Tuesday, September 10, 2013

God "Is": And We "Are" Only In Relation To God

Of God
"God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”  Exodus 3:14

I've always loved this passage, because it demonstrates one amazing thing about the universe: There is no frame of reference that can define God.

When we describe things, we do so by placing them in a larger frame of reference, by relating them to something already known. We say, "The sun is a big yellow ball in the sky," because we are speaking to people who already understand what "big," "yellow", "ball," etc. already mean. We describe things in relation to something else.

But that method falls flat when it comes to describing or defining God. Moses asks God who he is, and God replies by merely saying "I am ME." Because there is no "larger frame of reference" that we can use to really define God as he is. There is nothing that God exists under, no larger category of things, that we can use to make sense of him.

And since we know that this God is also the creator of everything, we can arrive at another awesome truth: God Himself is the definition by which everything else is defined.

Of Creation and Humanity

Everything is ultimately defined by its relationship to God. The easiest example is the word we use to describe the universe, a word so integral to our idea of the universe that it was inescapable even by Darwin himself: "Creation." The core essence of the universe and everything in it is defined by that one word: Its relationship to its creator is not merely one of many attributes, but the core identity of the thing itself.

Of course, this extends to humanity itself. We are, at bottom, created beings. And we are defined by our relationship to our Creator. Karl Barth says it in a particularly awesome way:

"The being, life and act of man is always quite simply his history in relation to the being, life and act of his Creator."

Everything about us is defined in relation to our Creator and our God. We cannot be defined apart from him; We do not act apart from him; We do not even exist apart from him. We are not "Creations of God, and etc." Everything that I am, I am in relation to God.

Of Knowledge and Love

This means, of course, that accurate knowledge of humanity must, by necessity, be grounded in accurate knowledge of God. Human existence is derived from God and God only, and any claim to knowledge of humanity without a corresponding knowledge of God will be faulty and incomplete.

And, also by necessity, any attempt to bring about the good of humanity requires a true and accurate knowledge of humanity. Which means that any attempt to bring about the good of humanity, or of any one person in particular, requires a knowledge of God.

Which means that any attempt to simply "love" humans, to do away with "confining, divisive theology" and simply get on with the business of "love", is a non-starter. 

To love someone is to desire their good. And this isn't just desiring good feelings, but real, actual, capital "G" GOOD. Loving someone is to desire for them to fulfill their identity, to be who they were created to be, to do what they were created to do.

It has to do with ultimate Good, and that means that it has to do with God. For how can you know what is "Good" for someone until you know what they are, and what they are for? And how can you know what they are until you know who created them, and what they are for until you know what they were created for?

It always comes back to God and our knowledge of him. It always comes back to the dogmatic letters of Paul and his dogged claim to faith and truth, to the hard, unyielding truths that Jesus proclaimed over and over again, though it drove his followers away.

And we would do well to remember that while God is, indeed, Love, that does not mean that everything that we call "love" is God.


James (see below) makes the valid point that non-Christians can (and do) show true, real love every day. And, of course, people attempt to show love every single day (and often succeed).

However: When push comes to shove, we have to affirm that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick." And when we try to love well, to work for the Good of our beloved, the ultimate guide for that has to be our knowledge of God. If we try to work backwards from our own love and our own heart and use that as a portrait for God, we're going to end up with a lie, and a desperately sick one at that. We have to work from our knowledge of God, and use that to effect love.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Sifted Like Wheat (follow-up)

Original post from Evangelical Outpost.

