Resources for Easter and the Great Fifty Days – @sowhat_podcast, @officialseedbed

We are now into the season of Easter (or Eastertide). That’s right. If you follow the Church calendar, Easter is not just one day. It’s fifty days. And that, of course, is why we call it “The Great Fifty Days.” In the spirit of the season, I wanted to point to a few resources that I’ve had the chance to be part of, along with some great colleagues, that highlight the significance of the season. The first three are from the team at So What? Podcast (Web, Soundcloud, iTunes). The fourth is a 7 Minute Seminary (with bonus footage) from Seedbed. All of them dig into the significance of the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the resurrection of believers in the future, and all of them take the practical and pastoral significance of resurrection as major points of consideration. 
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect on Facebook or follow @mporeilly.

Don’t Just Give Up, Take Up: A Lenten Reflection #UMC

A sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2015 at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama.
The invitation to observe a holy Lent is an invitation to sacrifice and self-denial. It is an invitation to give something up. This has been the common practice of Christians around the world century after century. Many of us have in recent days asked the question: What will I give up for Lent this year? And many have selected something and resolved to fast from it, to do without it for these forty days. For some it may be a particular sort of food or drink. For others it may have to do with the way they use their time. But whatever it is, the common theme is sacrifice. We give it up. As we enter this Lenten season, however, I want to suggest that giving something up is not enough. We must take something up as well. To put it succinctly: Don’t just give up, take up. 
The Means and the End
Here’s what I mean. When we give something up for Lent, we are committing ourselves to the spiritual discipline of fasting. But the purpose of fasting is not simply the act of giving up. The purpose of giving one thing up is to make room for something else. So, we might choose to fast from a meal in order to use that time for extra prayer. We might give up some luxury in order to give more resources to missions or to ministry with the poor perhaps. In each case, we deny ourselves in one way in order to grow in another way. The discipline of giving something up is a means that leads to a different end. We give up so that we can take up.
The Danger of Lent
But therein lies the danger. All too often we perilously allow the means to become the end. We give up chocolate or soft drinks or something and focus so much on the giving up that we neglect to take up. We neglect to devote our energy and resources and attention to growing in grace and faith and holiness. When that happens we have allowed the means to become the end, and we miss the point, and we miss the benefit of the Lenten sacrifice. Don’t just give up, take up. 
What do we take up?
This, of course, invites the question: what should we take up? We should not be surprised that one answer to our question can be found in the liturgy. The law of prayer is the law of faith, after all. When we receive the ashes on our forehead, we hear the minister call upon us to “repent and believe the gospel.” What do we take up during Lent? We first take up repentance. Whatever you elect to fast from during these forty days, take time to allow the Spirit of God to convict you of indwelling sin, and repent. Turn from it. Forsake it. Give it up! Sacrifice whatever you want during this season, but be sure, whatever you do, take up repentance. 
And take up faith. Not only are we exhorted to repent, the liturgy instructs us to believe the gospel. How well we would do to take the extra time we have from giving something up and use that time to meditate on and give thanks to God for the beauty of the gospel, the good news that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, that he was raised for us, that he lives and intercedes for us, and works within us by his Holy Spirit to make us new, and to make us holy. 
And take up holiness. By all means, take up holiness. Allow this season of giving up and clearing out to function as a means to the end of making room for holiness in your life. Let me be clear. I do not mean some sort of legalistic checking off of items on a list. I mean being set apart for what Christ wants to do in you and through you. I mean having a heart overflowing with love for God and for neighbor. Allow God to do what he wants to do, namely to fill you with his Spirit so that you consistently embody his character, with all its extravagance, with all its magnificence, with all its beauty, with all its joy. 
Finally, take up the cross. If Ash Wednesday is about anything, it is about that. We receive on our bodies a smudge of ash in the shape of the cross as a declaration that we are followers of the crucified Christ, the one who denied himself and took up his cross. And he calls to us and says, “If any want to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So don’t just give up, take up. And remember, as you take upon your body the sign of the cross, that all of life is to be lived in the shape of that cross. In this way, Ash Wednesday informs the whole year and our whole lives. This is what it means to be people of the cross. It is to carry the cross on our bodies as a continual declaration that we are a people set apart for Christ and his kingdom. 
So, during this Lenten season, give something up. But don’t just give something up. Take something up. Take up repentance. Take up faith. Take up holy love. And take up the cross. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Christmas and Communion (or Incarnation and Eucharist)

Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I’ve spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday’s sermon: 

We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).

While Justin doesn’t go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ’s ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.

