Transcript of a sermon I gave on Phillipians 2:1-11

When I was asked to preach and given the parameters for what to preach on- our current series on “call” passages in the Bible- I initially found myself struggling to know where to start and how to narrow it down. So I decided simply to give some time to reflecting on what had been resonating with me at the time. That’s when I stumbled across some recent reading I had done in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This had been an intentional exercise for me because this letter had played a formative role for me in my growing up years as I tried to figure out the Church and my place in it, and some unsettling of my spirit during the pandemic (admittedly giving me too much time for reflection) had led me to return to this letter in an effort to make sense of the Church and my place in it today.

The passage I settled on was 2:1-11 because this section carried particular relevance for me personally given that its words carried me through those early years into a greater participation within the church and a greater interest in my faith. For me this informed my call at the time to get baptized, to get more involved in service ministries within the church, and carried through some significant choices and transitions in my life.

Returning to these texts, the first time I’ve spent any real time with them in a long, long while, was helpful for me in terms of contrasting where my life is today and where my life was when these verses first came into my awareness. In some ways I haven’t grown up much at all. In other ways I find myself wrestling with very different questions. In many ways my early life reflected the life Paul is reminding the Philippians of, a time when a fresh encounter with Christ had led them to be zealous for their new found faith. Reading it today feels more in line with where Paul finds the community in the present- needing a reminder of the initial reason for their zealousness.

So here’s what I wanted to do. I want to walk through Phillipians 2:1-11 verse by verse paying specific attention to the ways revisiting it today has provided a fresh outlook. Transport it from the world of my younger self into the world of my… well, yes I’m old.
And to help that process here is where I hope to ultimately land, just to help you track: 3 Big ideas

  1. The call to think about Christ= this is the idea of having the same mind/attitude, which is a way of “thinking” about Christ, in a way that brings about participation.
  2. The call to image Christ- this is the dual nature of the text in Christ being by nature God, or the true image of God, and us, by nature of Christ’s revealing work-literally rendered as Christ being glorified- being Gods image bearers. This is the call to participate as image bearers
  3. The call to think and to image- or imagine- Christ together

To begin with some quick establishing of the context behind the letter:

  1. Philippians is one of later letters of Paul. Evidence seems to be there that It was written in relationship with Timothy. It’s written from prison during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome as a friendship letter to those who Paul knows from planting his first church in Europe
  2. The question of concern is not so much their suffering- although they are sharing in Paul’s suffering – but what to do with the legitimacy of Paul’s work, word and testimony as he is languishing in prison. The high view Paul has of this community in Phillipi seems clear as they continue to coexist in a Greco-Roman world, and much of their ability to think and to imagine together appears to flow from Paul’s own friendship with them.
  3. It is written as an encouragement to the church at Philippi by reminding them of who Jesus is in the midst of a strong Greco-Roman culture, and to call them to persevere in the faith. Of particular concern is reminding them of how it is that Jesus is both God and man (with a concern for the process of divinization in the Greco-Roman world). The spiritual and material realities seem to collide here raising questions about God’s participation in the world, what this participation tells us about who God is, and how we are called to live in relationship to this God through our participation in what God is doing. Here is where Paul offers encouragment- from Prison- to say that if you knew the sort of joy that comes from participating in the way of Christ, the thing that built this community- then you know this joy now. So think on it and then imagine it together in the present, and then live it.

So lets get into the passage:

2:1-4
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

2:1-4 in the original text is written as a single sentence meant to bring the Philippians towards a vision of unity- a unity they already have based on faithfulness to and participation in the call of Christ. Paul’s affirmation is simply this- faithfulness to this call promises to bring transformation.

Quickly to set the stage: The prayer that frames these opening words in 1:3-11 is that their love might continue to abound in “knowledge and depth of insight”

1:9
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”

Paul then moves into a long statement about his situation in 1:12-29, which obviously they are familiar with and which they share in.
If this is how God’s faithfulness is demonstrating itself in Pauls life, what does that mean for their shared call to live in the way of Christ? Where’s the hope? The expectation? Scholars also believe there were monetary concerns wrapped up in this as well. How often is this notion of call related back to discouragement over effectiveness and lack of resources? A lack of… (fill in the blank) reflects adversity, doubts, questions. And these look much different for me today than they did when I first encountered the passage. Back then I was full of the sort of optimism that comes from encountering Christ. Now identify more with the skeptical moments of wondering about God’s faithfulness.
Chapter 1 ends with an emphasis on “faithful suffering, specific to Paul but playing out in any situation where living into this call faces such adversity by whatever it is.

“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (1:27)
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (1:29)

Which leads to answering the question in the opening of chapter 2, “abound in knowledge and depth of insight” of what?

“If you have any encouragement from being united in Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy (master-student relationship) complete by being like minded…” (2:1-2)

The connection between knowledge and depth of insight carries over into being like-minded. Being like-minded in the list of descriptives he has just listed. The “if” of chapter 2:1 is not a statement of uncertainty, as though to ask it as a question- “if? you have any encouragement (consolation and comfort)”, he is speaking directly to their very real hopes and concerns that they had (past) surrounding their coming to follow Christ. He’s saying you did and because of that you “do” have encouragement, comfort (God’s ability to meet the struggles and suffering) , and common sharing, tenderness, compassion (translated mercy) from being united in Christ (shared call) therefore… make my joy complete by “thinking” on these things.

Think, like faith, carries an active force, as in wise behavior (phroneo). Being like minded connects us to the consecutive phrases “same love” and “one” in spirit (one souled is the literal translation) and purpose. Thinking about, allowing this to imagine what we know into the uncertainty of the present, and then letting it play out as a drama by way of our participation. This is what brings unity with Christ and unity with one another, shaping the call then to bring the hope of Christ into the world. Here we find a tension between knowing and doing, which I think shapes what it means to be called.

So what does this unity/friendship look like in action precisely?
2:3-4
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (something to be gained or emptied, a combination of the words emptying and the word for opinion and honor… hold onto that phrase), but in humility (also hold on to that word as it will be crucial to understanding how this letter translates in light of the larger socio-political reality) consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests (understanding, or to think about), but also to the interests (to understand, to think about) of others.”

This repeats the notion of “yourself” giving way to the betterment of others. Important to note Paul would have had a we rather than an I in view here.

Lynn Cohick in her commentary brings to light the social context of this idea to “consider others better then yourselves” (2:3). “In Philippi people stressed not your character, but was thought about your character. Perception is reality.” (share story about our time in Ukraine)

Also concerning the social context: I told you to hang on to that word humility. The Greek word for humility (tapeinophrosyne) is not found before the Christian era . It brings together the greek words for lowly and the verb to think, which is the same word Paul has already used. In fact it is used 10 times in Philippians. If we understand the term think to carry an active force, then what Paul is doing here is turning humility from a vice to a virtue. (Reference Humility song)
This then prepares us to enter into the Christ hymn which presents Christ as the very embodiment of these things Paul has been talking about.

(2:5) “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”

The word Attitude is actually the word for “think” as well. To think in Christ is the literal rendering. In other words this is how Christ thinks, remembering the fellowship he has with Father and Spirit and the fellowship Christ establishes with us, calling us to then image this to the world by our fellowship with one another.

This signals what is called the Christ Hymn so called because of its poetry and its rhythms. It is broken into two halves- the incarnation and passion, and second the ascension and exaltation. The key for understanding the hymn, Cohick writes, “is to recognize our participation in christ.” The Hymn, then, puts front and center God’s plan to make participation in Christ possible.

(2:5) “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus… Who, being in very nature God” (2:6a)

Morphe (being in the nature of God) is a difficult word to narrow down. It’s the same word used in Greek in popular writings to describe what Moses saw at the burning bush. It can also carry the meaning of “essence”. A way of describing something indescribable using human language. Language that then translates in concrete active forms. It can also be described as imaging. Image of Christ, human vocation as image bearers.

“Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with god something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (2:6)

Now, if you are like me you’ve been conditioned to read this in the light of God’s being everything being contrasted with humanity being nothing. God made himself nothing. Stooped to the lowness of our level. That’s not quite the full inference here though.

“Something to be grasped” means he did not consider equality with God as something to be “used to his own advantage”. This relates directly to the emptying. The word grasp is only used one other place. The best way, cohick suggests, is to see it as meaning that Christ had something he chose not to use. God is not giving up his attributes but manifesting them. Activating them as the virtue of humility. In the emptying the creator-creation dynamic is being caught up into this similar imaging notion.

