I just love Jesus’ annoying habit of spinning parables so obviously designed to wipe the s#@$-eating grin off our faces.
In Luke 16, Jesus serves up a story that contradicts all the pious niceties we perpetuate at church, a story in which, despite everything we teach our children in Sunday School, Jesus sides with Gordon Gecko and says in essence: ‘Greed is good.’
We continue our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, this weekend by looking at Greed.
The text will be the story of the ‘dishonest manager,’ a parable that, while it does come up in the lectionary, most preachers treat it like was the latest Joel Osteen book.
Here it is:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
In case you’re a Methodist and just skipped over the scripture, here it is in a nutshell:
Manager gets fired with cause.
Decides to save his own skin.
Knows he can’t do X, Y or Z so he criminally halves his Boss’ debtors’ debts to win their favor.
Jesus says: ‘Well done.’
Actually Jesus says: ‘Make friends for yourselves through dishonesty.’
And all the church people said: ‘What the_________?’
Jesus praises the bad guy, the cheating little blank, and tells us to mimic him?
Jesus’ point and how it jives with our picture of Jesus has long been the cause of head-scratching for preachers.
Here’s one thing, though, that hit me this week.
The chapter divisions in our bibles weren’t there until the 4th/5th century.
Meaning, in Luke’s original Gospel (the ‘Director’s Cut so to speak) this parable followed immediately after, without division, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
What changes in the reading of the parable, I wonder, when its read as a companion to the Prodigal Father who had two sons?
Last week I solicited responses from you, asking you to give me your best case for NOT believing in God.
One of the responses I received was brief but cutting:
“Rather than insisting (with no evidence to support it) that God exists, doesn’t it seem much more reasonable that humans simply needed a ‘god’ to give their lives meaning and morality?
And doesn’t it make sense that as society increasingly needs ‘god’ less for meaning and morality that people would believe in him less?
And isn’t that exactly what we see happening in modern, scientific cultures?”
Whether the writer here did so purposefully I don’t know, but he’s channeling Sigmund Freud’s primary critique of religion.
Say what you will about Freud’s bona fides as a psychoanalyst, his analysis of both religion and literature remains incisive and compelling.
I remember the first time I read Freud’s The Future of an Illusion and Moses and Monotheism, both as a second year at UVA. I’d only been a Christian for a few years, and after read those two books I was pissed off for weeks.
On the one hand, Freud’s critiques of religion were wild, sweeping speculations, made with very little ‘hard’ evidence to support them and demanding of readers precisely the very thing he’d set out to dismiss: faith.
On the other hand, I’d been a Christian long enough- and I’d been an atheist long enough before that- to know that Freud’s arguments were not without merit.
Indeed they were true when considered against a great many strains of Christianity and religion in general.
Religion, Freud argued, is, at root, an expression of our underlying psychological neuroses. In the two books I mentioned and in others, Freud asserts that religion is an attempt to control the Oedipal complex, it’s a means of giving structure (meaning moral and ethical boundaries) to social groups, it’s a form of wish fulfillment, it’s an infantile delusion born out of our need for a Father figure, and it’s an attempt to control the outside world.
Dismiss Freud at your peril.
Just think, many fundamentalists, Christian and Muslim, make Freud’s very argument but in reverse: Without God, there’s no moral foundation to the world; there’s no rubric for what constitutes the ‘good.’ Religion is just an artifice then for a certain vision of traditional society.
It’s also true for many Christians ‘Christianity’ is but another label, a way to distinguish us from other tribes. It’s but a baptized form of nationalism.
And we all know that for many religion IS an escape or cover to which people turn to cope with psychological wounds- or, even worse, religion becomes the way people refuse to cope, or even confront, the wounds and painful realities in their life.
And then there’s Freud’s ‘wish fulfillment’ critique. While critiques of certain manifestations of religion are not indictments of religion in sum nor does such a critique even logically approach the existence of a transcendent God, still…there’s enough substance to the argument to give believers pause.
