The Kingdom Perspective

November 13, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #8

 Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 1 Corinthians 6:7

At the heart of the lawsuit that “defeated” the Corinthian church was a self-centered short sightedness. Lost in the dispute was the greater good and larger vision of the kingdom. It is not difficult to see why. Likely an injustice had been done; feelings were hurt; rights were violated; money or something of monetary value was likely involved (which always seems to ratchet up the stakes); the church had failed in peacefully resolving the issue; and as a consequence all thoughts of the kingdom were shoved aside. No kingdom revolution breaking out here—just business as the unbelieving world defined it—thus their defeat.

Which is why into this Paul reintroduced the kingdom perspective. There was another way to handle this dispute—a revolutionary way of taking the loss; being wronged and cheated—for the sake of kingdom peace and prosperity. Nowhere else would this be put forth as a solution. Yes, the kingdom is more important than personal rights. Yes, the kingdom is worth more than monetary gain. Something bigger than just me is going on here.

It is an Eternal Perspective

Another way to frame the Corinthian dispute is to view it through an eternal verses temporal lens. Those engaged in the lawsuit were merely reacting to and being driven by the moment. That, then, led to disastrous results. The kingdom perspective, which Paul taught, had the eternal component. Making decisions based upon that perspective changes things—how we feel, react, process, and behave in any given circumstance. He would remind the Corinthians of this in another letter:

Therefore do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Contextually Paul offered this kingdom perspective to the Corinthians as a part of his teaching on his ministry of reconciliation and how he personally processed challenges. Applying it to their earlier lawsuit problem it fits in seamlessly with his advice to take the loss. The lawsuit should have been considered a “light and momentary” trouble. Being wronged and cheated—the revolutionary kingdom approach—would have merely then been an investment into achieving eternal glory, which in comparison made the loss insignificant. This could have been done only by swallowing up the seen into the unseen and discerning the eternal out of the temporary. Once the bigger picture was given precedent, the lawsuit along with the heated emotions that triggered it, would have faded away in favor of the values of the kingdom.

Nothing to Gain Here

Recall Christ’s teaching about gaining the entire world but losing our souls in Matthew 16:25-27. This reflects the temporal versus eternal tension also. If we give into the moment to gain its rewards, but lose sight of the eternal will and perspective of God, what have we really accomplished? Was winning a lawsuit against another believer while bringing defeat and shame upon the church really worth it? Not much upside to that from a kingdom perspective.

Peter certainly had the kingdom perspective in mind when he wrote concerning end times:

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed it’s coming. (2 Peter 3:11-12)

He speaks of the ultimate temporal versus eternal tension that will be permanently resolved on the day of Christ’s coming. The treasure we lay up on earth? Gone. Our light and momentary problems? Over. All the losses we endured for the kingdom’s sake? Rewarded. This is the overarching and revolutionary backdrop upon which to place our entire approach to life. Holy and godly living combined with an ever-present anticipation of the kingdom fully coming completely changes things. With this type of kingdom perspective even the idea of a lawsuit would have never surfaced in Corinth. In the big picture of the kingdom there was nothing at all to gain from it.

Not My Will

Of course, Christ personified perfectly this kingdom perspective. It is what governed his life; it is how he came to make personal decisions; it is what enabled him to carry out completely the will of the Father. Note what the Hebrew writer says of him while encouraging us to “fix our eyes” on his example:

Who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not lose heart. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

What joy was found in a Roman cross? Absolutely none. It offered nothing but excruciating agony. In the moment no one desires that—even Christ. But he knew joy within it from the kingdom perspective. He took the loss so that we could achieve greater glory. That was the only way he could approach and finish it. The moment itself was too disheartening (as are many moments) but against anticipating the “joy set before him” he endured it. He gave up his rights; he did not insist on his way. He subjected his will to the Father’s (Luke 22:42) so that none of us would be defeated.

