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Calling

Awnings, Discontinuity, & Institutions: Called to SRU

During my first year as a campus minister at Slippery Rock University, my friend Ondeck came to visit and I took him on a campus tour. We exchanged observations about the similarities and differences between SRU and Shippensburg University, our shared alma mater. As we passed by Old Main, Ondeck remarked that the building had “the awning of an old Italian restaurant.” He wasn’t wrong. Seriously, the entrance to nearby Rachel’s Roadhouse is pretty similar.

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Someone from the administration must have overhead Ondeck’s comment, and a couple of years ago, they ripped out the shabby, old green thing and built a beautiful new entrance. Just look at it!

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But there is something I notice every time I walk past Old Main: there’s a stark difference between the brand new entrance and the weathered old building. It doesn’t look bad, but the discontinuity is hard to miss.

This is an apt metaphor, I think, to what it means to be part of institution like a university. SRU has been around since 1889. A lot has changed in 128 years—the name of the school, the size of campus, the things it is known for, and countless other parts of what makes SRU what it is. The new entrance to Old Main is only one of the more recent changes on a campus that is constantly evolving.

As a campus minister, my job is to help students learn what it means to follow Jesus in every part of their lives. While you are enrolled as a students here, this means you are called to be a part of this institution. You’re called to engage in campus life, to study hard, to get involved, to meet people. This will leave an impact on your life. In the years to come, well after your time here, your life will be different because of the years you spent at SRU.

At the same time, Christians aren’t simply called to a static part of our culture, simply walking through life allowing the forces and influences of our environment to shape us as they will. We are called to be shaped by God through his Word—the Bible, the written Word, and Jesus Christ, the living Word. And as we are formed more and more into people who love God and love what he loves, we make an impact on the world around us that we are part of. Through the great mystery of God’s plan, we are invited into the work he is doing in his world.

We wait until That Great Day when Jesus returns to establish his Kingdom in its fullness to see God’s plan brought to fruition. Still, even now, we get to see and be a part of the ways he is making all things new and healing the brokenness of sin, right within our midst. We get to be the hands and feet of our Lord as we love our neighbor, tear down idols, invite others to hear the Good News, and seek restoration through our studies, relationships and involvements. As Jeremiah wrote in his letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, we too have been given the charge to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you” (Jer. 29:7).

And just like there is a sharp distinction in the bricks between the new entrance to Old Main and the original building, we see clear lines between the parts of our campus that are broken, decaying, and ungodly, and the parts that are being redeemed, restored, and made new.

We are God’s people. We’re called to carry on God’s work right where we are. We’re a servant community, united with Christ, pursuing redemption in His world. Let’s get to it!

—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.

Biblical Narrative

Biblical Narrative – Chapter 4: Restoration

If you asked a random person on the street what eternity looks like for Christians according to the Bible, what kinds of images would you hear about?

Angel wings? Floating in the clouds? Playing harps forever and ever?

If you ask enough people, you’ll probably hear these answers over and over. Lots of Christians believe they will spend eternity as nothing more than a soul, floating around in some sort of ethereal, immaterial existence. That might sound kind of nice, but there’s one big problem: none of that is taught in the Bible.

The good news is that what we actually find in the pages of Scripture is a whole lot better than souls floating around. Listen to the words of Revelation 21:1-5:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

It would take quite a bit of misunderstanding to read this passage as suggesting Christians will be beamed up to an immaterial heaven. Instead, what we see is a new earth, and a city. In this picture, we don’t go up, heaven comes down. Once, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem was the spot where God’s presence dwelt, and now, the Holy Spirit dwells within those who have been redeemed in Christ. But on That Great Day, when God establishes his Kingdom in its fulness, he will bring heaven, along with his very Self, to the New Earth, and his presence will saturate absolutely every part of the world. This is good news!

Of course, in order for God to dwell with the people and truly reign, sin must be banished from the whole creation. So God will judge sin and death, along with everything and everyone that reflect the Fall. It is sobering to consider what this means for those we know and love who do not know Christ. We can, and should, grieve for those who remain in darkness, who have not been welcomed into the Light. Even so, we can, and should, also celebrate what this judgment means: all that reflects sin, all that bears the images of false gods, will be cast away. Everything that reminds us of the wounds we have suffered and the wounds we have inflicted on others will be gone, once and for all.

But God doesn’t stop there. He also brings restoration.

