Archives For Scripture

1101620420_400Favorite Quotes from §1.4.2 Barth’s CD:

‘…in Holy Scripture, too, the writing is obviously not primary but secondary. It is itself the deposit of what was once proclamation by human lips.’ (pg 99)

     In other words:

Barth contradicts those who treat the biblical texts themselves as the infallible, literal Word of God. They are instead the ‘deposit’ of the prophets and saints. I love Barth’s use of the word ‘deposit.’ It connotes well the notion of something precious worth saving.

‘Exegesis (interpretation of scripture) is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis…entails the danger that the bible will be taken prisoner by the Church.

All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself.’ (pg 103) 

In other words:

It’s called ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ It’s biblical studies jargon implying that interpreters must always be wary of the assumptions, values, expectations, perspectives that they bring to the biblical text and often impose upon the text.

For example, even if you believe the bible is the infallible, literal word of God, you’re still a sinner and can’t possibly presume to appropriate scripture’s meaning free of error or ego.

Barth’s humility of interpretation no doubt owed much to his experience of watching German Christians unquestioningly underwriting a nationalism that was idolatrous.

But think even today of the debate around marriage and homosexuality. Just from reading Facebook posts of friends on both sides of that question, it’s clear that all of us are guilty from time to time of reading our own inclinations into scripture and reading out of scripture what we want to read. One side of the debate cites Leviticus holiness codes or Romans 1 while another side cites the boundary-breaking, outcast-embracing ministry of Christ or the Genesis 1 stipulation that we’re made in God’s image.

It’s when we forget or refuse to admit to ourselves that we’re constantly reading in and reading out that the bible becomes a prisoner to the whims of the Church.

‘The exegesis of the bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible…the defense against possible violence to the bible must be left to the bible itself.’ (pg 104)

In other words:

Stop worrying about protecting God, protecting the bible, protecting ‘Christian’ values. Let God worry about God. You just worry about you.

‘The Church’s recollection of God’s past revelation has the Bible specifically as its object because in fact this object and no other is the promise of future divine revelation…’ (pg 104). 

In other words:

Here Barth skillfully navigates a middle way through thinking about scripture and revelation.

Against liberals, who affirm the presence of revelation apart from the Word of God, Christ, as testified to in scripture, Barth reasserts the bible as the sole, specific object of our thinking about God’s revelation.

Against conservatives, who often treat God’s revelation as closed and confined to the pages of scripture, Barth argues that one of the primary reasons scripture is important is that its our only reliable clue as to what God is doing in the world today and will do in the future. That is, it’s only by knowing what God has done that we can faithfully know what God will do.

‘Holy Scripture is the the word of men who yearned, waited, and hoped for this Immanuel and who finally saw, heard and handled it in Jesus Christ. Holy Scripture declares, attests and proclaims it.’ (pg 105) 

In other words:

I think this is a great summary statement for the Old and New Testaments, as longing for Immanuel (Old) and testimony of Immanuel (New).

‘The statement that the Bible is God’s Word is a confession of faith, a statement of faith which hears God himself speak through the biblical word of man.’ (pg 107)

In other words:

Quoting bible verses at a non-Christian or making appeals to God’s eternal decrees to persuade an unbeliever are ultimately a fool’s errand. It’s not God’s word until it is received as such.

The Wesleyan in me (Barth would roll his eyes now) would argue that Barth’s point gets at the need for Christians to embody the Gospel in our lives before we can ever persuade someone to hear the Gospel as the Word of God.

And again, thinking that ‘the Bible is God’s Word’ is confession of faith (which, of course, semantics aside we all know is true…it is a faith statement) begs the question: To what extent can Christians impose their biblical values, through legislation, upon a culture which shares not their beliefs about the bible.

 

1101620420_400I’ve falled behind on my Reading Barth with Me schedule. I caught up this morning and will be posting in the days ahead.

§1.4 is Barth’s unfolding of his 3-Fold Form of the Word of God.

To give context to those sections, I thought it would be helpful to repost an earlier reflection I wrote this summer on Barth’s understanding of scripture as the word which testifies to the Word.

According to Barth, when Christians use the term ‘the Word of God’ we’re actually referring to multiple forms. John’s Gospel, after all, refers to Jesus as the Word of God, does it not?

How are we to think of Jesus-as-the Word in relation to scripture as God’s Word? 

Barth used the image of three concentric circles, which he called the three-fold form of the Word of God. In the inner, centermost circle Barth places the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Next, Barth places the Word of God as testified to us by Israel, the prophets and the Church, which we call scripture. Finally, in the outer circle Barth places the Word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church.

By arranging the Word of God in this way, Barth successfully illustrated that while Christianity is indeed a revealed religion, the revelation of the Word of God is a mediated revelation.

Our access to the Logos comes to us only by way of scripture and the Church. Scripture therefore is not revelation.

The pages and printed words in your bible are not, in and of themselves, the Word of God.

They are our testimony to God’s Word as its been disclosed to Israel and the Church. They require the event of God’s grace to make them a faithful testimony to the Word.

Because of that testimony, scripture is authoritative for us and it is sufficient for communicating all we need to know of and follow this God.

At the same time, one’s testimony is never identical with the person of whom one testifies.

Scripture’s testimony can only partially and provisionally capture the mystery of the eternal Word.

Barth’s model provides the framework for Christians to concede that scripture is not without error.

Scripture does contain geographical and historical errors.

The Gospels do have different and at times contradictory chronologies.

Its depiction of God is not always consistent or easily juxtaposed with other texts.

Translators make decisions, not always without an agenda for their own.

Traditions have different canons.

There are many questions we ask that scripture is simply not interested in answering.

 

None of this should be threatening to Christians, however, precisely because the Word is a mediated revelation. Testimony can be imperfect without jeopardizing the perfection of the One to whom scripture testifies.

In other words, Barth’s three-fold form secures our recognition that we do not believe in the bible; we believe in the One to whom the bible testifies. We worship Jesus Christ not the bible.

Barth’s three-fold form also gives us grounds for both humility and pride.

It gives us cause for humility in that it forces us to recognize how our apprehension of the Word is mediated to us by the proclamation and interpretation of the Church.

In the same way that scripture contains textual errors, it should surprise no one that the Church contains fallible people. The Church has included both saints and sinners from the very beginning.

