Wednesday, June 30, 2010

New Sermon

I preached a sermon at dia•spora last Sunday night. It's a reflection of a lot of what I've been thinking about church leadership and Ephesians 4:11-16. You can find it at the top of the sermon player on the right side.

There Will Be Rapture

I’d like to take a brief break from my study of Ephesians 4 and look at a different text for a different reason. I recently blogged about my disbelief in the Rapture, and I also tried to exegete two important Rapture passages: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 24:36-41. A friend of mine, who is having his own journey of faith with the Rapture, asked me about John 14:2-3, which is another famous Rapture passage.

In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

These words of Jesus are a small but crucial portion of the tender and bittersweet Last Supper scene in the Gospel of John. Jesus is trying to comfort the disciples by painting a vision of what life will be like after The End. These words are, indeed, very comforting in that they assure us that Jesus will return for us someday.

The Rapture adherent sees in this text the basic structure of the Rapture event: Jesus comes back after an indeterminate period of time and takes us back with him where he came from. Whatever else happens can’t be determined from this text, but it is a very important piece of the puzzle.

But, rather than being an explanation of the timeline of the end times, this is marital language. In those days, before the wedding day, the bridegroom would build a house next to (or, more likely, an addition on) his parents’ house for he and his bride to live in. This could take any amount of time, which heightened the suspense of his return. He would come for his bride only after he had finished building their house. Jesus is saying, essentially, "I am the bridegroom and you, and all who believe because of your testimony, are the bride. I'm going away now to get everything ready so that, when I come back, we can have a wedding."

This language might be a bit odd to us, and it may have been odd to the disciples, too. But they knew their Bibles, and the knew the stories of Sinai and Hosea and Isaiah. They knew what Jesus was getting at here: This is God consummating the covenant promise of Sinai (and redeeming the wrecked love story of Hosea) through Jesus and the reconstituted Israel, represented by these twelve disciples. (Twelve disciples = Twelve tribes.) God is saying, “What I have always intended to do—betroth humanity to myself—I am now doing through my Son, and all who believe in him are the beneficiaries. They will become my bride.” Jesus is using contemporary, marital customs to describe cosmic redemption. He is saying, this is a marriage—a marriage for which the marriage between a man and a woman is but a shadow—and I will come again some day to claim my bride.

Now here’s the really amazing part: What is “my Father’s house”? That’s the temple. But Jesus isn’t going back to the temple in Jerusalem, he’s going back to the temple in Heaven, of which the Jerusalem temple is a crumbling replica hastily built in miniature. But we also find out, from Paul, that the new temple is not a building at all—it’s us. We are the temple of God. And when you pick up the subtle hints in the book of Revelation (think marital language, building on this very passage) you see that the New Jerusalem is not really a huge golden city hurtling through space until it finally lands on planet earth—no, it’s us. We are the New Jerusalem. And as the Jerusalem temple is to Heaven’s temple, so the Church is to the New Jerusalem. In other words, the place that Jesus is going to prepare for us…is us—the fully redeemed, renewed, recreated, resurrected people of God. That is what Jesus is at work preparing even now.

Jesus has gone to his "Father's house", not to make us mansions in heaven, but to make us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a Bride fit for himself. If there is rapture it is because there will be everlasting joy when Jesus presents us—fully and completely ourselves as we were always meant to be—to himself in the fullness of eternal communion and glory. So yes, there will be rapture. But not the rapture of escape from trial and tribulation. Rather, there will be the rapture of the fullness of joy at our becoming a bride worthy, because he has made us so, of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Mandate

I meant to come back to the issue of biblical leadership structures last week but I got a last minute preaching assignment and my brother-in-law got married, so the blog had to go on hold. But I want to begin to provide an answer to the question: Is there a biblical mandate for church leadership structures?

In a previous post I said that I did not think there was a biblical mandate, but I should modify that. My understanding now, after studying and preaching on Ephesians 4:11-16, is that the church is most healthy when [at least] five people are operating as an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Each brings a unique and necessary perspective to the task of equipping the church to do the work of the ministry, and there is tremendous value in hearing five voices speaking harmoniously on the deep things of God.