Fact is, Freud is right. A good deal of religion, at least the Christian sphere I know, is actually just human projection and wish fulfillment, reducing the great ‘I AM’ to a god ‘up there’ who answers my prayers, blesses me, and grants my wishes.
Or doesn’t…at which point I get angry and no longer ‘believe’ in him.
The great ‘I Am’ reduced to a magic genie in a celestial lamp.
People often ask me why I have such a problem Joel Osteen.
Honestly, my problems are too many to number, but really they all boil down to this:
Joel Osteen reminds me that Freud was, if not right, not entirely wrong.
Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church
If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’
*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal
If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.
Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.
By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.
Heresy #6: Donatism
What Is It?
The rigorist belief that the Church must be a Church of ‘saints not sinners;’ therefore, Christian clerics must have a pure of character and an unwavering fidelity in order to effectively discharge their priestly duties.
Who Screwed Up First
Donatus, a Berber Bishop in the 4th century.
‘Donatism’ arose as a direct result of the persecutions Christians suffered under the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.
In a nutshell, there were a number of Christians, including clergy, who recanted their faith or who handed over ‘holy things’ to the empire rather than face a punishment that could prove fatal.
Once the persecution ended, the Church faced the tricky dilemma: What to do with those priests who hadn’t stood strong in the face of persecution?
Should not clergy be the outstanding example of which laity are the norm?
In particular, does their character (or lack thereof) now call into question how effective they are in presiding over the sacraments?
Is the Eucharist no longer a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ because one of these cowardly, wimpy priests said Mass?
Donatus labeled those priests who had caved under persecution ‘traditores’ and claimed that their infidelity render their priesthood, especially their administration of the sacraments, invalid.
Laying his rhetorical smack down and judging it a heresy, St Augustine, who was in his former life no stranger to matters of impure moral character, concluded that Donatism underestimated the extent to which sin afflicts every person (and so misunderstood grace) but also reduced the sacraments to objects of human administration rather than means of God’s grace at which the priest is merely a servant.
In sum, ministers need not be perfect for God to use ministers for grace’s sake.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you- subconsciously even- need your pastor to be a perfect Christian because you are lackadaisical about practicing your own faith then you might just be a modern day Donatist.
If you avoid the complexity in your own marriage or family by projecting on to your pastor the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a spouse or parent and needing him/her to be the perfect parent and the perfect husband or wife then you’re verging on heresy.
If you put your pastor on a pedestal and feel disappointed when your pastor turns out to be an actual, real, living-breathing human being then Augustine would lay the smack down on you too- though, chances are, you’d be disappointed in him too.
If ‘decorum’ is a more urgent standard by which you judge your pastor than ‘disciples made’ then you’re just a Donatist with a Flannery O’Connor twist.
If you expect your pastor to do Christianity for you and your congregation (visiting all the sick, praying at every meeting, leading every ministry, welcoming every newcomer…) then, like a certain Berber before you, you’ve got it all backwards.
If you really don’t trust in your heart the Gospel of grace and thus do not trust that the Church is a place for sinners and thus need your pastor to be a saint (your hagiographic version of) then the good news is you’re a heretic. The bad news is you might not have ever truly converted in the first place.
If you’re more upset by what your pastor wears or whether your pastor swears than you are by the number of people in your community who know not Christ then not only are you why the ‘Nones’ want to have nothing to do with the Church you’re why Augustine wanted the Donatists to have nothing do with the Church.
If you would disqualify entire groups of ‘others’ from ministry by implying that only the sinless qualify for ordination, then 1) shame on you and 2) heretic.
If you’re a pastor who encourages any of the above presumptions, then more so than any others you’re a Donatist in 21st century guise.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
Adherents of Civil Religion
The Religious Right
Take the log out of your own eye.
Read St Augustine’s Confessions and breath a sigh of relief that he’s not your pastor.
Get to know your pastor.
Repeat until memorized: ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the morally pure, well-spoken, ideal spouse, perfect parent, flawless leader, doubtless, ungodly.’
