Seeking the Common Good with Humility & Perspective

Introductory Note

I preached the following sermon at First UMC-Edcouch & First UMC-Lyford on October 23, 2016. Original title: “Nations, Rulers, & the God of All.” Texts: Daniel 11:36-12:4 & Galatians 3:23-29.

vote-sticker

I am a political junkie

Some of you may have noticed by now that I am addicted to political media. My interest in politics began in second grade, when I stared at a poster of US presidents in class instead of paying attention to the teacher. Since then, I have absorbed so much political facts and news that for a while I thought I would go into politics—I’m very grateful that God had other plans for my life! Yet I still obsessively read historical and current political data. It took the severe toxicity of this election to get me to reduce my consumption of political media, and I only started detoxing after this last presidential debate!

You see, as much as I enjoy political engagement, such engagement can take an emotional toll on our souls and on our relationships. I think this is especially true in the last twenty or so years, in the age of the internet and the expansion of news media options. The internet has allowed us to have more information than ever, but it’s also given each person more power to choose their own media and news sources. In my case, it used to surprise me that social media and news websites altered their content based on my preferences—as if everywhere I turn, I only see and hear people with the exact same views as me!

As Christians, the technological and media culture we live in presents opportunities, but also many dangers. When all the messages we see and hear emphasize the truth of our particular worldview, we can forget to listen and love those who don’t share those experiences or perspectives. We can forget that, in the words of today’s New Testament lesson, in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female; for all…are one in Christ Jesus!” We can forget that whenever we engage in the public square, including when we vote, we as followers of Jesus Christ are to seek the common good for all with a sense of humility and perspective, knowing that our only true ruler, Jesus Christ, is the only ruler who will remain when all else fades away.

Galatians: you don’t have to be Jewish to follow Jesus

In today’s reading from Galatians, the author is frustrated with the church in the city of Galatia. The author of this letter, the Apostle Paul, had helped start this church, which was made up of Gentiles—people who were not Jewish. You see, some very early Christians thought that one had to be Jewish to also be Christian. Paul, along with the original 11 apostles, opposed this teaching, because Jesus wanted the church to baptize members of every nation (Matthew 28:19). Paul wanted Christians to place their trust in Christ alone by the power of the Holy Spirit, instead of putting their trust in a set of laws meant for one exclusive group of people.

Yet after Paul had left this church to spread the gospel elsewhere, other teachers went to the Galatian church to tell them that they all had to become Jewish! Paul writes this letter to the Galatian church to set them straight. He uses the language of inheritance, reminding them that even though human inheritance is restricted by family, economics, and gender, that in Christ, ALL people, “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), are children of God worthy of the inheritance offered by Christ.

Paul reminds them that when Jesus returns, Jesus will not judge us by our ability to adhere to one set of cultural rules and perspectives. Rather, Jesus will judge us by our ability to love God and love our neighbors, especially those neighbors who need food, water, clothing, comfort, and healing. In short, we love Jesus when we love “the least” in our world (Matthew 25:40), not just those who look and think like us. Paul admonishes the church to find their security and purpose not in self-preservation as part of a like-minded group, but to find their security and purpose in the grace that Jesus Christ offers to all.

Tribalism and political self-righteousness

It’s easy to convince ourselves that we love everyone when we don’t. We go to church, and many of us have raised—or are raising—our children to follow Jesus. Yet the forces of sin and evil find subtle ways to divert us from loving others. We naturally find camaraderie among people who are like us: same life experiences, same culture, same opinions, same interests, etc. There’s nothing wrong with finding common ground with others; unless those relationships become the exclusive focus of one’s engagement with the world. Too often, even in a nation as diverse as the United States, we find ways to associate only with those who abide by the same set of unspoken rules and customs as us. Too often, we only engage in the public square to support and uphold the interests of our group.

Today’s media culture does not help to alleviate this temptation. We can choose news and information sources that confirm opinions that we already have, so that our opinions slowly become more and more entrenched, leading us to judge those different from us ever more harshly. We can even convince ourselves that faithfulness to Jesus Christ and his way isn’t enough, that seeking to know Jesus through the Scriptures, regular worship, and sacrificial service to others just isn’t enough. We can convince ourselves that a set of candidates or policies take priority over what Jesus has already done for us, that checking the right box on a ballot is the true test of one’s faith.

