Paul on the Relationship of Christians to the Civil Authorities in Romans 13:1-7

Chapter 13.1-7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been highly controversial and is a good subject for a lively conversation on just how Christians should view the government. The Christians that Paul is writing to lived in Rome, the capitol of the world’s biggest empire. Christians claimed that “Jesus is Lord,” the title that the Roman emperor, seen as a divinity, required. Could one say both “Caesar is Lord” and “Jesus is Lord?” Paul would say no, “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ.” So was simply being a Christian an act of sedition against the state?

If this new transformed community said that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the true Lord how shall they live in the heart of the empire? This is what Paul was addressing in Chapter 13.1-7. Continue reading

Can we know enough about God from observing the creation? Ruminations on a General Revelation

DriftwoodI was preparing this morning to lead Romans using the new small group study book that Mike Bennett and I wrote for the UCC’s “Listen Up!” Bible Study Series.

I came across that vexing section of Romans 1, no not that one, this one: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1: 19-20).

These verses have often been employed to put forth one or another versions of the idea of General Revelation, so I paid attention when a short while later, while I was wasting time on Twitter, I came upon a thoughtful blog post by J. Scott Jackson entitled Got General Revelation? Well, Isn’t that Special! Continue reading

Coming Soon: A New Bible Study on Romans

RomansP1I am pleased to announce that the Bible study on Romans that Mike Bennett and I have been working on for so long can now be ordered through UCC Resources and will ship on March 1.

Romans, Part 1, Romans 1-8 and Romans, Part 2, Romans 9-16 are titles in the United Church of Christ’s LISTEN UP! Bible Study series.

Romans, Parts 1 and 2 are not ground-breaking new works of original Biblical scholarship, but rather teaching tools to be used by small groups in Bible studies. A leader’s guide is included in every workbook.

Mike and I together bring over a half-century of experience as pastors leading Bible studies in local congregations. Romans Part 1 and 2 brings our knowledge of how to make Bible study come alive.

Behind these studies we bring our own understanding of Romans from a lifetime of engagement with this important book. Mike has been influenced by two important commentaries on Romans by Professors at his alma mater Yale Divinity School, Leander Keck and David Bartlett. Mike is also a contributor to the Feasting on the Word series. Continue reading

What I Love about the Gospel of Luke

St LukeFor our Lenten adult study we have been looking at each of the four Gospels and Brent (our pastor) has asked me to share briefly with you what I love about the Gospel of Luke.

Each of the Gospels has features about it I love. Like many Christians my idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mixed-upped conflation in my mind of all four Gospels.

When I started studying the Bible as a young man I began noticing how each Gospel tells the story in a somewhat different way, and something about that bothered me. I wondered, “Where they differ what is the truth of the story?”

One of my teachers helped me with this by having me imagine a beloved mother with four children, and upon her death each child wrote a remembrance of her. Each child’s remembrance of their mother would be different, but they would all be true.

Another helpful analogy I heard was that the Gospel is like a diamond, when you turn the diamond the light catches different facets of the precious stone. Each of the four Gospels is a different facet of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It was in the Christmas story where I first noticed the differences in the several Gospels. Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus. Only in Matthew do we hear about the visit of the Magi, their meeting with Herod and his slaughter of the innocents, and Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt.

But it is especially Luke we think of most often at Christmas time. Only Luke has the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, and only in Luke do we have the choir of angels addressing the shepherds.

And so these early chapters of Luke might be a good place for me to start to tell you what I especially love about Luke. Continue reading

“By Their Groups Ye Shall Know Them”: Celebrating Max L. Stackhouse

Max Stackhouse FlyerWe had a very moving day today, as we celebrated Max Stackhouse at First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ,  in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, first in our morning worship, then followed by a first-rate public lecture on Public Theology by his former student, Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new anthology of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014). It was not lost on many of us that we were hearing about Public Theology in the congregation where Jonathan Edwards was the second pastor and Reinhold Niebuhr was a member.

Max, and his wife Jean, are well-loved, long-time members of this congregation, and many friends, former students, and colleagues were there. There was very special music from some of Jean’s colleagues at the New England Conservatory, and a beautiful letter/tribute was read from Yo Yo Ma, a board member of BITA, who was unable to be there because he was performing in Cleveland. It was a red letter day. Thanks to my pastor Brent Damrow for putting it all together and for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. Here they are:

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Matthew 7:20

 Max’s mentor, James Luther Adams, liked to expand on Jesus’s words “By their fruits ye shall know them” to say, “By their groups ye shall know them.” For me to list all the groups, societies, and institutions Max has founded or been active in would use up all my allotted time this morning

So I’d like to highlight two groups that Max and Jean created here in the Berkshires. When they moved here they planned monthly gatherings of the United Church of Christ clergy and their families in their home on Sunday nights. We’d all share a potluck supper, and then the children would retire to watch a video (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was a favorite), and the weary pastors and spouses would go to the living room and enjoy friendship and good conversation.