These five people must be at least five people--they can't be just one person! In that instance, the church is bound to become either imbalanced (because the one person will inevitably emphasize one perspective) or idolatrous. The danger of the senior leader, pyramid structure of church leadership is that the congregation can, quite easily, make that man into an idol. This is, of course, a horrible perversion of the gospel and the calling of God on that man's life. I just don't see the biblical, New Testament church operating with this structure--and where it did, men like Paul and John seemed intent on correcting it.

I believe the biblical model of church leadership is best represented by the image of, not a pyramid, but, the human body. Christ is the head and we are the body, and every individual plays a significant role in the growth of the body. This means that the one at the top is Jesus and no one else is any more important than anybody else. This is the crucial point: Nobody is more important than anybody else. And these five people that we find in Eph. 4:11 are not the leaders of the church, they are its lowliest servants. They serve the servants of God.

The Church is not a meeting. The Church is not an organization. The Church is not an institution. The Church is a person. The Church is a person made up of people who make the person grow and become what Jesus always intended for her to become. That's the calling we all share, and the task for which our apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are supposed to equip us. We don't pass our responsibility off to paid professionals. This is our task. We are the body of Christ on earth and it's our responsibility to see it grow up to full maturity.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Best Choice Ever

Last month our church took an offering for an organization called Pregnancy Decision Health Center that helps women navigate the difficult waters of choosing not to have an abortion. I signed up to volunteer with them, but since I'm a dude there's not much I can do for them on site. So I pray and I get their newsletter, which I think comes monthly because I got my first one today. The anonymous testimony included moved me so much I wanted to pass it along to those of you who read this blog.

Recently a young woman called the Hotline as she was preparing a party for her son's first birthday. She tearfully told the Hotline worker that when she had become pregnant with him she had been planning to have an abortion. In fact, she was headed to an abortion clinic when someone told her about Pregnancy Decision and the services that we offer. She decided to walk-in to our office. She said that when she went in she was greeted with love, kindness, and respect. After talking with our consultant and hearing more information about her options and the support that was available she said she knew she would parent. When she called the Hotline, a year and a half later, she told the consultant that it was the BEST decision she has ever made! She has been so incredibly happy this past year and wanted to call and thank all the people at the office for everything. She is truly grateful to the Pregnancy Decision for the help she received and the blessing of her son.

Best. Choice. Ever.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Biblical Mandate?

Wolfgang Simson lays out an ecclesiology (a theology of the Church) in his book The House Church Book. At the core of his ecclesiology is the fivefold ministry—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers—found in Ephesians 4:11-13. He asserts that this leadership model has been ordained by God and, therefore, the pyramid-structure of the senior leader models of many American evangelical churches is fundamentally unbiblical. But we don’t get to see his exegetical work. He seems to take it for granted that Ephesians 4 is the paradigm of church leadership. And while I want to obey Scripture with a clear conscience, I’ve come to realize that it’s not always so simple as pulling out one passage and applying that to Christians across all time and space. So I want to take a brief look at some of the key church leadership passages in the NT and see if I can’t come to some conclusions. (As I write this, I’m not convinced either way on this issue.)

Ephesians 4:11-13

This is the defining text for Simson, and it’s as good a place as any to start. The first thing that I see is that God gave five types of people to the Church for the purpose of preparing them for works of service. When we look at this passage in the light of 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12:4-8 many similarities become evident—enough that we can conclude that this is, like those, a spiritual gifts text. These five roles are really five gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts are Spirit-enabled people who are, for the Church, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

But does this mean that every church in every place must have at least one person operating in each of these gifts? Has the Holy Spirit given every local congregation an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher? But before we can begin to answer these questions, we have to look at, at least, two more texts.

I Timothy 3:1-7

When I come to this passage with Ephesians 4 in the back of my mind, I immediately notice that Paul makes no mention of apostles, prophets, or the rest. Instead, he uses the rather generic term overseer. And rather than describing the task of the overseer, he talks about the character required for the office.

