Lent No. 3: The Just and Gentle Servant

One considerable problem with coordinating the Messiahship of Jesus with contemporary political life is the kind of leadership Jesus embodied and the difference between that leadership and the kind of leadership prevalent in business and government, then and now. When Jesus says, “You have heard how the leaders of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he is not just speaking of Greece or Rome but of all political systems then and now. And, by defining the Kingdom of God by the leadership it will possess, he establishes new criteria for Kingdom leadership—service to others.

Force and Leadership

From the beginning of time until now, leadership has involved a certain amount of force. One cannot be certain, but it is likely that human political organization evolved initially as a matter of self-defense. Human beings, social by nature, realized that there was strength in numbers. Predators, human and otherwise, were best deterred, not by single individuals acting alone, although that helped, but by the human capacity for organizing itself. Human beings, social by nature, quickly realized that there was strength in numbers. Predators, human and otherwise, were best deterred, not by single individuals, although that helped, but by the human capacity for organizing itself.

The biblical story does not hide the human descent into violence. It is an integral part of the story of the fall, as told in Genesis. The world’s leadership evolved upon those most capable of employing violence to achieve their ends. Only at the beginning of Western civilization did the notion of law, peaceful arbitration of disputes, and limitations on the powers of leaders begin to develop. The difference between Tubal Cain, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar is not as significant as we imagine. The difference between Julius Caesar and Napoleon is hardly worth discussing. The difference between Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin is a matter of degree and technology.

The Good News

The Gospel According to Matthew contains alternating sections, some focusing on Jesus’s teaching and others on his mighty deeds of healing, exorcism, and the like. According to Matthew, somewhere in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, he went on a preaching tour, during which he performed many miracles. This, of course, provoked opposition from the Pharisees scribes and teachers of the law. In particular, the Jewish leadership focused on Jesus’s lax attitude toward Sabbath-keeping when it came to providing for human needs, the need of his disciples for food, or the need of the sick for healing. Jesus withdrew with such opposition, but the crowds still followed him. It is at this point that Matthew has the following commentary.

Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:15-21).

I suspect that Isaiah and Jesus knew the nature of leadership in their day. The day’s leaders were not above quarreling, screaming, or violence. There were wars and rumors of wars. Leaders engaged in all sorts of schemes to gain power. Lenin’s famous quote in justification of his murderous regime, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg,” is a memorable description of power politics at every age.

It is a characteristic of contemporary democracies that they are filled with public quarreling. The entire process of modern democratic political leadership relies upon constant conflict and quarreling in a bid for votes. The term “negative politics” describes the fact that in democratic societies, demonizing your enemies gets more votes than anything you might say positively about yourself. Jesus and Isaiah had other ideas about leadership and politics in the Kingdom of God.

 Isaiah 42:1-4 and Jesus

The Spirit of Servant Leadership. Isaiah begins this poem with these words: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold,my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).  Here we have four words that describe the nature of Christian leadership and therefore of the Christian kingdom: The Messiah will be:

  • A servant,
  • Chosen by God,
  • Empowered by the Spirit of God, and
  • His leadership will be focused on justice within his Kingdom.

Then, the focus on power, the will to power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power are absent from this description. As modern political science textbooks continuously proclaim, if politics is about the acquisition and use of power, the kingdom of God is entirely different. The kingdom of God is not focused on power but on justice. The justice that the Messiah will bring flows from the spirit of God, the election of God, and the spirit of a servant.

The Gentleness of Servant Leadership. After introducing the character of the servant leader, Isaiah goes on to describe the behavior of the messianic leader: He will not cry aloud or lift his voice, or make it heard in the street;  a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice (vv. 2-3). The Messiah will be:

  • Quiet in his approach to the give and take of politics,
  • Gentle in the application of power,
  • Faithful to his calling to achieve a just order

Once again, the kind of self-promotion, constant arguing, negative characterization of opponents, and other noisy elements of our contemporary politics are absent from the description of the politics of the kingdom of God. The behavior we have seen in the past, where the party and power run over its opponents, is inconsistent with one who is gentle in applying power and hesitant even to put out the slightest glimmer of light in the candle of a human soul. And finally, once again, the Messianic leader is focused on justice.

The Endurance of the Messianic Leader. Finally, Isaiah realizes that the Messianic Kingdom will not be easy to create. He reminds us that the Messiah “will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his law” (v. 4). It will take physical and emotional endurance for the kingdom of God to be established. Interestingly, leadership theories often consider the necessity of high energy levels and emotional stability to achieve excellence in leadership and any organization. The Messianic Kingdom is not for the faint of heart, nor can it be created by the faint of heart.

Conclusion

When I was in seminary, the professors were anxious to impress upon us that the original meaning of the servant psalms in Isaiah was related to the nation of Israel and its status as a servant people. When the disciples looked back at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesu, they saw in him the fulfillment of these prophecies in a marvelous and unexpected way. This week’s blog focuses on leadership as much as on political organization. This should not hide from us that Jesus, the suffering servant, immediately created an alternative political organization. We call it “the church.” He named it “my disciples.” He called the twelve disciples and others into a community that was to be governed by messianic principles. This community did not exist separately from Greco-Roman or contemporary Jewish society. It existed within that society as a servant. Christians and the Christian church do not exist as separate from the societies in which they are located. Instead, the church exists within and is part of every society. Like Jesus, it exists not as a secular power but as a servant power. This power cannot be exercised otherwise than by Christians and their churches serving the needs of a broken world.

Mathetes describes the unique character of the Christians of the early centuries in his letter to Diogenetus:

Christians are distinguished from other men by country, language, or the customs they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive people, nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according to the lot each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their excellent and confessedly striking method of life.

They dwell in their own countries but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth is a land of strangers. They marry, as do all human beings; they beget children but do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.

They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws and, at the same time, surpass the laws in their lives. They love all human beings but are persecuted nevertheless. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death yet restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they lack all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and glorified in their very dishonor. People speak evil of them, yet they are justified; they are reviled, yet they bless others; they are insulted, repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks, yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.[1]

Contemporary Christians probably need to internalize the message of this letter. Christians are not called to be the rulers of a society but servants. The greatest service that can be done is to simply live in a community of faith (a church) according to the standards of the Christian faith. This message has been the subject of prior blogs. It is the message that Stanley Hoss tries so desperately to communicate to contemporary churches. On the left and the right of the Christian community, the supposition that Christians should somehow be transforming society using the tools of society is a mistake. Instead, the spirit of Christ itself transforms society as a servant people go about their day-to-day business. Some of them may be leaders in government and culture. Others may never be known. All are important.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Mathetes, “Letter to Diogenetus” https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0101.htm (downloaded February 27, 2024). The term “Mathetes” is Greek for Disciple, and the author does not identify himself. He was an early Christian (circa 130-200) who describes himself as having studied under the apostles. I have undertaken a slight paraphrase for contemporary readability.

Lent 2: A Kingdom of Servants

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all(Mark 10:43b-44).

This Lenten season, I am going to expand upon the meditation of last week. If Jesus did not intend to institute a kingdom like the secular kingdom we know, then what Kind of a kingdom did he intend to establish? How does that kingdom and its citizens relate to the “Kingdoms of the Gentiles? Before Easter arrives, I hope to have a better handle on the Kingdom of God and how it interacts with Human Kingdoms. The intention is to be devotional rather than scholarly.

Luke on Leadership in the Kingdom

As Luke tells the story of the dispute among the disciples concerning who was to be the greatest among them, we are given a clue.  The scene is the last week of Jesus’ life. It is nearly Passover. The disciples have experienced Jesus’ triumphal entry with the crowds shouting out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38). He has been in constant disputations with the Scribes, Pharisees and other leaders of the Jewish people (Luke 19:46-22). There are, however, storm clouds on the horizon. Judas has already agreed to betray him (Luke 22:1-6). Jesus has arranged a last dinner with his disciples, though they did not know this (Luke 22:7-13). He has already instituted the Lord’s supper (Luke 22:14-20).

It is at this place in his narrative that Luke places the following teaching:

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:24-30).

Luke places this teaching near the end of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew and Mark place the teaching on the journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). Luke places the teaching at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-23). The equivalent teaching in John is at the Last Supper as Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-16). Given human nature, it is quite likely that Jesus had to impress on his disciples many times the difference between his kingdom and leadership in that kingdom and the leadership they were accustomed to in secular Greco-Roman society.  We needed to be continually reminded of the difference between human kingdoms and the Kingdom of God.

The gospels agree that that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. They listened and heard the teaching through the lens of their own expectations of a military and political Messiah who would reestablish David’s kingdom and rule a united Israel from the traditional site of Jerusalem. We are much the same.

If we listen to the voice of Jesus in the text, we learn several things:

  1. There is a difference between the Kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms, and it shows in the differences in leadership styles. (v. 25).
  2. Leadership in the Kingdom of God is very different than leadership in secular fields. Jesus’ leadership involves servanthood (v.26).
  3. Jesus bestowed (gave) the Kingdom of God to his disciples (v. 9).
  4. This Kingdom of God is related to Israel and its Twelve tribes. This kingdom is in some way a continuation of Israel, not its replacement, as some theologies profess.

 The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of God’s chosen people who have responded to him in faith as believers and disciples of the King (v. 30). It is my view this means that the Kingdom of God is first comprised of the synagogue and church—a religious, not an earthly kingdom.

A Message for Today

The message, “It shall not be so among you,” is a message churches and pastors need to hear in a society that values large corporate churches and where much money is spent in leadership development using the insights of secular leadership culture. An occasional reminder about the nature of servant leadership in a kingdom of love is needed. One of the things I have noticed in myself and in others is a desire to “explain away” the notion of servant leadership. When I wrote on leadership, I called my theory “Servant/Shepherd Leadership” partially because of the antagonism some pastors and church leaders have to some interpretations of “Servant Leadership.” I think that this is a mistaken worry. Jesus was not a doormat. On the other hand, he did die for the world and for me as a servant of the Father.

Luke’s telling of the dispute about greatness among the disciples is preceded by a series of teachings. One is of special interest in understanding the meaning of the Kingdom of God and its relevance today. It is the confrontation between Jesus and the leaders of the people concerning taxes. No one likes paying taxes. This was as true in Jesus’ day as in our day. The teachers of the law and chief priests were desperate to put an end to Jesus’ ministry, so thy sought to trap him on the delicate issue of payment of taxes. Here is how Luke records it:

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Luke 20:20-25).

Nothing is more fundamental to any secular government than the power of taxation. When Jesus tells the people to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, he is drawing a comparison between the kingdom he intends to establish and the kingdom of Rome and every human kingdom. In every era, the people of God will be subject to earthly kingdoms and their varying laws. Within these kingdoms, we are called to reach out in love to be salt and light, transforming that small part of the earthly kingdom under our care into some slight semblance of the Heavenly Kingdom to which we also belong.

Conclusion

It would seem that, as Luke tells the story of the last week of Jesus’ life, he is at pains to remind his readers that the Kingdom of God is nothing like the Kingdom of David, Rome, or any earthly kingdom. It is first and foremost a spiritual kingdom. Its king does not rule like an earthly king, and those who rule in his name and under his authority as leaders of the church and other Christian organizations must lead as servants.

For those who believe that there must be a more definite connection between faith and politics, let us wait and see what we learn over the next six weeks or so. I think that we will see how it is the Kingdom of God and our Human Kingdoms interact and relate, perhaps in a way we had not previously considered—at least that is my own hope.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Starting Place for Christian Public Theology

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).

For Christians, any public philosophy begins with the figure of Jesus bar Joseph, hanging on a cross upon which are written the words, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The death of Jesus Christ was the most horrible and demeaning Roman justice could inflict—a sign of humiliation and defeat. He died with the words, “It is finished” on his lips (John 19:30). His life was over. His disciples fled, fearing for their lives (Mark 14:50; Matthew 26:56). In the hours that followed his death, the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was buried in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:57-59; Mark 15:43-46: Luke 2350-53; John 19:38-40). Remarkably, three days later, his disciples began proclaiming his resurrection from the dead and status as the long-expected Messiah of Israel—the true successor of King David. Rome was a great power, but it turned out that a greater power was manifested in Christ.

Only a week earlier, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, as had Solomon and other kings of Israel, a symbol of his intention to serve ordinary people. The crowds enthusiastically welcomed him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). This directly threatened the religious establishment of his day. They wanted to find a way to do away with Jesus but feared the common people (Mark 14:37;). As the week progressed, Jesus disappointed his followers and the crowd as it became increasingly apparent that he did not intend to raise an army and defeat the Romans. He even referred to his immanent death (Mark 14:3-9). Eventually, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples closest to Jesus, went to the authorities and offered to betray him (Matthew 26:14-16; Mark 14:10; Luke 22:2.).

On Thursday evening, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, he had a final supper with his disciples (v. 12). During the meal, Judas left early to arrange Jesus’ arrest (John 13:30). After the meal, in which Jesus again referred to his death (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; I Corinthians 11:23-25), he instituted a rite his followers would continue to observe—what we call “the Lord’s Supper.” After dinner, he and his remaining followers went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed (Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 32-42; Luke 22:39-41; John 18:1). After his time of prayer, soldiers arrived with Judas, and he was betrayed and arrested (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14-43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12).

The scene moved to a secret nighttime preliminary hearing at the home of Caiaphas, a former High Priest and father of the current high priest. At this preliminary trial, the religious authorities declare that Jesus is guilty of heresy—the heresy of declaring himself to be the Son of God—and determine that he must die (Matthew 26: 66; Mark 14:64; Luke 71). As soon as daylight appeared, the Sanhedrin, the highest body the Romans permitted the Jews to have, was called into session. He was again convicted (Matthew 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-71). The religious rulers of the people of God had spoken; now, it was time for the worldly powers themselves to speak.

Jesus was led to Pontius Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire. Initially, Pilate seems to have wanted to avoid having to pass judgment upon Jesus. He viewed the problem as a strictly Jewish religious problem. Recognizing that Jesus was a Galilean, he initially sent Jesus to King Herod, hoping to read himself of the problem (Luke 23:6-12). It did not work. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who interrogated Jesus and found no civil crime for which he could be convicted (Luke 23:13-16).

