The Revelation Equation: Is God a Hater?

revelation.jpgRead Revelation 1:9-2:7

A Troubling History

The Book of Revelation tends to bring out the worst in people. Hucksters with collars and racists with badges are disposed to like the enigmatic text because it is intimidating. The Eastern Orthodox do away with it completely in liturgy;* the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Catholic Church required laity to have a family Bible, but only to record vital statistics and to be regarded with awed reverence. Revelation inspires terror of a coming, violent judgment, something religious art and literature has captured for centuries. Revelation was like a loaded gun left in an infant’s crib.

Protestantism scoffed at the Church keeping the Bible out of the hands of the laity; this has had mixed results. Scholarship has been an important part of Protestant traditions, and there is no doubting the impact this has had on religious literacy. But once the doctrine of sola scriptura mixed with anti-intellectualism, white supremacy culture, and the notion that anyone claiming to be anointed by the Spirit can call themselves pastor, Christianity found a new way to be hate-filled and violent.

I wrote earlier about my trepidation regarding Revelation. And once again, I feel like this month-long examination of the text via passages selected by Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary Project was directed by the Holy Spirit. Why? This is the time in which all of us need to be confronting our fears and misconceptions, and determine who we are.

On ἀποκάλυψις 

The Greek word is ἀποκάλυψις, a combination of ἀπό (away) and καλύπτω (cover), is used in at least three distinctive ways that impact our study.

  1. An apocalypsis is a revealing or uncovering of something. In its simplest sense, it is a vision or a dream that reveals something previously hidden. The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of dreams and interpretations of dreams. These are apocalypses, but the meaning is not to be found in a literal reading of the dream. Symbolism abounds.
  2.  The term can also refer to the revealing of the true natures of good and evil. This is generally tied to eschatological expectations, that is, the end of time as we know it and the uncovering of God’s eternal rule. This is the most common interpretation that Evangelicals offer for the Book of Revelation, but as Christopher Rowland points out in the New Interpreter’s Commentary, there is no definitive argument to be made that John of Patmos, the author of the text, was describing a vision from God portending a literal future event. While there is also no irrefutable evidence that the text is an account of a symbolic dream only, there is more of a case to be made for the latter.
  3. Which brings us to the third point: ἀποκάλυψις refers to a literature type. Clear-cut examples are the Book of Daniel and the Enoch cycle. Again, according to Rowland, the purpose of this literature type is to present contradictions and cognitive dissonance to shake us from our realms of comfort. These texts are made to be unsettling, for the message is about how to follow God in a world that is openly hostile to God’s call.

Working Interpretations

In Revelation 1:9-20, we are presented with a fantastical description of the Risen Christ. To argue that this, in any conceivable way, is a depiction of the historical Jesus is ludicrous. It is part of the problem with American Christianity. How could anyone think that Jesus literally had a sword for a tongue or furnace eyes? Frankly, I am sick of hearing that we must agree to disagree or to allow others to present opinions as fact. This is clearly symbolism.

Notice that this Christ whom John sees is surrounded by lampstands, but not lamps. Seven, a number that appears throughout the text, is symbolic for, among many things, completion. The seven churches do not provide a complete, detailed list of all in existence–there were certainly more by the time John wrote in the late first century. Rather, it symbolizes the unbroken and complete Body of Christ. The Risen Christ stands surrounded by the seven lampstands because he is the light of the world. The double-edged sword as a tongue might represent how having the gospel on your lips will help you defend yourself in an evil world. It’s two edges might mean that Christ’s call brings us both God’s comfort and God’s requirements.

In Revelation 2:1-7, we read of people who were zealous and eager when they first accepted Christ, and in their jubilant love, they performed good deeds. They fought off the temptations that lead to a life outside of gospel commands, but the world wore them down. No longer do they love as they once did; no longer do they act as divine agents. He calls them to remember the circumcised hearts they had before they became jaded.