The relevant question for this discussion is, “What is the relationship between overseers and the five roles mentioned in Ephesians 4?” The fashion seems to be, in Evangelicalism anyhow, that the senior pastor is the overseer operating in all five of the Eph. 4 gifts. (And if not all five, then the gifts left out are not present in that congregation.) The fivefold ministry is accomplished, then, by this one man.

But does this make sense of the biblical record? Let me ask some probing questions. Are apostles overseers? Are prophets overseers? What about evangelists? And pastors? And are teachers overseers? Perhaps, in the letter to Timothy, Paul is talking about an office, and in the letter to the Ephesians, he is talking about the spiritual manifestations of that office. In other words, some people are overseers through the gift of apostleship and others through the gift of prophecy—and so it goes. 1 Timothy 3 is about the character of the people who lead the church, and Ephesians 4 is about the gifts and mission of those leaders.

But we still don’t have a clear sense of a biblical structure of Church leadership. Let’s look at one more passage and see if we can come to some conclusions.

Acts 6:1-4

This is, I believe, the genesis of the ministry of deacons. The twelve disciples chose seven men to administer the needs of the Church, while they themselves kept at their task of “prayer and the ministry of the word”. One of the interesting things about this passage is that Luke’s purpose in writing it is to introduce Stephen, the first Christian martyr. His point was not to lay a foundation for Church governance that would endure through all time and in every place.

Rather than finding a biblical Church leadership model in Acts 6, what we have is a really good idea. The Spirit guided the twelve disciples to not get bogged down in the details of food distribution, but to keep at their primary work of prayer and the word. This delegation of responsibility also empowered other men to step into leadership roles, which, in that instance at least, greatly improved the overall health of the congregation.

The conclusions of this very brief exercise are:
  • The fivefold ministry is a function of the gifting of the Holy Spirit.
  • Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are the gifts of the Spirit to the Church.
  • Overseer is an office that has specific character qualifications that must be met.
  • Overseer is the general term for church leader.
  • Anyone operating within the fivefold ministry who meets the character qualifications can be an overseer.
  • Wise delegation of leadership responsibility leads to healthy Church environments.
But have we found a biblical mandate for Church leadership structures? I don’t think so, but I’ll have to give it some more thought and, hopefully, come back to the issue tomorrow.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The FiveFold Ministry

How should church leadership be structured? That is one of the main questions Wolfgang Simson tackles in his book, The House Church Book. Most churches that I’m familiar with have a leadership structure shaped like a pyramid. The senior pastor is at the top, and beneath him are the elders, the staff, and the lay (volunteer) leaders. There is a clear reporting system, with neatly defined levels of leadership. Many churches use titles, like Pastor and Director, to draw sharp lines of distinction between these levels.

There are many benefits to the pyramid structure of church leadership, but the most important question is not whether it is efficient or productive, but whether it is biblical. Wolfgang Simson’s answer is a definitive, “No!” The current structure, he says, more closely resembles corporate America than the New Testament church. The biblical mandate for church leadership structure is found in Ephesians 4:11-13.

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Simson finds here what he calls “the fivefold ministry”: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These five people, he insists, are to share leadership within the church. (Which, he asserts, should not be any larger than 20 people—but that’s a discussion for another day.) Rather than a pyramid, the leadership structure of the church ought to be flat, with these five roles filled by five individuals. The man-at-the-top is replaced by five people, each ministering according to the gift that God has given them.

Some questions worth asking: Is God issuing a mandate for the leadership structure in the church, binding the church to the fivefold ministry for all time? Is the pyramid structure unbiblical, and therefore sinful? Do you have apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers in your church? What would it look like, in your local church setting, to have a flat leadership structure with each of these roles filled by someone in your congregation?

These are big questions that I believe are worth exploring more fully, and I’ll do my best to flesh them out a bit over the next few days. What we’re really talking about here is ecclesiology, or the nature of the church. This goes far beyond leadership structures, and points to the inner workings of the Body of Christ—how it is, exactly, that we are prepared for works of service and built up until we reach unity and attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ, as Paul envisioned two millennia ago.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why America Hates Soccer

Apparently there's some large soccer tournament happening somewhere in the world. I know this because my facebook stalker-feed is being bombarded by over-earnest soccer fans updating their statuses with bitter soccer apologetics. They hate that soccer isn't popular in America, and now their hearts are aflame with the hope that the World Cup will pique American's interest in the world's sport. Sigh.

