Friday, September 26, 2008

Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary - Part 1

by John McVay

This article was originally presented as a sermon at the Questions on Doctrine 50th Anniversary Conference, held at Andrews University, October 24-27, 2007.


In a few years of administration, I have learned principally one thing—how little I know. An additional discovery, though, continues to bemuse—and, occasionally, amuse—me. Call it the Hypothesis of Administrative Hiccups. Here it is: A problem is most likely to occur among the experts to whom you would turn to solve it.

Allow me to offer some fictive examples. If you are going to have a really difficult Human Resources problem crop up, it will likely occur at the School of Business, where they teach courses in how to deal with just such challenges. A professor who cannot teach for most of the term because of a severely strained back is likely from the Physical Therapy faculty. If there’s going to be a problem with the misuse and abuse of language, it will probably crop up in the Communications Department. A huge malfunction in a complex piece of equipment will, predictably under this hypothesis, occur in the School of Engineering. . . . and so on.

I have tested and proven this hypothesis more times than I care to remember. We pastors and theologians specialize in grace—in understanding and proclaiming the Gospel, the “good news” about what God has done—and is doing—for humankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are the experts in understanding the gracious ways of God as we trace the story of redemption. We are the certified specialists—complete with terminal degrees—in “the fruit of the Spirit”—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Are we not an exception to the Hypothesis of Administrative Hiccups?

One could argue that the historical events that we ponder in our conference are rooted in an act of kindness, a demonstration—albeit a small one—of nobility of spirit. A Seventh-day Adventist pastor and Conference President, Elder Unruh tunes his radio to Donald Grey Barnhouse’s radio program. He listens in as, broadcast by broadcast, Barnhouse unpacks the message of righteousness by faith in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Unruh’s heart is stirred and, in an act of kindness, he pens a letter of thanks to Barnhouse, expressing his deep appreciation for the messages he has heard.

That little act of kindness, of nobility of spirit, triggers the events we ponder here, 50+ years later. So it is no small irony that arguably the most unkind and unchristian communication in our church’s history is rooted in Unruh’s kind letter to Barnhouse.

I note that the QOD Conference web site begins with these words: “No other book has aroused so much controversy in the history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine.”[i]

As I review both recent and not-so-recent history, we Adventist and we Christian theologians have proven the Hypothesis of Administrative Hiccups again and again. As experts in the gracious ways of God, certified specialists in the fruit of the Spirit, we have all-too-often practiced the ways of the Devil and offered up the fruit of hell.

And—need I add—when we do so, we bring the Gospel into disrepute.

So, with the Hypothesis of Administrative Hiccups in view, I invite your attention to a brief passage from the Apostle Paul, Ephesians 4:31-5:2. Allow me to share my translation of the verses:

Let these things be removed from among you: animosity, rage, indignation, angry shouting, and abusive speech, with all ill-will. Be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God forgave all of you in Christ. So be imitators of God in the manner of beloved children and live in love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

As you leaf through those first chapters of the Epistle to the Ephesians, you will note that they are long on profound theology and steeped in the language of worship. Paul especially exults in God’s creation-in-Christ of the church. He marvels at what God has done for Gentile Christians.

It is not until he gets to chapter 4—and well into it at that—that he settles into direct pastoral counsel to those ancient, Christian congregations in Asia Minor.

In the context of a profound exultation for what God has done for us in Christ, Paul gets down to business. And when he gets there—to the rubber-meets-the-road counsel of the letter—he has an amazing amount to say about how we Christians should speak to one another. It is as though Paul says, “Now that you have the theology in hand, let me introduce you to the really difficult stuff—putting it into practice in your relationships with others.”

So perhaps, in the flow of the letter, this challenging, difficult word is truly appropriate for theologians.

Our brief passage consists of one negative command about getting rid of certain things in our community (v. 31), and two positive ones about being kind (v. 32) and being imitators of God (vv. 1, 2).

Look closely with me at verse 31: “Let these things be removed from among you: animosity, rage, indignation, angry shouting, and abusive speech, with all ill-will.” Paul mentions a list of five things that he would like to see absent from the Christian congregations in Asia Minor and summarizes them in a final term—ill-will. His list begins with three strident terms: animosity, rage, and indignation. He begins deep within our hearts and minds. He identifies strong, negative emotions and attitudes, ones that seethe beneath the surface of our sophisticated exteriors.

A little while back, Southern California suffered the ravages of a gargantuan set of fires, which raged out-of-control. Twenty-three fires scorched nearly 500,000 acres or about 750 square miles, an area approaching the size of the state of Rhode Island. The price tag? Over $1 billion. Fourteen deaths were credited—directly or indirectly—to the flames. A firefighter was quoted as saying, “It's like holding off hell with a garden hose.”[ii]

Paul worries about an analogous maelstrom, which threatens to char the subterranean landscape of our minds just as surely as those 23 fires devastated the California terrain. And he worries that those subterranean fires will erupt into flows of destructive, molten lava. The deep-seated, destructive attitudes—animosity, rage, indignation—will, eventually, be expressed through “angry shouting, and abusive speech,” yielding a storm of ill-will.

Some time ago, I had the privilege of listening to one of the sessions of the most recent HMS Richards Lectureship on Preaching hosted annually at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. The speaker was Dr. Paul Scott Wilson, Professor of Homiletics at Emmanual College, Toronto, and author of several books on preaching, including The Four Pages of the Sermon and The Practice of Preaching.

I found the counsel that he offered preachers to be simple and profound. Here is one such word of counsel: “Seek the Gospel in the text.”

Where do you find the Gospel in a negative command like this one? “Let these things be removed from among you: animosity, rage, indignation, angry shouting, and abusive speech, with all ill-will.”

Granted, the command does not seem too difficult . . . as long as you don’t have any animosity, rage, indignation, angry shouting, and abusive speech in your life. But what if—as you take that interior look—you see a destructive firestorm ablaze?

Where’s the Gospel in a text like this, then?

Don’t do it! (But you’re doing it.)

The verse is often translated something like this: “Put away from you all bitterness . . .” etc. In my translation, I’ve tried to listen to a Gospel cue in the grammar. Surely some Greek teacher out there will arise and call me blessed for finding the Gospel in Greek! The verb here is airo. It literally means, “I lift up, pick up, remove.” The form here is passive imperative one. Literally, the command is not: “You—remove these things from your heart.” Rather, it is “Let these things be removed from among you.”

The point is grammatically subtle and may be nothing more than “stylistic variation.”[iii] But from the standpoint of a Gospel reading of the text, it is a rather large difference indeed. We are not being asked to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to fix our problems, to cure our own ills. We are pointed beyond our own resources to the gracious actions of God in Christ Jesus. Every command, you see, is a promise: “Let these things be removed from among you: animosity, rage, indignation, angry shouting, and abusive speech, with all ill-will.”

[i] Taken from Accessed 10-24-07.

[ii] Taken from Accessed 10-25-07.

[iii] Andrews T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary 42 (Dallas: Word, 1990), 308.

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