Our access to the Word both is enabled and limited by those who have come before us (and those among us today). Our convictions about ‘what scripture says’ are never without the residue of historical, cultural and personal bias. As Paul writes, we never cease seeing the Word through a prism darkly.

That the Word is mediated to us through something so fallible as the Church, however, is a cause for joy too for by God’s own choosing we have a role in the revelation of God’s Word. God has chosen to disclose his Word through the matrix of humanity, first by taking flesh in Christ and second by taking flesh in us. No Church, no Word of God.

Scripture, then, is no less incarnational than Jesus.

In scripture and its proclamation, the eternal Word takes on the finitude and fallibility of followers like you and me.

And just as this gives us pause in all our certitudes, it is also good news.

 

barthWelcome to week 3 of Reading Barth with Me (CD §1.3.1).

I’m enjoying wading into Barth’s CD again after a long sojourn. Meanwhile, some of you…have compared it to reading Finnegan’s Wake, suffering a root canal or trying to make sense of Ikea directions while hungover.

Well then.

It gets better. It really does.

Trying to stretch your mind around Barth’s understanding of the word of God is an important challenge here in §1.3.1.

If for no other reason, it’s important because this is the point at which Barth has so often been dismissed by conservative evangelicals.

Evangelicals jettison Barth because he refuses to simply say the words on the page of the Bible are the word of God.

What’s that about? How is scripture not the Word of God?

Barth bases his view in the distinction between the secular and sacred. The distinction for Barth has nothing to do with the subject matter itself- the secular speaks of humanity and the sacred speaks of God, for example. Instead, Barth believes what makes the sacred distinct from the secular is event:

“The ongoing event of the final distinction, the event in which God Himself acts…” (p. 48)

This event includes the creation of the church, which is the body of Christ. God has elected Christ’s body as his own sacred space. But for Barth this isn’t a past tense event, and that’s the key behind his distinction.

The church is ‘sacred space’ in that it’s involved in the on-going act of God’s holy-action. For Barth this ongoing ‘event’ of God occurs in the church’s proclamation. Preaching. God makes human words holy, sacred, that would be secular (human) without God (p. 49).

This sounds pretty evangelical, no? The Confession says, after all, that:

‘the preaching of the word of God is the Word of God.’ 

Preaching is where God the king speaks through the mouth of God’s herald, and as such is God’s speech, to be acted on by God’s people.

As a preacher, I like that esteemed role of preaching. As a former pew sitter, however, I know that Barth’s theological ideal rarely matches reality. 

Some sermons are just plain boring and bad. 

Other preachers aren’t simply bad; they preach bad news. Their preaching undermines the Kingdom rather than builds it up. 

To this point, Barth adds:

Since preaching requires the action of God to be the word of God, and since God is wholly free to act or not act, then it’s the case that:

  1. God is free to speak in unexpected places, to use shocking words and means to speak to people, like Balaam’s Ass or even, like, Joel Osteen (if he actually preached scripture), and 

  2. God is free NOT to show up in the preaching event. 

Which, lamentably, happens more than we’d like it. Still though, it’s a good reminder for us.

Neither preaching nor any other ministry of the church or practice in a Christian’s life conveys grace simply by doing it.

The practices of the faith are only means by which God may choose to extend grace.

This, let us not forget, is what makes it ‘grace,’ an expected, unmerited gift.

Another point on the ‘event’ character of the word of God.

Barth’s distinction points out the deficiency in purely secular reflections on religion and the divine. Such reflections depend entirely, in Barth’s view, on our own experience. There is no voice outside themselves to whom they’re listening.

For Barth, this is where liberal/secular religion nearly always falls prey to Ludwig Feurbach’s critique that God is just a projection of our own best self-image, values and aspirations and culture.  

Barth argues that scripture cannot be the word of God in and of itself- not until the ‘event’ of the Holy Spirit makes it so; otherwise, scripture would too easily become an idol graven in our image.

And since Barth wrote much of his dogmatics in Germany between the wars, his point is an auspicious one, and it’s one that any Christian living in the most powerful nation on Earth should take seriously. 

 

Kirk-Cameron-Mike-Seaver-growing-pains-2It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).

Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.

Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season. 

At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’

Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.

The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return. 

A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).

Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.

This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.

To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.

But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.

It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be. 

So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone

We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.

The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.

If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ. 

The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.

We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.

And that Judge has already been judged in our place. 

IMG_6036

And are United Methodists now reaping the bitter fruit of having done so a century ago?

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, the past week. In it, Keller gives much attention to the task/question of contextualization; that is, how we do communicate our message to the given context in which we live.

Keller notes that it’s not really a question of whether or not we should contextualize.

We can’t avoid contextualization unless we’re willing to avoid communication altogether. Every time we paraphrase a scripture passage, every time we extrapolate a point or a meaning, every time we settle upon what we think is the ‘plain sense’ of scripture we’re contextualizing BECAUSE, after all, we’re also a part of the culture and formed by it in ways we don’t always know.

Just ask Harrison Ford in Witness, Christians can’t avoid being in the world and  we never really cease to be of the world either. 

Preaching, then, is just a simpler term for contextualization.

So the question isn’t if we should translate the Gospel to culture but how.

Keller argues that Mainline (liberal) Christianity in the early 20th century sought to make Christianity palatable to the modern world by redefining orthodox Christian doctrine in naturalistic terms– terms stripped of a reliance upon revelation and the supernatural.

 The result was a Christianity redefined thus:

The Bible is filled with divine wisdom, but this doesn’t mean it’s inerrant. It’s a human document containing errors and contradictions. 

 Jesus is the Son of God but this doesn’t mean he was preexistent or divine. He was instead a great man infused with God’s Spirit. 

Jesus’ death is not a cosmic even that propitiates God’s wrath at Sin. It’s an example of sacrificial love that changes us by moving our hearts to follow his example. 

 Becoming a Christian, then, doesn’t entail the supernatural act of new birth (conversion prompted by grace). It means to follow the example of Jesus, follow the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. 

You can agree or not with Keller’s point of view, but there’s no question the breakdown above quite simply IS the dominant articulation of Christianity among most United Methodist (and other mainline traditions) churches and clergy.

This is what makes most mainline Christians ‘liberal’ even if they think of themselves as conservative politically.

