Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Reverent Intelligence

The first major issue to face Christianity was, “What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts?” Jesus’ teaching was seen as a reform movement within Judaism; but, when the fledgling church began spreading its witness, many Jews—especially within leadership—were hostile. But Gentiles accepted the gospel and came by droves!
“What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts?” There were no creeds for them to memorize—no New Testament for them to read. The Gospels and Epistles wouldn’t appear for another thirty years; and by that time, churches had been established.
Under Peter’s leadership, the initial response was simple: make them become Jews first: submit to the law, keep the kosher dietary rules, offer the proper sacrifices… Make the men be circumcised (that’ll weed out the riff-raff!). A whole Christian sect—mostly converted Jews—grew out of that teaching. They were called “Judaizers.”
Communities of believers emerged in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Some disciples moved north, into Syria. and were teaching and gathering believers in Antioch. Paul took the Gospel into what we know today as Turkey. All this happened, without a written doctrine or manual of policies and procedures.
By the time Paul reached Corinth in his second missionary journey, there already was a church there, and at least two preachers had preceded him. There we see a chaotic mess resulting from the debate over which preacher got it right: “I follow Peter/I support Apollos/I agree with Paul…”
They were confusing ends and means. The Gospel was about Jesus. They were arguing over preachers and baptism and the role of women and whether to eat meat…
And to add to the challenge, the new converts were coming out of pagan religions, and wanted simply to add Jesus as one more God in their pantheon. They wanted to continue to worship in the Temple of Diana, the Temple of Apollo and the Oracle at Delphi...
What are we going to do with all these Gentile converts? Paul returned to Jerusalem and challenged Peter and those who said Gentiles must become Jews before they could become Christians. Paul prevailed, and Gentiles could enter the church simply by a confession of faith and submission to baptism.
But the challenges continued; with a surplus of Christian preachers, many of them recent converts, there were heresies: Gnosticism (the Gospel of John appears to have been written, at least in part, as a counter-testimony to Gnosticism), Docetism, Arianism… Paul’s letters were the first attempts to bring together a message that was consistent and faithful to the life and teachings of Jesus.
But we humans are insecure when it comes to spiritual matters. “What if we get it wrong?” We want things nailed down, carved in stone. We’re uncomfortable with faith. We prefer certainty. We tend to fall for slick-talking carnival barkers and sideshows offering “Five Easy Steps to Heaven” or “Fire Insurance Doctrines” or a “Prosperity Gospel.”
Paul refused to compromise. Over and over he said, “The rituals we perform, the liturgies we recite, and the ethical standards we put into practice are expressions of the faith we hold; they are not the means by which we attain heaven and avoid hell.”
In Paul’s second missionary journey—in Lystra—he developed a strong mentoring relationship with a young Christian named Timothy. Timothy accompanied Paul on some of his later journeys, and eventually Paul left him in charge of the church in Ephesus.
But the mentoring continued with this young Bishop of Ephesus, and we have two of Paul’s letters to him. Our text today comes from the second letter. Timothy was confronted with heresies:
  • religion without power;
  • trusting in the right form, the right ritual, instead of trusting in the grace of God;
  • fads and fancies… you know them: “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere; after all, we’re all trying to get to the same place…”
  • religion that focuses almost exclusively on the destination, and neglects the journey…
  • superficial faith that clings to the ancient wisdom that “The good are rewarded and the evil are punished.” And if we don’t see that happening in our world, we rationalize: “Well, ‘When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be’…”
  • simplistic faith that trivializes the Gospel’s promise of heaven, assigning it exclusively to another time and another place totally separated from life here and now.
Those kinds of heresies. And Paul writes:

2 Timothy 3:13-17 (NRSV) But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. 14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

From the beginnings of Christianity—I suppose throughout the history of religions in general—voices have called for believers to check their brains at the door when engaging in matters of faith. Just wrap your mind in memorized creeds and doctrines and carefully selected verses of Scripture. And don’t ask questions. Just accept what we tell you.

Those voices had become the official voice of the church by the Middle Ages, as creeds and catechisms replaced rational thinking. And then, Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

The Reformation had limited effectiveness. It released the minds of some brilliant thinkers—both sacred and secular. Indirectly it led to the Enlightenment, which produced the writings of John Locke, whose ideas heavily influenced the thinking of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, founders of our denomination.

The Campbells separated themselves from their church heritage, primarily in opposition to the use of creeds as tests of faith and tests of fellowship. Alexander Campbell said, “Faith is personal; not doctrinal;” and he and his father offered a faith that was reasonable, based upon Scripture.

