics. Christ’s coming to earth was hardly the Powell Doctrine. The former American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that – as a last resort – if the military must be used, then go big. Amass huge quantities of soldiers and equipment, then overwhelm the enemy. But on Christmas, God didn’t get the memo. He didn’t dispatch an army of angels (though an angel choir did sing for a handful of shepherds). Instead, God parachuted an infant Jesus quietly behind enemy lines, like a single SEAL in camouflage. In a world under the destructive thumb of the devil and his sinister band of brothers (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12 ), this underwhelming response seemed counterintuitive.

Besides choice of people and tactics, a final counterintuitive aspect of the incarnation is love. For a creation that had hatefully snubbed its Creator, one might expect in return well-derserved wrath, God paying back hate with greater hate. Yet to our utter amazement, this “SEAL” sent by God came armed with only one “weapon.” Hate could never overcome hate; only love could do that:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

Paul in the cross discerned heaven’s jujitsu, writing to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). The cross is a counterintuitive demonstration of God’s love for us sinners who despised him (Romans 5:8). While God’s self-denying modus operandi makes little sense to human calculus, love is the powerful magnet that for twenty centuries has drawn people to their knees at manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Humble Mary, baby Jesus, love – These are three indications that we worship a counterintuitive God. The LORD acts differently than what you would expect. For the sake of our world, may we as Christ’s followers recommit ourselves to doing likewise.

Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth

These rice harvesters outside Antananarivo model good teamwork.
These rice harvesters outside Antananarivo (Madagascar) model good teamwork.

In two weeks, members of the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene will vote on a new pastor. Here is the sermon I was honored to preach there this morning, in slightly modified form.
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SCRIPTURE READING: Ephesians 4:1-16 (Common English Bible)

I.  INTRODUCTION

There’s something about the word “secret” that draws attention. Marketers know this. Take KFC for example. They draw us in with talk of the Colonel’s “secret recipe” made from 11 tasty herbs and spices. Or what about the website, WebMD? A recent article spoke about “10 Diet secrets for lasting weight loss success.”

If a marketer had been assigned to the Apostle Paul, what might she have labelled Ephesians 4:1-16? Perhaps she would have spoken of “Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth.” And here they are:

1) Keep the focus on Christ.

2) Find your niche and fill it.

3) Above all, let us love one another.

II. KEEP THE FOCUS ON CHRIST

When you read Ephesians 4:1-16, there’s no question about who the star of the show is. It’s Christ!

v. 1 – Paul was a prisoner for whom? The Lord Jesus Christ

v. 7 – our gifting is from Christ

vv. 9-10 – It is Christ who descended to earth and who ascended to Heaven

v. 12 – We are the body of Christ.

v. 13 – As his body, we are striving for the standard of the fullness of Christ.

v. 15 – We are to “grow in every way into Christ.”

Theologians like fancy words. They would say that our faith must be Christocentric. In other words, Jesus must be at the center.

By no means do I agree with all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches. However, one of things that I really like is the sanctuary. When I go into a Catholic church, very often there is a cross at the front, in the center, a cross depicting the crucified Christ. The old hymn says it well:

Since my eyes were fixed on Jesus

I’ve lost sight of all besides.

So enchained my spirit’s vision

Looking at the crucified.

It is far too easy for us as the church to be distracted by minor things and turn our gaze from Christ. We are tempted to put our eyes on minor things:

Why did our pastor not do that? Isn’t that her job?

Why would sister so-and-so say such a thing?

Why was the music too loud this morning? Why was it too soft?

And when we start down that negative path, our eyes are diverted from the One who brings us together and the One in whom we find our unity! I’m glad that I’m part of a denomination that has chosen to put Jesus in our name. We are the Church of the Nazarene. Who is the Nazarene? The Nazarene is Jesus Christ.

Yet what kind of a Christ do we preach? We preach a Christ who reaches out to the marginalized, the forgotten of our society. Because Jesus loves people, he is never content to leave us where we are. Rather, Jesus is all about setting us on a new path. We serve Christus Victor, the Christ who is victorious over the unholy Trinity of sin, death, and the devil. Because Jesus loves us so much, he can never be satisfied to leave us mired in our sin.