As far as Pilate was concerned, when Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), he removed himself from the jurisdiction and practical interests of the Roman Empire—and also from contemporary categories of political theology interested in political power and the application of Christian faith and theology to the realm of practical politics. [1] Rome cared less about any ideal otherworldly eschatological kingdom, and neither did Pontius Pilate. Pilate cared less about heavenly kingdoms; he cared about Rome, its empire, and his own position and power.

Ultimately, Pilate bowed to the desires of the religious authorities and the crowd they gathered to condemn Jesus. Reluctantly, he has Jesus scourged and crucified. He dies a terrible death and is buried. It would seem that the story is over. However, it was not. On the third day, women visited the tomb to embalm the body further and discover that Jesus was no longer dead. He has risen from the dead (Matthew 28-1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-13; John 20:1-13). A new age has begun, the Messianic age, but it is not the age his disciples expected. It is also not the Messianic age for which we long a good bit of the time. Jesus’s messianic age involves his followers experiencing what he experienced in sharing God’s love with others.

The difference between how Jesus acted before the Pilate and the Sanhedrin reflects his understanding that his kingdom was not to be in the earthly kingdom (John 18). The difference in Jesus’ behavior before Pilate compared to before the priests and Sanhedrin should cause those interested in political theology to be sensitive to the potential that political theology conflates two different kingdoms. Jesus defers to Pilate, but he confronts the religious leaders.

Apostolic Realization

As the Apostles, New Testament writers, and early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus not as a worldly messiah but as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. One of the earliest names for Christians was “those who belong to the ‘Way'” (Acts 9:2). Jesus showed his disciples both a way to fellowship with God and a way of life. The Beatitudes are a beautiful description of that Way. This Way of Jesus involves serving and leading others with a gentle, other-centered, sacrificial love. There is a technical word for God’s willingness to serve creation at its deepest point of need. The word is kenosis, which means “to empty.” It comes from the words of Paul:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11).

The phrase “emptied himself or “made himself nothing” (ekenosen) reflects the reality that when God reveals the nature of a perfect ruler, he chooses to reveal it through one who, though above all things, is willing to empty himself of power, take on humanity, live in obscurity, and die a terrible and lonely death on behalf of not just his friends and followers, but also for his enemies.

After the crucifixion, disciples came to terms with the fact that the messianic hope of Judaism was misplaced. Their messianic hope was always of a true son of David, who would reestablish the kingdom of Israel and defeat its enemies. That is why Acts records them asking, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom? (Acts 1:6). The disciples, like us, had to accept that God does not act according to our presuppositions about how he should act. In particular, they had to come to grips with the fact that God did not intend to reestablish David’s kingdom militarily.

The Old Testament gave clues to the potential that the Jewish messianic hope of the kingdom of God was, in fact, a vision of an earthly kingdom led by an earthly ruler who would use worldly means to seek, acquire, and gain power. It was not a vision of a “New Heaven and A New Earth” in which peace reigned. Their misunderstanding drove the disciples to ask Jesus if now was the time he would reestablish David’s kingdom.  This misunderstanding is why at least one of his disciples (Peter?) carried a sword on the night that Jesus was betrayed: He still thought in a traditional way about the Messiah and his kingdom (Matthew 26:51-52; Mark14:47; Luke 22:49-50; John 18:10—11).

Jesus, on the other hand, constantly warned the disciples against their culturally induced presuppositions about what the Messiah would be like and what his kingdom would be like. Luke, on several occasions, Jesus says something like the following: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Over and over until the very end of his time with the disciples, he reiterates that he is a suffering messiahship. [2] The Son of God had to be rejected, turned over to authorities, and crucified so that a kingdom entirely different from the material kingdom with which they (and we) are familiar could be transformed by means entirely divorced from power as we (and they) conceive it.

Conclusion

Christ reveals the limitless, vulnerable, self-giving love of God. In Christ, God serves the greatest need of human beings and creation by emptying himself of overt power to redeem them. The message of the Cross is that God is the One who gives himself without limit, without restriction, without any holding back for the sake of his broken creation and his sinful people.[3] This is what Christians mean when we say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The love of God patiently bears with us, even as we presume upon the mercy of God. The love of God endures our sins, shortcomings, and brokenness as the Spirit works patiently and in love to redeem and restore. The love of God forgoes all power, becoming powerless in the ultimate act of saving love.

As Christians confront contemporary society and the gradual replacement of enlightenment culture by what we sometimes call postmodernism, it is essential to remember the self-giving love that Christ showed on the cross. Why? Because in a world dominated by the search for power and influence, Christians will be gradually seduced by the of our time if they do not center themselves upon the core revelation that God is a kind of self, giving love. When the Messiah appeared on the scene, he embodied the same self, giving love.

This means there may not really be a Christian public philosophy as it is so often practiced. [4] If political science is nothing more than the search for, acquisition of, and exercise of power, then it is clear that there cannot be a Christian public philosophy or public theology. A God who gives up power is not a hopeful role model for those who crave it.

Christians are committed to the notion that there is a greater, eternal, and uncreated power of which our human expressions are only a poor reflection. Christians believe the true reflection of how power should be acquired and exercised is found at the cross, where God in human form disclaimed any earthly, physical, political, military, or economic power and instead suffered and died for the human race. It isn’t easy to bring this revelation into harmony with any search for earthly political power. This is the beginning of all Christian reflection on public theology.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs,

All Rights Reserved

[1] The importance of Jesus’ reply to Pilate’s inquiry, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36) cannot be overestimated. How exactly this works out in practical theology will be a subject to be covered in this year’s essays.

[2] The number of incidents that support this is so numerous that they cannot be put in the body of the text. For a few examples, see Matthew 16:21-28, 17: 22-23, Mark 8:31-33; 9:30;1032-33; Luke 9:22-27, 24:6-8, 25-27, 46-47. It is a central teaching of Jesus that the Messiah had to suffer, be crucified, die, and rise from the dead.

[3] See W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor, Love’s Expense the Response of Being to the Love of God (London, UK: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977). See also John Polkinghorne, ed, The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2001) for a deep analysis of how creation reflects the One who is love and became love incarnate to redeem and restores his handiwork.

[4] I have in mind here the kind of political theology recommended by Reinhold Niebuhr and by many liberation theologians of various stripes. The strategy of both schools seems to be “grasping earthly power for heavenly purposes.” This does not, however, mean that these theologians are completely misguided for many of their recommendations can and should inform Christian thinking about politics. This will become clearer as these blogs evolve.

The Four Freedoms and America Today

Last week, Kathy and I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to spend two days at the World War II Museum. It was quite an experience. It is impossible to go through the museum without pondering the application of the lessons of World War II to our times. In my case, outside the museum. As we arrived, our cab driver let us off near a bench upon which a bronze statue of Franklin Roosevelt was sitting. Just next to him were engraved these words:

We have faith that future generations will know here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of good will found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war. (February 12, 1943)

The quotation followed me through the entire tour. It was the first great lesson of the trip: Victory against tyranny is not automatic. Human beings of goodwill must find a way to unite to overcome the forces of ignorance, tyranny, prejudice, and war. It was not easy for the West to win that victory. Significant players did not always agree. There was prejudice, pride, and other temptations to be overcome. But they overcame them, and freedom was preserved.

As I pondered Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Chester Nimitz, Dwight Eisenhower, and other leaders during the tour, and as I watched the faces of hundreds of unheralded young men and women caught up in an unimaginable cataclysm, I wondered if we do not need to be such people and elect such leaders in our day and time. We face a resurgence of the same evils they fought so hard to eliminate.

The Second World War ended in 1945, nearly eighty years ago, and the world order the victors created, partially to ensure that an evil alliance like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo did not threaten freedom again, is in great disarray. We see another “axis” emerging, an axis determined to undermine freedom, subvert Western Democracy, and gain control of vast populations, which will end in slavery for much of the world. Terrorism and its sponsors are as significant a danger in our day as Hitler was at the beginning of 1941. The institutions created to prevent tyranny too often are run by tyrants. Worst of all, the West has lost its sense of the reality of justice and the importance of human freedom except in matters like sex that do not seriously challenge elites.

Four Freedoms

A part of the Museum featured and was organized around FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms Speech” in part because America’s participation in the war was motivated by these “four freedoms:

  • freedom of speech,
  • freedom of worship,
  • freedom from want, and
  • the freedom from fear.

As one writer put it, these “Four Freedoms gave a moral structure and symbolized America’s war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom.” [1]

The pertinent part of Roosevelt’s reads:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want–which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear–which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor–anywhere in the world. [2]

During our visit, I wondered if we do not need something like the Four Freedoms to guide our response to the challenges of our day. There is plenty of negative politics, but no leader has emerged to plot a course to a brighter future.

Context of Challenge

In this speech, Roosevelt, right at the beginning, faced the realities of the situation:

  1. Freedom is Being Challenged. “Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being’ directly assailed in every part of the world–assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.” [3]
  2. Appeasement of Dictators is Foolish. “No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion -or even good business. Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. “Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
  3. Subversion Endangers Democracy. “The first phase of the invasion of this Hemisphere would not be the landing of regular troops. The necessary strategic points would be occupied by secret agents and their dupes- and great numbers of them are already here, and in Latin America.”
  4. Maintain Core Values. “Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and dignity of all nations, large and small. And the justice of morality must and will win in the end.”
  5. Defend our Nation and its Values. “First, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to all-inclusive national defense.”
  6. Support Freedom Loving Nations. “Second, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to full support of all those resolute peoples, everywhere, who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our Hemisphere. By this support, we express our determination that the democratic cause shall prevail; and we strengthen the defense and the security of our own nation.”
  7. Move Forward in a Non-Partisan Manner. “Third, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”

There is more to dsay and o, but these seven principles might be a place to begin.

Conclusion

It is easy for older men to worry too much about their children and grandchildren. But I do worry. It seems that our nation is threatened, and like the comic book character, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The generation that fought the Second World War bequeathed to us a hard-won peace, unparalleled opportunity, economic and political freedom, and a position of power from which it would be difficult for an enemy to dislodge us from those freedoms and opportunities. Unfortunately, beginning with Vietnam, elites and others began to doubt the value of our way of life. Today, we see the unfortunate consequences. Some of the prescriptions we hear from political, economic, and entertainment leaders and in the media are genuinely frightening in their totalitarian and foolish disregard for the past. I am afraid, my generation and those that followed us will have some explaining to do.

A good friend and fellow retiree wrote a blog the other day, an excellent reflection on the fundamental values that characterized the American Revolution. I have written today about the Four Freedoms. I believe they are foundational and can be the foundation of a movement for freedom in our day. We need a renewed commitment to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, economic freedom from want, and an international commitment to freedom from tyranny, political, economic, and legal. At the current time, the need to defeat terrorism and hatred stands right before our eyes.

Near the end of the tour, we saw pictures of the liberation of the Nazi Concentration camps and the terrible suffering of the Jewish Holocaust. Every General and every person who saw those camps was horrified by what had been done. The sufferings of the war were justified if for no other reason than to eliminate the evil of Nazi antisemitism. Today, in other countries and in our own we see the reemergence of exactly the kind of rhetoric and behavior that allowed the Holocaust to happen. We cannot and should not permit this to happen—and we need to remember that it was not only Jews that suffered. All those who had the temerity to stand up for freedom were at risk in Nazi Germany, as the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others demonstrates. At this time we need to remember the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [4]

We all need to speak and act to maintain the Four Freedoms in our own day and time.

Copyright 2024,  G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved, 

[1] “FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech” FDR Library and Museum https://www.fdrlibrary.org/four-freedoms (Downloaded February 2, 2024).

[2] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Message 1941 National Archives https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/president-franklin-roosevelts-annual-message-to-congress (Downloaded February 2, 2024).

[3] Id. The seven points below are quotes from Roosevelt’s speech.

[4] Martin Niemöller made the comment, which has been reported in many different forms. The quotation I have given is from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” the United States Holocaust Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists (Downloaded February 5, 2024).

Announcing a Revised and Expanded Crisis of Discipleship!

This week, my blog introduces the just-published revised and expanded version of Crisis of Discipleship. I became a Christian in 1977 in a small group in Houston, Texas. At the time, I was a young corporate attorney. During those years, I was an active layperson and small group leader of one kind or another while trying to put my faith at work in a secular calling. In 1991, Kathy and I left Houston and the practice of law and attended seminary. While in seminary, we were active in small group discipling. From 1994 until 2019, I pastored three congregations ranging from relatively small to large. Each congregation had a small group discipling ministry. The practical suggestions of Crisis of Discipleship flow from all those years of work and ministry.

Preparing a New Version of Crisis of Discipleship

Since 2017, I have been writing, publishing, and revising my reflections on making disciples in the challenging environment of contemporary culture. The results of this work are embodied in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple Making in a revised and expanded format published by Living Dialog Ministries.

The book is available at https://livingdialog.org/product/crisis and other venues. Living Dialog has sacrificially assisted in this reprint, and I hope you will attempt to buy them directly from Living Dialog. I have included the new cover so that you will be able to purchase the latest version. You can see the book at LivingDialog.org. The book is also available on Amazon and other sources. Be sure to purchase the Revised and Expanded Version. The older version with a different cover is still available from some sources.

A set of editable PowerPoint slides is available for pastors and teachers free of charge, enabling leaders to teach this as a series of lessons with minimal preparation. I am also most willing to create a Study Guide for anyone who needs it. The editability of the slides assures that teachers can customize the lessons for their congregation.

I hope that Crisis of Discipleship will help leaders of local congregations take practical steps to prioritize disciple-making in local churches. A pastor, friend, and mentor constantly reminded me that the church is never more than a generation from extinction. Making disciples in the challenging environment of post-Enlightenment America and Europe will take the concerted effort of many people. I hope you will read this book and consider giving it to your local church leadership.

The Material Covered

The book is both theoretical and practical, with the practical aspect predominant. It begins with an analysis of our culture. It ends with a glimpse into the future, reflecting upon why we must develop a relational discipleship strategy. The book does not take sides regarding various theological or denominational differences, trying to be fair to everyone and valuable to any congregation that would like to develop a better strategy for discipling people.