Here’s a brief Greek word study. (If that sounds super boring to you, stick with me—I promise it’ll be worth it!) There are two Greek words for “new” used in the New Testament. Neos means “new in time”; to put it how we would say it today, neos means “brand new.” If you get a new car, the latest model with the odometer reading a number really close to zero, you are driving a shiny neos car off the lot. But that’s not the “new” that is used in Revelation 21. In this passage, John uses the word kainos, which means “new in quality.” In other words, it refers to something that has been made new. Let’s say instead of a brand new car, you have an old, beat-up car, and you take it to someone who really knows automobiles. This person fixes the parts of the car that need a little TLC. Other parts that are broken beyond repair, they throw out and replace with new parts. They work out the dents and bumps in the body, give it a pretty new coat of paint, and detail the inside until it its luster from days past returns. They might even throw in a sweet new sound system. And after all that loving, painstaking work, even though this is, in one sense, the same car you dropped off weeks earlier, you have yourself a new car. We call this restoration. This is what kainos means.

And this is what Revelation 21 is talking about. The new heavens and new earth, and the new Jerusalem that descends to be God’s dwelling place, are the old creation, restored by God to the way it is supposed to be. And this idea isn’t just in one chapter of one book. God’s plan, as evidenced throughout the entire Bible, is not to destroy his creation and start over, but to lovingly, painstakingly restore his creation back to the way he originally intended it. As Revelation 21:5 says, God is “making all things new,” not making all new things!

So what? Aside from an interesting theology lesson, what does any of this means for us?

It means that everything matters. Not just what we do in church. Not just when we actively share our faith with others. Everything. Every part of our life. Our studies. Our work. Our relationships. Our hobbies. The way we care for the earth. The way we engage our surrounding cultures. Everything matters because God created it all, and he made it good. Everything matters because when it was all broken by sin, God didn’t give up on it, but came in the flesh to redeem what had been lost. Everything matters because, as much brokenness, dysfunction, and decay as we still see when we look around at the world we inhabit, there will come a day when God will restore his creation, including all those who are redeemed in Christ, back to his design—back to shalom. This isn’t just a belief system, and it’s not just exciting propaganda. We serve the God who is making all things new, and this changes everything.

—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.

For a deeper look at restoration eschatology, see R. York Moore’s talk at Jubilee 2014.

This is the fourth post in our Biblical Narrative series. You can read Chapter 1: Creation, Chapter 2: Fall, and Chapter 3: Redemption.

Biblical Narrative

Biblical Narrative – Chapter 3: REDEMPTION

If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?

Maybe you’ve been asked this question by someone you know, or even by a complete stranger. Maybe you have asked this question to someone else. For a lot of Christians, this question sums up the central point of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, it’s missing something from the message we hear in the Bible. It’s actually missing quite a lot. Certainly, Christianity isn’t about less than our eternal destination. But it is about more than that.

We’ve reflected on the goodness, the shalom, of God’s original creation, and how everything was once exactly the way it was supposed to be. We then saw the way sin broke that shalom fully. Every part of creation, every part of human life, was distorted. Adam was promised that if they ate the forbidden fruit, they would die. He and Eve may not have keeled over after they sinned, but by stepping outside the boundaries God had instituted, they introduced death into the world, and everything suffered. God explained the curse that would now come upon them and the whole creation as a result of their sin. Much was lost.

But notice what they didn’t lose.

There are two important things that remain after the curse. First, God never says humans will not bear his image anymore. That image is warped and twisted by the nature of sin, but it’s still there. Second, God does not revoke the call he put on humans to rule over his creation, to cultivate it and make something of it. He could have destroyed this masterpiece that his creations broke and started over with a blank canvas, but he doesn’t. He lets the story continue, because the story isn’t over at the Fall. It’s just getting started.

God is sovereign. His plan at the beginning was for his image bearers to rule over his creation and bring glory to him, and he refuses to let anything get in the way of his plan’s fulfillment. But we, due to our sin nature, distort his image and exercise rule for our own sake. We worship idols and we practice injustice. We live for the kingdom of this world, in all of its brokenness, instead of God’s Kingdom. What’s more, the hold that sin has over us makes us want these things and nothing else. And we couldn’t change any of it, even if we wanted to.

We find ourselves fitting the apostle Paul’s description of sinful humans: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). This is who we are in our sin, from the moment we are conceived. This is the identity we are born into. There’s nothing we could do to work our way back to God, to make everything right again.

