Protest of the Center (Colossians 1:16-18)
Brandy Kirstein is a stay-at-home mom, pastor’s wife, and doctoral student in family nursing practice in Collegedale, TN. She began her presentation by noting that, for a long time, the earth was believed to be the center of the universe. One of the reasons why this was deemed true was the conviction that if humans are to occupy the highest position in the universe, then they must be at the center. Brandy called this mentality “astronomical narcissism.” The sin of Satan was precisely this, wanting to be God—wanting to be at the center.
Martin Luther’s contemporary, Copernicus, was also a reformer, said Brandy, though he not often recognized as such. He is a reformer because he developed the theory of heliocentricity. The speaker asked the audience to pick the wrong answer from the following:
- “Luther advocated for heliocentricity”
- “The Catholic church deemed Copernicus a heretic”
- “Luther deemed Copernicus a heretic”
It turns out that the first statement is the wrong answer. As a theology professor, but not a scientist, Luther was mistaken about some things. Yes, truth does not change, but we discover it progressively. No church, at any one point, can know all truth. If earth is to be at the center of the universe, the other planets cannot be part of an interdependent system, but most work independently. When something (or someone) is in a center where it doesn’t belong, unnatural patterns occur.
Colossians 9:15 states that all things were created by Christ. He precedes everything, and has the first place in everything. Christ is at the center, and as such He is the head of the church body. Sometimes, said Brandy, it is beneficial to leave the earth in order to gain a perspective of our smallness—in order to realize that we are not at the center of the universe. Along these lines, she referenced G. K. Chesterton’s quote: “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it.”
Brandy shared a recent faith crisis she experienced when her small children found her in her room crying. When they asked what was wrong, she said: “Mommy and God aren’t getting along right now, and it makes mommy sad.” Digging deeper, one of her children asked what she and God were fighting about, to which she answered: “Well, mommy has forgotten who Jesus is.” Her son replied: “Jesus is the king of the universe. He is the Savior of the world. Now do you remember, Mommy? […] Mommy, if you ever forget who Jesus is again, just come and get us; we’ll help you remember.”
How often do you forget who Jesus is? Ironically, the spellcheck seems to change “geocentricity” into “egocentricity.” How are we supposed to teach our children that the world doesn’t revolve around them when we, as adults, still haven’t accepted our own place? “Unless we are looking at the truth through the person who is Truth, Jesus Christ, we have lost our center.”
It is hard to give up the center—to surrender the control in our lives. At times, we can even be unaware that we are doing just that. But Jesus can heal our blindness, and can help us see. However, we are then confronted with another dilemma: “Do we really trust Jesus to be at the center of our church? […] Are there some things He can be trusted with, but not others?” When we are dealing with messy situations, can we trust that God can help us sort things out? In times like these, we need to remember that God “is the center of even our molecular structure; in Him all things live,” that He died for us. “Is someone like that trustworthy?” asked Brandy.
Through another experience of having to clean her child’s wound, Brandy illustrated the fact that moving out of the center can be a painful process. However, we have to be willing to get through the pain, because as move out of the center, we will discover the beauty of a glorious Christocentric universe, where God holds all things together.
We Are Each A Body (Genesis 1:26-31)
Chris Oberg is the lead pastor of the campus church at La Sierra University (Riverside, CA). She recapitulated the Genesis account of the creation of humanity in God’s own image—male and female. Along these lines, she noted two things: (1) “In this skin we are gendered and we are sexual beings,” and (2) While the Bible is clear about this, it “falls silent on healthy sexuality.” The Christian tradition has elaborated greatly on the fall of man and the consequences of sin, and yet the text does not. So “we step in the gaps […] and the story becomes about curses, dominion becomes domination, power with becomes power over.”
“The church falls silent except for Junior high class,” where teenagers are taught that “this kind of kissing leads to that kind of kissing, and that kind of kissing becomes that kind of touching,” and that soon enough they will cross the boundaries, which will lead to sex, which will lead to pregnancy, church shaming, and family blaming; therefore, they should “not hold hands!”
“The church taught us how to be celibate, not how to have relationships,” stated Chris, concerned over the fact that we don’t even notice that divorce rate isn’t any lower, and that people are not getting married anymore. We teach that heterosexual sex is saved for the marriage bed, but cannot “even with our Bibles open figure out male-female heterosexuality.”