Similarly, often times when people read this passage there is a tendency to overemphasize the divine nature as something to be contrasted with the picture of the slave/servant. The contrast though is like God and like human, connecting the goodness of God with the goodness of God’s creation. The slave part is part of imaging the nature of God. Christ does not grasp, rather Christ humbles, making himself a slave to humility. In a sociopolitical context the free one becomes a slave for the sake of the other. Humility turns from a vice to a virtue. This would have been understood in the light of the Exodus narrative. Gods liberating act coincides with the call at Mt. Sinai to be Gods image bearers in the world given to those waiting at the bottom of the mountain who have been left wondering about God’s faithfulness now removed from the initial excitement of the liberating event. This begins a cycle of trading the true image for a lie, resulting in the call to remember, and then to live in the promise that God is making all things new by way of our continued participation. In Christ God demonstrates God’s own faithfuness to this end in taking human likeness and participating in the long obedience. This is the attitude we are to share, what we are to think on. When it comes to being called we are not comparing ourselves to one another, but to Jesus.

2:9-11
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every other name., 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.”

Jesus doesn’t become more or less of God, what Jesus is imaging, imagining for us, the very thing that is being glorified in verse 9-11, is the new life in Christ. The eventual raising up is contrasted with the humbling, also connecting our own imagined humility to the source of life itself. As the image of God is revealed in Christ we also find and discover the true nature of our humanity. And it is said to be “good”. Very good. We have traded our true image for a lie and Christ desires to reveal the truth of who we are and who God is in the call to be image bearers.

This picture of bowed knee and confessed fealty is not one of power and fear and control but of liberation and service and praise. Jesus gets the name Glory, which in its literal translation evokes being in the very nature or image of God. And that image is what we share as image bearers in the world. Yesterday I was listening to an interview with author and scientist Iain McGilchrist, about his new book The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Something that he had to say really struck me as quite profound. He said “Imagination is the only chance we have at reaching reality. Imagination contacts reality and brings it to us.”

We don’t’ work to get the new reality, we begin with the new reality by first remembering, thinking, and then allowing this act of imagination to inform the call to participate in the present. Which is precisely what the communion table is all about.

Month In Review: Favorite, Watches, Reads, and Listens For The Month of June 2022

Movies

Mad God (Phil Tippett, 2022)
This is madness on a whole other level. The metaphors are rich, and it’s hard not to see our present reality in the chaos. The animation, done using intricate and detailed stop motion, is simply otherworldly, which helps to transport us into its depraved world. Cycles loom large here, leaving one wondering whether there is any way to escape, any promise of liberation. Maps, bombs, surgeons and drones, they all intersect in the decent into the shadow world underneath.
A film that will merit multiple watches to scratch the surface of its ideas, to be sure.

Lightyear (Angus Maclane, 2022)
Throwback with some nice comedic notes, a grand dose of 80s/90s adventure film, and a tight script that, in my opinion, deftly manages a complex story by keeping its focus on the simple themes. It reminded me of watching those old Saturday morning cartoons, only with real cinematic scope (the film looks great on the big screen). It is unlikely this will be winning an Oscar, as one tends to expect from Pixar, but these are the sorts of offbeat stories that I could watch anytime and really love. Just keep in mind that if you are expecting Toy Story brand this will end up a little different than you expect.

The Righteous (Mark O’Brien, 2022)
One of the stronger religious horror pieces in recent memory, and a really strong debut. The film takes a slow burn approach centred on lots of dialogue and heavy monologues. A haunting score, a moody black and white aesthetic, and embodied performances help to give it it’s shape admist some strong psychological undertones.
At the heart of the film is a question of image- namely what is the true image of God, and subsequently what does this have to say about the way God relates to the world. It takes the question of comfort in religion and approaches it from a place of fear, exploring how it is that for some God remains an angry and vengeful figure. Exploring this leads us deeper into some unsettling questions regarding how this then shapes our relationship to the world around us at the same time, along with how it is that we see ourselves in relationship to our sins.

The film is low budget, but never in a way that takes away from the story. Perhaps the final act gets away from the Directors vision ever so slightly, but figuring out where to land with a story that trends towards the kind of horrors that we cannot see, God as much a reality as He is an idea here existing in the minds of our central players, is not necessarily an easy task, so that’s a small critique in an otherwise really strong effort.

Dual (Riley Stearns, 2022)
An interesting hidden indie gem to consider from the first half of 2022. Really interesting dystopian premise- a woman finds out she’s dying, looks into present technological advancements that allow her to make a clone of herself before she dies in order to help her family grieve and alleviate some of the pain, and an unexpected turn of events lead to a complicated situation between her and her clone.

The film utilizes an intricate plot, but it does so without losing sight of the emotojnal current. I found it really engaging as it sinks further into the “complications”, probing deeper into the particularness of its humanity.

It’s unique and just different enough to set itself apart, but the mix of intricate composition and emotional concern is what elevates this one in its genre

Petite Maman (Celine Sciamma, 2022)
It’s hard to find the words to describe just how beautiful and perfect this film is. So simple. So profound. Deeply human.
The cast is small and the context extremely detailed and focused, but the depths it is able to mine from such a contained portrait is incredible. I don’t want to say too much to keep from the spoiling the story, but suffice to say it provides a family portrait made of deeply broken and flawed individuals who are also bursting full of beauty. Sadness is a word that emerges near the beginning and remerges near the end, but for as defining as the word is these characters are also not bound to it. In its own way this might also be one of the most uplifting and inspiring stories I’ve seen this year.

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann, 2022)
Now that’s a summer movie. Big screen movie magic. I’m a big fan of the Directors previous works and they all feel like they were leading up to this. It hits the ground running and never let’s up. Its 2 hours and 40 minutes long and there is rarely a second where it lost me or left me disengaged. Worth the big screen and the audience. The film plays like an epic, telling an epic journey that touches on multiple points of significant American history. It does a great job too of helping us to visually see the connection between Elvis and the Black spirituals that influenced him. That whole subtext really carrys a lot of thematic weight.

If you are older and a fan of Elvis you gotta see it.
If you’re younger and relatively unfamiliar with Elvis, you gotta see it.
If you’re a fan of cinema and creative biopics, you gotta see it

Checkered Ninja (Thorbjorn Chirstofferson and Anders Matthesonm 2018)
After a few years of seeing this title pop up here and there and dismissing it as a low budget, straight to DVD animated movie, I randomly decided to use a Hoopla credit after seeing it pop up in my recommendations and looking for animated film to occupy an early Saturday morning viewing.

Definitely not what I expected. A real delight. Decidedly more adult in nature, but in a way that would still work for a younger audience (just heed the language warning). It’s funny, meaningful and relatable as it navigates the specific challenge of occupying the bottom of the social latter in those early years at school.

The story itself has a natural progression to the development of its central tension (boy gets this ninja doll, ninja doll is occupied by a vengeful spirit, vengeful spirit helps boy with a school bully in exchange for the boy helping him deal with his problem), keeping it simple and direct. It reminds us that, even at a young age, finding freedom from our problems, from those who hurt us, often means learning how to let go of our need for vengeance. Where what is wrong is made right, addressing the oppressive force also includes demonstrating a different way. It’s a lovely message that would fit well alongside this years The Bad Guys. Definitely check this one out if you come across it

Cha Cha Real Smooth (Cooper Wraith, 2022)
A feel good, ridiculously entertaining story from the mind of the equally wonderful Shithouse about love and life, growing up and growing older. And featuring really strong performances, honest human moments, and plenty of emotions that navigate the ups and downs of this particular group of individuals simply figuring stuff out as they go. Loved the generational element as well.

Honorable Mention: Bull (Paul Andrew Williams), a solid revenge drama with complicated family dynamics and mob subtext. Equally revenge driven is Fixed (Jex Alsop), featuring strong performances and a prison subtext. Peace By Chocolate (Jonathan Keijser), a lovely Canadian comedy drama about immigration. Jockey (Clint Bentley) is a quiet but rich drama about humans and horses, while RRR (S. Rajamoulie) is a loud, splashy entertaining Indian smorgasboard.

Books

The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness by Katherine Glieb
Read this as part of my ongoing journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans. And it was phenomenal. It narrows in on Romans as narrative and frames the narrative around God’s righteousness, giving both definition and context to the biblical term lost to some of our modern debates within Protestantism.

Abrahams Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How To Talk Back to God by J. Richard Middleton
Incredible and enlightening work that is steeped in research and exegesis of its three central texts. This is for anyone who has struggled with the binding of Isaac, but more so for anyone who simply needs permission to wrestle with and talk back to God. That God desires this and that it makes a difference appears profoundly evident in scripture itself.

The Meaning of Travel; Philosophers Abroad by Emily Thomas
The book itself isn’t great, but it offers some great insights as it travels through the history of travel by way of the Philosophers .

The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe by Matthew Gabrielle and David M. Perry

What if Rome never fell. That’s the intriguing question behind this revisionist take on the Dark Ages. There is no shortage of material challenging common assumptions about what the Dark Ages was, including the tendency to write it as a global reality. This takes a unique approach to the same idea that the Dark Ages was actually a period of vibrancy and Reform by digging underneath and articulating some key stories that shed light on the surrounding empires and the way these empires battled to lay claim to the dominating narrative that could effectively place themselves at the center of the universe. Seeing how Rome persists through this and even thrives is part of seeing these narratives in relationship to one another as opposed to a rise and fall trajectory.

