Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Likeable Guy?

Here’s something I’ll bet you’ve never considered: if you were around when Jesus lived on the earth, would you even like him?
I’m guessing that you have always assumed that you would, since, you know, he’s Jesus.  I know I have.  All my life I have heard about how much he loves me, how he died for me, how he healed people, stood up for the little guy against the bullies, and told some really heart-warming stories like the Prodigal Son.  From my youngest years I was taught songs about Jesus loving the world.  Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Right?  And “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong.”  Jesus was like all my childhood heroes: Mighty Mouse, Roy Rogers, and Brooks Robinson—he was great, and of course you liked him.  It just wasn’t an issue.  And if you had been an Israelite living in Galilee when Jesus was around, how could you not like him?  C’mon, he’s Jesus!  Nobody dislikes Jesus.  People may not believe he was the Son of God, they may not believe that he did all the miracles the Bible claims he did, they may not believe he rose from the dead, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like him.  In 1972 the Doobie Brothers recorded a gospel song written by gospel singer Arthur Reid Reynolds, “Jesus is Just Alright,” and the song made it up to #35 on the Billboard Charts, because everyone likes Jesus, even if you’re a rock band named for a marijuana joint.
What’s not to like?  Well, plenty, apparently.  Jesus was popular in his day, but not universally.  He attracted crowds because he was a great teacher and speaker, but also because of his ability to heal, and people like a good show.  But when they listened to what he had to say—I mean, really listened to what he was saying, well, they didn’t like him so much.  The crowds started dwindling when he said that they should love their enemies the Romans who beat them into submission, taxed them into poverty, and crucified their would-be liberators.  Love them and pray for them, Jesus said.
They wanted Jesus to raise up an army—who isn’t for the right of a nation to defend itself and to use force if need be?  No one, except, it seems, Jesus.  That’s a pretty unpopular position to take.  Jesus wouldn’t make it through the primaries today.  He certainly didn’t make it out of Jerusalem.
“Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” “Let the dead bury their dead.”  “Hate your father, mother, sister, brother, your wife and kids, and your own life, or you can’t be my disciple.”  Seriously, that sounds like the nut-job leader of a cult, someone like Charles Manson, Jim Jones, or David Koresh.  If I heard someone talking like that, I’d be heading for the exit, with a lot of people with me.  By the time Jesus got to Jerusalem there were little more than the original 12 left with him, and we know how loyal at least one of them was.
Among the respectable people—the people you and I would seek out if we were to travel back in time to 1st century Israel—Jesus was scandalous.  He claimed the right to contradict their sacred writings, and thumbed his nose at their religious practices.  He didn’t just ignore some biblical laws, he seemingly went out of his way to break them, just to prove a point and stir things up.  He said that traitors and whores would enter the Kingdom of God ahead of those who took their faith seriously, and then to back it up he put his arms around them and went to supper.  Whatever popularity Jesus had at the beginning of his ministry he squandered by the things he said and did.
And he didn’t care.  He didn’t care if people liked him or respected him, he just cared that they followed him.  In this way he was firmly in the line of the prophets, who said what needed to be said even if it ticked people off and made people despise them.  No prophet cares if they are liked, they just care that people listen and obey.
You know that time after the resurrection when he was with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee) and he said to Peter, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”  And when Peter said, “Yes, Lord,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep”?  I have a feeling that if Peter had said, “No, Jesus, I don’t,” Jesus would have said, “Whatever.  Feed my sheep anyway.” 
He didn’t need Peter to like him, and I’m not sure he needed Peter to love him, but he needed Peter to follow him, because that’s what a disciple does.  A disciple learns from his teacher and does what his teacher tells him to do.  It may be nice if he likes him, and touching if he loves him, but the only necessary thing is that he follow him—that he says what he says and does what he does.
Somehow we got it all turned around.  We have lots of Jesus admirers, and lots of Jesus lovers—nowadays it’s fashionable not just to love Jesus but to be in love with Jesus—and we think that’s enough.  Just love Jesus.  And then we treat his teachings as optional learning, as advanced training for those who are really serious about loving Jesus, extra credit for Christian over-achievers.  But Jesus never asked anyone to simply love him; he calls us to follow him on the only path that leads to life.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love Jesus, I just don’t think that’s enough.  I know lots of people who genuinely say they love Jesus, but they never get around to following him, to actually doing what he said to do; but I daresay that no one can follow Jesus for long without coming to love him, in the same way that a thirsty man comes to love the one who leads him to an oasis spring.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


We live in an age of Christian doctrinal diversity.  Whether you think that’s good, bad, or somewhere in between, it’s fact.  Even within the various Christian tribes (called denominations), there’s a tremendous diversity of belief: infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, free will vs. determinism, sacraments vs. ordinances, substitutionary atonement vs. christus victor atonement, grace vs. works, whatever vs. whatever.

