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Monday, March 30, 2015

What Easter Means (and why what literally happened on Easter morning is irrelevant)

What matters most is not what historically happened on Easter morning to the body of Jesus, but what the Easter story means.

The Easter stories in the Gospels are religious/spiritual/theological stories, not historical reports. That is not to say there are no historical echoes or reflections in the stories, but my contention is that whatever actual memories may be imbedded in them such historical recollections are irrelevant to the meaning and appropriation of these stories by people of faith.

Did the original writers/editors of these Easter stories believe the actual body of Jesus was resurrected? Did they believe the body of Jesus was changed into a different kind of body? Were these appearances like apparitions or dreams or were they something more tangible? Did the authors/redactors of these stories intend them as metaphorical narratives (like parables) teaching spiritual truth?

There is no way to know from a historical perspective how much is actually history or legend or myth, nor does it matter. Historically, about the most that can be said is that some of the first disciples of Jesus became convinced that God raised Jesus to new life because they experienced Jesus alive after his death.

Their experience of Jesus alive (whatever this may have actually involved) brought them out of their great grief and despair igniting and fueling new faith, hope, love, and courage. It’s doubtful there would have been any sort of Jesus movement if not for the Easter experience. If the Lukan accounts in Acts reliably reflect the key elements in the early Messianic preaching, then the Easter experience was critical and central.

Luke attributes to Peter in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost the concluding point,

"This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted . . . and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. . . . Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him [the man Jesus] both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:32-36).

Had there been no Easter experience, it is hard to imagine where the motivation and empowerment for the Messianic movement would have originated.

What actually happened is irrelevant. What matters is the Easter story! – its spiritual meaning and theological significance. The resurrection stories are spiritual stories imparting spiritual truth.  

In the Easter story (or stories) I see three big spiritual realities:

First, Easter was God’s vindication of Jesus and all that he valued and stood for. Jesus is affirmed as a unique embodiment of the divine (or paradoxically, what it means to be fully human) and God’s agent for accomplishing God’s will. Jesus – as boundary breaker, prophetic challenger of the status quo, radical reformer, teacher of nonconventional, counter-cultural wisdom, empathetic and compassionate healer, lover of the poor and outcast, host to all manner of sinners, liberator of the oppressed – this Jesus who died a violent death at the hands of the political and religious authorities without returning the violence or even harboring violence in his heart was vindicated by God. Easter was God’s “Yes” to Jesus’ life, teaching, and vision of a world healed, reconciled, and made whole.

Second, the Easter story affirms that death does not have the final word. I know that many conservative Christians have made the Christian faith all about the afterlife. For many such Christians the gospel is nothing more than a prize of heavenly glory for believing orthodox doctrines or practicing the right rituals. Salvation is mostly a legal, juridical transaction of sin/guilt remission that guarantees the “believer” a place in heaven.

Progressives, like myself, emphasize God’s dream for this world and the importance of our participation in its realization, and the need for personal and communal transformation right now. We emphasize Jesus’ prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Still, I believe Easter signifies that not only will God never give up on this world, God will not allow our mortal lives to be all there is. How does love ultimately win and restorative justice prevail if there is not “more” to this life than this life? It was no doubt this sort of evolution of thought that spawned the development of Jewish belief in resurrection during the intertestamental period. Think of all the children of God who have died prematurely through disease, war, natural disaster, etc. and suffered immensely under the dominant power of oppressors. Without something “more” how would their suffering be vindicated?

While I do not agree with all of Paul’s teaching about resurrection in his letters, I think he makes a legitimate argument to the Corinthians who had collapsed the teaching of resurrection into a completely realized eschatology. They said that the resurrection is all now and this worldly. Paul argued, not so! It’s both/and. He argued that the good news cannot be all that good if our hope is confined to this world alone (see 1 Cor. 15:1-28).

Third, the Easter story evokes response. God’s “yes” to Jesus is God’s invitation to trust in, share in, and be faithful to all that Jesus lived and died for. Easter means that the work for a just, good, redeemed, and reconciled world continues through us as the Spirit of Jesus fills us and expands our capacity to love and give of ourselves for the good of others.

Albert Nolan in his classic, Jesus Before Christianity, says this beautifully,

“In the last analysis faith is not a way of speaking or a way of thinking, it is a way of living and can only be adequately articulated in a living praxis. To acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Savior is only meaningful in so far as we try to live as he lived and to order our lives according to his values. We do not need to theorize about Jesus, we need to ‘re-produce’ him in our time and our circumstances.”

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global). 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Reconsidering John 3:16 (A Progressive Baptist's Interpretation)

In The Lord of the Rings there was one ring to rule them all. In the Bible if there is one verse to rule them all it is John 3:16. If one learned just one Bible verse in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School it was most likely this verse. We see it posted on billboards and held up at sporting events. The one time I could be a Bible thumper is when the camera view picks up the guy or gal in the stands behind home plate waving a sign with John 3:16. I would like to pound them over the head with it. There is no reason to give this verse exclusively to the conservatives. Progressives need to reclaim it, perhaps though in less dramatic style.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” 

God so loved the world, says John, that God sent Jesus “not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). For the world to be saved is for the world to be healed of its many wounds and made whole. For the world to be saved is for the world to be liberated from all its injustices, inequities, and oppressions. For the world to be saved is for the world to be reconciled to God and one another from all its alienations, divisions, and polarizations. For the world to be saved is for the world to be regenerated and renewed, so that life emerges out of death. The image of new life (new wine, new birth, living water, bread from heaven, etc.) is the one the writer/community of John’s Gospel employed most often.

