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Things or People?

May 14th, 2017 No comments

Yesterday I had a short conversation with an apparently conservative guy who claimed he wanted “smaller government” because big government is taking away his stuff. It has occurred to me that one of the enduring divides in American politics is this issue of the size of government. Many of the founders and many who followed them felt that the smaller the government the better. Madison famously wrote that if men were angels no government would be necessary. But since there must be government, one strain of American political thought has been that that government should be small, limited, and close to the governed.

By contrast, Hamilton hoped to have a government that would be big enough to control the national economy. This feeds into the basic definitional conflict between he and Jefferson: is the United States to be a landscape of personal liberty, or is it to be a great commercial and industrial empire? Thus it would seem that the small government people would be those in favor of maximum liberty, and the big government people would be in favor of economic growth.

But since the time of the founding the small government crowd has come to focus its ideas on the purpose of government on individual ownership. The basic argument of a small government Republican is that the government shouldn’t take his hard-earned money and give it to some deadbeat who refuses to work. It’s an understandable sentiment, but rooted in the false narrative that those who are unable to achieve health and prosperity are prevented only by their own lack of initiative. On the other side, those favoring big government hope to harness the power of the national government to provide opportunities for health and prosperity for those who are hampered by circumstances beyond their control.

The basic divide is between those who see the country as a nation of sometimes like-minded autonomous individuals, and those who see the nation as a community. Individuals can choose whether to care for their neighbors, communities by nature cannot.

Compounding the dilemma is the co-opting of the moral narrative by the small government crowd. People calling themselves Christians have invented a narrative connecting the Constitution of the United States to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This even though the Constitution’s only mention of religion has to do with the definition of a strict secular state: no religious test for office, no established religion, and no prevention of the free exercise (or not) of religion. And leaving aside Paul’s admonition to the Christians of his age that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20)

But I will argue it is the big government crowd that controls the narrative in the United States most closely adhering to the moral teachings of Christ. I draw your attention to what is known as the parable of the Widow’s Mite. Here is the story:

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.q Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44)

The connection with our national plight is here: what Jesus values most is not reluctant or even generous giving, but sacrifice. The widow, in the material sense, gave almost nothing, while the rest gave much. But the widow gave everything she had, casting her hopes for the future on Providence. The rest gave what they had left over, placing their faith only in themselves. Little reflection is necessary to connect the sacrifice of the widow with that of Jesus on the cross. And what was this money to be used for? The Jewish tradition is filled with God’s admonition to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the poor. Christianity inherits this call to mercy. Christians have a responsibility to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. It follows that if the United States is a Christian nation, its society would be a community devoted to the welfare of all rather than a group of individuals interested primarily in the preservation of private property. See Acts 2:44-47.

In his famous anti-Vietnam War speech Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that to avoid moral death the United States must undergo a “revolution of values” from a “thing oriented society” to a “person oriented society.” This is the heart of it, is it not? Do we care more about our neighbor, or our stuff?

“I am the servant of the Lord”

December 25th, 2016 No comments

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38 NABRE

This passage is normally associated with Advent. Advent, if you are not familiar, is a time of waiting. The prophet can declare about the coming of Christ, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Is. 9:1 NABRE) All of creation had been waiting, waiting, since that disobedience that broke the love bond between God and his creatures and doomed humans to death. Waiting for the release that God promised to the wayward couple: that a savior was coming. A savior to make all things new. Advent recalls that time of waiting in darkness. And toward the end of Advent our attention is drawn to the evangelist Luke’s telling of the events that would lead to the blessed event of the coming of the light.

First, the birth of John, who would be called the Baptist, who Jesus tells us is Elijah returning to prepare the way. (Mal. 4:5-6) Then an angel appears to a maiden named Mary: a girl, probably a young teenager, who professes to be a virgin, and tells her that she is to give birth to the son of God, the son of the most High, the Holy One of Israel. Mary is stunned, but she offers herself completely to what she doesn’t understand.

This is a very familiar story. Most of us know it from early childhood. And because of this, I think, we have become under-awed at what is being portrayed. Because we are sure we comprehend the story, we stop mining it for its riches. It becomes rote, expected. I began to consider the passage more deeply when I committed to praying the Rosary daily. The Rosary is a devotion centered on Mary in which one recites a number of prayers, including the Hail Mary, a specific number of times while meditating on biblical or traditional events. The name of the prayer and its opening phrase come from this passage in Luke, “Hail Mary full of grace….” And, one of the themes of meditation in the Rosary cycle is the scene depicted in this passage: the Annunciation. In meditating on this passage and this event I came to realize that what the angel announces to Mary is also announced to me: that I am to give birth to the Christ.