For the remainder of the presentation, Chris spoke about Mathew 19:12, which reads: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (ESV).
This text, said the speaker, talks about a “male-body not fully male” and indicates that bodies were complex in the time of Jesus as they are complex today. “Bodies have always been complex.” Chris noted that the text is placed in a context where Jesus speaks about divorce and marriage (relationships). In this passage, Jesus explains to the disciples that divorce is forbidden because it will put the woman in a difficult situation where she cannot remarry and be taken care of. In response, the disciples asked why one should even get married, if one cannot get a divorce. It was at this point that Jesus brought up the eunuchs. Thus, verse 12 needs to be read in conjunction with the other teachings about relationships in this passage.
According to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the eunuchs were not welcomed at the temple. “Power privilege will always belong to the fully men,” while half-men were considered non-men in the culture contemporary to Jesus. The Romans believed that eunuchs were born for slavery, and while they eventually outlawed castration, they would not outlaw the slavery of castrated men. Jesus warned the disciples to not be surprised if the eunuchs were one day allowed into fellowship.
Chris addressed the audience with a rhetorical question: “What am I supposed to do with this text?” (referring to Matthew 12:19). She then stated that she would read it to a girl who insisted on being dressed as a boy since she was 3, wanted a man’s haircut by 5, underwent “pre-cancer ovaries removal” surgery at 17 without her consent or understanding, and finally read about similar experiences online at 19, realizing that “maybe there is a name for what [she] experience[d].” This is a girl who was born with XY chromosomes, but without all the anatomy developed, and only finds out about it at 20, when she reads her medical records. This is the girl whose parents and teachers told her to just “get over it.”
Chris included a few more examples of unnamed individuals with sexual irregularities, with whom she has had personal acquaintance as a pastor on a university campus. She also noted the statistics indicating that 1-5% of the 74 billion people on this earth have some sexual variances. Sadly, the “church built walls between people and God instead of building bridges between people and God.”
In his commentary on Romans 1:17, Luther said that the gospel is the righteousness of God, not the church. The righteous will live by faith, which is also given by God. Luther’s 95 ideas were “an invitation to a conversation,” said Chris, adding: “Can we talk, church? I have 95 conversation starters. […] We know to protest, object, complain. But the reformers also knew how to reform, reimagine, reinvent, rebuilt from the inside out.” What if we offered people a microphone and listened to them tell their story “without no one talking back to them?”
The science around human sexuality is far ahead of the church, and yet we remain stuck in fear with our conservative views surrounding marriage and sexuality, with our idea that that sex belongs to the heterosexual marriage bed. In her closing remarks, Chris referenced Isaiah’s prophetic words regarding the eunuchs:
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5, ESV)
Sola (2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:4)
Andy Nash is a professor and pastor at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, TN. He opened his talk by asking the listeners to have their Bibles ready at 2 Timothy. He noted that, as Protestant Christians, we have frequently used the Sola Scriptura phrase to mean that Scripture alone is our final authority, and thus we should be on guard for human teachings seeking to take this place of primacy.
While the sola part has been often emphasized, we need to also remember the Scriptura part. This expression does not only suggest the “absence of something,” but also the “presence of something.” Sola Scriptura means Scripture, said Andy. If we aren’t studying Scripture for ourselves, we are not Sola Scriptura; we are just sola. We are alone.
The statistics show that over 50% of Seventh-day Adventists do not study the Bible on their own, but only hear it on Sabbath through the preacher. This, Andy pointed out, is no different than the experience of Christians prior to the Reformation, who only heard the Bible from their priest.
“Every moment of every day this book waits for you and for me to enter in.” And yet we keep it at a distance. What prevents us from entering God’s word for ourselves? One reason is our lack of education on how to study the Bible. Growing up with fill-in-the-blanks and multiple choice questions about beliefs did not teach us how to study the Scripture. We are more about “Bible studies than Bible study.”
The pioneers of our church, however, even before becoming Seventh-day Adventists, studied the Bible inductively, verse by verse, day after day. Andy also evoked the experience of Jon Paulien who, while a Seminary professor at Andrews, felt disheartened as he attended many churches and heard only topical sermons, where preachers merely hopped from place to place making lose connections that lacked context and depth. Paulien’s spirit was filled when he heard a simple old man lead his congregation inductively through a passage in Romans.
