Thursday, October 27, 2011


If you could design the ideal world and the ideal society, what would it look like?  Let me take a stab at it.
         First, there would be Enough.  There would be Enough for everyone.  Enough food, first of all.  There wouldn’t be starving children anywhere in the world, certainly not while others eat their fill plus some, and then throw away Enough leftovers to feed a child for a couple of days.  There would be Enough housing.  No one would live in cardboard boxes or leaky shacks cobbled together from pieces of plywood and drywall scavenged from the building sites of enormous mansions.    There would be Enough clothing that everyone would be cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and no one would be embarrassed by the poor condition of their only shirt.  There would just simply be Enough of the things that people need to live.  Those that have wouldn’t worry about More.  More food, More rooms in our houses, More clothes, More stuff.  We wouldn’t concern ourselves about More.  We’d concern ourselves with Enough, and realize that until everyone has Enough, our More is their Enough.
 There would be Peace.  That means first of all that we would stop killing each other, either in the drug wars of the city or the “love” wars of domestic violence (spouse abuse, child abuse, revenge for infidelity) or the oil wars of developed countries or the religious wars of the Middle East or the border wars over territory in much of the world.  But as Jesus pointed out, you don't have to murder someone to be violent against them.  Anger in itself is often expressed violently if non-physically.  (Ever been on the receiving end of a person’s angry harangue?  Then you know that there is a physical effect—you feel the violation.)  A marriage can be void of abuse but also void of closeness and intimacy.  A child that is ignored by their parents is being scarred significantly, and finds little comfort that at least they are not being beaten. True Peace is not the absence of violence but the presence of love.  It produces a feeling that each moment of now is right and true  and holy. 
 There would be a bounty of Grace and Forgiveness.  And both would be needed, because in my ideal world people would be freed from the tyranny of Perfection.  Can you imagine going through school knowing that you would be punished if you didn’t get a 100 on every homework assignment, every quiz, every test?  That your parents would not only be angry with you but would kick you out of the family until you somehow made it up?  Yet somehow we have constructed a view of God that has him treating his children the same way.  Only God is Perfect, and I don’t believe that he expects Perfection from any of us, not in the sense of flawlessness.  The biblical concept of perfection isn’t about flawlessness, it’s about being a complete person, a whole person, having everything that is essential to being a child of God.  So we wouldn’t have to get a 100 on every action,  in every thought, every word.  Which means that we would cut each other a lot of slack.  We’d give each other a lot of Grace, and when true offense occurred we’d so value the Peace that we have in our relationship that we would fight for Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  Just as God did and does.   Think I’m overly idealistic?  Well, don’t blame me, because this really isn’t my dream.  It’s Jesus’.  I took it straight from the Lord’s prayer:
Enough: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Peace: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
Grace and Forgiveness: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God includes all three of these and more.  What gets me is how easily people, including Christians, dismiss these things as unrealistic in the real world.  “Sure, it would be great if everyone had Enough food, but it’s unrealistic.  It’s unrealistic to think that we won’t resort to any kind of violence to settle our differences.  It’s unrealistic to think that in the real world when people are offended that they wouldn’t seek punishment and even revenge but rather would offer Grace and seek Forgiveness.  The real world doesn’t work like that.  It’s unrealistic.”
 But this is Jesus’ vision, which means it is God’s vision.  So I have to ask: This is unrealistic for whom?  Of course it’s unrealistic for humans to do.  We’re addicted  to More, addicted to Non-Peace, addicted to Punishment.  We’re too scared to try another way.
 But this is God’s dream, and it’s Unrealistic to think that, in the end, he won’t get his way.