3 Reasons for Reading Backwards with Richard Hays (@Baylor_Press)

After attending part of the review panel for Richard Hays’ new short book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2014), I knew I had to get a copy and read it. So I did, and took the long plane ride from California as an opportunity to dig in to this treasure trove of accessible and robust biblical scholarship on the Gospels. Hays is currently the Dean of Duke Divinity School and is well known for his work on the interplay between Old and New Testaments. This book is the published version of Hays’ Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, and it takes up that interplay as it relates to the canonical Gospels.
The central thesis of the book is that the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us to read the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels are to be read figurally, that is with a view to the many ways Old Testament texts may signify or pre-figure the Gospel narratives about Jesus. Hays puts it this way: “we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and – at the same time – we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT” (4, italics original). This is not simply to say we note the citation when a Gospel passage quotes or evokes an Old Testament passage. It means that the Gospel writers intend their readers to soak into the original context of Old Testament passage and to interpret what they say about Jesus in light of that context. So, when Jesus says things like, “I am with you,” or, “My words will not pass away,” he should be read with a view to the rich texture that those words have in the OT when they are predicated of God. Or when Jesus walks on water, it’s not just a neat miracle to illustrate his power over nature. It should be read with the understanding that in the Old Testament only the God of Israel “treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). And the narrative implication is that Jesus embodies the presence of that very God. These examples don’t begin to capture the many and varied ways the Gospel writers see the Old Testament pre-figuring Jesus. You’ll have to read the book. In the mean time, here are three reasons to do just that. 
1. Refreshingly Orthodox
A significant number of New Testament scholars insist that stories about Jesus’ divinity were invented by the later Church and read back onto the life of Jesus. Hays cites one of the more popularly known proponents of that view, Bart Ehrman, who says, “The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our gospels, only in John” (Jesus Interrupted, 249). In contrast, Hays shows that each of the Gospels were written to narrate how Jesus of Nazareth embodies the God of Israel. To be sure, the different gospels tell the story to emphasize different aspects of what that embodiment looks like, and the diversity of their portrayals should not be minimized. Nevertheless, when the Gospels are read figurally in light of the Old Testament, they unanimously insist that Jesus bears in his body the unique presence of the creator God. Hays makes his case with elegance and beauty, which is the main reason it is so robust and persuasive. When you come to the creeds after you read this book, their words will carry far richer meaning than you ever might have imagined.
2. Great resource for preaching
This reason for reading is directed more toward the preachers out there. Use this book as a resource for preaching the Gospels. If you are working with a passage in the Gospels, look it up in the index to see what Hays says about it. It will add a multiple layers of depth to your comprehension and preaching of the text. It will point you to features of the text that you had not previously observed. And it will equip you to lead your congregation into a deeper understanding of the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospels. It will make you a better preacher. 
3. Perfect for Advent
I’ll finish by saying that this book is an excellent read for the season of Advent, which has just begun. As we draw near to Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, what better book to read than one focused on deep clarity with regard to the way the Gospel writers portray the Incarnation? I was very glad to read this book when I did since I was reflecting on scripture and sermons for the season. It has impacted my experience of Advent both in terms of formation and as a resource for preaching. For this I am grateful.
Seldom do I say that I cannot recommend a book highly enough, but that is exactly what I will say about Reading Backwards. 

Tertullian on the Sign of the Cross #AshWednesday (HT: @scotmcknight)

I came across this quote this morning while reading Scot McKnight’s book Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today:

At every forward step and movement,
at every going in and out
when we put on our clothes and shoes,
when we bathe,
when we sit at table,
when we light the lamps,
on couch,
on seat,
in all the ordinary actions of daily life,
we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross].            -Tertullian, De Corona, chap. 3

Talk about a great quote with which to begin Ash Wednesday, a pleasant (and providential!) surprise, indeed.

Epiphany and Gospel-Passion for the Nations

Today is Epiphany, the day on which the Church celebrates the arrival of the Magi to honor and give gifts to the Christ child. The Magi were foreigners come to honor Christ as king. Matthew is commonly known as the gospel to the Jews; so it may strike some as somewhat peculiar that the first evangelist would place an account of the journey of these (non-Jewish) Magi prominently near the beginning of his gospel. When we remember, however, that the Old Testament – the Psalms and Isaiah not least – is full of passages that anticipate the day when Israel’s Messiah shall rule the nations, it shouldn’t surprise us that the gospel to the Jews would highlight a vignette in which representatives of the nations flock to worship “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2).