It’s the “vs.” that gets me. 

For too long doctrinal debates have not really been debates at all, they’ve been battles pitting one follower of Christ versus another, one group of Christians opposed to some other group that believed differently.  And just as history is written by the winners (which is why you’ve never seen a “History of the United States” written by a Cherokee), so also is theology written by the winners, with the losers of these battles being relegated to the backwaters of Christian theology—or, worse, being declared heretics and no longer invited to sit at the Christian supper table.

These doctrinal battles are anachronistic; they belong to a different time, a different context, but with few exceptions have no place in modern Christianity. 

In the earliest days of Christianity these battles were perhaps worth fighting.  Christian beliefs weren’t at all settled, nor was the church, which at various times faced different levels of persecution, from mere misunderstanding to prejudice and bigotry all the way to physical violence and death.  In such a precarious state, diversity of belief, especially over matters that are still regarded as central to the faith, such as the divinity of Christ and the nature of the Trinity, was not a strength but represented a real and present danger to the existence of the church.  The church hasn’t lived in such a context in hundreds of years, however, maybe in more than a thousand years, but fighting—literally fighting over matters of doctrine continues.  The Protestant Reformation, even while it addressed some needed changes in the church, left us a legacy in which many Christians feel that they must fight to preserve and protect the faith.  The battles—and they were literally battles in which the losers lost their lives—that the various Christian sects fought against each other, really weren’t about protecting “The Faith” as much as they were about protecting that group’s version of the faith.  Lurking behind many of the battles in fact were other matters having little to do with doctrine.  The issue of infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism, for instance, is an interesting issue to discuss, and I have friends who are in traditions that practice infant baptism, but I wouldn’t kill any of them over it, and I’m not aware that any of them have proposed my demise because I practice believer’s baptism.  Yet the early 17th Century English separatist Thomas Helwys died in an English prison because of his belief in and practice of believer’s baptism.  What was the big deal?  Well, in a society in which there was no separation of church and state, and in which the religion of the monarchy was that of Christianity, a person wasn’t just baptized into the church, they were also baptized into the state.  Baptism granted citizenship, and so to reject that baptism was treasonous.   When John Smyth, who along with Helwys is considered to be our Baptist founder, came to believe in believer’s baptism, he obviously couldn’t get a pastor to re-baptize him so he had to baptize himself, rejecting therefore the church- and state-approved priesthood.  That’ll get you in trouble any day.

But we don’t live in such a time, and even if believer’s baptism goes back to the earliest days of the church, infant baptism goes back at least to the second century and is well-established in Christianity.  It ain’t going away, so we might as well accept that there are perfectly good Christians who were baptized as infants and don’t see the need, biblical or otherwise, of getting re-baptized.  Well, OK, this is how we do it, but I’m not going to fight you over it.  It’s a good discussion, but no one should go to prison over it. 

But I know Christians that will fight you over Substitutionary Atonement, or over the nature of the biblical inspiration, or premillenialism.  And I mean fight you, and consider you less of a Christian for not holding these doctrines—or not a Christian at all.

Even though it is read at almost every Christian wedding, the circumstances that led Paul to write 1 Corinthians 13 had nothing to do with marriage.  It was about Christian belief and practice.  The church at Corinth was fighting, Christian vs. Christian.  So Paul has to remind them that at the center of the Christian faith is love, and that anything that isn’t done out of love and with love is not Christian.  The only real Christian heresy is unlove.  You can believe all the correct doctrines, but if you don’t have love, you’re a heretic.  You can perform amazing  miracles in Jesus’ name, but without love it’s heresy i.e. it is outside the faith!