Friday, October 21, 2011

When Converting from the Perfect to the Imperfect is a Good Thing

Last week I asked the question, “When was Peter saved?” and invited you to answer the question for yourself.  So when was it?  When he was first introduced to Jesus and started following him?  When he confesses that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God?  After the resurrection, when he professes his love for Jesus three times?  Or maybe at Pentecost when he received the Holy Spirit?  Or maybe, as some have suggested, Peter was saved the moment God chose him as one of the elect, before the foundations of the world were laid. 
There is no doubt about the moment of Paul’s conversion: on the road to Damascus.  But there is no clear-cut event like that in Peter’s life.  Part of the problem is in our choice of language, which is not to say that it’s merely an issue of language and not theology, for in fact our choice of language shapes our theology.  So when we subsume the entire event of salvation  into the event of conversion, there is a problem.  Conversion is an initial event; salvation stems from that event, just as birth is the initial event of life but is not the totality of that life.  No one says of their birthday, “I lived on August 30, 1959,” but “My life began on August 30, 1959.”  Yet we often point to the moment of conversion and say, “I was saved when I was ten-years-old.” 
But even then there is a problem, for life doesn’t really begin; rather life is passed on in a complex process in which a living  sperm of a living father and a living egg of a living mother combine to produce a living zygote which becomes a living fetus which becomes a living baby which grows into a living toddler etc.  That life is present at each stage is indisputable; when it began is trickier to pin down.  So also with the conversion event, which often isn’t an event at all.  The moment of decision is often an event, but there is a sense in which conversion has been going on before that decision as a person  over time becomes convinced that Jesus is savior and Lord.  Perhaps more importantly, conversion continues after the moment of decision.  I accepted Christ and was baptized when I was ten, but I can firmly say that I am more convinced now that Jesus is the savior and Lord of the world than I was then.  I have accepted more of Jesus’ teachings as being trustworthy enough to pattern my life after than ever before.  I understand more about Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God and seek it more than ever before.  I am being converted more and more into a Kingdom person.  Does that mean I am more saved than I was before?  No, but I am more converted than I was before, no question.
The biggest difference is that at 10 I was committed to Jesus being the way to life in heaven after death, while today, in addition to that, I am more—though perhaps not completely—committed to Jesus being the way to life on earth before death.  The caveat is because I know that I’m not fully committed to turning the other cheek, for instance.  Slap me, and my first reaction—and maybe last reaction—is probably still to slap back.  Though I know I am supposed to love my enemies, I don’t yet really want to do it and am therefore not fully committed to doing it.  My want-to still needs converting.  Though I know I am supposed to present my life to God as a living sacrifice, there are things in my life that I am still not yet willing to sacrifice to God—including my life, or should I say my death.  As I recently heard a friend say, “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps trying to crawl off the altar.”  That’s me: I keep trying to crawl off the altar.  That part of me is not converted yet. 
Maybe the biggest problem is that we equate salvation with forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness of our sins is part of our salvation, but, like the moment of decision, is not the sum total of salvation.  Salvation cannot occur without the forgiveness of sins, but it is more than the forgiveness of sins.  We are saved from our sins, but we are also saved to a new way of living that is fit for the kingdom of God. 
So it’s different to ask, “When was Peter forgiven,” than to ask, “When was Peter saved?” or “When was he converted?”  When was he forgiven?   I’d say before the foundations of the world.  When was he saved and/or converted?  Well, I have found for me that it’s a life-long process, and it appears to be that way for Peter as well. Maybe we ought to forget that past-perfect tense when speaking of salvation and conversion and move to the past-imperfect tense.  The difference between the two is that with the past perfect tense an action is seen as having been completed in the past, while with the past imperfect the action is seen as begun in the past but not completed; it is seen as continuing into the present.  It's the difference between "I was saved" (perfect) and "My salvation began back on..." (imperfect); between "I was converted" and "My conversion began...."  
And then we will all realize that we still have work that needs to be done, and it's not optional work.  It is the ongoing necessary work of salvation, of converting to a person who knows full well how to thrive in the kingdom of God.

Monday, October 17, 2011


When did Peter get saved?  We all know when it happened for the Apostle Paul: he’s walking down the road to Damascus, off to kill him some Christians, and BOOM!  Blinding lights, a voice from the sky, a sudden realization, a complete reversal.  Paul could give you the exact date and hour of his conversion, his coming to Jesus, his rebirth, his asking Jesus into his life.  (Though it was more like Jesus intruding into Paul’s life than Paul asking for anything.)
But what about Peter?  When was the date and hour of his conversion?  Was it when he met Jesus?  His brother, Andrew, had been a disciple of John the Baptist, and one day John pointed at Jesus and said, “That guy is the Lamb of God!”  So Andrew followed Jesus around for the rest of the day, and when Jesus invited him to stay the rest of the night with him, he went and found Peter (who was still called Simon at that time), telling him, “I have found the Promised King (or Anointed One or Messiah)!”  So Peter left and started following Jesus.  You can’t be a follower of Jesus and not be saved, right?
On the other hand, Peter doesn’t quite get who he is following.  Later on, Jesus says to him, “Okay, so everybody thinks I’m a prophet, or maybe even Elijah come back to life; but who do you say that I am?”  And Peter boldly proclaims, “You are the Christ (or Messiah or Anointed One or Promised King), the son of the living God!”  Sounds good, right?  When you accept Christ you confess that he is the Son of God and the Christ.  That’s what you did when you got saved, so maybe this is the point of Peter’s conversion—when he confesses that Jesus is Savior (or Christ or Anointed One or Promised King) and Lord (or Son of God or God Incarnate).  But then in Mark 8 Jesus follows Peter’s confession with the declaration that he would be arrested, beaten, killed and resurrected, and Peter says, “No way!”  Actually, it says that Peter pulled Jesus aside and started rebuking him—he gave him an angry tongue-lashing for saying such stuff.  In essence, Peter is rejecting the death and resurrection of the Messiah!  How can you be saved and reject the death and resurrection of the Messiah? 
Then Jesus responds by calling him Satan.  Satan!  Can you be saved if Jesus is calling you Satan?  Hmm. 
How about after the resurrection?  Is that when Peter is actually converted?  In John 12, the resurrected Jesus shows up on the shoreline when Peter and some of the other disciples are out fishing.  At this point Peter has seen the empty tomb for himself, and then he has seen the resurrected Jesus for himself.  He saw him on the day of his resurrection, and again a week later when Jesus mysteriously passes through the closed doors of the house and shows himself to doubting Thomas.  So there’s not doubt that Peter believes in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  And isn’t that what you must do to be saved?  We often quote Paul on this point: “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved...that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”  (1 Cor. 15:1-4)
And yet, Jesus finds Peter fishing.  He has gone back to what he knows.  He’s gone back to his life before Jesus.  How can you go fishing after you’ve met the resurrected Jesus?  Once you’ve accepted Christ, you can’t go back to life B.C.  Right?
After realizing who it is, they come to shore where Jesus has made breakfast for them, and after eating, Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?”  Three times he asks, and three times Peter confesses his love for Jesus.  Surely if Peter isn’t saved by then, with this three-fold confession he gets saved, right?  What else does accepting Jesus mean if it’s not professing love for the resurrected Savior?
But then, Paul says that one of the marks of a Christian—if not the mark of a Christian—is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that didn’t happen to Peter until more than a month after the resurrection, at Pentecost.  So was Peter saved before then?
I'll give my answer in another post, but until then, how about it?  When was Peter saved?  When was he converted?  What say you?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kingdom Gospel