I caution us here not to place too much emphasis on gender. Mary was a young woman who by her admission had not had relations with a man. The significance is not that having such relations would have defiled her, but that her virginity marked the pregnancy and birth as something that could only have been accomplished by God. Likewise, the Greek word that is normally translated “handmaid” is δούλη (doule) the feminine construction of δοῦλος (doulos), meaning slave. Mary acknowledged her complete surrender to God, and it was recorded using the feminine construction because she was a female. But the same word is used by men (like Paul in Ro. 1.1: Παῦλος δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, “Paulos doulos Christou Iesou”, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” The broader meaning here is that Mary is a slave (or servant) of God who is incapable of performing her appointed task without divine intervention. And so are we all.

I’m going to focus on two questions. How can we each give birth to the Christ? And what does it mean to give birth to the Christ?

It is a large question to ask what is the Christ? We could spend months surveying different aspects of what scholars refer to as Christology. We can think of Christ in terms of what he is: True God and True Man, One in being with the Father, a person of the Trinity. We could go on and on but I’m not sure it would lead us anywhere we want to go. For our purposes here we might say that Christ is God made Man to pay the price for the disobedience of our ancestors so that we can once again enjoy intimacy with God.

How does a human being give birth to such a thing? As I was translating from the Greek I was struck by how fantastic and improbable it all seems. Imagine yourself as a little girl suddenly in the presence of an angel of God (a presence that fosters terror in other biblical accounts). He is telling her unbelievable, crazy things: favor with God, the Holy Spirit, the birth of the son of the Most High, a kingdom that will last forever. Who can believe it? But when you sort it all out you come to answer the question how can you give birth to such a thing? You can’t. If it is to be done, it must all be done by God. Mary’s part was to surrender and accept. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Thy will, not mine, be done.

We can also think of Christ in terms of what he does. He fulfills the prophecies surrounding the biblical theme of the Day of the Lord, the salvation of all nations, the final judgment, and the end times. He occupies at once the three traditional positions of authority in tribal Israel: Priest, Prophet, and King. As priest he mediates through the sacrifice of himself the relationship between God and his creatures. As Prophet he speaks the words of God with the authority of God. His teachings reframe the Mosaic Law around God’s intent for the Law: to create a holy people. As King he fulfills the prophecy of one of the House of David who is to rule Israel forever. I think the most essential characteristic of the Christ is that he gives himself completely for others with no expectation of reciprocation. He does not love mankind because of who men are but in spite of it. And his supreme act of obedience is the complete emptying of himself in love for the salvation of the world. In his self-giving sacrifice on the cross he demonstrates both God’s essential character as one who pours out love indiscriminately, lavishly, and the intended character of the people of God, the character that was broken by disobedience. Because in reality they are the same. Humans were created in the image of God and that means one should be able to see God’s image in his people. That is the meaning of the Christ event: Emmanuel, God with us.

When Mary conceded to allow the Holy Spirit work in her so that she could bring forth Christ to the world,  she probably had only vague notions about what the “Holy One” was to be. She certainly could not have thought that she had the ability on her own to nurture a child who had such high expectations. In the same way, when the Spirit works in us and plants the seed of faith, all that is required from us is humble assent. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Like Mary, we are spectacularly unfit for the task of bearing the Christ, and yet that is the way God has chosen to work in the world.

This past year our weakness and stubbornness, our rebellious nature, and our evil, destructive tendencies have been abundantly evident. Many are pondering the advent of a new time of darkness.

Sir Edward Grey was the British Foreign Minister from 1905 to 1916. Grey recalled in his book Twenty-five Years that on the eve of World War I, in the midst of the crisis that would propel the world to unspeakable horror war, he was in his office visiting with a friend:

A friend came to see me on one of the evenings of the last week — he thinks it was on Monday, August 3rd. We were standing at a window of my room in the Foreign Office. It was getting dusk, and the lamps were being lit in the space below… My friend recalls that I remarked on this with the words, “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”

To many it feels like the lamps are going out all over the world. But Christmas reminds us that the light of the world is always with us. And this passage from the Christmas story reminds us that we are called to make that light visible. May we always strive to allow Christ to shine brightly in the world through our own sacrificial acts of love. Merry Christmas.

Thanksgiving Peace in a Troubled World

November 25th, 2016 No comments

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Php 4:4–9.)

As I considered passages that might be appropriate for Thanksgiving I ran across Paul’s exhortations to the Christians at Philippi near the end of his letter to the church there.

Those Christians would have been familiar with negativity and anxiety. Scholars have estimated that the Christian church at Philippi was probably about 2% of the population. Very few of the local elites would have been included, and the greater part of the church membership would have been at the lower echelons of a status driven society, consisting mostly of poor Greeks and slaves. Philippi was a Roman colony, awash in the paganism of the Roman Empire, a promiscuous and idol worshipping culture similar to our own. In this letter Paul calls upon the Christians to live in a way that challenges the culture, which he acknowledges they are doing. But obviously, a minority challenge from the lowest level of society to the prevailing darkness would have produced anxiety in the community.

