Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Unforgivable Sin (& how to avoid it)

My compadres over at ThinkTheology are currently writing a blog series entitled Follow Me, working their way through the Gospel According to St. Mark.

Andwouldnt you know it?by the luck of draw (or so they tell me), I was asked to comment on Mark 3:20-30. You know, the passage that introduces us to the thorny question regarding the unforgivable sin.

This is a fascinating piece of Scripture. People have been wrestling for years over what blasphemy against the Spirit means, and whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybody, followers of Jesus, might have accidentally committed it.

Charlatans have wielded this section of Scripture like a war club, (ab)using it to threaten anyone who might dare to question the outlandish things they are teaching and doing.

As always, contextnot just the surrounding verses but the whole of Marks gospelprovides more than enough clues as to (a) what Jesus meant, and (b) to whom He was speaking.

At the beginning of this passage, we read that there are two groups of people upset with Jesus: His own family and the teachers of the law. His family is mentioned first, but it is not until the next passage in the ThinkTheology series (Mark 3:31-35) that they actually show up and Jesus speaks to their concerns. Todays section of Scripture deals with the second group of the offended: the teachers of the law (we could also call them the Legalistic Lecturers, if alliteration appeals to you).

The background context to this chapter:
(a) Jesus had healed a man during the Sabbath, which resulted in the teachers of the law blowing their religious gaskets (and they were already looking for reasons to discredit Jesus anyway)
(b) Jesus had developed a tendency toward healing people and casting out impure spirits (demons) which inspired many people to put their faith in Him
And to make matters even worse (from the viewpoint of the legalists), 
(c) Jesus had just commissioned His disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons as well. (Oh no!You can almost hear the echoes of the Legalistic Lecturers face-palming themselves into unconsciousnessnow its going to spread even more!)
Of course, Jesus had been doing the same things ever since the beginning of His public ministry: preaching about the Kingdom (Mark 1:14-15), healing the sick (Mark 1:32-34), and casting out demons (Mark 1:21-28). And the Legalistic Lecturers had been hounding Jesus ever since He healed the paralytic and (gasp!) forgave his sins (Mark 2:2-7). They didnt like His teaching, or that the crowds were following after Him. They were constantly on the lookout for ways to entrap or discredit Jesus.
Note: Their hearts were completely hardened against Jesus. They would use whatever means necessary to stop Him. To say they were obsessed with His downfall would be an understatement of, shall we say . . . biblical proportions.
And so they came up with the accusation that Jesus ministry was empowered by Satan himself. Strategically, they chose to use the name Beelzebul, because it would remind people of Baal, the #1 idol which had historically plagued the Israelites in the Old Testament.
This was not an off-the-cuff slip of the tongue on the part of the Legalistic Lecturers. This was a cleverly worded denunciation of Jesus miracles by claiming that He was possessed by the same evil spirits as Israels enemies (some translations substitute Beelzebul with Satan, but the intent is the same).
Jesus then calls the teachers of the law over for a private chat, and gives them a Lecture of His own. He points out their ridiculous lack of logic in suggesting that Satan would intentionally undermine himself. (They were clearly grasping at straws by this point.)

Jesus also drops the not-so-subtle hint that it would take Someone much stronger than Satan to overcome him and plunder his house (take his goods). Jesus miracles of healing and casting out demonsin this chapter aloneserved as clear examples of how Satans house was already being plundered, even before the Cross.

And finally, Jesus calls them on the carpet re: their campaign to discredit Him. They were playing with fire, and not just figuratively. For them to reject Jesus as the Messiah was bad enough, although the consequences were limited to themselves; trying to dissuade others from following Jesus by accusing Him of being demonically-empowered was inexcusable in the extreme, and punishable eternally.

So, to cut the chase about whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybodysincerely trying to follow Jesusmight accidentally commit the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, allow me to suggest the following checklist, based on todays passage:
  1. If you see people coming to faith in Jesus, and
  2. this causes you to become inexplicably enraged, and
  3. you obsessively spend most of your waking hours trying to find or invent ways to discredit Jesus, because
  4. youve decided that its blasphemous for Jesus to forgive the sins of others, and therefore
  5. you work tirelessly to convince people who are interested in Jesus that Hes actually working for Beelzebub, or Satan, or possibly Emperor Palpatine, then
  6. you might be guilty of the unforgivable sin.
Otherwise, just keep following Jesus.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Vineyard: It’s Complicated...

“What can you tell me about your involvement with the Vineyard?”