I have reproduced the Table of Contents below so that you can easily see what is to be learned through studying the book:

Part 1: Come and Follow Me

Chapter 1: The Blessed Life

Chapter 2: Life in the Ruins

Chapter 3: Costly Discipleship

Chapter 4: The Way of a Christ-Follower

Chapter 5: The Way of Relationship

Part 2: Live and Love Like Christ

Chapter 6: Sharing Christ’s Life

Chapter 7: Sharing Good News

Chapter 8: Sharing Your Testimony

Chapter 9: Sharing in Dialogue

Chapter 10: Living a Different Way of Life

Part 3 Being a Disciple in a Fragmented Age

Chapter 11: The Way of Prayer

Chapter 12: The Way of the Word

Chapter 13: The Way of Service

Chapter 14: Growing in Transformational Community

Chapter 15: Discipleship in an Age of Fragmentation

Conclusion

Crisis of Discipleship represents the lessons of almost fifty years of Christian discipleship as a lay leader and pastor. As the “Boomers” (my generation) move to the sidelines, a new generation of leadership is emerging. Crisis of Discipleship hopes to help those in active ministry and those emerging into leadership as they seek to find ways to meet the challenges of our culture. No one, least of all me, has all the answers. Nevertheless, many people have found ways to reach out to American and Western cultures—and many new ideas have been proposed. I hope that many leaders and laypersons will find a way to begin thinking through their own response to our culture in Crisis of Discipleship.

This has been a labor of love and, hopefully, a way to share my walk with Christ with others in a helpful way. I hope friends, pastors, church leaders, and others will appreciate it.

God bless you all,

Chris

Marshand and Ultimate Reality

In 2023 I published a novel, Marshland, which is a murder mystery, a story of the Texas Savings and Loan Crisis, and a spiritual mystery all rolled into one. [1] My friends (and the publisher) tell me that to create and maintain interest, it is necessary to occasionally publish an excerpt and perhaps give some insight into the background of the book. As I work on a more Christian and Biblical blog intended to become the second of the blogs on public theology, I decided that this week, I would publish an excerpt from near the end of Marshland. Next week, I think I am going to be publishing a bit of the newly published revised and expanded version of Crisis of Discipleship, which was also published last year and is now out in a new edition. [2]

For now, here is the excerpt from Marshland:

 

One night we spent together remains vivid in my memory. My father, brother, and I were alone after dinner. They asked me to recount the events of the past months, which I did. When I got to the dark figure and strange lights, Dad and my brother got very quiet. Finally, they asked me what I thought my experiences meant. I had a hard time answering.

“I don’t really know what to think. I make my living not believing what people say unless it can be proven in court. However, that kind of proof is unavailable when it comes to personal perceptions of a spiritual reality. I know what I experienced. I know what I saw or dreamed. I know what happened as a result. I do not think it was simply an illusion or false delusion. I am not sure I need to know more.”

My father seemed to think that was a pretty good answer.

“In the ministry, I have seen a lot of things that an unbeliever might explain as a coincidence, supernatural answers to prayers, the intervention of God, or chance. I have always thought of them as something spiritual. I never felt it necessary to know or understand more. In the end, it is a matter of faith how one interprets experiences like those you recently had. Personally, however, I also think the experiences were real.”

My brother listened carefully, then gave his take on what had occurred.

“When I was in seminary, I had a class on, of all people, John Calvin. One day, as we were discussing Calvin’s views about angels, someone in the class spoke dismissively about Calvin’s premodern worldview. The professor, who was by no means a fundamentalist, paused thoughtfully and then said, ‘I think it is a great mistake not to believe in angels.’ He never explained his meaning, but I have always remembered that class.

“During my seminary days, I was often asked to preach in churches with which the seminary wanted to sustain a relationship. During those times, I habitually asked pastors what they thought about angels and demons and whether they had ever experienced things that seemed mystical in origin. The answers were interesting. Across various theological orientations, the answer was almost invariably that they believed in the demonic and in the angelic in some form. They had seen and experienced things in ministry that were difficult to explain on any basis other than supernaturally. They did not agree on the explanation, but they did agree on the existence of what I would call a trans-material dimension to the universe. I have experienced things as a pastor that are hard to explain without postulating an element of the divine or demonic.

“Art, it seems to me you have had such an experience. Your visions could just be dreams, but in the case of the angelic lights, your experiences were shared by others who saw the strange pillars of light. These experiences do not seem to be some kind of mass delusion. You will have to decide for yourself what you believe. As for me, I believe the world is stranger than we know.”

My father chimed in. “One interesting development in philosophy in recent years has been recognizing that reality is multilayered. At the bottom of material reality lies the principles of physics, from which chemistry and biology emerge as independent areas of reality. The human race emerged in a long process of biological and social development, with the result that religion, psychology, sociology, law, and other disciplines also developed, due to the capacity of human beings to create human societies and institutions. Each level of reality depends on others, yet has its own degree of independence. While other levels are relevant and may impact higher levels, they do not determine them. In my view, beyond the created order, there is a vast, invisible order of spiritual reality. This order may well include an angelic order of being. You may have had some kind of contact with that reality.”

Our conversation shifted to the wedding and the excitement it generated in the family. We never returned to the subject of angels. In the intervening years, until recently, I rarely encountered anything like what I experienced during the final days of the Marshland transaction. As the years passed, the vividness of my experience faded, and with it, my curiosity and interest. I was busy as a lawyer, husband, and father. Yet it was in those days that I found my true vocation, the great love of my life, and a kind of center from which I have lived since.

This week, I ran across a quotation from Thomas Torrance, whose theological writings have meant a lot to me over the course of the years. It is from an essay entitled “Christianity and Scientific Change.” When I wrote Marshland, in my mind I attributed the words of Arthur Stone’s father to what I learned studying John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and theologian, whose work has also been important to me and who makes a similar observation in his many books. Arthur Peacocke and Ian Barbour also influenced my understanding of the multi-layered nature of reality. It is actually an important idea to get in one’s mind.

In Torrance’s essay, he makes the point:

“Scientific knowledge embodies layers of coherent comprehension which answer to and are affected by the coordinated layers of orderly relations, in reality itself. This integrated complex structure in reality and in our corresponding knowledge of it forms an ascending hierarchy of orderly relations which prove to be open upward in ever wider, comprehensiveness and profounder ranges of intelligibility, but which cannot be flattened down word by being reduced to homeomorphic relations on one and the same level.

As these different levels of reality become disclosed through our inquiries, together with the corresponding levels of our explanatory accounts of them, they combine with one another, in such a hierarchical way, as to constitute a vast semantic focus of meaning.” [3]

A lot rides on understanding this quotation and the point I am making in Marshland. If I could summarize what Torrance is saying it is this:

  1. Every level of reality exists dependent upon other levels but independent of them.
  2. Reality has a hierarchical structure, from basic physics to chemistry to biology to psychology to sociology to theology.
  3. In reality, there is an upward openness to emerging novelty, which means that the higher levels are not fully reducible to the lower levels.
  4. Through science, mathematics, words, and other symbols human beings discover the structure and meaning of this multi-layered reality.

Because there are different levels of reality, it is not appropriate to try to understand one level of reality on the basis of lower levels alone. For example, one cannot understand the functioning of the human spirit solely on the basis of physics, chemistry, or even biology. The existence of the human mind creates an entirely different level of reality that must be understood on its own terms. Similarly, spiritual realities, such as the angels in Marshland, exist on a different level than material realities.

Modern science and much modern philosophy tend to dismiss religious views and experiences as not “scientific,” at least as the speaker understands science. Torrance and I would disagree with this.

On the spiritual level, we are dealing with the person of God. Like all personal relations, we cannot understand this God, unless God chooses to communicate himself to us. Of course, God can be expected to communicate to us on the basis of our human abilities to perceive, which is why religious people experience visions and dreams. It’s also why the religious truths of every religion are embodied in people and in books.

Jesus told parables. Mohammed wrote the Koran. The sayings of Buddha have been passed down to us. Confucius wrote the Analects. We can read, understand, and grow closer to understanding Ultimate Reality in our study of them.

As a Christian, I read my Bible daily as one of the ways God communicates with me. Prayer, worship, and service to others are other ways God communicates. I study the Old and New Testaments because I believe they render a true vision of the nature of the infinite, personal God, a God finally revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, there is always an irreducible mystery to any such communication for the reality being communicated is at a different level of reality than we human beings inhabit. This is why God chose to give us the name “I am” or “I Am that I Am,” or, as I sometimes refer to God in my writings, “I Am what I Am and will be what I Will Be.” God loves us. We know that from Christ. God wishes us the best. We know that from Scripture. But God will not be fully understood by us. Like Arthur Stone, we have to be content with what we know and can know within our human limits.

Copyright 2024, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Alystair West, Marshland (Bloomington, ID: Westbow Press, 2023).

[2] G. Christopher Scruggs, Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciplemaking (Richmond, VA: 2024).

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture “Christianity and Scientific Change” (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 1998), 37, 39

Where Love and Wisdom Meet

The End of the Intellectual Search for Wisdom

Wisdom literature is committed to an unflinching search for truth and an understanding of the reality of human life, squarely facing the problems inherent in a simple equation of blessings, success, and meaning with the wise life. [1] Job, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel, each in their own way, address the reality that good people suffer, much suffering does not make sense, and wisdom does not prevent a wise person from experiencing injustice and meaninglessness inherent to much of human life.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, one senses the conviction that any explanation of the human condition must finally come through a personal revelation. This is why Job is so insistent that he achieve a personal interview with God. His friends are not adequate mediators of reasons for his suffering. He wants his case, and by extrapolation, the case of every sufferer, to be personally heard by God and answered by God. You see, the character of God is at stake in the problems of meaningless and undeserved suffering. To a person who suffers undeservedly or loses a sense that life has meaning, God often seems strangely silent.

Near the end of Proverbs, a passage speaks of the ultimate helplessness of human reason in the face of the most profound questions of life. It is as if, in frustration, the wisdom writers finally confess the futility of trying to understand the ways of God:

I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too stupid to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One. Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down? Who holds the wind in his fists? Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak? Who has created the whole wide world? What is his name—and his son’s name? Tell me if you know! (Proverbs 30:1-4, NLT).

This passage expresses a fundamental problem with the human search for wisdom: We are not God. We cannot ascend to heaven and check our earthly conclusions with the Almighty. The search for God and for human wisdom concerning the most critical questions of life ultimately reaches the end of human understanding. More arguments will not suffice—a revelation is needed. One is tempted to quote the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” [2]

Humans must live within the limits of human understanding. The ways of God are beyond our understanding. If humans are to find answers to life’s most troubling questions, God must reveal them. We cannot ascend to God or investigate God and find our answers. Since our deepest need for a sense of the presence of God, and not simply a word from God, the revelation we need must be personal, not merely verbal. [3]

One Greater than Solomon

New Testament writers would agree for a surprising reason: They had seen the mysterious, inscrutable God revealed in human flesh. When they saw Jesus, they saw revealed a kind of wisdom so different from their expectations that it initially seemed foolish. As they reflected on the revelation of Christ, they came to understand it as foundational to any rational understanding of God and the universe.

In Matthew 12, Jesus alludes to his special status. The Scribes and the Pharisees have been challenging Jesus because he seems not to follow the wisdom of the Jewish tradition as they understand it. Finally, Jesus responds. Here is how Matthew relates the story:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said, “Master, we want to see a sign from you.” But Jesus told them, “It is an evil and unfaithful generation that craves for a sign, and no sign will be given to it—except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was in the belly of that great sea-monster for three days and nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation in the judgment and will condemn it. For they did repent when Jonah preached to them, and you have more than Jonah’s preaching with you now! The Queen of the South will stand up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it. For she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and you have more than the wisdom of Solomon with you now! (Matthew 12:33-42, J.B. Philips [emphasis added]).

The Scribes and the Pharisees wanted a sign that Jesus was an authentic teacher of the wisdom of God, which they could fit into their pre-existing worldview. They wanted a Messiah that fit their expectations. Jesus refused their request, telling them they would indeed get a sign—but not one that they could accept. Although in Jesus, one greater than Solomon is present, they will have to change their expectations in the face of the reality of the Messiah God has sent to them. [4]

Greater than Solomon? Who among the teachers of Israel could be greater than the patron saint of the wisdom tradition, the Son of David? Here, Jesus is making his case that, as “one has come down from heaven,” he is the authentic and reliable guide to the wise life. However, this is not a wisdom the world will easily recognize or accept. In fact, the very people who might have been expected to acknowledge Jesus as the bearer of true wisdom reject and crucify him.

 The Word Made Flesh

It is not just the spoken words of Jesus that are important. In his very being, the Word and Wisdom of God are revealed. John begins his gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-8, 14, NIV).

In Christ, God has chosen to make a personal appearance in human history. In Jesus, the wisdom that was with the Father in the beginning as a master craftsman of creation (Proverbs 8) came to dwell in history in human form and is now revealed not just in words but also in a human being whose character is “full of Grace and Truth” (John 1:14).

Despite the presence of the True Light of God’s wisdom in Jesus, the True Light was not easy to recognize (John 1:9). In fact, “…though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10, NIV). When John says that the world did not receive him, he does not just mean the gentile nations who might be expected to miss the purpose and meaning of his life. Not even his own people, who had been prepared for his coming throughout their long history, understood. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11, NIV).

The New Testament is replete with indications that even those closest to Jesus, the disciples, were often puzzled by Jesus and his teachings. [5] They did not always understand his parables and frequently had to have them explained to them (See Mark 4:13). In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a series of parables that his followers have difficulty understanding. Then, the reason is given:

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:34-35, NIV).

Jesus’ teachings were difficult to understand, and his wisdom was often confusing because he revealed a hidden wisdom from God (I Corinthians 1:18-19). This wisdom can only be recognized based on the revelation God is making through Jesus.

The core misunderstanding of the disciples concerned the character of Jesus and God. Jesus revealed a wisdom that does not necessarily breed success or victory. It is not a wisdom that brings with it adulation of the crowds or political or economic power. It is not a wisdom that the best and the brightest of the academy will necessarily applaud. It is a wisdom that leads to a cross. It is wisdom shown by submitting to injustice. It is a wisdom symbolized by a cross. In other words, human wisdom formed by the notion that wisdom brings success and adulation is no kind of wisdom at all.

The Wisdom of the Cross

The apostle Paul expresses the surprise the apostles felt at Christ’s incomprehensible self-disclosure of God’s self-giving wisdom:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Corinthians 1:18-25, NIV).