As someone who seeks to live “in Christ,” I identify with the plight of the Philippians. I have long felt that, far from being a Christian nation, the culture of the United States more resembles the paganism of the Hellenistic world. For me, this was made abundantly clear in the political process we had to endure this past several months. I allowed myself to become emotionally involved in the event, forgetting, as Paul reminds us, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20)

I think I am not the only one who has been adversely affected by the negativity of the season. I sense there is an air of bitterness and anxiety that was not resolved by the outcome of the election. Angry words are being exchanged, along with accusations and even acts of violence. The election didn’t solve anything. It seems to have deepened the divide.

So Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is relevant to our own situation. He begins by essentially commanding the Philippians to rejoice. He emphasizes the command by repeating it. “I say again, rejoice!” This is not a passive admonition to “don’t worry, be happy.” The verbs in this passage are imperative.

How can Paul seriously expect worried people to respond positively to a command to rejoice? He can because he is not suggesting simply that one will oneself into joy (“lighten up!”). He is issuing a call to action. “Make your kindness known to all,” he tells them. And not to leave them scratching their heads, he follows this call to action with specific instructions.

The first thing they must do is to pray with thanksgiving. He actually prefaces the call to prayer by reminding them that “the Lord is near.” Some interpret this as a reminder of the Parousia, the second coming, but in the context of this call to prayer it more likely points out that Jesus has promised to be with us always (Mt. 28:20). So they (and we) have every reason to be grateful. We can pray with thanksgiving because we know the Lord is near, that he hears us. Our trust in the nearness of Christ in our afflictions and anxieties, if it is real, allows us to live with a peace that surpasses all understanding.

I think that last phrase deserves a little attention, because we are apt to think that Paul is writing in hyperbole. We are used to this, surrounded as we are with overblown descriptions of everything from laundry soap to toothpaste, and so we might dismiss it, as we do most advertising. But Paul didn’t live in a culture soaked in advertising, and when he writes that something surpasses all understanding, he means it. How can one understand a people who live in spiritual peace in the midst of troubled times? Are they daft? Paul assures us later in the letter that he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Php. 4:11 NIV)

How? Paul instructs the Philippians to two counter-cultural actions. The first is to focus their attention on the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or gracious, in short anything that speaks of the sovereignty of God in a fallen world. It is true that the world is fallen and because of that we are beset by corruption in everything, but at the same time God’s signature is still to be found: in nature, in our loving relations with those close to us, in acts of love and heroism and charity great and small. Paul here suggests that we can train our minds to notice these things first and above all. In other words, to notice God first and above all. That alone is enough to overcome the darkness of the world.

But he goes on. Paul instructs the Philippians to “keep on doing what you have learned and received and seen in me.” To know exactly what Paul means by that we have to look further back in the letter where he writes,

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:1-11 NABRE)

A central theme of all of Paul’s writing is the idea of being “in Christ.” Being in Christ means the abandonment of what he calls the flesh, meaning things of secular life, and adopting the Spirit, which is that our motivation becomes entirely identified with God’s will. And what is God’s will? Is it that we satisfy our worldly desires? Is it that we triumph in politics, accumulate worldly treasures and honors, vanquish those who persecute us? No. It is that we pour ourselves out completely in our service to those around us. Even those who don’t like us, who we may not like very much. Jesus blessed and forgave those who were nailing him to the cross, and then he gave up everything for a world that despised him. That is God’s nature. And if we are in Christ, it is that nature we are being conformed to.

It may seem overwhelming. But we are not alone. The Lord is near. That is the source of our thanksgiving. That allows us to act with charity even in the midst of persecution. That is what gives a sure hope in the future. And that is where we experience the God of Peace.

Christ and the Gay Bar

June 17th, 2016 No comments

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When I read about Christian preachers celebrating the deaths of gays murdered in Orlando, I just shook my head. Here we go again. I know there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians who draw attention to themselves with these Trump-like antics at every opportunity, particularly at precisely the wrong moment. But I also know these two things: they are fringe groups promoted by sensationalizing media to smear an entire religion, and they do not represent Christianity. Sound familiar? What didn’t get reported in the mainstream media is that far more Christians reacted with love than hate. The difference is that those Christians acted in ways that didn’t seek to draw attention to themselves. But their efforts were much more concrete and helpful than the vapid “thoughts and prayers” offered by the Congress.

Because there are so many different expressions of faith in a religion claimed by 2.2 billion people, there is in fact no way to pin down what Christianity is. Even Christians in small denominations cannot agree on what they believe. When I was a seminarian I used to engage in very heated arguments about minute points of theology that were of interest to only a tiny few and of importance to none. We can’t even agree on the most fundamental doctrines. So to make any kind of definitive statement about what Christians believe is to be deceptive both to ourselves and to whomever we are speaking. But any group calling itself Christian who claims the Christian Bible – Old and New Testaments – cannot avoid these two scripture passages.