But what about…

A parishioner waited until I had greeted everyone before pulling me aside after the sermon and he said, “All this information helps and I am feeling better about a month of this, but you didn’t talk about God hating people. I’m wrestling with that part. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone?” I told him I struggle with 2:6 as well, that I plan to approach it in subsequent weeks, which is true. What I didn’t say, but will now, is that I was afraid if I opened that can of worms, I might say something that I regret.

I have made no secret about my commitment to justice, specifically for trans persons, Muslims, and persons of color. I have been criticized for alienating others. I am not looking to relitigate these issues because I feel they have been settled to various degrees, but I am acutely aware of the weight my words can have, especially in worship. Given what has happened over the last 48 hours, my heart has been filled with anger, disgust, frustration, and even hatred. I’ve been drinking the poison of my own making. I think others have as well.

But address it we must. John of Patmos writes that God hates the Nicolaists, a Gnostic group whose beliefs are not entirely known. Perhaps they followed a form of antinomianism, the notion that the Law is abolished completely by Christ. We are rightly wary of the notion that God hates anyone. This wariness is largely owed to the genocidal history of the Church. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, yes, but he prioritized those who were most oppressed by both religion and the State. Jesus stood up to those who abused their power so as to victimize others. Jesus did not let his heart be filled with anger and vengeance, but he made it clear that there are requirements. To argue otherwise is to ignore why Jesus went to the cross to die. When we blithely say it was for the forgiveness of sins, but ignore Jesus going to the cross in solidarity with those whom God calls blessed, we turn the Gospel into something that supports the vile, ugly, pervasive, and violent prejudice that has been with this country since its founding.

I’m okay with God hating white supremacism. It is foolish of us to think that reason and listening with compassion will gain anything except people more people in harm’s way because we don’t have the courage to stand up and be of account. We should not let ourselves hate people–which is most difficult because white supremacists are not good people–but that does not mean we have to act like they have a reasonable position. In fact, there is no room at the table.

I have no doubt that detractors will go to the trope, “Here’s the so-called tolerance of the Left; they only tolerate what they agree with.” Bullshit. It is a pernicious lie that all worldviews must be given equal credence. And while those on the far Right will claim that it is “PC culture” that has descended us into a world of relativism and hostility to facts, that is not the case. I argue that it is directly related to anti-intellectualism, faux-patriotism, and two political parties that don’t care about anything except “winning.”

What’s It All About? 

What do we do in a world that is full of hatred, lies, corruption, and deception? We look to the light of Christ. And I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, abstract notion of Jesus. Rather, the Jesus who stepped between religious fanatics and a woman about to be stoned to death. The Jesus who hung on a cross and showed compassion for one hanging next to him. The Jesus who went to a man chained by villagers on the outskirts of town. The Jesus who walked into Gentile territory, let a perpetually menstruating woman touch him, spoke truth to power, stood up for God’s message and never descended into hatred. In a world in which there are lots of lampstands without lamps, the light of Christ can help us see.**
*Many thanks to Rev. Lathe Snider for this bit of information.

**Just a reminder, I am not an exclusivist. I acknowledge that there are infinite paths to God, the Spirit, Creator, the Truth. This is the one I choose and I write from within the tradition but do make claims that I am right and everyone else is wrong.

Jesus v. Trump: The Church Must Render a Verdict

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Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article in today’s Post about yet another controversy around Robert Jeffress, about whom this blog has previously voiced disdain Alas, it appears that the time has come again in which I must I denounce, in the strongest possible terms, Jeffress’ public theology. Here is the latest from the megachurch pastor: “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” Oy vey.

Jeffress has credentials that are undeniable. He has legitimate degrees from legitimate institutions, albeit ones within the Southern Baptist Convention and with emphases on dispensationalism. He is not one with only a passing understanding of the bible. That’s one of the reasons that he is particularly dangerous. And he is Trump’s go-to pastor for biblical justification of unbiblical things. This blog has featured many, many, many, many, manymany, many entries on Trump, many focusing on religion but not all. I object bigly to any claims that God has anointed Trump a holy instrument.