In John 13:34-35 Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This is the core of the Gospel, and if you get this, regardless of the rest of your doctrine, you get the Gospel.  And if you don’t get this, I don’t care how orthodox you are in the rest of your beliefs, you just don’t get It.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Moment by Moment

A promise is not the same as the thing promised.  That rather self-evident statement is not so self-evident when it comes to the typical evangelical understanding of the conversion event.  In such an understanding, “praying the sinner’s prayer,” “accepting Jesus as personal savior,” “surrendering my life to Jesus” becomes the all-encompassing event of salvation.  It’s treated almost as a magical incantation.  If you’ve said the words (and really, really meant them—however this is determined), this somehow magically “saves” you and magically transforms you, if not now in this life then certainly in the next life.
Why, then, is there so little transformation occurring in the lives of Christians?  Why, when surveyed, do American Christians show so little difference in terms of values and lifestyles than non-Christian Americans?  Why do American Christians look more American than they do Christian?
Author and pastor Greg Boyd puts it this way: “Your pledge to surrender your life wasn’t itself the life you pledged to surrender. The actual life you pledged to surrender was the life you’ve lived every moment after you made the pledge. For the only life you had to surrender was the life you live moment-by-moment.”
That’s a profound thought.  I can pledge the future rest-of-my- life to Jesus, but the only life I can live is the one lived today, right now, moment by moment.  I can pledge to surrender my not-yet-arrived-life to Jesus, but the only life I can actually surrender is my right-at-this-moment-life.
The problem, Boyd says, is that we treat the pledge to surrender as the surrender itself.  “Unfortunately, because of our magical view of Christianity, we tend to mistake the pledge of our life to Christ for the life that we pledge to Christ. We assume that our lives are in fact surrendered because we once pledged to surrender them.”  
We assume that our lives are in fact surrendered because we once pledged to surrender them.  It sounds silly when you read it like this, but I am convinced that he’s right—that’s exactly what we do.  When we “accepted Christ” we pledged to surrender our lives, and then acted like the pledging accomplished all that needed to be accomplished—forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, etc. regardless of whether or to what degree we actually followed through on the surrendering.
In some ways this is a result of treating the grace that justifies and the grace that sanctifies as two different graces that take place one after another.  Justifying grace results in the forgiveness of sins and a status of righteousness, after which sanctifying grace takes over, resulting in the gradual surrendering of our lives to Christ and ongoing work of transformation.  But there are not two graces (or three, some also distinguishing prevenient grace, the grace that comes before salvation, from the others.)  There’s just grace, God’s grace.  Period.
God’s grace is always at work in a person’s life, before, during, and after any conversion experience, always wooing, always justifying, always sanctifying.  That’s what grace is, and you can’t spin it in a centrifuge and separate its component parts.
By treating sanctifying grace as subsequent to and dependent upon justifying grace, we treat spiritual transformation as separate from and subsequent to salvation itself, and that reduces it to an ancillary act that is good but not necessary.  In this line of thinking, the important thing is to get saved; transformation makes life this side of death better, but has no bearing on what happens on the other side of death.
That’s like saying that an alcoholic is saved because he made a pledge to change his life.  No, the salvation comes when the alcoholic faces up to his addiction and the destruction it is wreaking on his life and makes the changes necessary to build a new life, i.e. stop drinking, get a sponsor, go to AA meetings, stop hanging around drinking buddies, etc.  In other words, transformation doesn’t come after salvation, transformation is salvation.
What we need to be saved from is not this sin that I committed yesterday and that sin I committed an hour ago—no more than an alcoholic just needs to be saved from that drink he had yesterday.  No, what we need to be saved from is an addiction to a destructive way of life, and that’s what Christ came for.  He came to show that there is a different way to live, and that new, transformed life—what he called life in the Kingdom of God—is not only a life finally worth living for, it’s a life worth dying for.  That new, transformed life is our salvation.  It is eternal life, and it begins now, because right now is the only life anyone can live.
So it’s good, even necessary, to pledge to surrender your life to Christ and submit to his transformational grace, but it’s even more necessary to actually follow through on the pledge and submit to his transformational grace.
As again Boyd writes: “Kingdom life isn’t a theoretical reality, it’s a real reality—and reality is always found in the now. If we are going to experience and manifest the life of the Kingdom, therefore, we will have to completely alter the way we consciously live moment-by-moment. We will have to wake up to the now.”
You have only one life to surrender to God: the one you are living right now.
Moment by moment.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

