MidWeek Message (June 10-June 16)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

This week is Trinity Sunday and I’d like to consider this question: what are we talking about when we speak of the oneness of God and the three-ness of God? To be truly Christian, we must insist on both: there is only one God, and God is Father, Son, and Spirit. So how can we begin to make sense of all this?

First, we must avoid an idea called modalism. This idea says that God’s three-ness is in appearance or in name only. Modalism logic goes like this: I am a husband, a father, and my parents’ son, but those are just roles I have; there is only one ‘who’ when it comes to Shawn Bawulski. In the same way, modalism says, there is only one ‘who’ when it comes to God. Talk of Father, Son, and Spirit are just different labels for different actions God does in the world. This view is outside of the Christian faith, for many reasons. Here’s one: God is love, in himself, and there can be no love with just strictly one. Love requires a lover, a beloved, and the love between them. God is love (see 1 John 4). So Modalism fails. (Sorry, but the illustration that God is like H20: ice, water, and steam is also modalism, when you think about it. So please stop using it to explain the Trinity…)

Second, we must avoid an idea called tritheism. Tritheism is any view that ultimately suggests that there are three Gods. If Father, Son, and Spirit are actually different essences—even if they are completely united in purpose—then we have forgotten that “The Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). God is not like a sports team, where all the players wear the same uniform and all have the same purpose of winning the game, and so together are Manchester United or The Cubs. There are not multiple Gods. God is one, and there is exactly one God. Tritheism fails.

So what is the distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit? They are not the same “who”. But they are not different Gods (not different substances, to use a technical term). The difference, and the only difference, is found in relationships. The *only* difference is the Father eternally gives existence to the Son, the Son eternally receives his existence from the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. Crudely, the Father “fathers”, the Son “is fathered”, and the Spirit “is breathed”. There are three existences of the one God *and the only difference between them is their relationships.* God exists three times over, so to speak, and the only distinctions between the three are their relations of origin: the Son and Spirit find their origin in the Father, in different ways, and that makes the three different existences of the same God.

Why does this matter? It all seems a bit mysterious and technical; what does this matter for your faith and life? There are many ways it matters, and here’s one: you can and must worship Jesus. The Bible makes it very clear that God and God alone is to be worshiped. We are not to worship not-god: to worship the likes of the sun or fertility or war or Caesar or money or anything else that is not-god is sinful idolatry. But we are to worship Jesus, and that’s because Jesus is God. But Jesus is not just another name for the Father. The Father and the Son are the same God but not the same “who”, so to speak: the Father and the Son can love one another because they are lover and beloved. So in this way, simply by worshiping Jesus as God, as all Christians do, we are Trinitarians, whether we know the technical details or not. And we must say similar things with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who is God made present to us.

MidWeek Message (June 3-June 9)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

As we look to Pentecost Sunday in a few days, I’ve been reflecting on the Holy Spirit. I’ve found this passage by a theologian named Clark Pinnock to be helpful.

“The first act of the risen Lord was to breathe the Spirit on the disciples and send them forth into mission (Jn 20:21-22; Acts 1:8). This alerts us to the fact that the effectiveness of the church is due not to human competency or programming but to the power of God at work. The church rides the wind of God’s Spirit like a hawk endlessly and effortlessly circling and gliding in the summer sky. It ever pauses to wait for impulses of power to carry it forward to the nations. What a dynamic and hopeful image to cherish in a day when thinking about the church is often heavy and pessimistic. The main rationale of the church is to actualize all the implications of baptism in the Spirit.

After the resurrection, God’s kingdom, which had begun to manifest itself in Jesus himself, would continue to transform the world through the community of empowered disciples. The church is an extension not so much of the incarnation as the anointing of Jesus. Jesus is the prototype of the church, which now receives its own baptism in the Spirit. Spirit, who maintained Jesus’ relationship with the Father and empowered him for mission, now calls the church into that relationship, giving it the power to carry on the mission. There had to be, after Jesus’ departure, a colony of heaven, living the life and power and experiencing the freedom of the kingdom. Spirit indwells the church as a perpetual Pentecost and communicates gifts to its members. Spirit ecclesiology focuses not on the quality of the members but on the power of God at work in and through them.”