For the past four months, we’ve been working our way, chunk by chunk, through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Two weeks ago, on the way out of worship and having just heard a reading from Romans 8, a parishioner asked me:
That verse in Romans about all things working out for good for those who love God- I’ve never understood what that’s supposed to mean. Does it really mean everything works out in life for Christians? Because that’s not exactly my experience.
I disarmed the question with a dash of humor and a few sprinkles of theology and sent the questioner on their way. Out of narthex sight, out of pastor’s mind.
I didn’t think about their question again; that is, not until today.
Like many of you, I purchase most of my books through Amazon. Frequently Amazon will provide me with a list of suggested books that I ‘might like,’ titles presumed by the Amazon Borg to live in the same habitat as my previous purchases.
Because many of the books I purchase are theological, the Amazon algorithms apparently have tagged me as a reader of ‘Christian Literature’ and ‘Christian Inspiration.’
Yes, you were right to anticipate a dry-heave gag reflex. It’s hard for me to say, for example, in the case of For Every Season whether my credulity is strained more by the descriptor ‘Christian’ or ‘Literature.’
In fact a quick perusal through the virtual shelves of ‘Christian Fiction’ suggest there is a surprising audience out there for Anabaptist (Amish? Mennonite?) Romance novels.
Book covers abound that feature chaste yet well-endowed disciples who manage to wear their biblically-mandated head covering in a come hither way.
It makes one wonder if there’s likewise a Christian subcategory to torture porn novels?
Fifty Shades of Amish Wool perhaps?
I mean, the Amish are good at tying knots.
(It’s my idea- don’t steal it)
You won’t be surprised to learn that what truly kills me is Amazon suggesting that I ‘might like these books in Christian Inspiration.’
Glancing at these suggested texts, whose titles even my cynical mind couldn’t satirize better, I thought of that parishioner again and her question about that verse.
Does everything in life work out for good for Christians? For those who love God? For those who just pray hard enough?
Because that’s certainly the explicit promise in nearly all these ‘inspirational’ books, and while it may be inspirational to hear that the Bible/Faith/Prayer contains the secret to grant our every market-generated wish, it’s not at all clear that it counts as ‘Christian.’
So many of these ‘inspirational’ books peddle exactly what atheists accuse religion for being underneath the hood. ‘God’ isn’t really a name bound to a very specific historical narrative; ‘God’ is really just the word we use to designate what we want to change in our lives.
It’s the baldest kind of hope fulfillment.
Does everything work out for good if you love God enough and pray?
Joel Osteen answers in the affirmative and has taken that ‘yes’ all the way to the bank.
Truth be told, I’ve actually read JO’s bestseller, Your Best Life Now. And in all however many pages, Rev Osteen never gets around to mentioning these essential bits of Christian logic:
If we’re made in the image of God
And Jesus is the image of the invisible God
Then we’re made to bear the image of Jesus, the incarnate God.
Your ‘best’ life (and mine and anyone else’s) is a life that resembles Jesus.
So when Paul writes to the Romans that “all things work together for good,” Paul’s definition of ‘good’ doesn’t mean a large (or even modest) home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.
‘Good’ in Paul’s equation
That’s what Paul means when he goes on to write in Romans that those God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
The trajectory of scripture, then, is about God fashioning us into Jesus’ image.
That’s what it means for ‘everything’ to ‘work out’ for ‘good.’
Eventually, Paul is saying, those who love God get to resemble Jesus.
We don’t (necessarily) get a nice home, a happy, healthy family, a fulfilling, well-paying job, a rock-solid marriage, or a long life.
Not only did Jesus lack all those things, Jesus was homeless, rejected, betrayed, suffered, and killed. And so was, we should point out, the man who wrote that verse about things working out for God’s people.
So whatever Paul means by things working out for good in our lives, it certainly doesn’t mean a life of empty parking spots, problem-less marriages and in-ground pools.
Therein lies the question in Paul’s memory verse about all things working together for good for those who love God.
If looking and living like Jesus is what Paul means by ‘good’ then just how good is your life?