Here’s Keller contention:

You can’t make such adaptations to what scripture is, who Jesus is, what the Cross does and how you become a Christian without creating a religion that is entirely new and alien to Christianity. 

The Mainline/Liberal effort to reconcile Christianity to the modern world of the 20th century (the naturalistic world), Keller says, results not in an adaptation of Christianity but in an entirely new religion that contradicts orthodox Christianity.

Even if you would quibble with Keller’s characterization, his next question remains TNT:

By adapting the faith to the norms of the ‘modern early 20th century world’ did Mainline/Liberal Christianity back the wrong horse?

Mainline Christians a century ago assumed that what was ‘modern’ for them would remain so- that those who clung to a revelation-based, supernatural understanding of the faith would be judged to be on the wrong side of history.

Keller says this was a category mistake.

Late modernity and postmodernity, he notes, has rejected modernism’s confidence that science and reason can ultimately answer all our important questions and that technology can solve all our problems.

In other words, 100 years removed from Methodism’s capitulation to culture, that culture has shifted out from under the Church. 

In other words, Mainline Christianity wedded itself to what is now a fading, obsolete view.

And since adapting its faith claims to the culture a century ago, Mainline Christianity has experienced steep decline; meanwhile, Pentecostalism (the least modern- Enlightenment based- form of Christianity) and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have grown exponentially in the past hundred years.

So its a cautionary tale.

The how of contextualization should refer more to our mode of communication than to the content of our confession.

Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17

*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old 

—————————————————————–

A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.

But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.

You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.

Here’s what the survey found:

40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?

Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.

However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.

But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:

16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.

Just 16%

I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.

16%

More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:

that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.

16%

It’s a scary number.

And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’

Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.

You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.

I just like to call it ministry.

Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.

After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.

Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.

A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’

Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’

‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.

‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’

At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together.  She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.

She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.

Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.

She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.

What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.

As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.

For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’

Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’

And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?

Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’

But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’

The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.

And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’

Fair enough, I thought.

But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’

Several murmured ‘Jesus.’

But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.

‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’

A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’

Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’

‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.

And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’

After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.

The work took several months.

But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:

God had delivered them from captivity.

Even though they hadn’t deserved it.

God had redeemed them.

And they’d taken him for granted.

That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.

They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.

So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.

While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.

The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.

God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.

The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).

Did you catch the end of our passage?

Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.

In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.

Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.

This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.

They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.

And you know what’s scary for us?

What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.

For generations they’d done religion

Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.

“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.

This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:

“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter. 

     You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard. 

     In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.

     I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America. 

     Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. 

      I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. 

     Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 

     This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. 

     But it’s there.

     Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. 

     I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”

As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.

Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.

Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.

And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:

“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”

The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.

This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.

And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.

Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.

And we can

do more.

But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.

The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.

As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.

Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.

And that’s a kind of poverty.

These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.

Data.

20%

16%

Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%

That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.

63%- I want that to change.

So listen up.

Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:

Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.

Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.

But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.

I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.

I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.

Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.

They’re changed.  That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.

For you. For my kids.

For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).

And for the 63% not too far from here.

If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.

It’s going to take all of us.

And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.

The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.

And you’ll be hearing more about.

But the first step?

The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.

A sermon for All Saints based on Ezra 3

On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’

First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.

You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.

His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”

That’s when I started manstrating.

Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.

Driving in my car, my mood worsened.

When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.

So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.

 

‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.

 

‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’

 

‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’

 

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’

 

‘But I thought you said…’

 

‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’

He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.

He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.

I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much.  I told him.

And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’

That’s when my mood turned truly foul.

‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’

He sounded confused.

‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’

And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.

And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.

‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’

I could hear him typing my response.

‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’

‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.

‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.

Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.

 

But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.

 

And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’

 

Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.

They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.

 

That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.

 

I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)

 

My name is ___________________. 

I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.  

As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life? 

At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent. 

I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church? 

When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind? 

The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices. 

To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.  

What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age? 

I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.

 

This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.

 

But did you hear what she said?

 

People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.

 

Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’

I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.

 

You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.

 

And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.

 

Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.

 

But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.

 

Cue Audio:

My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.

 

What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you? 

 

I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.

 

It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too. 

 

This other response come to me by way of Facebook:

 

My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.

 

I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life. 

 

Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home.  It doesn’t impact my day to day life. 

 

 

Those two people. Guess where they came from?

They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.

So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.

After all, you’ve made promises to them.

Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.

 

If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.

 

If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.

 

Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.

 

Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.

Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.

 

Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.

 

 

This is what you need to remember.

 

Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.

 

Round it up to 100 people if you want.

 

Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:

 

We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.

 

Because how we do things now will net us what we have.

Now.

 

We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.

 

To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.

 

And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:

 

Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.

 

Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.

 

Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.

 

Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.

 

Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.

 

Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.

 

And more than anything, that mindset has to change.

 

Look, I know change bothers people.

I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.

I understand.

 

But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.

 

I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.

 

I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.

It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.

 

But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:

‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’

 

I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.

 

And then the little jerk asked me for more money.

 

But he was right.

 

Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.

 

Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.

 

Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.

But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.

 

Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.

 

Others opt out Ezra says.

 

But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.

 

They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated.  They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.

 

And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.

 

But that’s okay.

 

Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.

 

 

 

 

 

In Sunday’s sermon on Job, I made the claim that “God does not have a plan for your life.” I said it clearly and without qualification so my listeners would hear me.

Apparently I succeeded, as all week I’ve been bombarded by pushback. Allow me to flesh it out a bit so you don’t think I’m a heretic or that your life is nothing but a chaotic nightmare.

The best exposition of this question comes from St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica; in fact, all other thinking about God’s plan- what theologians call providence- owes to Aquinas.

Aquinas tackles the issue in Question #22, Answer #3:

God provides for everything but does God provide directly for everything?

Were God to do so, it might seem to remove all causality from created things- none of us would be responsible for our choices and actions- and would also seem, for example, to make God directly responsible for evil.

To answer this, Aquinas distinguishes between providence and governance. Providence involves the “idea or planned purpose” for things, governance involves the execution of this planned purpose.

Aquinas argues that God’s providence is universally direct but that his governance is executed indirectly through intermediaries (that is, the beings that God has created).

Think of Genesis 1. God creates us so that we might enjoy God as Father, Son and Spirit enjoy one another. God is the primary, first cause of creation and intends us towards an ultimate goal, the Kingdom. As part of that goal or ‘plan,’ God gives dominion of creation to Adam and Eve.

