Spiritual Formation

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Faith and Justice in the Early Church (Part 3)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The early Christians did many things we now rely upon the government to do.

What really led the Romans to fear Christians was not anything they did wrong but something important they did right. Welfare was not a value in the Roman Empire. But it was for Christians. Christians regularly and consistently cared for the poor—both Christian and non-Christian. One Roman emperor, Julian, noted that this care for the poor was one thing that made the Christian religion compelling. “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase unbelief of the pagan gods? For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Christians support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

The early Christians were also pro-life, and this played out in their commitment to adopt unwanted children. A Roman child was not part of the family until he or she was accepted by the father. If he didn’t want the child, it was discarded: put outside to be killed by starvation, weather, or wild animals. Christians regularly adopted these children and raised them as their own.

Additionally, the early Christians were committed to caring for the sick. A devastating plague decimated the population of the empire in the mid second century. Estimates put the death toll at nearly five million. Remarkably, more Christians than pagans survived the epidemic. This is because Romans were often afraid to care for their sick; they feared catching the contagious disease themselves. So, like their unwanted children, they would leave their unwanted loved ones to die alone. Christians, by contrast, would care for their sick. They didn’t fear sickness or death. And as a result of their care, many of sick Christians survived the epidemic.

Stayed tuned for part 4. If you just can’t wait, you can read the rest here.

Faith and Justice in the Early Church (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The early Christians experienced ostracism and misunderstanding because of their religious language and practice.

Pliny the Younger was a governor in what is now known as Turkey from 111-113 AD. In a famous letter to the emperor, Trajan, Pliny describes the worship of the early Christians in this way:

“they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath…not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.”

This order of worship sounds harmless. But it was these very practices—and the words they used to describe them—that earned the church serious social stigmas. The Christians who met together referred to each other as brothers and sisters, biblical terms for people who are now united in Christ. But this confused outsiders. Sometimes these brothers and sisters married each other, leading the Romans to believe Christians condoned incest. Furthermore, they worshipped Christ as a god. But they denied the existence of the Roman gods. This earned them the title of “atheists” from pagan neighbors, who regarded Jesus as merely a man. Finally, the food they ate together as brothers and sisters was indeed “ordinary and innocent.” But, following Jesus’ example, they talked about partaking of communion as eating the body of Christ and drinking his blood. This was not seeker-sensitive language! The Romans thought the Christians were incestuous, atheist cannibals. This only fueled their suspicions that the Christians were traitors and menaces to Roman society.

Stayed tuned for part 3. If you just can’t wait, you can read the rest here.

Faith and Justice in the Early Church (Part 1)

Monday, June 25th, 2012

This article originally appeared at ChristianBibleStudies.com. I’ve broken it into several pieces here.

“What answer shall you make to the judge, you who dress walls, but will not clothe a man; who spruce up horses, and overlook an unfashionable brother; who leave grain to rot, but will not feed the starving; who bury your money and despise the oppressed?” It was pastor and theologian Basil of Caesarea who addressed this difficult question to the wealthy members of his congregation in the mid fourth century. Basil had already put his money where his mouth was when he cashed in his considerable inheritance and built a hospital for the poor and a clinic for lepers. Now he was calling his fellow Christians to do the same.

Basil’s example illustrates the radically countercultural commitments of the early Christians. They faced considerable social, economic, and political challenges, many of them very similar to the ones we face today. And they did their best to behave in ways consistent with their understanding of the gospel. This is not an exhaustive list. But here are a few examples of how the early church put its faith in action in the public realm.

The early Christians recognized the political implications of the faith.

The earliest Christian confession is recorded in Romans 10:9: “Jesus is Lord.” Because we don’t typically refer to anyone but Jesus as Lord, we usually understand this passage to be primarily religious in application. Jesus is the one we answer to in spiritual matters, and who guides our moral conduct. Because Jesus is Lord, we don’t serve other masters—like sin, the flesh, or the devil. But the first-century Roman context was different. In Rome, only Caesar was lord. And lest you forget, messages on billboards and graffiti on buildings were an ever-present reminder. Annually at tax time, the denizens of a city would make their way to the local temple, pay their tax, and proclaim “Caesar is lord.” If they didn’t make this declaration, they could be executed for treason. Christians knew this, and they took their chances.

Many annual Roman festivals were thinly-veiled religious festivals dedicated to Roman gods or even the worship of the caesar himself. Christians refused to participate in these festivals. This might be analogous in American culture to Christians refusing to celebrate on the Fourth of July or insisting on working on Memorial Day. They wanted to reserve their worship for Christ alone, but their conspicuous absence from these civic festivities marked them as bad citizens (at best) or traitors (at worst). Once they were identified as potential traitors, Christians were feared as a threat to the very fabric of Roman society. This was the primary reason many Christians were persecuted in the church’s first few centuries. Despite the political consequences, these first Christians didn’t shrink from their bold proclamation–“Jesus is Lord!”

