Monday, May 17, 2010

A Grand Visison: Universal Reonciliation

A number of interpreters believe that a disciple of Paul or someone in the Pauline tradition wrote Ephesians and Colossians. This is primarily due to Greek stylistic and language differences, as well as shifts in theological emphases from what is found in Paul’s undisputed letters. When I taught a class on Paul a few years ago I basically held to this position, but have now changed my mind. The language differences are not all that significant and the shifts in theological perspective can be attributed to Paul’s theological development; after all, he was working out his theology on the road.

In both Ephesians and Colossians a dominant theme is reconciliation, and Paul’s teaching on the subject is drawn from the perspective of the cosmic Christ and God’s overarching plan to reconcile all things to God’s self. In Ephesians he says, “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, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8b-10). In Colossians he writes, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). Echoes of this hope can be found in passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians, where, in Paul’s representative theological perspective, all are justified and made alive in Christ (Rom. 5:12-21) and God becomes all in all (1 Cor. 15:20-28).

In Ephesians, the language of election and destiny is employed to emphasize Paul’s view that this is God’s overarching project/plan for the universe, namely, that all reality, visible and invisible, will be brought together, unified, made whole, reconciled to God and each other through and in Christ. In both letters Paul emphasizes the agency and instrumentality of Christ in this process.

The cosmic Christ is at work in our world in various ways, employing diverse means, engaging in this reconciling work. Like the yeast that leavens the dough, Christ often works anonymously, in hidden ways. The cosmic Christ works through many different religious traditions, mediators, and through non-religious organizations and persons to effect reconciliation. We who are disciples of Christ, especially, are called to engage in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20).

I am convinced that in time all living reality (which has been given the gift and capacity for immortality) will be reconciled to God and to each other. There are some folks who have been so beaten down in life, so neglected and abused, that their hearts have become hardened and resistant. And unless we have walked in their shoes we have no right to judge them. There are others, who, driven by pride or lust or greed, have become entrenched in evil and seem to have no conscience. But no matter how strenuously they have suppressed the light of God that is within them, it is still there; no matter how deep the traces of God have been buried, the residue of God still abides.

I believe that in time God will be able to draw out the flicker of love and goodness that has been buried beneath all the rubble of hate, violence, evil, and injustice. I have hope that, even those who appear to be entrenched and enslaved to evil, will be saved from the terrible mess they have made of their lives and the lives of others, having opportunity to repent, change, and rectify all the evil they have done.

Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, in their book, If Grace is True, tells about a conservative Christian friend, Harry, who is one of the most compassionate people they know. Harry takes every opportunity to tell of God’s goodness and love, and he creates opportunities by caring for people in whatever ways he can. He’s a good, caring person.

Harry befriended a man who later died of cancer. He did work around his house when his friend was no longer able, and Harry had witnessed to his friend up until his death with no apparent success (that is from his conservative Christian point of view; his friend never made any sort of decision for Christ). At the funeral the deceased man’s wife asked Harry if he thought her husband is in heaven.

Harry said: “I told her that when her husband was lying in that hospital bed unconscious and hooked up to all those machines, I prayed for him. The doctors are always saying people can hear more than we think, so I took his hand and asked him to repent of his sins and accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. I told his wife that I believe Jesus was with her husband in those final moments before he died, and I have every reason to hope that he accepted the Lord.”

I don’t know why he would tell her that he had “every reason” to hope that he accepted Christ, since his friend had never indicated any desire to accept his Christian faith before. But Harry gave the widow the very best reply his theology would allow; in fact, he even pushed the limits. Whether it was any comfort to her or not, it was the very best he could do. Harry was more gracious than his theology. He gave her a little thread of hope.

Surly “the riches of God’s grace” that has been “freely bestowed” and “lavished on us” (Eph 1:5-7) offers more than a little thread of hope, thrown to a dying man with the meager prospect that somehow he will latch hold of it. Gulley and Mulholland make this assessment: “Harry’s God was willing to redeem a person even if that redemption came with the very last breath. But sadly, Harry’s God is powerless in the face of death. Those who resist until their dying breath are forever doomed. Death always has the final word.” I don’t believe death has the final word. In light of the death and resurrection of Christ, grace, hope, and life have the final word.

Someone is likely to point out the passage in Hebrews that says that it is appointed for humans to die once, and after that, face the judgment (9:27). But that is only a bad thing if judgment is a bad thing. Judgment, I believe, is that process all of us undergo that refines, purifies, and purges us, making us, like Jesus, more fully human.

