Church Write-Up: Eagerly Awaiting, Incarnation and Resurrection, Idolatry and Intellect

Time for this week’s Church Write-Up about last Sunday’s services.

A. The main text at the LCMS church was Hebrews 9:28b: “unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation” (KJV).

The pastor in his sermon was talking about how Christians, as a result of Christ’s sacrifice, are in the world but not of the world and are to testify to this world that this life is not all that there is: that it is not a matter of “whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Christians have the hope that they will one day experience the benefits of God’s salvation full blast. The pastor talked about how, in his pastoral visitations this last week, the theme of Hebrews 9:28 came up multiple times, without his promptings, as people talked about how they are looking forward to seeing Jesus and those who have come before them. The pastor also tied his message into Veteran’s Day. Veteran’s Day was originally Armistice Day, a day celebrating the end of World War I as the war to end all wars. People back then hoped for peace, as Christians anticipate Christ’s second coming. Also, our veterans sacrificed themselves for something greater, and Christians are to realize that this life is not all that there is, that there is more than our moments in this life.

During the Scripture reading part of the service, I was thinking some about the relevance of Hebrews 9:27 to Hebrews’ argument. Vv. 27-28 state: “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation” (KJV). A lot of times, v. 27 is cited when Christians are claiming that reincarnation is a false and nonbiblical concept: men die ONCE, not many times, and afterwards is the judgment. But why is the author of Hebrews making this point? It has to do with Jesus only dying once for our sins.

That raises questions in my mind. Would Jesus have had to die multiple times, if humans die multiple times rather than once? Elements of this make sense, and elements of it do not make sense. On the one hand, Christ is humanity’s representative, so it would make sense that he would die once, due to people dying once. On the other hand, Christians can cite reasons that Christ died only once that have nothing to do with how many times humans die. Christ only needed to die once because his sacrifice was sufficient to cover everyone’s sins, due to his vast worth. In addition, there are exceptions to the “die once” principle: there are people in the Bible whom God raised from the dead in this life, who died twice. Jesus did not die a second time for them. His one death sufficed for their salvation.

Is the author of Hebrews simply drawing an analogy? Humans die once and then experience the judgment, and, similarly, Jesus died once and will bring Christians salvation when he comes in judgment.

I will leave on the comments in case anyone wants to chime in. I should check commentaries to see how they handle this, but it is late, so I may save that for another time.

B. The Sunday school class got into a variety of issues, as it usually does. Its topic is the Trinity and the incarnation. Among the questions that were engaged: Were the church fathers wrong to try to understand God, since God cannot be comprehended? Does all this theologizing contradict having the faith of a child? Why were Christians debating about whether Jesus was fully God, when the Gospel of John says that he was? Does Sola Scriptura mean that “me and my Bible” is enough, or is it consistent with interpreting Scripture in community? In what respects can a non-believer of a religion understand that religion better than a practitioner, and in what respects does a practitioner understand it better? And why would a non-believer study and write books about a religion? How did the ancient Christians believe that Jesus, as God, could be human, since something that makes humans human, their appetites, was deemed to be selfish and sinful?

The teacher offered answers to a lot of these questions: children ask a lot of questions and try to understand and reconcile what they hear, while trusting the one who is teaching them; Augustine was not saved by his intellect, but humans are still creatures with intellect, so they should try to understand things about God; Sola Scriptura meant Scripture without Catholic teaching, not “just me and my Bible”; community can be a place of correction (“But what about this?”) and encouragement; John depicts Jesus as God, but Mark highlights Jesus’ humanity and human limitations; the teacher has studied Talmud and may know more about it than the average Jew in a synagogue, yet that average Jew in the synagogue, as a practitioner of Judaism, knows things about Judaism that he does not.

On the thorny question of how Jesus’ divinity and humanity interrelate, I did not hear an answer, but I will see what the class concludes.

A question was raised in our reading of a Robert Wilken article. Wilken noted that the church fathers, in discussing Jesus’ divinity, started with Jesus’ resurrection. That is not where most contemporary theological treatments of the incarnation and the Trinity begin. Romans 1:4 states that Jesus was declared to be Son of God through his resurrection. Was not Jesus already Son of God, before that? The teacher said that perhaps Romans 1:4 was saying that Jesus’ humanity was made to be divine, or something to that effect. I may be mangling or misunderstanding what he said there. I was thinking of asking for clarification, but I was unclear about how to formulate the question clearly.

How does Jesus’ resurrection relate to Jesus’ divinity? The standard Christian interpretation of Romans 1:4 is that the resurrection attested to the divinity that Jesus already had: it did not make Jesus divine, but showed the world that Jesus was divine. The teacher did not say that, though. I sometimes got the impression from what the teacher was saying that the church fathers were not just wrestling with how the pre-death Jesus was God-incarnate, but with how the risen Jesus was God-incarnate. The Robert Wilken article and the teacher were highlighting other ways that the resurrection was relevant to Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ resurrection is why Jesus’ divinity matters: prayer to Jesus and the Eucharist would be pointless, if Jesus were not resurrected. Plus, saying that Jesus rose invites the question of why and how he was human in the first place, for, to die, he needed to be human.

What I especially enjoy about this teacher’s classes is the historical context that he provides. Nicea was a city in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and it was Emperor Constantine’s annual resort. Many of the older Christian bishops who came to the Council there bore wounds, due to the intense persecution that Christians experienced in the third century CE at the hands of imperial Rome and locals. Legend states that Constantine humbly kissed the wounds of the bishops when he met them. The Council of Nicea produced the Apostles’ Creed, not the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed came out of the later Council of Constantinople, and it is called the “Nicene Creed” because it is based on conclusions that were reached at the Council of Nicea. Lutherans recite the Apostles’ Creed on non-Eucharistic Sundays, and the Nicene Creed on Eucharistic Sundays. This tradition goes back to the Council of Constantinople.

C. At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor was continuing his series about Acts. Specifically, the title of the series is “There’s a Place at the Table.” Past sermons in the series have affirmed that there is a place at the table for the religious, for the pagan, and for the broken. This week’s message was that there is a place at the table for the intellectual.

The pastor’s main text was Acts 17. Paul is in Athens, a highly intellectual city, and notices all of their idolatry. Intellectualism can easily degenerate into “what we have done, or what we can do.” The pastor talked a lot about idolatry. It cheapens or denigrates the image of God within us, and it replaces a real Jesus with a Santa Claus Jesus who caters to our idolatry. We also debase God’s gifts—-sex, alcohol, recreational sports—-when we abuse them or make idols of them.

Over the last few weeks, people from church have delivered testimonies, as they sit at the table with others who have delivered testimonies. When the series started, someone talked about his background in a legalistic religion; his family refused to buy clothes from the Goodwill because the clothes may have demons attached to them! The next week, someone talked about his background in Chinese paganism. The following week, a lady talked about her broken marriage and her sensitivity to rejection. This week, someone talked about being an intellectual.

How was he an intellectual? Essentially, he was curious and loved learning. He loved to read books. But he also wondered what made people tick. Although he was a nerd back when he was in high school, he hanged out with jocks and rednecks because he wondered how they approached life. He has held political office and has been all over the political spectrum: Republican, Democrat, Green. He grew up as a conservative Lutheran in a church that was anti-Catholic, but, later in life, he was curious about the Holy Spirit, so he found himself attending a charismatic Catholic church to learn more. He also enjoys solving problems. He still enjoys learning, but, as a Christian, he has concluded that politics is not where the solution lies. He also thinks that his intellectualism can get in the way, if he is not careful: for example, he struggles with praying to a God who already knows how things will turn out.

I will stop here.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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