The wisdom Christ revealed is so unimaginable that no form of human understanding could have foreseen its character. The Jews rejected it because it defied their messianic expectations of a military and political deliverer. The Greeks rejected it because their ideas of divinity postulated an impassible God who could not suffer, a God beyond the misery of this world and its bondage to sin, suffering, and death.

Thus, the wisdom of God is paradoxical—a wisdom that must be accepted by faith before it makes sense. It is a wisdom that no person wise by Jewish or Greek standards would have predicted. It is a wisdom revealed not in strength but in weakness and suffering love. It is a wisdom that does not fit into the categories of thought prevalent in Jesus’ day or our own. It cannot be assimilated into any human wisdom other than by making it the foundation of a new kind of wisdom. [6]

The reality and power of God’s wisdom can only be known in the person of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Messiah (I Corinthians 2:2). It can only be understood in humble reliance upon God’s mercy, which is its basis and foundation (I Corinthians 2:3). It cannot be known with the wisest and most persuasive arguments (I Corinthians 2:4-5). It can only be understood in the experience of personal forgiveness and restoration by the power of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 2:4-5).

This is a wisdom that cannot be known by the rulers and authorities of “this age” because it is a hidden wisdom:

But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,  nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God (I Corinthians 2:7-9, NRSV).

The ultimate expression of wisdom cannot be expressed in words. It had to be expressed on a cross and can only be appropriated in a personal relationship with God as revealed on the Cross. Those who understand this wisdom must have their minds transformed so they have the mind of Christ, the mind of the One who revealed this wisdom, this hidden word of God (I Corinthians 2:13-16).

This wisdom of the Cross reflects the true nature of the One who created the heavens and the earth. The world cannot understand this wisdom because its truth finally must be revealed to us by God. C. S. Lewis captures this mystery in his book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the book, Edmund betrays his brother and sisters, the people of Narnia, and even Aslan, the true king of Narnia. He deserves to die—and the White Witch demands that he do so. Aslan strikes a bargain with the White Witch to substitute himself for Edmund. The Witch accepts, and Aslan is sacrificed only to be resurrected. When Lucy and Susan cannot understand what has happened, Aslan replies:

It means, said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But, if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in the traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.” [7]

The wisdom of the Cross is the Deeper Magic, the most profound wisdom that underlies and supports all human attempts to live and order their lives. On the Cross the limitations of a human notion of justice is demonstrated and a deeper wisdom, what we might call a “Wisdom of Grace,” is revealed. This wisdom is present in life and death, in success and failure, in deserved blessing and undeserved suffering, and in times of radiant meaning and purpose in the dark times when meaning and purpose seem absent.

The Way of Wisdom and New Testament Faith

Contemporary people sometimes consider “faith and knowledge” and “theory and practice” as categories. We often think of “faith” as a kind of incomplete knowledge, or worse, something people choose to believe in the face of contrary facts. [8] Critics of Christianity often describe faith as irrational – a flight from reason. For these people, “faith” means holding to a belief despite the absence of evidence, or worse, against clear evidence. Even Christians can fall into thinking that faith is something alien to reason or, in some ways, opposed to reason. Much harmful debate between science and religion stems from this way of thinking.

The false dichotomy between faith and reason is foreign to the spirit of the Christian Bible and the early Church’s writers. For early Christians, the revelation of Christ was a moment of deepened understanding of God and the universe God created. The early Church saw the incarnation as a physical revelation – a personal revealing inside of creation of the invisible wisdom of God (Colossians 1:15-17). This same divine wisdom was also revealed in nature (Romans 1:20). For these writers, practical wisdom, understanding reality, and moral knowledge come from the same source – the uncreated wisdom of God.

For those who accept this ancient way of wisdom, scientific understanding, faith, and moral insight are parts of a seamless web of created rationality binding the physical, ethical, and intellectual universe together. Eugene Peterson captures this notion in his paraphrase when he says, “…God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within … that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong” (Romans 2:14, Message).

For early Christians, the revelation embodied in Jesus was not a flight into the irrational or a subjective world of metaphor. Instead, Christ provided a revelatory insight into the deepest rationality of the world. This is why an early Christian could say:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17, NRSV).

For the writer of Colossians and early Christians generally, the revelation of Christ was a revelation of the ultimate rationality of the universe, the principle of reconciliation between the physical and moral universes. On the cross, God revealed the ultimate nature of the deity. He revealed God as Self-Giving Love—a love present in the meaningless parts of life and in the undeserved suffering we sometimes endure. In the resurrection of Jesus, God was revealing at the very boundaries of human reason the ultimate ground for our hope.

A Life Reordered by Transformational Insight

James Loder speaks of the importance of transformational knowing—a kind of knowing that re-orders all that we have previously known into a new order—an order that explains what was once inexplicable and makes rational what was once irrational. [9] Transformational knowledge results from a convictional insight that transforms understanding and reorders the human psyche. [10] The revelation of Christ is such a transformational insight. By faith, new understanding is created. This new understanding is not irrational. It is more profound than human rationality. It is not a form of foolishness. It is a wisdom that renders lesser insights foolish. This is the wisdom to which the New Testament writers bore witness.

The Old Testament wisdom writers were searching for truth—for a true way to find happiness and fulfillment. They did so in the context of their faith and God’s revelation to Israel. Their quest was confronted with difficulties that they wrestled with and sought to resolve. They sensed a deep conflict between the fundamental premises of the wisdom tradition and reality as they knew and experienced it.

They saw much-undeserved suffering in the world and understood a wise life does not guarantee happiness, fulfillment, or meaning. Over long centuries, wisdom writers struggled with these problems as they relate to their understanding of God, wisdom, morals, and the rationality of the world. Then, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the disciples experienced a complete reorienting of their ideas about God, the Law, and the Prophets.

The revelation they received made sense of what had previously been difficult, if not impossible, to understand. But that revelation required a rethinking and reenacting of the entire history of Israel, so surprising and revolutionary was its impact. In the figure of Christ, they saw revealed a wisdom of one greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:42), a prophet greater than Moses (Hebrews 3:3). They saw revealed in Christ the character of one who fulfilled the Law and Prophets (Matthew 5:17). In the crucified and risen Messiah, they received the clue to the mystery their tradition had so long pondered. In the one life of Jesus of Nazareth, they saw the wisdom of God revealed in the most unexpected yet undeniable way. It was for them and us to work out the implications of that revelation. [11]

Because of the personal nature of the revelation of Christ, no purely mental, cognitive response can ever be sufficient. The proper response of faith is to not simply cognitively accept what God has done in Christ. The word for faith connotes more than acceptance. It also connotes trust, and trust requires an act of personal commitment and will. To trust in Christ and to receive his wisdom is to be converted in our minds (what we think), in our bodies (what we do), and in our hearts (what we feel and will do). A personal revelation demands a personal response from the whole human person. Wisdom is never a matter of abstract cognitive knowing. Wisdom is practical. It is a matter of knowing and doing in a concrete human life formed in a relationship with God, a concrete community, and the world.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This entire essay is a revision of chapter 14 of my book, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 195ff.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London, ENG: Kegan Paul, Trench, Turner & Co, 1922), 90.

[3] This is one reason pastors and other caregivers quickly learn that our presence with people who are suffering is far more important than anything we may say. In fact, as Job’s friends illustrate, what we say may interfere with the comfort of our presence!

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Theological Science (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1969). In scientific, religious, and other thinking there can only be real knowledge when an investigator adjusts his or her view of reality to the nature of the subject matter. “[In] Jesus Christ God has broken into the closed circle of our inability and adequacy, and estrangement and self-will, and within our alien condition has achieved and established real knowledge of Himself.” Id, at 51.

[5] One of the motifs of the Gospel of Mark is the incomprehension of the disciples despite their constant contact with Jesus.

[6] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks:  The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1986).

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1950, renewed 1978), 74.

[8] This section contains ideas first presented in Centered Living, Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love for Christ-Followers previously cited.

[9] See, James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989).

[10] Id, at 33.

[11] In this section, I use Loder’s notion of “convictional knowing” and its stages of: conflict, scanning, revelation (what he calls “imagination”), release, and interpretation to express the way in which the revelation of Christ impacted the disciples’ (and our) expectation of the Messiah. See, Loder, Transforming Moment, at 35-44.

From a Naked to an Illumined Public Square

In 1984, author and social commentator, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book that had a profound impact on American public life, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. [1] This book, and Neuhaus’ work editing First Things, widely regarded as one of the most influential journals on religion and public life, had a deep impact during the following years. [2] I remember reading the book in the late 1980’s and admiring his scholarship. During the 1990s while in seminary, I developed the habit of reading First Things our seminary library. Later for some years, I subscribed until I concluded that the money of a local pastor might be better spent on his family. However, during all those years I was not comfortable with all the conclusions of  The Naked Public Square or the tone of the work in a few places.

The book was written during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to some people a kind of golden age of evangelical witness in the political arena. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, evangelical Christians emerged as a force in American politics. The emerging alliance of evangelicals with a Democratic administration was ultimately not successful. The deep feelings of many evangelicals on the subject of abortion, and the perceived ineptitude of the administration in handling the Iranian Crisis, resulted in a massive shift of evangelical support to the Republican Party in the 1980 election, where, until recently, it has resided. It is too early to tell whether the Trump Administration and the reaction of some evangelical leaders to his style and perceived immorality have resulted in a permanent change of this alliance in the future. In any case, many prominent evangelical pastors and intellectuals have distanced themselves from the Republican Party. In my view, this is also a positive development.

Perhaps more central to the hope of this book is the fact that at the time the basic contest in the area of public theology among evangelicals, Catholics, and mainline protestants and what was sometimes termed the “Religious Right” concerned the question of which group’s basic theological and social views should Christians adopt. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square, and the Mainline Protestants came down on the side of themselves. Having spent a good bit of my life in academia (undergraduate, law, and seminary), I was not certain this was the right question. In my mind, the question is whether or not Christianity will have any important voice in political affairs under the current dominant way of thinking. Will the light of Christ in any way impact public life.”

The Short-Sighted Public Square

One weakness of contemporary Christian witness in public life is that it too often focuses on “hot button” issues, such as abortion, or personalities, such as Donald Trump’s or Joe Biden’s moral character. While character is important, and a focus on moral issues certainly has a place in Christian views on public life, single-minded or overly-moralistic approaches inhibit the development of discussion and reason concerning Christian faith and its fundamental message to Christians and others in complex areas of our national political life. This particular feature of Christian participation in public life has many consequences, none of which are positive. First, it often results in the demonization of other sides of the political debate. Second, it diverts attention from issues that are important to human flourishing and the stability of our democracy. Third, it creates a kind of “winner take all” moral enthusiasm related to issues that can prevent the proper functioning of our democracy and its fundamental institutions.

Finally, and most destructively, excessive negative focus on the most dangerous proposals of our opponents creates a demand for a kind of messianic leader who will establish the policies that various supporting groups desire. The results of political messianism are both inevitable disappointment and the creation of a kind of misplaced moral outrage that hinders wise and fair decision-making. Christians of all stripes believe in the doctrine of the fall, one particular result of which is we cannot expect a level of moral purity from our leaders that we regularly admit we do not possess.

Our national elites find it relatively easy to allow public debate to occur on two levels. First, there is the vulgar level of social media, broadcast media, and the like. Anyone who has read the comment sections of any version of social media regularly reads comments that are either inane or violently rude. It is amazing to me how many people when faced with a problem like the Middle East or the Deficit react by posting “Bomb them into oblivion” or “Tax the rich” or “Fire all federal employees.” There is not much light to be gained by reading the comment section in media.

Illumined by Wisdom and Love

I sometimes call my approach to political philosophy and theology “sophia-agapic.” The Greek word “Sophia” is the word for wisdom in the New Testament. The Greek word “Agape” is the word Christians use for the self-giving love of God. In Christ, Christians believe that the love of God became human and “dwelt among us full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Christians also believe that God possesses all wisdom, which wisdom also became human in Christ and its implications revealed for the human race (John 1:4). This has implications in every area of Christian life and activity, two of which are important in any discussion of political theology:

First, God is Love and exists in a loving family-like relationship, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Christian faith will seek mutuality and self-giving relationships as a characteristic of its involvement in public life. This includes recognizing the limitations of force, physical, mental, emotional, and otherwise in public affairs.

Second, God is Light, which is to say that God is completely, wise, completely pure, completely rational, completely good, and completely beautiful. This includes the importance of approaching public policy wisely and with and informed discretion.

Most people tend to think of power as a primary quality and important for one to possess. One of my professors in undergraduate school commented that “politics is just about power, getting it, using it, and losing it.” At the time, I agreed. Now, I do not. Political power is both profoundly interpersonal and depends on numerous factors, some of which are moral and psychological.

The philosopher Nietzsche instituted a program of seeing all moral claims, and all truth claims as simple bids for power, a program that finds its current home in deconstructive social theory. Nietzsche effectively “deconstructed” the foundations of Enlightenment liberalism, reducing all truth claims, all moral claims, and all aesthetic claims to bids for power. Nietzsche’s hostility towards Christianity as a “slave religion,” reflecting an attempt by the weak to gain power over the strong, the “Ubermensch” (“overman” or “superman,” who has the vitality to impose his or her will on others) is well known. In practice, the result of Nietzschean thought has inevitably been some kind of totalitarianism. [3] This Nietzschean notion of the will to power embeds in contemporary politics an innate tenancy toward violence. [4] The truth and reality of this observation are seen in the events in major U.S. cities over the past several weeks.

If you are like me, you watch the nightly news with a sense of horror and foreboding. The riots on the streets, the antics of nihilist anarchists, the tactics of the Marxist left seeking the ever illusive “end of history” and institution of a proletarian dictatorship, the complicity of left-wing politicians, and worst of all, the egging-on by the liberal media, without the slightest reflection on where this is all heading. For those who want to know the end game of all this, my suggestion is that the end game will not be pretty—or what its proponents desire.

The Enlightenment, with its hostility to religion, began in France among a group of philosophers who were anti-Catholic, the most famous of whom was Voltaire. They envisioned a perfect, humanistic state. They created a dictatorship in which thousands died in an orgy of madness. The result was not a perfect state, but a perfectly demonic state. What finally emerged was not a paradise of reason, but Napoleon.