Well, let me break it down for you. Americans hate soccer, and here's why: Americans are story people. We love stories. We love plot and tension and resolution. In fact, we crave resolution like we crave cheeseburgers. We like turns of fortune and plot twists. Story is built into our DNA, and the sports we love reflect this.

Every at bat in baseball and every possession in football is a story. There is a beginning (first down, strike one), a middle (a swinging bat, a missed tackle), and an end (the runner crosses home plate, the pass is intercepted). There is tension and resolution. And then we get to watch it happen again! And each at-bat and each possession is like a mini-story of our lives. We're down in the count. We need to go the whole nine yards. We live out the story of our lives dozens of time in the span of a few hours.

The reason why soccer will never, ever become a popular sport in America is because there is no clear story. There is too much tension and not enough resolution. (This is why, I think, soccer fans are so violent. Their game is fundamentally frustrating!) Far too few goals are scored. Far too many shots go wide. Far too little action takes place in front of the net.

Americans want results. We crave it. We need it. Whether it's in sports, business, or politics, Americans are pragmatists who want to see effort lead to results. We like touchdowns and interceptions; homeruns and strikeouts; slam dunks and blocked shots. While we admire the effort of soccer players, we hate--and I mean HATE--that so many shots miss the goal. It's the ultimate sporting letdown. There's nothing more frustrating than watching a great drive peter out because the ball trickled out of bounds. And this happens ALL THE TIME in soccer. The story isn't resolved. You're left hanging. Nobody succeeded and nobody failed. The ball just went out of bounds. This doesn't settle well in the hearts of Americans. In soccer, there are not enough happy endings.

Soccer will never take off in America. It's too frustrating to watch. Maximum effort. Minimum results. You can point to the increased activity in youth soccer leagues all you want. The fact is those have been growing since I was a kid, and you know what, we still hate soccer. We don't watch it. We don't want it. You can have your corner kicks and bittersweet draws. We'll take touchdown passes and walk-off homeruns. Thank you, and God bless America.

Book Review: There Is A God

Antony Flew was a leading philosopher and atheist of the mid to late twentieth century. He taught at several distinguished schools, including Oxford, Aberdeen, and Reading. He also taught at Bowling Green State Universtiy, near my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. He passed away in April of this year.

In There is a God, Flew lays out his journey from atheism to deism, briefly sketching each of the arguments that influenced the evolution of his thought. Because I am not a philosopher, I will not attempt to summarize those arguments here. The book itself is short enough (less than 220 pages) and colloquial enough to not be overwhelming. Many of us may need a Philosophical Dictionary nearby to understand some of the terms, but most folks can easily follow the arc of the story.

The book is a narrative rather than a philosophical treatise, and it tells the story of Flew’s life as it pertains to the issue of the question of God. He tells tales of his many interactions with Christian and Theist philosophers in debates and dialogues. While there was no singular moment of illumination, it was the cumulative effect of these interactions which brought him to his “conversion.” (I put conversion in quotes because he did not become a Christian, so far as I know. He simply came to believe in a “divine Mind”.)

The “conversion” sent a shockwave through the philosophical and atheistic communities. Flew was a pillar of atheism, one of the greatest minds and most ardent defenders of the “faith”. His admission of the existence of a divine Mind was too much for some to bear. There were accusations that the co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese, manipulated Flew, by then an old man, into publishing this book. While Flew admitted that Varghese did the actual writing, he asserted that the thoughts were his. In the years leading up to his death, Flew publicly declared, again and again, that he had become a deist (and denied becoming a Christian or a Theist).

