Two Life Verses And How They May Relate to Our Common Life Over thirty-five years ago when I was a seminary student, I preached at chapel services at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I remember those beginner sermons, because in preparing them I
Two Life Verses And How They May Relate to Our Common Life
Over thirty-five years ago when I was a seminary student, I preached at chapel services at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I remember those beginner sermons, because in preparing them I wrestled with two scriptures that have subsequently become life verses for me. Maybe these scriptures also speak to you, and perhaps they even speak to our denomination and our cultural situation.
The first scripture contains God’s words to Baruch in Jeremiah 45:4-5: "This is what the LORD says: ‘I will overthrow what I have built and uproot what I have planted, throughout the land. Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not.’ ”
Though I did not completely understand these words when I first read them, I understood that by calling me out of law school and politics into ministry, God was not going to give me the wealth and success for which I had once hoped. Moreover, the church was also not going to be a place for me to expect great “success.” Over the years this scripture has helped me accept and deal not only with the ambiguities (as well as joys) of being pastor of small to medium-sized congregations in a declining denomination, but it has also helped me deal with the vast dislocation and destruction of institutions and traditions in our culture.
In the lifetimes of many of us, we have seen tremendous “uprooting and overthrowing.” Christian culture in America has been significantly dismantled. Vast changes have occurred in the PC(USA) and in its predecessor denominations, so that we look in vain for the church we once knew. Tremendous social and economic dislocations have happened in America with the outsourcing of jobs, the brusqueness of the new economy, new and different immigrant groups coming to our shores, 9-11 and the war on terrorism, and the threatened implosion of revered and well-intentioned social entitlement programs which are not on sound actuarial footing and therefore threaten the very livelihood of future generations.
This “overthrowing” and “uprooting” which happen in Jeremiah and which we see all around us are experienced by many as unmitigated disaster. But I wonder if they are not also an invitation and opportunity for the church to proclaim to our hedonistic and individualistic culture (in the words of John R. Mott who perhaps first combined Jeremiah 45:5 and Matthew 6:33) “Seek not great things for yourself….but seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” In other words while prospects for individual prosperity and “success” in church and culture may be rapidly diminishing for many of us, the prospect for the breaking in of God’s kingdom is great! As a saint (Mary Curd) in First Presbyterian Church in Richmond Virginia once told me “man’s extremity is God’s possibility.”
The second text from another seminary chapel is Luke 10:17-20. “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name." He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, says one characteristic of the vital, growing (and often persecuted) “southern church” of Asia, Africa and Latin America is not only that it takes scripture seriously but also that it believes in the supernatural—in miracles---like those performed by the seventy-two in Luke 10.
While my personal experience of casting out demons is almost as limited as that of most Presbyterians, I believe I have seen gifts such as prophecy and healing operate today, and I am convinced that God is still the God of miracles. I believe that while miracles are much less important than God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, they often are a means by which people are drawn to the Savior. Finally I believe that scripture teaches that Jesus gave the church authority to perform miracles in his name.
Some evangelical Presbyterians think that the outcome of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the nineteen-twenties was sheer tragedy because a majority in the General Assembly decided that believing miracles had happened in Bible times was optional for church officers. I personally think the real tragedy occurred centuries earlier when some Christians and churches stopped believing that miracles still happened in their own day while continuing (schizophrenically) to insist that they had happened in Jesus’s day. I was raised with such a “cessationist” (miracles have ceased) theology. In my twenties, I became something of a theological liberal for a time, in part because I preferred liberalism (which at least was consistent in saying that miracles don’t happen now and didn’t happen then) to cessationist evangelicalism. Providentially, I found out that there is a third option—that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever and that he still performs supernatural miracles.
Part of the relevance of this discussion of miracles is that the renewal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) seems---humanly speaking---impossible. It would take a miracle—or a series of miracles— for it to happen! But Jesus is still the same. Therefore we need to earnestly pray for--and even expect--the miraculous, even in the PC(USA)—whether in its individual congregations or in its totality as a denomination. I believe God’s willingness to perform miracles is often in direct proportion to our need and desperation. Are we desperate yet?
Yet while Luke 10 is clear that Jesus makes miracles happen and that he uses humans like us, Jesus himself teaches that our source of joy must never be in miracles but rather in God’s choosing us to be his own for eternity. This is a thoroughly Presbyterian theme! Still our temptation is twofold: either to rejoice in miracles when they happen or to despair when they don’t; either to moan when the church is not doing well or to exult when it is. In either case we have taken our eyes off of Jesus. Instead he says even to those who have just experienced great spiritual victory, “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” I hope that perhaps after great desperation and groaning before God, both parts of this verse will be our experience.
Winfield Casey Jones, revised 7-17-14
THE FOURTH OF JULY AND REAL FREEDOM You are outwardly free, but do you have inner freedom? For many years I did not. I was enslaved to the fear of death. Therefore I was not free. When I was a child, I was afraid of dying at a young age. Perhaps it was because I had two siblings die. The thing is, no matter at what age it comes, all of us must die. It is inevitable. We can attempt to deny it, but it is true. The Bible says, "Show me, O Lord, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.” (Psalm 39:4, NIV.) It also says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12, NIV) Recently we have had a lot of deaths in our church family touching members, friends, and families of our congregation. Many have felt this heavy burden but I think they have also felt the comfort of the Spirit of the Lord. I believe they have experienced how, in the Christian community, Christ’s Body, we can “bear one another’s burdens” and experience God through corporate love and caring which amazingly lift us up. In the midst of all this, the Fourth of July is coming, but this joyous day of celebrating freedom reminds me that just because a person is a citizen in a free land, this doesn’t mean they are free. Many people are outwardly free but inwardly enslaved. Outward freedom isn’t enough. We need Jesus to set us free inwardly. The Bible says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36-37, NIV) Recently, as I thought about my life-long fears of death, I have thought a lot about a scripture from Hebrews 2:14 and 15. It says: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too (Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-16 NIV) In other words, you and I might live in a free country but our innermost being can still be paralyzed by and enslaved to sin, death, and especially by the fear of death. Some of you reading this, though outwardly free, have like me spent years living enslaved to the fear of death. This does not have to be anymore. God does not wish it to be. Whoever trusts in Jesus has already passed from death to life. In John 5:24, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has (already!) crossed over from death to life!” Also in 1 John 3:14, John writes, “We know that we have passed from death unto life (already!), because we love the brothers and the sisters.” Jesus came to set us free from the fear of death as we entrust our lives to His wise, powerful, and loving care. Quit being enslaved. Let the Son set you free now and forevermore. And Happy Fourth of July!