But again, the story doesn’t stop there. Paul continues:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

There’s nothing we could do—so God got to work himself. He didn’t just reach down from his throne in heaven and toss a rope for us to climb up. He came to us himself, becoming one of us. This is who Jesus is: God-become-human, writing himself into our story after we wrote him out. As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14).

He lived a sinless life, showing us the way to bear the image of God. He came into the broken creation and loved it and cared for it. He gave his life as a ransom, dying the death we deserved in our sin. And then he burst back into life, destroying death once and for all! He points the way to the fullness of life as God intended at creation, and invites us into this life.

Jesus rose from death to life. He reconciled what had been broken. He redeemed what was once lost. And he transforms our hearts, that we might see who he is, believe in his power, die to our sin, and become new people—resurrected people—who can once again fulfill our call to be God’s image bearers. This is Christianity. This is the Good News. Believe it, repent, and step into the life for which we have been created!

—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.

For more, see Léonce Crump’s Redemption talk at Jubilee 2017.

This is the third post in our Biblical Narrative series. You can also read Chapter 1: Creation and Chapter 2: Fall.

Biblical Narrative

Biblical Narrative – Chapter 2: FALL

In the beginning, the world was good.

I know, I know—the last post started with the same sentence. But that is where the Creation chapter of the biblical story leaves us heading into the this chapter. The world is good. In fact, it’s very good. Not only is everything—everything—functioning the way it’s supposed to, but humans, the part of creation that bears God’s own image, are now in the world, ruling over it, caring for it, and making something of it to the glory of God.

It’s shalom. Everywhere.

But not for long. Humans, along with the rest of creation, existed in perfect freedom. But this freedom isn’t quite like we might expect it to be. We often define freedom as the ability to do whatever one wants. Even a quick, cursory reading of the opening chapters of Genesis make it clear that’s not what is going on in the Garden of Eden. There are boundaries. Lots of them!

At the outset of the creation story, “the earth was without form and void” (Gen. 1:2). We see here a formless, chaotic creation on Day One. Then, God separates light from darkness, day from night. On Day Two, he separates water from sky. Day Three, water from land. He’s drawing boundaries, giving his creation form. Then, God makes plants and vegetation spring up from the earth, and he designed trees to produce seed, “each according to its kind” (1:11). Apple trees don’t make oranges, peach trees don’t produce papayas. More boundaries. Day Four, he puts the great lights in the sky, the sun “to rule the day” and the moon “to rule the night” (1:16). Day Five, God puts fish in the sea and birds in the sky, specific creatures designed to exist in specific environments. And like the plants, these creatures will reproduce “according to their kinds” (1:21). More boundaries. Day Six, God makes land animals, and again, they are made “according to their kinds” (1:25).

Every part of creation has its place; everything has it a role. To depart from these role would prevent flourishing, certainly for that specific part of creation (you’ve probably seen a fish out of water), but for the entire cosmos (you probably know what would become of earth without the sun in its place).

So by the time we get to the creation of humans later on Day Six, the concept of boundaries is nothing new. God puts boundaries in place, not as arbitrary rules, but in order for the flourishing of all of his creation. Everything thrives when it exists within the created bounds and limits God has designed. In God’s creation, this is the definition of good.

What are the boundaries given to humans? What is their specific role? As we reflected in the Creation chapter, they are called to have dominion over the rest of creation and to reflect his image in the world. We know about that rule about that tree, but even before that, they are given a command, a task, and boundaries within which to remain. It is within these boundaries, and only within these boundaries, that humans can thrive. To step outside these boundaries is to invite death into the world.

So when God tells them they are not permitted to eat the fruit of one particular tree in the garden, we may see this as a weird, silly, arbitrary rule given to mess with their minds. But it’s more than that—this command, this particular boundary, is symbolic of God’s good design. The question of whether or not they will eat from the tree is really the question of whether or not they will remain within God’s design.

And the answer is no, they won’t. They choose a design of their own. They decide their desires are better than God’s plan. They step outside of the boundaries they have been given, and the natural consequence of this is death.

And everything—everything—is broken because of it. Creation cannot flourish outside of God’s design, and shalom is shattered. The humans hide from God, recognizing their broken relationship with him. They point fingers at each other, harmony in their own relationship destroyed. In the curse, the earth begins to work against them, instead of the abundant flourishing they once knew. They even turn on themselves, unable to see the goodness they had been created with, ashamed of and horrified by their own God-formed bodies.

