Servants Wanted

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons… (Philippians 1:1 NRSV)

The apostle, Paul, writes to the congregation at Philippi from prison. The place of his imprisonment is debated. I agree with those who say he is in Rome awaiting trial before the Emperor – likely, Nero. As we know, Nero was, well, nuts. A pathological narcissist who sought only to aggrandize himself. Paul is in real trouble here. Instead of writing a “woe is me” tale from his cell, Paul is filled with joy and concerned about everyone but himself. What is up with that? Seems his serving has landed him in jail.

In many of his letters, he began by reminding the people of his calling — an apostle, one called by God. There is a certain authority that goes with that claim. With the Philippians, however, he says his title, his calling, is simply “servant.” The Greek word is doulous. It is usually translated “servant” or “slave.”  In either case, the word implies ownership, being subject to a master, working at another’s direction.

I don’t know about you, but when I was trying to decide on a career, a path in life, being a servant or slave was not what I had in mind. I wanted to be in charge. I wanted to be served. That is one reason I hate buffets – I like the food brought to me. The real world however, taught me that I was always going to be serving somebody. Bob Dylan even wrote a song about it” You Gotta Serve Somebody, in which he sings “it may be the Devil, it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” We do get a choice in whom we will serve.

That’s what Paul knows. As a servant of Christ, and in turn, a servant of the Philippians, he is serves in complete freedom. It is as Luther taught in The Freedom of a Christian:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

See, Christ has set Paul free. As Christ’s servant, Nero had no hold over him; death would have no hold over him. In fact, later he will say that he prefers death – except that he is better off serving the Philippians because they need him. (Philippians 1:21 ff) Christ’s mercy and grace allow Paul to seemingly risk everything to serve Christ, serve the Philippians, serve the world. Yet, it is no risk to him at all, for Christ is a gracious master.

If you could be free of worrying about what others think; what passes for conventional wisdom; what you might lose – because you have gained everything with Lord Jesus, would it make a difference? Would it bring joy like Paul has as he sits in prison?

 

copyright © Timothy V Olson, 2018

 

Election Day 2018

The 2018 mid-term election is finally here. Like most of you, I can’t wait for the cessation of political advertising. The campaign season has not revealed our best selves, but our worst. It leaves me with the feeling in my gut like I’ve just done something or seen something shameful. We can’t blame the politicians for this completely. We’re the ones who respond to the fear mongering, the tribalism, and misinformation of a campaign season far too long for anyone’s good.

Beyond the campaign itself, tomorrow’s election will be claimed as a victory for some and a loss for others. The losers will cry out over the state of the union, and the victors will declare that their vision, and even manipulative tactics, have been vindicated, even endorsed. Neither response will be true. As divided as we are, the results of the election are likely to leave all of us losers, because the gridlock and incivility that have become habits will still rule.

That said, we must vote. It is a civil responsibility for every citizen. People have died for your right to vote. It dishonors their sacrifice to discard your duty. All the rhetoric I hear that demonizes the “government,” that makes “government a necessary evil” or worse, the enemy, is cynical to the point of evil. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressman and government officials, but the voters of this country.”

As a Christian, we have a spiritual duty as well. Some folks think that separation of church and state means that Christians should leave faith at home and not bring it into the public square. That’s nonsense since the separation only applies to the government’s establishment of religion, not my application of faith to my citizenship. God works through the imperfect rule of government to sustain order and some modicum of justice and peace. The “left hand” kingdom of this world is still part of Divine providence, even if not an eternal one. Cyrus of Persia was seen as an instrument of God’s deliverance of God’s people, even though he worshipped other gods. Luther is credited with saying that he would “rather have a just Turk (Muslim) for a ruler than an unjust Christian.”

As Christians head to the ballot box, I think there are a few things we should remember. First, it says in Philippians 3:20, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul means that while we have citizenship in some nation (he was a Roman citizen), our primary, our ultimate citizenship is not to a nation that will pass away but to a reign, initiated in Christ, that will not. That means, for me, that my allegiance to Christ stands above, and sometimes against, my allegience to party and nation.