Judgment is only something to be feared if the judge is a hanging judge. But according to Jesus the judge is Abba, the compassionate, caring Parent who will go to any extent to save God’s children. In our judicial system it would be a conflict of interest for a judge to be a parent, but not in God’s court. The judge is the one who loves and loves and keeps on loving.

I think the church that practices an open table (Communion), inviting all to participate, reflects the reconciling nature of God. God is constantly beckoning, wooing, and drawing us to God’s self.

In the parable of Luke 15, the father went out and entreated the older son to join the party. You know he left the door open. I don’t buy the apocalyptic version that says there is only a limited time and if one doesn’t change in the time allotted on this earth then one’s case is hopeless.

Our freedom to choose in this life is limited by any number of factors: our family of origin; the time, place, and circumstances of our existence, and the opportunities or lack thereof that affords; our mental and physical abilities; the socialization process, and the total impact of our culture on our thinking. Someone who has suffered an abusive childhood and encountered little love in this world is not as free to respond to the good as someone who has been well loved and cared for. If God’s love is unconditional, then there can be no time limits or constraints on the invitation to embrace the welcome and hospitality of God.

No one, of course, is ever force, manipulated, or coerced; it has to be one’s free decision. Anyone who remains outside the party, like the elder brother in Luke 15, remains so on one’s own accord. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that hell, whatever it may be or represent, is locked from the inside. But if it is locked from the inside, it can be opened anytime one chooses. My hope in universal reconciliation does not deny the need for or reality of judgment, but sees judgment as a restorative, redemptive process, not a punitive, retributive act that separates and excludes one forever.

If, as Paul says, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19), then Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of how far God is willing to go and how much God is willing to bear, to reconcile us to God’s self. God is patient, not wanting anyone to parish, and will bear with us as long as it may take.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Western Christianity Must Change or Remain Irrelevant

One of the indisputable findings of Jesus scholarship is that Jesus was planted deeply in the soil of first century Judaism; in other words, Jesus was a good Jew. The New Testament as a whole and the Synoptic Gospels, in particular, show the emergence of the Jesus movement within the milieu of Jesus’ Jewish heritage and the connection between Israel’s story and Jesus’ first followers. But Jesus did not adopt hook, line, and sinker every aspect of his Jewish faith and culture.

In many ways Jesus was a deconstructionist, but not simply for the sake of deconstruction. Jesus’ critique of his own religion was motivated by a passion for God (who, he believed, had entered into covenant with the Jewish people for the sake of humanity) and for the good of Israel and all humankind. Jesus deconstructed the faith for the purpose of reconstruction.

Jesus offered new readings and fresh interpretations of the Torah, particularly in regard to divorce, Sabbath law, and the nature of holiness.

Jesus confronted the popular Deuteronomist claim that wealth was a sign of special favor and a reward for obedience. He undermined such teaching by proclaiming that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, while announcing judgment upon the rich. Jesus clearly exercised a preferential, prejudicial compassion and regard for the poor and oppressed.

Jesus disturbed the Jewish religious establishment, refusing to concede to their authority and claim to be gatekeepers of the tradition, which they employed for the purpose of determining and distinguishing between the “insiders” and the “outsiders.” Jesus interpreted the tradition in ways that were more inclusive and universal. His practice of table fellowship with all kinds of people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners” (those who did not keep the Jewish law for whatever reason)—and his healings and acts of mercy toward Gentiles subverted traditional Jewish exclusiveness.

Though first century Jewish culture was pervasively patriarchal Jesus was refreshingly egalitarian in his view and treatment of women, calling women disciples, violating cultural taboos, and elevating women to a level of gender equality and mutuality.

While Jesus acknowledged God as a “transcendent Other” familiar to traditional Judaism, Jesus most frequently spoke of and related to God as an intimate “Abba” (loving Father, merciful Parent), who was dynamically engaged in the world, caring immensely about the creation, especially God’s children.

Jesus, in contrast to most traditional Jewish teaching, considered all people to be children of God gathered within the embrace of God’s unconditional love. Jesus pushed the limits of forgiveness and love, instructing his disciples to love their enemies, because in reality, they are their sisters and brothers.

So while Jesus was clearly a first century Jew, living and ministering within that tradition, he refused to accept all the popular and traditional teachings of his Jewish faith. Instead, he charted new territory, broke down barriers, overstepped boundaries, offered courageous interpretations of Israel’s sacred Scriptures, lived a contagious faith, and in significant ways re-imagined God.