So to conclude this section of text—the simplest way to understand the kingdom perspective embedded within it is for us to let the Father’s will have preeminence in all we do—even if that means taking the loss; being wronged and cheated for the kingdom’s sake. It is not about insisting on getting my way and pursuing my rights; creating strife, division, or turmoil in the body of Christ; about temporary gain at the cost of the kingdom. It is about discerning the difference between temporary and eternal while living holy and godly lives with that framing and driving our decisions; it is about knowing that the only way to overcome the defeatism of the moment is to invest ourselves and our recourses into the eternal. It is about fixing our eyes on the unseen—on Christ—and always living in the moment with the eternal in mind. This is the kingdom revolution that indeed changes everything!

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Redefining Personal Rights

October 19, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #5

Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 1 Corinthians 6:7

The Corinthian Situation

These words were among those written by Paul in response to a letter he received from a lady named Chloe who was a part of the infant church in Corinth. Being a first generation church it was experiencing severe challenges transitioning from a secular worldview to a kingdom one. Chloe detailed those challenges to Paul and he responded. We know that response as the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians.

The problems that plagued the Corinthian church were rooted in immaturity along with a lack of understanding (and embracing) of kingdom values. They had yet to be completely revolutionized. In the specific context of our scripture reference it was evident in their handling of some type of legal dispute among Christians. Instead of assisting those at odds and seeking a resolution within the church setting, this dispute spilled over into the greater community and into the secular court system. Paul was most displeased at this news.

“You have been completely defeated already.”

Instead of seeking outside counsel, Paul would have had them adjudicate the situation among themselves—making the case that the discernment of Christians (who are to judge the angels, he teaches) should be superior to that of ungodly outsiders. It was also a matter of perception—what kind of witness to the kingdom was this in their community? The entire situation was so shameful that Paul laments, stating how they were already defeated in their pursuit of the revolutionary values of the kingdom. Infighting? Lawsuits between Christians taken before unbelievers in the state court system? Not exactly the kind of kingdom revolution to which they were called.

So Paul offers another viewpoint on the situation and it, not unexpectedly, is quite different and revolutionary. If worse comes to worse. If the dispute cannot be resolved, then his divine advice was to take a loss, be wronged, and be cheated for the kingdom’s sake. If the dispute cannot be handled among the church; if a solution cannot be found within; do not take it to the courts; just take the loss. That is the kingdom way. The health, harmony, progress, and witness of the kingdom is worth far more than whatever gain was involved in winning the dispute.

Don’t be defeated by ungodly greed, revenge, and pursuit of personal rights at all costs. Allow kingdom values to reframe the approach even to the point of completely redefining personal rights.

While this was revolutionary then, it may be even more so for us now (with our deeply ingrained American “rugged individualism” and hard fought history of securing personal and civil rights). This revolution did not start with Paul however. As with all other kingdom related values, it has its roots in Christ.

Lose Life to Gain It

Embedded within the kingdom has always been a paradoxical idea about self-interests. It runs counter to our natural inclinations. Our nature calls upon us to pursue our self-interests above all else. If that means allowing a dispute with another Christian to spill over into court in order to prove my case and be vindicated—so be it—regardless of the collateral damage to the kingdom. But that is just not the kingdom way. Listen to Christ:

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for may sake will find it.  What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26)

Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians simply echoes these words of Jesus. In the kingdom there is a different personal ethic at play. Pursuing the kingdom shuffles the deck. No longer are my personal rights preeminent. No longer do I seek my self-interests above all else. No longer do I insist on having my way. And even if it comes to it—I am willing to be wronged and to be cheated for the kingdom sake. What good is it to win a lawsuit if it defeats my purpose within the kingdom? Instead I lose my life and in the process find an entirely different and more meaningful way to measure and value my life.

This is the revolutionary attitude and understanding that put Christ on the cross.

Our Attitude Should Be the Same as His

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Just how tough are these words to process for us? My guess is about like those who first heard Paul’s teaching in Corinth. Who wants to be wronged or cheated? Who really considers other’s better than themselves? Is it even possible to not have selfish ambition?