Jeffress came to prominence with Trump after the two dined on Wendy’s hamburgers. The pastor said that God was going to place Trump in the White House. Trump’s shocking victory gave the minister all the credence he needed; Jeffress–and other pastors, to be fair–is complicit in presenting as a true Christian the man who claims he has never needed to repent for anything. As a pastor myself, I try to steer well-clear of judging the sins of anyone else, which is one of the reasons I am so open about my own shortcomings. I still have an oak tree in my own eye, so there is no need to point out the splinter in someone else’s.

However, I do have the obligation as an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament to speak out when I feel that the bible is being used in irresponsible ways. Jeffress maintains that Romans 13 gives “the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” He then goes on to argue that objections raised by the previous contextual chapter (Romans 12) only refer to how Christians treat one another. That’s right. Christians only have to love other Christians. You see, the good reverend does not want a president who will follow the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll say it once again: oy vey.

Romans 13 has been written about a lot. I mean, a lot. I had heated, but respectful debates in seminary about the chapter. The definitive work was done by my fellow Finn, Vilho Riekkinen (I strongly recommend Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, although it is very expensive, so thank God for Logos). These are the main sources of information, along with my not insignificant education. When Paul was writing Romans, Nero was in power. However, it was not yet the batshit crazy Nero, so things were peaceful. Paul was already receiving major pushback from Jews and Jesus-followers, so the last thing that he wanted to do was put another target on his back. Further, as Riekkinen argues in his doctoral dissertation, Paul was trying to negotiate incredibly complex power dynamics. More recent German scholars have argued that Romans 13 refers to Christian relationships with the Roman civic cult. This also helps to situate the whole Matthew 22 “render unto Caesar what is Caesar” advice. Recall that Jesus is holding a Roman coin with the image of Caesar. Said coin would not be allowed in the Temple, so Jesus is saying, the coin has Caesar’s picture, so give it back to him. But you belong to God. 

The notion that Paul was referring to the unholy, unrepentant, arrogant, sophomoric walking id that occupies the Oval Office in-between rounds of golf and bilking the American taxpayer is insulting to any person who takes the scripture seriously. Further, the argument is that Christians are to give respect to those offices and persons who are worthy of respect. The Tanakh is filled with examples of God raising up foreign powers to chasten the people. I can make the argument biblically that God could be using Kim Jong Un. I wouldn’t, though, because I know that is not how scripture works.

Jeffress maintains pastors like me are the problem. Again, according to the Post article,  “It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.” Okay, pastor. I’m game.

How about Proverbs 29:2? “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan.” Or Proverbs 28:15? “Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people.” The first verse of Isaiah 10, perhaps? “Woe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions.” The prophet Micah said a lot about the sort of financial malfeasance of the current president: “Concerning evil, both hands do it well The prince asks, also the judge, for a bribe, And a great man speaks the desire of his soul; So they weave it together” (7:3). I could go on.

Jeffress pastors a church that boasts nearly 4,000 in worship each week. This is not a place that allows for theological exploration or variety. What is even more frightening, is that Jeffress is filling delusional Trump with talk of being God’s agent, and I imagine there has been talk of ushering in an apocalypse. I’ll be covering that in a series of blogs over the next month. But let we in the Church who understand the damaging and errant words and work of Jeffress and his ilk not be complacent. These megachurches are all around us, luring people in with their coffee bars and promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. Churches that vest authority in the personalities and whims of the pastors, limiting who deserves love and expanding who deserves damnation.

If this is the Christianity that is to remain, the faith needs to die. It pains me deeply each time I say it, but the sort of Christianity that would cozy up to Trump and empower white supremacists has nothing to do with Jesus.

And I love me some Jesus.

 

Before the Sermon: The Revelation Evaluation

 

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I have long held that not resting an hour after binging on the Revelation buffet before diving into the world-pool gives the Body of Christ a cramp. I have never preached on the Book of Revelation and for the past eight years of my sermon-giving life, I’ve maintained that I never will. Said declaration can now join “I’ll never be a pastor,” “I’ll never work with youth,” “I’ll never take a pulpit in my hometown,” and “I’m not going to earn a D.Min. from United Theological Seminary” in the Oh, really now? section of God’s file on me. 