If American intellectuals, left-wing politicians, and the plutocrats who control much of our wealth are wise, they will take a break from radical politics, political calculations, and cultural accommodation and study the French Revolution. Those who egged on the French mob were ultimately destroyed by the mob. This same kind of senseless evil was characteristic of the 20th century, from Lenin to Hitler, Mao, Pot Pol, and beyond.

There is a kind of naïve utopianism that discounts human brokenness and our capacity for evil, that believes that a different sort of ruler (me or my group) would mean change for the better, and that impatient for change. In the case of modern revolutions, people seek a secular Messiah who will usher in a golden age of peace and plenty, but most often get Stalin. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must need to be those offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” (Matthew 18:7, KJV).

Will to Healthy Relationality

Over and against the Nietzschean notion of the “Will to Power” as ultimate, Christians posit that the universe is communal, flowing from the communal nature of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christians fundamentally disagree with the modern worldview that “All that exists are objects and forces.” While we confess the reality of the objective world outside of us, we also believe that there is a noetic or spiritual world in which words like “Freedom” and “Justice” have a real though not physical existence.

Conclusion

On and off this year, I am going to take a leisurely blogging trip through some fundamental ways  Christian faith  can guide Christians in bringing wisdom and love into American public life. This is an important undertaking because our public culture is without question experiencing an unprecedented decay into a kind of nihilistic “winner take all” game in which the Christian virtues of reason, compassion, justice, and love are inevitably lost. The propensity impacts Christians and non-Christians alike. The result is an impoverishment of our public discourse on important issues.

Neuhaus was aware that Christian engagement with political life includes the danger of Christian thinking about matters of public life degenerating into a “Church of What Is Happening Now” response. [5] One blessing of religious faith is that it involves internalizing an eternal perspective on current events that allows a kind of disengagement with the pressure of the currently urgent and allows focus on important things. Hopefully, the result is that Christians can engage others in the public arena with the wisdom and love that God has asked all his disciples to demonstrate.

Neuhaus also believed that the emergence of the Evangelical Right was an event that required examination. He was concerned to illuminate the errors of the Moral Majority and similar movements. From the perspective of 2024, it would seem to me that his concern was overdone. The Moral Majority has disappeared from public life. What has emerged in its place is a kind of disconnected dislike of the current regime without a philosophical basis or a well-thought-out policy alternative. We do not need more buzzwords.

The cultural changes of the 1960’s were, perhaps, slowed by the Reagan Presidency but they were not by any means without continuing impact. On college campuses, in the media, and in other cultural settings, the forces unleashed by the decay of modernity continue to impact public life in powerful ways. The world of 2024 is almost unrecognizable from the perspective of 1984. America was becoming more secular in the late 20th century. It is secular in the early 21stcentury.

While religious faith is a factor for people of faith in their making of public decisions, faith is not a factor for non-religious people. In addition, while religion is important to people of faith, it is by no means the only or often primary consideration in their political views or actions once in office. About many matters of public life, it may not even be arguably the most important matter. For example, I am a member of a local neighborhood association that deals with issues like, where should boundary signs be located and what height of the wall should be permitted in a particular lot. Hopefully, my religious faith causes me to be loving, kind, and concerned with the people involved and just, but Christian faith does not determine my vote on the height of privacy fences. Finally, religious and other factors will impact a Christian response to any public policy issue, and as to some issues, Christians may well have to weigh their faith with other factors.

Cultural forces are not easily overcome as the massive change in sexual morals among religious and non-religious people in early 21st-century America clearly shows. Cultural change involves creating cultural artifacts (art, literature, movies, music, and institutions) that capture the imagination of people and hold their loyalty beyond the passing emotion of a political movement or reaction. Christians, and especially more conservative Christians have not been particularly good at the creation of a cultural response to late modernity that is both compelling and energizing to contemporary Americans. A deep and deeply rational public policy is one of those artifacts that Christians need to develop.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a bipartisan non-profit corporation headquartered in New York, NY. On its cover on the internet it describes itself as “América’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life.” See https://www.firstthings.com/current-edition.

[3] In my view, contemporary Communist China is a national socialist state masquerading as a communist state. Modern Russia under Putin is clearly a kind of national socialist state, in which very wealthy oligarchs and the state control every element of human life. Milbank believes as do I that Nietzschean nihilism always leads to some form of Nazism. Unfortunately, we see elements of this kind of government in American and Western European society.

[4] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK.: Blackwell, 2006), at xiii, and chapter 10, “Ontological Violence or the Postmodern Problematic” pp. 278-326

[5] The Naked Public Square, 3ff.

Willimon/Hauerwas: Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens is an important analysis of how Christians should interact with late 20th-century and early 21st-century culture. [1] The book’s primary argument is that churches should focus on developing Christian life and community rather than attempting to reform secular culture. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon reject the idea that America is a Christian nation; instead, Christians should see themselves as “resident aliens” in a foreign land.

For those familiar with Stanley Hauerwas’s work, the book’s theme is no surprise. He has long been of the view that (1) the “Constantinian” merger of the Christian faith with the Roman Empire and (2) the identification of Christian faith with some idealized form of the “American Way of Life” were great mistakes that can only be remedied by the church recovering its identity as the body of Christ.

When I was in seminary, like most seminarians, one of the required courses was “Christian Ethics,” by which our professor meant “public ethics” since there was no interest in personal ethics. After many weeks of reading liberation theology, Reinhold Niebuhr, and a host of academic theologians, most of whom were uninterpretable, we read Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom. [2] Finally, a book that seemed more or less biblical, understandable, and applicable to ordinary Christian life and ministry. I read A Community of Character and After Christendom in rapid succession. [3]. When Resident Aliens was published, I bought it, read it briefly, and forgot all about it. Only when I realized it was a necessary part of this series did I get a copy and read it again, this time more closely.

The authors are two of the most prominent figures in Methodism over the past many years. Hauerwas was a distinguished professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University. Willimon was a pastor, Chaplain at Duke, and later a Methodist Bishop. Together, they wrote Resident Aliens as a book for laypersons and pastors with chapters relevant to Christian ethics, public ethics, and pastoral ministry. Willimon also happened to be a college friend of a fellow church member, elder, and leader in our church in Houston.

The Constantinian Church

I’m sure many lay people get confused by terms like “Constantinian” and church by people like me. Just to be sure we understand what is meant, in the years between 303 and 313, Emperor Constantine defeated his enemies, became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire, declared himself to be a Christian, and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that time, the Christian church had, at best, been tolerated and persecuted many times, including in the recent history before 310. Until modern times, beginning about 300 years ago, the Christian faith was the official religion in all parts of Europe. Although other groups were tolerated, they were not the official religion. Occasionally, as with the Jews, they were persecuted. Even the protestant reformation did not change the Christian nature of Europe and its colonies. Although they were now both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and the official state church was not always Roman Catholic, Europe was still Christian.

In such a situation, the church had a privileged position in society. In the United States, that privilege position continued until relatively recently. For example, even as late as the 1990s, in small towns in the rural south of North America, the pastors of the local churches were part of the leadership of the community. This leadership was not merely spiritual but included many things like fundraising for community projects, supporting the local government in its initiatives, and providing a spiritual gloss to government and business activities in the community. In such a situation, it was relatively easy to blur the distinction between what characterized American values, including American political values, and what might constitute a Christian view of the world.

The End of the Constantinian World

Europe became secular after World War I and even more remarkably after World War II. The vast majority of people never attend church, the church has lost its privileged position in society, and an enormous number of immigrants, primarily of the Muslim or Hindu faiths, began a process in which those states were no longer Christian. [4] During the 1950s and early 1960s, the United States was more or less exempt from the process. However, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, a variety of Supreme Court decisions, and other actions that the center of the church in America all have produced a current situation in which the Christian church in the United States is in nearly the same circumstances as the Christian churches in Europe today. In other words, the “Constantinian Settlement” is over.

To their credit, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon were early to understand the changes coming to the American church and American society. In particular, Hauerwas was an early advocate that the church had to learn how to be the church in an era vastly different than anything experienced in the West in 2000 years and anything that the Christian church in America had ever experienced. Today, Christian leaders can look back on the last 30 years and wish they had paid closer attention to the warnings and advice people like Hauerwas and Willimon are giving.

Similarities Betweem the Religious Left and Right

When Hauerwas and Willimon began writing, they had to be careful what they said so that the religious and political left would not misunderstand them. While they were critical of the religious left, they were also critical of the religious right. In fact, Hauerwas and Willimon believed that these two groups were just two sides of the same mistake: They were trying to maintain the alliance between the powers of this world and the Christian message that would continue the church’s importance in modern secular democracy. Their difference was not in their strategy but in their tactics. Underneath both was the desire to maintain the alliance between the government and the church.

For the religious left, what is sometimes called liberal Christianity was obviously true. The social policies of the left that favored the United States academia were obviously true, and the proper course of action for Christians was to support liberal Christianity and left-wing politics. For the religious right, it was obvious that the prescriptions of the Religious Right were true. The religious beliefs of conservative Christians were true; therefore, it was obvious that the Christian church should support traditional Christianity and right-wing politics.

Hauerwas and Willimon believe that both approaches are profoundly mistaken and misguided. The two positions are heads and tails of the same religious coin. Both liberal and conservative Christianity are incorrect about the implications of Christianity for public life, and the actions were compromised by their pretensions to favor the secular leadership of the nation. In both cases, their error made them susceptible to manipulation by those in or seeking power. We can now see clearly that Hauerwas and Willimon were onto something.

Resident Aliens

Resident Aliens’s title catches the reader’s immediate attention and incorporates the book’s primary message. In the author’s view, Christians in America and the West need to become accustomed to being resident aliens. Christians live in our society, but they are citizens of another kingdom. [5] The biblical basis for this is the biblical notion that Abraham and the patriarchs were led to the promised land but never received that land. They wandered as resident aliens among the peoples of the land. As the author of Hebrews puts it:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from afar, admitting they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had the opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The patriarchs were aliens in the lands through which they traveled and lived. Similarly, the early church was ostracized from various aspects of Roman society and maintained its presence as “resident aliens.” They were in the Roman Empire but citizens of the Kingdom of God. This passage and others like it constitute the Biblical foundation for the proposal made in Resident Aliens.

Hauerwas and Willimon also use the phrase “colony’ to describe the church’s situation in Western culture. [6] The church is like a colony of heaven planted within the societies of the world, colonies populated by resident aliens. As the authors put it:

We hope to recover the sense that we try to live the Sermon on the Mount because this is the nature of our God, and it is our destination that we should be such people. The colony is the vessel that carries us there. It is not apart from the vessel but within this vessel that we not only know the truth but are carried along with it. [7]

In these two metaphors, “resident aliens’ and the church as a “colony” lie the book’s strengths and limitations.

Resident Aliens. Let’s take the term resident aliens first. A resident alien is a citizen of one nation who resides in another country. For example, my wife and I lived in Scotland for a short time. We resided in Scotland for an entire summer. I was still a citizen of the United States of America. I was resident in Scotland. I couldn’t vote in Scotland. I was not a member of the national health or retirement schemes. I was living in one place but a citizen of somewhere else.

It’s beguiling to think this is an adequate description of the church. But the question is raised, “To what extent is it? “I am a Christian, a church member, and a resident of Texas in the United States. I’m not completely an “alien” in any of those roles. Compelling sermons can be given to Christian audiences saying we should be resident aliens in our culture. Still, in reality, to some degree or another, the description is incomplete. In reality, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God and citizens of the United States at the same time.

In another context, I’ve pointed out that when I travel abroad, particularly in Third World countries, I am very aware that I am an American. I’m not a citizen of the country I am in, a part of their culture, or, in most cases, a full participant in the life of their churches. I am a guest. In Scotland, even though I was preaching regularly in a Scottish church, I was a resident alien. In Africa, Latin America, and the Philippines, I am even more aware of my status as a foreigner. In America, I’m a citizen and a Christian.

This is not just an academic point. It’s a point of life and ministry. It’s not that we can or should learn to be full citizens of the kingdom of God who happen to be residents of the United States. The reality is that we have an even more difficult job than being resident aliens. Western Christians must learn to be citizens of their nation and love and serve it as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

A reason why this is important has to do with its implications for our citizenship in both worlds. If I am fully a citizen of the kingdom of God and fully a citizen of the United States, then I must find a way to be loyal to both of my citizenships. I have to struggle and make decisions with loyalty to both my citizenships. As a Christian, it seems to me that the binding requirement is self-giving love. My citizenship in the United States does not eliminate my duty to act in love toward my fellow citizens—even if they’re not Christians. My citizenship in the kingdom of God demands that I love others—even if they’re my enemies.

This situation can put Christians in some difficult situations. As the life of Dietrich, Bonhoeffer illustrates, one can be a citizen of a nation whose actions and values put one in tension with the values and intentions of the kingdom of God. [8] When that happens, we have to decide what we will do. We must find a way to be loyal as best we can to both. It may even be impossible to make a wholly moral and Christian response as with Bonhoeffer. I might have to make a choice that is either contrary to the values of the kingdom, the values of the kingdom of God, or both. A good deal of the scholarship concerning Dietrich. Bonhoeffer ignores that Bonhoeffer was committing treason under German law in choosing to join the conspiracy against Hitler. He also potentially violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Bonhoeffer was very aware of his dilemma and the compromise he was making. He knew that if captured, he would be lawfully executed as a traitor. He felt he must take that action as a German and Christian. He died as a result. Even today, many people do not consider him a martyr for that reason. That’s human life as it really lived.

An implication of the duty to be fully resident in both kingdoms and bring God’s love to bear in our Christian roles is that Christian faith cannot justify my being “subversive.” This is a popular word in academia today and very popular among certain Christians, but it’s the wrong way of looking at our duties as Christians. When confronted with aspects of my society that are wrong, my duty is not to subvert that society. I must love it in such a way that it changes. That love might even require a cross. It did for Jesus. His enemies saw Jesus as subversive, but he was not. He loved his enemies enough to oppose the injustice and lack of faith that prevented them from also enjoying their status as creatures made in God’s image.