“All have sinned.” (Ro. 3:23) How disheartening to watch our public conversation descend into angry finger-pointing. We delight in pointing out the sins of others. But there is very little introspection. The biblical doctrine is that we all stand condemned before God. None of us can live a sinless life. No matter how sinful my neighbor is, my sin is no less. If sins were arranged according to severity (I’m not sure they ultimately are), surely self-righteousness would be close to the top, because self-righteousness, while it stands in condemnation of your sins, ignores my own, and keeps me in darkness. Acknowledging my own frailty leads to appreciation for our common humanity. “I am not different from you brother. I too am weak and in need of forgiveness.” Acknowledging our own fault leads away from judgment, intolerance, and hate.

Which leads to the second passage, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NABRE). Now, if you think Jesus is telling us here to have warm fuzzies for each other, you have missed the point entirely. When Jesus says love as I have loved he means with a total outpouring of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, even the enemy, with no thought of reciprocation or reward. This is what John means when he writes “God is love.” Jesus poured out his life on the cross to free from the bondage of sin even people who despised him. And Jesus says, in this passage, that this is the kind of love which will identify his followers. If self-sacrificing love is evident, we are witnessing Christ, if not, not.

We are not called to judge; the world has already been judged. We are called to love.

The other day the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Utah Nelson Cox remarked as follows when speaking about the tragedy in Orlando, “calling people idiots, communists, fascists or bigots on Facebook is not going to change any hearts or minds.” Those things are not love. They are judgments.

If we desire peace, in our hearts and in our world, we must lay aside judgment and embrace love.

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

December 19th, 2015 No comments

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Whether one is Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian, how you live your life is proof that you are or not fully His. We cannot condemn or judge or pass words that will hurt people. We don’t know in what way God is appearing to that soul and what God is drawing that soul to; therefore, who are we to condemn anybody? – Mother Teresa

In response to the question about whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians, we want to find an answer that is supported within the realm of our dogma and tradition, that can be seen as authoritative, that is based on more than just wishful thinking or emotion. For many, the question is neatly answered by referring to one or all of the following New Testament scriptures:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NABRE)

“There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NABRE)

For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human. (1 Tim 2:5 NABRE)

 

In these citations we focus on what it means to come “through” Christ, what it means to be saved by the “name” of Christ, and what it means that the man Christ is the “mediator.” All of these things are related. In mainstream Christian theology, the human dilemma is that through willful disobedience humans have created a chasm that separates them from God that cannot be bridged by any human action. There is a lot of discussion to be had about the nature of the dilemma but for our purposes we will cut to the heart of it and acknowledge that it exists, and that the mission of Christ is to provide a way whereby humans can once again be in full communion with God.

The primary attribute of God is love (1 John 4:8). This love is not the pink hearts and valentines love of our modern culture, but a complete self-sacrificing love that seeks only the well-being of the beloved. The sin that separates humanity from God is that they choose to love themselves and created things ahead of God (Ro. 1:20-22). Since this is not a self-sacrificing love, but rather a love that seeks self-satisfaction, it alienates humanity from God. Humanity’s dilemma is that they cannot not choose to love themselves and created things. Or, to state it positively, they cannot choose to love God wholeheartedly.

The Christian solution is for God to do what humanity cannot. If by a created man the love relationship between God and humanity was broken through disobedience, then it will be required that a created man by obedience pay the penalty in full. But since no created man after Adam is able to be completely obedient to the point of utter self-annihilation, the remedy must be accomplished by God. Christ is unique in cosmic history because he is the only one who is both created man and God. So Jesus is the one who can bear humanity’s penalty. Christ’s death on the cross, which is significant in his abandonment by the Father (Mt. 27:46), paid the penalty in full. But it left Christ dead. When Christ rose from the dead, communion with the Father was restored. It is in this living Christ that the hope of Christians rests, because Christ did what no one else could, and that is to rise from death.

That resolves the dilemma for Christ, but not for the rest of us. Because Christ is God, however, humans can be united with him through the Spirit he sent at Pentecost. Receiving the Holy Spirit unites humanity with Christ. The ritual of baptism symbolizes being united with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. All of those who have been baptized then in  theory compose the real body of Christ on earth. That means the Church, but not in a sectarian or denominational way. It means all of those who are in union with Christ. This is what it means that Christ is the mediator.

Interestingly, and this is something far too many professing Christians miss, the proof of whether or not one is “in Christ” (or in the Church) is not participation in a ritual or a solemn declaration but a life devoted to Christ’s mission. Too many focus their religion on the possibility of personal salvation as the end, while Christ’s mission was not personal salvation but the salvation of the world. Christ still exists in the world and continues his mission of salvation through his body: the Church. The personality of Christ doesn’t change when Christ exists in the world as the Church. So the way to recognize the Church as the authentic body of Christ is to see Christ’s ministry continuing through those who are united with him. When the world sees Christ’s true Church in action it recognizes Jesus himself.

