Monday, March 29, 2010

Gone bananas

I've been watching this hand of overripe bananas for a few days. Seven-year-old Gabby chose them on a trip to Costco and I knew at the time they wouldn't all be eaten in time. Gabby had chosen a large hand of perfectly ripe bananas. They started getting spots the next day, and kept getting riper. I finally confronted Gabby asking her, "When are you going to bake me banana bread?" She replied, "I don't know how." I asked her if that was a good excuse. She smiled, turned to her mom and asked, "Mom, will you teach me how to make banana bread?" Lisa produced a folder containing several banana bread recipes, and asked Gabby to study them and decide which one she wanted to make. Gabby came up with chocolate bottom banana squares. After dinner, I asked a question about the dessert, and Gabby answered me as an expert. I'm sure we'll see more banana desserts in days to come.

As a home school family, we are trying to teach the girls that not knowing is merely an opportunity for learning. Twelve-year-old Claire, not content with the work I had assigned her, used my email account this weekend to send herself an assignment she wanted to do. I'm pleased when the little girls are eager learners.

Sometimes we're tempted to operate within our realm of comfort. We don't feel competent to do what we have not been trained to do. Friday night, Claire was at a preteen event with Lisa, so Gabby and I went to Wendy's on a "date." As I was driving, Gabby asked me if she could get her ears pierced. Poor, Claire. Her ears weren't pierced until she was eleven. From the time she was five, every time she asked to get her ears pierced, I answered her the same way, "If you think you can handle the pain . . ." This unknown deterred her for about six years. Gabby has the benefit of seeing that Claire's pain was minimal, and she doesn't want to wait until age eleven. I suggested that Gabby wait a few days until her oldest sister, Cara, came home. Gabby was excited by the idea. I told her, "I'm sure Cara will want to pierce your ears." Gabby, exclaimed, "Not her, I want someone with talent!" Until that moment, I had never thought of ear piercing as a talent.

In the spiritual realm, Christians often look at themselves and others making judgments regarding qualifications for ministry. We train a professional clergy that the laity is then expected to pay. This so-called clergy produces résumés listing their theological credentials. Among themselves, they specialize as counselors, administrators, "pulpiteers," among other operational silos. We want people with talent, and we're willing to pay big bucks to recruit them! What does God want?

The notion of a professional clergy is un-Biblical. In Revelation 2, Jesus condemned the practices of the Nicolaitans, those who would rule over the laity. Likewise, when Jesus spoke with Nicodemus ("ruler of the people"), he told him, "You must be born again" – you have to start over from the beginning – your credentials get you nowhere. Jesus warned us against trusting professionals to lead God's people; just ask the Pharisees and Sadducees of the first century!

For his disciples Jesus chose unlikely candidates – fishermen and tax collectors – certainly no scholars. The Apostle Paul was religious, a Pharisee, but Jesus turned Paul's world upside down. After Paul's conversion, he retreated to Arabia for three years to unlearn all that he had been taught his entire life. It was another fourteen years before Paul even met Peter and John. Paul was no man's protégé. Nor did Paul boast of his credentials; he considered them to be excrement according to Philippians 3:7. English Bible translations are often a little more genteel, but Paul used a vulgarity to describe his personal qualifications. In 2 Corinthians, Paul explained the way it is supposed to work,

Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Corinthians 3:4-6 (NIV)

The word translated in the NIV as "letter" can also be translated "contract." In other words, Paul did not see his competence coming from human credentials or certifications. Paul didn't even rely on papers of ordination. He told the Galatians that Peter, James, and John added nothing to his ministry. He called them "those who seemed to be important," saying, "Whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance." Galatians 2:6 (NIV) Paul's competence didn't come from some man-made ecclesiastical hierarchy, it came from God through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul knew that this departed from human reason; in 1 Corinthians 4 he described himself as a "fool for Christ." He had, in a manner of speaking, "gone bananas," but by so doing, he became a man that God could use.

The church, of course, has drifted far from this belief, but this needn't impact the way the individual lives and serves. If we believe in Christ, we are competent as ministers of his New Covenant because he makes us competent. Of course, rather than relying on diplomas or other letters of commendation, we instead have to rely on him. He is our talent. The work of the ministry does not belong to the professional; rather, it belongs to the ones acknowledging their insufficiency and dependence on Christ.

