Does “Church” mean “the called out”?

I still hear it, though, by this time we should know better. The word “church” means “the called out,” therefore, based on the root meaning of the word, the church are the called out ones. Actually, no. While I certainly don’t want to take issue with the notion that the church should be those “called out” of the world to live God’s life for the sake of the world, the word church in the NT (ἐκκλησία) does not mean “the called out.”

This a bit like saying our English word “church” means “those belonging to the Lord,” since, after all, the English word church derives from the Greek “kurikos” (κυριακός) which meant “belonging to the Lord.” But few would even make that connection today.

D. A. Carson, years ago in Exegetical Fallacies, called this way of thinking about words, the root fallacy–that is that you can find what a word means by looking at its constituent parts (in this case, ἐκ [out of] + κλῆσις [calling]).

By the time of the first century, the word was the common word for a political or other assembly. The word, in that sense, is not a religious word. Furthermore, the import of the word is not the people had been called out but rather that they have assembled to conduct some business or activity. In one case in the NT, the word refers to a gathered mob (Acts 19:32).

Unfortunately, the often overlooked background of the NT use of the word ἐκκλησία is that the earliest Christians conversant in Greek knew the word from the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX). The word was not a new word for the early Christians but one they heard often with the OT was being read.

The Greek translators of the OT used the word ἐκκλησία as a translation of קָהָל (qahal) and other synonyms, generally translated as congregation or assembly. Consequently, the NT word we translate “church,” is all over the OT, as in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4, 9; 31:30; Josh 8:35; Judg 20:2; 21:5, 8; 1 Sam 17:47; 19:20; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chr 13:2, 4; 28:2, 8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chr 1:3, 5; 6:3, 12-13; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5, 14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23, 28, 31-32; 30:2, 4, 13, 17, 23-25; Ezra 2:64; 10:1, 8, 12, 14; Neh 5:7, 13; 7:66; 8:2, 17; 13:1; Judith 6:16, 21; 7:29; 14:6; 1 Mac 2:56; 3:13; 4:59; 5:16; 14:19; Psa 21:23, 26; 25:5, 12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1; Prov 5:14; Job 30:28; Sir 15:5; 21:17; 23:24; 24:2; 26:5; 31:11; 33:19; 38:33; 39:10; 44:15; 46:7; 50:13, 20; Sol 10:6; Mic 2:5; Joel 2:16; Lam 1:10.

So better than thinking of the church as the “called out ones,” a more biblical approach would be seeing the church as the continuation of the story of God from the OT. When the early Christians heard the word ἐκκλησία, they were more likely to hear a reference to God’s gathered people.

Advertisements

Helping the Donald Find the Collection Plate

Every religious action of Donald Trump is being scrutinzed to see if he might actually be a Christian as he claims to be. Yesterday we caught the Donald confusing the communion plate for the offering plate and should actually be praising him for his willingness to give.

But Trump’s gaffe provides a perfect opportunity to raise a question about how we help outsiders find their way when they worship with us. Since I was not there, this is a general reminder that we do many things in church life that is just baffling to unchurched people as well as to people raised in other traditions.

Here’s my plea: Let’s become more explicit about what we are doing during our worship times. Not only will visitors appreciate it, the church will benefit from the teaching that results from this kind of instruction. Here are some of my suggestions for how this might be done.

  1. At the beginning of the service, explain briefly what will happen in the service.
  2. Before communion, explain in every day langauge what is about to happen. Since I belong to a fellowship that does communion weekly, this is a weekly opportunity to tell how communion participates in the story of Jesus.
  3. Before the offering, explain why the church is taking up money both fiscally and theologically. Invite visitors to give as they are moved. (Please don’t tell them they don’t have to give and that it is just for members as this short-circuits what God may be doing in their lives–they may really need to give because of where they are).
  4. Have attractive literature ready as a guide for newcomers and those from other church traditions so they can find their way around the facility but also through the service.
  5. Have hosts speically trained and available for those who might need some help finding their way. Call on the people who have the emotional sensitivity to read the comfort level of others.
  6. Learn to recognize and not use “insider” language that only those trained in church-ese would understand.

Ok, here are some of my suggestions to help the Donalds of the world find their way in a new church setting, perhaps you have others.

So should the Donald visit your worship gathering, make sure he can find his way easily.

What God Loves; What We Love

Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for March 15, 2015: John 3:14-21

The United States became “officially” biblically illiterate on January 9, 2009. The day before, Tim Tebow had “John” written in white on his eye-black under his right eye and 3:16 under his left eye in the OU vs. FL football game.  Tebow made a name for himself by his outward religious expressions at sporting events.