It is fortunate–oh, so fortunate–that it was not Job, that paragon of patience and faith, that Jesus claimed he would build his church on.
And that’s not the non-sequitur it first appears to be, because Job and Peter actually have quite a lot in common.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,  but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Some context: For weeks now, even months, Jesus has prophesied that he will find his doom in Jerusalem. Now, on the heels of the strangest Passover dinner ever, Jesus sets his affairs in order, giving his disciples what is clearly meant to be his last few words with them. And in the middle of it, sensing Peter’s denial and fear, he drops this bombshell: Satan has personally petitioned the Father for particular access to the persons of Simon and the rest of the disciples (the first “you” is plural). Jesus then singles out Simon again by addressing him with the singular “you”, saying he will pray for Simon in particular, and that Simon in particular will turn away regardless.
Satan’s purpose in gaining access to the disciples is to “sift them like wheat.” This is a much more graphic and threatening image than first appears, because to sift wheat, you first beat it to separate it into its component parts, then you toss the resulting mess into the air (likely with a winnowing fork) to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is stored and treasured, and the chaff? Thrown into the fire to be burned.
Satan has asked for explicit permission to sift the disciples: to beat them into pieces, to reduce them to their very essence, and toss them up into the air to see what among them was wheat and what among them was chaff, fit only to be blown away by the wind and burned. It is unfortunate that Peter was too busy denying Jesus’ prediction of failure to give any thought to what preceded it. If he had considered Jesus’ initial remark, it is probable that he would have had one thought in his mind: “Son of a camel, I’m being Job’ed...”
And indeed, the situation Jesus hastily sketches out in the Upper Room of Jerusalem bears an eerie similarity to the situation fleshed out in one of the oldest of OT scriptures. Satan takes a personal interest in a particular servant of God, and he makes it his mission to utterly destroy that servant. He personally petitions God for the authority to do so. And, having obtained permission to test the servant of the Most High, Satan goes to town on him.
Why Peter? For the same reason Satan chose Job: both had been singled out as God’s servants. God implicitly challenged Satan, boasting of Job’s uprightness and righteous fear of the Lord, highlighting Satan’s failure to dent said righteousness. And Satan can’t have been ignorant of Christ’s proclamation concerning Peter, especially considering that Jesus again made it personal by specifying that the Church built on Peterwould tear down the very Gates of Hell.
Of course, it doesn’t seem as though any of this entered Peter’s mind. He was too frightened and confused, and too obsessed with looking like he wasn’t frightened and confused, for him to really consider Jesus’ words. There is at this point only the immediate gut reaction, the ill-considered boast that Peter would die before turning away from Christ.
With Peter, even more so than with Job, we see highlighted in vibrant color the frail humanity of the tools God chooses to use. The steadfastness of Job is legendary, just this side of super-human: Peter snaps like a twig. The tension of the last several weeks, and the last several days in particular, comes to head in a night that begins with an upsetting of the ceremony that, for all intents and purposes, founded the Jewish people, and ends in Roman soldiers and temple police arresting the man Peter had devoted his life to.  He breaks, and he breaks hard. He is sifted, and (for the moment, at least) he is found to be mostly chaff.
And this is the rock that Christ builds his church on? This quivering mess of a man, who cannot stay awake while watching over his master, who speaks before thinking, who denies so much as knowing the man who had brought him out of darkness… this man, in fact, who breaks in exactly the same way as Christians throughout the world do on any day of the week?
And that is why it is fortunate that Jesus’ Church is built on Peter, and not on Job. We may remember Job during our greatest trials, but it is Peter who we unwittingly emulate in our day-to-day lives. It is Peter’s faithlessness that causes us to sink, and Peter’s cowardice and foolishness that brings us to shame… and it is Peter’s genuine love and passion for Jesus that brings us to our feet again.

Now: on to the follow-up!

The post received a comment soon after the blog went live, expressing appreciation for the points contained within, but also disagreeing with the (fairly important) claim that Christ built his Church on Peter. The commenter claimed, instead, that the "rock" Jesus is building his church on isn't referring to Peter at all; rather, it is referring to the profession of faith that Peter had just... professed. The belief that "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is supposed to be the rock.

I've heard this belief expressed before, particularly by a freaking awesome commentator named RCH Lenski. His love of treating the Gospels as actual histories, and his consequent focus on reconciling and harmonizing seemingly-discordant texts, made him invaluable in writing my book on Peter (currently trying to publish that, by the way, so if you know anyone...). However, his skill and brilliance elsewhere makes his lapse in Matthew 16 particularly unfortunate, especially since it it forces him to make the outlandish claim that Jesus' two usages of the word "rock"--Once to rename Simon Peter, and once to identify that which he would build his church on--bear only an accidental relationship.

Such a claim makes absolutely no sense within the passage itself. Jesus clearly goes to lengths specifically to establish this word-play. He appears to name Simon "Rock" for the sole purpose of making it a pun. Lenski's claim makes his renaming of Simon into nothing more than a nonsensical and confusing non-sequitor.

There is also the small matter of John 21 establishing Peter as a primary figure of the church, as well as Ephesians 2 establishing "the apostles and prophets" as a foundation for the church. All in all, there are really no grounds for making that claim....unless, of course, you really dislike Catholics and see it as a specifically Catholic doctrine.

Was Peter the first Pope? I don't think so. But he was, quite obviously, a huge chunk of the foundation of the Church and, therefore, is almost certainly the Rock that Christ claimed to have built his Church on.

Which is amazing news for us.

Because it means that God can use even the most human of us to build his eternal Church.

It means that God's strength is made perfect not just in "weakness" as an abstraction, but in our own weakness.

And it means that although we all start out as Simons, God can turn us into Peters: The unnatural product of sin and decay can become the supernatural product of grace.

Just a little afterthought:

Simon means "to hear" or "he has heard." It is doubtlessly significant that he receives his new name by hearing what the Father is telling him (Matthew 16), in a very real sense receiving his new name as he fulfills his old one.

With this in mind, there is a fascinating linkage between this passage and one in Revelation 2, where we are told that the saints who "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" will be given a new name, written on a white stone. In that sense Simon Peter becomes the symbol for all believers, and potentially for all of humanity. Listen to the Holy Spirit and receive a new name, a secret name, that describes who we really are--that is, who God created us as individuals to be.

Interested in Peter? Check out my book, Simon, Who Is Called Peter! It combines the readability of First-Person narration with biblical accountability in the form of copious footnotes, allowing you to see the world of the New Testament through the eyes of Jesus' most notorious disciple.