Our sermon series through Romans landed us in the famous, much-loved passage 8.31-39 this weekend.
The audio is here below as well as on the sidebar of the blog. You can download it in iTunes as well under ‘Tamed Cynic:
Who is against us? Who will condemn us?
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.
They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.
Reread his letter to the Romans-because Paul’s left you no room for qualification. There’s no grist for doubt or debate or indecision.
Don’t left the punctuation marks fool you because there’s only one possible way to answer the questions Paul’s laid out for you.
No one is against us.
No one will condemn us.
No one- no thing- nothing can separate us from Christ’s love.
Of course, as a preacher, I know first hand the danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two listeners in the audience who don’t realize that the question you’re asking has no answer but the obvious one.
The danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two people who mistakenly think the question might have a different answer.
For example, take this response to Paul’s rhetorical questions from Mark Driscoll: Play Clip from ‘God Hates You.’
I thought that would get your attention.
Or at least make you grateful I’m your pastor.
Just think, I make a single joke on my blog about Jesus farting and some of you write letters to the bishop; Mark Driscoll preaches an entire sermon about how ‘God hates you’ and thousands of people ‘like’ it on Facebook.
If you read my blog, then you know I feel about Mark Driscoll the same way I feel about Joel Osteen, Testicular Cancer and Verizon Wireless.
But he’s not an obscure, street-corner, fire-and-brimstone preacher.
He’s a best-selling author. He’s planted churches all over the world.
The church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill, is one of the nation’s largest churches with a membership that is younger and more diverse than almost any other congregation.
Ten thousand listened to that sermon that Sunday.
And that Sunday ten thousand did NOT get up and walk out.
That Sunday ten thousand listened to the proclamation that ‘God hates you, God hates the you you really are, the person you are at your deepest level.’
And that Sunday at the end of that sermon somewhere near ten thousand people said ‘Amen.’
Which, of course, means ‘That’s true.’
Except it isn’t.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
After all, technically speaking, it’s a ‘good’ sermon. It’s visceral. It’s urgent. It’s confrontational and convicting.
It’s the kind of preaching that demands a response.
Technically speaking, I bet Mark Driscoll’s sermon ‘worked.’
I bet it scared the hell out of people.
But what did it scare them into I wonder?
Because when it comes to Paul’s rhetorical questions, Mark Driscoll gets the response dead wrong. So dead wrong that anti-Christ is probably the most accurate term to describe it.
But you know that already.
I can tell from the grimace of disgust you had on your face while listening to him that you know that already.
You don’t need to be a pastor to know he’s wrong. And you don’t need to be a pastor to prove he’s wrong.
All you need are a handful of memory verses.
Memory verses like Colossians 1.15: ‘…Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God…’
Which means: God is like Jesus.
And God doesn’t change.
Which means: God has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus.
So no, God doesn’t hate you. God has never hated you and God would never hate you.
You don’t need to be pastor to prove he’s wrong; you just need to remember that John 3.16 does not say ‘God so loathed the world that he took Jesus’ life instead of yours.’
No, it says ‘God so loved…that he gave…’
You don’t need to be a pastor to know that God isn’t fed up with you. God isn’t sick and tired of you. God doesn’t hate the you in you because ‘God was in Christ reconciling all things- all things- to himself.’
In case you forgot, that’s 2 Corinthians 5.19.
It’s true that God is just and God is holy and anyone who reads the newspaper has got to think God’s entitled to a little anger, but you don’t have to be a pastor to know that none of those attributes trump the Paul’s Gospel summation that ‘while we were still sinners, God died for the ungodly, for us.’
God has not had it up to anywhere with you.
You don’t need to have gone to seminary to know that; you just need to have gone to church on June 30.
That’s when we heard Paul testify from his personal experience that no matter how much we sin, no matter how often we sin, no matter how we sin, no matter how much our sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more.
‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’
‘We have peace with God…’
Whatever needed to be set right, whatever needed to be forgiven, whatever needed to be paid, ‘it is finished.’