This is why on the night before he was crucified Jesus commanded his disciples: “34 I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. 35 This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NABRE) Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to have affection for one another, he tells them to love “as I have loved you.” How is Jesus’ love manifest? It is primarily through the cross, the complete self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity with no expectation of reward. Jesus is calling his disciples, and through them his Church, to complete self-negating self-sacrifice for the benefit of humanity.

I think we should notice here that Jesus didn’t die for Christians. Jesus died for all who are separated from God (1 Tim. 2:4), which pretty much encompasses everybody then and now. Notice also that Jesus indicated the world would identify his followers through love, not by what was done or said (rituals and declarations).

Thoughtful Christians have always acknowledged it is impossible to know who is saved and who is damned because it is impossible to know the mind of God. It is entirely possible that someone who professes to be a Christian may not in fact be a follower of Christ by his definition, and it is just as likely that some who do not profess to be Christians are in fact followers of Christ by the commandment noted above: Christ-like love.

So then we come to the task of reconciling the assertion that one might be a follower of Christ without professing Christ with scripture which declares that it is only through the “name” of Christ that one can be saved. This requires some explanation. Most of us don’t know what Jesus’ “name,” in the sense of the language syllables that identified him, was. In Hebrew, it was ישוע which is pronounced “Yeshua.” The fact is that only a tiny fraction of Christians, when presented with the Hebrew script, would be able to either recognize or pronounce the name of Jesus. The name that comes to us in English is a translation of the Greek Ἰησοῦς, pronounced “Iesus.” So if we call upon the name of Jesus using the word “Jesus,” are we calling upon the actual name of Jesus? Do the syllables even matter when we name Jesus, or are we speaking about something deeper?

The Bible often uses the word “name” differently than we do. In the Bible a name is more than a label. It signifies character. This is why we see God beginning even in Genesis changing the “name” of those he interacted with when their character changed. In the Gospels Jesus changes the name of Simon to Cephas (Peter), because Peter (which comes from the Greek word for “stone”) is the stone upon which Jesus plans to build his Church. So we see that the fundamental character of the man changes from Simon the fisherman to Peter the fisher of men.

When we call upon the “name” of Jesus, we must be calling on more than a label. We must be calling on the character, the essence, the fundamental nature of Christ. And what is that? “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Love as Christ’s love. So one who loves with Christ’s love is in the “name” of Christ. I think we can see that what Jesus has done here is to take salvation out of the realm of religion and placed it in the realm of action. Remember the Jews with whom Jesus contended and who ultimately had him executed were the most religious men in Israel. Christ’s salvation is not contingent on adherence to any theological dogma but rather on acting in the name of Christ: with self-sacrificial love.

When we consider what the Bible truly says in context, we see that certainty about who is saved and who is not must be tempered by our lack of knowledge of scripture in context (in other words, on failing hermeneutics) and by our inability to know the mind of God. The truth is that if we are to use the Bible as our only guide, the only people we know with certainty are in heaven are Jewish: Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and two thieves. All of them worshipped God in fundamentally different ways, and none of them (other than Jesus himself) professed the name “Jesus” in any language. We can learn to better understand the context of scripture but the mind of God remains alien to us. Rather than placing ourselves in judgment of our neighbors, we are far better off adopting the humility God calls for through his prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near.

Let the wicked forsake their way,

and sinners their thoughts;

Let them turn to the Lord to find mercy;

to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways,

my thoughts higher than your thoughts.  (Is. 55:6-9 NABRE)

 

Lifting the worship of God out of sectarianism renders moot the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As Christians, following our own scriptures, we must acknowledge that this is a question we are not equipped to answer. What we know is that we are called to love as Christ loves. That is what determines whether our actions are in tune with the will of God.

What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?

November 22nd, 2015 No comments

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There is an article making the rounds on social media that seems to have traction among conservatives who are seeking a way to justify turning their backs on Syrian refugees and still feel good about it.

What does the Bible really say about taking in Syrian refugees?

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t deliver on its promise of telling the reader what the Bible really says, in fact it almost skips the Bible entirely and the one Biblical reference it does make doesn’t say what the author says it does. It is in fact correctly categorized on the referenced page: Politics.

