Friday, August 26, 2011

Good Church Member and Good Christian: They Aren't the Same Thing

I have been a participant in many different discipleship programs since childhood.  Starting with Training Union when I was a small child living in Alabama (only life-long Southern Baptists know what I’m talking about) I have tried a lot of things, some very intense, some not so.  All have been variations on the same thing.  They have all tried to instill in me certain habits—daily Bible reading and prayer (the two were invariably linked into one activity), consistent witnessing, weekly attendance in worship and Sunday School, and tithing.  I was taught that doing all of these things would “bring me closer to Christ,” which sounds really good but, when you really examine it, is both fuzzy and circular.  What does being “closer to Christ” really mean?  Fuzzy: it’s when you have warm feelings of affection toward Jesus.  Circular: a person who is close to Christ is a person who has a daily “quiet time” which involves reading the Bible and praying, who witnesses to non-believers, who attends worship and Sunday School every week, and who tithes.
At some point it occurred to me that all of these activities are more likely to result in a person who is a good and useful church member, a person who is loyal to and helps to build up the local institution of the church.  The churches I’ve been involved in all my life have never had enough Sunday School teachers, and the best Sunday School teachers are those who read the Bible and pray, not just in church activities, but on their own, at home, preferably on a daily basis.  A person who witnesses and wins people to Jesus is constantly feeding the church new members and, even better, people who get baptized.  They give awards to churches whose memberships grow the most and who baptize the most people, did you know that?  At the annual meeting, the pastors of these churches will get called up to the platform and given a nice little framed certificate, their picture in the state Baptist paper, and invitations to speak at church growth and evangelism conferences.  Finally, it’s rather obvious how weekly attendance at worship and Sunday School and tithing support the institution, so I won’t say anymore about that.
Is that being too cynical?  Maybe.  But notably absent from that list is any kind of missional action—serving others outside the church.  That never made it to the check-off list.  Perhaps it was omitted because the benefit to the church is not obvious.  In fact, it could take away from the church if a person became too involved in Christian activities outside the church—you’d be too busy to teach Sunday School or serve on a committee, and you might give some of your money to that cause, money that could have gone to the church.  I was actually warned about getting involved in what are called “para-church” Christian organizations for this very reason—it would take me away from the church.  Hmm.
There is nothing wrong with these activities—I advocate them for all Christians, but not as ends unto themselves, and not merely to support an institution.  That can’t be what discipleship is about.
So I’ve had to try to come up with a new definition of what it means to be a disciple, and what that means that I need to be doing.  Disciple means learner, but not in the sense of a person sitting in a classroom learning facts.  More along the lines of an apprentice learning skills from a master craftsman.  It involves learning a body of information, but more than anything it is about learning to do something.  An apprentice learns information not just to know stuff, but to be able to do something with intelligence.  So, for me discipleship has come to mean at minimum two things: 1) doing the things that Jesus told us to do, and 2)talking about the things that Jesus talked about in the same proportion in which Jesus talked about them.
Which means one of the things I need to do is spend a lot of time reading the Bible, but not just the Bible—reading Jesus, paying attention to what he talked about and what he didn’t talk about, what he did and what he didn’t do, what he told his followers to do and what he didn’t.
That’s just basic.  So why wasn’t I told to do this before?  I mean, I was, but  wasn’t.   

More on this to come.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Solution, Pt. 2