Clark Pinnock, “Flame of Love: A Theology of The Holy Spirit”, pp 113-114

MidWeek Message (May 27-June 2)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

In his book “Philosophical Fragments”, Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard begins by comparing two stories about how we learn truth.  The first story is what Socrates would tell us from his viewpoint in idealism.  The second story is the Christian one, and by contrasting these two stories he wants show the incompatibility between the two.  The first story goes something like this: truth is already in each one of us.  We just need to recall it.  Something outside the person—say, a teacher—can assist in the remembering process, but nothing external can truly teach a person.  A teacher serves as the occasion to help the person remember by asking probing questions—a bit like a midwife.  So when we ask about our eternal happiness, and how we might achieve it, the answers are already in us.  The teacher is ultimately unimportant for our eternal happiness: at best, Socrates is just the occasion and nothing more.  Further, the moment in which we remember is insignificant because we discover that we already knew the truth from eternity.  Indeed, how can one even seek the truth, for if one has it already then seeking and finding are little more than illusions, but if one does not already have it then how can one know what to look for, or that one even needs to look at all?

The second story—the Christian one—goes much differently.  Truth is not something within a person, but is something that comes from outside.  Unlike in idealism, the moment we learn the truth makes all the difference in the world.  Before the truth comes, a person is outside of it: she is untruth.  The teacher must bring the truth to the learner, but since the learner is untruth, the teacher must also provide the condition for understanding it.  It is a person’s own fault that she lacks the condition and there is nothing she can do on her own to get it.  This lack of the condition can be called sin.  No human can give the condition to another person—only God can do that.  The condition can be called faith.  The teacher is God himself, who gives the condition and gives the truth—he is a saviour, for he saves the learner from sin; he is a deliverer, for he delivers the person from imprisonment; he is a reconciler, for he takes away the wrath and guilt.  Encountering a teacher like this will be unforgettable.  The moment in which a person receives the condition and the truth is completely unique and decisive—it is a moment that is filled with the eternal.  What is taught by the teacher?  God’s presence is essential to the teaching—in fact, it is the teaching.  Unlike Socrates, the person of Jesus, as the teacher, is of the utmost importance.  The moment is God revealing himself, which he does entirely out of love for the learner.  God as the loving teacher must stoop down to the learner’s level and become like the learner (the incarnation).   In the moment, the learner becomes a new person—this can be called conversion.  Yet turning away from an old state to a new one requires sorrow—this can be called repentance.  Since a new person has come from the old, we can speak of rebirth.      

Since we all have a life, and since what happens in our existence is importance to us, there is no purely objective way to decide between the two stories.  The question is at issue with both stories is, What is the relation of the individual to the truth?  We all have a personal stake in the answer and the choice cannot even be considered apart from what it would mean for each of us.  Socrates’ story and those like it require us to surrender the idea that our temporal existence matters, that we make choices that are real, and that things could genuinely have been otherwise.  The Christian story, however, makes our existence—especially the moment—truly important.


MidWeek Message (May 20-May 26)

Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

Edward Glibreath has written an excellent book, “Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity” (InterVarsity Press, 2006). In it he talks about being a person of color in predominantly white Christian churches and institutions. I think we need to pay very close attention to voices like his and to the lived experience of which they speak. While so much of his book is very good, there’s a section I found particularly striking. On pages 84-86 he writes:

“Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon echoed the opinion of many African Americans when, in a column about golfer Tiger Woods, he wrote, ‘There’s a social responsibility that comes with being black in America, regardless of the profession, and that obligation increases exponentially with stature. There are rules adopted out of necessity, even desperation, by the subculture we as black folks inhabit. . . . One of the rules is you speak up, even if it means taking some lumps.’

I did my best to speak up [while working at Christianity Today] when it seemed necessary, and at times I caught grief for it. Other times I decided it would be best to act like Jesus before Herod and simply say nothing. It gets old, you know—this taking-your-lumps business.

I like the way Jackie Robinson framed it as he boldly began the mission of integrating baseball: ‘I know that I have a certain responsibility to my race, but I’ve got to try not to feel that way about it because it would be too much of a strain.’ He added, ‘I also know that I’ve got to hit.’

Robinson understood that no amount of racial protest or rhetoric would make any difference unless he backed up the symbolism of a black player integrating the majors with tangible results. At the end of the day, he still had to hit the ball.

I want to hit the ball. I want to let my talent, sweat and integrity do the talking. Often that’s the only way to get your message across to a majority culture that, after ages of doing things their way, sometimes has difficulty seeing or hearing you, even though you’re standing right in front of them.

‘People sometimes ignore you,’ says Bruce Fields, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. ‘Or, if there is attention directed towards you, it is subtly communicated that you are not to be taken as seriously as a while person of similar status, experience and credentials.’