However, the amazing thing that happened the next day was that “John 3:16” was the top search on Google search. The top five searches on January 9, 2009 were

1. John 3 16

2. Mary Lynn Rajskub

3. Windows 7 beta download

4. All inclusive vacations

5. Ana Ortiz

In other words, people no longer knew the once most-memorized text of the Bible. If people knew nothing else about the Bible, they would often know “For God so loved the world . . .”

Equally disturbing, to me at least, is that guy who held up the John 3:16 banner at all those NFL games over the years had been utterly unsuccessful.

The Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday includes this once well-known text. Beginning in John 3:14, our text reads,

… And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When we read John 3:16 in its larger context we see that God is not the only one who “loves” in our text. People are said to love, too. Embedded in this text is a call to respond to God’s love.

“Who said what?” is a bit of a problem in this text. Since ancient manuscripts of the NT had no real equivalent to quotation marks, scholars have argued over where Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus and where John begins his commentary. I’m among those who think Jesus finishes at v. 15 and that v. 16 begins John’s comments. This probably does not change how we read the text much, but in the spirit of full disclosure that is how I’m reading it. If you are interested in this issues, you can consult the commentaries on it or let me know, and I will send you the information.

However one resolves who said what, the content of v. 15 sets the context for hearing the whole text and it is important for hearing that text.

In a rather strange analogy, Jesus compares the “Son of Man,” referring to himself,  to the serpent that Moses placed on a pole and lifted up (ὑψόω) in the wilderness. Of course, the story about Moses and the snake is also rather strange, and unexpected, given the association of the serpent with temptation in the creation narrative. The story is told in a few verses in the book of Numbers:

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV)

Discounting the idolatrous nature of the bronze serpent (and that it violates the second commandment), Jesus analogy rests on one point: just as the serpent was lifted up, so the Son of Man will be lifted up. A second point might be that those who looked at the serpent would live and those who believe in the Son of Man will have eternal life.

But back to the first thought, the notion of “being lifted” has something a double meaning in John’s writing. For Jesus to be “lifted up” could as easily mean to be exalted or to be crucified. John may want his readers to linger a bit on both and perhaps feel the interplay between the two.

So as we turn the corner into John 3:16, the “exalted” Son of Man is still echoing in our heads. We are now prepared to hear that God’s love for the world will cost God dearly: God gave, God sent. Vv. 16, 17, and 18 all move in the same direction. God gave his Son so that those who believe may have eternal life; God sent his Son so that the world might be save through him; those who believe are not condemn. God’s intent is that his creatures will live!

However, there is another side to the equation: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What caught my attention here is that John announces that those who do not believe are “condemned already” (κέκριται; perfect/completed tense in Greek of κρίνω, I judge). Clearly, John has certain people or group of people in mind. He has already mentioned those who believe so he does not believe all people are under consideration here. Rather these who do not believe are those who have encountered Jesus but chose not believe, or in John’s language, closed their eyes to the light of God. This only makes sense if you believe that Jesus is God’s representative, or as the text says, God’s Son. If that is true, then ignoring Jesus is rejecting the God of creation.

In fact, as God so loved the world, such people loved darkness rather than the light. And that, it seems to me, is the fulcrum of this text. God loved the world so much that he sent his Son as “light,” but those who love darkness will not see the Light.

The question of the text becomes, “Do you want to see? Well, do you?

No One But Jesus!

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for February 15: Mark 9:1-10

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

The story of Jesus as told by Mark is punctuated by three nodal moments: the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, and the crucifixion. These stories appear to be of the same fabric. They all speak to the identity of Jesus; they all announce Jesus as God’s special messenger, even the Son of God. They all partake of theophanies, or stories in which God appears.

There are several of these stories in the OT: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Isaiah before the throne of God, and others. Often these stories involve clouds, the voice of God, dazzling white garments, and a new direction or clarity for the one who experienced it. Though the elements vary from story to story, they always involve an encounter with the living God.

Though the reading for this coming Sunday is actually Mark 9:2-9, a larger context is necessary to catch the sense of the text. Therefore, I have included v. 1 and v. 10. The first verse sets up the story of the transfiguration. Here Jesus states that some of his audience would be alive to “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” While this comment may refer to the founding of the church, Mark does not tell us that story in his Gospel. More likely, then, the comment makes sense within in the immediate context. Mark had already introduced the centrality of the “kingdom of God” to the ministry and preaching of Jesus (cf. Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14–15, 23–25; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43).

Jesus has been very clear that the Kingdom of God was in fact already present in his ministry. In Mark 1:15, Jesus states that the kingdom of God has come near (perfect tense in Greek) and in 4:11 that the mystery of the Kingdom of God has been given (again perfect tense) to his disciples, though they did not understand what he meant. Now, in Mark 9:1, Jesus states that some of his audience would see the Kingdom of God “having come” (another perfect) with power. This text is not predicting some future coming of the kingdom, that kingdom is present in the ministry of Jesus. Instead he is predicting that some of this hearers will experience coming of that kingdom “in power.” (Notice that v. 2 begins with a marker of time: six days later, that is, six days after Jesus said some would see the Kingdom of God having come with power).