The basic argument appears to be that scripture differentiates between the role of the state and the responsibilities of individuals. There is no passage in scripture that differentiates between what God requires of the state (really not a Biblical concept) and the individual (also, curiously, a concept predominant in modernity but mostly foreign to the Biblical writers). Biblical references to nations point to what we would consider ethnicities (usually “us” vs. “them”: Jews vs. gentiles, Jews vs. Greeks, Greeks vs. barbarians, etc.) and not socio-political entities confined to a geographical area. The nation-state we are familiar didn’t come into existence until the eighteenth century. Of course people are individuals and each is either blessed or cursed by God, but the understanding of the Biblical writers would have been community-centric. If one sinned all suffered, and if one was blessed, all were blessed. In our time, the welfare of the individual is of the utmost importance. In ancient times it was the community (extended family) that was preeminent. As Spock pointed out: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” It is misleading to say that “Scripture draws a clear line between the responsibility of the individual and the role of the state.” One may infer from certain passages within a hermeneutical framework the responsibility of the individual and the state, but it is far from clear or explicit.

The author references Romans 13 as the basis for his argument. I wonder if Mr. Calabrese has ever actually read the chapter. He writes, “French is quoting Romans 13, which lays out clear lines of responsibility for governments – particularly the imperative to protect the innocent from wrongdoers.” Well, not really. Here is what it says,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7 ESV)

These verses enjoin Christians to submit to the lawful authority of the ruler (unspecified), because according to the Apostle Paul, “he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 ESV) So, yes one might presume that would include protecting the innocent, but it is hardly explicit, and it doesn’t infer that the safety of God’s people overrules God’s demand for justice and mercy. The very clear message of the Bible throughout is that the people’s safety is in God alone.  The three Jewish servants Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, faced with the fiery furnace for choosing to obey God before the King, answered the King’s query about who could save them from from death with confidence that God was able to save them. “But if not,” they continued, “be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:18 ESV) They were more concerned with obedience to God than to the king (of a city that, by the way, God had told the Jewish exiles through the Prophet Jeremiah 29:4-7 they were to serve faithfully) to the point that they were willing to die a horrific death.

Further, God’s commands, in both the Old and the New Testament are almost always addressed in the plural, signifying universality. Kings and rulers do have responsibilities to the people (and to God) but those responsibilities are intended to facilitate God’s redemption of creation, to create a people who will exemplify God’s character and be “a light for the nations.” (Is. 49:6) God doesn’t have a different standard of justice for the government and the people. That would have been a distinction the Biblical writers could not have imagined. God’s commands are addressed to everyone and everyone is responsible for obedience. This is true whether or not they have specific knowledge of the written law. Indeed, Paul writes of those who haven’t received the law, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV) The verses in Chapter 13 don’t in any way lay out clear lines of responsibility for governments as opposed to what is required of individuals. They admonish the believer to obey the law in order to avoid just punishment. And, these verses relieve neither the Christian nor the Church (nor the government) from God’s demand that his people practice justice and mercy, especially toward the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

There are a number of passages in scripture that call upon believers to submit to lawful authority but there are also a number of  passages that support defying the state when it contradicts God’s commandments (as above). And underneath all of this is the theological reality that Christians are sojourners, owing no allegiance to the earthly state, but whose “citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20) The people of God obey the laws of men as foreigners obey the laws of the land they are travelling in. But they have no other ruler than God himself.

In fact, the overall conclusion must be that God demands justice and mercy from his people regardless of what the state does or does not do.

Here’s what the Bible really says:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)

Don’t be fooled. Bonhoeffer warns, “Silence [inaction] in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

 

November 20th, 2015 No comments

I know that many of you guys are uncomfortable with specifically Christian posts, but I do have a master’s degree in Christianity and I think it is important to point out that not only does turning our backs on those in need violate American secular ideals but it violates the standard of justice and mercy established in the Bible. None of these passages is taken out of context, and none of them comes with the caveat, “only if you feel safe.” And I might point out that there are a number of ways to make the Biblical case for welcoming the stranger, and none (that I can think of) that would justify turning our backs on them.

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 146:5-9 ESV)

This is the New Testament version:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:41-45 ESV)

“Why on earth would Bernie go there?”

September 19th, 2015 No comments

Yesterday Donald Trump declined to correct an ignorant and bigoted supporter who asked him how he would save the country from “Muslims”, among whom he believes the allegedly foreign-born (and ironically simultaneously “socialist”) Barack Obama presents the greatest threat. There is a distinct possibility that Trump declined to correct because he himself agrees with his dangerously addled supporter. The reactions from the political world were the expected fervent denunciations from the left, crickets from the Republican field, and a mainstream media gleeful that they had a juicy sound bite to generate interest in their advertising.

I don’t think I’ve made it a secret that I see Bernie Sanders’ campaign as a breath of fresh air in the sewer of American politics. While Republicans are catering to fear, ignorance, and false patriotism, insulting each others’ physical appearance and Hillary Clinton’s hair like third graders and creating a deafening silence about the issues that really matter, Bernie Sanders has consistently delivered an on-point,  thoughtful, and reasonable appeal.