First, let’s discuss why I have been so resistant to the Book of Revelation,* hereby referred to as Revelation. I have reasons three.

  1. Almost invariably, Revelation is ripped from its historical context, interpreted literally, and applied to situations that have literally–meant in the true sense of the word–nothing to do with a text written 2,000 years ago. The most painful part of this is the literal interpretation. As we’ll discuss in the next entry of the series, apocalyptic literature is a genre of which there can be some degree of divergence, but by definition utilizes simile, metaphor, cognitive dissonance, appositives, and wordplay lost in English translations. I had someone call me on 9/11 to say that the events were prophesied in Revelation. No, they were not. The writings might help us understand acts of violence and destruction, but we don’t often remember that God’s consistent word has been, “Bad s*** happens when you don’t take care of people around you.”    

  2. Revelation has been used inordinately by those wishing to control, persecute, torture, vilify, imprison, and judge others. Once the text has been ripped from its historical context, it most often is used as a cudgel and sword to strike into submission those seen as sinners. We joke about bible thumpers, but those blows turn into beatings. Revelation has been used to frighten people with the specter of a brutal judgment followed by eternal banishment to Hell’s brimstone bowels. I’ve never heard Revelation used in love by a Christian to a non-Christian. Just look at Westboro Baptist Church. 

  3. Revelation lends itself too easily to hucksterism. Because the text is enigmatic–as we’ll discuss, even early Christians were like WTF?–but filled with fantastical images that strike the fancy of pathos, much of Christendom has been witness to charlatans promising entry into heaven or protection from demons for the low, low price of just enough to keep you hungry and dependant upon the Church. To wit, Revelation is oft-quoted by pastors looking to get themselves a bigger jet. 

A stalwart member of the congregation has told me that one of the reasons she has felt so comfortable at the church is because I pledged to not preach from Revelation. So making this decision is not something I take lightly. I often say that our community is the last stop for some people before they give up on God or church entirely. I try to be acutely aware of problematic texts, hymns, liturgical language, etc., and to preside over a safe, inviting, affirming spiritual space. Revelation rightly makes many people want to head toward the door. 

So why the change of heart?

  1. One frequent criticism of Progressive Christians is that we “pick and choose” what to follow in Scripture. First, let’s admit that Progressive Christianity (PC) is a catch-all term for an incredibly diverse array of thoughts and hermeneutics. There is no single theology or interpretative lens through which we can look at PC. Second, let’s admit that everybody picks and chooses. Do you follow all 613 commandments in the Torah? No, you don’t, because many of them apply to the Temple and are unfulfillable. Wanna argue that Jesus has canceled the debt and the Law is no longer relevant? Then you can’t quote from Leviticus or Numbers to justify the prejudice de jour. But to the crux of the criticism: we must confront everything in our tradition honestly and with a heart that can accept the errors contained therein.

  2. I have feared that I am not intelligent enough, not educated sufficiently in the nuances of apocalyptic literature, or, more to the point, will be unable to situate the text appropriately and still hear an affirming word from God. I listed above many of the things I have said “never” about, only to end up doing them and learning a tremendous amount. I am not meant to be a youth pastor, but children’s sermons at First Presby are beloved by kids and parents alike. My tenure at the church has been rocky at times, but also one of the most significant and inspiring spiritual experiences of my life. It is where God has led me and I never want to serve anywhere else. And being in the original cohort for the MLK Beloved Community Scholars is a true honor. When I face my fears, God works mightily.