Aquinas’ idea is that God acts as universal cause, laying out the plan for all creation to one day share fellowship with God in God’s Kingdom. As part of that creation, God creates true secondary agents who execute- or sometimes not- that plan.

For Aquinas this is what ‘predestination’ means. God creates us with an End (destination) in mind before (pre) he creates us. 

This could not be more different from the notion that God has determined all our choices and moments of our lives prior to our birth.

Aquinas uses the image of an arrow being shot at a target. The arrow clearly has been shot by someone (God) and is obviously intended towards a target (the Kingdom). However the archer’s intent and the natural trajectory of the arrow are not the only things acting upon the arrow. A sudden gust of wind, someone knocking into the arrow, can frustrate the arrow’s journey. 

God, in other words, is the first cause of each of us and all that is, but the freedom God sows into creation and the agency God gives us over creation also means that there are ‘secondary causes’ impacting our lives for good and bad all the time.

Think of Jesus in the Garden praying to discern the Father’s will. God clearly intends an outcome to Jesus’ life. At the same time, for Jesus’ act of obedience to be freely offered the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. It’s not predetermined. Jesus could have chosen a fate other than the cross and so do we, all the time. In a very real sense our entire lives are lived in that Gesthemane moment.

We like to speak of ‘God having a plan’ for each us and typically what we mean is that every moment, every triumph and tragedy, coheres to an elaborate, divinely ordered script for our lives. It either makes our lives seem more interesting or it soothes us to know that our lives aren’t as contingent as they feel.

But even though the ‘God has a plan’ thinking has seeped into Christian speech, it is not Christian.

God doesn’t have a plan for each of our lives because God has a Plan- with a capital P- for our lives.

God’s Plan is for us to love God as Jesus loved the Father.

To so love requires our lives, our choices, our actions to be free and contingent.

Maybe that sounds scarier (it was for Jesus) but it’s also potentially more beautiful (it was for Jesus).

 

Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.


The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).

 

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This week we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs Works) Alone.

The usual way Christians talk about being saved by faith owes to Martin Luther.

For much of his monastic career Martin Luther was plagued by the question ‘How can I get a gracious God?’

The question began to crystalize for Luther thanks to the help of a mentor, the abbott of his monastery.

The abbott, knowing Luther well, believed (correctly, I think) that Luther’s relentless introspection and agonizing over his contrition was, in a fundamental way, in conflict with the simple, gracious message of the Gospel.

Luther had an epiphany. He attributes it to close readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans. At some time, in confession, Luther heard the priest offer the words ‘Martin, your sins are forgiven’ and his experience was to stop focusing on the authenticity of his contrition and to listen to the priest’s words and to trust them.

And when he trusted that, Luther’s world changed and it had a ripple effect through his whole understanding of the Gospel.

For Luther, what became critical was that the priest said something. This is essential- for Luther now the Gospel is a word that gets said. The Gospel isn’t dormant in the pages of scripture. The Gospel is a promise that is proclaimed.

Fundamentally, what Luther came to understand is that the Gospel is a statement. It’s a spoken word that takes the form of a declaration: ‘Martin, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your are forgiven.’

The Gospel is a declarative statement. It’s not a command (‘Go and do…’). It’s not horatory (‘Let us…’). It’s not an imperative (‘We should…’).

It’s critical to see this because it leads Luther to ask: how can you respond to a promise? You can’t obey a promise. All you can do is trust it or not trust it.

What Luther realizes in the confessional is that God doesn’t ask anything of us. God makes a declaration to us.

This is what Luther meant by ‘justification by faith alone’ which gets clarified later as ‘justification by grace through faith alone.’ It’s not the case, as is often misunderstood, that our faith justifies us. Luther instead means that God has declared us forgiven, we’re justified. (Indeed John Calvin and Karl Barth will say this declaration happened on the cross and is perfect, meaning it applies to you whether you want it to or not.)

‘By faith alone’ means that the only possible response to God’s declaration is faith, which Luther understands as trust.

Once Luther comes to this understanding of justification the entire foundation of the medieval church becomes useless to him, making a collision with Rome inevitable.

 

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

Jason Micheli —  September 26, 2012 — Leave a comment

So there’s no way you didn’t hear about the 4th century document produced by a Harvard Divinity faculty member that references Jesus’s wife. If you read the paper, surfed FB, listened to NPR or glanced at the grocery store rags last week you probably heard the claim.

4th century. Wow, that’s like only a couple centuries removed from St Paul.

I really hate how the press treats stories like this with all the self-important bluster of Dan Brown’s wildly inaccurate pronouncements couched in 2nd grade-level prose.

First, it goes with out saying that simply having a document which says something in no way corroborates the content of what is written.

Second- and this is the important point for Christians to keep in mind- if Jesus had had a wife, the early Church would’ve made damn sure you knew about it. People forget that Jesus’ singleness- and the singleness of the first Christians- was odd. After all, being fruitful and mothers and fathers are 1/5 of the Ten Commandments. Try imagining Jesus as he must’ve appeared through 1st century Jewish eyes: a single guy who’s sworn off his ‘family’ hangs out with 12 other dudes all the time and has a soft-spot for eyebrow raising women.

There’s no way, if Jesus was a normal married Jewish rabbi, the early Church would’ve left that out. Jesus’ peculiarity was a stumbling block to Jewish and Roman converts.

Biblical scholarship has a general principle in assessing the historical veracity of a passage. Basically the gist is that which would be embarrassing to the faithful is most likely true; otherwise, the faithful would have no motivation to make it up and put it in scripture and every reason to redact it out. For example, Peter’s thrice betrayal of Jesus. Doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of the lead apostle, does it? Thus, it’s probably historically reliable. The disciples all turning tail and abandoning Jesus when it matters most. Doesn’t say much about Jesus’ persuasive teaching, does it? Thus, it’s probably reliable. Paul, formerly stoner of Christians, becomes the chief evangelist of the faith. An unsavory character and one that would’ve been hard for plenty of Christians to swallow. Thus, you can trust it. Supposed Savior and Promised King dies a death reserved for criminals, a death so shameful the word cross (crux) was the first century equivalent of the F-Bomb? Trust it. It’s true because NO ONE would want a crucified Lord.