Music

Wrabel- These Words Are All For You Too
Rich Songs wrapped up in even richer song writing. A brilliant album built on a soulful voice and colored with the gentle presence of the piano and acoustic guitar.

Brett Eldredge- Songs About You
The opening track hits with a bang, but it’s the totality of this confident country album that really makes this worthwhile. Deeply confident and sure of what it wants to be, it navigates a journey of musical and lyrical exploration that develops and forms as it goes along

Mt. Joy- Orange Blood
Energetic pop that makes for a perfect mood cleanser with its vibrant and fun vibes. Don’t mistake this for fluff though. The compositions leave plenty to appreciate and dissect on a musical level.

Maren Morris-Humble Quest
Call it safe if you will, I call it comfortable in the best sense of the word. There are more interesting efforts by Mprris (see the highwaywomen) but I’m here this understated record asking the usual honest questions she is known for.

Havelin- Alright, Alright, Okay
An album deeply immersed in the notion of change and acceptance of this change. As such 8t floats through some basic and practical points of the human experience with some beautiful melodies and nice musical hooks. Its mostly low key, although the opening track definitely offers some get up and move vibes.

Honorable Mentions:
VanceJoy-In Our Own Sweet Time
Alice Merton- S.I.D.E.S
MaverickCityMusic-Kingdom Book One

Podcasts/Other

Vox: episodes 354, 355, and 357 (Image Part Nine: Works with Dr Timothy Gombis; The Jewishness of the Gospel with Dr, Jen Rosner; Light Part One: Bearer of the Name)
The Vox Podcast is always great, but this handful of Episodes in June was worth highlighting as they transition from one series to another. Rosners work on the Jewishness of the bible and her journey as as a Jewish Christian is really worthwhile.

Biblical World: Episode 49 (How Did Biblical Writers Access the Past With Daniel Ploske)
Fascinating look into the nature of archaeology and its relationship to understanding the Biblical World.

The C.S. Lewis Podcast: Episodes 59, 60, 61 (Myth Become Fact; The Grand Miracle; Is Theism Important)
This is led by Alister McGrath who wrote one of the seminal biographies on Lewis. These Episodes are dealing with external articles and works outside of his familiar books

Song Explorer: Episode 247 (Maren Morris- Humble Quest)
Really enjoyed this peek behind the curtain with Morris and her reflections on the difficult nature of humility as a practice and a Virtue

The Book Review: Episode 404 (Sensing the World Anew Through Other Species)
Encouraged me to pick up the book by Ed Yong, An Immense World. Described as an antidote to all the terrible things going on right now,

The Evolving Faith Podcast: Episodes 26, 27, 28, 29 (The Geography of God, The Power in the Story, Let God Love You, Remember the Refrain)
Took me to church and revitalized my soul. Three great talks from different noted speakers on faith, scripture and life

Unbelievable Podcast: Episode 866 (Rowan Williams and Paul Kingsnorth- Conversion, Culture and the Cross)
I’m a big fan of Kingsnorth and Williams. I always had a sense that Christianity could make a lot of sense of Kingsnorths journey, and his recent conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy set in conversation with Orthdox Priest Rowan Williams was lovely.

Regent College Podcast: Episode 211 (Metaphor, Poetry, and Maternal Imagery with Dr Beth Stovell)
A timely word reminding me about all the feminine Imagery in scripture and how God is not a gender

Ask N.T. Wright Anything Podcast: Episode 125 (Medieval Questions and the Subject of Galatians)
Wrights recent Galatians commentary functions as a kind of perfect summation of his larger body of work, and is extremely accessible. This talk does a wonderful job at setting a necessary foundation for entering into that journey, unfolding the power of the biblical story in its world

The Fear of God: Episode 328 (Leap of Faith: William Friedkin On the Exorcist)
An emotional and rich Episode talking about this documentary on the Exorcist and some connected themes about loneliness, finding awe in this world, and the place of faith

On Script: Episode 226, 226 (Aaron Sherwood on Romans; Enoch Okode on Christ and the Gift Giver in Romans)
Since I’ve been working my way through Romans this added a couple more to my list

The Land, The Scattering, and the Genesis of God’s Love Demonstated in Love of Other

I thought this was kind of cool. Why I love the study of scripture. Three separate sources all connecting with a similar thread yesterday:

  1. Regent College Podcast Episode 209: Reading the Scriptures in Israel-Palestine Today – With Dr. Yohanna Katanacho
    This is an interview with Katanacho about his new book called “The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry”, detailing some of the questions that informed his journey growing up as a Palestinian Christian. In the back half of this interview he narrows in on some key questions regarding what “land” means in scripture something that took him back to a study of the Genesis scroll.

Here he helps make a connection between the first 12 chapters of Genesis as it brings to the surface key motifs regarding land and the peoples relationship to the land. He defines the central problem in Genesis in two words- curse and death, and the solution as blessing and seed, noting that the healing of the people sits in direct relationship to the healing of the land.

What I thought was really cool is how he narrows in on Genesis 5 and Genesis 10, two seemingly inconsequential passages that often get skipped over on the way to the real Divine-Human drama. He mentions 10:10 with its focus on land called Shinar (the land where the tower is built) and 10:25 with its focus on someone named Peleg (a name that means division) as key points which connect chapter 10 with the Tower of Babel story in chapter 11, and 10:18-19’s reference to the Canaanite clans “scattered” and stretching borderlands as connecting chapter 10 with chapter 9 and the division of Noah’s sons.

Now follow this thread- the story of Adam and Eve represents “land”, division (a divided “adam” which means humanity, a three fold division, and a movement away from the land into the wilderness. This is told on a cosmic scale. Cain and Abel, two names symbolic with the nations, become divided when it becomes brother versus brother, leading to a movement out of the land into the wilderness. The story of Noah brings the cosmic story together the story of the scattered nations. If we set this in the context of the story of Israel what we have is a portrait of Moses and the people at Sinai at the mountain (think the garden on the mountain with the waters flowing outwards to bring life to the world by way of the creative imaging and vocation of humanity made in the image of God, and the ark, a symbol of the garden on the mountain demonstrating the failure of this when humans neglect their vocation as image bearers and trade it for a lie), and eventually a picture of the exiled people once raised up to be established in relationship to the land (to create and to build in the life giving vision of God for the world) now scattered. If we connect this to the story of the Tower of Babel what we have is a picture of a people creating and building in the singular land (Shinar) in an effort to “make a name for themselves”, bringing us back to the story of the garden (land) and the inevitable end of such desires which is a divided and scattered people enslaved to both curse (of the land) and death. Thus retelling the same story.

Chapter 5 then becomes the connecting piece between Adam and Eve/Cain and Abel and the Abram story of chapter 12 that paints a picture of the answer to the problem. Chapter 5 is a veritable list of death, with the life framed not by birth but noted by “firstborns”. Note chapter 5:1 where it says God created a whole “hu-man” in God’s own image and 5:2 where it says Adam had a son ‘in his own likeness and own image”, a name which connotes a dual meaning of “placed” and “appointed”, which mirrors God’s action in the land of the garden. Interestingly the midrash also associates Seth with “Torah” as it can also embody the meaning of that word which is “instruction” for how to live in the land. This parallel is intentional in establishing the cycle of such filling of the land in a way that leads to death, and thus when we get to the story of Abram we find the promised healing come by way of this singular “adam” (human) in which both blessing and seed become the means for addressing the problem of curse and death.

  1. Bema Podcast Episode 280: The Road Back to Eden
    Host Brent Billings also spends this episode connecting the garden narrative with the Tower of Babel story. He notes two things evident in the misrash and the Traditional exegesis of the texts- The cherubim and flaming sword set to “guard the way to the tree of life” in Genesis 3:24 as being absent of the word “curse” and the story of The Tower of Babel being absent of the word curse. Using Traditional understandings he spends this episode wondering about this act of scattering as God’s intentional prevention of access to the tree of life because, as 3:22 says, humankind must not be allowed to eat from it “also” because then the can “eat and live forever”. As opposed to this being a curse he recognizes this as a means towards healing, as eating and living forever in a state of division which leads to death would leave the people enslaved to such cycles. Similarly the story of the scattered people in the Tower of Babel indicates the preservation of God in making a way for his people back to the land, only now the narrowed sense of land with borders regains its vision of a land without borders flourishing in relationship with the diversity of its peoples. In a rather wonderful reflection Billings then imagines the image bearing vocation necessitating this demand to be in relationship with those who are different than us, contrasting with Adams limited creative vision. Learning how to communicate across languages is our way of being brought together in a greater vision of the “land”, connecting us to the rivers of life flowing down from the mountain both in its source and in human vocation.
  2. Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World
    Here author Douglas Harink connects the story of Abraham to the cosmic vision of the land by connecting his story to the story of the Gentiles, where later in telling the story of Israel in relationship to Abraham in chapter 9 brings Genesis 1-12 into relationship with Sinai and exile, allowing these stories to then inform one another in relationship to both the faithfulness of God to the covenant promise regarding blessing and seed and human faithfulness to the vocation of image bearers. This becomes what Harink describes as a resurrection passage, connecting us back to the tree of life by way of the blessing and the seed.