Given this focus on the gospel for the nations, the lectionary yesterday directed us to Ephesians 3:1-12, in which Paul explains the mystery that God has kept hidden for ages, namely that “the nations have become co-inheritors and participating members of the covenant promises in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). That the nations have been incorporated into the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants drives the passion of the apostle to the Gentiles. It is that passion that motivated him to write (despite his sufferings) in hope that the churches – then and now – would catch his passion. So, as we celebrate and anticipate the ongoing in-gathering of the nations, here are three reasons drawn from Ephesians 2 and 3 for why we as Christians should have a passion for getting the gospel to every nation. 
1. Because God is Passionate about the Nations
There’s a reason that the gospel accounts of Christ’s suffering and death have come to be known as passion narratives. Our word “passion” comes from a Latin word that means to suffer, and if you care so deeply about another person that you are willing to suffer for them to the point of death on a cross, then it’s safe to say you are passionate about them. When Paul starts talking about what is accomplished in the cross in Ephesians 2:11-22, his focus is on its instrumentality in creating peace between Israel and the nations. The uncircumcised have been reconciled to the circumcised; those alien to the commonwealth of Israel have been made citizens; strangers to the covenant are now participating members. “The blood of Christ” has done away with division and hostility between Israel and the nations to create “in Christ” a “new humanity in place of the two” (Eph 2:13-15). The cross is not only about individual forgiveness (it is about that because that’s how you get in!), but also about creating a worldwide and international single people of God in Christ. If the cross means anything, it means that God is passionate about incorporating the nations into the family of Abraham through the preaching of the gospel. And if God is that passionate about the nations, then his people must be passionate too. 
2. Because We are the Nations
If you are reading this as a Christ-following Jew, then you are permitted to skip on to number three. I’m writing as an American of Irish descent, which means that when Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-12 about the Gentiles who are “aliens from the commonwealth…strangers to the covenants….having no hope and without God in the world,” he is talking about me, and everyone else who is not physically descended from Abraham. Of all people, we should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because we are the nations. Those who by grace have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” and made citizens of the commonwealth of Israel and members of the covenant have benefited incalculably from the passion of God for the nations. Shall we now not also passionately desire the unreached peoples of the world to likewise share in those rich blessings of God’s extravagant mercy? We should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because the passion of God has brought the gospel to us. 
3. Because an International Church Displays the Richness of God’s Wisdom
This is the plan, the design, the point of everything. This is what history is all about. If you want to know why God made all things, why God made you and me and the world, the answer comes in Ephesian 3:10; he did it so that “through the Church the wisdom of God in its many-splendored variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” As someone once said, “It’s not about you,” and it’s not about me. As it turns out, it’s about God. Creation is about God. History is about God. The Church is about God, and about displaying the magnificently rich and varied wisdom of God. I’ve read that the Greek word rendered above as “many-splendored” is one that would be used to describe a garden with every imaginable color of flower. That’s the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and richness like that could never be properly displayed in a single homogeneous people-group. It takes a diverse people to display the beauty of the multifaceted wisdom of God. Thus the mystery of God has been revealed: the nations have been incorporated into the one people of God. God desires a Church made up of every nation because God has designed the Church as the stage on which is displayed the magnificence of the beauty of his incomparable glory. If we want the world to marvel at the wisdom of God, then we ought to be passionately taking the gospel to the nations in order that the wonder of the wisdom of God might be displayed as he has designed. 
So, how’s your passion for the nations this Epiphany? I hope it’s on the rise and that the words of the Psalmist will well up within you:

May God be gracious to us and bless us
 and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
 your saving power among all the nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
 for you judge the peoples with equity
 and guide the nations upon the earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you (67:1-5)!

Practicing Freedom: A Lenten Reflection

My homily from Ash Wednesday has been published at Seedbed and can be found here. This reflection was born out of reading Douglass Campbell’s work on Romans 6. Here’s the key quote: 

Freedom is not a matter of sheer choice…but of an incremental creation of new possibilities for bodily action that must be learned and internalized…Freedom is therefore complex, communally mediated, and embodied. Above all, it is learned and hence taught, much as someone is only free to play a violin beautifully after years of practice and instruction (Four Views on the Apostle Paul, 132).

What a remarkable thing to say. Campbell’s description of freedom cuts against the grain of the way we usually think about freedom as the ability to choose one option or the other. It’s not clear to me that such an approach deals adequately with the biblical insistence that we come into the world as slaves to sin and that we are only freed through the gracious act of God in Christ and on the condition of faith in him. Neither does the typical understanding of freedom deal adequately with activities that require the cultivation of a particular skill through extended training and discipline. I am free to play the guitar, but I am not free to play it as well as those who have instructed me over the years. A student who has just learned to form the C chord is not free to play like Robert Johnson. I wonder if this is not one reason that the Christian life and discipline is so difficult for so many of us. Do we recognize that a relationship with the God who formed us in his image cannot be reduced to single moment of choice? Is not our walk with Christ and the freedom that is found in him something that must be practiced? Something in which we must have ongoing training? 
I’m interested to hear from you. Does the Campbell quote challenge the way you think about freedom?