I believe that the current state of traditional western Christianity may be comparable to the state of first century Judaism (as it is depicted in the Gospels). And now, as then, critique, deconstruction, and renovation are needed. Jesus’ continuity and discontinuity within his faith tradition, his deconstruction for the purpose of reconstruction, are paradigmatic for emerging, progressive Christianity. There are today a number of elements in traditional, western Christianity that must be deconstructed for the purpose of reconstruction.

Bibliolatry—elevating the Bible to the status of infallibility—a form of idolatry, needs to be deconstructed for the purpose of developing healthier, more holistic and transformative readings and interpretations.

The dualisms of separate identities (“children of God” standing juxtaposed to the “lost,” “unsaved,” the “children of the Devil,” etc.) and separate destinies (heaven and hell) must give way to more inclusive, universal theologies that restore the dignity, worth, and authenticity of persons of other religious faiths or those of no faith at all.

Evangelism that is bent on converting others to traditional Christian beliefs (to one’s own group or way of believing) must give way to acceptance (not just tolerance), welcome, inclusion, partnership, and genuine Christian hospitality patterned after Jesus’ open table fellowship and acceptance of all people.

Apocalyptic ideas of the end (destruction) of the world and the dissolution of the creation must yield to dynamic approaches that affirm the value of and anticipate the renovation of the creation; approaches that emphasize our vocation of being good stewards and collaborators with Christ in the care of the planet and the advancement of universal justice and peace.

In these and numerous other ways traditional Christianity must change if it is to play any significant role in the work of God’s kingdom on earth and the spiritual, moral, and social transformation of this world into God’s new world.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Rhythm of Discipleship

The life of Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, demonstrates a rhythm of prayer/spiritual retreat and worldly engagement that, I think, is a key to a healthy, holistic, transformational spiritual life. The pattern of discipleship that Jesus modeled was a pattern of solitude and service. Throughout his ministry Jesus moves back and forth between spiritual retreat and active ministry.

All the Gospels call attention to this movement, but Luke’s Gospel, in particular, places special emphasis on this pattern. It seems that Jesus regularly withdrew from an active, full ministry of healing and teaching to be alone with God.

There are a number of personal, inner disciplines that nurture the spiritual life and many of these overlap: study, spiritual reading, theological reflection, confession, self-examination, silence, solitude, meditation, and of course, the many forms and expressions of prayer.

It is largely through these personal, spiritual disciplines that we find strength to endure the pain of life, the wisdom to guide and sustain us along the way, the courage to cope, and the hope that inspires us not to give up. Through these disciplines of the spirit, we open our lives to the Holy Spirit, to the grace and transforming love of God, and we find the power, motivation, passion, and courage to engage our world as servants and ministers of the living Christ.

Our corporate life together as the body of Christ involves us in this rhythm of retreat and active service. Some of what we do as a church partakes of the nature of retreat; other activities engage us in ministry and compassionate care for others.

I like what was told the stranger who happened to attend a Quaker meeting by mistake. He waited patiently in the Quaker silence for things to get started. Five minutes turned into ten; then when he could bear it no longer he asked the person seated next to him, “When does the service begin?” The Quaker responded, “When the worship ends.” Whatever form our “worship” takes it should connect us with the Divine Love in a way that empowers us to live a compassionate life of kindness and service to others.

Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was a freshman at Johnson Bible College and Rear Admiral Miller spoke in chapel. He was the highest ranking chaplain in the military at the time. He had been at Normandy in June on the day of the slaughter, and he described that experience that evening in the dorm to Fred and some of the others. He explained how he went from soldier to soldier, many screaming, crying, dying, bombs exploding all around, praying for them and speaking words of comfort.

Someone asked him, “With shells going off up and down the beach, everywhere, why did you do that?” He answered, “I am a minister.”

In the course of the conversation someone asked him, “But didn’t you ask them if they were Catholic or Protestant or Jew? I mean if you are a minister . . .” Rear Admiral Miller said, “If you are a minister, the only question you ask is, ‘Can I help you?’”

All Christians are ministers and the most important question ministers ask is not, “What do you believe?” but rather, “How can I help you?” When Mother Teresa ministered to the homeless, dying people of Calcutta she did not ask them what they believed. She knew they were children of God. She helped them to experience God’s love through her kindness and attentiveness. She asked, “How can I help you?” And even when they felt they were beyond help, beaten down so much by life that they did not feel worthy of help, she helped them all the more. And for many under the crushing burden of worthlessness, she helped them feel loved for the first time in their lives, making it possible for them to die with dignity.

It seems to me, that whatever spiritual disciplines we practice, either in personal solitude or corporately with others, we should be compelled to ask, “How can I help you?”