Justice, Law, and the Counter-Cultural Nature of Jesus: Reading Romans

Speaking of the relationship of justice to the Christian story and Gospel, author Douglas Harink in his book Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World addresses the role of the Law in Paul’s mind. He writes,

“IN ALMOST EVERYONE’S MIND, justice and law, if not the same thing, are very closely related concepts. We expect law to define the meaning of justice across many spheres of society and aspects of public life.”

He goes on to address the Jewish notion of Law, which he suggests is a universal expression, over and against common perceptions born from the grace/faith versus works debate which continues to run rampant within Protestant/Reformed circles, binding the Gospel to misapplied legal language and metaphors:

“The identity of a people or nation and its members is constituted by a people’s law, if we take law not only in the narrower legal sense but also in the sense of the constitution, customs, and culture of a people—their collective “wisdom…

To think of living according to Torah as legalism is to miss the point. Torah for the premessianic Paul was the coherent bond holding all things together. Through Torah God created the world, and by it God governs the whole of the cosmos. We might paraphrase Colossians 1:17 with respect to Torah: “Torah is before all things; in Torah all things hold together.” God revealed this cosmic Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai as their concrete form of life: their founding history, traditions, polity and legal practices; their social, family, and sexual relationships; their worship, customs, habits, and practices of everyday life. In this comprehensive sense law was Judean reality, life, and culture. For a rabbi such as Paul, to be a Judean apart from Torah was inconceivable.”

The crucial point of Paul then comes down the apparent tension that exists between the Gospel arriving apart from the Law, again in an identity shaping sense (circumcision, sabbath) and the question that follows- what about the story of Israel then? A question that Paul shifts to ask rather the question behind the question: “what about Christ’s faithfulness in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness”:

“In Romans 3:9-19 Paul went on to invoke those very “words of God” (that is, the law) to silence the claim that the Judean people are better than the Gentile nations. The law itself speaks against the claim that the law produces justice; rather, it shows (as Paul reads it) that Judean society, like the Gentile nations, is “under Sin” (Rom 3:9)… Paul’s conclusion that justice comes apart from law is based on the fact that God’s justice was apocalypsed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Messiah (Rom 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 5:12-20). If both divine and human justice are revealed and enacted in Messiah, then justice does not happen through law. Paul’s logic runs this way: because Jesus Messiah is God’s justice, the law is not.”

This is crucial for understanding how Paul distinguishes between Law (Torah, Circumcision) and Gospel (Christ):
“For Paul, law does not produce justice… the law is not working on the side of justice but on the side of Sin. Somehow law is co-opted by Sin into Sin’s sphere of sovereignty, and therefore also serves Death; law becomes “Law” as a power working against the good news. By stark contrast, the good news declares that the sovereign power of Grace (“under Grace,” thus uppercase G) delivers us from the sovereign grip of Law (“under Law” [Rom 6:14], thus L).”

In the marriage analogy Paul moves away from the anology of slavery and begins working towards the positve expression of justice formed by Christ. Here the Law is described as the husband and those under the Law the wife, evoking ancient household codes of the Roman world. Paul’s point is to point to the Laws inevitable end on both sides of the equation: death. Death releases the wife from being bound to the husband (and vice versa), or on the flipside breaking the covenant can only ultimatley lead to death unde the Law where reperation and repayment for sin is demanded. This is the cycles ultimate end because the Law can never be satisfied as justice. The form of the Law can only point out sin, and more sin, which is precisely why, with the Law funcitoning as a way of life for the Judeans of Christs day, the small letter laws had grown expansive in their addtions. That’s all it can do. Paul then says that justice can only be enacted through death- the death of Christ in faithfulness to the covenant, and the death of self which ultimatley frees us to be bound to a second spouse, that of Jesus’ shaped justice.

The important note here being that Jesus justice looks different, expresses itself different, makes different demands shaped as it by the cross.

“The good news (of the gospel) is that Judeans, Greeks, and Romans are all alike “put to death to the Law through the body of Messiah” in order that they might “belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead,” and thereby “bear fruit to God” (Rom 7:4). The Messiah’s own death under Law (both Judean and Roman law) put an end to Law’s sovereignty over life. A particular people’s law or culture or way of life is no longer the determining factor for the meaning of life and justice…

In the moment that law ceases to be the implicit and subliminal structure and form of a life well-lived (nomos) and instead becomes distilled into a commandment (entolē), in that moment desire is awakened and Law is experienced as a restraining limit. (But) Law in the “weak” sense is easily co-opted to destructive ends… In demanding our obedience and in exposing and judging transgressions and injustices, Law starts to look less like an implicit form of life and more like lording it over in the way that Sin and Death do. Far from tackling Sin in its fundamental character as a destructive power, Law becomes fixated on sins. It seeks to identify and classify sins, and curb and manage them with threats of punishment enforced by power, including in some cases the threat of death.”

This Law, Paul says, is strong in condemnation but weak in producing the good. This is what we find in Paul’s own testimony as a good Jewish man seaking justice for his people:

“Good intentions (zeal for God), a just end (the security of God’s people, the eradication of a real threat), and the legal means to achieve it, authorized by the leaders in Jerusalem: What could be wrong about that? Nothing! Nothing, except the truth about justice: God’s justice was in fact enacted when God raised up the dead body of the Crucified One by the powerful Holy Spirit. When Paul met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, all of his certainties about the justice of what he was doing were shattered: “I do not know what I do” (Rom 7:15). Suddenly justice looked fundamentally otherwise than his championing of Law. If Paul loved justice as “God’s law” had taught him to do (Rom 7:25), then he must now hate the justice he had wanted to do for the sake of that law, because it was revealed to be the very form of injustice. The good he intended ended up working evil through his own violent actions to exterminate the witnesses of justice, those who really were just because they were “in Messiah Jesus.”

A personal note here. I am still fleshing out what this means in my own relating to the world, especially in the aftermath of tragedies like the violent school shootings. I don’t have this all figured out, but where Romans challenges me is in understanding that Jesus’ formed justice necessarily pushes back against my own tendencies to desire justice in ways that I feel must be just. This is meant to unsettle me and to force me to think bigger than my weak minded forms can reach.

A Month of Pride: Wrestling With Scripture and the Christian Response to LBGTQ+

So this might be controversial to some, which will continue to surprise me (but not at the same time I guess). But I’ll say this anyways since it is a thought that has been on my mind.

It seems logical to expect that if a God who decides to incarnate Godself into a particular point in time in history, such a God would do so in a language and context foreign to that both past and present.

Thus to read scripture and to speak of the spirit is to engage in the necessary work of recontextualization. In this way the story of scripture is not simply a set of doctrinal statements to repeat and believe. It is an invitation to see God at work in the particular context and the particular language of the present. The past rests simply on this- that the same God who was faithful then continues to be faithful now. The future rests on this- the same God who is faithful now will be faithful in bringing the promise to its fulfillment. And what is the promise? New creaiton. Making what is wrong in this world right.

But here in lies the true power of recontextualization. We aren’t left in the present wondering about the failures of the past or the uncertainty of the future. If Jesus is incarnated into a single moment in history embodying the particularities of its language and its context this means that Jesus’ accomplishement on the cross and the resurrection continues to reincarnate into every aspect of history past, present, and future with the hope that we can participate in the new creation work even now. That means imaging Christ and living into our vocation as image bearers in the particularness of our present- recontextualization. This is in fact what we find in the story of Israel, a story that spans ever changing contexts, generations and questions. This is a story told from the perspective of the wilderness, the desert, exile, a present seemingly caught between creation and new creation, between the raising up to life at Sinai and the settling of the Land. This is the story of a God who is not bound by context but found within it.

What are the implications of this? It means we are freed to see in the present the oppressive systems and realities that need to be challenged and remade according to Christ. This includes the way women have been oppressed by patriarchal systems.This includes the way minorities have been oppressed by racial systems. And yes, this includes the way LBGTQ+ communities have been marginalized by Christian and secular rhetoric and dogma. What oppression is in the Judeo-Christian sense is the inability of the oppressed to locate God within their story and the failure of the liberated to attend to those who are not free to find God, and thus God’s image in them, in their present context. To hand women a text that conforms them to partrarchal norms is to hand them a story in which they have no way of seeing themselves as the image of God. We do the same thing when we hand such texts to LBGTQ+ communities and persons. We make a text about Sodom and Gommorah about their destruction as opposed to hearing the very real critique towards a community that failed to see the opppressed languishing outside of their gates.

