Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Kevin Ly—In Memoriam

I met Kevin in the 1990s. He was a teenager in my brother’s first pastorate. Though his outward life bore the marks of a committed Christian, he would not make a public profession of his faith. He would not seek baptism. He would not confine his faith to a label or a ritual. The reason was simple. He respected his parents. He lived the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). His parents were refugees from China and would not permit their son to convert to this American religion. So, he did not.

My wife and I stayed with my brother for about six weeks in 2000. Then, we moved to our boat. During this period, I came to know Kevin better. As a young man, leading the youth of Greenbrier Baptist Church, he had wisdom beyond his years. He had patience for unruly teens when I had none. He knew Bible stories. He had an understanding of faith that was both simple and all-encompassing.

After we moved away, Kevin continued his faith journey. Eventually, his parents allowed (blessed?) his conversion to Christianity. He made a profession of faith and experienced the baptismal waters. He attended Leland Seminary. A church ordained him into the gospel ministry. Another church called him to be their pastor. He asked a beautiful young lady to marry him, and she said ‘yes’. Just weeks ago, they had a wonderful marriage celebration. And, according to Facebook, over his last days on earth, they decorated for Christmas.

Kevin and I crossed paths again in 2015. Seeing him rejuvenated my soul. We ran into each other at a denominational event. Those events can be draining. Sometimes they represent the worst of the institutional church. Kevin reminded me of why we do what we do. He wanted to serve God. He felt God calling him to be the minister of a church. He had finished seminary and was ready. I felt God blessing me with the opportunity to encourage him. I do not know if it meant anything to him, but seeing him meant much to me.

When Main Street Baptist Church in Luray, VA called Kevin to be their pastor in 2016, I went to his installation service. He asked me to participate. And, I felt honored to do so. When I started my new ministry at University Baptist Church in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, I asked Kevin to participate in my installation service. He said, “Hey Matt, but of course! Am honored to be invited. I will have a business meeting/lunch after church that day, so will make sure to leave in plenty of time to get there. Let me know how I can help!”

That response was Kevin. He had enthusiasm for life. His enthusiasm was contagious. It was impossible to avoid. His response made me more excited about my own installation service. His infectious smile caused everyone around him to smile. To think I will not see him anymore in this life is difficult.

Why would someone so vivacious be snatched away? Why would God allow this to happen? The truth is, we do not know the answer. Did God take Kevin? No. Did God cause this to happen? No. In 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Then Paul adds his commentary in verses 10-11, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.” 

Life is a mystery. Every person will die. When someone dies young, we mourn in a special way. We mourn the loss of a life not yet fulfilled. We mourn the potential, or what could have been. In Kevin’s death, we can ask why someone so good would go so soon? We can ask, but we may never know. What caused his body to fail him? Doctors might figure out what happened, but it will not bring him back.

For those of us who are blessed to have known Kevin, we can be thankful for the impact he had on our lives. We can be thankful for the lessons of faith he taught us. We can be thankful for this enthusiasm and smile. We can be thankful for his wisdom. And, we can move forward in faith—faith in the mystery of life, faith in God, faith in resurrection to new life, and faith that we will see Kevin again someday. 

For now, we can be assured that he stands at the right hand of God, hearing those words we all long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Participating in God