Again the answers to these questions are found in Christ. He was wronged. He was cheated. His only ambition was to submit to the Father’s will for our sake—so that we could find our life in him. And we are to emulate his attitude!

For a couple of Corinthian Christians involved in a dispute this meant forgoing the lawsuit as well as redefining what personal rights meant within the kingdom context. What does it mean for us? Using this Corinthian text as our backdrop we will explore that in the next few lessons.

The ideas put forth here are only found in the kingdom of God. Nowhere else is such an ethic found. Nowhere else but in the kingdom of the humble, meek, pure, and redeemed.

 


Social Revolution: Neither Slave nor Free

September 25, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #3

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery within the Roman Empire was not racially based. Slaves were primarily made up of people from conquered nations who were sold into the slave networks that supplied much of the labor that fueled the continued expansion of the empire. Piracy (through raiding and capturing) also added to the slave rolls. Claiming abandoned babies (unfortunately a rather common practice known as “exposure”) for the singular purpose of selling them (when of age) in the slave markets also contributed to the slave supply. And there were also generational slaves—the offspring of slaves who continued to belong to the house that owned their parents (slaves were by law not allowed to marry).

Slaves were a commodity within the Roman Empire. The empire depended upon the labor they provided to function. According to various estimates slaves made up approximately 30-35% of the population throughout the empire. They had no legal rights (until the latter stages of the empire—an important note); could not own prosperity; and belonged completely to their owners—considered nothing more than property by them. One historian noted:

Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak…Slaves were, for many of the Roman elite, a status symbol and, therefore, the more (and the more exotic) one had, the better, so that wealthy Romans very often appeared in public accompanied by an entourage of as many as 15 slaves. (Mark Cartwright; Slavery in the Roman World on the “Ancient History Encyclopedia” website.)

The circumstances of slaves varied according to their abilities and owners. Slaves who were educated and/or skilled in a craft would fare better than others. They would typically be owned by wealthier families in cities—serving as tutors or using their skills to earn money for their master (and even for themselves—slaves were allowed to earn money and could even purchase their own freedom, which was called “manumission”). Those without skills often would work in harsher conditions in rural areas on farms or used in brothels. The owners always dictated daily life for slaves—some could be kind; others could be cruel.

For the most part slaves accepted their lot in life in the Roman Empire. On occasion some would rebel. Perhaps the most famous such rebellion took place in 73 BC led by a gladiator slave named, Spartacus. It ended with the rebellion crushed by General Pompey; Spartacus dead; and 6000 of his fellow slaves rebels crucified along a 120 mile section of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. Choosing between crucifixion and slavery—most chose slavery. Again the historian notes:

The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part. Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one. (see above reference.)

Neither Slave Nor Free

It was into this culture that Paul spoke these words to the Galatian churches—and quite revolutionary words they were. It was nothing short of a social revolution. As noted, slaves were property—not people. The idea that there was no difference between slave and owner; that owner and slave were somehow equals; that they would sit down as brothers and sisters—was outrageously scandalous—socially in every way. The socio-economic gap between slave and owner within the Roman Empire was just too vast; too culturally entrenched; even too politically significant to be bridged, but yet here is Paul saying, that in Christ, it can be. To understand and accomplish this took an entirely new and revolutionary way of ordering things. It took the kingdom way.

Paul and Slavery

It is quite notable that the apostle Paul never called for the end of slavery or for the emancipation of slaves. Certainly he recognized its unjust, cruel, dehumanizing, and exploitative nature, yet he was not divinely directed to end it. How could his words to the Galatians be reconciled to this? How could there truly be no slave or free if slavery continued to exist? In answering this question the true revolutionary nature of the kingdom is revealed.