That’s in red letters in my bible. Jesus said it.
His cross, the Letter to the Hebrews says, was ‘a perfect sacrifice, once for all.’
So there’s nothing in your present, there’s nothing in your past, there’s nothing coming down the pike- and just in case you think you’re the exception let’s just say there’s nothing in all of creation- there’s nothing that can separate you from the love of God.
You don’t have to be a pastor to realize that you can say this a whole lot of different ways.
But it all boils down to the same simple message:
God. Is. For. Us.
Not against us.
But you know that.
Mark Driscoll may have 10K people in his church but I’d bet every last one of you would run him out of this church.
You would never sit through a sermon like. You would never tolerate a preacher like that- you barely tolerate me.
You would never participate in a church that had perverted the Gospel into that.
God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. God’s against you.
You would NEVER say that to someone else.
But here’s the thing- and maybe you do need to be a pastor know this:
There are plenty of you
who say things like that
all the time.
Not one of you would ever say things like that to someone else, but, consider it on the job knowledge, plenty of you say it to yourself every day.
Plenty of you ‘know’ Paul’s questions are rhetorical.
You know there’s only one possible answer, only one way to respond: God is for us.
When it comes to you and your life and what you’ve done and how God must feel about the person you see in the mirror, your inner monologue sounds a whole lot more like Mark Driscoll than it sounds like Paul.
You may know this, but as a pastor I definitely do.
Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.
Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.
Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.
Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.
God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you.
I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.
And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.
So here’s my question: why?
I mean- we know Paul’s being rhetorical. We know it’s obvious. We know there’s only one possible response: God is for us.
Why do we persist in imagining that God is angry or impatient or wearied or judgmental or vindictive or ungracious or unforgiving?
If it’s obvious enough for a rhetorical question then why?
Why do we persist in imagining that God is like anything other than Jesus?
Is it because we tripped up on those bible verses that speak of God’s anger?
Is it because we’ve all heard preachers or we all know Christians who sound a little like Mark Driscoll?
Sure we have.
Is it because we’re convinced the sin in our lives is so great, so serious, that we’re the exception to Paul’s ironclad, gospel
equation: God is for us?
Is it because we think we’re the exception?
Maybe for some of us.
But I wonder.
I wonder if we persist in imagining that God is angry and impatient and unforgiving and at the end of his rope- I wonder if we imagine God is like that because that’s what we’re like.
I wonder if we imagine God must be angry because we carry around so much anger with us?
I wonder if we imagine there are some things even God can’t forgive because there are things we won’t forgive?
I wonder if we imagine that God’s at the end of his rope because there are plenty of people with whom we’re at the end of ours?
I’ve been open with you in the past about my sometimes rocky sometimes resuscitated relationship with my Dad.
I’ve told you about how my dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my youngest boy is now.
And I’ve told you about how even today our relationship is tense and complicated…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of a story that ends in separation.
As with any separation, all the relationships in the family got complicated. And as with many separations, what happens in childhood reverberates well into adulthood.
What I haven’t told you before is that I had a falling out, over a year ago, with my Mom.
The kind of falling out where you can no longer remember what or who started it or if it was even important.
The kind of rift that seemed to pull down every successive conversation like an undertow.
The kind of argument that starts out in anger and then slowly advances on both sides towards a stubborn refusal to forgive and eventually ages into a sad resignation that this is what the relationship is now, that this is what it will be, that this thing is between us now and is going to stay there.
We had that falling out quite a while ago, and I’ve let it fester simply because I didn’t have the energy to do the work I knew it would take to repair it.
And, to be honest, I didn’t have the faith to believe it could be repaired.
There’s no way I can say this without it sounding contrived and cliche.
There’s no way I can say this without it sounding exactly like the sort of sentimental BS you might expect in a sermon.
So I’ll just say it straight up and if it makes you want to vomit go ahead. I read Romans 8 late this week and it…convicted me.
And so I called my Mom.
‘We need to talk’ I said.
‘You really think so?’
It was a rhetorical question. There was only one possible answer: yes.