  3. I feel a responsibility to the congregation and to those who read my writing to lay bare my concerns, be honest about the challenges, and then walk publicly through a four-week series. I’ve mentioned before that writing is a compulsion for me. I process through the written word, so this will not just be a sermon series. It will be a journey together through a text that has lots of landmines, but we pray for God to show us that which might empower our walk with Christ.
  4. Finally, I feel a responsibility to non-Christians to help craft understandings of the text that can, at least for a moment or two, trip up those who wish to use the Scripture as a shillelagh. If Christians who are tired of being misrepresented want to affect change, we can’t hide from that which is difficult. 

My hope is that you will join me on this odyssey; it’ll be a lot shorter than Homer’s version, but not nearly as good. 

*Please note the singular. Let’s promote biblical literacy; there is no plural, only Zuul.

After the Sermon: Unity is not uniformity

Paul employs “armor of God” imagery in both Colossians and Ephesians. It has been a staple of Christianity since the inception of the faith. This Sunday in worship, after we heard Ephesians 6:10-20, I brought an easel with a pad of flip-paper into the aisle running between the pews. I then asked the following two questions in turn: who has a positive reaction to this terminology, and who has a negative reaction?

The congregation was split, interestingly along gender lines, at least as represented through those who spoke openly. I imagine if I could read minds, that division might not have held. But if you go by crude gender stereotypes and assumptions, you know who fell where on the spectrum. I’d be one to defy said exceptions: I generally do not like the armor of God imagery and do not find it beneficial to my own spiritual walk. I’ve had to frame it up differently.

This is largely because I understand the historical milieu in which Paul operated. He believed that the Parousia–the second coming–was imminent. He eschewed the very religious laws he once helped enforce as a Pharisee because he felt that time was short and grace was all-sufficient. Paul really only had one message; it was fairly nuanced and systematic but had Saul of Tarsus been in the Beatles instead of Paul of Liverpool, the famous would song something like, “All you need is Christ, doop-dadooby-doop.”

This is not insignificant. Paul wrote to a people who were living under a powerful and capricious empire. Persecutions depended upon who was in power, and Paul had to contend with Nero, perhaps one of the most batshit crazy emperors in history. There are compelling reasons to regard Nero as the antichrist mentioned in Paul’s writings. Paul was clear that he meant a spiritual armor for a spiritual war, but that has not been the prevailing understanding throughout history. In fact, the image is one used by white nationalists. Paul believed that demonic forces were behind the brutality of Rome and that these were unleashing themselves upon the bodies and spirits of Jews and Jesus believers. Paul was waiting for a celestial clock to run out.

Paul was wrong.

I can’t throw away Paul completely, as he is vital to Christian theology. He’s in the canon whether I like it or not. So, here’s how I frame it up: We don armor when we feel the need for protection from an expected assault. Our cultures have largely regarded those wearing armor as brave, but I submit to you that armor is used primarily when one feels fear. War is always the result of fear, and some fears are good. We should fear white nationalists, but they only exist because of fear. They fear that others might do to them what white people have been doing to the rest of the world for centuries. This doesn’t mean other nations and races have not committed atrocities; such objections are simply obfuscations to distract from facts. We wear armor because we are afraid. I think to deny this is to deny something basic about the purpose of armor.

In this week’s worship, I asked the congregation to be honest about their fears regarding our future. Some voices shook, some contrary opinions were offered, but everyone was engaged. After the Spirit had moved us on that question, I asked the bigger one: what are your hopes?

Because that is how I ultimately frame up the armor of God: it is, as my fellow United Theological Seminary alumnus Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has written, the audacity of hope. I choose not to give in to fear. That doesn’t mean that I ignore it. Not at all. I am well aware of that which frightens me, but the armor of hope is what helps me remain at the proverbial table. The armor of God can help protect us from the allures of greed, avarice, envy, covetousness, and other myriad sins. But it is up to us as individuals to get to the point in which we no longer need the armor because those weapons can no longer hurt us. I’m hoping to get down to a light chain mail, myself; this bastard sword is getting too big to carry around, too.