When this Gospel says that God gave his “only” Son there is no good reason to limit this to mean that Jesus is the only way one can encounter God and step into the flow of eternal life. The Greek word means something like “unique, one-of-a-kind” and speaks of the unique relationship Jesus had with God.  John has already pointed out in his prologue that God has other children (1:12). In like manner, there is no need to conclude that Jesus is the only way one can encounter God, especially sense the true light that is incarnate in Jesus is the light that enlightens every person (1:9).

The revelation that has been made known in Jesus has certainly been the primary means through which I have discovered God’s power and presence, but not exclusively so. I have also encountered and discovered God’s power for life through my interaction with others – through words, actions, expressions, writings, and conversations. I have discovered God’s presence in the wonder and mystery of creation, and in common, ordinary everyday experiences. As a Jesus follower I filter all my experiences through the sacred story of Jesus, because Jesus is my primary source and medium for encountering God. But Jesus is not my only source or medium for experiencing God.

So we should not be surprised or skeptical of other people’s experience of God and participation in the life of God who live in other cultures or come out of other religious traditions and do not know the tradition of Jesus. God can speak through other mediators and means and we must learn to respect their experience and not reject their experience or claim that our experience is superior to theirs.

“so that everyone who believes in him . . .”  

To believe in Jesus is first and foremost “to trust in Jesus.” There are different levels and degrees of trust. There is the trust students have in their teachers, patients have in their physicians, and children have in their parents. There is the trust between friends and between life partners. When John invites his readers to trust in Jesus he is calling for a complete, holistic, even radical kind of trust and surrender to Jesus and what he lived for and stood for.

The Johannine community experienced Jesus as the great breakthrough of the Divine into humanity. What he stood for was what God stood for. The values he embodied and taught were God’s values. To trust in Jesus was to trust in and be faithful to all that Jesus revealed to be of God. And the supreme value was love – which is why Jesus says in John’s Gospel: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). 

To believe in Jesus then is to make Jesus and what he stood for what we stand for. It is to make the values he lived by our values. This is what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. When the first disciples confessed Jesus to be their Lord they were not professing belief in some metaphysical doctrine about Jesus’ divinity, they were professing that their first allegiance was to the God Jesus revealed and no longer to the empire and to the emperor who claimed to be lord (“son of God” and “God manifest” were titles claimed by the Roman emperor). No longer was their first allegiance to the values of the empire, but rather to the values of God’s kingdom (God’s will and way in the world). This is why the first disciples all embraced nonviolence as a way of life; they were convinced this was critical to who Jesus was and what he stood for.

Everyone has a god or gods – something they put their trust in and live for. It might be money or power or prestige or career or country or family – but everyone’s life centers on something. To trust in Jesus and make him Lord is to trust in what Jesus trusted and to make what he stood for and died for, what he valued and lived for central in our lives.  

I think some Christians like to argue over doctrine about Jesus in order to avoid actually following Jesus and making his values their values. I think for some church-goers doctrine is a means of distraction, a kind of ploy to avoid having to take Jesus’ life, values, and teaching seriously.

“may not perish, but have eternal life.”

Eternal life is God’s kind of life. Those who share in eternal life share in God’s struggle with the death-dealing, violent, destructive, life-diminishing powers at work in the world by mediating and expressing  life-giving powers like love, peace, faith, and hope. 

Eternal life involves an endless cycle of giving and receiving. Brother David Steindl-Rast illustrates the life of blessing (eternal life) by observing the flow of the Jordan River. The Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon pouring out its blessings as if flows – life giving water for parched soil. Nowhere is the richness of life it brings more evident than by the Sea of Galilee. Its shores are a paradise of fields, orchards, and gardens. The water in the lake is clear, teeming with fish. From there the Jordan meanders down to another body of water, the Dead Sea. What a contrast! The water is so dense with salt, one floats in it. Its shores are barren. The water in the Dead Sea is not even fit for irrigation. It’s the same water that feeds the Sea of Galilee, but the Dead Sea has no outflow like the lake of Galilee. It just gathers in one place and stagnates. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse. (Essential Writings, p. 54)

I was affiliated with a church once where the largest group was a Bible study group that met as a Sunday School class and usually through the week for some kind of special Bible study. The leaders of the church kept going to this group for help. We had some new, young families with children visiting, but not enough workers to help teach and care for them. The leaders went to this class and asked for help several times, but no response. They preferred to remain in their group. Most of the group were mostly dull, boring, and contrary. They wouldn’t hesitate to call the preacher out if he happened to say something or teach something that they thought was contrary to sound doctrine. They took in, but they didn’t give out. There was inflow, but no outflow.

Whenever we bless someone, whenever we offer encouragement or give of our time, presence, provision, or resources to enhance life, to make life better for someone – we are simply returning what has been given to us as a gift. Life hasn’t been bought or earned, it’s been given. It’s all grace and gift. I love the way Brother David Steindl-Rast says it in a prayer:

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive.
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.
(Essential Writings, p. 54)

This is the eternal life that John talks about in his Gospel. It’s the life of love, compassion, goodness, truth, and grace that we are invited to step into and participate in right now. It’s constantly evolving, expanding, and flowing into new places. Scientists tell that the universe is still expanding. When one part of the universe dies, another part is just beginning. The life that God is, that fills everything, “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (as Paul says in Acts 17) cannot be contained, it’s still emerging, growing, becoming. When we step into the flow of this divine life our souls become more, we grow, we expand in our capacity for love and kindness and goodness, we become more courageous and active in the pursuit of justice and peace, our vision for the planet widens and deepens.

