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Friday, January 27, 2017

Inclusiveness

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
-John 3:17-19 (NIV)


Above almost all else, our world values inclusiveness. I do too, truth be told. I like the idea of inclusiveness.
    Sometimes, though, when we affirm something that the the rest of the world, Christian or not, affirms so overwhelmingly, it can be important to look at that thing from all angles. It might be, after all, that we’re affirming a bit too much. Is my interest in inclusiveness a Christian virtue? Or is its origin more from my “baptizing” of the world’s values? I think questions like that are important to ask so that we don’t sleepwalk into a value system that’s simply borrowed from the world around us and dressed up in church clothes.
    I started thinking more about this when I looked closely at an article that I hadn’t really found the time to read carefully. Two days before Christmas, the New York Times ran a piece by columnist Nicholas Kristof called Am I A Christian Too, Pastor Timothy Keller? It’s an exchange between Mr. Kristof and Tim Keller, pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In it, Kristof asks this question: “What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? Can one be a Christian and yet doubt the virgin birth or the Resurrection?”
    Mr. Kristof, clearly thinking about Christmas and maybe some of his own background, elaborates:
I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?
    Interesting question. And the way we answer it might say a lot about our idea of inclusiveness.
    We all say we want our churches to be places where everyone is welcome. I said it just this past Sunday, in fact.  But I think the crux of the matter might lie in what we mean by “welcome.” If we mean that we want our churches to be welcoming places where every Christian can feel bound together with the others because of Jesus, then fine. If we mean that we want our churches to be places where non-Christians can come to explore faith and hear the gospel in a setting where they are valued and their questions taken seriously — well, sure.
    But if we’re talking about a “mix and match” belief system like Mr. Kristof is apparently attracted to — well, I think we should tap the brakes just a bit. To “deeply admire Jesus and his message” while simultaneously dismissing his miracles or his resurrection as not relevant to the 21st century is to not really understand Jesus and his message at all. Because his message was not, “Just try to follow some of my more attractive teachings and you’ll be all right.” His message was “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.”
    The good news is that God is doing what we can’t, that his kingdom is supplanting all the others, even our own. That Jesus is the one through whom this is happening. And that to take that seriously is to repent.    
    And, see, that’s where the church is always going to lose a lot of folks. The world’s love of inclusiveness makes the need for repentance seem a little old-fashioned. Sometimes that's because the church hasn’t made repentance seem inclusive, because we haven’t acted as though we need it as well. But sometimes we lose folks just because they can’t manage to even take the first steps toward putting themselves in Jesus’ hands. And that, apologies to Mr. Kristof, is the bare minimum to be included in the group called “Christians.” It’s right there in our name. We’re not just people who like some of his teaching (no one likes all of it), or even who try to live like he said to live. We’re people who have acknowledged that we can’t make our worlds or even ourselves right, and that we need him to do it, and who are trying every day to stop going our own way and to walk in his footsteps.
    That's why, for instance, the virgin birth matters: It says in no uncertain terms that this was the work of God, that human beings alone couldn’t have pulled it off. That’s why his resurrection matters: it tells us that sin and death are already defeated, and that to share in the victory we have to put ourselves in his hands. His miracles give us a glimpse of the world as God is remaking it — free of disease, evil, and death. And, of course, his cross speaks of his faithfulness in taking the full weight of human sin and suffering on his shoulders, so that it can be taken off of ours. Our salvation isn’t in the simple understanding or believing of these things, but in the reality of the things themselves. The doctrines of Christianity don’t save us, but they do describe the only reality in which we believe salvation is possible.
    Keller responds to Kristof’s question first by drawing a comparison to a member of the board of Greenpeace who believes climate change is a hoax. He points out that this board member would no doubt be asked to resign. “I could call them narrow-minded, he says, “but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right.”
    While it isn’t a perfect analogy, Keller’s response hits on something important: there are boundaries to Christianity. We might argue over what those boundaries are. The farther we try to draw them from the person, work, and teaching of Jesus the more likely we are to be too exclusive. But boundaries there are. To obscure them, even unintentionally, in our well-meaning attempts to be inclusive is to short-change the gospel. We don't need a Savior if, on our own, we can dismantle the barriers that keep human beings apart.
    That doesn’t mean we should treat those outside the boundaries of Christianity with anything other than respect, love, and acceptance. With every human being, Christian or no, we share our status as God’s creation, loved by him. Christ came as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, not just for those who have so far come to believe. Those of us who are inside the boundaries of Christianity have no status to consider ourselves better than those who are outside. But those boundaries exist, and to pretend they don’t is not an act of love toward those trying to find hope and life and peace outside of Jesus.
    So, please, treat the non-Christians in your life with all the love, respect, grace, and compassion that they deserve as people created and loved by God. Recognize that people come to believe or choose not to believe for all kinds of reasons, and that faith is God’s work as well. But don’t settle for the world’s anemic inclusiveness as a stand-in for the gospel of Christ, the good news of Jesus Christ our peace, who makes a divided humanity one in his own body, and in his body reconciles us all to God.