Hopefully, you can see how those principles line up so well with our text today, when Paul encourages Timothy to continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings…”

My friend, Rodney Allen Reeves, a cradle Disciple and serious student of Christianity, calls it a “Reverent Intelligence.” Our reason, he says, “needs to be tempered especially with ‘reverent intelligence’, grounded not only in sacred writings and faith, but as Alexander Campbell stressed, grounded also in our rational human experience, and in the humility of our human condition that recognizes that we are not ‘omniscient’ beings. Rather, we ‘live and move and have our very being’ in a creative cosmos filled with Mystery.” And our faith brings us to the awareness of a divine persona that, in William James’ term, is "a more"—more than we can know; more even than we can ever imagine!”

In such a state of awareness, we can only stand before that divine persona in awe and reverence.

But in our own time, those voices are being raised again. The result has been damaging: a “spiritually hungry, institutionally disillusioned public”[1] increasingly perceives the church as mindlessly locked into irrelevant, irrational doctrines, judgmental, homophobic and committed only to its own well-being.

That same disillusioned public wants to know, simply, “What does it mean to follow Jesus and to become more like him?” For several weeks now, we’ve been looking at that same question> It involves infinitely more than mental affirmations and verbal recitations. The founders of the Christian Church, from the beginning, called on Disciples to bring “a reverent intelligence” to our faith journey.

The integration of faith and intellect—the integration of our whole being—is imbedded in the DNA of our church history; and is indispensable to the health and vitality of our witness. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12:1:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your whole being as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

[1] Thomas G. Bandy identifies this public as the largest and fastest-growing spiritual population in North America.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jesus Blesses the Children

Matthew 19:13-15 ~  “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them…”

Isn’t it strange how sometimes those who are closest to Jesus are the ones who keep others away? Jesus’ exhortation about causing “one of these little ones to stumble”[1] is still ringing in their ears; but the disciples want to keep the children away.

Around the world for the last century, non-Christians and wannabe Christians have been saying they are influenced negatively, not about Jesus, but about Christians. Even Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said to Methodist Missionary, E. Stanley Jones, “I like your Christ; but your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I don’t know what it will take for the humility of Jesus to displace the arrogance that is projected, unintentional and unconscious as it may be, by so many, many Christians. The attitude that we have all the answers and everybody needs to think and speak and act the way we say, is one of the greatest barriers to the health of Christianity.

Jesus promised, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all (people) to myself” (John 12:32). But, like the ancient Pharisees of Jesus’ time, so many rigid, legalistic expressions of Christianity are literally driving more and more people away.

There is a world of difference between saying, “Jesus is the only way,”[2] and saying “Our path is the only path to Jesus.”

Hopefully those being driven away from organized, institutional religious expressions are being drawn, by whatever means, to Jesus, who I think also would reject much of what operates under his name. And I think the primary factor that is driving people away is the perceptions, not that Jesus is being lifted up, but that people are being put down for not conforming to the doctrinal hoops through which so many churches insist they must jump.

Am I standing in the way—preventing someone from coming to Jesus?

[1] Matthew 8:6-16, see April 8 above.
[2] An affirmation I do not espouse. Jesus is the only way I have experienced God; therefore, I cannot bear witness to any other path. However, Jesus, himself said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold,” which can be inferred to mean that there are alternative paths to him. Besides, I would not be arrogant enough to limit the ways God can draw people to God’s self, and I especially would not be arrogant enough to say that my understanding of Jesus is the only pathway to him. What I say is not an infallible pronouncement; it is but a witness, and I can bear witness only to that which I have seen and heard and experienced.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Teachings About Divorce

Matthew 18:23-35 ~ Teachings about divorce

Once again the Pharisees ask Jesus a “how-much-can-we-get-away-with” kind of question—“What’s the least we have to do to comply with the law?” Such is the nature of legalism. The law becomes an end in itself, rather than a means toward a specific end, namely a Godly life.

Jesus’ teachings in particular, and the Jewish law in general are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Jesus’ kingdom parables always begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” The Pharisees’ most frequent approach is, “What must we do to get it?” Jesus has said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” The Pharisees ask, “Is it legal to divorce?” Jesus has said, “If you want to gain your life you must lose it.” The Pharisees ask, “What if… ?”

In this instance, the attitude is this: “I’m going to divorce my wife. How can I do that without going to hell?” [That’s really not a fair paraphrase of what those 1st century Pharisees asked. “Heaven” and “hell” didn’t mean the same thing to them that it means to most post-reformation Christians today; so I’ve updated the question to reflect what today’s Pharisees are asking.]