The question hung in the air, the chasm between us suddenly gaping like a bottomless pit.

Ah, and there it is, I thought to myself. The “Vineyard” question.
When I was upgrading myself to what’s known as ‘M.Div. equivalency’ (prerequisite to pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree) at Providence (my alma mater), I approached one of my professors with the idea of developing a course there. He was intrigued by the idea, and suggested I submit a written proposal and my ministry resumé, which led to an interview with one of the vice-presidents of something-or-other.

Then it got weird.

The interview was clearly going nowhere from the get-go, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. Several reasons for the VP’s reluctance were voiced:
  1. Only people with doctoral degrees could design or teach courses.
    I mentioned the name of a part-time teacher who didn’t hold a doctorate.
  2. Students currently enrolled in master’s level courses didn’t have the time to develop or teach a course.
    I mentioned the name of a first year master’s level student who was currently teaching.
The VP shuffled through some papers on the desk, looking irritated, and then turned and gave me a fixed-stare-down gaze, and asked “the V-question”. And that was that. The interview had been over before it even began. The “Vineyard resumé stain”—as one of my friends in a different denomination calls it—was in full effect.
And I realized that I was dead meat no matter what I said. Did the interviewer honestly think I would denounce the Vineyard in hopes of increasing my chances? After a moment of stunned silence, I simply re-iterated what was clearly stated on my resumé: I had previously pastored in two Vineyard churches, one in Victoria BC and the other in Los Angeles.
End of story.

The irony is that even within the Vineyard, it was and is difficult to define at times what is “Vineyard” and what isn’t. During its early years in particular, the Vineyard was pulled in a variety of directions, and struggled to maintain the core of its vision and mission.

The Quest for the Radical Middle is an excellent history of the Vineyard movement. Written in 1999, author Bill Jackson mentioned that by the early 1990s—barely ten years into the movement’s story—people were already wrestling with the question of what makes a Vineyard, truly “Vineyard”.

Echoing other voices within the Vineyard, Jackson observed that the answer to that question often depended on what era the Vineyard was going through when you first got involved.
And as the image at the top of this post indicates, there have been some significant influences that have (depending on your point of view) either added to, or detracted from, the Vineyard's self-identity as a “radical middle” movement—evangelical in theology and (c)harismatic in practice.

The “Vineyard resumé stain” which the seminary VP was reacting to—I wonder which “Vineyard” was the problem? The Kansas City Prophets? The Toronto Blessing? The whole kit ’n’ kaboodle? Some weird caricature based on the “research” of heresy-hunters?

I mean, depending on what you think constitutes the real Vineyard, I may or may not fit your definition (I may not even be welcome in some Vineyard churches). After all, I wrote Post-Charismatic, which got me into hot water in certain circles for questioning and critiquing some charismania excesses and sketchy teachings. And I also wrote The Genesis Café, which tempts those in the postmodern “you can’t know anything with certainty” circles to eye me with wary suspicion.

Bill Jackson, the author of Quest, passed away a couple of weeks ago, which prompted me (and probably many others) to re-read his book on the Vineyard movement. And when I read again the core of Vineyard beliefs (a sample copy can be viewed here), I think to myself, “yeah, I’m Vineyard.”
I believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are available today; I believe in the inaugurated eschatology of the “already-and-not-yet Kingdom of God”; I reject hype and hyperbole in ministry; I believe we are called to care for the poor and challenge injustice . . . the list could go on.
The Vineyard is far from perfect. The extreme charismania camp continues to be well-represented in some circles, and the postmodern semi-liberalism has its adherents as well. But the classic radical middle theology of John Wimber as expressed in his (very 1980s-sounding) Power Evangelism also continues, and that is where I still find my connect to the movement.

I only wish, in the perfect clarity that hindsight provides, that I had thought to answer the mind-already-made-up VP’s question by saying:
“Vineyard? It’s—complicated . . .”

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Fallen from Grace

Fallen from grace . . .

Everybody knows what that means.

Somewhere, somehow, somebody has blown it big-time; committed some heinous action that brought humiliation on themselves, scorn from others, and generally disqualified themselves in the eyes of everyone (including themselves).

It is often used in reference to Adam and Eves game-changing bad choices with the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3). Although the Bible never calls their actions a fall from grace", thats how people have referred to it for centuries, and as a summary statement, it works.

But its fascinating to see how the New Testament uses the phrase fallen from grace. The apostle Paul turns the phraseas we tend to use itcompletely on its head, with huge implications for us.
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4, emphasis added)
Normally, youd assume that Paul would use the phrase fallen from grace much as we would: somebody has chosen sin over holiness; they have messed up, somehow broken the rules.