    I still love the idea of inclusiveness, and I think our world’s increasing love for it might even be a work of the Holy Spirit. God’s intention for the gospel is that it include everyone, too. May that day come, and may we proclaim it faithfully until it does.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Jesus vs. Paul

    Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
-Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:1 (NIV)



Who matters more to you: Jesus or Paul? Somebody asked me that recently.
    They didn’t mean to ask, of course, which person is more important. Millennia of Christian teaching, not to mention the witness of Scripture, is unambiguous about that. Paul didn’t die for our sins. He wasn’t raised from the dead. The Holy Spirit is not poured out through Paul. He doesn’t intercede for us with God.
    What’s actually meant by that question is something like this: “Which of the New Testament writings do you think is more important: the Gospels, or Paul’s letters?”
    Still, that kinda sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it? “Aren’t they both kind of important?” you might ask, and you’d be right. They are both kind of important. At first glance, it seems that you might as well ask, “Which do you like best: water or oxygen?” Might as well force a person to choose between shelter and clothing. For a believer, it seems obvious: there is no choosing between the Gospels and Paul’s letters.
    And yet…
    A lot of years ago now there was a gentleman who attended my church for a while. He was — how best to say it? — on the cantankerous side. And one of the things he liked to raise cain about was this very issue. To him, and he would come right out and say this, the only truly inspired parts of the New Testament were Paul’s letters. The Gospels, Acts, the other letters — they had all been tainted by other influences. He stopped coming, actually, when we wouldn’t forswear teaching and preaching from other parts of the New Testament. (And you didn’t even want to get him started on the Old Testament!)
    Actually, that point of view is more widespread than you might imagine. My Paul-only friend was the ideological descendent, whether he knew it or not, of a first- and second-century church leader named Marcion, who was one of the first church leaders to introduce a canon. His Scriptures were, you guessed it, Paul’s letters and a stripped-down version of Luke that fit his doctrinal assumptions.
    That’s often, if not always, the reason believers look for a “canon within the canon,” a subset of the Bible that for one reason or another becomes more authoritative for us than the rest. Martin Luther called James an “epistle of straw” for its seeming contradiction of his pet teaching, for example. It seemed easier for him to just dismiss James than to try to reconcile it with his beliefs about faith and works. When two texts of Scripture seem to contradict each other, or at least to exist uncomfortably together, some remove the conflict by removing one of the texts.
     In earlier generations, even my own spiritual tribe tended to emphasize Paul’s letters and Acts over the gospels. We had doctrinal assumptions of our own, and we found it easiest to say that anything that came before Acts 2 belonged to a different era. That, of course, included the Gospels. For us, it wasn’t that the Gospels weren’t Scripture. Our assumptions just rendered the Gospels less authoritative, at least in practice.
    These days, the pendulum has swung. If we have a canon within a canon now, it’s probably the Gospels. They fit newer preaching styles better. They work better with our preference for story over proposition. And, often, our preference for the Gospels is used to defend a particular doctrinal position. “We have to read Paul through Jesus, and not the other way around,” goes the argument, which lets us pit Jesus against Paul, and who wants to argue that Paul is right in that equation?