(This post was originally published at Baptist News Global). 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Going Deeper (A sermon on John 2:13-22)

Before I read this text, I think it is important to point out that in the Synoptic Gospels, this incident that we are about to read about, of Jesus turning over the money tables in the temple, takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life, and is, particularly in Mark, the incident that seals Jesus’ fate. John places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and adds to it the saying about destroying the temple, which John interprets as a reference to Jesus’ body.

Obviously, the Gospel writers were not simply interested in reporting history. They were much more interested in the meaning and significance of Jesus for their communities – for their individual and communal lives. So they had no problem tweaking, adapting, revising, and combining the historical with the theological (and by theological I mean the symbolical or metaphorical) in order to convey and explore the meaning of Jesus for their faith communities.

And that is the most important question. What does Jesus mean to and for this community? What does Jesus mean to you personally? And what does Jesus mean for our church? These are the important questions right? We should not require these ancient sacred texts to conform to our modern requirements for historical reporting. The most important question for us to ask is not: Did this actually happen this way? The most important question we need to ask as women and men of faith is the same question these early disciples wrestled with: What is the meaning of Jesus for us today who aspire to be his followers?  Let’s read the text . . .

* * * * * * * *
I think that the placement of this story just after the celebration at the wedding banquet in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine (which again is probably more symbolical than historical) is very significant. Jesus’ practice of open, inclusive table fellowship and the image of banquet celebrations in both the stories Jesus told and the stories about Jesus, were key symbols of the kingdom of God – of God’s will and way in the world. 

The water jars that contained the water Jesus changed into wine were used for Jewish purification rituals. The significance of that seems to be that Jesus offered, not the water of contemporary Judaism, but the new wine of the kingdom of God. The protest Jesus stages in the temple is followed in chapter 4 by a conversation with a woman of Samaria, where Jesus says, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [The Samaritans once had a temple on Mount Gerizim where they said God dwelt.] . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).     

You see, the meaning of Jesus says John, is that Jesus offers new life, new hope, a new experience of God. John is not telling us that Jesus rejected the Judaism he was brought up with, but he did indeed critique it and advance it. Jesus was presenting an up-date to the faith. And so what John is arguing for in his Gospel is a kind of spirituality that is a considerable improvement over what they were used to.

Perhaps this should be a warning to us about the temptation to get stuck in the past. Lisa read earlier the text about the giving of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Why is it that churches want to post these commandments in and outside their facilities? Some Christians want them posted in our nation’s courtrooms. These commandments are good laws (unlike some others that are described in the Pentateuch). They offer some necessary boundaries for living together as a religious community. But think about how Jesus improved on these laws in his teachings, and I’m thinking especially here about the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. If a community of Jesus followers were to post any teachings in or around their facilities shouldn’t it be the teachings of Jesus?

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well Jesus offers her “living water,” which he says becomes “a spring of water gushing to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). Eternal life in John’s Gospel is the spiritual energy, power, vitality, and renewal that flows from a dynamic, interactive, personal and communal relationship with God. Living water is an appropriate symbol of this kind of life because it is flowing and growing and evolving, always becoming something more and new, never static or stationary.

This is what gives religion life and makes it something worthwhile that is capable of forming those who practice it into more loving and gracious persons.

Philip Gulley says that he likes Facebook, not just because it’s a place where you can make new friends, you can also unfriend people. Gulley says that before Facebook, if someone irritated him, he just smiled and put up with it. But with Facebook he’s unfriending people right and left and never has to hear from them again.

There was a guy he knew since he was in first grade. Gulley was in school with him for 12 years. He was a bully. Recently, he asked to be Gulley’s facebook friend. Gulley says he agreed just so he could unfriend him, something he wanted to do since 1967. A few years ago he got religion, says Gulley. (I am assuming that means that he became a Christian.) Gulley hoped it would make him nicer, but it didn’t. It only made things worse. Now he is a bully for God.

If religion (in our case, our Christianity) remains on the level of belief or doctrine or religious ritual and never goes any deeper, religion can easily do more harm than good. At that level, not only do we remain a bully, now we get to use God as justification for bullying people. What we believe is not nearly as important as how we live. Hopefully, our beliefs will contribute to making us better persons – more caring and compassionate, but if they don’t, then we may need to reconsider what it is that we believe.

John Philip Newell tells about being on a study leave doing some writing on the Greek Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. There he met Peter France, who had been a television presenter for the BBC series Everyman. Peter told Newell about the time he arrived on Patmos years earlier to do a series on Eastern Orthodoxy. His own background was secular. He had been reared in a British family of strong socialist principles with no formal religious belief. Halfway through the filming of the documentary he had a spiritual experience that changed his vision of reality. You could say he drank from the living water. He then decided to become a Greek Orthodox Christian.

Peter was assigned a monk from the monastery to guide him toward baptism. They met on a regular basis to explore the history and practices of Greek Orthodoxy. As they approached Easter and the time of baptism, the monk explained to him what would happen in the liturgy and what he would be expected to say and do during the baptismal service. At that point, Peter realized he was going to be asked to give intellectual assent to the fourth-century propositional statements about God in the Nicene Creed. He explained to the monk that he did not feel it would be authentic for him to declare his belief in these statements. He didn’t feel the creedal statements about God reflected his actual experience of God, and he had some real intellectual problems with the creedal statements.

So in the following weeks they wrestled together with the meaning of this ancient text of inherited belief. In the end Peter said he could not proceed. At this point the monk said, “Peter, don’t worry. I will say the words of the Creed for you.”