Last post I showed how the teachings of Jesus are every bit as salvific as his death.  There really should not have been a separation between the two, but it’s understandable how in our theology we did it.  The New Testament centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The four Gospels, for instance, all differ from one another in many ways: an event is recorded in one Gospel that is not in one or more of the others; the same event is recorded differently in different Gospels; one parable appears in one Gospel that is not in another; even the chronology of events is different. 
But in the events surrounding the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—there is not just unanimity in their writing but uniformity.  They are almost word-for-word the same.  It is commonly agreed that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark before them when they wrote, but it is telling that they deviated from Mark in many ways, but concerning the Passion of Jesus, they stayed with him.  That’s how important the events of Jesus’s death were to the early church’s understanding of the Good News of Salvation.
Paul likewise emphasizes the salvific nature of Jesus’ death.  Particularly in Romans and 1 Corinthians he connects the dots from one to the other:  Romans 5:6—For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly; 1 Corinthians  15:3—For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.  Peter does as well, for instance in 1 Peter 3:18—For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit. 
From the beginning of the church the cross has been the symbol of both our religion and our salvation, and Jesus’s death takes center stage in our doctrinal and theological statements regarding salvation, so it’s understandable that the salvific nature of Jesus’s teachings got lost in the shuffle of Holy Week and Easter.  But the reality is that the entire life of Jesus is salvific—his birth, his growth into manhood, his miracles, his calling of the disciples, and, yes, his teachings.  And his death is part of his life just like it is for any of us.  It’s not proper, however, to take that one event of Jesus’s life, no matter how important it is, and focus the entire salvation event on it.  We are saved by Jesus’s whole life, not just his death and resurrection. 
I believe this becomes more clear once we understand that The Problem is not just sin in general but that Jesus came to address a particular root sin: the violence that humans do to each other.  His teachings pointed to a different way to live, to interact with one another—and not just our friends, relatives, and neighbors, but also our enemies.  In other words, Jesus came to show us a way to live without violence.
We can accept that this is true, and that violence is wrong, and it must be avoided at all costs—but we always reserve the right to use it as a last resort.  We lack the imagination the see a future in which evil can be dealt with in any way other than violently.  But what good is it to preach and live a lifestyle, not just of non-violence but of anti-violence, if in the end we resort to it? 
That’s exactly what Jesus was faced with.  When the violence of the Temple cult and the evil of the Roman Empire coalesced and focused their combined wrath on Jesus, if Jesus had decided that this non-violent thing was going to get him killed and then powered up, he would have negated everything he had said and taught for the previous 2 1/2 years.  Then, instead of being the solution, Jesus would have just been one more piece of the problem.
Jesus had to die, not to fulfill some plan that God cooked up to satisfy his own wrathful need for justice; Jesus had to die because whenever anyone confronts the powers that be that gained and maintain their power through the threat and use of violence, it’s a virtual certainty that they are going to die.  Jesus had to die to prove, however, that the most powerful force on earth is not violence, it’s love.  A love that is willing to sacrifice itself for another.
And that’s why Jesus’s death is a sacrifice—not because God needs a sacrifice in order to get over his anger, but because one who willingly and sacrificially dies to break the cycle of violence has done something that leads to resurrection and eternal life.  That’s the life Jesus led, and it’s the life he calls his followers to lead as well.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Solution to The Problem, Pt. 1

If the violence that humans do to each other is the original, foundational, and archetypal sin that plagues all creation, then we would expect that Jesus would address this problem; that he would provide us a way out of this mess that we do; that he would save us from this sin that we do—our sin.  The typical way that we have been taught that he has dealt with our sin is through his death, and that is true.  I’ll address that later.  Right now I want to address how Jesus addresses this through his teachings.  We typically see his death as salvific and his teaching as being, well, something else.  Not salvific, but how someone who has already been saved should live.  He teaches us how to live after we’ve been saved, and then he does what he needs to in order to save us.  I would argue that his teachings are every bit as salvific as his death; they show us what to do in order to escape this addiction to power-up on each other in ways that violate others i.e. do violence to others in both subtle and overt ways.  If this isn’t clear even though you’ve read Jesus’ teachings over and over may be (and I assert in fact is) due to a misdiagnosis of The Problem as simply being generic sin.  But once we buy into the idea that the sin Jesus is dealing with is this particular sin identified above, you read Jesus’ words differently.  I tried to show last week how this is so with some of the “You have heard that it was said...but I say unto you” statements in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but you can see it in other places in the Sermon as well.  The Sermon begins, for instance, with the Beatitudes:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
They read differently this way, don’t they?  And I would argue that you have to do less interpretive gymnastics in order to make sense of them than when there is no real identification of the problem they are addressing.  (I could use the rest of this space to delineate how they address The Problem, but a) I think you are perfectly capable of doing it yourself and b) I think there is great value in you doing it yourself rather than have me do it for you.)
Try this one:  "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  (Matt. 5:43-44)  If Jesus’s death is salvific but his teachings are not, then this is just seen as a very difficult, maybe even unrealistic, statement that we should do but even if we don’t we’ll be OK because Jesus’s death saves us from the sin of not loving our enemies but in fact seeking to kill them.  If The Problem is that all of us feel justified in killing our enemies—well, OK, maybe not our enemies, but at least the enemies of our country—then we see that Jesus’s command in fact is intended to break our addiction to violence.
How about this one: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  (Matt. 5:38-39)  This directly addresses the issue of escalating violence due to the need for “justice”.  Formerly it only sounded like a recipe for getting beat up—which in fact it is—with no particular end in mind—which in fact it is not.  The end game is to stop the cycle of violence not by resorting to it but by absorbing it self-sacrificially. 
Which is exactly what Jesus did on the cross.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Our Place in The Problem