The next story, the story of the Transfiguration, satisfies both that some of his audience would experience the kingdom and that it would be a powerful experience. The Transfiguration is certainly nothing short of powerful!

When Jesus had led his closest disciples up a high mountain, he was “transfigured” (μεταμορφόω) in their presence and his clothing became brilliantly white. “Transfigure” is such an ugly English word; the only time we use the word is for this story. The Greek word is the one from which we get metamorphosis, and can just as easily be translated “changed,” “transformed,” etc. More pertinent than the meaning of the word is how Jesus’ transformation sounds like what happened to Moses when experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai. The text of Exodus notes that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29). Just as Moses experienced God on Mt. Sinai, so now Jesus in this mountain-top experience.

Out of nowhere Elijah and Moses appear to chat with Jesus. Scholars and commentators have speculated on why Moses and Elijah and whether there is a deeper meaning to be found here. Here are a few of the better suggestion:

1) Both Moses and Elijah had theophanic exits. In the case of Moses, the text of Deuteronomy say that God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, and then he died and was buried in an unknown location  (Deut 34:5–6). With Elijah, when it was time for him to exit, God swooshed him to heaven in the wake of a fiery chariot (2Kings 2:11–12).

2) Moses represents the Law and Elijah, as the beginning of the prophetic movement in ancient Israel, represents the Prophets. Thus, the Transfiguration is about how Jesus is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets.

3) In Deuteronomy 18 Moses predicted that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself. The earliest Christians read this text to refer to Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22). Yet many of the miracles of Jesus sound like those that occurred in the ministry of Elijah. Furthermore, since John the Baptist is identified with the ministry of Elijah (cf. Mark 9:11–13), Jesus would be like Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, who received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit after the latter departed.

In short, the stories related to Moses and Elijah provide a rich pool of images and echoes through which to understand the meaning of the Transfiguration and the mission of Jesus.

Clearly Peter misses the full meaning of the experience, when he said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The point, of course, is that Jesus is the one who now represents the will of God. Jesus, as the Voice from heaven says, is “my Son, the Beloved” and the appropriate response is to “listen to him!” One might say that is Mark’s point throughout the Gospel in seeking disciples who will listen carefully to Jesus. Remember “The one who has an ear to hear should listen up!”

Peter, who may well be Mark’s source for this story, speaks before listening. “He did not know what to say!” So as we are prone to do ourselves when we don’t know what to say, we speak anyway. When we do this, what follows is usually disastrous.

Yet Mark goes deeper into the motivation of Peter and the others: “for they were terrified!” Had I experience what they had, I’m sure I would have been terrified, too. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus elicits two basic responses from people: faith or fear. In Mark’s Gospel, the opposite of “faith,” is not un-faith, or disbelief, but fear. At the end of Mark, this same thought recurs. When the women who came to tomb are invited to go tell of the empty tomb, they don’t, “because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

When the experience was over, Peter, James and John looked around. They now saw no one but Jesus!

And that is Mark’s point: to see no one but Jesus!

Exmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus

AND BEYOND THIS there lies in the ocean, turned towards the west and north, the island of Niatirb which Hecataeus indeed declares to be the same size and shape as Sicily, but it is larger, though in calling it triangular a man would not miss the mark. It is densely inhabited by men who wear clothes not very different from the other barbarians who occupy the north-western parts of Europe though they do not agree with them in language. These islanders, surpassing all the men of whom we know in patience and endurance, use the following customs.

In the middle of winter when fogs and rains most abound they have a great fes­tival which they call Exmas, and for fifty days they prepare for it in the fashion I shall describe. First of all, every citizen is obliged to send to each of his friends and relations a square piece of hard paper stamped with a picture, which in their speech is called an Exmas-card.. But the pictures represent birds sitting on branches, or trees with a dark green prickly leaf, or else men in such garments as the Niatirbians believe that their ancestors wore two hundred years ago riding in coaches such as their ancestors used, or houses with snow on their roofs. And the Niatirbians are unwilling to say what these pictures have to do with the festival, guarding (as I suppose) some sacred mystery. And because all men must send these cards the market-place is filled with the crowd of those buying them, so that there is great labour and weariness.

But having bought as many as they suppose to be sufficient, they return to their houses and find there the like cards which others have sent to them. And when they find cards from any to whom they also have sent cards, they throw them away and give thanks to the gods that this labour at least is over for another year. But when they find cards from any to whom they have not sent, then they beat their breasts and wail and utter curses against the sender; and, having suffi­ciently lamented their misfortune, they put on their boots again and go out into the fog and rain and buy a card for him also. And let this account suffice about Exmas-cards.