Much like Christ—whose teaching, while not overtly political, deeply subverted the cultural norms—Paul subverted the accepted slave/owner relationship. He does so by calling upon slaves to see their work for their owners as working for the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25), which was quite a revolutionary thought. Doing that would be a game-changer in that slaves would give full effort in their labor, not hold back, rebel, or steal from their owners (see also Titus 2:9-10). It would reorient the slave and redefine his purpose. His purpose now became a kingdom purpose. His owner now became someone to win for Christ and working for him as if he was working for the Lord was his venue to do it. This is why Paul concluded his Titus teaching to slaves by saying, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our savior attractive.” Slaves as evangelists to their owners? Subversive indeed. So much so that Paul could ask slaves to even reimagine themselves as free—free to serve God through the purchase price of the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).

Interestingly enough he also asked those who were free to reimagine themselves as slaves in the same text—their purchase price being one into slavery to serve the higher cause of Jesus. Christ is the great equalizer in this situation. God is not respecter of persons in this regard. Being clothed with him changes identities—that of Christian slave owner as well. Paul commanded them to not mistreat, be harsh or threaten their slaves, but to be fair and just—treating them kindly—while reminding them that they too have a Master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). And then there is the way he seeks to resolve the conflict between Onesimus, a runaway slave, and his Christian owner, Philemon. He appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother and reframes the value of Onesimus not in market terms, but in kingdom terms. If the institution of slavery was to change for the better within Rome or eventually end, this is the way it would. Not through rebellion would it happen. Rome would and did brutally crush those. It would change when slave owner and slave began relating to one another through the revolutionary teaching of the kingdom of God. Then and only then would everything change—and it did. While slavery did not end completely, slaves eventually gained more legal rights within the empire. Was this chance or did the growing influence of God’s kingdom have something to do with it? No where else would you see slave and owner sitting together as one—brought together in Christ Jesus. No longer wearing the clothes of a slave or owner, but of Christ.

“Class warfare” or “identity politics” only serve to heighten and further social divisions. The kingdom of God serves to help us overcome such social constraints and unite in the common cause of Christ; to understand that our value is not tied to our socio-economic status or political identity in our particular culture. If Christ can remake the slave/master relationship, there is no social barrier he cannot overcome. The kingdom is for all and welcomes all to unite in Christ.


Money and Me

July 12, 2017

Worried About Money

So I am enjoying a kind of preaching sabbatical due to different circumstances intersecting (regular Sunday off, preaching intern, mission trip), which provides me a rare opportunity to plan my next sermons over a longer period. All year my preaching focus has been themed around “seeking first the kingdom of God”–obviously from Christ’s incredible Sermon on the Mount. During the summer I have narrowed that focus to what I call “kingdom values.” Next up my plan leads me to address the use of and attitudes toward money in the kingdom (so Levy be warned!) It will not be a “sermon on giving” (or as the classic Marvin Phillip’s line goes–a “sermon on the amount”), but rather what Christ taught about money and possessions along with how they are best used in his kingdom.

As I have been reading and ruminating over this, it has caused within me a growing tension. It has resulted in me coming face-to-face with and acknowledging my own weaknesses and failings in this regard.

It can be rather convenient for preachers to pick out our texts, work our sermon plans, and have a go at the church without ever allowing the message to become deeply personal. After all, we have to move from one sermon to the next fairly quickly. Sermons are our products. We have to produce one weekly, which often does not allow time for self-reflection. Due to the accidental sabbatical I am enjoying self-reflection opportunities right now–and it is working me over.

I admit to always having a struggle with money. I grew up with very little of it and have never managed to accumulate a great deal of it. Overspending, though, has never been much of a problem. I hate debt even though I have never been totally free from it. I don’t sense within me the love of money that is rooted in all kinds of evil. I don’t have any great internal problems or hesitancy with contributing.

It is just this–I worry too much about it.

Interestingly enough this has only increased within me as I have gotten older. It has compounded due to having younger children. I now find myself on occasion being fearful about the future–will I have enough to help them through college? What will happen if I am not able to keep working? Are we sure we have enough money to cover all our responsibilities? Some of this may seem like typical concerns. Some of it quite honestly is just an irrational lack of faith. But it is the tune Satan keeps playing for me in the recesses of my mind.