Before I say what I’m going to say, I need to make something clear: there is no difference, distinction, or divergence between the teaching of Jesus and that of Paul.  None.  I need to say this because it has been said by a number of people that Paul is the real originator of Christianity; that Jesus never intended to start a new religion but was rather seeking to reform Judaism and Paul, seeing the Gospel rejected by the Jews, went on to form a new religion that was a radical break from his Jewish roots.  Jesus, this viewpoint rightly recognizes, did not set forth a new system of religious doctrine and practices, but was a prophet whose teaching was more moral and ethical than doctrinal and religious.  There’s not much there that I’m going to quibble with.  Paul, on the other hand, was a religious and organizational genius who took Jesus’ death on the cross and subsequent resurrection and developed a full-blown and distinctly Christian systematic theology, organizing distinctly Christian churches (as opposed to synagogues), something that Jesus never did over a wide geographical region.  Jesus provided the inspiration for this new religion, but it is Paul who took it in a direction Jesus never foresaw nor intended by creating a new largely non-Jewish religion.
Not true.  Paul never saw himself as anything but Jewish and never saw what he was doing as anything more than carrying on the work of Jesus in reforming the Jewish religion.  Paul consistently quoted the Hebrew scriptures—our Old Testament—in order to support his central premise that in Jesus the story of Israel was brought to its natural and fitting crowning point.  Paul realized that this crowning point was also a turning point in that the story of Israel now became the story for all creation—that Gentiles, formerly excluded from the story, were now included, and that this was part of the plan all along.
I needed to say that before I said what I want to say, so here goes: the only reason that anyone would accuse Paul of being the true originator of Christianity rather than Jesus is because too we have developed a theological/doctrinal system that pays more attention to what Paul wrote than what Jesus said. 
For instance, the doctrine of justification is a major doctrine of the Church, particularly Protestant churches since Reformation theologian Martin Luther made such a big deal of justification by faith.  But Jesus never used the word “justification,” and only in two places ( Matthew 12:37 and Luke 18:1) talked about a person being “justified” and even in these he using it in a slightly different sense than Paul.  For the apostle it was a major theme, especially in Romans and Galatians.  Likewise, in our doctrine we emphasize that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works.  This comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Jesus wouldn’t disagree with Paul’s point that no one can earn their salvation and essentially put God in their debt by their good works, but nowhere does he make the point by distinguishing between faith and works.  In fact, Jesus has a lot of good things to say about works.  To cite at one example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 
And our definition of “The Gospel” comes from Paul more than from Jesus.  We have defined the Gospel as a plan of salvation, a way of getting saved, and we have explained it by proof-texting Paul and largely ignoring Jesus.  For instance, one of the common tools that has been taught to Christians for sharing the plan of salvation is called the Roman Road because it uses verses exclusively from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Even when other forms of the plan of salvation use sayings from Jesus, it is largely to fit his teaching within a construction that is derived from Paul, though not necessarily a Pauline construction.  It is our construction, using some of Paul’s sayings, but I’m pretty sure that Paul wouldn’t have put it the way we put it.
Jesus said that the good news—the Gospel—is that the Kingdom of God has begun and the present evil age is on the way out (Mark 1:15), and Paul wouldn’t have disagreed.  When you develop a theology that largely ignores the teaching of Jesus, you are going to get a distorted view of Paul’s teaching, and an incomplete understanding of the Gospel and the plan of salvation.
Our starting point for theology is not just the person of Jesus—his divine/human nature—or the work of Jesus—his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead—but also the teachings of Jesus.  A proper theology will start with it all.  Once properly understood, then Paul’s teachings will be properly understood as well,.
And no one will be confused as to the real founder of Christianity.