all sinners, all saints
Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
Sometimes the beauty of Scripture is inescapable, and this is the case for me as I read 1 John 3:2. I'm so compelled by the honesty and hopefulness John brings to the table, both about who we are and who we are becoming.
Luther talked about the Christian life as one of being simultaneously sinner and saint. Often that's been used as a justification for sinful living, but that's not really the direction that Scripture (or Luther) intended. Even Luther's (in)famous encouragement to sin boldly is not intended as a rationalization for hedonism. Rather, being a sinner and saint is all about being honest and hopeful.
Like John, we must be honest that we will will be has not yet been revealed, at least not fully. In other words, our complete deliverance from sin is not yet here. Every time we sin, it seems still further off. Yet, we name this from the unique perspective as God's children. Though sinful, God made us blood kin through the cross, and continues to do so every time we take and eat the body and blood of Christ, given for us.
Yet, in the midst of our honesty as children who remain sinful, a font hopefulness arises in Christ's blood. As we await the final restoration of all things, we participate in Christ's body and blood. We frequently, weekly, daily partake of who God is, and as we do, we become more like Christ. Slowly, near imperceptibly, the transformation into God's image and likeness occurs from the inside out. We can be hopeful because, though sinners, Christ is working on us right now, preparing us for the reunification of all things in the Kingdom of God.
Being simultaneously sinners and saints is about admitting where we are on the journey. We are not lost to sin any more, but neither are we completely like Christ, at least not yet. Indeed, we are in the midst of a process, on a path between sinfulness and sainthood, and so we are simultaneously sinners and saints.
As we remember the faithful departed this All Saints Sunday, give thanks for the honesty and hopefulness they lived in, they died in, and they rose in, because that honesty, that hopefulness, those are the gifts and work of Christ within us. As we remember those whose journey is now beyond ours, give thanks also for our own journeys, that though we are yet sinners, God welcomes us home as children. Now we're on the journey to get there.
As we move toward Reformation Sunday, I was struck last night by some great conversation with the Highlander Lutherans, our new campus ministry at Radford University. Our Bible study, supplied by The Work of the People (check out their great work here), brought up this incredible distinction:
As we learn new things, we must also unlearn old things.
This is an incredibly simple yet profound concept, and one that we know from experience. As we learned more about the detrimental effects of things like smoking tobacco and working with asbestos, our society had to unlearn habits in social settings and unlearn standards of construction. As we learn about the complexities of adult relationships, we must unlearn the childish habits that guided our lives for so long. As we learn more about God, we must unlearn those false or hurtful assumptions about who God is and what God does.
This is the very core of reformation. We are being, quite literally, re-formed. As such, we must also unlearn those things that formed us in detrimental ways. We must unlearn our nasty habits and destructive approaches to people in order to develop good habits and healthy relationships. Reformation requires not only learning new things, but unlearning old things.
Now, of course, this doesn't mean unlearning everything. 2+2 still equals 4. We still have to pay taxes. God is still love. But how we apply those sorts of knowledge - what God calls us to do with that love - now that requires a lifetime of reformation.
As we walk toward the celebration of the Reformation, let us also remember that we still need reformed as well. We must learn things about God, and unlearn things that we once thought were true. We must learn how to live in the Kingdom, and unlearn things that deprive us of life abundant.
To live in the legacy of the Reformation, we must constantly learn and unlearn. We must constantly be re-formed.
expectations and messiahs
Christianity is founded upon a key belief, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel, the promised one who delivered God’s people from darkness into light, from exile into the Promised Land.
But what if I told you there were another messiah? Now, calm down, this is not my announcement of my own delusional projections of my own divinity to form a new personality cult.
What I’m saying is that the Bible tells the story of another messiah, one given that title by God through the prophet Isaiah. Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great, ruled the Persian empire during the later portions of Israel’s exile from Jerusalem. Rather than micromanage from his throne room, his ruling style incorporated significant local autonomy under rulers, known as satraps, so long as those vassal states promised allegiance to the Persian Empire.
So, what does this have to do with a messiah?