Fields was the first full-time African American professor on Trinity’s staff, and in July 2005, he became the first to be tenured. Yet being one of the few blacks in the institution, he continues to harbor doubts about his presence there. ‘I think about being a minority here all the time,’ he confesses. ‘There is rarely a time when I am not thinking about it. I am thankful for who God has made me, and I am grateful for his call on my life—but not all the time. I find myself being distant, untrusting and often angry that I have internalized a certain sense that I am not good enough. I know this is wrong, and I’ve been working with a support network to overcome it. But it’s difficult.”

MidWeek Message (May 13-May 19

Eastertide is for reflecting on the resurrection, of course. In reading about this, I’ve found the thoughts of New Testament scholar G.E. Ladd very insightful this week. Here’s a somewhat shortened version of his explanation of how the bodily resurrection of Jesus was a radical change in the way things work:

“The Gospels go to great lengths to attest that the resurrection of Jesus was indeed a bodily resurrection. Here lies the significance of the empty tomb. . . . The empty tomb by itself was a puzzling fact that needed explanation. … Apart from the appearances of Jesus, the empty tomb was an enigma. The empty tomb, therefore, is not a witness to the fact of the resurrection so much as it is a witness to the nature of the resurrection; it was a resurrection of Jesus’ body.”

“The bodily character of his resurrection is attested in other ways. [He appeared physically, in sight, touch, and sound.]”

“However, Jesus’ resurrection body possessed new and wonderful powers that set it apart from the natural and physical body. It possessed capacities never before experienced on earth. It had the amazing power to appear and disappear at will.” (See Jn. 20:19, 26; Lk. 24:31; 24:36-37)

“Furthermore, a close study of the text [of the Gospels] nowhere suggests that the stone of the tomb was rolled away from the tomb to let Jesus out. The earthquake and rolling back of the stone are recorded in Matthew (28:2) as a sign of a wonderful event, not as the event itself. There can only be one conclusion: the body of Jesus was gone before the stone was rolled away. It did not need to be removed for him to escape the tomb; he had already escaped it. The removal of the stone was for the disciples, not for Jesus.”

“These two sets of items point to a twofold conclusion: the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily resurrection; but his resurrection body possessed strange powers that transcend physical limitations. It could interact with the natural order, but it at the same time transcended this order. . . . Jesus’ resurrection belongs to a new and higher order: the order of the Age to Come, of eternal life.”

“The resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of those who belong to Christ constitute two parts of a single entity, two acts of a single drama, two stages of a single process. . . . Jesus’ resurrection is the ‘first fruits’ of the eschatological resurrection at the end of the age. First fruits were common in Palestinian agriculture. They were the first grain of the harvest, indicating that the harvest itself was ripe and ready to be gathered in. The first fruits were not the harvest itself, yet they were more than a pledge and promise of the harvest. They were the actual beginning of the harvest. The act of reaping had already begun: the grain was being cut.”

“Jesus resurrection was not an isolated event that gives to men [and women] the warm confidence and hope of a future resurrection; it is the beginning of the eschatological [i.e., “age to come”] resurrection itself. If we may use crude terms to try to describe sublime realities, we might say that a piece of the eschatological resurrection had been split off and planted in the midst of history.”

“The resurrection of Jesus is not simply an event in history. It ought not to be described simply as a supernatural event—a miracle, as though God had interfered with the ‘laws of nature.’ The resurrection of Jesus means nothing less than the appearance upon the scene of the historical of something that belongs to the eternal order! Supernatural? Yes, but not in the usual sense of the word. It is not the ‘disturbance’ of the normal course of events; it is the manifestation of something utterly new. Eternal life has appeared in the midst of mortality.”

George Eldon Ladd on the Resurrection of Jesus, from “Theology of the New Testament”, Eerdmans, 1974. Pages 324-327

MidWeek Message (May 6-May 12)

Rachel Held Evans was a popular Christian author and speaker.  Recently she died of a sudden illness at age 37.  She left behind her husband, Dan, and two young children.  Her writing has helped more than a few people at COGS, and so it's only fitting to reflect on her in this week's midweek message.

There's much to say about her, and a quick google search will produce some very insightful and moving tributes to her and her work (seriously, go down that worthwhile rabbit hole).  She challenged both conservative evangelicals and liberal mainliners.  She was an earnest seeker of truth.  She had a prophetic voice, one that called out cultural norms that are confused for the teachings of Scripture.  In a context where only men with PhDs talked theology and women were expected to talk motherhood and little else, she knocked down those walls, walked into the theological conversation and said, "wait, what about...?" with learning, charity, insight, and grace.