As the Church of the Nazarene, we’ve understood that historically. For example, in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early decades of the 20th century, we started a rescue mission for alcoholics, and to this day the churches of the Kansas City area support that rescue mission, loving the poor and homeless, many of whom are caught in the trap of substance abuse.

But who are the other marginalized people of our day, right here in South Africa? If someone stood up among us and admitted that he’s addicted to drugs, asking for God’s help and ours, would we not help him? Yet I wonder what our reaction would be if someone stood up in church and admitted being attracted to the same sex, then asked for God’s help and ours? Would we distance ourselves and reply: “No, there’s nothing to be done for that one”? Would we not welcome them with outstretched arms?

And so we keep Christ the Saviour, the one victorious over sin, death, and the devil, at the center of all we do. It is this Jesus that will draw people to himself and to his church.

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Where did Bresee get his catchy phrase? And does it help?

Phineas F. Bresee
Phineas F. Bresee

Last week, a Preacher’s Conference convened at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Though I was unable to attend, I caught my mind wandering back through the halls of NTS. Hanging on a wall in one of those hallways is a pencil sketch of Phineas F. Bresse, next to a framed quotation. Bresee, a key force behind the union of holiness groups in 1908 to form the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, cautioned:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; but in all things, love.”

I’m not sure why the administration chose to hang those wise words where everyone could see them. Maybe it was to prevent lively theological discussions from morphing into something toxic? Whatever the motivation, there is something I’ve since discovered: The words aren’t original with Bresee. In fact, a quick internet search shows lots of people past and present quoting them.

The original quotation was from Peter Meiderlin (1582-1651 CE), also known as Rupertus Meldenius, an obscure Germain theologian. Discussing whether the late divine Johann Arndt had been orthodox in his thinking, Meiderlin cautioned:

“In a word, were we to observe unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity, our affairs would be certainly in a most happy situation.”

Apart from the origin of the phrase, it may be asked: Does it help?

As some have noted, it depends what parties to a conversation consider “essential” vs. “non-essential.” For example, some seem willing to fight to the death over whether God created the universe in 6 twenty-four hour days. Others are more flexible, allowing God whatever time frame necessary, even billions of years, as long as we affirm that God is the Creator. So, group 1 sees so-called “youth earth creationism” as essential to the whole structure of Christian faith, while group 2 decidedly does not.

Some light can be had when we look back through history to see what a group has judged to be “essential” vs. “non-essential.” In the Church of the Nazarene, we have never had a statement committing us one way or another on the timing of the return of Christ. Instead, we have always merely insisted that he will one day return. We’ve left the particulars up to individual conscience. On that issue, we have always embraced “wiggle room.” The onus then is on the group that wants to jettison history and change direction.

Though it makes the phrase less catchy, we might amend it to say:

“In what we’ve always thought essential, unity; in what we’ve always believed non-essential, liberty…”

When all is said and done, the best way to read Meiderlin’s phrase may be in reverse and with some modification: “In all things remember love, even as we discuss things some consider essential but others think are non-essential.” Our starting point is always love. Otherwise, tempers may flare and we may forget our first duty, to love our neighbor as ourselves. May love always be our watchword and song!

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Photo credit: Nazarene.org

Hate sin and love God by loving others – 1 John 3:7-18

The chapel of NTCCA was full as Greg addressed graduates, their families, and friends
The chapel of NTCCA was full as Dr. Crofford addressed graduates, their families, and friends

Note: This is the graduation address I presented at the commencement exercises of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on 4 May 2013.

Scripture reading: 1 John 3:7-18

Text: 1 John 3:8b – “God Son appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (Common English Bible).

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“Hate sin and love God (by loving others)”

I.  INTRODUCTION

(salutation and all protocols observed)

We are gathered together today to honor the achievement of the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa, both campus and extension students. You have persisted through many hours, days, and months of study, and all for one reason: To better equip yourself for the ministry to which our Lord Jesus Christ has called you in his church. Today, we pause on this auspicious occasion to say two words: Well done!