Colony. The authors also employ the metaphor of the church as a “colony” of heaven located on earth. This metaphor is also helpful but ultimately of limited utility. First of all, what a colony! The apostle Paul and others in the ancient world would have been familiar with what a colony was. For example, the nation-state of Greece had colonies in what is today part of Italy. The people there were Greek. They spoke Greek. Their social institutions were Greek. Their culture was Greek. The colony was an outpost of Greece in Sicily and southern Italy.

Now, there is a part of this metaphor that is true. The church, as it exists in any culture, is, to some degree, to be seen as a colony of the kingdom of God planted amid another culture. But it’s different. The people in my church are primarily Americans, but we have a few members and regular attendees from elsewhere in the world. We are all Texans, the number of them or imports from the northern part of the United States in California. We live in America, in Texas, and San Antonio. We are subject to the laws of each of these jurisdictions. We participate in the culture of our home. We are also gathered as a colony of heaven. We are that, but we are more. We are the family of God, the household of God, and the people of God, also Biblical metaphors that point to the full reality of the church.

Conclusion

In my former church, I had a friend who went to college with Willimon and often spoke admiringly of him as a person and thinker. While at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, I got to hear Stanley Hauerwas in person for some reason. As mentioned, Hauerwas’s work was and is crucial for me as a pastor and thinker. They are two great leaders of the Wesleyan tradition with an impact on many Christian groups. I would not want any of my little criticism to indicate that their insights have not taught and continue to teach me. They do. Before the series is over, I will have the opportunity to talk about what I call “just war pacifism.” In thinking about Hauerwas’s defense of pacifism and pondering the example of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and others, I began to see the dangers of an unmodified form of just war theory. (I am very confident that Hauerwas would never agree with my conclusions and would mount a devastating critique of my ideas! That is part of my reluctance to share my thoughts. The other is the comments of a young philosopher with whom I talked about the idea years ago.)

In the meantime, Resident Aliens is a wonderful and informative book that all pastors and laypersons should read in considering their ideas about faith and politics.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon, Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983),

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and After Christendom?: How the Church is to Behave is Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation are Bad Ideas (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991)

[4] France is often used as a poster child for this phenomenon. France entered the 20th Century as a secular state with a strong Christian, primarily Catholic presence. Since World War II, it has become an almost militant secular state with a limited Christian presence. Recently, the government has taken measures to secure its “secularity” because of the enormous Muslim population, a population that is growing much faster than the secular French population. It has also suffered social unrest as a result of the activities of more radical Muslim groups.

[5] Resident Aliens, at 49.

[6] Id, at 50.

[7] Id, at 91.

[8] Hauerwas and Willimon use Bonhoeffer as an example, and Hauerwas has written on Bonhoeffer. Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Non-Violence (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day “A Longing for Justice”

When I was in undergraduate school, I took a class in Political Philosophy. We discussed a big question: “Is there really any such thing as justice?” Interestingly, Many people think power is the only thing that really exists. Later, in law school, I trained to be an officer of the court system, which theoretically seeks justice. Interestingly, we never had a single discussion about the subject. We were preparing to win cases and assumed that justice would happen if we all played by the Rules of Civil Procedure. Every so often throughout the years, I would wonder, “Is there anything called ‘justice,’ or is justice the name we give to the opinions of whoever wins in a social or legal conflict?”

This Christmas, our mediations have centered around Isaiah and the verses of a chosen Christmas Carol. Without a doubt, my favorite carol is “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written during the American Civil War, a time that bears some resemblance to our own. Here are the Poet Laruate’s lyrics:

I heard the bells on Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,/ There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”

I thought how, as the day had come,/The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
[1]

The Carol speaks for many of us this Christmas Season.

Our Innate Sense of Justice

When Kathy and I had children, the subject of justice never came up so long as we had one child, the apple of our eyes and the eyes of her grandparents. Our lucky first child got pretty much whatever she wanted. Then came our second child, and when they got old enough, we would hear one or the other claim, “That is not fair. _____ got more than I did.” By the time we had four children, we heard this complaint a lot. For a time, we tried to be fair about everything, but no matter what we did, someone would think that someone else got a better present, a bigger room, or whatever.

At some point, every parent has experienced the claim that what they are doing is unfair. What interests me about the claim is not whether it is true or false but the fact that children and adults seem to have a kind of natural idea of justice and fairness, and we complain when we are not treated as we believe we deserve or when we feel that we have not received what we deserve. In other words, the idea of justice seems to be an innate part of human nature.

The Jewish People and Injustice

Humans do not necessarily agree about what justice is, but we long for justice. We want ourselves, our people, our family, our religion, and our friends to be treated fairly. People have always had such a longing. On the other hand, injustice is a fact of human existence. The Jews had a heightened sense of injustice. The history of the Jewish people is filled with instances of great injustice. After being invited to enter Egypt, they were enslaved for over 400 years. After they escaped that captivity, they were frequently attacked by neighboring tribes and nations. After the kingdom of David was divided, the ten northern tribes were subjected to dispersion and terrible treatment by the Assyrians. After Judea was captured, it was subjected to captivity by the Babylonians. The Greeks and Romans mistreated the Jews. Throughout history, anti-Semitism has been a terrible problem. The Jews have been mistreated in the 20th century, especially in Germany under Hitler. Today, we see the reemergence of anti-Semitism in the West, even in our own country.

Isaiah and the Just King

The prophet Isaiah longed for a just society. One central theme of Isaiah is the theme of justice and injustice. Isaiah believed that the punishment of God was coming upon Judah partially because of social injustice (See Isaiah 1:21 and 59:4-8). Repeatedly, the prophet speaks of the injustice of Jewish society. Here is a vision from Isaiah:

See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The fearful heart will know and understand, and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty, and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just. But the noble make noble plans, and by noble deeds, they stand (Isaiah 32:1-8).

A Cold and Unjust World.

Several years ago, the Christmas theme came from movies made from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. [2] In the first book, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie are magically transported into the world of Narnia. It turns out that Narnia is ruled by an evil witch who has arranged for Narnia to be frozen in winter. It is always winter and never spring, and Christmas never comes. The witch is cruel and powerful, and her magic wand immediately freezes everyone who opposes her. There is no justice in Narnia.

Of course, Narnia is meant to be a magical rendition of the Planet Earth. Just as Narnia is under the rule of the White Witch, our world is often under the domination of evil rulers, including that spiritual reality or person we sometimes call “Satan.” Just as the White Witch has made Narnia a cold place, our world is not as intended. Just as there is no justice in Narnia, there is a lot of injustice in our world. There is social injustice, racial injustice, prejudice against all sorts of people, including Christians and Jews, laws that discriminate, judges that do not do justice, and a host of other kinds of injustices. We  easily join the poet in saying, “there is no peace on earth.” None of this makes God happy.

The same thing was true in the time of Isaiah. Here is how he describes his day and time:

No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments; they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue malicious schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths (Isaiah 59:4-8).

The situation, as Isaiah saw it, was just as complex as the situation we sometimes see around us. And, just as our own prophets foresee trouble if we do not change our national ways, Isaiah predicted suffering if the Jews did not change their national behavior. Sin, it seems, has consequences—something we sometimes forget.

The World We Long For.

In the Narnia books, the true King of Narnia, Aslan—a Christ figure—is coming. One indication that Aslan is coming is that the long Narnia winter is ending, and Spring is finally coming. Even Santa Claus appears to give the children gifts before Spring arrives. In Isaiah, the prophet also uses an image of nature being changed because of what the Messiah will do when he comes as a symbol of the spiritual healing of the land of his people. In Isaiah 11, after speaking of the supernatural justice of the expected Anointed One, the prophet has the following vision:

Righteousness will be his belt, and faithfulness will be the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11: 5-9).

The idea is that nature is impacted by justice and injustice. Human beings and human life are changed for the better when we seek justice and live peacefully with others. [3]

Whether or not we visualize the future in poetic terms, we all long for a just world and believe that a just and peaceful world would be happier than the world we live in. Unfortunately, almost all of us also desire our injustice to remain in that world. We want the injustice that impacts us removed, but we do not feel so strongly about the injustice we inflict on others. God will not have it this way. God wants to get rid of all injustice, the injustice of the rich and the poor, of the powerful and the powerless, of the insiders and the outsiders. God desires a perfectly just world.

The Work We Do in the Meantime.

Of course, we will not have a perfect world, at least not for the foreseeable future. This world will always be imperfect. Just as the Bible gives us a humanly unreachable standard for leadership, the Bible also gives us an unattainable standard for justice. We are not God, and we are not gods and goddesses. Therefore, we will never have a perfectly just world or society on this earth. This does not mean we should not work towards one.

Not so many years ago, Kathy and I had the opportunity to meet the singer Sarah Groves. She sang for a retreat we were on. I learned that she donates a bit of her time to an organization called “International Justice Mission” or “IJM.” IJM is an international justice mission dedicated to eradicating slavery worldwide. We do not like to think about it, but there are more slaves today than ever before in history. In particular, many women are essentially enslaved in the prostitution industry. Some of these women are kidnapped, drugged, and sold into the trade. In poorer countries, families may sell one member into slavery to provide for the rest of the family. IJM attempts to expose, halt, and assist in the prosecution of this kind of slavery.

One of our elders and a few others visited Thailand to visit a mission for such women. They had a week or so of helping and learning about this serious problem. Kathy has been involved with Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico. At least some girls Casa Mami helps would otherwise be on the streets of Reynosa and other cities. We help in a lot of ways.

I do not want to continue to go on and on with examples. Instead, I want to point out some things we can all do to bring peace and justice into the world as we await the time in which God will act to bring justice in the form of  a “New Heaven and New Earth.” Each of us, in our hearts, knows of some area in which there is an injustice that we would like to overcome or help others to overcome. None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Here are some ideas:

  • Invite the Risen Lord into the situation. We can pray that God will intervene and that God’s wisdom and love will come into situations of injustice.
  • Resist the temptation to defeatism and negativity. It is easy to complain. It is hard to do something positive.
  • Study the Bible and the specific injustice you are interested in. Gaining a Godly perspective and a worldly understanding is a part of learning to overcome injustice.
  • Act. A true disciple of Christ worships God, grows in Christ-likeness, and serves others as three pegs of the Christian life. Doing something is important.
  • Be patient. No problem, especially no serious one, is quickly or painlessly overcome. We must hang in there.

It is a strength of Christianity that we look forward to God’s help overcoming injustice. We need to hold onto our need for God’s help. Nevertheless, we cannot give up on working for justice because that is what God would have us do in the meantime.

The One Hope We Have.

We cannot be entirely sure of what justice is in this world. We also cannot know completely that our actions are bringing about justice. Often, in liberal churches, sight is lost of the fact that we cannot bring the Kingdom of God upon the earth solely by our actions. Often, in conservative churches, we forget that God has created his church upon the earth to bring a foreshadowing of the kingdom until Christ returns.

The cross is a great reminder that God suffers injustice with everyone who suffers injustice. Christ was arrested unjustly, tried unjustly, and crucified unjustly. God knows and understands the reality and power of injustice. The cross is where the mercy and justice of God meet—and it is a reminder that God is with us when we suffer injustice. The resurrection is a reminder that God will ultimately win over injustice.

Christmas is our reminder that the King has come. Winter may not be over, and it may get colder before Spring, but spring is coming.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” ends with this Word of hope:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,/ For Christ is here; His Spirit near/ Brings peace on earth, goodwill to men.” [4]

 

This is my final post of 2023. I hope that 2024 will bring an end to this long series of posts on Justice. For whatever it is worth, I also hope that 2024 produces the sequel to Marshland. Merry Christmas Season and a very Happy New Year!

Copyright 2024, G.  Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (I864). This blog is not original, but is based on two sermons I preached at Christmas in my former Church. I am a great fan of the Casting Crowns Version of this hymn, which we sang every year!

[2] The Chronicles of Narnia are published by Harper Trophy, A Division of Harper Collins, New York, New York. The first book in the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

[3] I have more than once noted in the past that we modern people too often discount and fail to recognize the impact of sin on the world we inhabit and its consequences, even upon those with whom we have no direct impact. Just as in the physical world, there can be “spooky action at a distance” in the subatomic world, in the macro world, I am convinced that spiritual realities “act at a distance.” I have seen the phenomena with my own eyes.

[4] “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” previously cited.

Peaceful Light in Gathering Darkness

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). There is a paradox in the life of faith. We believe that through faith in Christ, we can have a relationship with God, who dwells in light inaccessible and whose wisdom transcends any human wisdom. Christ embodied this divine light. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This Sunday/Christmas Eve, we celebrate the Great Light that will ultimately illuminate and renew our world, undoing the darkness of war, conflict, power politics, and human degradation and bringing a kingdom of peace. The light has come. We now await its victory.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery that the love of God was so great that he bridged the gap between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, between the demands of love and law, and became one of us so that we might be restored and become like him. Therefore, this Sunday, as Christians gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, we can join with Christians all over the world to sing:

O little town of Bethlehem,/ How still we see thee lie!/Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by;/ Yet in the dark street shineth/ The Everlasting Light; /The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight. [1]

In the dark streets of our cities, wherever Christ is present, the Everlasting Light shines.

Walking in Darkness

Occasionally, humans all feel as if we are walking in a great darkness separated from the True Light of God’s Presence. Some of us think that way much of the time. Our human plans are unfulfilled and seemingly blocked. Our well-meaning prayers are unanswered. Our most important relationships are troubled. Our employment is uncertain. Our nation and the prosperity and freedoms we take for granted are at risk. Our character flaws seem impossible to overcome. In such situations, we can quickly feel overwhelmed. Our sin and selfishness seem inescapable and devastating to our hopes and dreams.

Recognizing Darkness

The prophet Isaiah foretold that those who walk in darkness will see a great light. He does not say, “Those who are already in the light will see a light.” He does not say, “Those who are sure they do not need any light will see a great light.” It says, “Those who walk in darkness, who understand their condition, will see a great light” (Isaiah 9:1-2). Light is reserved for those who recognize and are tired of darkness.

When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” physically or symbolically, the assurance that there is a God of Mercy and Love who cares for us makes an incredible difference. The blessings of God may be delayed. The salvation of God may be impossible to predict humanly. The darkness may seem impenetrable. However, the Creating and Renewing God, who can do anything, is still there.