2 Timothy 4:2 reads: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (ESV).
At this point, Andy joked about passing right by Alex Bryan’s books at the ABC, and stopping at the commentaries section. He lifted up some books he brought with him, and exemplified what he considered to be most helpful books with Jacques Doukhan’s recently-released commentary on Genesis. To illustrate his point, Andy referenced the section in the commentary where Doukhan discusses Genesis 4:7, which the Seminary professor argues should not be translated as “sin crouching at your door,” but “sin offering crouching at your door,” and thus calls for a reinterpretation of the meaning of this passage.
The “inductive study of Scripture is a beautiful thing when you patiently give it a chance,” said Andy. While topical sermons have a place, an inductive study of Scripture would not only relieve pastors of the pressure of producing fifty topical sermons each year, but also provide a deeper understanding of Scripture.
For the remainder of his talk, Andy discussed 2 Timothy 3:14-4:4. In this passage, Paul instructs Timothy on how to ground himself in Scripture and teach the Word. The context of the passage includes texts about bad leaders, having a form of godliness but denying its power, and other aspects about the last days. Timothy is instructed to have nothing to do with these people. “Is there really a group of people that you should have nothing to do with?” asked Andy.
In response, he pointed to the fact that there was one group of people Jesus had no time for. While the audience’s guess was “the Pharisees,” Andy pointed to the “Sadducees,” the smart group, the secular group, the culturally trendy group who did not respect the authority of Scripture. “If you and I can’t agree on the authority of Scripture, what is there to even talk about?”
Next, Andy said that he empathizes with those “who feel deep sadness for what has happened in this building. […] This is not an easy time for us right now. It doesn’t feel right.” Jesus made time for anyone who respected the Word of God, and “I believe that our leaders have love and respect for the Word of God.” He acknowledged that there are serious problems with the leadership styles and emphases exhibited in our church, but encouraged his listeners to be patient and not go to the other extreme.
People may agree with us on things we are passionate about, they may be smart and gifted, but if they do not respect the authority of Scripture—some even to the point of denying the authority of Christ—we need to careful. “Be careful of modern-day Sadducees who know not the Scriptures, nor the power of God, who are by definition all alone,” said Andy.
The good news is that there is one group of people described in Scripture as living in the last days, who are described in Daniel 12 as running to and fro in Scriptures, and having a growing knowledge of God’s Holy Word. “Enter into the Scripture […] and you will never be alone again.”
It’s Time To Grow Up (1 Samuel 25:26-31)
Alex Bryan is the senior pastor at Walla Walla University Church in College Place, WA. “In my prepared remarks I had some very nice things to say about Andy Nash, but now I’m not going to say them,” started Alex, asking Andy to come take his books off the stage and thanking him for “a very meaningful talk.” After a few ice-breaking humorous statements, Alex dug into his topic for the day, letting his listeners know that this is going to be an “only you” talk, “a personal reflection for all.”
Going straight to the text, Alex noted that Samuel was dead. The mature leader, “God’s adult in the room,” was no more. The mourning Israel is left with “an impetuous, immature political leader named Saul,” and “a violent up-start, David. […] Samuel is dead, and it’s a mess.”
“I am talking about our present age,” clarified Alex. He pointed to the fact that college students have given up on the institutions of this age—be they political or religious. “They look at the world they are sent to, and wonder how they are going to make it in a world where Samuel is dead.” The question is: Who will be the adult in the room? Who will take up the responsibilities after Samuel’s death?
We can find answers to these questions through the story of Abigail, who lived “in the aftermath of Samuel’s death.” Four marks of maturity rise from her story:
- Abigail is a great listener. She exhibits the “spiritual discipline of listening,” having the reputation of someone who listens to everyone—even the servants. Alex recalled one of his mentors who would read and listen carefully to both sides. Listening broadly helps a person mature. Another mentor pointed out to him the need to listen to ourselves. He evoked an Episcopalian priest’s book entitled When God is silent, quoting: “I am wondering about the place of listening in our life. Where do you go to listen to God’s silence and God’s speech?” We have to listen well to everyone, including those we disagree with.
