Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, 4

"It may be said that there is no incident in the life of Jesus . . . . so essential as the Ascension." --William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus, p. 315.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

2. As head of his church, Jesus ascended so that he could be present with all of his church at all times by the Holy Spirit.

At the end of his time on earth Jesus told his followers, I will be with you always even until the end of the world. Earlier, in Matthew 18, he promised his followers that any time two or three of them were gathered in his name, ironing out their differences, he would be there with them.

Of course, Jesus could never do that in the flesh, as one of us. Though ironic, the Scriptures teach that it was only by ascending to the presence of the Father that the Lord Jesus could be present with all of his people at all times. And he is with us, by means of the Holy Spirit who was sent to live in the heart of every Christian.

In John 14:16-18, Jesus said: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

But not only is Jesus with his church by the Holy Spirit, from his exalted position he serves and supports all of his people everywhere. One example of Christ's current service to his church is his provision of human leadership for the body so that each member will be prepared to do the will of God. Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 4:10-12:

He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

In Acts 1:1-2, Luke tells Theophilus that in the previous volume, the Gospel of Luke, he had written about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven. The implication is clear. When Jesus ascended, he was not finished doing and teaching. Indeed, the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe (Eph. 4:10), had just gotten started in His great work of leading and instructing the church.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, 3

The New Testament tells us that forty days after his resurrection, Jesus was taken up into heaven (Mark, Luke, Acts). Throughout the NT, this event is regarded not merely as something than happened. More than that, the ascension points to a present reality full of meaning for the people of God until the second appearing of his Son. What exactly is that significance?

1. Acting as our great high priest, Jesus Christ ascended in order to intercede in behalf of his people.

G. C. Brewer was one of the great preachers of the early twentieth century. A sharp thinker and riveting speaker, Brewer did a lot to shape the Churches of Christ of the previous generation.

Several years ago, I heard about one of Brewer's sermon illustrations, the one he used when speaking about 1 John 1:7. The verse says, But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his son, cleanses us of all sin.

After he quoted that verse, Brewer would then say, "You can remember that in the old automobiles, if the windshield wipers were moving, it was because you were moving them yourself. There was a knob on the dashboard. When the windshield had to be cleared, you reached up and turned the knob back and forth so that the blades would do their work. Now it's different," said Brewer. "Now, whenever it begins to rain, you simply lift a lever or flip a switch and the motorized windshield wipers move continuously until you turn them off again."

Then he made his point: "The newer, motorized windshield wipers are something like the blood of Jesus Christ in our lives. When you first become a Christian, the blood of Christ washes away your sins. But try as you might, you don't stop sinning. You need to be made clean again and again. And what this passage promises to us is that, as long as we walk in the light, the blood keeps on cleansing. It is not a one-time action. It is a continuous action for the Lord's faithful people."

Brewer was right. That is the truth of 1 John 1:7. What he might have gone on to say is that the truth of 1 John 1:7 is tied to what is said in 2:1: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

The blood of Christ keeps on cleansing. The reason that the blood keeps cleansing is because we have an advocate with the Father. And we have an advocate with the Father because following his work on earth, Jesus ascended to be in the exalted presence of God.

In Romans 8:33-34, Paul refers to Christ's intercession in our behalf: Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

In Hebrews 7:23-25, a different writer says the same thing: Now there have been many priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Christians are redeemed. But we are nonetheless redeemed sinners. We have an on-going struggle with sin. Some days we do quite well in our fight. Other days, not well at all.

But when we do sin, so long as we are walking in the light as he is in the light, our sins are continually washed away. That's happening, says the New Testament, because in the presence of a holy God, the son is interceding in our behalf, defending those for whom he died. The ascension of Jesus Christ is a vital reality. Because he was resurrected and ascended to the place of highest honor, Jesus intercedes in our behalf in the presence of God the Father.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Jeremiah Wright at the National Press Club

I interrupt the series on the Ascension, just to ask what other people see and hear. I woke up early this morning and saw a few extended segments of Jeremiah Wright's speech to a gathering of the NAACP. This morning, I watched C-Span as Wright addressed the National Press Club. The Question and Answer session is still going on as I'm typing these words. So far, I have two reactions:

I thought his speech to the Press Club, full of important historical notes and self-definition, was good. When you listen to something more than a ten-second sound bite, you realize that if nothing else Wright is a gifted, knowledgeable orator.