This monk had clearly seen the genuineness of Peter’s heart. He saw the beauty of Peter’s experience of the Sacred, his experience of God that had led to Peter’s desire to practice Orthodox spirituality, even though he couldn’t intellectually accept the propositional statements of the creed. This monk wisely saw that a statement of doctrine or belief about God should not stand in the way of Peter’s journey of faith.

John Philip Newell says: “There is a place for attempting to articulate what we believe about God and to do this together in a context of past articulations and Christianity’s unfolding history of beliefs. But these definitions of faith should be kept on the back shelves of the Christian family’s library and not by the front door as a requirement for entry.” I couldn’t agree more.

The kind of spirituality presented by John in his Gospel is not primarily one of belief. In fact, to elevate belief to the highest level is to misread John. And many readers of John misinterpret belief to refer to intellectual thoughts or ideas about God or Jesus. To believe in John’s Gospel is to trust Jesus as a mediator of eternal life, it is to drink from the living water. Belief in John’s Gospel has hardly anything to do with beliefs about Jesus, and has almost everything to do with accepting the gift of spiritual life Jesus offers. Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’ [Jesus had asked her for a drink from Jacob’s well], you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10).

The Judaism that prevailed in Jesus’ day said that the temple was the place where God dwelt. But the spirituality that John is preaching says that the temple where God dwells is the world and the Jerusalem temple (which, by the way, was destroyed by the Romans some three decades before John wrote his Gospel) was just a place where God could be experienced. John tells us that Jesus’ body was a temple of God. Jesus encountered God in the carpenter shop, by the lakeside, in the village, along the roadway, in the synagogue and outside the synagogue – and we can too!

We, too, are temples of God. Paul picked up on this theme long before (several decades) before John, and speaks about it in his letters. In his correspondence with the Corinthians Paul speaks of the individual disciple as a temple of God and he speaks of the church, the faith community as the temple of God.

John’s Gospel says in the prologue (1:4, 9) that the life and light that became incarnate in Jesus enlightens every person. This divine life and light is available to us all, right now, in our souls and hearts and in these flesh and blood bodies.

Jesus, I believe, was indeed unique in the way he experienced and mediated this Divine Presence, but this Presence is in all of us – in you and me, in this church, in our life together as a faith community and the body of Christ. And the more we live in fellowship and communion with this Presence, the more we abide in the Presence and the Presence abides in us, the more loving, compassionate, grateful, hopeful, and fully alive we become.

* * * * * * * * *
Our good God, as we enter now into a time of communion, may we truly experience your Presence in us and with us as we eat the bread and drink the cup. We are so grateful for the life we have come to know in you – mediated to us through Christ Jesus, our Lord. May we drink from this living water every day, every hour, and let our lives be channels through which it flows to others. May the realness of the bread we are about to eat and the juice we are about to drink impress upon us the realness of your presence that abides in these bodies of flesh and blood. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What Made Jesus Angry?

In the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 the text reads in the NRSV, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” There is a footnote that says, “Other ancient authorities read anger.” There are some manuscripts that read that Jesus was moved with anger rather than pity or compassion. In fact, many interpreters believe the reading, “moved with anger” is the original reading. The reason being that a scribe copying the manuscript would have more likely changed the original “anger” to “pity” than vice versa. The more difficult reading is more likely to be the original reading. One can make sense of why a scribe might change “anger” to “compassion” much easier than why a scribe would change “compassion” to “anger.”

So let’s suppose that “moved to anger” is the original reading. Who or what is Jesus angry at? Surely, he is not angry with the leper for asking him to heal him. He might be angry at the disease itself and the suffering it caused, the same way we might be angry at cancer and the suffering it causes. But he might also be angry at his religious system that treated some of God’s precious children as “lesser” human beings meriting condemnation.

Lepers were not just sick or diseased, they were judged spiritually and morally “unclean.” The word “unclean” is a telling phrase isn’t it? The leper became something of a scapegoat who was made to bear the community’s fears, prejudices, anxieties, insecurities, and animosity. There are those who do the same today with undocumented immigrants, LGBT persons, and people of other nationalities and religions.

This feature of Judaism that angered Jesus can be found in all religions. In the Gospels Judaism functions as a kind of archetypal religion. The patterns we see in the Gospels with respect to Judaism are patterns that are present in Christianity and all religious faiths. So when Jesus challenges the unhealthy religious beliefs and practices of Judaism, he is also challenging the same thing in Christianity. Immature, unhealthy religion emphasizes degrees of worthiness that are rooted in a “holiness of separation.”

Jesus, on the other hand, was characterized by a holiness of compassion and inclusion, though he challenged the system from within and never separated from Judaism. Jesus was a marginal Jew for sure, who lived out on the edge, but he was clearly a Jew who functioned within Judaism. For after he made the leper whole, he instructed him to show himself to the priest and offer the appropriate sacrifice; in other words, comply with the requirements for reentrance into the community.

What we see in Jesus as the Son of Man, the quintessential human being, is a development and growth in spiritual and moral consciousness from exclusion to inclusion, from either/or, in or out, right or wrong, dualistic thinking to both/and, big picture, large story thinking that brings everything together and holds everything together. Unfortunately, the rest of us have not evolved much in two millennium. Look what we have done with Jesus through most of Christian history. We have used Jesus to create in and out groups, and we have turned the great boundary breaker into just another boundary maker.