Yet today’s reading from Galatians remind us otherwise. Paul reminds us that all are one in Christ Jesus. For Jesus reigns over heaven and earth, and when he returns to fully establish that reign, all other rulers and systems go away. Today’s reading from Daniel reminds us that even the strongest human ruler will lose their throne in the end. Daniel reminds us that the Day of Resurrection will come, that the righteous will live forever with God. Jesus is the only one who makes us righteous through his death and resurrection; he is the only one who sits on the eternal throne and makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).

Voting for the common good, with humility and faithful perspective

In the state of Texas, early voting starts tomorrow, and concludes on Election Day, November 8. As a self-avowed political junkie, I have firm opinions about how I will vote. In fact, I explicitly chose to deviate from my normal preaching style and read my sermon today to reduce the chance that I would accidentally express those opinions from the pulpit. But even though our eternal salvation does not depend on which ballot box we check, our motivations for voting, and the way we engage in public issues, can reveal the depth—or shallowness—of our faith in Christ. Therefore, I want to offer some general principles about how to serve Christ while engaging in civic responsibilities, based largely on today’s reading from Galatians.

For starters, we engage in politics and voting with great humility. Here is an uncomfortable fact: how one votes in the United States of America has more to do with one’s ethnicity than one’s faith. Per Christianity Today, 65% of church-going evangelical white voters will vote for one candidate, and about 65% of church-going evangelical non-white voters—Hispanic-Americans, African Americans, Asian-Americans, etc.—will vote for the opposing candidate. What does this uncomfortable fact have to do with humility? It takes humility to recognize that our social identity too often plays a larger role in how we think about important social and political issues than our faith in the risen Christ. It takes humility to avoid the temptation to arrive at simplistic solutions for why “the other” is wrong and we are right. It takes humility to prayerfully seek God’s help to overcome our desire to only serve our personal or groups interests. It takes humility to take the log out of our own eye before removing the speck in someone else’s eye (Luke 6:41-42).

To engage in voting and political discourse while serving Christ also takes perspective. No matter who we support on the ballot, Jesus Christ is Lord. No politician can exert more power than Jesus, no politician can model God’s way better than Jesus, and no political system can fully implement God’s kingdom. The best we can hope for, in our church and in our politics, is to offer a witness to the kingdom that God ushers in through the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. All rulers and nations will end one day, even the United States, for when Jesus returns, the faithful will have no need of earthly rulers.

Finally, today’s New Testament lesson reminds me that Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead for the whole world. His ministry revealed God’s love for all people, even those on the outskirts and margins of the dominant cultures of his time. His death atones for all sin at all time, and his resurrection affirms God’s triumph over sin and death so that all might find new and eternal life through faith in him. So how do we live for all people? How do our daily decisions—even our public engagement and our voting—reflect God’s love for the whole world?

Those are not easy questions to answer, and I have already preached too long, so I will not answer them today. But when we seek to engage in politics with faithful humility and the perspective that sees Jesus as our true Lord, then discerning the common good becomes easier. When we recognize the ways that current media and technology too often bring out the worst in us, we can prayerfully seek God’s help in combating those forces. We can do the hard work of seeking relationships with those who are different from us, perhaps even those who we might see as “less” than us, recognizing that in Christ, all are equal, regardless of race, social status, gender, or any other human category. As Christians, we place our faith in Christ alone, not in any political party or candidate. Yet our faith in Christ can still guide how we vote and engage in public issues, so long as we prayerfully seek the common good with humility and perspective, knowing that when the nations, groups, and public policies of this world fade away, Christ will remain as our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Book Announcement: @ivpacademic’s Paul and Judaism Revisited A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation

Some of you still like to read the Apostle Paul… so if you do, this looks like a good book for you:

Ever since E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism in 1977, students of Paul have been probing, weighing and debating the similarities and dissimilarities between the understandings of salvation in Judaism and in Paul. Do they really share a common notion of divine and human agency? Or do they differ at a deep level? And if so, how? Broadly speaking, the answers have lined up on either side of the old perspective and new perspective divide. But can we move beyond this impasse?

Preston Sprinkle reviews the state of the question and then tackles the problem. Buried in the Old Testament’s Deuteronomic and prophetic perspectives on divine and human agency, he finds a key that starts to turn the rusted lock on Paul’s critique of Judaism. Here is a proposal that offers a new line of investigation and thinking about a crucial issue in Pauline theology.

Read more: See it On IVP’s page

Oh Tony, you keep using that word…, or, in favor of St. James of the McGraths

I haven’t covered this for a while, but I see Tony Breeden is now attacking the Apostle Paul and Jesus by way of James McGrath.

On Tony’s FB page, he writes,
breeden shames himself

He is referring back to this post.