However, in the Q & A session, I thought some of his responses were so feisty and aggressive, they had the effect of undercutting his previous rhetoric of reconciliation. He clearly thought of some of the questions as unfair. Maybe they were. I just thought that his body language and gestures were inconsistent with some of the good and gracious words he had said a few moments earlier. Some of his answers seemed calculated to whip up the responses of the many people there who were not members of the press, but were supporters.

Did anyone else see or hear the NAACP speech or the one this morning to the NPC? What did you think? To what extent will Wright continue to have an impact on the Obama campaign? What do you think?

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, 2

In the previous post, I hinted that believers like myself, who don't have much experience with the Christian calendar, may not have heard much about the ascension of Jesus. For us, there wasn't an annual Ascension Day to mark the time, raise the question, and speak of the meaning of Christ's exaltation.

I should clarify that I think it's alright that in groups like my own Churches of Christ we don't observe Ascension Day. But I want to add that it would not be alright if we were to neglect the Bible's teaching about the ascension and it's current significance. Have we neglected this doctrine?

Restoration Serials Index is an index of articles and lectures from dozens of journals, magazines, and lectureships connected with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. It indexes everything from the Spiritual Sword to New Wineskins magazine, everything from the Memphis School of Preaching Lectures to the Lectures at Pepperdine University. I don't know how far back the indexing began. As I remember, the earliest printed versions go back to the 1970s. At any rate, I often use RSI to find out what people have talked about, what they are talking about, and where, among the Churches of Christ. RSI allows you to search by keyword, subject, author, or title. You can also limit your search to a certain periodical or lectureship. It's a great resource that probably isn't used as much as it should be. I spent a few minutes at RSI doing some comparisons, and here's what I found.

A subject search under "elders" rendered 1239 hits.

The term "music" gave me 923 hits.

"Deacons" 116

"False teachers" 180

And what of the "Ascension"? 28 hits. . . .

For what it's worth, virtually all of those 28 references were to serial publications that most of our people would call "conservative" or "traditional." A search for "ascension" in Wineskins renders 0 hits. New Wineskins, 0. Pepperdine Lectures, 0. Integrity, 0. Leaven, 0. Restoration Review, 0. No, not all of those publish more than once a year. And not all of them have existed the entire time that RSI has been indexing. However, by comparison, searching for "ascension" under Gospel Advocate brings up 7 hits.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

According to the Scriptures the exaltation of Jesus is a matter of great importance, not simply because it happened, but because of what it means for Christians until that time when Jesus comes again. It's not something that my people have thought about very much. And that's one of the reasons why I want to write these posts.

The best place to begin thinking about the ascension of Christ is with the New Testament's most basic assertions about it. Whenever we read the story of Jesus in the Gospels and Acts, a featured part is the resurrected Christ being taken up into glory:

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied them. (Mark 16:19-20, textual questions aside)

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Luke 24:50-53)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:8-11)

Clearly, the ascension of Jesus is a significant part of the accounts, especially those written by Luke. But there's more.

Not only do the Scriptures tell us about this event, but whenever the whole gospel story is told in what might be called "short form," the ascension is frequently a part of the thumbnail sketch, as though it were a key part of all that God is doing through Jesus. Perhaps the best example of this is found in 1 Timothy 3:16, where Paul offers up this piece of poetry:

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
Another example is found in Hebrews chapter 1, verse 3:

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
Notice that in this verse, just two phrases are used to describe the work of Christ. The first points back to the crucifixion: After he provided purification for sins. The second refers to the exaltation of Christ: he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

To sum up, the New Testament reports to us the story of Jesus ascending into heaven to be with the Father (Mark, Luke, Acts). In addition, it is not unusual to find the NT letters reflecting on this event as though it were a major plank in the teaching about Christ. More than that, the NT regards the ascension not merely as an historical fact, but as a present reality full of significance for us until Jesus comes again.