The True Light

How can we human beings know this? There is more than one reason, but the reason we celebrate at Christmas is this: Because God sent his one and only Son into the world, we can know that the Divine Presence is never far from us in steadfast and self-giving love, even if we cannot sense its reality at the moment. Right at the beginning of his gospel, John makes this point when he tells his readers that the true light has come:

 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:9-11).

Jesus himself refers to himself as the true light that can dispel the spiritual darkness of the human race. In John 9, after Jesus heals a man blind from birth. In explaining the healing, he declares, While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). There is no physical, emotional, or spiritual darkness that this true light cannot enlighten.

All human beings are strange conglomerations of darkness and light, good and evil, love and indifference, justice and injustice, diligence and laziness, and the like. We are all imperfect creatures, made in the image of God but in whom that image has been defaced to some degree. Nevertheless, God loves us and desires for us to be restored to the original image placed within every one of us. Each Christmas Eve, we celebrate the entrance of that true life into the world in human form.

The Peace that Passes Understanding

Perhaps this Christmas Season, the most challenging part of “O Little Town of Bethlehem for us to accept is the third verse, which reads:

For Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above,/while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love./O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, /and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

Jesus warns us that his peace is not the peace we might expect. In John 14, he tells his disciples:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:7). He would not have warned his disciples not to be troubled or afraid if he had not known that the peace he offers would leave them plenty of room reason to fear. There would be opposition, persecution, and even death. There would be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6). There would be dishonesty, corruption, and evil plots.

When we light the Candle of Peace this particular Christmas Eve, we can take heart that the peace we receive cannot be broken by terrorists or international intrigue. It is a peace that far transcends any human peace. It is not a peace that requires armies or agencies or great bureaucracies. It is a peace that requires only a heart open to a tiny baby born in an obscure village at the edge of a great empire. It requires ears to hear in the cry of that baby the Wisdom of the Ages incarnate. It needs the eyes to see the True Light that enlightens all who receive him.

Unless I am very mistaken, 2024 will be a difficult year. Fortunately, the peace and happiness God promises is not dependent on human circumstances but on the steadfast love of God.

Merry Christmas!

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved!

[1] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” music by Peter Christian Lutkin. (Chicago, IL: C. F. Summy Co., 1867).

Joy in a Joyless World

Yesterday, in many churches, the congregation celebrated the third Sunday in Advent and lit what they called “The Candle of Joy.” In just a few days, Christians worldwide will gather to celebrate the birth of Christ. Many congregations will sing “Joy to the World,” the first verse of which reads as follows:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King; Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing, And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing. [1]

“Joy to the World” celebrates in song the birth of the savior of the world (v. 2), who will conquer the power of sin and death (v. 3) and rule the world with truth and grace (v. 4). If this is true, then indeed not just Christians but everyone should sing, “Joy to the world! the Savior reigns!” The world of political manipulation., violence, war, and dearth is over. A new kingdom has begun its entry into the world. Unfortunately, the world does not recognize the birth of this Savior of Love, the Prince of Peace, by whom, in the act of Divine love, provision was made for the undoing of sin, death, and the consequences of human finitude, selfishness, and evil.

Joy to the World

The hymn “Joy to the World” comes from a verse in Psalm 95, which happened to be my meditation psalm this morning:

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our Salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. The Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land (Psalm 95:1-5).

The meditation for this week is all about joy. Joy involves happiness, but it is more than mere “happiness.” Joy is an excellence of achievement, success, or well-being. It is not just being healthy and whole but the joyous recognition that we have achieved health and wholeness. Joy is a state of peace recognized by the one experiencing it as something final and absolute. (at least for the moment) Joy is the recognition of the reality of the Shalom God intends for the whole world, that state of perfect justice, beauty, and health for which all human beings long.

This particular Christmas, it may be difficult to feel joy for many people, myself included. In just a few weeks, I will turn 73 years old. I can feel the increasing weakness and fragility of an aging physical body. The antics of our government and prominent educational institutions, the ballooning indebtedness of our society, and evident moral and aesthetic decay are not reasons for joy. The increasing manipulativeness of elites signals difficult times ahead. The wars in the Middle East and Ukraine are not reasons for joy nor is the increasing antisemitism of Western societies. [2]

The emergence of a new round of antisemitism and opposition to almost any religious values reminds me of the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak out for me. [3]

I am afraid we live in a time similar to the time of Martin Niemöller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a time to speak up, hoping that one day we can experience the joy of good success in a noble endeavor.

The Apostle Paul also lived in a day and time when it was challenging to sing “Joy to the World,” yet he encouraged his churches to experience the joy of Christ. In First Thessalonians, after his rejection and mistreatment there, he writes, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 16-18). In Philippians, Paul writes from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). Over and over again, Paul speaks of the importance of Christian joy in his letters. Near the beginning of his ministry in 1 Thessalonians, he speaks of joy, and near the end in prison in Rome, he speaks of joy. He is not, however, speaking of merely human joy.

In his letter, James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). This verse reveals to us that Christian joy is not a circumstantial joy. It is not a joy that comes and goes with feelings of health or disease, success or failure, affluence or poverty, peace or war.  Christian is the joy of faith that comes from believing and living based on the promises of God.

In the Old Testament, the symbol of the kind of joy based on God’s faithfulness to his promises is found in many places. One of my favorites is found in Isaiah 51:

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you;
for Abraham was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. You see, the Lord comforts his people; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like the Garden of Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song” (Isaiah 51:1-3).

Isaiah 51:11 goes on to conclude with the words of one of my favorite praise chorus from my younger years:

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away (Isaiah 51:11).

Christian joy is a joy based upon the promises of a faithful God. It is faith that at the end of the Abrahamic journey of faith, there will be joy as God’s kingdom is finally a reality in our lives and in the lives of those we love, indeed in the lives of all people of whatever race, color, or creed.

The Faulty Vision of Modernity

A contrary vision has captured our sad and dark world—a vision of a perfect earthly kingdom created through technology, bureaucracy, and the ideas of an intellectual and material elite. This elite and its followers no longer hear the muffled cry of a baby born in a manger in an obscure village in Palestine 2000 years ago, long before the modern world. A kind of spiritual deafness has engulfed our world. Sometimes it engulfs me as well.

The followers of this new ideology, left and right, do not listen to hear the voice of angels. They want to hear the cry of the scion of a wealthy and influential family in London, Moscow, Peking, Pretoria, Riyad, Tehran, Tokyo, Washington, or some other capital city. They want the advice of the great universities of the West, almost all formed by devout Christians. They want the development of a new and greater technology that will create their vision of a perfect world—at least for them. They ultimately and inevitably want to hear the cry of an Alexander the Great, not an obscure baby born to be a Suffering Servant, despised and rejected by most of the human race (Isaiah 53:3).

The reasons for the rejection of Christ by Western elites are complex. The development of Newtonian physics and modern technology gave birth to the dream of a world run by human scientific reason where everything could be rationally organized according by human scientific and technological wisdom. For 300 years, this was the dream of most intellectuals. The dissenting voices of Romantics were heard, only to eventually produce the figure of Nietzsche and the glorification of human will, the Will to Power. This, in turn, created the intellectual foundation for another Alexander the Great. This figure had gone by many names: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol—name your poison. The vision cast by the Enlightenment only began to decay when the reality dawned on a few that no such paradise was being created either in the capitalist West or the Communist East. Today, there are few true believers, but many true users of the Gospel of Power and Greed.

The New Vision

Interestingly, for over a century now, we have known that the picture of the world as nothing but matter and force is not an accurate picture of reality. Reality is much more like an organism than it is like a machine. We live in a universe of unimaginable rationality and universal relationality. It is a world in which not a sparrow falls from the sky without consequence. It is a world in which every act of love or hate is felt not just somewhere but everywhere It is a world where meaning can be found at every level of reality, from basic particles to the complexities of human civilizations.

There is plenty of room in this new vision of reality for freedom, love, grace, and other things values. This new world vision has space for real truth, justice, beauty, and goodness. There is also room for God and a God who rules in self-giving love and grace to restore his troubled creation. In this new vision of reality there is plenty of room for wisdom and love, and a savior that rules with grace and peace, if only people will listen to the voice of angels and the announcement of the kingdom. Angels can sing in this new world.

This vision means that Christians will not gather this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sing “Joy to the World” in vain nor as deluded participants in a dead and dying religion. Instead they gather as participants in a “New Heaven and New Earth,” looking forward to that day in which the world will freely recognize its self-centered and destructive ways and bow in humility before the power of Divine Love, of a love that never commands or demands but offers itself for the beloved. It is true, you see, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”(John 3:16). He gave. That is why we give gifts on Christmas Day. God gave us his Beloved Son, and so we give human gifts in response to that love.

The tens of thousands of congregations worldwide that will gather this Christmas Day, large and small, are what Paul called the “First Fruits” of the gift of Christ (I Corinthians 15:20-23).  Christians of every age are those who, by grace, are called to become children of God in order to proclaim and live out the birth of the Kingdom of Christ in the world—not an earthly kingdom of kings, presidents, prime ministers, chairpersons, and the like, with armies and great bureaucracies to enforce their decrees, but a heavenly kingdom of love most graciously offered and given without any demand of a response.

We can sing “Joy to the World” this and every Christmas because the One Who Was, Is, and Will Be, the Alpha and Omega, the Bright and Morning Star, has been born into the world. His kingdom has begun and he does rule, and will rule the earth in grace and truth despite what we fallen human creatures make of his creation. We can sing “Joy to the World” because this obscure rabbi and traveling teacher and healer is the Rock of our Salvation, a deliverance he enacted for us in human history and continues quietly and in love to work out in history, not just for a few but for all people and the entirety of his creation.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs,

All Rights Reserved

[1] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719).

[2] I want to be sure that it is understood that all racism and prejudice against people for reasons of color, creed, political views, race or otherwise is contrary to the vision of Christ and the nature of the God of Love..

[3] Martin Niemöller, First They Came…”  (downloaded from various sources December 18, 2023). This quote has many different versions because it came from various oral presentations. I have used the most inclusive version I could find.

The Prince of Peace in a World of War

This past Sunday, we lit the Candle of Peace, and in our Sunday school class we read these words:

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end
(Isaiah 9:2-7).

As we read these verses, young men and women were dying on battlefields in Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Ukraine, among other places. The reading reminded us that the world is not as we wish it would be. At our Church and another we visited yesterday, there were Christmas pageants, and we were blessed to have a daughter and two of our grandchildren with us last week. Looking at the children, it is impossible not to remember that there are children all over the world suffering in places of war, oppression, disease, and death. How is it possible to take comfort from these verses in such a world?

Jesus was a Realist

When Jesus came, he recognized that the power of violence was great. He also realized that the violence and war of our world do not come from conditions outside of the human soul but from a deep disease within the human soul. It is not a disease that is easily curable. One of Jesus’s most depressing sayings is found in Matthew 25:

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt. 25:6-13).

Jesus was under no illusions. Our world is rife with the curse of violence and war.

The cure, according to the New Testament, involves the Cross. The Prince of Peace had to be a person of peace in a violent world right up to the end. The cure was not for the Prince of Peace to be a person of peace for a little while and then raise an army to defeat the Romans. The cure was to forgo the temptation of an earthly kingdom won by conquest and create another kingdom, a kingdom of Peace, in which the Prince of Peace rules within the boundaries of a broken and violent world. Jesus was a realist. He knew the end of wars, and rumors of battles could not be one last war.

A World of Violence

If nothing else, the past few years should have convinced all of us that we live in a world of war and violence. Immediately after the First World War, the “War to End All Wars,” the world experienced the Great Depression, the harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious allies, the emergence of Naziism, and finally, the Second World War. Then, China began to emerge and fought a proxy war in Korea, the Korean War. I was born during the Korean War. By the end of the 1950s, we were involved in the Vietnam War. When the Vietnam War ended, the Cold War finally ended, and one commentator unwisely proclaimed, “The End of History.” Radical Islam emerged as a reaction against Western ideas, and the United States was soon caught up in two Middle East Wars. We and the Europeans are involved in a War in the Ukraine against Russian expansionism, and the War in Gaza has emerged in the latest confrontation with radical, terroristic Islam. Some people feel that a war with Iran is inevitable. In other words, we are experiencing exactly what Jesus predicted, “Wars and Rumors of Wars.”

The Prince and People of Peace in a Violent World

Jesus speaks in two ways concerning the Kingdom of God he came to institute. Jesus does say that the Kingdom of God is within us.  “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). It is easy to think that the Kingdom is something spiritual. That is not what Jesus meant. The “within you” is plural and sometimes translated as “in the midst of you.” The Kingdom of God is both an internal thing and a communal thing. The people of God are the Kingdom of God working within history to exemplify the character of the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace as a body. We might say, “The Kingdom of God begins at home!” Jesus is present in our violent world wherever the people of God proclaim and live out the Gospel of Peace.

Stanley Hauerwas, in his book The Peaceable Kingdom, puts it this way:

…Jesus’s life is integral to the meaning, content, and possibility of the kingdom. For the announcement of the reality of this kingdom, of the possibility of living, a life of forgiveness and peace with one’s enemies, is based on our confidence that the kingdom has become a reality through the life and work of this man, Jesus of Nazareth. His life is the life of the end – this is the way the world is meant to be –and thus those who follow him become a people of the last times the people of the new age. [1]

Hauerwas constantly reminds his readers that this is the fundamental aspect of Christian ethics: the building of a community of character in which the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the foundation of life.

The Prince of Peace and a False Eschatology

Sometimes, Christians speak of Jesus coming once as the Lamb of God but will come again at the end of history as a conquering hero. This is a false and dangerous eschatology. God is the same: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Sometimes, this view is expressed as based on Revelation, which reads as follows:

Then I saw Heaven wide open, and before my eyes appeared a white horse, whose rider is called faithful and true, for his judgment and his warfare are just. His eyes are a flame of fire and there are many diadems upon his head. There is a name written upon him, known only to himself. He is dressed in a cloak dipped in blood, and the name by which he is known is the Word of God. The armies of Heaven follow him, riding upon white horses and clad in white and spotless linen. Out of his mouth, there comes a sharp sword with which to strike the nations. ‘He will rule them with a rod of iron,’ and alone he will tread the winepress of the furious wrath of God the Almighty. Written upon his cloak and upon his thigh is the name, KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS(Revelation 19:11-16, Phillips).