The guiding principle of Flew’s life, and the through line of this book, is the Aristotelian line, “follow the argument wherever it leads.” It was his commitment to this ideal that ultimately led him out of atheism and into belief in a divine Mind. The primary evidence, as laid out in his book, is the complexity of DNA and the lack of a naturalistic explanation for the evolution of reproductive capability. These issues led him to belief in a divine Mind, which of course is not all the way to the Christian Creator God, but is a large leap of faith for an atheist of his stature.

The book includes two appendices, one by Varghese and the other by N.T. Wright. While Flew was “converted” to the concept of a divine Mind, he did not believe in divine revelation, though he was open to being convinced. Of all the religions claiming divine revelation, he thought Christianity to be the only one worth noting.

“I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. …If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat.” (185-6)

Wright’s contribution is a brief but potent sketch of his defense for the existence of Jesus, his divinity, and the historicity of the resurrection. This alone is worth the price of the book, and if you’ve never read Wright (what are you waiting for?!), will give you a solid introduction to his three large volumes on Jesus.

I don’t know where Antony Flew stood on the issues Wright raised when he died in April. There’s something oddly refreshing, for me at least, that his book was about his conversion to deism and not to evangelical Christianity. It seems more honest that way, I guess. But of course I hope that he came to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, and to receive the forgiveness offered him from the cross.

Questions: How does the “conversion” of a notorious atheist strengthen your faith? What are the most important philosophical questions regarding the existence of God? What are the most important pieces of scientific evidence in this debate?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Empowering and Exploiting

I recently finished reading a book that has stirred my mind and heart more than any book I've read in a long time. It's called "The House Church Book" by Wolfgang Simson, and there is so much in this book that I disagree with, and yet so much that I love and that strongly challenges me. I'll be posting a review of it in a couple of weeks, but I wanted to blog through it a bit. I'll start by posting this table that you'll find on page 125 if you pick up the book.

How to Empower Others How to Exploit Others
allow them to functiongive them functions
believe in themmake them believe in you
delegate authorityrequire submission
further God's plan for themmake them part of your plans
invest in themuse them
love them, and say solove the task more than the people
give them what you havetake what they have to give
discuss with thempreach at them
freely spend time with themrequire appointments
give them the keys nowmake them wait until you retire
serve themlet them serve you
praise themaccept their praise of you
transfer masterhooddemonstrate masterhood

This lays out so clearly what I was trying to put into words when I blogged about Life-Giving Leaders. The column on the left is what I aspire to--being someone who empowers others for the task to which God has called them. Take some time, look at the list, and see where you fall. Are you an Empowerer or Exploiter?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

God in Search of Friends

Yesterday, I blogged about the aims of ministry. My friend’s good insight on building a fan base or a following spurred me to think about the reasons we minister and the endgame we’re pursuing with people. I thought the distinction between fans and followers was a good one, but I wanted to add a third—friends. Ministry ought to be about making deep, lasting friendships that are rooted in Christ Jesus.

This morning I was laying in my bed after feeding Ezekiel his bottle, pondering this idea from God’s perspective. One way to look at the Bible is to see it as the story of God in search of friends. His first friends (Adam & Eve) betrayed him, and almost nobody after them wanted anything to do with God. There were a few rare occasions (Enoch being the most faithful), but for the most part, God was friendless.

God’s relationship with Israel is most often couched in the verbiage of a marriage. (Check out the book of Hosea for the most vivid illustration of this.) God is the groom and Israel is the bride. They have a marriage ceremony on Mt. Sinai, complete with vows and “I dos”. Of course the marriage goes south quickly, and only seems to get worse as the story moves from Exodus to Malachi.

But then Jesus comes along and calls twelve disciples to his side. (Get it? 12 disciples = 12 tribes of Israel.) He remakes Israel around himself, and in three years accomplishes what his father had been trying to do for 1500—he finds friends. Jesus brought these twelve guys on a journey from curious onlookers (fans) to disciples (followers) to friends. And even though they were all about to abandon him or deny him or betray him, at the Last Supper he tenderly names them “friends”.

In order to find friends, God had to become like us. He had to take on flesh and blood and experience life (and death) from our perspective. The only way for him to find friends on earth was to live on earth. Jesus accomplished the relational purpose of God by making friends with Peter, James, John and all the rest.