       What I’ve been trying to show in the last several articles is that Genesis 1-11 sets forth The Problem, which is the violence that humans do to each other, the effects of which infect all creation.  I’ve asserted that the primary feature of Original Sin is not so much that it was the first sin, introducing imperfection into a perfect world, but that it is archetypal or foundational—it is the root sin from which everything else grows.  I’ve also asserted that Original Sin is not something that an original pair of ancestors committed, of which we now reap the whirlwind, but that it is something that we all do, in our own way, and we do it not because it’s in our DNA and we really have no choice but to do it, but because we actually do choose to do it.  So we can’t blame anyone or anything, not Adam and Eve, not heredity, not upbringing, not “it’s just the way I am”, not fate or predestination, not Satan or God.  We do it, and we do it knowingly and willingly.  So we are all without excuse.
Now, if you haven’t realized it yet, I’ve just admitted to being a violent person, and I’ve just accused you of being a violent person.  If the Original Sin is the violence that humans do to one another, and if we all commit the Original Sin, then we are all perpetrators of violence in some fashion.
Not buying it?  I understand.  You’re not a violent person, are you?  You don’t hit people, shoot people, stab people, or rape people.  You’re not a murderer, child abuser, rapist, torturer, psychopath or sociopath.  And you don't hang around with people who are, at least not knowingly.  OK, fair enough.  As the world defines a violent person—as the law defines a violent person—few of us are violent.
But we are followers of Jesus, and so it doesn’t really matter if the world and the world’s laws define us as violent.  All that matters is if Jesus defines us as violent.
OK, so you’ve never murdered someone; neither have I.  But have you ever gotten really, really angry at someone?  Sure you have.  I’ve gotten angry at Pam on a number of occasions.  I mean spit-flying, eye-bulging, foot-stomping angry.  At my wife, my life-mate, best-love, mother-of-my-children, until-death-do-us-part companion in life.  So have you.  Well, maybe not angry at Pam, but angry with your spouse, sibling, best friend, parent, child.  But at least you didn’t get violent, right?  But what does Jesus say?  "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”   And when you got angry, did you yell?  Maybe not every time, but I bet at least sometimes you yelled, maybe threw out some insults.  So Jesus goes on: “And if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Now, nobody really buys the idea that being angry and/or yelling insults is the same as murder.  We don’t.  I remember as a kid being taught that in Sunday School and on the outside nodding agreement but on the inside thinking, “”  And most everybody is with me on this, which means that we tend to dismiss Jesus’s statement as hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point, that getting angry is bad and can lead to murder.  But Jesus isn’t really equating getting angry or yelling or insulting a person with murder.  He is, however, expanding the notion of what it means to be violent.  He’s saying, “You think you aren’t a violent person because you haven’t murdered anyone?  But yelling is an act of violence also, as is insulting another person, as is getting spit-flying, eye-bulging, foot-stomping angry.  These and many other things are acts of violence that can and do damage another person.” 
This is what we do.  We power-up on each other, and not just on our enemies, but on our loved ones.  In fact, it tends to be our loved ones that we do this to the most.  We tend to interact with our enemies as little as possible, but we interact with our loved ones all the time, and we tend to seek to be in control of our relationships, and that means that sometimes we’ll resort to different forms of manipulation in order to get or maintain the upper hand.  And manipulation is almost without exception a violation of the personhood and free will of another. 
So insulting a person is not the same as murdering them, but it’s part of the same problem that is plaguing the world.  This is what Jesus came to address.  He addressed it in his teaching, he addressed it in the way he lived, and he addressed it in the way he died.
And if you want to know what the Kingdom of God is like, you can start with the idea that it is the place and the time in which this problem has been addressed and solved.  Which makes clearer what it means to pursue the Kingdom of God and its righteousness (Matt. 6:33).