In a sense, we need to approach Christian ministry with the faith of a child confident she can make banana bread as long as she has guidance through the process. Our guidance does not come from moldy pages of church doctrine and stale traditions. Our guidance comes from the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to the Holy Scriptures and empowers us to do what God wills.

We begin this process by acknowledging not our qualifications, but our incompetence! Then by faith we trust Christ to be competent through us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

You shall be a royal priesthood

Before the establishment of the priesthood of Aaron in Exodus 28, God made a conditional promise to Israel that they would all be a nation of priests. He said to Moses,
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and announce to the sons of Israel, “You have seen as much as I have done to them – to the Egyptians. And I took you as upon wings of eagles, and led you to myself. And now, if in hearing, you should hear my voice, and guard my covenant, you will be to me a prized people from all the nations. For all the earth is mine. And you shall be a royal priesthood and a holy nation.” These words you shall say to the sons of Israel.

Exodus 19:3-6 (AB)
The condition was that Israel must hear God’s voice, or specifically to be willing to hear God’s voice and thereafter keep his covenant. This hearing and keeping referred to the Ten Commandments and the Law which God was about to deliver. Moses was given three days to purify the people and prepare them to hear God’s voice. The people were told to abstain from sexual activity and to wash their clothes. They were warned not to approach the mountain but to keep their distance lest they die. On the third day, near dawn . . .
. . . there were voices, and lightening, and overcast clouds upon Mount Sinai; the voice of the trumpet sounded greatly, and all the people in the camp were terrified. And Moses led the people for a meeting with God from the camp. And they stood by the mountain. The Mount Sinai smoked entirely on account of God coming down upon it in fire. And the smoke ascended as smoke of a furnace. And all the people were exceedingly amazed. And there were the sounds of the trumpet advancing strong – exceedingly. Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice.

Exodus 19:16-19 (AB)
From Mount Sinai and in the hearing of all the people, God spoke what we know as the Ten Commandments.
All the people perceived the voice, and the lamps, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking. And fearing, all the people stood afar off. And they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and do not let God speak to us lest we might die.” And Moses says to them, “Be of courage! Because God came to you to test you, so that there might be fear of him in you, that you should not sin.” And all the people stood afar off. But Moses entered the dimness where God was.”

Exodus 20:18-21 (AB)
Never again in the Old Testament does it refer to a royal priesthood. Upon hearing God’s voice, Israel had refused to hear God’s voice. They told Moses, “Do not let God speak to us.” Not only did they refuse to listen, they refused to obey. Exodus 32 gives the account of Israel’s worshiping a golden calf in violation of at least the first two of the Ten Commandments.

One might suppose that Israel was innocent by virtue of their ignorance at this point since Moses had not yet descended the mountain with the tablets of the Law. Nevertheless, Exodus 20:18 makes it clear that “All the people perceived the voice.” In the Septuagint, which was the Scripture available to the writers of the New Testament, the word translated perceived is the same word that Paul used when he said, “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” 1 Corinthians 9:1 (AB)

“Perceived” is a good translation of the word because it implies understanding. Although Israel understood that they were not to make an idol nor worship another god, they deliberately chose to do those very things. Israel entered an unending cycle of rebellion, retribution, repentance, and reconciliation but they never attained the promised royal priesthood.

How is this relevant today? According to Peter, the royal priesthood now belongs to “. . . the ones at some time or another not a people, but now a people of God; the ones not being shown mercy, but now are shown mercy.” 1 Peter 2:10 (AB) That is to say, that the royal priesthood promised to Israel in Exodus 19:6, and rejected by Israel in Exodus 20:19, now belongs to “the living stones being built up as a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices, well-received to God, through Jesus Christ.”

The writer of Hebrews, alluding to the events at Sinai, and warns us, saying:
See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.

Hebrews 12:25-29 (NASB)
How might we refuse the one who is speaking? In the case of Israel, their first refusal was a refusal to hear God personally. They said they would listen to Moses, but they did not want God to speak to them.

Having once heard the calling of the Holy Spirit, do we now prefer, as did Israel, to listen to men? Do we establish leaders in the model of Moses, rather than living as brothers in Christ? Do establish idols whereby we favor the physical objects of the shakable kingdom over our relationship to Christ and his unshakable kingdom?

If we prefer to hear from men than from God, have we not also rejected the royal priesthood?