The funny thing about God’s pursuit of friends is that he isn’t lonely! He is Three-In-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God exists in eternal community within himself. God’s search for friends isn’t driven by his need for us, but rather by our need for him. He knows we need him, and not just as a distant deity but as a close, personal friend. And he wants to be your friend. Really, he does. The Creator became a creature, not because he was lonely, but because the world he created was, so to speak, dying of loneliness; and his presence, his closeness, was the only thing that could save it.

Jesus wants you to be more than a follower, he wants you to be his friend. He wants you to know him, and he wants you to open up to him. There is an admirable nobility to just being a good servant of God, but if all God wanted was servants he wouldn’t have created us with the capacity to love and betray. God wants more than servants. He wants communities of people that love him and love each other. God is in search of friends. Has he found one in you?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fans, Followers, and Friends

A friend of mine recently made a great comment about ministry and it's temptations. He said, "Do you want fans, or do you want followers?" Fans or followers. Do you want people who like you or who will go where you go and do what you do?

One of the strongest temptations of the preacher is to develop a fan base, like we were a baseball team or some kind of branded product. Fans cheer you on. They give you affirmation and stroke your ego. They subscribe to podcasts, download sermons, and read blogs. They buy your books and do your small group materials. But they don't know you and you don't know them. There is no relationship.

So rather than trying to build a fan base, we, as ministers, should try to build a group of followers. We should be out in front, leading the pack and calling them forward. We should be casting a vision for people, giving them a compelling story to find themselves in. Followers will help us accomplish our goals. They will do what we do and go where we go, and in the process the kingdom of God will be advanced.

But will it? Is having followers the endgame of ministry? Is that what we should be about? Is the kingdom of God advanced by leading a group of people toward the accomplishment of certain goals or the realization of a specific vision?

When my friend made his insight, I thought it was good, but it didn't come to rest on my soul the way certain truths do. There was more to the story, I thought. But I couldn't articulate it until the words of Jesus shot like lightning through my mind.
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
I think the real distinction is not between fans and followers, but between fans, followers, and friends. Jesus called his disciples his friends twelve hours before they all abandoned, denied, or betrayed him (which he knew would happen). They were more than fans and more than followers. They had become his friends. People he loved. People with faces and families that he wanted the best for.

Jesus didn't call Andrew and Peter, James and John and the rest out of their previous occupations in hopes of building a fan base or a following. No, his hope was that these guys would become his friends. The endgame of ministry is not to have a bunch of fans or followers, but to have a group of friends for whom you would die, and who would die for you. You could have 100,000 podcast subscribers and a vibrant ministry, but if you're alone at the top then you have failed. If you haven't made any friends as a minister, then you haven't ministered.

Stop trying to build a fan base and stop trying to gain a following. Start making friends--real friends who know you on a soul-level. Fans find new favorites and followers get weary of being anonymous. Friends will go with you and be with you because they love you and you love them. They'll stick by your side because you know each other.

Which would you rather have: 40,000 fans, 4,000 followers, or 4 good friends?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Perfect! ...Or Not

Last night I watched Armando Galarraga (of my favorite team, the Detroit Tigers) pitch a perfect game. And then I didn't.

For those who don't know baseball, a perfect game is when the pitcher retires all 27 batters in order. That means he doesn't allow a hit or a walk, and his team makes no errors in the field. Last night, Armando Galarraga retired 26 Cleveland Indians in order, and then this happened.

The replays confirm that Donald, the Indians' batter, was out. Had umpire Jim Joyce made the correct call, Armando Galarraga would have pitched the first perfect game in Detroit Tigers' franchise history.

As a lifelong Tiger fan, this was one of those moments you can only hope will happen while you're alive, much less while you're watching. (I live in Columbus and can only watch the Tigers when they play the Indians.) I had come home early from a date with my wife because a freak thunderstorm had blown over town, replete with funnel clouds. We didn't think it was right to be away from the kids during the storm, so we came home, looked at the radar, and then turned on the game. I saw Austin Jackson's incredible catch to record the first out in the ninth, running toward the deepest part of the park and snagging the ball Willie Mays' style on a dead sprint. That's when I knew Armando would get it.