Stayed tuned for part 2. If you just can’t wait, you can read the rest here.

Ascension Reflections

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Yesterday our congregation celebrated ascension Sunday which, like Lent and Advent, are holy days I did not observe growing up. It’s taken me a little longer to appreciate Ascension. But yesterday’s celebration help me see the value of remembering Christ’s ascent to glory, especially today.

Ascension disciplines this generation’s emphasis on a primarily this-worldly Jesus, and its insistence (for example) that Jesus will always be found among the poor and marginalized. According to Luke, who was very concerned about the poor and marginalized, Jesus will now be found “at the right hand of the mighty God” (Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33).

Granted previous generations have downplayed, or outright ignored, the life of Jesus and his day-in-day-out ministry among sinners. This generation is correcting an oversight. We are unsatisfied with a gospel that begins with the miracle of the virgin birth and ends with the miracle of the resurrection with no real acknowledgment of the more mundane reality that Jesus took on flesh and walked among us, that he has been tempted in every way, just as we are, and can therefore empathize with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). We are attracted to the man of sorrows acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). I’m grateful for this reminder.

And yet by emphasizing this earthly Jesus we risk making the same mistake of previous generations, just in the other direction. If we ignore the Ascension, the great Good News that Jesus is now glorified with the Father, we lose the Church, which is supposed to now serve among the sinners Jesus loved. For Jesus once walked among us in the flesh; but now he walks among us by his Spirit. The Spirit came only after and because Jesus was first glorified.

I was reminded yesterday that one of the hard tasks of the Christian life is holding these two realities—Jesus man of sorrows and Jesus glorified at the Father’s right hand—in tension together without neglecting either. Neglect the earthly pilgrimage of Jesus and you can end up with a triumphalist Christianity that fails to associate with the least of these. Neglect the glorification of Jesus and you can end up with empty good works that fail to recognize the kingship of Christ.

As I understand it now, one way to hold these truths together is to imitate the man of sorrows who took on flesh and walked among us and put my hope in the Glorified Son who “will come to judge the living and the dead.”

Foray into Fatherhood

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

In some ways, we were more prepared to become parents than most people when we brought Jamie home. I mean, how many other couples spend several hours meeting with a case worker—discussing their life history and family dynamics, personal goals, joys and anxieties—log a dozen or so hours of online coursework, and submit to federal fingerprinting and background checks? We’ve worked hard for over four years to get our family started. We were ready.

And yet we weren’t prepared. Not really. For one, I was not prepared to learn so much about myself so quickly. Here are a few things that have taken me by surprise.

So far in my life, my joy has most often been associated with some sense of accomplishment. Graduated from college. Married the woman of my dreams. Landed a good job. So I am regularly perplexed at how much joy I experience just looking at my boy. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing. I could watch him lie there for hours. But when Jamie looks at me with those dark mahogany eyes and grins that toothless grin—well, I know what it must have felt like when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

I have been surprised, too, by the sense of aggressive protectiveness I feel toward Jamie. I’m a peaceful man, and cautious, by nature. But since the day we brought Jamie home, I have sensed a deep capacity to defend him him tooth and claw against dangers of all sorts: bullies (or the fathers of bullies!), impatient teachers, insensitive comments from strangers. I knew a mother’s love could be fierce; it turns out a father’s can be, too.

Some revelations are upsetting. I have realized in the past two months how deeply ingrained my own racial prejudices are. Just two weeks after Jamie joined our family, I traveled to Ohio to speak at a conference. I was waiting for the elevator in the hotel lobby one night, writing a text message. I looked up when the door opened and—entirely unconsciously—hesitated for a brief moment. There were three men in the elevator, well dressed, well groomed, polite. And black. And my first conscious thought was, I’ll wait. I’ll catch the next ride up.

As a matter of principle (and discipline), I smiled and stepped on the elevator. One of the men asked me which floor, and I told him. While I was finishing my text message, I heard one man say to the other, “I’m really sorry to hear about your mother. She’s been through a lot. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

What was I afraid of? I wanted to cry. And apologize for my gut-level reactions. And show them a picture of my son and say, “See, I’m not like that—really.”

What really perplexes me is how I can have no disappointment, no doubts, no reservations about raising a black child, but at the same time still find myself fearful or anxious around members of the black community. (It’s a little beside the point to talk about where these feelings come from. My good friend Matt does a great job here.) James David O’Brien is flesh and blood, as far as I’m concerned, from his soft black curls to the pale-pink pads of his feet. Nevertheless I carry deep inside myself a contagion of fear and mistrust that I risk passing on to Jamie. He’ll have challenges enough forging his identity in a culture divided by race. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might make his journey more difficult, if I’m not careful.

Two months ago I had in mind that the hard part of fatherhood would be the sleepless nights and the diaper changes and discipline, that sort of thing. I’m finding the real challenge to be that this little addition is forcing me to face deep parts of me I’ve never had to examine.

I anticipated having to teach Jamie how to be a man. It looks like he’s teaching me the same thing.