There are a few issues on which I disagree with Mr. Sanders. I believe that the issue of abortion is about more than a woman’s right to choose; it is as well about the right of the child the woman created who cannot choose. I believe that you can create a civil union between people of the same sex that is recognized by a secular state as “marriage,” but that you cannot call that union a marriage in biblical terms. But I agree with Sanders that the major threats facing American society today are not foreign terrorism or what people do in their bedrooms but instead arise out of economic imbalance and divisions that are destroying this country from within.

This morning when I opened my email I found one from the Sanders campaign which I am including verbatim below. The reason I feel compelled to do this is because I think it presents a profound contrast to what we have come to expect in the political arena. No attacks, no lies, no fear-mongering or bottom feeding. Just reasoned straight talk and an appeal for civil discourse. If you are convinced that the greatest threat to America today is “Muslims” and that the number one enemy is the foreign-born communist Muslim Barack Obama I doubt you will be able to endure it. But if you still have even the slightest grip on reality, and would like to see an elevation in the way we interact in the political arena, I believe you will find the below quite interesting.

Bernie2016

Dear Keith,

Earlier this week I spoke at Liberty University. For those of you who do not know, Liberty University is a deeply religious institution. It is a school which tries to understand the meaning of morality and the words of the Bible, within the context of a very complicated modern world. It was founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, and the vast majority of people at Liberty strongly disagree with me, and perhaps you, about abortion, marriage equality, and other issues.

You might be asking yourself, “Why on earth would Bernie Sanders go there?” It is a fair question within the context of our modern politics.

I spoke at Liberty University because I believe that it is important for those with different views in our country to engage in civil discourse – not just to shout at each other or make fun of each other.

It is very easy for those in politics to talk to those who agree with us – and I do that every day. It is harder, but not less important, to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us and see where, if possible, we can find common ground. In other words, to reach out of our zone of comfort.

So I went outside of my zone of comfort. Watch this video of my remarks there and read what I have to say about the ideas of morality and justice as they relate to income inequality and other critical issues facing our nation.

 

The message I gave at Liberty University is that the moral choice is to fight income inequality, and that the just thing to do is to work to make our society more fair. Below are some of my remarks to Liberty from the video above, but I think it is important to share them with you here as well so that you can share with others how I approach these issues.

I am far, far from a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and others – and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets.” The Golden Rule. Do to others what you would have them do to you. Not very complicated.

I told the crowd at Liberty University that I understand that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are very important to them, and that we disagree on those issues. I get that. But there are other issues out there that are of enormous consequence to our country and the world and that maybe, just maybe, we don’t disagree on them. And maybe, just maybe, we can work together in trying to resolve them.

Amos 5:24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Justice. Treating others the way we would like to be treated. Treating all people with dignity and respect.

It would, I think, be hard for anyone in that room where I spoke to make the case that the United States today is a “just” society or anything resembling a just society.

In America today there is massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. Injustice is rampant. We live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world but most Americans don’t know that because almost all of that wealth and income is going to the top one percent. We are living at a time where a handful of people have wealth beyond comprehension – huge yachts, jet planes, tens of billions of dollars, more money than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes. But at the same time, millions of people are struggling to feed their families or put a roof over their heads or find the money to go to a doctor.

When we talk about morality and when we talk about justice, we have to understand that there is no justice when the top one-tenth of one percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. There is no justice when all over this country people are working long hours for abysmally low wages, $7.25 an hour or $8 an hour, while 58 percent of all new income being created today goes to the top one percent.

There is no justice when, in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires while, at the same time, the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. How can we talk about morality when we turn our backs on the children of this country? Twenty percent of the children in this country live in poverty and that includes 40 percent of African American children. There is no justice when, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, children in our country go to bed hungry.

There is no justice when the 15 wealthiest people in this country saw their wealth increase by $170 billion dollars in the last two years. That is more wealth, acquired in a two-year period, than is owned by the bottom 130 million Americans. And while the very rich become much richer, millions of families have no savings at all and struggle every week just to stay alive economically, and the elderly and disabled wonder how they stay warm in the winter. That is not justice. That is a rigged economy designed by the wealthiest people in this country to benefit the wealthiest people in this country at the expense of everyone else.

There is no justice when thousands of people in America die each year because they don’t have health insurance and don’t get to a doctor when they should, or when elderly people are forced to choose between food or medicine because our citizens pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. That is not justice. That is not morality. That is simply an indication that we are the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for all as a right.

There is no justice when low-income and working-class mothers are forced to separate from their babies one or two weeks after birth and go back to work because we are the only major country on earth that does not have a paid family and medical leave policy. That is not justice. That is an attack on family values that everyone should be appalled at.