So what exactly is that significance? What is the up-to-the-minute meaning of the ascension? More in the next post. But up to this point, what are your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Ascension of Jesus Christ, 1

According to the calendar used by most Christians, Thursday, May 1st will be the fortieth day following Easter. Acts 1:3 says that, after his suffering, Jesus appeared to the apostles giving many convincing proofs and speaking about the kingdom of God over a period of forty days. So this year, May 1st is "Ascension Day." (In some churches, the Ascension is celebrated on the Sunday following the fortieth day, which falls on May 4th of this year).

As we get closer to that day, I plan to post a few things about the ascension of the Lord Jesus. But today, a few personal reflections about holy days and the Christian calendar.

I didn't grow up hearing about or observing anything like Ascension Day. And that's the case for most everyone who, like me, has life-long connections to the Churches of Christ. In the church culture of my youth, if someone had referred to Ascension Day it would have been only to remark, "Scripture nowhere tells us that we should observe a religious holiday by that name. It's not scriptural." End of discussion.

And you can bet I got the message. I can still remember that during a months-long stint of fill-in preaching, at age 19, I was quite proud that on Easter Sunday I had spoken about "Noah, a Preacher of Righteousness."

But coming into my adult years, I began to look at some of these things differently. I came to think that such radical rejection of the huge majority of the Christian world had set us up for all sorts of alienation and inconsistency and just plain old weirdness. Maybe you've noticed that in some churches, having a Halloween party, mimicking the demonic, and scaring the wits out of children counts as "fellowship," while celebrating with Scripture the birth of Jesus is for some reason to be strictly avoided. That's begun to reverse itself over the last few years. But in recent memory what I've described is the way it was.

Now, people who know me know that I love and treasure my religious heritage, the legacy that is mine among the Churches of Christ. I'm blessed to be a washed-in-the-blood Christian. And I'm happy to be a dyed-in-the-wool "Campbellite." My group has so many great and godly people. And I love them. But that doesn't mean that I never get a little jealous of Christian groups who live and worship down the street from me. (How many white preachers have dreamed of preaching to a black church?) And I'll admit it. I have sometimes peeked into their backyards.

I first discovered a bit of the Christian calendar during the years I was attending an ecumenical divinity school. I was introduced back then to the common lectionary (an organized list of weekly Scripture readings), which I began to use in my preaching, mainly to keep it more balanced, and to have a ready-made plan that included options. One of the first things I realized was that, even if the adults in the Churches of Christ were opposed to the Christian calendar, their children were secretly "observing" it. Take a look at the Bible school curriculum used for the children in your church. What you'll likely see is that it follows the common lectionary, which is more less linked to the Christian calendar (especially Christmas and Easter).

This was ironic to me. I mean, it's not a stretch to say that in some congregations of the Churches of Christ, the song leader might be considered "too liberal" if he leads "Joy to the World" or "Away in the Manger" within a few weeks of Christmas. June, being six months separated, is the safest time. However, over in the educational wing of many of those same congregations, on the Sunday before Christmas the text for the children's class will be one of the infancy narratives. (Although many members of Churches of Christ might be loath to admit it, my theory is that the curriculum and hymnody that we've mostly borrowed from older, bigger Protestant groups has done a lot to keep our theology in line).

When I was first discovering the lectionary and the calendar, I secretly regretted that they had been excluded from the faith of my fathers. And, although I still have little experience with the calendar, I just suspect that there's something about the spiritual and religious rhythm of its annual cycle that, in its own peculiar way, moors the faith of those who follow it. I can still remember how I envied Dietrich Bonhoeffer on his way to the gallows. Imprisoned, with hardly any connection to the outside, he was able to maintain a sense of holy time by marking the Christian dates he knew so well. How appropriate.

In one of my favorite hymns, "Father of Mercies," we sing to God: "The rolling seasons, as they move, proclaim to all Thy constant care." Might that be true of a Christian calendar as well as the natural cycle? I know, something like the calendar shouldn't be forced on a congregation that doesn't know or want it. But on the other hand, Romans 14 also leaves it open to the individual to observe special days if he wants. The only requirement is, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (v. 5). This time of year, I want to focus on the Ascension of Jesus Christ.