Remember what Sin is in the biblical story. It is the exchanging of our true vocation as image bearers for a lie. This is not about gender and biology, it is about the connction between God’s good creation and our embodying this in faithfulness to our vocation to be image bearers of this goodness to the whole of creation. The sin is the failure to demonstrate this goodness to the oppressed places.

Month in Review: My Favorite Watches, Reads, Listens For May, 2022

Movies

The Innocents (Eskil Vogt, 2022)

This is the kind of film that lets the questions it raises linger. It’s a slow burn and it’s also a horror piece, but both of these aspects play a role in telling a deeply committed human drama about what it means to be a child in a world where being a child means also being misunderstood and not always seen. It is the strength of community that emerges within this group of children then, amidst their diversity, that might embody the films most profound revelation.

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022)

Pretty close to a perfect film, and the rare sequel that surpasses it’s predecessor. This is meant as a call back to the first film in terms of paying homage to old characters and mirroring the originals story beats (think The Force Awakens), but this film also finds ways to set itself apart. The character beats are given freshly imagined emotional stakes and the film’s third act functions as a bridge into fresh ideas. However you feel about films that cater to nostalgia in this way it has to be said Maverick functions as a veritable lesson in how to utilize it well.

Beyond the raised emotional stakes and heightened third act, the film is also an impressive structurally feat. It’s the full package when it comes to entertaining action sequences, timely humor, honest emotions, real and memorable characters, and genuine tension and stakes. And the payoff for a years long gap between the first and the second films is definite and visible and viceral. Being able to experience these sequences now on modern IMAX screens was a true rush. A good reminder of what film is all about.

Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)/Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Andrei Tarkovsky)

Decided to fill in some blindspots with two films from one of cinemas all time greats. Solaris is a brilliantly and intricately crafted psychological science fiction that uses space, distance, and the subtle blurring of the lines between dream and reality to explore themes of regret, forgivness, fear, wonder, acceptance and resistance to change. Ivan’s Childhood is set in the familiar terrain of World War 2 with its deeply formed and powerful story about a young boy sent to work as a spy on the eastern front and the soldiers who befriend him. Equally brilliant but in a more grounded sense.

Nitram (Justin Kurzel, 2022)

A shocking and unsettling look into the nature of pyschological trauma with a poignant reflection on the way tragedy can impact our sense of a meaningful (or meaningless) existence, and how tragedy can lead to more tragedy. The relationships in the film, which revolve around a young man with cognivite disabilities, straddle this line between desired intimacy and intentional distancing, or attachment and detachment. It’s a delicate dance where things are capable of unfolding in any one direction at any given moment. And each possible outcome of this intimacy or this distance could find a comprehensible narrative arc.

This is the brilliance of this film, I think, is that it plays out a story based on true events with this level of nuance and concern for its subject without losing the narrative it desires to establish. This is a film that wants to say something about the irresponsible nature of current gun laws in Australia, showing how such laws not only lead to violence but can even foster a culture of violence. I knew nothing about the true life story here and so the ultimate end to me is not something I saw coming. But even if I had known, the invitation of the film to sit in that uncomfortable and unsettling space and to ask us to experience this as a story of persons, of a family first before getting to the news headlines is what makes this film so compelling.

Radio Days (Woody Allen, 1987)
Radio Days is steeped in nostalgia, and I really enjoyed how the seperate stories (following the same characters) intersect and connect using the narrative device of the radio. Each segment revolves around a particular program as it unpacks the different characters within this family, and so much of this is simply bursting with a love of a lost era.

Honorable Mentions:

There was a lot of great new stuff released in May that is worth mentioning. Such as the lovely hidden gem Marvelous and the Black Hole (Kate Tsang, 2022), a film that is as steeped in wonder as it is its quiet, coming of age human drama. Topside (Logan George and Celine Held, 2020), which finally saw wide release, is a formative indie that, while light on the budget remains deeply entrenched in the emotional context of this mother-daughter relationship trying to survive on the streets of New York City. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Sam Raimi, 2022) might not be the best MCU movie out there, but as someone I know put it, it most definitely is a very good Raimi film. His fingerprints are all over it and the film is absolutely worth experiencing in Imax. Speaking of horror, Faye (KD Amond, 2022) is a quiet sleeper that revels in its contained setting while Garlands new film Men (Alex Garland, 2022) is a veritable exercise in vision and creativity and aesthetic. Meanwhile, make sure not to skip out on Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (Akiva Schaffer, 2022). It’s surprisingly and unexpectedly good. As is the Amazon film Emergency (Carey Williams, 2022), which reminded me of a lower scale and not quite as good Blindspotting with its invested themes and gradually building tension.

Books

When in Romans (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic): An Invitation to Linger With the Gospel According To Paul by Beverly Gaventa

I’ve been doing a deep dive into the book of Romans and Gaventa’s accessible and wonderful exposition of specific themes in Romans was a wonderful way to grasp the big picture narrative. Romans is a letter that has long been misunderstood, and Gaventa’s treaties stands tall in a long list of commentaries and works that are helping to uncover the letters true nature.

Moses: A Human Life by Avivah Zornberg

I heard Zornberg interviewed last month and was inspired to pick up her books. I started with this one and it did not disappoint. She uses a mix of text and the lengthy tradition of existing Midrash to tell the story of a pivotal figure in Jewish history. Much of it is profound, and much of it is illuminating, helping to paint a picture of someone who was as complicated as he was patterned in the likeness of “righteous” figures in scripture.

Romans: A Theological and Pastoral Commentary by Michael Gorman

Gorman’s commentary is another work on Paul’s letter to the Romans worth mentioning. I am a big fan of Gorman who writes in the tradition of covenantal theology and transformation theology. He has such a way of articulating his thoughts in a cohesive and coherent fashion and brings his particular interest in transformation to bear on a notoriously difficult text. His wealth of knowledge on the history of translation problems and terms/definitions proved immensely helpful.

Moses’ Women by Shera Tuchman

Funny enough, I came across this book when I was reading Moses: A Life, because the person that had previously checked it out from the library left their receipt in it and this was one of a list of books with similar themes. And I’m so glad I was able to check it out because it is quite amazing. As opposed to Moses’ life this one narrows in on the women who form the foundation for his story. It helps us to see how they are intentionally integrated in the text in significant ways, functioning as the symbolic and spiritual forces that give rise to, direct and redeem Moses’ story. I’ll never read it the same way again.

The Black Phone Stories by Joe Hill

Bought this collection of short stories mostly to prepare for the film based on The Black Phone. There are some selections that are stronger than others, but overall I really liked the varied styles and tones and focuses represented in throughout.

Music

I had a lot of great music queued up this month, so I figured I would give a broad overview of a number of stand outs:
Elevator- The Words You Spoke Still Move Me (reminiscent of Haim with its mix of instrumentation vocal performance)
Arcade Fire-WE (Lengthy, introspective, and timely in its themes and emotional plea for lament, reflection, optimism and hope)
Anyway Gang- Still Anyways (Upbeat and infectious 4 chord rock)
Morgan Wade- Wilder Days (intimate lyrics, strong, rough around the edges vocal delivery, and smooth folk country stylings make this a great one to immerse in)
Woodlock- I Loved You Then (acoustic EP with a lyrical presence and layered melodies)
Florence and the Machine- Dance Fever (A brilliant follow up and a much welcome return to one of the great alt rock folk artists of our current day. The song writing is truly remarkable taking her familiar stylings and weaving it into something fresh and inventive)
Sarah and the Sundays- Coward/The Living End (Good roots rock with lots of rhythm and guitar leading the way)
Andrew Hyatt- Four Good Years (Catchy country tunes with solid down home compositions)
The Black Keys- Dropout Boogie (not their best effort but nonetheless a memorable one from a classic artist. This is one that I think will grow with time)
Group Project- Happily Catastrophic (toe tapping tunes with big, soaring melodies and plenty of good feelings to go around)
John Mark McMillan- Ordinary Love (the grungy worship artist always has something important to say, and typically does it with strong compositional form and unconventional approaches. This one is no different and feels particularly entrenched as a passion project)
Faouzia- Citizens (this artist used to be a student at my wife’s school before making it big. Here she returns with new material. It’s hard to top her previous stuff where every song seemed tailer made for greatest hits, but strong melodies remain, as do the big, memorable crescendo’s)
Jon Guerra- Keeper of Days (a new discovery for me, and I really enjoyed the spiritual focus, subtle vocals, and meditative quality)
Michael Franti and Spearhead- Follow your Heart (With songs like follow your heart and life is amazing, this fusion album is full of regge type jams and decent pop hooks)
Def Leppard- Diamond Star Halos (who knew they could come roaring back on the scene with something this good)

Podcasts/Other

Beyond the Big Screen Podcast, Episode 137- The True Virtue of Happiness

This interview with J. Budziszewski regarding his new book on happiness was refreshing in a market saturated by books on how to be happy. His honest take, especially where it intersects with religion and philosophy, encouraged me to pick up his book.