What does it mean to be a Christian? One definition might include inviting people to walk the aisle and make a profession of faith. Then, we would baptize them, and that is what it takes to make a Christian. Except, the Bible says something different. Romans 10:9 sets forth this pattern of profession followed by salvation. Yet, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” In James 1:29, true religion is taking care of widows and orphans. Micah 6:8 answers the question about what God requires of us, saying God requires us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
Matthew 25:31-46 presents another version of this basis for salvation. John A. T. Robinson writes, “The vision of the Last Judgment with which St Matthew concludes so magnificently the teaching ministry of Jesus stands out from the Gospel pages with a unique and snow-capped majesty.”[1] This is a passage with some power, like snow-capped mountains rising above a vista. This is a passage about salvation. It does not contradict other salvation passages, but it presents a clear notion of God and humanity.
Jesus entered Jerusalem back in Matthew 21, and he spent the last four chapters irritating the Pharisees and everyone else in positions of power. In many ways, he is careening toward his betrayal, mock trial, crucifixion and resurrection. This is the climax of his final discourse. “It is not a parable, but an apocalyptic drama.”[2] Parables begin with something familiar. This passage starts at the final judgment.
So, what is our awareness of our own actions and how God views them? When we do something how do our actions reflect our belief? To go back to the question of being a Christian, does this mean that we believe in our salvation as a one-time event, i.e. making a profession of faith? Or, is it something we continue to do? Do our lives reflect our faith? What is our awareness of our salvation and how each one of our actions reflect it? Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “All consciousness is consciousness of something.”[3] We are conscious of being a follower of Christ. According to this passage, following Christ includes concrete behavior.
Here, Jesus sits on the throne in a high Christology, fitting for Christ the King Sunday, even though the concept did not yet exist. This passage is unique to Matthew, and it begs some questions. Who are all the nations? Does he mean all nations on earth? Does he mean people groups who have never heard of him? Does he mean people from other religions? Or, does he have a smaller group in mind? Maybe, he Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers. The grammatical shift from the neuter εθνη (nation or people) to the masculine pronoun αυτους (them) in 25:32 show that the judgment is about individual human beings, not nations as political entities.[4] Jesus is talking about our judgment, not the judgment of a nation. This is personal.
Who are the “least of these”? Did Jesus just mean his poorer followers? Or, did he means something more universal? Eugene Boring writes, “The fundamental thrust of this scene is that when people respond to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding, or failing to respond, to Christ.”[5] When we feed the hungry, welcome strangers, visit the prisons, take care of the sick, and give clothes to those who do not have any, we do it for Jesus, although he could be in disguise. When we do not do these things, when we ignore people’s needs, we ignore Jesus. We may not know because he might be disguised.
The righteous stand out not only by their actions but by their attitudes. Matthew de-emphasizes the self-confidence of the righteous. They do not know they have been righteous. They have not done anything to earn their salvation. The inner working of God, their consciousness of themselves and God’s expectations led them to take certain actions in their lives (e.g. feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.). These actions, taken not to earn their salvation but because their consciousness of Christ leads them to take the action, lead to their divine acquittal.[6]
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests of a literary-phenomenological analysis of apocalyptic passages like this one. Like others, it follows five motif-clusters: “(a) an increase in sinful and corrupt behavior and climactic catastrophes marking the last times; (b) divine intervention, whether by God or by a redeemer figure like the Son of Man; (c) a resultant judgment with (d) punishment for the wicked and (e) salvation for the faithful.[7] There were whiffs of these motif-clusters in the parable (allegory) of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the talents. Here, in this judgment of the nations, we see the pattern play out. The coming of the Son of Man is apocalyptic.
Where are we in this passage? We constantly make plans for the future. If we are going on a trip, we must make reservations or check out the car. When we have a consciousness of God’s expectations of us and presence in the world, we can look ahead to the future. We can make divine plans. We can ask ourselves, how does my life reflect the salvation described in this passage?
We must resist putting things in the Bible that are not there. In this passage, Jesus does not talk about when this will happen. He does not talk about salvation in terms of making a profession of faith or baptism. These are responses to something God is already doing. What Jesus does talk about is our actions here in this life. He uses a common reference for his listeners: sheep and goats.
Has anyone done something good? You are a sheep. Well done good and faithful servant. Now, the hard question: has anyone, ever ignored a need? You are a goat. You are accursed and have an eternal pit of fire waiting for you. The truth is: there are times when we are all sheep, and there are times when we are all goats. The decision we have to make each day is whether we want to have a sheep day or a goat day. Both the sheep and the goats were surprised on judgment day.
Years ago, I spent some time in Camden, NJ, with a former Catholic priest named Larry DiPaul. Larry was the type of person who became an old friend, minutes after meeting him. Camden is one of the poorest cities, and a homeless guy walked up to us and asked for some money to buy some food. Larry said, "I can give you a peanut butter sandwich." 
The guy agreed and Larry told him to wait while he went inside to make the guy a sandwich. I said, “Larry, how do you know the guy isn’t taking advantage of you?”
He said, “How do I know he’s not? I can’t afford to risk denying Christ a sandwich when he’s hungry.
Let us maintain our consciousness of God’s expectations on our lives. Maybe we will do some good someday for someone who does not deserve it. Maybe we will do something for Christ in disguise. We can stop worrying about who is a Christian and who is not, and leave that to God. Let us keep our focus on Christ. He is king of our lives and ruler of our world.

[1] John A. T. Robinson, "The ‘Parable’ of the Sheep and the Goats," New Testament Studies 2, no. 4 (2009): 225.
[2] M. Eugene Boring, "Matthew," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 455.
[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (London: Routledge Classics, 2008), Section V. The Ontological Proof.
[4] Boring, 456.
[5] Boring, 456.
[6] Sigurd Grindheim, "Ignorance Is Bliss: Attitudinal Aspects of the Judgment According to Works in Matthew 25:31-46," Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008).
[7] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, "The Phenomenon of Early Christian Apocalypse," in Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the near East, ed. David Hellholm (Heidelberg: Mohr Siebeck, 1989), 298-300. Cited in Dan O. Via, "Ethical Responsibility and Human Wholeness in Matthew 25:31-46," The Harvard Theological Review 80, no. 1 (1987): 81.