(What is the Backstory and why?)
March 20th, 2014
Ali Cavanaugh, “Sight Unseen II” (2012)
Last Sunday we argued repentance had to do with something as deep as identity–repenting from the identities we project and those we conceal. Perhaps it’s over-psychologizing Jesus’ parable, but one could argue both the Pharisee and the tax-collector either put forth or ran from their respective self-appraisals out of fear of not being found qualified before God. The tendency is nevertheless well-attested in modern sensibilities, and something we’ve attended to in these pages.
While some might consider Jesus’ portrayal of the Pharisee in the parable a caricature, the apostle Paul likely would not have. Do you remember the appraisal he had of himself before he’d met the risen Jesus? It’s anything but modest:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
His resume was in his own mind matchless–his confidence in God’s pleasure toward one so shiningly devoted, unqualified. But Jesus found Paul’s armor against accusation as brittle as parchment. The Saul who would soon undergo more than a name change discovered the merit he thought his piety afforded him to be but worthless currency. Something else would be real gain and the ground of real acceptance before God:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
So Paul represents perhaps the prototypical portrait of one who undergoes the deconstruction and reconstruction of identity we spoke of last Sunday. Paul’s view of himself, and of the meaning of his obedience to the law, was turned on its head. Whereas formerly in Paul’s mind holiness would be compelled in order to obtain the favor of God, Christ made clear that holiness would be compelled only by trust in a favor already obtained. Now living for Him who died and was raised would be compelled by the love already demonstrated by Him who’d gone to His cross (2 Cor 5:14ff).
All that sounds almost too exalted for its own good. Unless the transformation that overcame Paul can make discernible difference in those seeking the same, the theology here remains too remote to human experience. That’s why we ended last Sunday’s sermon with a few marks of an identity reconstructed into that humble frame.
We said a humility wrought by Jesus translates into:
- striving without obsessing
- confessing without despairing
- and becoming a friend to sinners–both because you are one and because Christ did
Reproving without condemning. Jesus doesn’t dispense with the category for sin in order to magnify His grace. He only assures that sin will not preclude the penitent from that grace. The Jesus who said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan” is the same who later said, “feed my sheep.” The grace of the latter did not negate the force of the former. So there’s still a place for calling a person to account, so long as there’s a preceding inquiry of soul (Mt 7:3,4) and a corresponding recognition of a truth larger than the offense (Rom 8:1)
Neither avoiding nor inciting conflict. For some it’s like downing milk of magnesia to face conflict; for others, provoking conflict is like delicious honey. We are either too afraid or take too much pleasure in friction, whether necessary or not. The promise of God’s acceptance means we don’t fear what might we might experience, or even lose, in entering into conflict. And if we are nothing apart from grace, then we beware of the tendency to stir things up in order to outwit and outlast. The new identity characterized by humility puts righteousness before protecting oneself while it also keeps our aggressive tendencies in check.
Making your wealth, of whatever sort, work for those without it. That people can tend to define their worth by their net worth, or by some other index the community affirms, is no news. The disposition leads them to hold onto rather than give away what they have because it means too much to their sense of worthiness. But the new identity, the one whose foundation rests upon His not our work, learns a new freedom to make what they have serve others rather than themselves.
Everything changes when your deepest sense of identity derives from answering, not who, but whose you are.
Just to make sure we’re clear, Storyline, which begins March 30th, is for anyone and everyone who might want to hear a summary of our faith as the Westminster Confession understands it. Future officers must participate, but all are highly encouraged to participate.
If you need more than an invitation, here’s an additional rationale for coming: in one sense what we’ll cover is foundational to the realization of our young church’s vision for “Faithful Presence.” James Hunter, from whom we’ve lifted the phrase, explains how FP depends in no small measure on acquiring a framework for our theological thinking.
At the foundation of this task are the fundamental preparations of the catechesis—instruction into central truths of Christian belief, the development of the spiritual disciplines, and the observance of the basic sacraments. It will also include teaching a new language rooted in Scripture. . . .Words such as covenant, grace, gift, sin, mercy, forgiveness, love, hope, blessing, the flesh, glory, creation, resurrection, sacrament, and the like must be learned anew. . . within the context of the social, political, and cultural realities of one’s own time.
The Westminster Confession is just that vehicle for catechesis, instructing us in the vocabulary that both orders and moreover deepens our sense of God’s way and will. We hope you’ll all attend.
We continue our series in the Practice of Repentance this Sunday by listening to Jesus’ perhaps most famous parable, that of the two sons in Luke 15:11-32.
So many have said so much about this provocative parable. But despite its age, the pointed story still resonates. Even New York Times columnists find it both wondrous and instructive for a modern age.
I found this little gem this week: a short vignette on some of the history behind Rembrandt’s final painting of the parable, now hanging famously in The Hermitage in St Petersburg. The folks that composed this painting’s backstory may have projected a bit of drama upon its feature. Rather than obscure the message of the parable, Rembrandt may have let understatement actually accentuate Jesus’ meaning. But to learn that this painting–and not his first rendition of the parable–was on his easel when he died adds to the drama of the painting itself. Our moment shapes all our expressions, and Rembrandt’s paintings are no exception.
Stop what you’re doing. Do not pass go. Take a moment to RSVP Sue Akovenko to register your attendance at the celebration for our new members this Sunday evening, March 23rd from 6-8p at the Lafferty’s. As we said last week CtK will provide the main dish (Pork BBQ), but we’d ask everyone to bring a side dish. Suggested dishes are:
- Baked Beans,
- Vegetable Plate,
- BBQ Buns,
- Desserts, Chips, and Tea (sweet & unsweet)
When you RSVP, please mention what you might bring so we can ensure equal measure of everything. One can eat only so many baked beans. If you know what I mean.
Finally, please continue to pray
- for our CtK sick list of Margarita Harris, Helen Johnson, Imelda Ottmers
- for Mark and Rachel Kull as they move his aging father here, all the way from Idaho
- for resolution in what’s befallen the Malaysian airline
- for the church in hostile places like Syria, N Korea, the Ukraine, and elsewhere
See you Sunday at 9:30,
On a final note, repentance began for the younger son of Jesus’ famous parable when, as verse 17 says, he “came to his senses.” It was as if he’d woken up from the longest dream. Keith Green might just tip his hat to this new and lilting rendition of his song.