And so I began by telling her that I’d been reading a part of the bible and that I’d just noticed something I’d never noticed before.
I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.
Romans 8.31-39 is, after all, one of the most popular scripture texts for funerals. I’ve preached on this scripture probably more than any other biblical text.
Yet preaching it for funerals, with death and eternity looming, I never noticed how this passage about how no one is against us, how no one will condemn us, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus- it comes at the end of Paul’s chapter on the Holy Spirit.
It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are to live according to the Spirit- according to Christ’s Spirit.
It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are the heirs of Christ’s ministry, about how that inheritance will involve certainly suffering but that the Spirit will help us in our weakness.
This ‘nothing shall separate us’ passage- it comes as the conclusion to Paul telling us how the Holy Spirit will work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image so that we might live up to and in to calling.
In all the times I’ve turned to Romans 8 for a funeral sermon, I’ve never noticed before that, for Paul, it’s not about eternity.
It’s about living eternity now.
Who is against us? Who will condemn us?
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
Paul’s questions might be rhetorical.
The answers might be obvious and certain.
But that doesn’t make them easy or simple.
I’d never noticed that for Paul here in Romans 8- it’s actually meant to be the kind of preaching that demands a response.
Because if you believe that God in Jesus Christ is unconditionally, no matter what, for us then you’ve also got to believe that you should not hold anything against someone else.
If you believe that God in Christ Jesus refuses- gratuitiously- to condemn your life, then you’ve got to at least believe that it should be ditto for the people in your life.
And if you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing in all creation, then you must also believe that because of the love of God in Christ Jesus then nothing, nothing, nothing should separate us.
Someone asked me, instead of picking on the ivory-toothed, snake-oil charlatan, Joel Osteen, to explain why I have a problem with him.
Without intending it as such, I will give at least one answer on Saturday night.
I will spend Saturday Night at our annual Confirmation Retreat. In my time at Aldersgate, I’ve confirmed somewhere between 210-350 students. On Saturday Night I will attempt to summarize all the stories and lessons they’ve learned this year, and my summation will take the exact same shape it did for Jesus when he took off his outer robe, put on a servant’s apron and illustrated, hands-on exactly what it’s all meant for his disciples.
By washing their feet.
The foot washing in John 13, I’ll tell the confirmands, is an illustration of who Jesus is (the God who strips off his glory and puts on our likeness), it’s a summary statement of what it means to follow Jesus (serving others) and it’s a live-art embodiment of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
That’s what it all comes down to for Jesus. Serving. Humbling ourselves. Getting our hands dirty for the sake of another.
For someone like Joel Osteen, with his Prosperity Gospel (which is closer in logic to the original Gospel, i.e. Caesar’s Gospel) you are blessed with a (material, it’s always material) blessing as a sign of God’s favor upon you.
For someone like Jesus whose life betrayed a logic altogether at odds with Joel O, you’re blessed (JC makes no mention of material) only to be a blessing to others.
Just like Abraham.
JO vs JC.
Without saying as much, that’s the choice I’ll lay down for the confirmation students. The choice that will be with them for the rest of their lives.
And depending on whose eyes through which you look upon the world, you’re forced to make one of two conclusions:
1. If the sign of God’s favor and love is material blessing, then the poor and forsaken in our world are actively receiving something like the opposite of God’s favor and love.
2. If God blesses us to be a blessing, then we are the means by which the poor and forsaken actively receive God’s favor and love.
Tragically, many of the world’s poor gravitate toward #1, and I wonder if it’s due to so many of the world’s not-poor losing the plot on #2.
For JO, God’s blessing takes the form a parking spot, providentially open and free just for you- yes, that’s actually an example in his book.
For JC, God’s blessing takes the form of you taking on the sort of life where Christ will never one day have to ask you: ‘When I was hungry and/or thirsty, where the hell were you?’ And yes, that’s literally an example in JC’s book.
So, despite appearances to the contrary, it comes down to much more than me picking on Joel O.