What we’re dealing with is the old universal wisdom that always has said goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. The Job narrative (perhaps the oldest portion of Judeo/Christian Scripture) is a rebuttal of that ancient wisdom, and Jesus’ own words negate the reward/punishment model when he says “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

Jesus says (Robinson paraphrase) that marriage is a reflection of God’s created order. It is a matter of the nature of humanity, not an invention of human laws and rules. By extension, since humans are created in the image of God, who is eternally faithful, it is natural that humans also be faithful in their relationships.

Bottom line: marriage is a natural reflection of creation because it is a reflection of the unity that holds all of creation together. Divorce, then, is unnatural, because it goes against God’s will and intention that all created things participate in the harmony of God’s creation.[1]

The Pharisees preferred the law of Moses, which allowed them to do what they already had decided to do. Go ahead and do it. We can always find a loophole later.

It’s really not about divorce. It’s about integrity. Relationships die, just as individuals die. No righteous God would desire or demand that a person remain in a totally abusive relationship.

The status of women in that culture was a gross violation of God’s intention for the unity of all things. Women were chattel, with no rights. A single woman was viewed as flawed, and a divorced woman was even worse. Single, divorced and even widowed women were vulnerable and virtually without protection.

So, for Jesus, it’s really not about divorce. It’s a much broader concern. It’s about how we humans relate in a created universe in which unity and harmony is the will of our creator.

If I am to follow Jesus, my concern will be about mending and healing broken relationships, rather than dismissing them because they’ve become inconvenient. [And, again, there’s a world of difference between inconvenient in intolerable.]

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


[1] The clearest statement of this Divine intention may be Ephesians 1:8b-10, “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”


Matthew 18:23-35 ~ The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is another of many troubling passage in the Gospels. A “servant” owes money to his master, and when the master demands payment, the servant begs for more time. In compassion, the master agrees.

Then, the forgiven servant goes to a fellow servant who owes him money and demands payment. The borrower begs for more time, but the lender servant has him thrown into prison “until he would pay the debt.” There’s my first problem. How can he pay if he’s in prison? Is it assumed by either lender that the debtor has the money to repay the loan, and is simply refusing to pay?

As the narrative continues, the other servants report the forgiven-but-unforgiving servant to the master, who in turn orders the unforgiving servant to be tortured (NRSV) “until he would pay the debt.” That’s my second problem, which is essentially the same as the first.

But my third problem with this parable is devastating. Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Until that closing statement, the application of the parable has been crystal clear: indeed, I wonder whether the “unpardonable sin”[1] is to refuse to forgive when we have been forgiven.

This statement, on the lips of Jesus, lends support to my conservative Christian brothers and sisters who continue to hold on to an understanding of God as wrathful and vengeful. But if taken literally at face value, Jesus’ comment participates in a description of a schizophrenic God who punishes and/or forgives unpredictably. Even the legalism of the Pharisees is to be preferred! It at least is consistent.

Nor do I find comfort in the “God-is-God-and-can-do-whatever-he-pleases” platitude.

I would have no difficulty seeing this statement as a part of the ongoing testimony/counter testimony approach of Jewish Scriptures[2]—except that the statement is on the lips of Jesus, who already has taken a specific side in the debate by presenting God as capricious in forgiveness as the “other side” presents God as capriciously vengeful.

Jesus seems to be contradicting his own teachings![3]

Jesus was a rabbi, and the rabbis saw no incongruity in stretching or bending reality in order to make a point. The point is the point, and the hyperbole is the method. Humans in general always have had difficulty keeping means and ends in proper relationship.

At the infamous bottom line, if we can see through the smoke, Jesus is again[4] lobbying for forgiveness on the part of his followers. To be forgiven and then to refuse to forgive others is something God takes very seriously. When in doubt, forgive. Such is the way for a follower of Jesus.

That's the way it looks through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


[1] Matthew 12:18, see comments in devotional for Day 39 of Lent, page 24 above.
[2] See devotional for Day 13 of Lent, page 9 above.
[3] In all fairness, this is not the only time in Matthew that Jesus presents God as condemning and even wrathful. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 comes to mind. But on the whole, those statements represent a tiny minority of Jesus’ total teachings, and present us with a serious conundrum: Jesus seemingly as inconsistent and self-contradictory.
[4] See discussion in yesterday’s devotional, page 40 above.