One Man's Death

A lot has been made lately over the death of one man.  He was a man who took his own religion very seriously but believed that many had compromised the very essence of its character in order to accommodate a foreign power that promised wealth in one hand while the other hand held the threat of  terrible military strength—the greatest military strength of its time.  Because of his belief that his religion had forsaken its pure roots, he sought to rally its adherents to a new form of the faith that was actually quite ancient in its character but radical in its threat to those sitting in palaces and marketplaces.
He frustrated those in power because he opposed them but refused to fight them on their terms by using traditional military tactics.  Though he was considered dangerous, he was hard to kill because he had a large measure of popular support among many of the common people living on the dusty paths of near-poverty.  He was hailed as a savior by many of them, who took in his words as if they were drops of water in the thirsty land in which they lived.
But his radical teachings turned off as many as they attracted.  Even his family questioned his sanity, especially when he left the comforts of home to travel the dusty paths of the Middle East.  He became itinerant, homeless, and scorned.  After a while he lost popular support, and even those in his closest circle began to wonder where he was leading them.  Some started to wander in their loyalty to him.  He himself knew that one day the powerful would catch up to him and he would be killed by them.  He accepted it its eventuality as well as its necessity.
When it finally came, it was almost anticlimactic.  Former supporters saw it as necessary.  Some mourned it.  It left his followers scattered and confused, not willing to give in or give up but not quite sure what to do next.
Many people celebrated his death, but most realized that no matter how significant it was, it was just one more death among many that came before and many that would come after before the world was truly a peaceful place.  For some  it signified the defeat of evil in the world, though that seems to attach  too much  significance to one man’s life and one man’s death, not to mention that it seems to be an overly-optimistic view of the world and an underestimation of the power of evil.
Nonetheless, they are right.  The death of this one man signifies the death of evil.  The serpent is still destructive as it thrashes about in its death-throes, giving it the illusion of still having great power, but these are still the thrashings of death-throes as the life slowly seeps out.  The end is sure, even if we’re not sure when the last quivers of life will finally be stilled.
The death of Osama bin Laden has come.  Some have celebrated as if their team had just won the Super Bowl.  Some have seen it as necessary, but feel throwing a party is unseemly.  Some have said that it is largely symbolic in that he was no longer in a position to give much leadership to Al Qaeda.  Some say that he was the head, and that in cutting off the head the body will wither in disarray.  Some have said that he will be hailed as a martyr, and terrorism will continue on as before, if not worse.
Most curious to me have been those who see in his death the defeat of evil.  Because I was in my forties when bin Laden became a household name in America, I’ve not attached that kind of symbolism to him.  He was just a guy, a man, flesh and blood like everyone else.  But for those who were children when 9-11 occurred, whose childhoods and now young adulthoods have been filled with images of planes hitting buildings and two simultaneous desert wars, who grew up thinking it normal to have their backpacks searched every time they visited a museum, bin Laden was the ultimate Boogey-Man.  As one Millennial in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post put it, “Osama is our Voldemort. He’s our Emperor Palpatine. He is the Face of Evil, a mythical holdover from when we were too young to realize that evil has no face…. He was the dragon that lurks at the end of the final corridor. And we got him.”
OK, I get it.  The Ewoks get to celebrate when the emperor of the evil Galactic Empire is defeated.
But this isn’t Star Wars, and life isn’t a video game.  Bin Laden was a man who did some very bad, even evil things.  But he was just a man, and his death, significant though one might find it, doesn’t mean the destruction of Evil, no more than Hitler’s death or Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s or Atttila the Hun’s or whoever.  There is only one man’s death that could be that significant, that cosmos-altering.
We just celebrated his death and resurrection a couple of weeks ago.  Rather than the death of pure evil, his was the death of pure unconditional love.  And his resurrection proved that pure unconditional love can’t stay dead.  Try to kill it, bury it in some tomb, it keeps coming back.

Evil tried to kill Love, and instead sealed its own fate.

One man’s death indeed signaled the defeat of Evil, but that man wasn’t Osama bin Laden.

It was and is Jesus.