This Sunday’s worship, as on each first Sunday, we shared the Lord’s Supper. All are invited, none are compelled. We share a common cup, all receive the same amount of bread. We dwell in unity, even if we have different fears and different hopes. We stay committed to one another because that is what we believe God calls us to do. The failures of white nationalist “theology,” along with myriad other reasons, is that it holds that purity is racial and that everyone must look the same, act the same, think the same, be the same. That is not Christianity, even for Paul. His entire ministry was literally race-mixing.

Unity doesn’t mean we all think the same thing, it means that we don’t walk away from the table when we don’t get our way. Unity means the courage to speak your heart, but also to listen to others, as well. It doesn’t mean, though, that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, or any other accidents-based phobia should be respected in-and-of themselves. Christians have a primary call to seek out those on the periphery and then to ask them what being at the center might look like; it means listening and then acting appropriately. It means hearing how we have been complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in structures that keep others oppressed.

Unity is nigh impossible if we do not prioritize the pain and needs within our immediate communities. Unity is not saying that all fears and experiences are equal. They are not. It is binary thinking that gets us into trouble, though; if someone else’s pain is deemed more profound or immediate, too many of us respond as if the claim is that our pain does not matter. Emergency rooms prioritize people by the severity of their injuries and needs. Churches should do that as well instead of setting up triage for people who aren’t bleeding.

I do not accept the notion that somehow it is inhospitable to take a stand against prejudice. The idea that the feelings of the oppressors are more important than the pain of the oppression is perhaps one of the most dangerous circulating today. Racism is not a matter of opinion upon which we can agree to disagree. At least it isn’t for me. It does not mean that I will automatically walk away from a racist, but it does mean that as a spiritual leader I am clearly going to say, “if you want to work through your prejudices and start developing healthy relationships with those you claim to hate, I can help. This church can help. But if you want to dominate the space and conversation, accusing others of intolerance because they call racism what it is, then I think there are some churches in the surrounding towns that are more your speed.”

When I first heard Queen Latifah–we so close I just call her Queen now–and the song “Unity,” my already inbred racism and misogyny kicked it. It was still so unusual to see and hear a black woman speaking out and not backing down. Luckily, I had several female mentors who lovingly, but forcefully helped me guide through it. A few years later I had to do the same thing with Arab men and Islam. I don’t point fingers at anyone I don’t point first and most emphatically at myself.

But I can say that it is better on the other side of those prejudices. I have many powerful female friends and colleagues, specifically women of color. I have learned and continue to learn from them, but more importantly, we share our lives. Same with Muslims and Arab men. Unity means that we bring the whole self to the table and are honest about our fears because we believe there is hope. That’s the only armor I need.

 

After the Sermon: This Little Piggy Had None

Ephesians 4:1-16

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Sticky Wickets 

Imagine if you will that your life is going to end in six months. You’re not sick or suffering, but for whatever reason, you are convinced the end will come on January 1. What sort of decisions would you make? What perspective do you imagine you might have, believing that existence will change in a flash? It might be death, it might be a transformation, it might be many things you don’t know, but you have zero doubt that it will end. And then imagine that you are wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?

And then imagine that you are spectacularly wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?

That’s what we have with Paul.

The Apostle Paul was confident that Jesus was going to come back within a generation. The problems with such eschatology have been covered myriad times on the blog, so I shan’t rehearse it here. But Paul wrote to communities he was seeking to usher through the interim period from Jesus’ death to his return. The fact that Paul was wrong is not insignificant, but does it mean that we must dismiss everything he wrote?

I don’t ask this rhetorically. I struggle with Paul, but I keep coming back. My faith in Jesus is much different than Paul’s faith in Christ. I follow Jesus because I believe he displayed definitively how to live; if others agree, great. If not, that’s cool, too. Paul puts so many dollars into the “Christ-is-gonna-return-really-I-swear” jar that I wrestle with how to understand Paul’s writings without turning them into something they are not, but also readily admitting that they are riddled with error. At least, if we insist that every word in the Bible must be literally true.

Again why biblical literalism is deadly to an intelligent faith.