Thoughts? Observations? Questions?

Monday, April 21, 2008

We Need the Word of God

. . . we shall never learn so much and be so perfect that need for the Word of God will not remain. For the devil never rests. Thus exhortation and the use of God's Word are needed everywhere. It is a living and powerful Word. But we snore and are lazy. It is the Word of life. But we are in death every day. And because we are never without sins and the danger of death, we should never cease to ruminate on the Word.

Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 30, The Catholic Epistles (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1967), p. 219.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A New Blog for the "Life of Paul" Class

As soon as I started college teaching, I wanted to try out using blogs in order to enhance my courses. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

During the first three semesters or so what I found out was, forget the blog idea, I was having a hard time keeping my head above water just doing the basics: creating syllabi, reading textbooks, writing tests, putting together power points. When I first started those were added to what teachers normally do: meeting with students, answering their email, grading tests, going over term papers. Oh, and I was also a student in a course for new college teachers, and was the faculty sponsor for the Kappa Chi club.

I don't regret any of the work, but it was tiring. And, no, giving up "Frankly Speaking" in order to free up more time for a course blog was simply not an option. By then, this place was known to a handful of family and friends and cyber acquaintances. At this intersection, I met up with a few people who "got" me, which is a big part of why I've continued to blog here.

Anyway, especially during that first year, I felt overwhelmed. From that experience, I can tell you that if someone teaches a solid, glad-you-signed-up college course, two things are probably true: (1) They've been at it for a while (2) They're still working hard to make the course content and presentation even better. By the first point, I don't mean to say that the classes of new teachers are bound to be mediocre at best. I do mean to say that if a first-year teacher's class sessions are really good, he or she is working hard. But I digress.

A few weeks ago I finally started my first course blog. I'll be using it through the end of this semester for my "Life of Paul" class. Up to this point, we've surveyed all of the New Testament material: the relevant sections of Acts and all of Paul's letters. We've also looked at some of the post-biblical material that pertains to Paul: passages from Clement of Rome, the Muratorian Fragment, Eusebius, etc.

So during these last few weeks of the semester, we're shifting over to something more like a topical seminar: so far, we've taken up "women in ministry." I'm having the students read and report on a speech by N. T. Wright and, on the other side, an open letter to egalitarians by Wayne Grudem. I think from here we're going on to something like "Paul and the Law." We'll see.

Here's the course blog for "Life of Paul." And here's the link to the course syllabus.

Thoughts? Suggestions for topics? Experiences from those who've used blogs in teaching?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Krister Stendahl Dead at 86

I learned this morning of the death of Krister Stendahl on Tuesday of this week. Stendahl was a Swedish New Testament scholar who taught at Harvard Divinity School for many years and was Dean of the Faculty for a good bit of that time. He was also ordained in the Church of Sweden and served as the Bishop of Stockholm from 1984-88.

Students of the New Testament are most likely to know Stendahl's name not because of his several books or his many years of teaching at Harvard, but because of an article he published back in 1963, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Consciousness of the West."

Stendahl made the case that someone in Europe or America reading Romans in the middle of the twentieth century was not really hearing Paul. Instead, that person was hearing an interpretation, a "take" highly influenced by two men who stand between us and Paul: Augustine and Luther. With that essay--which you've no doubt read if you studied NT with Richard Oster at Harding Graduate School--Stendahl did much to re-open the question of whether or not we moderns have gotten Paul right. And that question is what led to the so-called "New Perspective" on Paul.

Stendahl's article has been reprinted in any number of collections, but I've not been able to find a copy on the web. To get the gist of what he said, though, you can read a review essay by Bill DeJong. For more about Stendahl himself, see the obituary and tribute at Harvard Divinity School's website .