But then he didn't. To his credit, Jim Joyce apologized to Galarraga after seeing a replay after the game. He feels awful, and now his spotless career as a big league ump is forever marred. I hope we Tiger fans can forgive him.

Galarraga handled the whole affair with class and dignity. He smiled immediately after the blown call, didn't let it get into his head, and immediately retired the next batter for, what I call, the first 28 out perfect game in the history of baseball. He knows he threw a perfect game. We all do. And no bad call on the 27th out can steal that from him.

Forgiveness is at the forefront of my mind, and has been for several weeks now. Maybe it sounds trite to you, but I forgive Jim Joyce. The Tigers' needed this perfect game--it would have been the first in their long and storied history. Detroit needed this perfect game. The city is hurting and now they feel like they're cursed. As a Tiger fan and someone born and raised in Detroit's minor league city of Toledo, I forgive you Jim Joyce. You're a good ump who made one bad call. And no matter what the record books say, we all know it was a perfect game. Armando Galarraga just got one extra out to prove it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Straight Line Down

Last Thursday I took a look at one of the "Rapture" passages, Matthew 24:36-41. Today I'd like to go back to a passage I've already discussed on this blog, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Here's the text:

13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

Those who hold to Rapture Eschatology see here undeniable evidence that the Rapture will happen. What else could “we…will be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” possibly mean? For many, this is the clearest teaching of the Rapture we have in the Bible.

But there are three questions that stand out. First, what is this passage really about? Second, what is the physical path that Jesus will take when he returns? Third, where exactly will we be with the Lord forever? Let’s examine each of these questions in turn.

To answer the first question, we must look back at verse 13, where Paul tells us why he is writing everything he writes in this paragraph. “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep.” The Thessalonian Christians became alarmed when their brothers and sisters began to pass away. Jesus had, after all, promised them eternal life. Paul’s solution to this conundrum was to look at Jesus and see that, just as he had died and risen again, so we will die and rise again. The resurrection of our bodies is our hope through death. This passage is first and foremost about what happens to dead Christians when Jesus returns and why those who are alive can have hope for them. This passage is about resurrection.

To answer the second question we have to look more closely at verse 16. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven….” Paul’s picture of Creation was vastly different from our own because he lived before the time of Galileo, Newton, space flight, and the Hubble telescope. He understood heaven to rest directly above the earth, so when he says Jesus comes down from heaven that means the only place for him to go is the earth. There is no mention of Jesus taking any other path. He moves in a straight line down from heaven to earth. There is no indication from the text that he stops halfway, calls all true believers to himself, then turns around and goes back into heaven.

The answer to the third question begins with an examination of verse 17. “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with [the resurrected Christians] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The question of where we spend eternity with Jesus has, according to this verse, two options. We either meet Jesus as he is coming down to earth and escort him down, or we meet him halfway and stay there. Again, nothing about this text says that he turns around and goes back up to heaven. We either meet him as he is coming or we meet him halfway—meaning we either spend eternity on earth or in the air. The one place that is not an option, according to this passage, is heaven.

Our understanding of this passage is colored by our misunderstanding of eternity. Only if we bring an American folk-lore picture of eternity and heaven to this passage can we interpret a Rapture here. The key to reading this passage aright is fixing our picture of heaven. If Revelation 21 and 22 are the definitive biblical teaching on eternity, then we will not be in heaven or in the air. We will be here, on the recreated and renewed earth, living with the Trinity in the New Jerusalem. (And if you want to go really deep, look at how John talks about the New Jerusalem and how other NT authors talk about the Church. This will blow your mind.) When we trade in our pseudo-Christian, American folk-lore picture of eternity for a biblical one, then this passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 will come into clear view.

There is so much more that could be said about this passage, but for now we can know, 1) this text is primarily about resurrection, 2) Jesus travels in a straight line down from heaven to earth when he returns, and 3) we spend eternity with the Trinity here on the new earth. Finding the Rapture here is a bit like finding an F# in a rainbow. There is no Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.