Ephesians 4:1-16 is an important passage because it illustrates the challenges that come with reading Paul. Some scholars* argue that the epistle was not written by the Apostle or to the Ephesians. Even within the Bible itself, there are details difficult to reconcile. Acts 16-20 relate exciting details about Paul’s time in Ephesus, culminating in a demonstration against him by Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths who have seen a decrease in orders of icons for the Temple of Artemis. Christians were bad for the bottom line. When Paul tried to speak to the angry assembly at the theater in Ephesus, he was shouted down and escaped before being killed. His final address to the Ephesians is basically, “I taught y’all everything you need to know and if you don’t get it right, that ain’t my fault. P.S., I’m out.”  However, none of this “history” is reflected in the epistle. There’s more in common between Ephesians and Colossians than there is between Acts and the letter under consideration. That’s not surprising, as Acts essentially presents the trials and tribulations of the early Church to be near facsimiles of Jesus life and death.

To the Epistle, We Go

Verses 1-6 are an exhortation: we are to strive for unity in all things, just as God is singular in unity. For Paul, this is all related to the eschaton, the end time. He is pushing for unity because he believes that those involved in rancor and division won’t make the cut when Jesus comes back. Verses 7-16 are sort of like an instruction manual. Paul is telling believers the way that the Body of Christ should be formed.

For me, this is where we can set aside the eschatological overtones of the chapter and glean wisdom that is timeless. In v. 8, Paul applies lines about Moses ascending and descending Mt. Sinai to receive the Law to Jesus’ resurrection, intimating that Christ went to the bowels of the earth and to the reaches of the heavens. It is interesting to note that ancient cosmogony had earth as the lowest rung of the celestial ladder, so perhaps the message is that God’s presence encompasses the reaches of creation? Perhaps metaphorically Jesus went into the bowels of the earth when he visited those living in caves? Or perhaps we just recognize that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?

Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?

Verses 11-13 are often misread, in my estimation, due to the overlay of eschatology.  This extends far beyond believing that Jesus will come back in the end times. Eschatological readings of these verses turn’s Paul’s interim ethics into an instruction manual for how to run the Church 2,000 years later.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” 

Too often the hermeneutic applied to these verses is: “There are different amounts of the Spirit available to others depending on their role.” This belies Paul’s central assertion. 

What Christ represents is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between God and humans. Jesus, through his life and death, shatters that which separates. God’s grace, when met with our corresponding faith, forges a new body in the fires of Love: the Body of Christ. This metaphysical entity is made incarnate through prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and saints. We are united through faith, yes, but not everyone is called to the same ministry. Not everyone has the same gifts. However, I reject outright the notion that there is a necessary hierarchy within the Body because Paul does not say that one role is more important than another.

And This is Relevant How? 

Lots of Christian communities are facing daunting realities. Aging congregations, shrinking money supplies, ever-increasing building maintenance demands, shrinking staff, and jackasses who call themselves Christians causing many people to run in the other direction, all conspire to make us think about what it means to exist in unity. Is the Body of Christ on life-support and should we pull the plug?

Not yet. If we can have a Body of Christ that actually follows Jesus, that appreciates and affirms the gifts of all, that does not try to replace Christ with a human being on earth. Yes, structure is important. Pastors should have extensive training and be held accountable, but pastors are no more important than teachers or evangelists. Further, seeking unity does not mean that everyone needs to get in line with what the priest says. Or what the governing body of the church declares. Unity requires that we all have a place at the table and we listen to one another. We pray, we turn to Scripture for guidance, and we follow our hearts that are in submission to God.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul thought it was all going to end. Fast. That doesn’t mean, though, that he wasn’t right about some things. The Body of Christ requires toes and heart valves. You don’t want the roast beef piggy doing the work of the left ventricle. I’m a big fan of opposable thumbs and big toes, though. So instead of being concerned about who is more important or has more power, let us focus on the wonderful ways in which God has made human diversity.  Otherwise, this little piggy will have none.

*I recommend highly reading Stephen E. Fowl’s excellent commentary on Ephesians.