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Unhappy Business

I, the Teacher [the Sage], when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. (Ecclesiastes 1:12–13, NRSV)

It’s Friday morning. Looking back over the week, I’d say I didn’t accomplish all that much. Certainly nothing that will change the world for the better.

Come Monday morning, I’ll rehearse the drudgery of another week starting. A measure of hope for the week will be balanced by a pound of reality.

The Sage is a realist. So am I.

I always thought it would be fun to be idealistic. But I’ve never been able to pull it off.

Life is an unhappy business.

A Vapor

Life is a vapor. You know it’s true, but do you really know it’s true?

Perhaps, like me, you live on the knife’s edge of not knowing when your terminal disease will enter its final phase. (“It could be six months or it could be six years.”) You know life is a vapor.

Perhaps your kid grew up and left home before you knew it was happening. You know life is a vapor.

Perhaps you reflect on missed opportunities and regretful decisions in your past. You know life is a vapor.

Qoheleth, the Sage, doesn’t give us much hope. You live, you die, you’re dead. That didn’t last long, did it? And it didn’t mean much, did it?

You won’t be remembered. Your accomplishments will be forgotten. Your legacy will be nil. Someone else will own your stuff.

Not for nothing do they call him the Sage.

There is hope in Jesus, of course. Jesus is going about restoring the world to its correct state and we who are in Jesus will be raised into that glorious world and live in his presence. But it’s more authentic to put that in your back pocket while reading the Sage and pull it out later.

Nothing but a vapor.

Qohelet

I began a careful reread of Ecclesiastes this morning. This really is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I think that most people don’t take it as seriously as it requires. Usually people treat it as an example of bad theology or as a cautionary tale. There’s a lot more there than that. I’ve heard people say that the ending is the only part that really matters. I disagree. I know people whose only encounter with Ecclesiastes is through a pop/folk song from the sixties. They are missing out.

The early Fathers seemed to lean toward an interpretation of Ecclesiastes as a warning that the things of this world are to be avoided because we have our citizenship somewhere else. The Reformers (especially Luther) were more like, “Normal everyday life is a blessing from God. Enjoy it.” I suspect that the writer meant both/and or somewhere between the two extremes.

Vanity. Vapor. The wind. What does הֲבֵ֤ל (hăḇēl) mean?

The biblical data points in two directions: 1. Sometimes it means ephemeral existence and 2. Sometimes it means insubstantial existence. In other words, sometimes it means “quickly gone” and sometimes it means “meaningless”.

It’s not uncommon for words to carry multiple meanings. Don’t be thrown by that.

We must be careful to not confuse the two meanings. Sometimes things that don’t last long are anything but meaningless. Remember Abel (הֶ֙בֶל֙, heḇel)? He didn’t last long; his life was anything but meaningless. In fact, he was killed because God had regard for him and not his brother. Being regarded by God is fairly well meaningful.

Also notice the similarity between his name and our word of the day. Coincidence? I think not.

I hope to share what I learn as I learn it and what I think as I think it. My opinions are my own and not generally vetted by the guild of biblical scholars. But I am mostly orthodox. You could look it up.

Singular Spirit

I finished (for the time being) my study of Philippians this morning. I noticed something in the final verse that I want to share.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philippians 4:23, NRSV)

 Ἡ χάρις τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ μετὰ ⸂τοῦ πνεύματος⸃ ὑμῶν. (Philippians 4:23, NA28)

Here is what I noticed:

  • “your” is plural
  • but “spirit” is singular

Paul did not say, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.”

Throughout the letter, Paul has been urging more unity on the Philippian church. In many ways, that’s the most important subject Paul covers in this letter, and in many of his letters. Church unity is extremely important.

So important, in fact, that Paul views a church as having a singular spirit.

My church is too divided to say it has a singular spirit. How about yours?

Psalm 1

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

(Psalm 1, NRSV)

No Christian thinks it’s a good idea to follow the advice of wicked people. Or to live the way sinners live. Or the hang out with those who scoff at God. We’ve all been trained better than that.

But do we go so far as to take our delight in the law of the Lord, in the Bible? Are we nerdy enough about our faith that we actually spend gobs of time not only reading, but actually wallowing in the Bible? Do we think about it, ponder it, study it, puzzle over it, meditate on it? Is it a passion with us?