Jesus’ wife? Maybe he had one. I don’t know; I don’t care, and I don’t think it changes anything we confess about him. But if it was true why on earth didn’t the evangelists make sure we knew. A messiah who was just a bit less odd would surely have rendered a more palatable message to win hearts and minds: ‘See, he’s just like you.’

Sounds like my sermon Sunday was timely, if I do say so myself. Here is story from the Huffington Post about Bill Nye weighing in on creationism’s harmful effects on American education and taking aim at lawmakers who, trying to score political points, who advocate such measures in education.

On a related note, I received this from a friend in the church this weekend:

I wanted to reply to your recent posting about creationism. As a scientist (with a PhD in biomedical engineering) and a Christian, I sometimes get questions about this.  Non-believers wonder where I fall on this issue, and how I can reconcile my scientific training with my belief.  I wish I had better replies to them, but I tend to fall back to a few thoughts:
 
(1) Evolution happens. It’s the way that living organisms change to adapt to their environment.  To say that I “believe in evolution” doesn’t mean I necessarily think humans arose from more primitive creatures. Humans have evolved over time (gotten taller, changes in bone structure, etc.) just as creatures have evolved (to develop better ways of catching food, swimming in rivers, etc.). The recent news story (I read it yesterday?) of how a bacterium strain evolved over thousands of generations (which took days/months) to adapt to life in a petri dish was fascinating.  IMHO, to say that “evolution isn’t true” would deny the outstanding science that went into such an experiment and also deny the ability/will of God to give living organisms the ability to change.
 
(2) I think the Genesis story is a narrative, but not literally true. For example, how do we know how long a “day” was? Could a “day” even be measured or defined before the sun was created?  Humans have defined what a “day” means, not God. I think that a “day” in the story of Genesis could be thousands or millions of years.  I don’t give much weight to some folks’ argument that the Genesis story gives discrete measures of time and thus they know the true age of the planet.
 
(3) I think the “big bang” (if there was one) was the start of God’s creation process. It hard to start with something, and I don’t know how someone could prove that it wasn’t with God.
 
(4) I do believe that God created humans in God’s image, and that it led to all the glorious diversity that we humans exhibit. God gave us the ability to change, to adapt, and to alter our environments, which leads to further change in the world around us.
 
Thus, I can believe both that God created the world and that evolution is a real phenomenon.  Dinosaurs fit in there somewhere too.  🙂

It’s listening to testimony from scientists like her that makes me think creationism leaves us with the following options:

1. Sincere (even devout) scientists like her are all, collectively and willfully misleading us about the nature of the world and centuries of scientific discovery. 

2. God deliberately deceives us by creating a natural world that points to things like a Big Bang and evolution. 

3. Sin is so strong and pervasive our ability to study the natural world and arrive at sound conclusions is impaired. 

Option #1 seems paranoid at best. 

Option #2 seems to render us a God with little resemblance to the God of Jesus Christ. 

Option #3 seems to believe that the power of Sin is greater than the power of grace- as though Jesus did not die on the Cross and did not defeat Sin. 

To my mind, none of these seem as reasonable as concluding that Genesis seeks confess something of who God is not how (or when) God did something. Listening to Genesis read in church 4 different times this weekend, it becomes obvious what the text is meant to do rhetorically. The phrases ‘God created’ and ‘it was good’ repeat like crazy. This is the point of the story.

 

 


A Sermon on Genesis 1

     June 9, 1993:

The first date. My first date with the new girl on the swim team, who would eventually become my wife.

6/9/93: The opening date of Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park film.

The first movie in which Ali and I held hands.

At the point in the movie when the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld gets his face eaten by a whatever-raptor- at that point in the movie on June 9, 1993 I leaned over and whispered into Ali’s ear: ‘Of course, it’s all a hoax. Dinosaurs never actually existed.’

Of course, Ali had only just met me. She didn’t know I was being sarcastic, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that what I’d just said might disqualify me as a future boyfriend.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to creation, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Dates like November 24, 1859:

The date Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and threw the bible-believing world for a Copernican loop.

Dates like July 21, 1925:

The date a jury in Dayton, Tennessee found high school teacher, John Scopes, guilty of violating the Butler Act, the state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools.

When it comes to how and when it all began and how that beginning squares with the beginning of scripture, it seems like the debate’s always about dates.

     Dates like 4.5 Billion:

The number of years ago, according to scientific consensus, the earth was born with a bang.

     Dates like 2.5 Billion:

The best scientific guesstimate for when life first opened its eyes in the primordial ooze.

It’s always about dates.

Dates like 6,000:

The date that creationists say God first flicked on the lights and started it all according to the step-by-step sequence in scripture.

Dates like May 28, 2007:

The date that the $27 million Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky, a museum where visitors can find a life-sized T-Rex, who apparently forgot he was a carnivore, cavorting in the Garden with Adam and Eve.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like September 24, 2012:

As in, tomorrow. The date I’ll likely get a handful of emails angry at me for lacing my comments about that museum with sarcasm.

Dates are everything.

Dates like April 1992:

The date I portrayed William Jennings Bryan in the Governor’s School production of Inherit the Wind, the stage version of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

April 1992– that was almost exactly 3 years before I became a Christian. Playing William Jennings Bryan, the famed biblical literalist, I had to learn to say:

Yes, I believed Joshua literally commanded the sun to stop.

Yes, I believed there literally was morning and evening before God created the sun on the 4th Day,

Yes, I believed the Earth was literally only thousands of years old not millions or billions.

April 1992, 3 years before I became a Christian, that was the date I became convinced that in order to invite Jesus into your heart you literally had to check your brain at the door.

That believing in God required you also to believe that centuries of science were all a deliberate hoax.

Or, worse, God deliberately deceives us.

And in April 1992 I decided that such a God literally wouldn’t be worth believing in.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to how and when it all began and who or what was behind it, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Which is funny.

Because there’s one date that seldom gets mentioned: 1849– 10 years before Charles Darwin spoiled everyone’s fun.

1849:

That’s the date Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruined Library of Ashurbanipal in Mosul, Iraq. In the ruins of that library, Austen Henry Layard discovered the original creation story.

Maybe you know it.

It goes like this:

In the beginning, when the earth was without form and chaos and dark waters covered the face of the deep, god brought forth life.

On the first day, there was light. Light that emanated from god and god separated the light from the darkness.