In Isaiah 44-45, God refers to Cyrus as an anointed one, another translation for messiah, because of Cyrus’ allowance of Israelites to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple and city. Of course, Cyrus was a messiah in a way that foreshadowed, that prefigured the fullness of Jesus as Messiah. Many are anointed, but only one is the Son of God, fully divine and yet fully human. Yet, in the initial prophecies of Israel’s messiah, God promised one who would return them to the land, restore the temple, and reestablish the holy city of Jerusalem. This is precisely the role that Cyrus played, and so, God calls him messiah.
Even more radical is that God is under no illusion that Cyrus does this as an act of faithfulness. Isaiah 45 says, “I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me… I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.” Despite Cyrus’ penchant to worship many other gods, false deities and idols, the Lord still calls him messiah.
This is an incredible turn. Cyrus, the great conqueror and ruler of the largest empire known to that point, is named the messiah because his political policies aligned with the will of God. Because through Cyrus, God’s spirit was at work for the restoration of God’s people.
How often do we refuse to see God at work in someone or something because that person does not seem to know God? Yet, through scripture we see that God is at work even through those who appear outside of God’s favor, so much so that God might name them anointed, call them messiah, because they help to bring about God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
gladiators, football, and violence
Disclaimer: I write this post while watching my beloved Cleveland Browns.
Early Christians spurned the gladiatorial games, largely because of the murder and idolatry associated with the games, not to mention that many Christians were sentenced to death by participation in these games. This was an incredibly countercultural movement because this organized combat served as a main source of entertainment in ancient Rome.
Lately, I've been wondering whether Christians ought to consume football. First, there is a significant amount of idolatry, both in terms of financial profit and of personality cults. And while there isn't capital punishment or intentional murder within the NFL, though it is an incredibly violent event.
This violence has spilled off the field lately in a number of domestic violence incidents. Now, I am not saying that these men chose to hit spouses and children because of their participation in football. But as our culture continues to encourage big hits on the field, it becomes more difficult to separate which sorts of violence are acceptable and which are reprehensible.
As I said before, I am currently watching the Browns play the Titans. I'm accusing myself as much as anyone else at this point. As I watch, I rationalize with myself that it is entirely easy to differentiate between contact sports and criminal assault. Yet, only a few minutes ago, a fight broke out on the field where one player choked another and was ejected from the game. Last night, I watched an apparently clean hit lead to a gruesome break a college player's leg.
There isn't a conclusion here. Just a sharing that I wonder what we ought to do as people of faith. Football has enabled incredible charitable acts in the world. It has helped a number of families break out of poverty. There is good done.
But as I see idolatry and violence both on the field and in the world, I struggle whether that good outweighs. What do you think?
This week’s lectionary passages are difficult.
Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Jesus all point to God as one who uproots unfruitful vineyards, an analogy not only for Israel but for any disobedient people of faith. On the surface, this hardly seems an encouraging message of a graceful God.
As I read these passages the first few times, it felt like an obstinate child hitting the reset button on a Nintendo. I felt this way because, well, I’ve been that obstinate child. Whenever I was losing in TECMO Bowl or got eaten by flowers in Mario Bros. I would immediately hit the reset button and start the game over. Wipe the slate clean because I was angry at the way the game was going. Is this really how God deals with unruly people?
Not at all. Resets ignore the past mistakes and destroy all the evidence. But when you overturn a vineyard and let nature run its course, you let the good nutrients in the plants replenish the ground. You let the wild animals come through and fertilize. You let the decomposition of old stuff foster new life for a new vineyard. This isn’t spiteful destruction or a child’s reset button, but a commitment to restoration.
Of course, this requires change. It requires the death of the old and a loss of control on our part. But what is the loss of a fruitless life? What is the death of selfishness and deceit? Especially when compared to the new life in Christ, the kind refreshed by baptismal waters and nourished by Christ’s own Body and Blood, we come to see that sometimes we need our stones overturned, our vines torn asunder, not because God is abandoning us, but as an Edenic Gardner, God is tending creation toward the end of blessed fruitfulness.
This does not necessarily make the trampling of our own gardens joyful or even comprehensible. But it does make it worth it.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.