Instead, Paul is telling them (and us) that whenever Christians attempt to achieve greater personal holiness by keeping the rules (in this case, the Old Testament law, as some false brothers were advocating at the time), that is what constitutes falling from grace.

We tend to approach things perfectly backwards.
Paul writes: For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. (Galatians 5:5)

And yet we keep assuming that if we work harder to clean up our lives, thenand only thencan we expect more of the Spirits presence and activity on our behalf.
Falling from grace has nothing to do with us screwing up. It has everything to do with trying to achieve a holy lifestyle (which is not optional, just so it's been said) by our own efforts, and expecting to receive more of God as a reward for our hard work.

Paul puts the theological cart back where it belongs with statements like:
  • How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? (Gal. 3:3)
  • So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. (Gal. 5:16)
  • Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (Gal. 5:25)
We start with the Spirit, always. Not with our own feeble human efforts. We didnt enter the Kingdom through our own efforts, nor will we move forward by our own efforts. It's always been about the Spirit. And it always will be.

Anything else is falling away from grace.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Anticipation

It was a moment or twoor was it a small eternity?before he noticed his hands were shaking.

So much so, that he had to force himself to slow down, to listen carefully, and to write as clearly as possible. This was the Big Oneand as a prophet who had had many mind-blowing revelations, he knew instinctively that he needed to write it down with great care.
“The man said to me, ‘Son of man, look carefully and listen closely and pay attention to everything I am going to show you, for that is why you have been brought here. Tell the people of Israel everything you see.’” (Ezekiel 40:4)
Hed been raised on the stories of when Solomon had first dedicated the Temple, and how the glory of the Lord was so powerfully present that the priests couldn't even do their normal jobs. (1 Kings 8)

And, sadly, hed been the one who saw the glory of the Lord leave the Temple after centuries of his peoples unfaithfulness to their Covenant with God. (Ezekiel 10 & 11)

He had been encouraged and inspired after his vision of the Valley of Dry BonesGod could and would bring life out of what looked like death. (Ezekiel 37)

But this . . .!

He was doing as hed been instructed by the angelic messenger: carefully writing down everything he was being shown. Detail after detail, nuance after nuance, all the pains-taking minutia he heard.

And then it had hit him . . . hard, like a bolt of lightning to the mind.
He was writing down the plans for the new Temple. Not only had God promised to bring His people back from exile, but now He was revealing the Plan for when they returned.
He swallowed hard, willing his heartbeat to slow down. He concentrated on the words of the angelic messenger; every detail was important, just as it had been when Moses built the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-28), and when Solomon had built the first temple (1 Kings 5-8).

But he could barely contain his joy as he furiously wrote. The sense of anticipationof expectationwas so thick he could almost taste it.



Its 2015. Is there any sense of anticipation or expectation today?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

It's Happening. Right Now...

Im telling you, I really think something amazing is going on. It started about thirty years ago, when a bunch of us were working the night shift, and angels told us about the birth of the Messiah.

Yeah, I know, I knowIve told that story a lot of times already. But guys, I was thereI know what I saw.

And I was starting to believe that God was finally up to something, after four hundred years of silence . . . well, who wouldnt get excited about that?

And thennothing. No further word. No more angels (at least, none that I saw, anyway). Back to the silence.

But then, just this last Sabbath, I was at the local synagogue, and the rabbi there was reading from the prophet Ezekiel:
I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. (Ezekiel 34:23-24)
Okay, I know what youre thinkingI can see it in your eyes. Youve heard this Scripture a thousand times before. Weve all heard it since we were kids at the synagogueGod will give us a shepherd like David... blah, blah, blah. So why should last Sabbath be any different? Well, stand still a minute and listen!

Because not two days after the Sabbath, I was in town, and I saw this new rabbi in some kind of heated debate with the Pharisees (what else is new with our grumpy spiritual leaders, eh?)

Well, I couldnt help but overhear their conversation, and guess what this new rabbi is saying?!?
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10)
What proof, you ask? What makes this rabbi any different than the rest? Well, for one thing, Hed just healed a guy who had been blind from birth (John 9). That sure got everyones attention!

And then I started to piece it all together: the angels thirty years ago, the prophecy from Ezekiel, the miraculous healing of the blind guy, and then this rabbi claiming that He IS the Good Shepherd . . .

Guys, think about it! Dont you see? I think its actually happening, right now, in front of our eyes . . .

Could He be the Messiah?