On the second day, god created the firmament; god created a dome to push back the waters and god called it sky.

On the third day, god gathered the waters in one place so that dry land could appear.

On the fourth day, god created the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky and named them.

And day six god created humankind to do god’s work and on day seven god rested and exalted in celebration for what he done.

Sound familiar?

And this work of creation- it all begins, when Marduk, a young warrior god, slays his mother, Tiamat, the goddess of chaos, with weapons of wind, lightening and thunder.

And with one half of Tiamat’s carcass, Marduk creates land. With the other half of her body, Marduk fashions the heavens.

And then Marduk declares:

“Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.”

And then from the blood of a slain god, Markduk creates man and woman.

To be his slaves.

As he reigns in Babylon.

When it comes to how and when it all began, it’s all about dates.

Dates like 2,000 BC:

The date this creation story, this Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, was first written down, and probably it was spoken long before that.

2,000 BC: which is, roughly, 1500 years before our creation story in Genesis.

Take a guess where we got our story.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis it’s all about dates.

Dates are everything. But can be easy to forget.

So pay attention, here’s another date for you: 587 BC.

587 BC:

The date that’s the 9/11 of the Bible.

587 BC:

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple, and left the Promised Land in smoldering ruins and carried God’s People back to Babylon in chains.

     587 BC:

The first year of the Babylonian Captivity. The first year Babylon tried to do what any captors do to their captives:

Convince them that there’s no plan or purpose or point to life.

And thus there’s no hope for yours.

Convince them that this world is a dark, violent, eye-for-a-tooth place.

And thus it’s naive to expect anything but suffering to come your way.

Convince them that its written into the fabric of creation:

That we’re made from the blood of victims.

Thus, don’t be surprised if someone makes you their victim.

The world is the way it is because the gods are who they are.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like 586 BC and 585 BC and 584 BC and every year for the next 50 years.

Those are all the years of their captivity that Israel didn’t give up faith.

Those are the dates that Israel, despite their suffering, refused to worship Babylon’s gods.

Because Israel already knew who God was: the one, true God.

That God had heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt.

Israel already knew the capital G God.

And so in 586 and 585 and 584 and for years after that, they didn’t bow down to Babylon’s story.

They co-opted it.

They took it and they changed it.

To stick it in the eye of their captors.

Because they knew:

There’s only one God.

There was nothing before creation but God.

God created from nothing.

And because God created out of nothing, this world: it’s gift.

You and I: gift.

Everything around us, every living thing, your neighbor, even your enemy.

Gift. All of it. It’s all good.

It’s all given just so God can share his life with us.

Israel Babylon’s story and made it their own.

Because they already knew:

You and I- we’re not made from the blood of victims.

We’re not made to fight and struggle with each other.

We’re made to reflect this God. We’re made in God’s image.

We’re made to give and to love and to listen and to forgive.

And to share our life with God.

And if we’re made to share God’s life

Then you can’t say life is pointless.

Because it couldn’t have a bigger POINT.

God’s people took Babylon’s story and they made it their own.

Genesis 1-

It’s not an explanation of how it all began.

It’s good news to captives.

It’s not a step-by-step description of how it all happened.

It’s a prophetic profession of faith. It’s a slave song.

It’s a defiant declaration that no matter how things seem now our God is good and what he’s made is very good. So don’t give up hope that one day soon he will reconcile whatever is broken in this world.

Dates are always key.

Dates like September 2003.

That’s the date of the first local clergy meeting I ever attended.

There’s lot things seminary doesn’t teach you. ‘Don’t ever go to local clergy meetings’ tops that list. At this meeting, it was all middle-aged fundamentalists and me.

We met for lunch at a BBQ joint. At the beginning of the meeting, the chair, a Brethren pastor ironically named Christian, passed around a petition to the local school board to teach creation science (whatever that is) in the schools.

It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Christian just assumed we’d all sign it.

And all of them did.

When the petition got to me, I said: ‘Uh…yeah, I’m not signing that.’

‘Why not?’ Christian asked.

‘Because it’s…umm…stupid.’ I said.

‘You don’t believe in evolution do you?’ he asked.

And I replied, in love: ‘Well, I used to believe in evolution but you seem to have successfully remained in the stone age so who knows.’

He frowned and told me I’d never make it in ministry by being sarcastic.

‘We’ll see about that’ I said.

I handed Christian the petition, sans my John Hancock.

And he said: ‘You know, Jason, if a literal reading of Genesis falls away so does the entire faith.’

And the thing is- I knew he was wrong.

And I could prove it because I knew the date.

I love dates. I’ve always been good with dates.

So I gave him the date: 1313 BC, maybe the most important date.

1,313 BC (approximately):

That’s the date of the Exodus. The date God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The date Israel started reciting their Credo: ‘The Lord heard our voice and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…’ 

     1313:

That’s the date, about 700 years before Israel found themselves slaves in Babylon co-opting a creation story.

1313 vs. 587:

In other words, Israel’s faith in God the Deliverer preceded their faith in God the Creator.

Just because it’s first in your bibles doesn’t mean it was first in Israel’s life with God.

Their Exodus experience is older than the Genesis story.

Their exodus was their genesis.

You can’t say a literal reading of Genesis 1 is necessary for faith because the Jews believed in and had a relationship with and worshipped this God before they ever had this story.

Israel didn’t need a literal creation story to prove that God existed. How silly is that?

They already knew God existed.

Because they knew God.

Because God had delivered them.

Here’s one last date: September 6, 2012.

A couple Thursdays ago. That’s the date I sat in my office and spoke to a woman here in the congregation. A woman who could barely get the words out.

A woman who described her life as pointless, trapped.

A woman who told me she couldn’t swallow that God loved her because she couldn’t like herself.

Here’s the dirty little secret every pastor knows: she’s not alone.

I can name more people like her than not like her.

So hear the good news:

It’s not about dates, not at all. It’s about deliverance.

So if you think your life has no purpose

If you think you have no value

If you feel trapped in a relationship that will never change

If you’re convinced you’re a captive to your past

If you don’t like the person that stares back at you in the mirror

If you’ve had your hopes exiled and are on the downward side of happiness

If you get out of bed every day thinking today won’t be as good as yesterday

And tomorrow will be worse

I want you to know:

No matter how things seem.