Let me make this clear however–it does not come from a kingdom perspective at all.

In fact, Christ teaches exactly the opposite. Don’t worry. Seek first the kingdom and God will provide. Prioritize your money and resources from a kingdom perspective and be set free from our consumer driven social conditioning. I know this. My wife, Terri, reminds me of this quite frequently. God has always had our back, so why worry now? But I still do. Therefore the tension mounting within me.

I confess this here for a few reasons. First, confession really is a balm for the soul. It puts your struggle out there, forcing you to deal with it differently than if it is kept hidden. Second, preaching about money sometimes can be a tricky proposition. I want Levy to know that I am first preaching to myself. That my agenda is not just to challenge others to live out the kingdom values, but also to embrace them more fully myself. And third–to seek prayers from others on behalf of my struggle.

I must overcome Satan’s song with the beautiful words of Jesus:

So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or”What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. –Matthew 6:32-34

Money and me have always had a complicated relationship. More than anything I want that relationship to be better defined and prioritized God’s way. I want to be set free of the tyranny of worry and fear.

 

 


The Growing Healthcare Crisis Among Ministers?

November 19, 2014

First, this post is not about partisan politics. I am not inviting any harsh rhetoric or political debates. This would be counterproductive.

I am inviting a dialogue. I am seeking information. Perhaps something you know could help someone else.

Those who are in full-time ministry occupy a rather unique tax status. We are considered self-employed when it comes to Social Security, but employed when it comes to income tax. That is one financial hurdle of our profession.

Another one–particularly for those of us serving in independent fellowships (such as the Churches of Christ)–is that there is no church-wide system to assist us in such things as planning retirement and healthcare. If assistance for these things exists they are negotiated through the local congregation in which we serve. And since most of our congregations of the Churches of Christ are not that large they cannot afford much more than just a salary. This leaves the minister alone to bear the expense of both retirement and healthcare and quite often either one or both go lacking.

I have seen and lived the consequences of this over the years. I know ministers who continue to work well past retirement years out of necessity (yes, some continue because they enjoy serving and could not imagine ever not being involved in ministry). I have also known (and this seems to be only increasing) ministers who have either no or very inadequate healthcare coverage (particularly if they do not receive it through the employment of their spouse).

Yes, there seems to be a growing healthcare crisis among ministers. While I do not know the workings of or specific details about the new Affordable Healthcare Act–the information I am getting from fellow ministers is, that it is only making an already expensive situation even more costly and more complicated.

(Personal disclosure: I and my family do have healthcare coverage which we provide for ourselves. Currently I have a grandfathered health insurance policy. It is standard stuff, but not widely accepted in my area. I am able to use it, but only with one hospital system in my city. This is not ACA related. This has to do with my insurance brand and how they do business with the local hospitals and doctors. My wife and kids have another standard type policy with another insurer which is widely accepted. They are good through 2015 and then (we have been told) because of the ACA will have to find other coverage. I disclose this to say that I yet have had to deal with the changes brought in by the ACA and therefore cannot personally speak to it. My conclusion of the ACA increasing costs comes from information shared by other ministers currently involved/enrolled in it.)

So, what can be done about this crisis? What can our churches do to help? What alternatives are out there besides what is offered through the ACA? Is the ACA actually working for any ministers?

Ministers and their families without healthcare is not only a personal issue, it would seem to be a congregational one as well. What would happen in your congregation if an uninsured minister or family member became ill or were injured in an accident? Would the congregation feel compelled to cover the costs (or at least some of them)? Would it not be better stewardship then to help provide healthcare for you minister–before a tragedy occurs? What would the weight of healthcare debt do to the ability of a minister to serve effectively? Could this force him out of ministry into another profession that offers healthcare options? There are many questions here–including is there really a crisis?

Perhaps you know some of the answers to these questions. Your input on this is welcome.