Biblical World Podcast, Episode 47- Egypt and the Bible Part 2, Mark Janzen and Chris Mckinny

I really enjoyed Part 1, and this deep dive into the archaeology surrounding Egypt by reputable scholars did not disappoint. Such fascinating insight into the ancient world, shedding light on what archaeology is and how it works.

The Sacred Podcast, Episode 120- Frank Cottrell- Boyce on wonder, forgiveness and the writers calling

Boyce is such a wonderful and gracious voice, and his call to wonder was exactly what I needed to hear in the moment when I listened to this episode from The Sacred.

History Unplugged Podcast, Episodes 653, 654- Western Religion of the 19th Century Competed with Darwin and Marx by Dabbling in Hinduism, Occultism, and War Isn’t the Natural State of Human Affairs: It Shouldn’t Happen and Most of the Time it Doesn’t

Two really compelling episodes presenting compelling theories about tough subjects within history. The firs examines religious history in light of important moments in social history, while the second episode takes a look at the philosophy of war, arguing that we tend to focus on war as a inevitable and dominating constant while glossing over the many times when war doesn’t happen.

The Bible For Normal People, Episode 211- Dale C. Allison, Approaching the Resurrection of Jesus as a Historian

An excellent deep dive into the historical claim of the resurrection from a brilliant scholar willing to hold questions on all sides as he works towards honest reflection of the data.

OnScript, Episode 222- African American Readings of Paul

Given my interest in Paul and Romans at the moment this one proved an excellent listen and a link to another great read on the subject.

Regent College Podcast, Episode 209- Reading the Scriptures in Israel-Palestine Today with Dr. Yohanna Katanacho

This one caught me by surprise. I had never heard of the author and the way he brings clarity the theme of Land and Identity relating to the story of Israel was really mind blowing for me.

The Land, The Blessing and the Seed: Reading Genesis and Romans Together

I thought this was kind of cool. Why I love the study of scripture. Three separate sources all connecting with a similar thread yesterday:

  1. Regent College Podcast Episode 209: Reading the Scriptures in Israel-Palestine Today – With Dr. Yohanna Katanacho

This is an interview with Katanacho about his new book called “The Land of Christ: A Palestinian Cry”, detailing some of the questions that informed his journey growing up as a Palestinian Christian. In the back half of this interview he narrows in on some key questions regarding what “land” means in scripture something that took him back to a study of the Genesis scroll.

Here he helps make a connection between the first 12 chapters of Genesis as it brings to the surface key motifs regarding land and the peoples relationship to the land. He defines the central problem in Genesis in two words- curse and death, and the solution as blessing and seed, noting that the healing of the people sits in direct relationship to the healing of the land.

What I thought was really cool is how he narrows in on Genesis 5 and Genesis 10, two seemingly inconsequential passages that often get skipped over on the way to the real Divine-Human drama. He mentions 10:10 with its focus on land called Shinar and 10:25 with its focus on someone named Peleg as key points which connect chapter 10 with the Tower of Babel story in chapter 11, and 10:18-19’s reference to the Canaanite clans “scattered” and stretching borderlands as connecting chapter 10 with chapter 9 and the division of Noah’s sons.

Now follow this thread- the story of Adam and Eve represents “land”, division (a divided “adam” which means humanity, a three fold division, and a movement away from the land into the wilderness. This is told on a cosmic scale. Cain and Abel, two names symbolic with the nations, become divided when it becomes brother versus brother, leading to a movement out of the land into the wilderness. The story of Noah brings the cosmic story together the story of the scattered nations. If we set this in the context of the story of Israel what we have is a portrait of Moses and the people at Sinai at the mountain (think the garden on the mountain with the waters flowing outwards to bring life to the world by way of the creative imaging and vocation of humanity made in the image of God, and the ark, a symbol of the garden on the mountain demonstrating the failure of this when humans neglect their vocation as image bearers and trade it for a lie), and eventually a picture of the exiled people once raised up to be established in relationship to the land (to create and to build in the life giving vision of God for the world) now scattered. If we connect this to the story of the Tower of Babel what we have is a picture of a people creating and building in the singular land (Shinar) in an effort to “make a name for themselves”, bringing us back to the story of the garden (land) and the inevitable end of such desires which is a divided and scattered people enslaved to both curse (of the land) and death. Thus retelling the same story.

Chapter 5 then becomes the connecting piece between Adam and Eve/Cain and Abel and the Abram story of chapter 12 that paints a picture of the answer to the problem. Chapter 5 is a veritable list of death, with the life framed not by birth but noted by “firstborns”. Note chapter 5:1 where it says God created a whole “hu-man” in God’s own image and 5:2 where it says Adam had a son ‘in his own likeness and own image”, a name which connotes a dual meaning of “placed” and “appointed”, which mirrors God’s action in the land of the garden. Interestingly the midrash also associates Seth with “Torah” as it can also embody the meaning of that word which is “instruction” for how to live in the land. This parallel is intentional in establishing the cycle of such filling of the land in a way that leads to death, and thus when we get to the story of Abram we find the promised healing come by way of this singular “adam” (human) in which both blessing and seed become the means for addressing the problem of curse and death.

  1. Bema Podcast Episode 280: The Road Back to Eden

Host Brent Billings also spends this episode connecting the garden narrative with the Tower of Babel story. He notes two things evident in the misrash and the Traditional exegesis of the texts- The cherubim and flaming sword set to “guard the way to the tree of life” in Genesis 3:24 as being absent of the word “curse” and the story of The Tower of Babel being absent of the word curse. Using Traditional understandings he spends this episode wondering about this act of scattering as God’s intentional prevention of access to the tree of life because, as 3:22 says, humankind must not be allowed to eat from it “also” because then the can “eat and live forever”. As opposed to this being a curse he recognizes this as a means towards healing, as eating and living forever in a state of division which leads to death would leave the people enslaved to such cycles. Similarly the story of the scattered people in the Tower of Babel indicates the preservation of God in making a way for his people back to the land, only now the narrowed sense of land with borders regains its vision of a land without borders flourishing in relationship with the diversity of its peoples. In a rather wonderful reflection Billings then imagines the image bearing vocation necessitating this demand to be in relationship with those who are different than us, contrasting with Adams limited creative vision. Learning how to communicate across languages is our way of being brought together in a greater vision of the “land”, connecting us to the rivers of life flowing down from the mountain both in its source and in human vocation.

  1. Resurrecting Justice: Reading Romans for the Life of the World

Here author Douglas Harink connects the story of Abraham to the cosmic vision of the land by connecting his story to the story of the Gentiles, where later in telling the story of Israel in relationship to Abraham in chapter 9 brings Genesis 1-12 into relationship with Sinai and exile, allowing these stories to then inform one another in relationship to both the faithfulness of God to the covenant promise regarding blessing and seed and human faithfulness to the vocation of image bearers. This becomes what Harink describes as a resurrection passage, connecting us back to the tree of life by way of the blessing and the seed.

Romans 9-11: Reclaiming the Story of Israel

“I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written:
‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he wil turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I away their sins.’

  • Romans 11:25-27

“For God has bound all men over to disobedience sothat he may have mercy on them all.”

  • Romans 11:32

One of the most common readings of this difficult passage that I encountered both growing up in the evangelical world and in my movement towards Reformed readings (which I’ve since moved away from) is to blanket this passage with the assumption that Paul is establishing the notion of a “spiritual” Israel over and against an “ethnic” (identity) or a “ritualistic (law) Israel. That is, Paul sees the true Israel as both Jew and Gentile and the “fullness” or “all” of this collective as the elect.

If you spend any time reading Reformed theology you will encounter a reading of the word “all” that can shift between its possible usages and interpretations, such as being rendered “all types” as opposed to all or the whole. You see this in readings of 1 Corinthians 15:22 and the statement “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The “all” in Adam is taken to read universally while the “all” in Christ is taken to mean “all types” or the “sum” of the elect. It is similar for those in the evangeical world who read these verses in Romans to be speaking about “spiritual” Israel and apply the “all” to “all” who are obedient to the Gospel and confess Jesus as Lord. In both cases this flows from an understanding of Romans to be speaking about the salvation of the individual, or the process of salvation in the individual.

Now, if Romans is to be understood to be speaking to a majority Gentile community wrestling with and divided over how it is they make sense of Jewish people now returning to Rome following Rome’s previous purging of them from the city, how does this place these verses in terms of the audiences (or Pauls) question and concern? Scholar Beverly Gaventa argues that Paul’s larger argument of Chapter 9-11 should lead us directly back to Chapter 4 and his initial discussion about Abraham.