    Thing is, I tend to agree with that statement, but not for all of the reasons it’s sometimes made. It is a weakness of some of us, for instance, that we’ve made salvation a matter of understanding Pauline doctrine rather than trusting in Jesus. And so we think that understanding what Paul meant when said that we’re saved by grace through faith is the same thing as actually having faith. (It isn’t.) But the problem there isn’t Paul, and it isn’t remedied by relegating Paul to the bench like a reliever who’s having trouble finding the plate. The remedy is to read Paul better, to let him say what he wants to say without importing all of our assumptions.
    Dismissing Paul isn’t fair to him, because in all of the letters attributed to him but two he introduces himself as an apostle or servant or both of Jesus. All he did and wrote after he met Jesus was to get other people to meet Jesus as well. Any form of the argument that Paul’s letters, well-intentioned or not, didn’t represent Jesus accurately kind of rips the guts out of the New Testament as Scripture, doesn’t it? That’s not to say there aren’t things in Paul’s writing that don’t coexist comfortably with the Gospels. But we don’t get to resolve the problems by favoring our own interpretations of Jesus over Paul’s.
    It isn’t fair to Jesus either, because invariably we make him into the spokesmodel for whatever we wish Paul was saying. Think Paul sounds like a misogynist? No problem; preach on Jesus and Mary Magdalene or something instead. Don’t care for Paul’s “wrath of God” stuff in Romans? Easily solved, because Jesus said “Don’t judge” and he never said anything about God’s wrath or anything, did he? No, that’s too easy. There’s no check there on my own arrogant tendency to rewrite Christianity into a form that suits me better and then co-opt Jesus to teach it. Jesus will not be your spokesmodel. He did not come to make you comfortable, and if you find yourself comfortable with him it’s probably because  you’ve remade him in your image.
    I’m thinking about all of this because of a conversation with a friend who has changed his thinking on some things, and justifies it by an appeal to Jesus over Paul. I don’t necessarily disagree with his new position. But I’m wondering why he feels he has to set Jesus and Paul at odds to get there.
    I do think we should read Paul through the filter of Jesus. Paul wouldn’t have it any other way, I imagine. But, at the risk of stating the obvious, there are things we only know about Jesus because of Paul. Paul believed the Holy Spirit was acting through his writing. And there were some others who thought so too. I think it a little foolish to dismiss Paul when you think he doesn't agree with Jesus. Maybe it’s better to go back and look again at what you think both are saying. Forgive me for saying so, but you’re more likely wrong than either of them.
    It’s a bad habit to take the easy way out of our dilemmas with Scripture by ignoring the parts that don’t fit our preconceived notions. The Bible is supposed to confound us sometimes. Let it. Read it with others. Talk about it. Pray about it. Let it say what it wants to say — even the parts you don’t like. Especially the parts you don’t like. Sometimes you’ll come to an understanding with the text. Sometimes you won’t, at least not right away. You won’t always agree with the people with whom you read it, either. But God has never needed us to sit in judgment on the text. We were always supposed to fight with it.