There’s far too much at stake for simple mockery. There’s Amos-like righteous anger behind my sarcastic ridicule.
Indeed that’s exactly why, as some have asked/pointed out, I can have such scorn for someone and still be consistent with ‘Christian love.’
There’s too much at stake. Both in the world in which we live and in the Gospel which JC gave to us.
Because JO would have us believe that if we believe, God will give to us people/services to wash our feet.
Which is backassward from how JC summarizes his entire message and ministry.
For but another of putting this, click here to see a video I’ll show the confirmation students right before I read John 13 and then get down on my creaky knees and bend over with aching back and wash their icky, stinky feet to better immunize them against all but JC’s Gospel.
Well, if you read into Church Dogmatics§1.2, you’ll notice that Karl Barth thinks so.
For the uninitiated, ‘apologetics’ is the fancy word that describes the attempt to rationally account for- and prove- the faith claims of Christianity. Better put, apologists are those who try to convince skeptics and nonbelievers that Christianity is ‘true.’
Think: CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
What’s the requisite ingredient for good apologetics?
Surprisingly, it’s not God.
It’s ‘common ground.’
My friend Jesse rightly noted in § 1.1 that it seemed Barth would disavow any sort of rational justification of the faith. Despite being a Baptist, Jesse is evidently a good, perceptive reader.
In §1.2 Barth is convinced that there is no “being” that is a larger category within which to make sense of God. That is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to quip:
if there’s a larger, universal category of Truth with which everyone can appeal to and agree upon…then you should worship that Category, don’t worship the God of Israel and Jesus Christ.
Put another way, we can’t step outside of the category ‘God’ and rationally evaluate it because ‘God’ is the infinite, overarching category in which we live our incredibly finite lives.
Barth insists, therefore, that we take our own Christian faith as our starting point any time we give an account of our faith. We best explain our Christian language by speaking Christian. The Christian language can only be learned by immersion.
We must never pretend, Barth confesses, that our faith can be cast aside in the effort to find ‘common ground’ with the unbeliever and thereby reason our way to God.
Just as an aside, anyone who’s actually spent time with people of other religious traditions- talking about their religion- will know how elusive is this notion of ‘common perspective’ and thus how naive and dismissive it is to presume such a thing exists.
Maybe Sherlock Holmes could reason his way to the hounds of the Baskervilles but we can never hope to reason our way to cross and resurrection.
No, Barth insists that whenever we slide into apologetics and accept the existence of ‘common ground’ in articulating our faith, we deny that one crucial article of our confession that makes us distinctly who we are:
I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
Barth will not have us engaging the world if it means accepting the terms of a world that doesn’t believe sins have been/can be forgiven.
This is where Barth parts ways with all you Catholics (and Baptists). Barth will have nothing to do with natural theology.
For Barth, Jesus is absolutely singular. Looking to the natural world around us for insights or a path to God is not even a beginning point because its a beginning point that will never end up at Easter.
For Barth, God’s freedom will not allow the event of revelation and of faith to become captive to an institution or rationality.
We believe that God has revealed. That means revelation is the only grounds upon which we think through our faith–either of the church or of the mind.
Sorry, Jesse, but what Barth is doing here is what first made him appealing to me.
Much like how Joel Osteen makes me want to vomit in my mouth, I’ve always believed I’d rather have no answer to a faith question than a shallow, contrived, BS answer in the name of Jesus.
And, let’s admit it, that’s exactly what a lot of apologetics amounts to: backing up the bible by pimping out partial scientific assertions and Natural Philosophy for Dummies.
It’s not just academic for me.
I came to faith against my will at a time when I thought I was the smartest person in the room- okay, I still think I’m the smartest person in the room.
My point is that I should’ve been ripe for an intellectual demonstration of the faith. But it never interested me. I came to faith by….what?….the Holy Spirit?
Whatever you might call it, it left me convinced that when it comes to God, just like any other love, reason is not the road to the heart.
Or to faith.
Stay Tuned Barth Fans: I’ll post more reflections on section 2 later this week.