Sin isn’t simply a theological construct; it isn’t just an idea. Those first humans thought this choice would lead them into freedom. Instead, it destroyed freedom. We have thought the same twisted thought, and we, too, are deeply wrong. There is no freedom in sin. There is only death.

So here we are: the Fall. We see it all around us. You and I feel that same shame when we look at ourselves. Instead of cultivating and caring for the earth, we pillage it to fill our selfish desires. We put ourselves in tribes and war against everyone else, with physical weapons, with our words, and with our innermost thoughts. And we, even the most “religious” and “good” among us, spit in the face of God, again and again choosing our plan, our design, and rejecting his.

Because of our sin, we are not free to flourish in God’s design. We are in shackles, and everything is broken.

—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.

For a powerful reflection on the brokenness the Fall brings to the world today, see Jena Lee Nardella’s Fall talk at Jubilee 2016.

This is the second post in our Biblical Narrative series. You can also read Chapter 1: Creation.

Biblical Narrative

Biblical Narrative – Chapter 1: CREATION

In the beginning, the world was good.

If the creation story in the book of Genesis is familiar to you, that may not seem like a profound statement. But read it again: in the beginning, the world was good.

This origin story, the one passed down by the ancient Hebrews and captured on paper at the very front of the Bible, is quite different than the stories told by the neighbors of those who knew God. Many of them had stories of earth created out of cosmic conflict and divine unrest. Some of them told tales of humans made to do chores for the gods, who didn’t want to get their hands dirty. But Genesis says something else—in this story, a fully fulfilled God creates the universe, and places in it earth. Over the course of a week of creative work, his immense creativity forms diverse, fascinating landscapes, from snowy mountain peaks to mossy forests to sprawling deserts where sand goes on and on and on. He shapes beautiful, peculiar creatures, from nightingales singing their songs in the treetops to fish darting back and forth underwater to gazelles bounding across the savanna. And everything—everything—is good. God says it over and over, after each day of work. It’s good.

But it’s not finished. Not until Day Six, when the pinnacle of God’s creation enters the stage: humans. Man and woman, the ones who bear God’s image. See, creation was good as it was, but God didn’t just want a cool planet to watch like a television show, he wanted a kingdom. And in a kingdom, there are images of the king everywhere that serve as reminders of who is in charge, who deserves glory and praise, who determines what good is. So now, after he lovingly, painstakingly forms men and women in his image, he sets them in creation and gives them a charge: rule.

Rule? The humans are not the Creator, but creations. They are not the King, but they bear the King’s image, and thus, they are given charge to rule over all of creation on God’s behalf. Care for it. Cultivate it. Unpack the potential latent in the world. Make something of it. This is the human task. This is what it means to be human.

Creation was good each of the previous five days, but now God adds onto that statement. Now, when he looks over his creation, teeming with life and beauty, he sees his image bearers there, ready to to make something of it, to steward everything for God’s glory, and he says it is very good.

The word here to describe this goodness is shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, but this kind of peace isn’t just the absence of conflict; it’s much, much deeper than that. Shalom is perfect harmony in the midst of all of creation—between God and humans, humans and each other, humans and the rest of creation, and even humans and the way they understood themselves. Shalom is the state of being where everything—everything—is the way it’s supposed to be.

We often talk about the original, pre-Fall creation as perfect. In the English language, the word perfect can mean two things: it can mean unblemished, but it can also mean unable to be improved. Creation in Genesis 1 and 2 is indeed perfect in the first sense—there’s nothing wrong with it; everything is the way it’s supposed to be. But it’s not perfect in the second sense—there’s abundant potential packed into the world that God is eager to see his image bearers unpack and do something with! This is the plan, that God’s image bearers, his stewards, are created to glorify God by living life to the fullest in his world, continuing his work of creation.

This means taking apples and making apple pie. This means taking trees and building houses. This means taking sound and vibrations and making music. The world itself was good, but now, with God’s image bearers in place, now it’s very good.

So good that God dusts off his hands, takes the next day off, and passes the baton of creativity to man and woman, watching with glee as they live their call in his creation. In the beginning, the world was good.

—Sam Levy is a CCO campus minister in partnership with Gateway Church at Slippery Rock University and Grove City College. He loves his family, baseball, cheese, and walking with college students as they pursue the God who is making all things new. Follow him on Twitter at @sdlevy13.

For more, see Andy Crouch’s Creation talk at Jubilee 2014.

This is the first post in our four-part Biblical Narrative series. Read Chapter 2: Fall.