Our God is good and what he’s made, everything, is gift.

And that means you’re given to this world as a gift too.

And that means:

The way things are isn’t the way things have to be.

Isn’t the way things always will be.

Because from the very genesis of our faith-

Our God is in the habit of rescuing our present

And redeeming our past

And delivering us into a new future.

Because our God is good

And he won’t rest until things are ‘very good’ again.

Ex Nihilo

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

As we’ve explored a bit already, Christians and Jews read the Genesis story and see in it a God who creates out of nothing. This impacts both how we understand creation and ourselves as creatures and how we understand God.

 

That God creates from nothing points to the giftedness of creation. Whether God created literally according to lyrical layout of Genesis 1 or whether God created through something like the Big Bang doesn’t really change the substance of what Christians confess in the Creed. Everything is a gift. Everything depends on the graciousness of God.

 

That God creates from nothing also points to the radical, absolute Otherness, Transcendence and Lordship of God. The Genesis story, and the Abrahamic faiths that grew from it, see an ontological difference between Creator and creation. Ontological is an impressive theological term meaning ‘being.’

 

Simply (re)stated, though God creates God is not a part of the world nor is the world a part of God. Because God creates from nothing, God is radically other than creation. This distinguishes Christianity from a number Ancient Near Eastern, Eastern and New Age religions that either understand the created world as something co-inhering in the divine life or simply identify the divine with the natural world.

 

Creation is charged with sacredness because God made it and thus it points to God in an almost sacramental sense. But creation is not God.

 

I’m thinking about the creation story this week for Sunday’s sermon.

I’ve learned the hard way that there are a few sermon topics that have the potential to get listeners’ dander up if you mess with their preconceived notions:

1. Blood Atonement

2. Heaven (and Hell)

3. Forgiveness

4. Authority of Scripture

I’ve learned the hard way that for many what’s at stake in the creation story in Genesis 1 isn’t what it says about the goodness of God or creation. What’s at stake is whether scripture is authoritative or not. Is it really the Word of God, or how do we understand it as the Word? Can it be trusted? Our need to protect scripture, in other words, often forces us into a way of reading Genesis that would’ve been alien to the ancient Jews and even to a first century Jew like Jesus: a literal reading.

I expect to get some pushback this Sunday. Accordingly, I thought this essay by NT Wright on how scripture is authoritative could be helpful.

Biblical Authority: the Problem

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations.  They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation.  ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible.  Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?  Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’.  Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed.  Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed.  And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.  One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.  For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself.  There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based.  At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church.  But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred.  It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about.  Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels.  He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’  It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it.  And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves.[1]  If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all.  As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.

The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look.  In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions.  (1) How can any text function as authoritative?  Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder.  (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative?  If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today.  Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community.  But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.  That raises a further question:  (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative?  How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative?  It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you.  But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the apparently somewhat recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as ‘authoritative’ in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history.  I want to look at three such methods and suggest that each in its own way actually belittles the    Bible, thereby betraying a low doctrine of inspiration in practice, whatever may be held in theory.
 
Timeless Truth?

A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth.  There are some senses in which that is true.  But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true.  The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned.  It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth.  It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time.  He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.  The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else.   I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles.  We don’t quite know what to do with them.  Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not.  I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light.  It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up.  The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.  But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.

This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture.  The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans.  (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.)  It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another.  But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative?  If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.[2]

Witness to Primary Events?

So, more recently, we have seen attempts on the part of many scholars to make this very difficult text authoritative by suggesting that it is authoritative insofar as it witnesses to primary events.  This emphasis, associated not least with the post-war biblical theology movement, at least has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of the text.  The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily.  Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial.  Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative?  I think not.  A variation on this theme occurs when people say that the Bible (or the New Testament) is authoritative because it witnesses to early Christian experience.  There is a whole range of modern scholarship that has assumed that the aim of New Testament study is to find the early Christians at work or at prayer or at evangelism or at teaching.  The Bible then becomes authoritative because it lets us in on what it was like being an early Christian—and it is the early Christian experience that is then treated as the real authority, the real norm.  In both of these variations, then, authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience.  We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible, at all.
 
Timeless Function?

Another (related) way in which the Bible has been used, with the frequent implication that it is in such use that its authority consists, is in the timeless functions which it is deemed to perform.  For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the timeless call to decision.  For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice.  Now this is not a million miles from certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of scripture.  But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it.  All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths, models, or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making them relevant to a new situation.  Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the ‘real’ authority.  It is something else.
 
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority

It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that it is somehow the real locus of authority.  And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural churches around the world—not least in North America.  It seems to be the case that the more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.  And in my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize the others.  Failing that, they lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book-learning followed by regained positivism: we will learn for a while the sort of things that the scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight.  There may be places and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the Christian world of 1989 is not among them.  There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in everything else.  There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously.  And my contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes attacks in taking inspiration seriously.  Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of appearing to extricate ourselves.

The Belittling of the Bible

The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else.  Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever.  They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all out touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else.  I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with this whole process as I am.  If you are not, you would be within a very short time of beginning to study theology at any serious level.

My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book.  They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book.  This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it.  I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better.
 
The Bible and Biblical Authority
 
All Authority is God’s Authority        

So, secondly within the first half of this lecture, I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself.  (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’)  If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture.  And that is a complex claim.  It is not straightforward.  When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this.  Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it.

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The Risk of Love

Jason Micheli —  September 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

I posted earlier about the Christian conviction that sin/evil is nothing, literally ‘no-thing.’ If you’re like me when I first heard this metaphysical perspective, then you’re head is hurting.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see how logic dictates the nothingness or unreality of evil. On the other hand, putting the matter into these philosophical categories doesn’t necessarily answer our felt questions about why bad things happen to good people (aside: if we’re sinners, then the adjective ‘good’ is an assumption isn’t it?) or why wholesale tragedies like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan occur.

A less philosophical, easier to understand, but only slightly more satisfying way to think about this comes from Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Its an answer rooted in God’s risk of love towards us.

For Augustine, the drama of the human story and the beauty of the Christ story is that God creates so that we can share life and love with God.

God didn’t create a mechanized universe in which we have no choice but to worship dutifully. God wasn’t creating automatons or servile followers. God was creating friends and lovers. Because God is in the Trinity loving relationship, God wants to share loving relationship with us.