(This blog was first posted at Baptist News Global Perspectives)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

American Sniper and the Power of the System

There are many viewers of "American Sniper" who consider Chris Kyle an American hero. Some of these, who are also Christians, even see him as an example of Christian heroism. These are folks who collapse obedience to God into obedience to country, making one inseparable from the other.
Chris Kyle was a much more complicated individual than the one portrayed in the movie. Nicholas Schmidle wrote a profile on Kyle for the New Yorker where he noted, in addition to Kyle’s work to help veterans suffering from P.T.S.D. (which Kyle also suffered from), his propensity for bar fights, his deep disdain for the people of Iraq whom he called savages, and his bravado tales of killing looters in the aftermath of Katrina and two carjackers who tried to steal his car. Also, there are passages in Kyle’s book that reflect a passion for killing that Director Eastwood’s reluctant soldier did not adequately capture.

While Eastwood understandably downplayed some of the negative qualities of Kyle’s character to make the movie more marketable, I do think, however, he accurately profiled both explicitly and implicitly the beliefs and commitments that ordered Kyle’s life.

There is no question that Chris Kyle was unquestioningly dutiful and unflinchingly loyal to what he was asked and expected to do. And that, I think, is a problem that the film powerfully and subtly portrays.

Early in the film Kyle’ father imparts to him a very simple philosophy of life that Kyle never questions, which becomes his guiding compass:

“There are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe evil doesn’t exist in the world . . . These are the sheep. And then you got predators. They use violence to prey on people. They’re the wolves. Then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. They are a rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. We’re not raising any sheep in this family. I will whip your ass if you turn into a wolf. We protect our own. If someone tries to fight you, tries to bully your little brother, you have my permission to finish it.”

In a post-war consultation with a psychiatrist Kyle was asked if he had any regrets. Kyle was resolute. He expressed no remorse at all. He said he was willing to face his Creator for every shot he took. His only regret was that there were Americans he couldn’t save.

In a review Patton Dodd calls attention to a Bible that Eastwood employs in the film as a kind of visual symbol. One Sunday while his family is at church, listening to a sermon about discovering God’s plan for one’s life, young Kyle takes a Bible from the church pew. Next, we see a close-up of the Bible sitting on a table at the Kyle home. This Bible reappears during Kyle’s first tour in Iraq. We see him pull out the Bible and place it carefully inside his vest before his mission, which he does before every mission.

In a later scene, Ryan Job (Biggles) points out to Kyle that while he noticed Kyle always carrying a Bible, he never actually witnessed him opening it and reading it. Kyle shrugs this off by saying, “God, country, family, right?” implicitly implying that he already knew what his purpose was – he didn’t need to read it. Job asks Kyle if he had ever reflected on what the war was actually about and why they were there. At this point Kyle shows some frustration, and then walks away.

Patton points out that the Bible (which, no doubt, was an Eastwood invention) seems to be a symbol suggesting that Kyle’s sense of self and his sense of the world and what was expected of him was “an unopened, unexamined sense.” Patton observes that while “the Kyle of the film is a figure of American bravery; he is also a figure of how that bravery and nobility can be compromised – misguided in motivation, uninformed in duty.”

I don’t know if Eastwood intended this or not, but I, too, see the unopened, unread Bible as a symbol of conformity, an emblem of an orientation toward the world, God, country, and life in general that was never examined, questioned, or critiqued.

Kyle embodied a simple philosophy: Americans are the good guys. Iraqis are the bad guys. His job was to kill the bad guys. (Eastwood’s portrayal of all Iraqis as evil – children and women on suicide missions, men on housetops with cell phones identifying troop locations, and families hiding weapons under trapdoors in their houses – ironically, may say something about his own unexamined prejudice.)

The social systems of family, church/religion, and the military shaped him, and he totally bought in to what he was taught. The system certainly hails Kyle as a hero because he did what the system asked him to do and he did it better than anyone else.

Kyle’s blind obedience to the version of “God, country, family” passed on to him is an example of the power of the system to tell us who we are and shape who we become. And this is why Kyle’s life can never be held up as an example of Christian morality or obedience.

A follower of Christ must outright refuse to blindly obey the system.
To be a follower of Christ means allowing and trusting the light, power, spirit, and revelation of the life and wisdom of Jesus to expose all the prejudice, greed, falsehoods, idolatries, injustices, and destructive "isms" (sexism, racism, nationalism, materialism, exceptionalism, etc.) in our personal lives and in the corporate systems (family, church, school, government, business, country, etc.) we are part of, so that we might be led by Christ to a new place - a better place.

Only then can Christians function as new creatures in God’s new creation and grow into the loving, compassionate persons and communities that constitute the body of Christ in the world.

(This piece was originally published at Baptist News Global.)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Rethinking Salvation (A sermon from Mark 1:29-39)

Most Christians, I think, think about the good news and Christian salvation the way they were taught to think about it. Isn’t that true? I know I did, for many years. I was taught in the church of my upbringing and in my early Christian training a particular version of salvation. I was taught: “this is what it means to be saved.” And for many years I never questioned it and when I read the Scriptures I read them, I interpreted them in light of what I was taught. In other words, what I was taught about salvation became the filter through which I read the whole Bible. And even though what I was taught didn’t really fit in a lot of passages, I somehow made it fit. The fact is, however, there is no single, unified picture of salvation in the Bible. And the fact is, that some images and depictions of salvation are more helpful and transformative than others.