The Bible is an endless stream of refreshment. If we put our roots down next to it, we will never want for water. We will be fruitful and we won’t wither when the heat is on. We will carry on with it.

Wicked people don’t do that, and they are swept away. Righteous people do that and they stand.

What about the lukewarm, the in-betweeners? I’d rather not find out.

Their End is Destruction

For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:18–19, NRSV)

I fully believe — though I’m humble enough to say that I could be wrong — that Paul is referring here to people in the church who think they are following Jesus, but they have actually become his enemies. They have drifted into a state of affairs that causes them to work against him instead of for him.

  • They have lost focus on what is important.
  • They focus on what is actually shameful.
  • They care more about themselves than about Christ’s body.
  • They are headed toward death rather than life.

I can see these people in every church I’ve been part of. They are upset by practices they don’t prefer. They complain about everything in the church. They couldn’t care less about church unity.

Their end is destruction.

I add my tears to those of the apostle.

No Dual Citizenship

I’m reading Philippians, my favorite text in the Bible. As I read it this time, I am focusing on reading theologically more than historically and linguistically. I am quite in sync with the theological interpretation of scripture, because it treats the scripture as scripture, not as simply another ancient text. The historical and language facets of interpreting the text are not ignored, but they are enhanced by this style of interpretation.

As I read Philippians I am referring to the commentary of Stephen Fowl (Fowl, Stephen E. Philippians. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.) The Two Horizons series has the stated goal of doing theological interpretation, so I’m not only reading the text; I’m also learning how to do theological interpretation.

Concerning Philippians 1:27, “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel …” (NRSV), Fowl said a couple things that made a lot of sense to me.

Clearly, Paul is not advocating violent opposition to the empire here. Nevertheless, he makes it very clear that the interests and aims of the church are different from and largely at variance to the interests and aims of the empire. (p. 61)

and

While Christians will need to discuss and discern together the concrete shape of a common life worthy of the gospel in the light of the particular secular orders they find themselves under, they must avoid thinking of themselves as holding dual citizenship. They have one Lord and serve only one master. (p. 62)

Fowl is putting his finger on the false hope many evangelical Christians place in politics. I know many Christians who are more interested in the political process and trying to elect conservatives than they are in living an authentic Christian life. Paul would not allow it.

We don’t have dual citizenship in the USA (mutatis mutandis) and the Kingdom. If we follow Christ, we follow Christ and anything else is at most secondary. We do our Lord a disservice if we put our hope elsewhere.

In essence, we must renounce our citizenship in our nation to follow Jesus.

I will follow Jesus.

Faith

Faith does not mean just believing stuff to be true.

Faith requires obedience. Faith = faithfulness.

Believing that Jesus died for your sins does not do you one bit of good unless to follow up that belief with a commitment — one that you stick to — to spend the rest of your life obeying Jesus. That commitment amounts to an oath of fealty, of loyalty for the rest of your life. You have become enrolled in the ranks of the king. No other king can claim any part of you because you gave it all to Jesus. Forever.

No turning back. No turning back.

Cruciform

Mark 8:31–38 (NLT)

Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things.

Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.”

Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Jesus predicts his death and his mode of death. Also, his resurrection. This is all couched in terms of necessity. In other words, Jesus is doing what he means to do.

This is followed by one of the clearest calls to discipleship you will ever see. “Give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me.” Walk the way I am walking. Live the way I am living. Move toward death.

These are hard words for our soft generation.

We are often taught, “Admit you are a sinner. Say this little prayer. You are now a Christian. You are saved from hell. It would be good if you continued coming to church, but whatever. Here’s a class about how to handle your money. And another about how to be a good parent.” Then we move on to the next victim.

That doesn’t sound much like the mode of discipleship described by Jesus. There’s no cross in it, so it can’t be right. Jesus says his followers much truly follow him. With a cross.

I have a feeling that if we followed Jesus’s plan of discipleship the church would thrive more than it does on the model we are using. Rather than big, empty shells we would be small, vital cells — living for Jesus, living like Jesus. Passing it on.