I'm interested in hearing from those who may have studied with Stendahl, or have been helped along the way by his written work.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Places I've Been

A few weeks ago, I mentioned reading a new book by Brett Grainger, In the World But Not of It: One Family's Militant Faith and the History of Fundamentalism in America. You don't get too far into it before you realize that the biographical sections don't take place in America. The author is from Ontario. So the subtitle is more about marketing than description. But I'm nitpicking. Although there are a few small things I didn't like about his book, Grainger is a fine writer who sizes up some things very well. Interested? You can listen to a recent National Public Radio interview with Brett Grainger.

John Hobbins is a young biblical scholar with wisdom beyond his years. His special interest is classical Hebrew. But he's a careful student of much more, too. I've become a regular at his blog, Ancient Hebrew Poetry. Check it out.

Every once in a while someone protests in behalf of mainline Protestantism in the U.S. "There are signs of life!" says one. "We're right on the verge of a mainline revival," says another. I don't want to be uncharitable. I just don't believe them. Not for a minute. No, the mainline will continue its long drawn-out decline. To get a glimpse of why, see the post by James H. Charlesworth, biblical scholar extraordinaire who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. In "Psalm 23 and the Fear of Stagnant Waters," Charlesworth describes some of his experiences teaching the Bible to future mainline leaders. The reader incompetence generated by rotten attitudes is enough to kill any church.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Election Predictions, Panhandle Rain, and More!

I mostly gave up on making predictions back in 1996. In the early 90s I was living in Arkansas when our Governor announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. His name was Bill Clinton. My confident prediction was, "He'll never get the nomination." . . .

A few months later, Clinton had gotten the nomination, the 1992 race was heating up, and I had another prediction: "He'll never be elected." I can still remember the night I drove home after a day of graduate classes in Memphis, listening to the radio news, and realizing that Clinton had won.

Several months later, about the time Clinton was being sworn into office I, unhindered by previous failure, had yet another prediction to make: "He'll never be re-elected."

So that's three. I'm out. Someone else wanna take a swing? Who's got the best chance of being elected President this year?

- - - - - - - - -

It rained in Amarillo, Texas yesterday morning and, I believe, overnight last night. Word has it that one old guy hadn't seen rain in so long, when it finally came he was completely overwhelmed and passed out. They had to throw a bucket of dirt in his face to wake him up.

- - - - - - - - - -

Over the last few days, I've been reading History of the Churches of Christ in Texas 1824-1950, by Stephen Daniel Eckstein Jr. (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1963). Like a lot of early historical works written about Churches of Christ, Eckstein's book, for better and for worse, provides a lot of names and dates, facts and figures. I've been especially impressed by the conviction and determination of so many of those early Texas preachers, their wives, and the disciples they taught. My sense is that their efforts put ours to shame.

It's no secret that nowadays the favorite pastime of Church of Christ baby boomers is to look down on our poor, graceless, sectarian forebears. How pitiful they were. But it seems to me that some of them did more good by accident than most of us get done on purpose, not to mention that it's hard to imagine who or where we'd be if it weren't for them. Dishonoring one's parents is foreign to the Spirit of Christ. And, if the current generation of folks in the Churches of Christ want to be better than the previous generation, we'll have to do more than talk a better game than they did.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Recent Reads

Around the first of January, I said that this year I was going to read mostly older works. By "older" I meant at least 40 years old. I've lived up to that fairly well, having read some from Augustine and Karl Barth, some essays by C. S. Lewis, etc.

I did give myself some wiggle room, and decided to read My Grandfather's Son, the recently-published memoir by Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Wow! What a riveting life story. If you like inspiring biography, you really ought to get a copy. You'll have a hard time putting down this story of Justice Thomas and how he was shaped by the extraordinary man who raised him.

By the way, a few weeks ago I saw a statistic in some magazine about how long it had been since Justice Thomas had said anything during oral argument before the Court. It's often said that he hardly ever says anything during Court sessions. So is Clarence Thomas disinterested? Intellectually lazy? He responds to that and a few other questions in a recent Wall Street Journal article, "Mr. Constitution."

N. T. Wright continues to publish faster than I can read. But I did take the time to digest a recent article of his in Christianity Today magazine, "Heaven Is Not Our Home." Check it out and let me know what you think.