Several years ago, former Baptist leader, professor, and author John Killinger wrote a book titled, The Changing Shape of our Salvation. Killinger, by the way, grew up at First Baptist Church in Somerset, Ky. In the Introduction he makes this remark,

“The so-called ‘biblical’ view of salvation is itself a somewhat muddled concept. Actually, there are several biblical understandings of salvation, depending on which part of the Bible we read. Not only that, there was a jumble of ideas about salvation in the early Christian milieu, and it took at least three centuries to sort them out. And, even then, there is no guarantee that the general view that emerged was the ‘right’ one, or that it prevailed over other views for any sound and justifiable reason.”

Whenever I am in discussion with another Christian over some issue, and when the person I am dialoguing with claims that his or he position is the biblical view, I always ask, “Which biblical view?” I like to point out that that on any topic or issue in the Bible there are several biblical views or perspectives. One of the things we have become aware of with the discovery of such documents as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and some other ancient Christian writings is that early Christianity was even more diverse than scholars thought. There never was a time when Christianity was uniform in its beliefs and practices. It was much more uniform in the time of Constantine, when he made Christianity the official religion of Rome. His purpose was political, not spiritual. He wanted to unite the empire. This, too, was the real driving force behind the formulations of the creeds that emerged at this stage in history. Early Christianity was diverse. Unfortunately, deviations from what the counsels determined as normative became heresy, which is a terrible word. We ought to do away with that word. So when it comes to “salvation” there is no single biblical view; there are several different biblical perspectives.

I am particularly drawn to Mark’s perspective/version of salvation. In I:14-15 Mark says, “Now after John was arrested , Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.”

There is no end to the discussion and debate on what Jesus had in mind when he burst on to the scene in Palestine proclaiming the good news of the kingdom or rule of God.  On one level, the kingdom of God is a subversive phrase that stands in direct contrast to the kingdom of Caesar and all the other kingdoms of the world ordered by power and force. The nonviolent, peaceful, just kingdom of the Christ confronts and challenges all other kingdoms. On another level, however, the kingdom of God includes all the kingdoms of the world, even when they operate by greed and violence. In this sense the kingdom of God is the kin-dom of God that includes all. Jesus teaches us how to hold these tensions together, and this is how we learn to love the enemy.

In some passages in the Gospels the kingdom is a future reality, but in many passages (probably most) the kingdom is a present, dynamic reality – a reality that is here right now and constantly breaking into the world. Jesus never defined the kingdom of God, rather, he told stories about it. “The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow . . .” He would say, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God . . . It is like a mustard seed . . .” Mark says in 4:33, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them.” Jesus spoke in riddles and paradoxes and used common images which he sometimes turned on their heads.

In 1:34 Mark says that Jesus cast out many demons “and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” This demand for secrecy has been called by scholars the Messianic secret, which has spawned as you would expect a good number of theories and interpretations. One interesting feature is the irony that in several places the demons seem to be aware of who Jesus is, though his own disciples are not. And even when the disciples get the words right, like in Mark 8 when they confess Jesus to be the Messiah, they don’t really know what that means. Now, I know this is going to sound a bit judgmental and in a way it is, I guess, but I don’t know how to soften the blow. When it comes to Jesus’ proclamation of the good news here in Mark’s Gospel (this is true for Matthew and Luke as well) there are a lot of us (Christians in general) who don’t get it.

The good news in Mark’s Gospel is not about the afterlife; it’s not about heaven when we die. (Now, please don’t mishear me. I am not saying there is no heaven or afterlife, okay. If any of you have ever heard me preach a funeral you know I believe that there is more to life than this life, that there is life after life. So don’t misquote me here.) What I am saying, though, is that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God here in Mark he is talking about something going on in this world and something that he believed would be fulfilled/realized in this world. When Jesus talks about the rule of God in Mark’s Gospel he is talking about God’s dream and plan for this world and God’s presence, engagement, and participation in this world and in our lives right now.

Unfortunately, a number of us (again, I am speaking of Christians in general) have made the good news of salvation nothing more than a kind of legal, juridical transaction between the believer and God that secures forgiveness of sins and the promise of heaven. We have made it about believing the right doctrines and performing the right rituals in order to guarantee one’s place in heaven. And so, for a number of Christians salvation is mostly an evacuation plan. And frankly, this is why some Christians seem to have very little concern for taking care of our planet and being good stewards of earth’s resources. This is why some Christians show very little concern for issues of social justice and compassionate care and advocacy for the poor and marginalized. Because they don’t see the good news being about such things.

In Marks Gospel the good news is about such things, it is about all things that pertain to liberation and wholeness. Here in Mark Jesus comes proclaiming the good news and then, he immediately begins to manifest and express the power of the good news, which, as we see in our Gospel passage today, is the power to liberate (to set free) and the power to heal (to make whole).

The power of the good news in Mark’s Gospel is the power of God to liberate us and our communities from the life-demeaning, life-diminishing, and life-destroying forces that are at work in our world and in our own personal lives and communities. It’s the power to liberate us from our inner demons, and the injustices that we get entangled in. It’s the power to heal us from our brokenness, from the many ways the image of God in us gets marred and maligned. The good news of salvation is the power to restore God’s image in us.

The power of the good news is the power to set us free from our prejudices, our greed our lust for power, position, and possessions, and our propensity toward violence. It’s the power to deliver us from the many ways we have allowed the principalities and powers to tell us who we are and form our lives. It’s the power to free us from all our negative self-images and negative judgments of others. It’s the power to heal relationships through forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s the power of new beginnings.

When you understand salvation in these ways then it is really good news, not just for ourselves, but for our planet, for creation, for our communities, for all the people we are in relationship with. It awakens us to God’s presence all around and in others. We become part of a larger story and become more compassionate and inclusive.