This actually used to be the minority and is now the majority view, but the majority of scholars now believe 9-11 to be the climatic moment in the narative that moves us along the journey from the specific context of these divided and largely gentile christian (using that word in a defining sense) communities to the cosmic view and back again to the specific context in chapter 12. And one important note here that comes from this majority view- Paul would not recognize Israel in the same way we would today, as a Country. Paul does not treat Israel “as an ethnic entity”, rather he “treats Israel in terms of the story of creation and redemption which flows from the story of Exodus into Exile and gets bound up in terms of covenent (promise). As Gaventa goes on to say, “coventional treatments of Romans 9-11 often overlook the fact that the primary question Paul raises (in his use of the interloceter, the imagined or fictional opponent) about Israel is a question about God.” Or in other words, the “faithfulness” of God to this covenantal promise. More directly in 9-11, the reigning question is, did God fail in this covenant promise when it comes to Israel. Why is this question raised? Because of what Paul says in Romans 4.

Taking from Gaventa, if Chapter 1 establishes that Jesus is “born from the line of David” (1:3) and that the Gospel is “for the Jew first (1:16), and Romans 2 then has effectively worked to “destabilze” categories of Jew and Gentile by saying there are gentiles who observe the law without having recieved it (in the circumcision/identity sense) and Jews who have the law (in an identity sense) while not observing it. In this sense, if circumcision can become uncircumcision (and vice versa) how then do we make sense of the covenant promise within the story of Israel? Here Gaventa reminds us that it is important to hear this as a gentile (Paul’s audience) but from the perspective of the interloceter probing Paul’s own Jewish “faithfulness”. His cosmic view of creation binds him to the “all” or whole of creation, but it does so with God’s faithfulness lingering in the shadows of his very Jewish concern for the story of Israel.

Which brings Gaventa to chapter 4 where she helps to show how it is that Paul brings in Abraham in a curious way, absent of the larger plot markers of Abrahams own Jewish roots. If you read Romans 4 what stands out is the way Paul writes Abraham in line with his gentile readers, bypassing the covenantal context all together. “There is a striking historical leap from the promise that Abraham trusted (acted in obedience or faithfulness) to the present time.”

Why does Gaventa believe this maters in a literary sense? Because of the ways Paul is striving to speak of what God has done in the cosmic sense rather than emphasizing Abrahams own character. She quotes Francis Wastson as suggesting that oddly enough “Abraham becomes a minor character in his own story.” The story of God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant promise to make right in the whole of creation what is wrong translates from Abraham to “all” of creation. And this leaves an important gap which 9-11 is now returning to witht the question, what do we do with the Jewish story? This is especialy pertinent given the division is likey between gentiles taking on the Jewish identity and those who are not. The question pushes even further in chapter 8 to wonder about that whole circumcision/uncircmsion thing Paul previously presented. “Does Israel have the power to remove itself from God’s love, and if so what does this say about God?” And remember, this is not speaking about a “spiritual” Israel but rather the story of Israel. This is so cruical.

Paul’s definitive answer comes in Romans 9:6 where he says “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Here it is important to recognize something most modern translations miss- a modifier. The modifier is not present in the original Greek text and thus must be added in order to dictate a direction. The modifer “is” (it is not) tends to be the place where readings move towards the idea of a “spiritual”Israel. In context thuogh it is better translated in terms of beiing “constituted”. As Gaventa articulates it, “(the comparitive coulld be) it is not the case that the elected representatives constitute the congress”, or to set it within Romans 9:6 “it is not the case that all those who are from Israel constitute Israel.” In other words, which Paul sees in his ensuing unfolding of the story of Israel, This is a story of God’s faithfulness, not Israel itself. Israel (not spiritual but identifiable Israel) “does not derive from itself”, it exists by nature of God’s faithfulness in the created world. As Paul repeatedly brings up the question “is Israel beyond rescue” in chapter 9 the concern of Paul’s story here is for the whole of creation and how the story of Israel (9-11) fits in with the story of the gentile division (linking Abraham with both).

Implications of this reading? First, this challenges how we move into Paul’s discussion of election. Individualistic readings of Romans that read it in terms of the process of salvation see in 9-11 God’s election of the individual using the idea of “spiritual” Israel to do away with all disinctives that seperate humanity in a societal sense. It universalizes Paul’s words and removes it from the story of Israel on the basis that “all have sinned”, making the Gospel all about individuals being saved (or elected) to live in glory with God. This misses two crucial parts of Paul’s story:

  1. The cosmic story in which we find the emergence of a third player, the Powers of Sin and Death, which is portrayed as an actual agency
  2. The story of Israel, which often gets absorbed into the assumed Law-Gospel debate making the “law” (salvation by works) bad and the gospel (salvation by faith alone) good. Spiritual Israel then leads to a long history of reading Israel”s story as one of poential superseccionaist claims that now gets freed by the grace of the Gospel. This makes little sense of the questions and concerns Paul is relating through his dealing with the story of Israel, and what hangs in the balance, something that tends to fall by the waysid when pushed and pulled into renderings of a “spiritual” Israel, is the question of what do we do with God’s faithfulness in light of the story of Israel, which carries force with the gentile audiences hearing the spirit, suffering, and new creation emphasis of chapter 8.

Second, when we hear Paul’s telling of the story of Israel in chapter 9 and following election should not be standing out as though our confidence in the faithfulness of God hinges on the elect of a “remnant” that God holds secure in their salvation over and against the rest. When you hear the story in view of the Old Testament narratives what becomes clear is how election means “election for” (the sake of the world) not “election to” (individual election). To hear the phrase “I (God) will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compasion on who I will have compassion” should set us straight into those familiar and sacred stories, where in the Old Testament context it is not speaking about the salvation of individuals but of a chosen representative raised up to serve the whole of this cosmic picture of creation. Paul is emphasizing the pattern of God; his freedom to have mercy on or to “chose” the lesser in an ancient point of perspective to be a chosen representative of God’s new creation vision. It is about God’s freedom to do so over and against social expectations. Written into this of coure is a story of the unfaithfulness of Israel. To say “Jacob I loved, but Esau, I hated”, that troublesome phrase for many, is not to hear this speaking about God hating individuals. Rather this phrase is pulled from an Old Testament story about nations in conflict (the nation born from Esau and the nation born of Jacob). Here is it important to be immersed in the larger narative of the Old Testament and the patterned history that it represents. In the story of Cain and Abel we have this similar establishing picture of a family divided. The warring nations in Israel is consistently depicted as brothers against brothers, which gets read into the pattern of God’s subverting the normal familial expectations regarding the first born. This plays into God consistently switching sides from the readers perspecive in order to to stay faithful to the promise, and always using the unexpected persons and places to pull somtheing new from the destruction. This is why the story of Israel cannot be subsumed into nationalistic interests. Even the point of the “hardening” of some follows a similar track. Here Paul establishes in line with the “gving over” to resistance that we see in the Exodus story, but this always functions in service to God’s faihful promise to make, as chapter 8 says, all things new, to bring about the new creation.

It must be said here too that readings that suggest the point of all this is to establish the right of God to choose some to slavation and others not (however they interpret the final judgement) and thus read 9-11 as the process of sanctification (the making of a righteous life) simply misses the story of the Gentiles, the story of Israel and the story of God that Paul is telling. It misses God’s justice bringing hope to these contexts.

And what about justice? When the “all” is interpreted as spiritual Israel and read through the lens of individual salvation, what you end up with is a story that massages out the particular contexts of these three stories. And when we lose that context God’s justice becomes less about speaking into these contexts and all about the punishment of death deserved (for all) and punishment asborbed (for the elect in the Reformed view or the repentent in the opposing view). Any potential justice must follow this judicial sense of the word and must be predicated on death as the ony truly deserving punishment. All roads in pursuit of God’s justice lead to death as their ultimate end.

This faces real problems when trying to attend for Paul’s view of the cosmic narrative, both in the redemption of the whole of creation and in the establishing of evil as an agency and the object of God’s wrath. This misses the ways God is subverting the forms of justice Paul notes in the world through using these representatives. Now, what I am not arguing for here is universal salvation (that’s another discussion). What I am argung for is placing justification and righteousness in the same camp as part of Paul’s grander vision of God’s being faithful to the covenant promise, which is fulfilled not in some future sanctfied existence but in the defeat of the Powers and the renewal of creation that has already begun. This is so crucial to the quesiton Paul is asking in Romans, which is what about God’s faithfulness. This is what we find in the story of Israel and it is what Paul is applying to the gentile story with concern over their division regarding the work of God playing out in their context as gentile believers. The assurance of salvation is this gospel story- the death and resurrection of Jesus which defeats the Powers of Sin and Death and ushers in the new reality. What follows then, which is evident in Paul’s continued emphasis on the call to obedience and allegiance within this new reality, is the question of which reality we are standing in, that which brings life or that which brings death. This is not a matter of “believing faith. This is a matter of participation based on the faithfulness of God. This then becomes a much diffrent question then “am I saved or not”. Rather its, how can I know God is making things right in the world? That’s the question Paul is asking in Romans, and this should frame our sense of justice accordngly as it moves us to then bear witness to the fact that God is in fact faithful to that promise even in our failures. This is the true force of God’s elective work.