Rachel had many criticisms and critics, but she was always "for" something.  She was for loving those who disagreed with her.  She was for wisdom, wit, and excellent writing.  She was for the Bible, taking it seriously enough not to read it simplistically.  Rachel's respect for Scripture is evident in how much she wrestled with its difficulties and its demands on all of us.  She was for Jesus, so much so that it got her in trouble with the religious authorities of her day.  But in that way, she was not merely for Jesus, she was admirably like him, too.

"Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary." -Rachel Held Evans, "Searching for Sunday"

MidWeek Message (Apr 29-May 5)

Midweek reflection by pastor Shawn:

A headline in the Washington Post today read, "The alleged synagogue shooter was a churchgoer who talked Christian theology, raising tough questions for evangelical pastors". (Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/05/01/alleged-synagogue-shooter-was-churchgoer-who-articulated-christian-theology-prompting-tough-questions-evangelical-pastors/ )

Horrifically, a young man walking into a synagogue in California and opened fire, killing one and wounding 3 others. This is a morally disgusting act, one that, in the USA, has become something we're at risk of growing numb to hearing about every few days. But there's an aspect of this story that should especially catch our attention as church people. From the story: "[He] appears to have written a seven-page letter spelling out his core beliefs: that Jewish people, guilty in his view of faults ranging from killing Jesus to controlling the media, deserved to die. That his intention to kill Jews would glorify God."

How does a seemingly devout member of a Christian faith community get radicalized into white nationalism? It's simply too convenient to try to detach his church background from his anti-Semitism that led to his heinous, sinful, murderous act. Whatever details emerge about this story, nothing will change the fact that the church didn't seem to make clear to him that racist hatred was incompatible with biblical Christianity. In fact, he seems to have laced his letter with relatively uncontroversial Christian teachings. Now, I very much doubt that his church would teach anti-Semitism. But I also wonder: if his church found out about his racist views, would they have started the process of church discipline—with the son of an elder—in response (Matt. 18:15-20)? Would the evils of racism even be part of the conversations they have? Would it even have come up? Did his church shape him to know that the Christian gospel demands anti-racism from us as part of our discipleship?

Anti-Semitism is a strain in Christian history, one that must be called out, repented of, and rebuked. Martin Luther, for all his contributions to Christian theology and to the church, has some writings that are disturbingly anti-Semitic. You can trace a direct line from his anti-Semitism to the propaganda that led to the Holocaust. This needs to be named, rebuked, and repented of.

Theology matters. What we teach and preach matters, and what we remain silent about matters.

MidWeek Message (Apr 22-Apr 28)

In October 1994 Moody Memorial Church in Chicago hosted a lively and important debate between two scholars with very different views of the resurrection.[1]  William Lane Craig of Talbot School of Theology and John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University debated about the historicity of the person of Jesus in the Gospels.

 The debate moderator opened with these words:

 The uniqueness of the scandal of the Christian religion rests on the mediation of revelation through historical events. Christianity is not just a code for living or a philosophy of religion. It is rooted in real events of history. To some people this is scandalous because it means that the truth of Christianity is inexplicably bound up with the truth of certain historical facts. And if those facts should be disproved, Christianity would be false. This, however, is what makes Christianity unique because, unlike other world religions, modern man has a means of actually verifying Christianity’s truth by historical evidence.[2]

Well, that set the terms for the debate.  And things quickly focused in on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.  For Crossan the resurrection is a metaphor but not an historical fact.  Metaphors bear some truth, he claimed, but that does not mean that they must be based on real things happening in history.  He said that the Christian notion of the resurrection of Jesus may have come from visions or hallucinations or from beliefs springing from reading the Scriptures, but not from evidence in history.  Craig’s response reconfirmed his interest and expertise in the resurrection as a defensible historical fact.  He gives an excellent case for the resurrection.  I won’t repeat it here, but if you’re interested, it’s easy to find.   But what Craig effectively uncovered is that for Crossan, the absence of an historical resurrection makes no difference to his understanding of Christianity.  For scholars like Crossan, the resurrection simply does not matter.  It’s just a useful myth. 

But can we really call the resurrection nothing more than useful myth?  It’s noteworthy that this one event, this one claim to history, becomes the most objectionable.  Easter claims that God has acted in history.  What happened that Sunday long ago can be viewed as reliable basis for belief.  Christians believe in a God who acts in history and those activities must be taken as serious disclosures of his revelation to humankind.  Now, there is a very strong case for the reliability and surprising trustworthiness on the Gospel records.[3]  We are historically removed by 2,000 years, but we have amazingly strong testimony of the eyewitnesses.  John’s reliable account of the resurrection gives so many details.  The empty tomb, the placement of the burial clothes, the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body.  This is no fantasy.  This is a real man who can talk and be touched.  Divine events really do happen in history.  Frankly, the evidence is not lacking.   Believing it is reasonable. 

