The Best Theology is Sung
2008-09-24 by Michael Usey

Form critics noticed long ago that Phil. 2.1-11 contains a hymn.  Where the hymn begins is not exactly clear, probably with Christ’s name in 5b; the quotation ends with the high crescendo of 2.11.  What is clear is that the oldest stratum of the NT is liturgy, with confessions like Jesus is Lord, and hymns, such as here.  How we worship, what we say, and especially what we sing, provides us with the content of our theology.  Most of us would be amazed to learn how much of our theology is grown in the hothouse soil of the songs we learn as children in church school and the hymns (whatever form they take) we learn in worship when we are young.  It might be a powerful exercise to draw the connection more clearly: what songs and hymns were your favorites as a child, and what theological concepts are dear to you now?  Maybe more theologians should be writing hymns, especially those for children.  Maybe our best theological minds should be teaching children to sing.  Perhaps it is time we invest much more time and talent in the creation of quality hymns and songs and Taize-like refrains.  People like Michael Hawn of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology have been saying this (singing this, even) for years.

At my church, we do have a hymn of the month club for children, connected to our children’s choir program.  Quality and timeless hymns are selected, then the children are asked to memorize one a month during the year.  It is a subtle way for us to influence their singing, theology, and worship.  Who knows, but that someday far in the future in a prison (let us hope not) one of these children grown to adulthood might be quoting a hymn in a letter to a beloved church community.


2008-09-23 by Steve Schuette

            Philippians is powerful.  Along with Paul’s words, my own thoughts are in the Matthew story this week.  Both Philippians and Matthew, it seems to me, suggest a “movement” – from one way of living and being to another, a Christ-centered way of living and being.

            Some commentator (I’ve forgotten who, but it’s in my notes from previous years) suggested that Matthew is unique in setting a discussion in the temple in Jerusalem.  Ever heard of intense debates flaring up in holy places?!?  And we get sucked into those debates, and consumed by them, and we begin to think that the debates themselves are everything.  And our ego-investment is impossible to let go.  But in the end we are undone by our circular arguments that stir the pot without ever leading to a willing commitment.

            Jesus refocuses our attention.  The temple/church does not exist for itself and its own perpetual circles.  Its mission is fulfilled in joyful obedience, in reaching out with God’s message beyond the confines of closed circles.  The command of the Father is suggestive, “Go and work in the vineyard.”  Just a quick look in the concordance for “Go” in Matthew is rich, leading ultimately to the Great Commission.  (See 5:24, 9:13, 11:4ff, 19:21, 21:2, 28:19)

            The trajectory seems clear:  let it go (kenos) and Go!

Learning to Sing in Prison
2008-09-23 by Michael Usey

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a prison letter.  Some of the great literature of the world was written in prison.  Most recently, Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail turned the tide in the civil rights movement.  After that letter was published, the movement gained national support. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, wrote letters from prison, smuggled out by his guards in Germany.  Those letters and notes, some just fragments, ideas, about the Christian life, were published after the war as Letters and Notes from Prison.  That little book caused a revolution in the way we understand living as Christians in the post-modern world. Dostoyevsky wrote The House of the Dead from prison.  John Bunyan wrote Grace Abounding from prison.

But some of the first prison letters were written by Paul.  His greatest letter from prison is this one, the letter to the Philippians. We know that Paul was in prison when he wrote this, and probably in Rome.  He says he is under the Praetorian Guard.  The Praetorian Guards were only in imperial cities.  They were other imperial cities, but the evidence points to his being in prison in Rome.  Which means, it is near the end.  So many early Baptists (which is my tradition) were in prison, and it causes me to wonder, what would I write in prison?  Could my spirit soar, like these, while in prison?  I doubt it.

Summer before last in the van headed for vacation, my wife read to our three children Life in Prison by Stanley “Tookie” Williams.  A few years ago he wrote this harrowing book in an attempt to describe how horrible life in prison (even in a modern California prison on death row) is in reality.  He hoped, Tookie said, to keep others from making the same mistake he did by romanticizing life in prison.  The small book is only 80 pages in length, with a big type font, but it should be required reading for every 13-year-old.  Life in prison—any prison—is designed to kill hope and deaden the soul.  Since then, Tookie's sentence was carried out, and he was executed by the state of California (a state which, by the way, almost never executes those on death row).  How then did all these—and Paul chief among them—learn to sing in prison?

2008-09-23 by Michael Usey

Chiasmic Preaching?
2008-09-23 by Michael Usey

The entire gospel is in the Philippians passage for this week.  This hymn (vv. 5-11) is, of course a chiasm, the ABCDCBA pattern drilled into us by our NT professors in seminary.  Would it be possible, then, to structure the sermon this week in the form of a chiasm?  I am not certain how this might sound.  How powerful would it be to have the emphasis of the sermon in the center, rather than, say, at the end? 

 The centerline, the one receiving the most emphasis, is this: “… even death on a cross.”   I am not fond of substitutionary theories of atonement; they are (in my opinion) the most widespread heresies in North American Christianity these day.  However, it is crucial that when we talk about Eucharist, for example, that we make it clear that someone died.  (The fact that his death was a result of torture gives rise to all sorts of possibilities in our sermons to engage issues such as torture and capital punishment.)  While I eschew substitutionary atonement, I also wish to avoid the opposite theological problem: that of not talking about Jesus’ death at all.  Jesus’ death need not be necessary for cosmic redemption for it to be pivotal.  The self-giving nature of God in Christ gives even to the point of death.  But death is not the final word: God has raised him from the death.  God in Christ is victorious over death.  I have sometimes wondered whether Jesus was more surprised than anyone when God raised him from the dead.

Of course, this centerline reminds us that the scandal of the message of the early church was not so much Jesus’ resurrection, but his death.  If Jesus was the messiah, then how could have God allowed him to die, and on such in a cursed manner?  This hymn addressed this question, with the answer, Jesus was being obedient to God in all things.  It’s a good answer then and now.

I realize that not all preachers have discarded substitutionary atonement as unhelpful at best or heresy at worst.  For those of us who have, here are a few questions: What Jesus’ death in any sense “necessary”?  What was accomplished, if anything, by his death?  Was his death inevitable?  How do we talk about Jesus’ death without substitionary language, especially at the table?  

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