Romans 15,16: God’s Wrath, God’s Kindness, and the Path From Sin To Justice

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”
– Romans 15:5-7

“I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned… be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
– Romans 16:17, 19

These verses, which bring Paul’s Gospel of God… regarding His Son (1:2) to a close intends to bring Paul’s leaders all the way back to where he begins in Chapter 2, where he writes “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgement on someone else, or at whatever poitn you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (2:1)

Whos is the “you” Paul is adressing? Most scholars seem to agree on the letters timing- a period of time after Jews been purged from Rome when they are slowly beginning to return. It is likely Paul is speaking to churches made up of a majority Gentile audience, if not all, who are attempting to make sense of Jewish exiles coming into their Church.

And what is dividing them and causing them to pass judgement? Tim Gombis in his excellent work on the letter to the Romans outlines how the division sits between Gentiles who believed they needed to become Jewish in order to belong as a Christ follower (the ones Paul refers to as the weak) and those who believed the did not (which Paul calls the strong).The Weak/Strong label (Chapter 14) is not meant to evoke lesser and greater categories, but rather questions surrounding identity by way of the Law, which Paul uses in a threefold way- as a mark of identity, as an act of covenant formation (Torah) and as a fuction of fidelity or allegiance (obedience to). What lies behind this call to unity then is the exhortation to establish a Gospel for the world in line with the story of Israel through which Jesus arises. What’s important to recognize here is that Paul is not thinking in terms of a Law-Gospel or faith-works tension. This is one of the misunderstandings of the Jewish world to which Paul and Jesus belonged that arises when we read faith in terms of a “believing” faith rather than a “faithfuness” to, as well as when the terms justification is seperated from the term sanctification. The anxiety that we find in Paul’s audience and that Paul is addressing has everything to do with covenental faithfulness and identity, two things that carry both the saving (liberating) act and the call to faithfulness in tandem.

Leading up to Paul’s establishing of his main thesis (division which leads to judgment and how to heal such divisions within the Church) Paul takes a journey through the story of creation (1:18-23), outlining the problem (exchanging the glory of the immortal God, word that means both presence and image, for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles (1:23), a direct rendering of the Garden narrative applied to the story at Mount Sinai and the ensuing exile), defining the outcome of the problem (God gave them over to sinful desire, which he defines later as being in bondage to or in slavery to capital letter Sin, the agency Paul describes as The Powers of Sin and Death, given that the wages of sin is Death), and then defines precisely how and why it is a problem in an exhastive list of sins/Sins particular expression in a practical sense (1:29-32), all terms that set the stage for division and which it says “deserve death”.

A couple notes here relating to Romans and the idea of justice. 1:15 clearly establishes where God’s wrath is directed “revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness… “. As Paul continues to flesh this out in his letter he sees this as the embodiment of the agency that holds humanity in slavery. God’s wrath is not then directed at humanity, but rather at the Powers which inform the final note of Paul’s letter in 16:20, where he brings us back to the garden narrative by echoing the covenant promise to “crush Satan under your feet”. The answer to the problem of Division is the defeat of the Powers, the liberating act which makes known the true image of humanity and creation. The picture Paul is painting is of God giving those who paricipate in the rule of capital letter Sin over to the “desire” that informs such an exchange of their true image, thus “storing up wrath” against ourselves, the wrath God has directed at the Powers of Sin and Death.

The point of justification then is this story of Christus Victor, the story of liberation which is given to the whole of creation. This is crucial for moving into an understanding of judgement and salvation as establishing two realities, one that brings (and is) Life and one that is and brings Death, and thus moving us towards allegiance to one reality or the other. This is what glory means, is the presence of God among and with us. The image of God revealed. Its in this way that we can gain a fuller grasp on the “faith(fulness) of Christ to the covenenat promise, God’s true measure of justice. To “deserve” death in this sense is not to deserve it because we are guilty or because we are human- this is the view of the sort of judicial system The Powers of Sin and Death bind us to. It is simply the proclamation of Christs victory over Sin and Death. It is not a depraved human in view here but Sin/sin itself, and christ liberates by moving us into a different kind of justice. And this justice in Roman’s is meant to have the context of the audience, the division and the problem in view. it is communal and specific, and from there gets wrapped up into the cosmic story Paul is unfolding.

Keep in mind too, what is said to deserve death- division. Paul is going to do a lot of work to show how Torah can be used for death work (division) or life work (unity, peace, love), and in context this comes through using Torah to include or exclude others from the justifying work of Christ

Romans 13: Death, Taxes and Reclaiming Justice

Reading with much fear and trembling in Romans 13 this morning. If Romans is a highly contentous book in Christian theology, this chapter, or at least the first 7 verses, might reflect the height of this tension given how it has been used to justify nationalism, political and religious allegiances, violence, and, of course, appeals to forms of justice that continue to run rampant here in North America by way of the “bearing of the sword” as God’s “servant”, an “agent of wrath” (13:4).

And of course, while I would argue these verses are often used out of context, common readings within the evangelical world and Reformed communities don’t arise out of nowhere. There are very real outcomes to readings of Romans that see it as describing the process of individual election to salvation. One of those outcomes is employing Divine agency and God’s sovereignty as means of justifying God’s use of violent punishment as the “just” sentence of this evil world. For that reason these verses are seen as the divine proclamation that the key and sole duty of the government is to enact penal/judicial justice by way of the sword. This is what God has raised them up to do. Those who need to fear such a government are those who have done wrong (13:4). Here we see interpretations of righteousness and justification in Romans being employed in a moral sense rather than a “just” sense of the terms. To rebel against such judicial systems, they (interpreters) say, is tantamount to rebelling against God (13:2).

A couple thoughts here:
1. This is precisely why, as I’ve been arguing for in my time in Romans, such views of justice (penal, just punishment, necessary repayment for sin) can only ever result in death. The cycles of repayment that such views of justice uphold have only one, singular trajectory, and it is not restorative. It can’t be in common readings of justification and righteousnes in Romans as “moral” terms. Restorative work belongs in the split terminology of sanctification, the result of salvation through faith. Justification is the means by which payment is made for the elect and punishment meted out for the reprobate. Such a view not only aligns with the form of justice we see in Rome, perpetuating the cycle of sin by way of repayment.

2. What happens when we connect Romans 13:1-7 to Romans 12, where the final word is “overcome evil with good” lest we “be overcome with evil”. What happens when we employ the calls of love from Chapter 12 in terms such as hospitality, harmony, devotion, peace, humility, and the call to not take revenge. What happens if we apply the call of love in the second part of Romans 13 where it says “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love on another, for he who loves his fellowman has fufilled the law.” (13:8) How does this move us away from the moral conversation of good and bad works, or law versus Gospel, to a conversation about how love breaks the cycle of repayment by way of a different kind of justice.

3. What happens if we apply Paul’s use of terminology like justification/righteousness to a past/present/future use. Paul moves fluidly through these contexts and tenses not as a matter of assurance of future salvation, but as assurance in Christ’s faithfulness o the covenant promise. This means we can live in the new creation reality now by bearing witness to it. What does this mean for 13:1-7?

4. What if Romans 13:1-7 has been wrongly cited out of context? What happens when we read Romans backwards and find the context in a divided Gentile community needing to make sense of their place within Jewish identity? Here is something to consider. Some commentators have argued Romans 13:1-7 is speaking of the authorities as “Rome”, and suggest that it is so out place with Paul’s larger argument that it must have been a later insertion. But consider this argument from scholar Mark Nanos from his book The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters. Rome is never cited in these passages. There is actually good evidence to see 13:1-7 as referring to the religious leaders in the Temple, who would have collected taxes from the gentiles as they worshipped with them. This fits with Paul’s larger concern for healing the rift between the Gentile churches regarding whether they need to become Jewish or not. It fits with Paul’s exhortation of Jewish identity in the grander picture of the witness going out into all the earth. It fits with his endorsement of the Jewish Law in relationship to wrath and Sin/sin. And keep in mind that individualistic readings of Roman’s have led to tendencies to see the Law as bad and the Gospel as good. This is not what Paul would have thought. In Roman’s 7 and 3 Paul is establishing what he sees as two different uses of Torah, one that brings death and one that brings life.

If we read it that way suddenly the verses carry a positive movement towards Paul’s larger argument of love and unity and peace. The biggest question in this view is the word “sword”. There is a technical argument there that shows how the sword is not primarily intended as a literal sword, nor likely a sword at all. It can be seen as God’s justice towards captal letter Sin, in which small letter sin attaches us to (storing up wrath). This is an admonition and a reclamation of Paul’s preceding argument then in 9-12 regarding Jews and Gentiles and justification. Just as they give taxes/revenue to respective entities (vs7) give to the authorities (religious leaders in the temple) for they are God’s servant.