Many of you have already been involved in ministry in the local church. Some of you will be taking the role of pastor for the first time. At such a moment, what words of wisdom does the Bible have for you?

We have heard the Scripture reading from 1 John 3:7-18. In the passage, two commands repeat themselves:

1) hate sin;

2) love God, by loving others.

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Jesus 1, Satan 0: Christ’s triumph in Colossians 2:15

gen31501It was a stunning victory, a serpent-smashing triumph. Paul explains:

When you were spiritually dead because of your sins and because you were not free from the power of your sinful self, God made you alive with Christ, and he forgave all our sins. He canceled the debt, which listed all the rules we failed to follow. He took away that record with its rules and nailed it to the cross. God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless (Colossians 2:13-15, NCV, bolding added).

This militant tone is woven through Colossians 1 & 2. In 1:13, the Apostle rejoiced that “God has freed us from the power of darkness, and he brought us into the Kingdom of his dear son” (NCV). Having been liberated, we must avoid being recaptured through “philosophy and empty deception” (2:8, NASB).

Sometimes theologians are uncomfortable with the Christus Victor motif in the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to fit very well with “loving God and neighbor,” the watchword of relational theology. But the two needn’t be seen as contradictory. If someone is captive, only love is a strong enough motivation for daring raids behind enemy lines.

Yet Paul understood the importance of balance. In Colossians 3, he urges patience, compassion, and humility, then caps it off with a call to love:

 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful (vv. 14-15, NASB).

There is a place in Christian theology for both Mildred Wynkoop and her emphasis upon love and Gregory Boyd and his image of earth as a spiritual battlefield. There is room for both because the New Testament speaks of both. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

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Photo credit: The Trustworthy Word

When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love

relational_theologyThe word “relationship” is part-and-parcel of evangelical jargon. A tract left on a public bench may ask in bold letters:

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

And it is through the prism of relationship that some Christian theologians are formulating their views. A recent example is Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow, eds., Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Point Loma Press, 2012), a collection of essays written by 31 authors contributing insights from the relational paradigm to a spectrum of theological and philosophical issues.

Structure and target audience

Relational Theology is structured around four categories:

1. Doctrines of theology in relational perspective;

2. Biblical witness in relational perspective;

3. The Christian life in relational perspective;

4. Ethics and justice in relational perspective.

Nested under these headings are intriguing subjects, including (among others) sin, free will and determinism, the means of grace, how humans relate to the creation, social justice, and feminist theology. True to its sub-title, “A Contemporary Introduction,” each of the essays is short, presenting a fly-over view at 30,000 feet of the ground beneath. Footnoting is very limited, which frees the text of heavy documentation, making the read more user friendly, especially for the novice. On the the other hand, since the book is geared toward the non-specialist, it is puzzling why the editors chose not to include questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter. This would have made for better learning as well as improved marketing of the book to small church groups, Sunday School classes or other venues.

Those who clicked on the Amazon.com link above will notice that the book is listed as “out of print.” Strangely, Point Loma Press (the publisher) also does not list the book on its website. It is hoped that these glitches can soon be corrected so that Relational Theology will be easily available to readers.

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Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?

The essence of the Christian faith is love. Rarely, however, do we ask: And what does love require? Jesus answered this question not with a sermon but through his actions. He showed us what love requires during an instructive encounter with a woman unfaithful to her marriage vows (John 8:1-11).  The religious authorities brought her before the Lord. They demanded: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (v.5, ESV).

The reader hardly needs John’s explanation in v.6 to understand that this was a trap. Their target was not the hapless harlot but the teacher whose growing popularity they envied. They knew that if Jesus excused her action that de facto he would be setting aside the seventh commandment, a serious charge against any rabbi. On the other hand, if he concurred with the punishment that these scribes and Pharisees were only too willing to carry out, his popularity with the people would take a major hit. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that his “yoke” was “easy” and his “burden” was “light” (Matthew 11:29)? Yet agreeing with their decision would appear to undercut that claim, joining him to those who specialized in piling up laws and interpretations. In the eyes of the common person, Jesus might go from “one of us” to “one of them.”

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