    Even if you have to fight with Paul. Come on, he’s pretty old. How hard it could it be?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Revolutionary

    When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family of the house of Judah. But Jehosheba,  the daughter of King Jehoram, took Joash son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the royal princes who were about to be murdered and put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Because Jehosheba,  the daughter of King Jehoram and wife of the priest Jehoiada, was Ahaziah’s sister, she hid the child from Athaliah so she could not kill him. He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
-2 Chronicles 22:10-12 (NIV)


It’s real Game of Thrones stuff, full of violence and intrigue. Definitely needs a TV-MA rating.
    A king of Judah, Ahaziah, comes to power at the death of his father, Jehoram, a powerful monarch who had eliminated any potential rivals. His mother, Athaliah, is the matriarch of the dynastic family from another kingdom, Israel, and Ahaziah follows advice from her and her handpicked counselors. He encourages the worship of false gods. He gets entangled in a foreign war, and is assassinated within a year of his accession.
    Athaliah gets to work immediately. She starts killing potential claimants to the throne, until seemingly no one is left to take over the kingdom. Then, with no rivals, she seats herself on the throne. Things don't look too good for Judah, or the dynasty of King David, or the promise of God to build a royal house from David’s descendants.
    And that’s when our hero enters the picture.
    Her name is Jehosheba. What we know about her is that she’s the daughter of King Jehoram and sister of King Ahaziah. Athaliah, the new Queen, didn’t even consider her a threat, I guess. Or maybe, as she’s the wife of a priest, she doesn’t dare touch her. But Jehosheba has a secret. Her brother’s infant son, Joash, is alive. Jehosheba saved him at the last minute from Athaliah’s executioners and took him to the temple, where she and her husband keep him safe for seven years. Then they crown him and acclaim him king, launching a rebellion that ends in Athaliah’s death, the destruction of paganism in the kingdom, and the return of a descendant of David to the throne.
    In an improbable twist for the politics of the time, two women are at the center of the story.
    One is a woman who uses others to gain power for herself. The other is a woman who uses what power she has to be a part of God’s work in her world. Athaliah believes she can bend her world to her will if she just has a large enough scepter and secure enough footing. Jehosheba uses the degree of power she has, not to control her world, but so that God might have his way in it through her.
    In our world, as in Jehosheba’s, there are powerful people who want more power, who believe that politics is a zero-sum game and who go as far as they deem necessary to get stronger and make their rivals weaker. They may call it public service, but the real goal, to one degree or another, is to bend the world to their will. There’s very little service involved, received by a very small proportion of the public.
    We’ve really come to expect this. The problem is that it infects the rest of us too. The reasons for the division and struggle in our nation between races, genders, religions, ethnicities, classes, and so on are numerous and hard to trace out, but at the risk of being too reductionist it’s fair to say that the guiding narrative is the desire to control our worlds. If we can just gain a little more power, a little more influence, and silence or discredit those on the other side, then we can get our personal agendas pushed through. This drive for power is nothing new, and it’s found in every place where human beings are found.
    This story subverts the usual narrative. It’s those without power, the priest’s wife and her infant nephew, who end up making the most ripples. It’s those who eschew the easy power grab and take the long view of things who carry the day. Make no mistake, Jehosheba is no sweet, gentle, subservient, Ancient Near East version of June Cleaver. She knows when it’s time for the soldiers to swing the swords. But she also knows she doesn’t need to scorch the earth for God to show up and do his work. She knows that, however powerful Athaliah may be, she’s stronger if she pursues the will of God and gives him room to work.
    I’m reminded by this story that those who have power need to exercise it with discretion, compassion, and an eye for the work of God in the world. Power can be dangerous because we too easily see it as a blunt instrument we can use to control our worlds, instead of a way to care for the powerless and serve the purposes of God. I was reminded of this danger not too long ago by a woman who shook her head and said with sadness, “Men have all the power in the church.” And we have to confess, don’t we, that in comparison to the rest of society men do have a disproportionate amount of power in most churches. And that there are times that men have used that power in ways that hurt women. Yes, even in church.
    So it’s time for the church to recognize, if we haven’t, what has always been true. Frequently, it has been the women among us who have preserved the work of God, who have done the work that ensured the passing on of the faith. They’ve likely done it in your church in homes and children’s classrooms. (Who taught you your first Bible story, or first song about Jesus? Who first prayed with you?) Women have always taught in the church (even when they haven’t been allowed to on Sunday morning). They’ve always led in worship. (Even if they've had to do it from their seats.)  
    And maybe it’s time for those of us who have most of the power in the church, the men, to include women in every way we can. I know there are biblical texts that complicate the picture. But there are other ways to read those texts, and other texts to read alongside them that might give us a more complete perspective. At the very least, we must be as sure as we can that we aren’t restricting women because of the way those who came before us read the Bible. And, if we aren't sure, should we be rejecting from the gatherings of the church the contributions and gifts of more than 50% of the people of God? In his name?
    Well, in any case, may we acknowledge and thank God for the Jehoshebas in our midst, those who work quietly and outside the main channels of power so that God might have his way in the world through them, who know that the way to change the world is not to join the struggle for more power, but to nurse and raise to maturity the purposes of God.
    “The city was calm,” the text reports after Jehosheba’s work was finished.
    May we leave our communities quieter and calmer by being about God’s work in our worlds.

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