- Abigail is action-oriented. According to the text, she lost no time. We spend too much time talking, and too little taking action. “The time for talk is over,” said Alex, offering a few examples of Jesus moving from policy questions to action—such as talking to the Samaritan woman and healing people on Sabbath—both of which had a radical, redefining effect on Jesus’ ministry. In a culture where woman were second-hand citizens, Jesus talking with a Gentile woman “changes the whole thing.” Healing a chronically sick man on Sabbath redefines the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath (or, more accurately, points back to how the Sabbath was meant to be understood to begin with). “Jesus does not wait for policy to catch up with good behavior.”
Alex also expressed being moved by the online #MeToo campaign, and hearing stories of women being abused and mistreated, including female pastors in the Adventist church and some of his former students. “Wherever we allow mistreatment of women, we are in some way culpable whenever they are mistreated.
- Abigail is willing to sacrifice. Jesus asks us to follow His example by taking up our cross and following Him. Metaphorically, Abigail takes up her cross when she stands up to David. Not only does she talk and take action, she also does so being willing to sacrifice something in order to change the situation.
- Abigail has a desire to redirect David to the Lord. Abigail directs David’s attention to the Lord—an expression often repeated in the story. People ask, what was the point of The One project throughout all these years? The point is precisely this: to remember the Son, who “will guides us in the right direction. […] The situation is bleak, but the Lord will lead us in the right direction. […] “Samuel may be dead, but the Lord is alive.”
Christ In You (John 6:53-55 )
Mark Witas is the lead teaching pastor at Pacific Union College Church in Angwin, CA. He began his talk by noting that, in John 6:53-55, Jesus is sitting with His disciples and tells them that they need to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or they can’t have any part in Him. The disciples were likely quite confused, but Jesus repeated Himself, causing two-thirds of His disciples to leave, with the other third remaining because they have nowhere to go.
Dining has always been an important social convention. It is where “we get intimate with each other.” In Luke 14, Jesus is dining with some important people in the church and community—people who “had all the right titles,” were “in the right positions,” and attended “the right committees.” They had invited Jesus to dine with them. While there, Jesus meets a man with dropsy and heals him. Clearly, this man was not a dinner guest. He likely snuck in unobserved.
As the guests become uncomfortable, Jesus tells them the parable of the feast, in which all those with titles and positions declined the banquet invitation. In Matthew’s version, those called to dinner are all the righteous and all the wicked.” Everyone is welcome at His table.
But Jesus’s hosts are uncomfortable. They complain that Jesus is dining with the wrong people–the tax collectors and sinners. In response, Jesus presents three parables: the parable of lost sheep, the parable of lost coin, and the parable of lost son. “What you may have never heard in all the sermons about the prodigal is what was supposed to happen,” said Mark.
“When this man took his inheritance, it didn’t just ruin the father, it ruined the whole town.” The entire town falls into financial difficulty. What was supposed to happen is that when the prodigal son returned, the children would see him first, gather around him, pick up rocks, and sing, ‘The fool’s back in town!” Then, the adults would begin to gather and join the song. Finally, as the crowd would grow (including the son’s family), so would their wrath, and the son would ultimately be kicked out of town in a ceremony led by the elder of the town. He would be allowed back only after earning what he took from them—with interest.
What happens instead is that the father of the prodigal son obtains the son’s attention when he runs to meet him. A father would never run toward his son in that culture. And yet, this man makes a fool of himself by doing just that. “Because the father needs to get to his son before the church does. He will take the whole wrath.”
Not only does the father make a fool of himself when he runs to meet his younger son, he also makes a fool of himself when he goes out to bring his older son inside—the son who was reluctant to rejoice at his brother’s return. He loses his dignity twice, in order to protect his sons. “Who are you willing to not dine with Jesus over?” asked Mark. “Who are those people?” […] We are standing outside as a church, wondering if we really want to meet at the banquet.”
Mark closed his talk by sharing a Thanksgiving experience where his family gathered together to break bread: atheists, agnostics, an adopted son, the adopted son’s birthfather and birthmother, former Adventists, heroin addicts, and him: a white, male, heterosexual believer.
In addition to family, people from church who had nowhere to eat were welcomed at their table. They held hands, prayed, thanked God for the food, and ate together. “Anyone was welcome to my table,” said Mark. “For my church to be anything less than that, it’s a shame.” Jesus is the bread and the wine which He asked us to eat in remembrance of Him, said Mark as he lead the gathering into communion.