Back in the summer of 2006, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story about Billy Graham. Probably no figure in conservative Christianity has been more loved and revered than Graham. He has spoken to millions around the world, counseled U.S. presidents, and strongly represented the evangelical view of Christian salvation. When I was young Southern Baptist preacher beginning my ministry, like so many other young ministers we tried to imitate Graham. His famous gesture and phrase was the open Bible, arm and open hand extended, declaring, his most famous line, “The Bible says.”

In this rather remarkable interview with Newsweek, the elder Graham was much more humble and less confident in what the Bible says. He admitted in the interview that he no longer thinks one needs to take every verse in the Bible literally (that was a big admission). When he was asked whether heaven would be closed to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christians he refused to be decisive. He said, “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t.” Then he said, “I believe the love of God is absolute.” He told his interviewer that he was spending more time on the love of God in his final years and that he believed God loves everybody regardless of what label they have. If I remember, he took some heat from the evangelical community for that statement.  

When we experience the power of the good news to liberate and heal and make whole we grow in love, and it naturally moves us to be more compassionate, other-conscious, and inclusive. We become more aware of the sacredness of our planet and how we must care for all creation. We are set free to be and become, in our deepest and truest self, who we really want to be and become.

Not too long ago I wrote a piece for the Unfundamentalist Christians blog at Patheos. It received over 6,000 shares.  (I don’t mean shares as in stocks and bonds, I mean shares as on facebook and twitter – that’s the only way most of us who engage in public theology get paid for our work.) When I submitted the article I titled it, “Rick Warren’s Conundrum.” John Shore, the executive-editor of the blog, changed the title to “Eliminating Evangelical Double-speak about Salvation.” (That will make sense to you in a minute.)

Rick Warren is the pastor of a very large mega-church in California and the author of The Purpose Driven Life which has sold in the millions (one of the best-selling religious books of all time outside the Bible). In a book by Rabbi David Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matters, Rev. Warren wrote the foreword. In fact, this was proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.” This is what Warren said about the book and Rabbi Wolpe:  

“This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clich├ęs and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . .

The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world.

Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.”

So that’s what Warren said in the Foreword. Now, keep in mind that Rabbi Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not “faith in Jesus” which Warren believes is essential for salvation. In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded, “I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. . . . I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.” (Warren is referring to John 14:6 where the writer of John’s Gospel attributes to Jesus in his narrative the saying “I am the way . . .”, but as most all mainline biblical scholarship points out, the historical Jesus almost certainly didn’t say this.)

Next, Tapper pointed out that Warren had a number of friends of other religious traditions and that he was involved in interfaith dialogue with these friends (like Rabbi Wolpe). So he asked Warren, “Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians, I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?”

Warren danced all around the question. He clearly didn’t want to answer. This is how he sidestepped it. He said, “I don't think any of us deserve to go to heaven. . . I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God's grace. . . People say, well, I'm better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues. . . . I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it's available to everybody.”

Warren didn’t answer the question. He dodged the question. So if everyone gets in by grace, does that mean everyone has to believe in Jesus in order to receive grace (in which case, grace really wouldn’t be grace)? Warren didn’t say.

Tapper was gracious and let it ride. He didn’t press. He knew Warren didn’t want to answer the question and he didn’t make him. I would love to hear Warren actually attempt to answer the question about his friends not going to heaven in a public forum where his non-Christian friends are present. That is Warren’s conundrum. My editor called it double-speak. How can Warren say what he says about Rabbi Wolpe and not believe that Rabbi Wolpe is going to heaven? It all comes back to back to Warren’s very narrow view of salvation.

What if Christians like Warren developed a broader view of salvation (ironically, one could say a more biblical view)? What if they understood salvation in terms of “healing” and “wholeness” and “liberation” as salvation is, in fact, depicted in the Gospel of Mark (as well as in Matthew and Luke)? What if evangelical Christians experienced salvation as a process of growth in love, rather than as a reward for believing a particular doctrine about Jesus?

If they did, then Christians like Warren would actually experience the extravagance of a divine grace that reaches every person, not just those who conform to their belief system. Then Christians like Warren would realize that there is nothing they have to do or believe to be forgiven, they are already forgiven because God is a forgiving God, and all they need to do is claim forgiveness and then offer it to others. Then Christians like Warren could accept their friends of other religious traditions as truly their sisters and brothers without having to avoid questions about their going to heaven, and Christians like Warren could then spend the rest of their days talking about how good God is, instead of trying to get their friends to believe what they believe in order to be saved.

Now, let me close by making it a little more personal. What would it take for us to let go of our narrow views of salvation, and see salvation as God’s power at loose in the world to liberate and heal and restore and make individuals and whole communities whole? While we experience God’s saving power through Christ, what if we were to let go of our exceptionalism, and acknowledge that God may indeed use other means and mediators to accomplish liberation and healing as well?  

Our good God, expand our vision, help us to see beyond our particular group or family or church. Help us to see the many influences that have went in to shaping our particular view of salvation, and may we at least be willing to consider that there could much, much more to it than we have been taught or that we have experienced. But Lord, may we not just have expanded understanding, but give us personal experience of  your liberating and healing power in our lives, our families, our church, our larger community, and in our world. Let our lives and our faith community be channels through which your liberating and healing power can flow to touch others. Oh God there is so much woundedness and brokenness and suffering, and many are on the verge of giving up hope. Enliven us and inspire us to be a hopeful people who can offer hope to others because we know the possibility and potential of your loving, liberating, healing grace. Amen.  