Second, we should never make the mistake of thinking that the candidate we are selecting is ordained by God or some manifestation of the truth. Government on this earth is always fallible and broken. There are no leaders who are saviors or our superiors. Democracy does not establish elected kings. As C.S. Lewis says, “The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Third, no one we elect will save us. No one we elect will ruin us. Only God has those powers. In the end, God will prevail. That means that the reign of God revealed in Jesus Christ is what will ultimately come to pass. This reign cares for the poor, establishes peace, reconciles people, brings enemies together and sacrifices for the sake of neighbor. Seek candidates who do these things.

When I vote, I give my vote away, because that’s what Jesus teaches. By this I mean that I will not allow my own fear and self-interest to sway me – no matter how hard the candidates try to scare me. Freed in Christ, I use my vote to vote with those who have the least power, the smallest voice, and the biggest struggles. If I pray for the sick, imprisoned, oppressed, hungry and hated, then I have to vote with them.

May God grant us peace in the face of change – or the lack of it. May this election somehow, someway move us toward our better selves.

copyright © 2018, Timothy V. Olson

Stations of the Cross – Backwards

The first morning of my retreat began when I looked out of the window and saw the red-orange sun rising over the tree line. As it happened that morning, the planet, the sun, the time of day, my window, and the spot I stood all lined up to place the image squarely in the center of the first view of the day. God had not arranged this all for my edification, of course. It all happens, in some way, everyday. But, I often miss it. I am NOT an early riser most days, but the monks gather to pray at 7:15 AM, so I was up. It all happened on God’s watch – in God’s providence. I said, “Thanks be to God, and thank you early rising monks.”
After prayer, and breakfast, I took a walk around the grounds of the monastery. Paths, mowed into the grass, guide you to places of ordinary wonder – a lake, trees, an orchard, watermelon and tomato patches. I didn’t know exactly where I was going, so when I took one turn, I encountered a large, rough cross in the ground with XIV carved in the top. It was the last station of the cross (Jesus entombed). I walked on and another cross, numbered XIII, appeared. I was following the stations of the cross – backwards. I chuckled as I thought about some monk I had met seeing me and thinking, “Dumb Lutheran, walking the stations in reverse.”
As XIII led to XII, and XII to XI and so on, it occurred to me that in some way this might be exactly the right way to walk the stations for those of us who follow Jesus – at least as we come to faith in him. God is revealed to us as the Crucified God, on the cross, in the tomb, and then risen from the dead. It is only in light of the end (and new beginning) that anything else Jesus did, said, or suffered can be understood. Push back beyond the stations of the cross to the healings, the parables, the gathered crowds. Go back to the birth of Jesus in sleepy Bethlehem. None of that matters without the cross and resurrection. Those moments did not fade into the shadows of history, forgotten, because the cross and resurrection reinterpreted each event as more than miracles and signs. They were revealed as the very acts of God. Following Jesus begins at the cross and at the tomb, at the end of the stations.
There is a clue here about how we look at everything in our lives and this ailing, suffering world. Nothing makes sense if you don’t start at the cross and resurrection. A suffering God, a crucified God, rises to new life in the face of death and destruction. The loss and devastation; the violence and polarization; the hatred and the division of the world are unintelligible – unbearable – without a vision that places God in the center. The cross does exactly that.
How will we get through the terror and violence? The answer is in the cross and resurrection. How will we survive global degradation and environmental crisis? The cross and resurrection are the beginning of wisdom. How will we not be consumed by our grief and despair? Look to the cross and resurrection. No matter what people promise, only in the cross do we find a God who enters our suffering and death and then offers hope for something new. The cross emboldens us to do the hard and painful things that are demanded. The resurrection points us to the promise that God will redeem, sanctify and speak a new word, even into the darkness of death and evil.
When I finally came to the first station. I looked up and there, just ahead was the window to my room where the day had started. Walking the path backwards, from Cross to the beginning, had brought me home. May it be so with you.
Station 1
copyright © 2018 – Timothy V. Olson