[1] Full transcript in Copan, Paul, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

[2] Ibid, p 24

[3] For example, see Richard Baukham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

MidWeek Message (Apr 15-Apr 21)

Midweek reflection by Rev. Ruth Lemmen:

Last week, our Lenten small group practiced lectio divina with Matthew’s account of the crucifixion. Some of the details that Matthew includes are three hours of darkness, Jesus crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus giving up his spirit, the curtain of the temple tearing into two, an earthquake with rocks splitting, and the bodies of holy people coming back to life. The centurion and others guarding Jesus were terrified. Many women who followed Jesus were watching from a distance.

As I imagined it, it seems like a scene from a horror movie. A dark sky in the middle of the day. Jesus’ anguished cries. The massive curtain that protected the holiest of holies, the place where Jews believed God dwelled, torn in half. The ground shaking beneath everyone’s feet. It must have been a disorienting, terrifying day.

And yet, in the middle of the terror, there is profound hope for us. Jesus hung on the cross and cried out the first line of Psalm 22: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In pain and agony from bearing the sin of the world, Jesus lamented that this world is not the way it is supposed to be. He was hurt, betrayed, lonely, humiliated, abandoned.

The world is still not the way it is supposed to be. We also face hurt, betrayal, loneliness, humiliation, and abandonment. And despite the ongoing effects of sin in the world, we do not suffer alone. Hebrews 4 explains that Jesus is able to empathize with our weaknesses because he has been tempted in every way, just as we are. Jesus knows the agony of physical pain. Jesus knows the heartbreak of betrayal by a close friend. Jesus knows the loneliness of being deserted by his community, even those who had promised to stay with him no matter what. Jesus knows the humiliation of being bullied and mocked. Jesus knows the injustice of an unfair trial and systems that worked against him. Jesus knows the terror of feeling abandoned by God.

Because Jesus suffered on our behalf, we are not left alone in our suffering. Even when we feel that God has forgotten us, Jesus has experienced that pain. In this Holy Week, we remember Jesus suffering. We sit with it, even as we want to skip ahead to the joy of Sunday. I think sitting with the pain is a spiritual practice, even if we aren’t in particular pain right now. Sitting in the pain of Holy Week strengthens our spiritual muscles to wait in the pain with others who are suffering and to face our own pain honestly. We know that Jesus’ death is not the end of the story, and even Matthew drops a hint that death is not the end with the mention of dead people who came back to life. We live in a time of already-and-not-yet, when we will face pain and suffering, and we know that we do not face it alone, because Jesus hung on the cross and cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

MidWeek Message (Apr 8-Apr 14)

Midweek Reflection by Pastor Shawn:

In any story or narrative, you're supposed to feel and think certain things. For example, in most every romantic comedy, we as the audience are supposed to really want the couple to end up together. Or in an action movie, we're supposed to cheer when the bad guy gets his. We're suppose to identify with the protagonist and see ourselves as belonging to the 'good guys' in the story.

This is how it normally works in a narrative. So much so, that it's very powerful when that convention is overturned. For example, in the film "No Country for Old Men", (SPOILERS AHEAD!) the monstrous serial killer gets away. And not in a, "oh, they left a cliffhanger to set it up for the sequel" kinda way. No, in that film, evil prevails. Good loses. And it's such a jarring bucking of storytelling convention that it stuck with me for weeks after I first saw it. It made me probe and poke around at my expectations and moral assumptions about the world.

In the gospel reading for this Palm Sunday, we have another overturning of narrative convention, this time a theological one. We will read about Jesus' trial and execution. In this story there's a crowd that, in spite of Pilate's very reasonable pleading, demands that Jesus be killed. Now, we as the readers of the gospels are keenly aware that he is innocent, and so their cries for blood cut through to us. "This wicked crowd, demanding the death of an innocent-and the Son of God, no less!" We've figured out that Jesus is the good guy and these shouts come from some of the bad guys.

But then we are supposed to realize that there are many bad guys in this story. The Jewish leaders. The Roman leaders. His cowardly disciples. The crowd. And then something important should happen: we realize that in this story, at this moment, we actually aren't on team Jesus. Suddenly a loud voice emerges from that crowd, and it's ours. We're in the middle of it.

We realize that our sin cries out "crucify!" louder than the mob that day.

And then we realize that we are reading a most unconventional story.