Consider my wife.

What makes our relationship authentic, loving and beautiful is that both of us love one another freely. It’s a free exchange of love. It’s reciprocal. Nothing is forced. If it was, you’d call it abuse not love. You’d think it tragic.

As any friend or lover knows, loving relationship can’t be coerced. If it is then it’s only a pale imitation of the actual thing.

In creation, then, God risks that we might not reciprocate God’s love. God hardwires us for love. God calls us back to relationship through Abraham, Israel, the prophets and Christ but God never forces our hand.

The risk inherent in God’s love is our freedom.

And as we are free to love God we are free to love other ends.

What we call sin is disordered love: love of money, love of pleasure, love of an ideology etc.

And what we call evil is often the wreckage of our disordered loves. The fact remains evil is mysterious and, as the Book of Job (38) amply demonstrates, any theory or explanation of it ultimately proves unsatisfying. As vague and metaphysical as it can sound, I can’t help thinking our calling evil ‘a shadow, nothing, not God’ is as faithful a way of speaking as we can legitimately muster. In the face of suffering, what Christians should speak are not answers or theories but confessions and professions. We should affirm not God’s providence (‘there’s a plan for everything…’) but the scope of God’s love (‘Jesus wept…’).

After all, what is critical for Christians to remember in such discussions- and this is what Augustine was keen to secure- is that the Cross is the full measure of God’s love and character and that all of creation shimmers with that same perfect charity and love.

Explanations may prove elusive but this way of speaking of God forbids faithful Christians from ever consigning another’s suffering to God’s will, and in the face of natural evil Christians should only mourn, help redeem disaster and to keep looking for creation’s goodness that lies below tragedy’s surface.

Because if God is Trinity peace is always a more determinative, if at times hard to see, reality.

 

Question: ‘Dad, did God make dinosaurs too?’

Answer: ‘God made everything.’

Question: ‘Well, why doesn’t it say in the bible that God made dinosaurs with everything else?’

Answer: ‘Go brush your teeth.’

Whenever the family and I go someplace like the National Zoo or the Natural History Museum, I have a little game (read: annoying habit) of embarrassing my wife. Looking at the skeletons of dinosaurs, say, or an evolutionary chart in the ape house I’ll loudly say something like: ‘Of course, if you actually believe in that Darwin nonsense’ or ‘Naturally, it’s all a conspiracy by liberal humanists.’

It only adds to my wife’s embarrassment (read: irritation) when my mock pronouncements are actually met with ‘Amens’ from overhearing bystanders. I admit I’m always a bit surprised by them too. I can only imagine what sort of experience a zoo must be to those who don’t believe in the underlying premise behind every cage and exhibit. It must be a maze of lies and misinformation to such people, begging the even more problematic question of why, if evolution etc isn’t true, God has created a world seemingly designed to mislead us.

My boys have started trying to juxtapose dinosaurs (which they love) with God (whom they love). I take a less sarcastic angle with them and try to make sure I don’t say more than the bible tries to say.

Creation is our worship theme for the coming weekend and its got me thinking of those people I always run into at zoos and museums. And I’m wondering where you fall on this topic?

Do you think the Genesis account is literally true? Do you think its something else? How many creationists are out there actually?

On a related note, here’s NPR’s story about an evolutionary themed Dr Pepper ad that’s provoked complaints from Christians.

 

We’re in a sermon series on the ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This weekend’s theme is Creation Ex Nihilo. I seldom reflect too much on creation theology, mostly, I think, because creation theology tends to be abstracted from the particularity of Christ.

But that doesn’t mean creation isn’t an integral part of our faith. It isn’t to say that creation isn’t a part of the Good News. There’s plenty of grist for reflection.

This week I’ve been thinking about those people I encountered on doorsteps and how impoverished their faith-view was because if there’s one thing the Genesis story makes clear about creation: It Really Is Good. 

Yes, creation is fallen. Yes, the present world as its splayed across the front pages of the Washington Post is far from what God intended with the opening salvo of the Genesis story. Yes, creation is, as Paul writes in Romans 8, groaning while it awaits Christ’s final redemption. And it’s true we’ve turned what God’s given as gift into an object to be used and abused at our pleasure.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been very faithful when it comes to affirming creation’s broken-ness.

So good, in fact, I don’t think we need to dwell on it anymore.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been sinfully terrible at affirming the goodness of God’s creation.

Christians have even neglected the goodness of creation in the name of faithfulness. Far too often Christians have emphasized the ‘spiritual’ at the expense of the material, thinking that true fidelity required a miserly disposition towards the pleasures of this world.

Misreading St. Paul, Christians have regrettably thought faithfulness required a distinction between the spiritual and the material, between the body and the soul, between the spirit and the flesh. Mistakenly looking towards the pie in the sky, Christians just as often have stressed the goodness of the next life at the expense of this life.

The variety and frequency of error notwithstanding, a Christian confession of God as Creator can abide by no division between flesh and spirit, material and soul. When we say God created the heavens and the earth, we remember that God declared our surroundings ‘good.’ God looked upon our earth, our bodies, our felt experience and called it ‘very good.’

Good food is very good. Love for another is very good. A beautiful vista, a deep friendship, a worthwhile endeavor- they’re all very, very good because that’s how God made them.

Christianity isn’t about practicing a sort of split personality syndrome when it comes to our religious versus everyday lives. Christian selflessness doesn’t mean we regard creation with a miserly disdain. An authentic Christianity sees every moment and every object in our lives as graced. Failure to enjoy life and creation is in a very real sense a theological failure.

Christians are so often so focused on the Cross they forget that God deemed our earthly, fleshly lives good enough to take flesh himself in Christ.

The temptation to divide existence into spiritual and material distinctions is a fourth century heresy called Manicheanism, which in St. Augustine’s day saw the created world as inherently corrupt, broken and even evil. The spiritual, heavenly, world precisely because it was not finite was desirable. Thus the goal of the spiritual life was to escape our earthly lives to the spiritual realm.

St. Augustine devoted a large number of years to debating and defeating the Manichees. Even though modern believers still exhibit a propensity to divide the spiritual from the material, Augustine believed the Trinity warned against any such inclination. If God is Trinity and if Creation is the result of God’s gracious, unnecessary self-giving, then to question Creation’s goodness is, in effect, to question the goodness of God.