There is no justice in our country when youth unemployment exists at tragic levels – with 51 percent of African American high school kids unemployed or underemployed. No. We apparently do not have the funds to provide jobs or educational opportunities for our young people but we sure do have the money to throw them into jails. Today, the United States has more people in jail than any other country on earth, and many are serving time in inhumane conditions. That is not justice. That is the destruction of human life.

I am not a theologian or an expert on the Bible or a Catholic. I am just a U.S. senator from the small state of Vermont. But I agree with Pope Francis when he says: “The current financial crisis… originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person! We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.”

He also states: “There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule.”

In his view, and I agree with him, we are living in a nation and in a world which worships the acquisition of money and great wealth, but which turns its back on those in need. And that must end. We need to move toward an economy which works for all, and not just the few.

Throughout human history there has been endless discussion and debate about the meaning of justice and the meaning of morality. I hope that by getting out of my comfort zone and speaking with the students at Liberty University that I can be a part of a dialogue with people who might not agree with us. I hope that some of them conclude that if we strive toward morality and toward justice, that it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor and working people of our country.

In solidarity,

Bernie Sanders

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Bernie the Baptist?

September 17th, 2015 No comments

Bernie

An evangelical response to Bernie Sanders’ address at Liberty University by a Liberty graduate. If you call yourself a Christian and you have somehow confused discipleship to Jesus with membership in the Republican party, you need to read this. It should at lest give you something to think about.

The Greatest Sin of Our Age

September 10th, 2015 No comments

elephantinthelivingroom2

By ignorance of the biblical narrative we can imagine an angry Old Testament God who responds to trivial offenses with apocalyptic overkill. That leads us moderns to either dismiss him as a primitive phantasm or to judge his character to be that of a nit-picking busybody. Thus we can either ignore his desires (because he doesn’t really exist) or we can follow him by being the same kinds of busybodies we imagine him to be. Most people know little to nothing about the narrative of the Bible, other than what they have “heard,” which is like listening to our “friends” on social media.

But the Old Testament when considered in context and in total reveals a God who created humans in love with the intent that they would love in return, and bestowed upon them the same dignity as he himself possesses. God’s wrath comes into play when humans reject the love of God and pursue love of self and created things. The sin of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with apples or sex. All of the injustices attributed to this so-called wrathful God are in fact the injustices perpetrated by humans against other humans in direct violation of both God’s commandments and character. And we read over and over in both the Old and New Testaments of God’s steadfast desire for his people to return to the way of justice, righteousness, and love, for their own blessing and the blessing of all the world.

I could probably write a whole book about that but this is a blog post so I want to try to keep it manageable. My real purpose here is to shine a different light on the conflict over same-sex marriage and sexual morality in general than we currently encounter in our national conversation. I think it is true that American culture is morally depraved. And I think it is true that one expression of that immorality is the apotheosis of sexual desire and satisfaction. Admit it: America is obsessed with sex. Americans seem to think about sex more than anything else. And I think there is some validity to the aphorism that what you think about the most is the object of your worship. I don’t think this makes America unique; I think probably everyone in every time and place has been subject to the same temptations and have or will succumb to them without moral diligence. Be that as it may, sex is the idol of our age.

But I wonder if the greatest sin of our age is not our sexual predilections but our preoccupation with sexual sins to the exclusion of other sins. Because our focus on these things does not reflect God’s character. Standing in moral judgment of another’s sins does not reflect God’s righteousness, justice, and love. It does not reflect Jesus’ commands to not judge, to see the mote in our own eye first, and to love others as he loved us.  Those who stand in pride upon their false righteousness would find Matthew chapter 23 instructive, if they could envision themselves in the place of the Pharisees whose hypocrisy Jesus condemns. Here is just a sample: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24 ESV)

Straining a gnat and swallowing a camel. Those who imagine themselves righteous by condemning their brothers and sisters stand idly by as children are incinerated by American drones, as whole populations suffer displacement because of violence and persecution, as people the world over die from lack of food, clean water, and basic medical care. We moan that a pagan culture acts like a pagan culture, and we conveniently ignore that our streets are aflame because of historical injustice, that young men in large numbers languish in jail, that our children are abandoning their lives to hopelessness that sees drugs as a reasonable escape. And we think ourselves clever when we are able to make arguments for or against what people do in their bedrooms. We devote all of our attention to that and none to the cries of the poor and the widow, the afflicted and the orphan. God does condemn sexual sin in both the Old and the New Testament. Sexual sin is destructive to the human creature in many ways. But the sin that breaks the covenant is not sex; it is abandonment of the way of justice and mercy.

It’s not just right wing Christians who are guilty of this. We live in a mad culture that makes heroes of both Kim Davis and Caitlyn Jenner. And this becomes the basis of our discourse. Gnats. While the camels go unremarked like the proverbial elephant in the living room.

The great sin of our age is that we cannot recognize what sin really is. The real sin is that we leave our brothers and sisters to suffer while we strain gnats.

 

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