The very first time we went there I firmly instructed my kids during the car ride to address Max and Jean as “Dr. and Mrs. Stackhouse.” When Max greeted us at the front door he knelt down low and said to them “We lived in India, and in India the children call grown-ups Auntie or Uncle, so you can call me Uncle Max.” Andrew nodded soberly and said, “OK, Dr. Stackhouse.” Those gatherings were a blessing to me and to my family, and to many clergy colleagues.

You all know about Max and Jean’s wonderful organization The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts (BITA) that brought together artists, lay people, pastors and scholars for discussions, performances and fellowship. Again Max and Jean opened their home for a meal to the participants.

I mention these to illustrate the commitment that Max (and Jean, too) have to bringing people together to think and talk about important matters, and to share their life with others. Wherever they have lived or traveled around the world, and that list is also huge, they have made deep friendships and countless connections with all sorts of people.

I must confess that in addition to being my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Max is also “a voice in my head.” I think Scott (Paeth) and other former students of Max will recognize how the Stackhousian voice lingers long after the studies are over.

What does this voice say? Well, to take just one example, Max, who is the son and grandson of Methodist preachers has an allergy to hyper-individualistic religion. “Pietism” is the word he uses to describe such impulses.

“Pietism” is a perennial danger for Christians and a regular feature of American religion, where the emphasis is on me: my faith, my experiences. So the Stackhousian voice in my head sometimes says things to me like, “Be careful, Rick, that your faith doesn’t become too individualistic, too private, because faith, though personal, is not private. Your faith is about you, but it’s not all about you.”

Some view a congregation as a collection of beautiful cut flowers collected as in a vase. The beauty is in the individual spirituality, which each person brings to make a beautiful bouquet.

Max, or at least the Stackhousian voice in my head, rejects that view. For Max participation in a congregation is more corporate and organic than that. He might prefer to think of us more like a tree with common roots.

He wants us to think of ourselves as bound together by shared covenants and commitments that are thicker and more transcendent than the sum total of our individual spiritualities. Which is to say that our personal faith is shaped, formed, strengthened and enriched in life together as a congregation.

He wants us to always be asking big questions, such as, “What does it mean to live life together under God?” “What does it mean to be the body of Christ?” He wants us to think about important words such as covenant and vocation.

He believes that out of this shared life and these deep conversations comes a world-transforming Christianity, like that of our Reformed and Puritan forbears, that helps shape our larger community and society.

You can read in Max’s many books the arc of his Christian Social Ethics, but you can also clearly see in his life and commitments the embodiment of his thinking, the caring for peoples and societies by attending to the way they organize themselves and by how they think about who they are together under God.

I give thanks to God for Max’s part, and Jean’s too, in my life and the lives of my family, and also in the life of this congregation. Amen.

(For a podcast of the whole service go here)

Max L. Stackhouse and Public Theology

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer

 My teacher, mentor, colleague,  friend and Berkshire neighbor Max Stackhouse, one of the primary founders of Public Theology, will be celebrated at our church in Stockbridge on Sunday. (see flyer below)

Dr. Scott Paeth, one of the editors of a new book of Max’s writings, Shaping Public Theology (Eerdmans, 2014) will give a presentation after morning worship.

Several years ago I posted on Max’s  “God and Globalization.” You can find that here. In Max’s body of writings he has persistently challenged the dominate economic view of society (whether capitalist or socialist) as reductionist.For example, here is an excerpt from a letter he sent us back in 2009:

The economies in each area (of his several travels in the world) have some things in common, such as whether people have little or much, they want more, and in all contexts the laws of supply and demand operate. But, what people want more of and why they want what they want, and what they are able to supply and what they demand for what reasons are quite different. These things differ according to their view of and experiences in family life, political power, legal systems, educational opportunities, medical conditions and technological capabilities. In other words, economics is less an independent cause in social stability or change, than a result of the cultural and civilizational fabric. And, here is the main point, these are all deeply influenced by the dominant religion as shaped by the professional leaders of that religion — the clergy, intellectuals, theologians, and charismatic leaders who appeal to the core of the faith and relate it to the social realities the civilization faces. Under the influence of the secularization hypothesis, religion is a by-product of economic (and psychological) factors. (For the whole letter go here.)

 

If you are in the area join us for this celebration of Max and his important contributions to Public Theology:

 

Max Stackhouse Flyer