They also send gifts to one another, suffering the same things about the gifts as about the cards, or even worse. For every citizen has to guess the value of the gift which every friend will send to him so that he may send one of equal value, whether he can afford it or not. And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

But during these fifty days the oldest, poorest and most miserable of the citizens put on false beards and red robes and walk about the market-place; being disguised (in my opinion) as Cronos. And the sellers of gifts no less than the pur­chasers become pale and weary, because of the crowds and the fog, so that any man who came into a Niatirbian city at this season would think some great public calamity had fallen on Niatirb. This fifty days of preparation is called in their bar­barian speech the Exmas Rush.

But when the day of the festival comes, then most of the citizens, being exhausted with the Rush, lie in bed till noon. But in the evening they eat five times as much supper as on other days and, crowning themselves with crowns of paper, they become intoxicated. And on the day after Exmas they are very grave, being inter­nally disordered by the supper and the drinking and reckoning how much they have spent on gifts and on the wine. For wine is so dear among the Niatirbians that a man must swallow the worth of a talent before he is well intoxicated.

Such, then, are their customs about the Exmas. But the few among the Niatirbians have also a festival, separate and to themselves, called Crissmas, which is on the same day as Exmas. And those who keep Crissmas, doing the opposite to the majority of the Niatirbians, rise early on that day with shining faces and go before sunrise to certain temples where they partake of a sacred feast. And in most of the temples they set out images of a fair woman with a new-born Child on her knees and certain animals and shepherds adoring the Child. (The reason of these images is given in a certain sacred story which I know but do not repeat.)

But I myself conversed with a priest in one of these temples and asked him why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas; for it appeared to me inconvenient. But the priest replied, It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush dis­tract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left. And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, It is, O Stranger, a racket; using (as I suppose) the words of some oracle and speaking unintelligibly to me (for a racket is an instrument which the barbarians use in a game called tennis).

But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not cred­ible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatirbians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper cars. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in. And now, enough about Niatirb.

C. S. Lewis

From The Collected Works of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1970), 505–06.

The Binding of Solomon to Set Noah Free

Are you tired of the back and forth on the Noah movie yet? I am. No, that’s not quite right. I was before it started. Most of what I have read runs along the lines of should we see it–no, I won’t–yes, I will–it does not follow the Bible–it brings in other traditions–an atheist made it–for crying out loud, it’s a movie–it’s too ecological, its too fanciful, ad infinitum. However, few have noted how much beside the point the whole debate actually is. And those in the debate are all really talking about much more than the merits of the movie. You might get the impression that future of civilization as we know it is at stake.

An analogy might be helpful. Imagine a group of kids playing marbles at the entrance of the Superdome in New Orleans just before a Saints game is about to begin. Further imagine that the kids are so intense in their game, that they are oblivious to what is going on around them–all those very loud Who Dats working their way around the kids playing marbles. Now allow me to stretch the image a bit more: the kids really believe there is only one big game and it is the one they are playing right now–their game of marbles! Of course, this is not likely to happen ever, nor should it really. But in a way it has.

Only a few weeks ago, a substantive movie won the Oscar for best picture, worthy of the amount of debate the Noah movie has received but unlike, the Noah movie, it is the real deal. Of course, I’m speaking of “Twelve Years a Slave,” the story of Solomon Northup. But it would appear that the frivolous movie and the flood of reviews it provoked overwhelmed the more substantial movie.

We could point to the respect for historicity (or at least respect for the narrative as Solomon told it) as one of the distinguishing features between the ways the two movies told their respective tales, but what I have in mind is much more important than this. Both movies are about sin, punishment, and the possibility of new beginnings. Both are about the human destruction of God’s creation.

However, the Northup story deserves far more attention from thoughtful Christians than the story of Noah as (mis)represented in the movie of Noah. All the debate in the world on the historicity of Noah, the reliability of the biblical story of Noah, or the proper way to read the Noah story is likely to change no one’s mind. And even if people do change their mind in either direction, either pro- or con about Noah, nothing substantive will have change in our world. At best, we are amusing ourselves to death, and, at worse, we are avoiding through our pseudo-intellectual debates, issues that actually require thoughtful Christian attention: how we treat others (or the other).

Almost biblical in his prophetic proclamation, the liberator of Solomon, in the book and the resulting movie, Samuel Bass, warns the obstinate master, Edwin Epps, thus: “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just” (268 in the original 1853 ed.).

Frankly it is easier to talk about the historicity of the biblical text or how the movie misread the biblical story of Noah than it is to talk about the fearful sin, as Sam Bass called it, and its lasting consequences on the real world in which we live. So have we bound Solomon to set Noah free?