Some see in this verse a bloodthirsty Jesus now come to defeat the enemies of God in a battle just like all the battles that mar human history.

Note, however, the phrase “Out of his mouth there comes a sharp sword with which to strike the nations” (Revelation 19:15). No ancient warrior put a sword in their mouth to fight an enemy any more than a modern soldier would put an AK-47 or M-16 in their mouth during combat. The sword is the sword of the Spirit, the sword of the Gospel of Peace. In other words, the God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow can be counted on to defeat his enemies with Truth and Love within and at the end of history. The robe the victorious Christ wears is already stained in his blood, the blood he shed on the cross for the world’s sins, before the final battle even begins. [2] The only weapon the Risen Christ needs to defeat his enemies is the Gospel of peace [3] We Christians do not need to sharpen our physical swords in preparation for the last day. We need only live a life reflecting the wisdom and love of Christ.

Back to Our Broken World

Where does all this leave us? We stand in precisely the same position as did Isaiah and John in Revelation: We live as a people of peace, who seek a world of shalom, where justice and righteousness reign (Isaiah 9:7), the enemies of human flourishing have been defeated, and the King of King rules (Revelation 19:16). However, we should not and cannot delude ourselves. We are not in such a time. The battle is not over today. We are neither in Heaven nor the Heavenly City. We are here on earth in the midst of human history. There is no escape. There is only the call to “Follow me.”

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), 85. This is one of the finest books on Christian ethics ever written. While I cannot bring myself to subscribe entirely to his view, all Christians should hope his view is correct. As for me, Like Walter Wink, I find myself”not a very “nonviolent person” Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of Domination (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 279). I do not regard this as a virtue.

[2] Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993, 2006), 91).

[3] C. B. Baird,  The Revelation of St John the Divine (New York, Harper & Row, 1966), 245,

No One Likes Waiting

This week is sometimes called the “Week of Anticipation,” and the candle in an Advent wreath is the “Candle of Anticipation.” Anticipation is, unfortunately, another word for “Waiting.” We like anticipation. We dislike waiting for what we anticipate.

The last book of the Old Testament ends with the following:

Remember the teaching of Moses, my servant, and those laws and rules I gave to him on Mount Sinai for all the Israelites. In any case, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before that great and terrifying day of the Lord’s judgment. Elijah will help parents love their children and children love their parents. Otherwise, I will come and put a curse on the land (Malachi 4:4-6, NIV).

The timeline goes something like this: Malachi was written somewhere around 400 years before the birth of Christ, and the coming of John the Baptist, whom Jesus states was the fulfillment of the promise that there would come a prophet like Elijah. In the meantime, the Jews were to observe the law and wait patiently for the Messiah to come and an end to their suffering and subservience to foreign powers. The Jewish people anticipated the Messiah but disliked the waiting and the events of the time between the prophecy and its fulfillment.

400 Years of Waiting

During those 400 years, Israel was ruled by Persia, Greece (Alexander the Great), and Rome. There were events of importance during those years, such as revolts and attempts by Israel to free themselves from captivity. It is possible that parts of Daniel were either written during that time or refer to events of that time, but the days of the Old Testament prophets were at an end. In particular,  no great wonder-working reincarnation of  Elijah appeared  (I Kings 17-19).

What were God’s people to do in the meantime? They were asked to continue to be faithful to the covenant God had made with them when he delivered them from captivity in Egypt, pray, and obey the commandments and teachings God had given them.

The Problem with Waiting

I don’t think very many people enjoy waiting. Today, Kathy and I went Christmas shopping. I anticipated purchasing her a Christmas present. Unfortunately, for part of the time, I waited while Kathy picked out a perfume. It turns out that picking out perfume is not as straightforward or as simple as I thought. It’s not like buying a carton of milk. You have to try on several perfumes. You have to try on many different perfumes from, in our case, five different stores. Then, you must walk around to see if you still like the perfume after it dries. One lovely lady explained to me that she always had to walk around for some time to see if the perfume gave her a headache!

Frankly, shopping for perfume gives me a headache. My headache, caused by a couple of hours’ delay, does not begin to approach the problem of waiting 400 years. I have trouble maintaining my faith when the wait is in the days or weeks, and maybe a year or two—400 years seems impossible. Perhaps you are like me.

Unfortunately, we live in an age that lacks patience. We want what we want, and we want it right now. God, on the other hand, is very, very, very patient. For God, “a thousand years is like an evening gone” (Psalm 90:4). That makes 400 years a blink of an eye.

 If modern science is correct, God created the universe we inhabit and the human race over billions of years—13.7 billion years, to be exact. Scientists tell us that most people, myself included, have difficulty understanding the vision of science in this area because we simply cannot imagine a time scale that is billions of years long. A God who can work on that kind of timeline is a God we can hardly imagine. A God who works on a 13.7-year timeline just to get you and me born and raised is a patient God who works his purposes slowly, patiently, wisely, and lovingly, no matter the time required to accomplish his will and purpose.

It is easy to see that a God with a few billion years of patience does not count time in quite the same way we do. This may not seem like good news, but it is. For one thing, God’s patience means that God does not get discouraged. When things don’t exactly go as he wishes, like when humans fell in the Garden and sin entered the world, God patiently sets things right. As we know the story, it began with one man and woman (Abraham and Sarah) and continued through that one family for generations until one Christmas night, a baby was born in Bethlehem in Judea—a spec on the Roman map and not even a spec when one considers the infinite size of the universe.

Forgiveness and Fulfillment

Today’s text in my devotional guide was Isaiah 40:

Comfort my people and console them, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim that her time of servitude is over and her guilt has been expiated. Indeed, she has received double punishment from the Lord’s hand for all her sins (Isaiah 40:1-3).

The story the Old Testament tells ends with Israel, having been disobedient to God, and lost its promised land, returning to slavery, this time in Babylon. From the Babylonian captivity forward, Israel was subservient to Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Chronicler describes the situation and its causes as follows:

The Lord, the God of their ancestors, unceasingly sent them word through his messengers because he had compassion for his people and dwelling place. However, they continued to ridicule the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so fierce that there was no remedy. Therefore, the Lord God brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men with the sword in the sanctuary and spared neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the feeble. God gave them all into his power (2 Chronicles 36:15-17).

Following the Babylonian Conquest around 587 B.C., the Jewish people served seventy years in captivity until Cyrus the Great sent a contingent home. That is the event celebrated in Isaiah 40:1-3). Although a remnant returned home, they were still under the rule of the Medo-Persians, Greece, and Rome.

The End of Waiting

When Jesus came nearly 500 years later, they were under Roman rule and waiting. Then, a baby was suddenly born, and about 30 years later, the ministry of Jesus and his death and resurrection unfolded. Mark describes the fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of Elijah with these words:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'”

Hence, John the Baptist appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People from the entire Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to him, and as they confessed their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River(Mark 1:1-5).

Of course, not everyone accepted John as the return of Elijah; after all, it did not happen in quite the way we might anticipate—perhaps descending from the clouds of heaven in a whirlwind (3 Kings 2:11-12) or riding a “Chariot of Fire” (2 Kings 6:8-23). John denied that he was the reincarnation of Elijah (John 1:21, 25). Jesus clarified the matter, stating that it was prophesied that Elijah must come first and, for those who have faith, Elijah had indeed returned in the person of John the Baptist, saying, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands” (Matthew 17:11-13).

As is often the case, people could not understand that John fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy spiritually, not literally. This is an error we must avoid in our day. It is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.” It is always a mistake to take too literally what God intends we take spiritually.

Conclusion

Jesus reminds us that we will have to wait for the coming of the Messiah and gives us instructions concerning what to do and how to behave while waiting. He wants us to use our time, talents, money, and energy to bring into existence some slight evidence of the kingdom of God within our time in human history. He tells us that we are like stewards whose principal has gone on a long trip, leaving us in charge. Because of the delay, we may doubt that he will come for an accounting, but he will (Matthew 25:14-30).

We are no different than the ancient Jews. We are called to wait for the return of Christ just like a small child waits for Christmas Day to arrive. Like a child, we may be impatient. Like a child, the delay will teach us patience. We need our annual Advent journey to remind us that waiting is part of the life of faith and ultimately good for the soul.

The King of Kings is no Ordinary King

This Sunday is “Christ the King Sunday,” the last Sunday of what liturgical churches call “Ordinary Time” or the “Season of Pentecost.” It is also the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday, these churches will celebrate the beginning of Advent, the annual celebration of the coming of Christ. The year ends with an affirmation that the one whose birth we celebrate about a month from now was, in fact, the king of kings, the king of the universe, the Lord of Lords, the power above all other powers, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The Reformed churches will mostly sing “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” which begins:

Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless king through all eternity.
[1]

The hymn takes two passages from Revelation and puts them together. On his throne in heaven sits the Great King, who is worthy of all praise, and Christ, the son of God, having defeated death on the cross, is the king of kings (Rev. 4:2). Not everyone in the modern world believes this is a good or holy text, but it would seem that God is taking the role of the ultimate warrior king. A king that will defeat all the enemies of his people. The imagery of Revelation is often war-like, which can hide that the text is not about an earthly war. John knew better than that. He had seen Christ on the cross. He knew the love of God shown on the cross. He also knew of Rome and its kings and lords.

The King of Kings as Lamb of God

To understand what it means to speak of Christ as the “King of kings” and “Lord of lords,” we must begin with a text from Revelation not quoted in the hymn. The scene is as follows: Christ is on his heavenly throne (v. 2). Around the throne are twenty-four elders sitting on thrones representing the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament and the twelve apostles in the New Testament (v. 4). Before the throne, are seven torches of fire symbolizing the seven spirits of God (v. 5).

This is not any earthly throne. It is a symbolic throne that reveals something about God outside of time and eternity. For as those who stand around the throne sit before it and worship the Lord God Almighty, who was and is, and is to come (v. 8), John, perhaps, troubled by the oppression of the church by the Roman Empire, sees a scroll upon which the history of the world and its future is written (5:1). There is no one worthy to open that scroll and break the ski seal (v. 3).

Then John is told to look again at the throne. There, he sees “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” on the throne (v. 5). He then looks again and sees the lamb of God as though it had been slain (v. 6). This is no ordinary lamb.  It is a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, an eternally powerful and wise lamb (v. 6).

Then, suddenly, all of those gathered around the throne begin to sing, and this is what they sing:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (v. 9-10).

Then John looks and hears the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircle the throne and the living creatures and the elders and are crying out in a loud voice (v. 11):

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (v. 12).

Then John hears every creature in heaven and on saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation v. 13).

What Kind of King is This?

From the beginning, one of the biggest problems the Jewish people had with the Messiah was the fact that the Messiah was supposed to be a certain kind of leader. He was to be the true son of David, the lion of Judah, the liberator of his people, the savior of Israel. He was not supposed to be a traveling rabbi who annoyed the governing class and ended up dying on a cross. Nevertheless, the apostles make just that proclamation almost immediately after the resurrection (Acts 3:14-18).  It had never been the intention of God to give the people of Israel a military Messiah. Instead, the prophets of the Old Testament indicated that he would be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, a person whose life was given for the sins of others (Isaiah 53). They saw in Jesus the fulfillment of those prophecies.

John knew all this. In 1 John, we learn that Jesus the Messiah is a Messiah of love. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16). The love of God is not the love of a particular people or race. It is a love that gives itself to all human beings—even those who reject him. As Paul put it: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8). The love of God is not a love reserved for just a few, for God intended in Christ to save everyone (I Timothy 2:6) The love of God that was revealed in Christ is a special kind of love—it is a love extended in self-giving sacrifice for all people whether or not they are open to that love or accept and appreciate the lover.

Implications of the Love of the King

In the past few weeks, we have been exposed to a return of antisemitism by some and, of course, a renewed fear of Palestinians or Muslims by others. It is worth spending a moment thinking about the love of God that has purchased at great cost “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). The nature of the King of kings is such that his followers must also love everyone since the King of kings himself loved everyone.

We can quibble about how exactly this desire of God that all men should be saved from every tribe and nation works. We can spend time debating how predestination plays into this. But, for practical disciples of Jesus, perhaps it is best to think most about the fact that we are called in his name to love everyone and work for the salvation of everyone with the same kind of love Christ showed on the cross. We will find out exactly how predestination works in heaven.

In addition to working for the salvation of everyone, Christians are called to pray for everyone. The reference to God’s universal desire for the salvation of every human being is contained in the following passage:

 I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time (I Timothy 2:1-6).

God does not just want people to be “saved” in a vague way. He wants Christ-Followers to pray and intercede for all people, even those in authority with whom we disagree, so that we may become godly and holy, as Christ was godly and holy. There’s a reason for this: God wants all people to come to a knowledge of truth and to receive the same blessing of godliness and holiness he reserved for his church. This means that God has the same desire for Jews, Palestinians, Iranians, and others as he has for us. This means that God has the same desire for Republicans and Democrats. It means he has the same desire for Donald Trump and Joe Biden. God wants everyone to receive the benefits of his salvation. He wants it so much that he died on the cross to make it available to anyone and everyone.

Conclusion

If you were like me, the past few years, months, weeks, and days have been a source of some anxiety. When John had his vision and wrote Revelation, he was in such a time. There were wars and rumors of wars. There was an evil or at least incompetent emperor on the throne. The church was experiencing persecution. John himself was in prison. In the midst of all, John looked beyond current events and saw a vision of the future. This vision was a vision of hope, based upon the fact that the work, the real work of the world’s salvation, had been accomplished on the cross; Christ was indeed the Messiah. Therefore, no earthly ruler who did not embody the character of Christ could ultimately prevail. There might be suffering, persecution, and pain, but it would pass away. For the risen Christ rules in heaven.

Perhaps this Christmas season is enough for us to ponder that simple fact. There are wars and rumors of wars. There are persecutions and rumors of persecution. There are manipulations and rumors of manipulations. All of that is real, but it doesn’t matter in the end. The king of kings and Lord of Lord is on the throne, and the lamb that was slain has paid the price of our release from the worst kind of captivity—our own brokenness and alienation from God.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Matthew Bridges, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (1852).

 

Christian wisdom for abundant living