But what is the “basic doctrine of the Christian faith?” Is it really the resurrection?

If there is a litmus test for “true believers” it neither Young Earth Creationism nor the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is whether or not you can say “Jesus is Lord.” This is simply stated in 1 Co 12.3.

If we look at 1 Co 15, the resurrection is not the basic doctrine of the Christian faith, but becomes an ancillary doctrine as we continue our journey into salvation. See Paul’s note about “you are also being saved” in 1 Co. 15.2. Paul rarely uses a past tense word for salvation, but focuses rather on the future salvation, being saved and will be saved. It is a process.

No doubt my good friend McGrath understands well the Wesleyan notion of going on to perfection, or a progressive, if you will, Christianity.1 The “basic doctrine of the Christian” faith, then, is not the resurrection, but to first acknowledge Jesus as Lord. From there, it is all growth. And since it is all growth we are not to judge or ridicule brothers and sisters in Christ (plenty of bible verses for that one).

I would call the Resurrection a Mystery, like the Trinity, as exemplified as the first mystery of the Holy Rosary. I do believe in the Resurrection, for what it is worth. I do not, however, believe in the inquisition Breeden and his ilk regularly put on Christians as if they are the magisterium. I’ll stick with the Apostle Paul on this one.

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  1. I am praying he sees the light soon and becomes a United Methodist.

Josephus and Paul go to Rome

In 64 CE, Paul stood before Felix as both a Jew and a Roman (Acts 23.23-35), mired in a conspiracy that accused the Jews of attempting to murder the apostle. Or, at least, according to Acts. Is this a historical or a historiographical event?

Oddly enough, Josephus records that he went to Rome during the same time period (1.13-6). And… there was a shipwreck. I can’t tell from reading it if he accompanied the priests or not.

I’m not going to put this into my book because of the hypothetical nature of this – and I don’t discuss Paul.

Of course, I understand that some may assume Luke is borrowing from Josephus, but what if they aren’t? What if they are telling the same story – because, you know, other people made the journey. Except for Paul, the situation is the same. The Jewish priest were holy and pious men who caused a ruckus. That ruckus, Luke tells us, is Paul.

Just found it interesting. That’s all.

Reading: New Creation in Paul’s Letters – Chapter 5

Chapter 5 will deal with Paul’s use of the term in Galatians. More specifically, Galatians 6.11-18. Jackson notices the flesh-spirit mix and uses this to point to establish an eschatological paradigm in this epistle. There is also Paul’s boasting in the cross which hints at this. Now, for me, this is an interesting line, and a different way of setting the Epistle of Galatians. Further, he follows Winter and Hardin in putting the dispute in Galatians into a political realm in which Paul’s adversaries are those who are seeking to align the Messiah-believers with other Jewish groups in order to have it declared an official state religion. He goes on to counter recent and not so recent (Bultmann, for one) scholarship which creates an unnatural separation between history and the interpreter, and thus, destroys Paul’s cosmos, which, according to subsection B, includes spiritual beings, or the ‘elements’ of the universe.

Throughout the discussion of what cosmos means to Paul, Jackson is able to maintain the point which he raised earlier, that the New Creation regards both the individual and the world, especially given the Greco-Roman cosmology mixed with Jewish soteriology of the times. Paul was a student of his culture, so it should not surprise us that he used those concepts to preach his Gospel, and more, that he, unlike us today, used them appropriately, such as eschatology v. apocalyptic.

Jackson spends a considerable amount of time, almost to the point of ad nausem, detailing eschatology in Paul’s epistle. But, when it comes down to putting the Resurrection in a proper place, perhaps using a previously established understanding of merism, he fails, allowing Paul’s failure to note the Resurrection in Galatians 6 to go unanswered. This may serve problems later, but we’ll see. In my opinion, with so much effort being placed in making the Resurrection a high point in Paul’s eschatology, Jackson really lets this one slide by simply stating, “the fact that there is no direct reference to the resurrection in Gal 6 can probably be explained by the idea that this was not one of the planks of Paul’s message contested by his agitators (105).” But the crucifixion was? Here, he seems to not keep his thoughts clear.

Over all, however, the Conclusion serves to aid the discussion more so than the chapter. In this case, began with the conclusion which maintains the thought which Jackson wants the reader to keep in her mind. His conclusions are, in my opinion, the necessary ones due to his examination of the material. The New Creation is, for Paul, an eschatological shift in paradigm, in which the Cross of Christ is the defeat of the powers, including the Law, of the universe, resulting in a cosmic rejuvenation.