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Anatomy of a Spiritual Experience

The story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus in John 1:45-51 can be read as a parable about the divine-human encounter.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46a)

Nathanael is skeptical and dismissive. The brilliant Johannine scholar R.E. Brown points out that this saying may have been a local proverb reflecting jealousy between Nathaniel’s town of Cana and nearby Nazareth. Certainly it reflects some bias against Nazareth.

Is Nathanael’s reaction not the typical human reaction? Are we not all bound by convention and custom? Are we not all influenced by the biases we have acquired from being conditioned, socialized, and indoctrinated into our particular systems of thought and behavior? And this, of course, can become a huge impediment to spiritual growth.

Philip said to him, “Come and see” (John 1:46b).

This is an invitation to confront the biases of our cultural, social, and religious conditioning. It is an invitation to push back, to give ourselves some space to question and explore alternative possibilities. Closed systems cannot tolerate such questioning. A closed system, whether political, social, or religious abhors self-critique and demands conformity. In a closed religious system the major concern is about performing the right rituals and believing the right doctrines.

When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him . . . (John1:47a).

Let’s salute Nathanael for his willingness to “come and see.” He was willing to take the first step. Many Christians today are not. They think the first step is “a slippery slope” that could begin the slide to their demise. They fail to consider it could be a pathway to a whole new world.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:47-49).

It’s hard to know exactly how this interchange brought Nathanael to his “aha” moment, though it is fairly clear that Nathaniel felt Jesus really knew him.

When Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” he may mean something like, “Here is one worthy of the name of Israel.” What he doesn’t say is, “Here is Nathaniel a poor, wretched sinner.” 

Maybe this is the first revelation/epiphany necessary for a “breakthrough” encounter that can lead to profound transformation. Namely: The realization that before all our failures at love, before all our blunders and mistakes, we are loved, and the divine love by which we are loved is not diminished by our failures and blunders.

The first and foremost thing about us is not original sin, but original blessing. We are saints, before we are sinners. We are worthy of love, not because we earn it, but simply because we are. When a mother holds her newborn baby in her arms, that beloved child hasn’t done anything to earn the mother’s love. The mother just loves and loves. In such moments we are very close to God’s kind of love. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not worthy of love.

When Nathanael encounters Jesus he trusts his own “inner authority.” If we could ask him, “How do you know,” he would say, “I just know.” We, too, must be willing to trust our own “inner authority” if we hope to move past a second-hand faith.

A second-hand faith is what most Christians have. This is not something necessarily bad. It can be bad, but it can also be very good. A healthy second-hand faith can supply some good structure and principles to live by. It can help us become decent persons, and there is something to be said for becoming decent persons – that’s not insignificant. In fact, we would be far better off in our world if more Christians adopted and practiced healthier versions of the Christian faith that are more inclusive, gracious, credible, and oriented toward compassion and restorative justice. 

But there are limits. A second-hand faith alone cannot radically transform us at a deeper level or cause us to fall in love with God. It can move us in that direction, but we need something more. We need our own personal experience of the Divine. 

There is no one, single, uniform, or exclusive way into such encounters. There is no Roman Road or Four Spiritual Laws or Seven Habits that will lead to highly transformed people. So there is a great deal of mystery involved.

In my little book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls), I tell about the conversions of Malcom Muggeridge and the professor of Paul Tournier.  For Muggeridge it was the life of Mother Teresa that drew him to God. He wasn’t impressed by any of the historical, philosophical, or theological arguments for Christianity, but when he encountered her life he said, “If this is it, I’ve got to have it.”

For Paul Tournier’s professor it was different. Tournier was visiting his medical school after he had written his first book. This old professor whom Tournier admired very much wanted him to read some selections from his book. When he finished reading, Tournier looked up and his professor was wiping tears from his eyes. The professor said, “Oh, Paul, that’s a wonderful book. Everyone of us Christians should read that.” Surprised, Tournier replied, “Professor, I didn’t know you were a Christian. When did you become one?” He said, “Just now as you read from your book.”

The ways we enter into deeper experiences of the Divine Love (Lover) who indwells us are diverse and varied. There’s no single way. Nor can we control or manipulate or manufacture these experiences. (In chapter three of John’s Gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind - it blows where she will.) But while we can’t predict or produce at will these experiences, we can be open and receptive to them.

Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51).

The allusion here is to Jacob’s vision at Bethel where in his dream heaven opened and a ladder stretched from heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending. Here the Son of Man replaces the ladder. Son of Man is the designation for Jesus as the representative or archetypal human being. What this means, I think, is that in our humanity we are connected to God and can experience God.

Jesus is the stand-in for all human beings. What is true of Jesus as Son of Man is true or at least potentially true of all God’s daughters and sons. If Jesus in his humanity is the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth, then we too share in that glory and heaven and earth connect in us. The divine and human connect in our humanity. We are children of heaven and children of earth.

I love the way Gerald May expresses our intimate connection to the Divine,

“All human beings are created in and from the love of God, with an inborn love for God that continually arises from God and constantly seeks God. This love is meant for all people and for all creation. This is our true human nature. It is who we are.”                                                                                               The Dark Night of the Soulp. 51

If that is true, and I believe it is, the more we are open to experiences of love – the more we engage in giving and receiving love - the more we are open to God. The more loving we are the more full of God we are, and that is true whether we are aware of God or not.

When we know that we are held in a Great Love, we are more apt to let down our defense mechanisms and less likely to cling to our insecurities and fears. We are then free to be led by the Spirit into new experiences of God that can change us in profound ways.