Jul
2014

He Shall Command Peace

On Wednesday, June 18, I had ankle replacement surgery.  On Monday, July 14, the cast came off.  In between, I was largely immobile, spending most of my hours in a recliner with my right leg elevated above my heart.  Wendy, Sean and Anthony took extraordinarily good care of me.  Still, it was difficult–especially in the early days.

Soon after I returned home from the hospital, I awoke one morning and realized that my leg was itching inside the cast.  It was driving me crazy.  I twisted my leg inside the cast, got up, stomped around on the walker–and then I realized that I would be trapped in that cast for another three weeks.

I began to have trouble breathing, my heart was racing, I was disoriented–then, I thought, “I am having a panic attack.  This must be what a panic attack feels like.”  Ice packs on my face and forehead got my breathing and racing heart under control, and I calmed down, but only for a while.

I sat in my chair, trying to think, to pray, to read–trying desperately to think about something, anything, other than my leg.  To no avail.  Then I thought about my son Sean.  Sean has wrestled since childhood with Tourette Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and attendant depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.  Along the way, he has learned not only to cope with these conditions, but to thrive.  So, when Sean got home from work, I asked him if he could teach me how to fight my obsession with my leg’s discomfort.

Sean’s answer astonished me.  He said that he had learned that you can’t fight obsessive thoughts: “They just come.”  What you can do is rob those thoughts of the emotions and anxiety associated with them.  To do that, Sean taught me, you first relax your body and your mind.  Then, you let the forbidden thought come: you deliberately think about what you do not want to think about.  As you do so, you keep breathing slowly, you deliberately relax, and so replace the anxiety with calm.  Sean suggested that I think, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter!”

It worked.  That afternoon, when my leg itched, or when I thought about my leg itching or aching, I didn’t fight it.  I breathed slowly, in and out, praying the Jesus Prayer in time with my breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  I thanked God for my healing.  I thought about the hundreds of others who had had this surgery, and had come through this period of recovery just fine.  I told myself, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter.”  And I fell asleep–the most restful sleep I had had since coming home from the hospital.

Over the next few days, I continued to practice my prayer and meditation, and bit by bit, my leg stopped bothering me.  It didn’t become magically more comfortable, or less prone to itching, but I stopped worrying about it.  I “won” when I stopped trying to win–when I stopped fighting.

Since I tend to think biblically–in terms of texts and images from Scripture–this extraordinary experience got me to thinking about martial metaphors in Scripture.  Working as I have been recently with the so-called “Minor” Prophets (a far better designation, used by Jewish readers and early Christians, is the Book of the Twelve), I thought of the poems celebrating God as Divine Warrior in  Nahum 1:2-11, Habakkuk 3:1-19, and particularly Zechariah 9:13-17.  Such images are very old, and very common in Scripture.  It is little wonder, perhaps, that our default is to think in terms of combat.  Resistance to any evil becomes a war: the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror.  As theologian Walter Wink observed, “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world.”

Yet there are other texts in Scripture, which call the martial metaphor into question.  One is Zechariah 9:9-12, the only reading from Zechariah in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Zechariah 9:9 is quoted in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and may be assumed in Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-40 as well (both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the LXX of Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey (Zech 9:9).

The Hebrew words translated “righteous and victorious” are tsaddiq wenosha’.  The first term means “righteous,” perhaps defending “the royal legitimacy of the king” (see Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; Anchor Bible 25C [Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1993], 127), though it may also refer to his morality (the Aramaic translation, or Targum, has zaqay: “innocent”).  The second means literally “one who is saved,”  though most English translations (including the CEB) follow the Greek LXX, which renders this as sozon, meaning “one who saves.”  Carol and Eric Meyers, however, stay with the plain sense of the Hebrew: God, they say, is the one who “is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127).  This is a very different idea of kingship, grounded not in the king’s victories in battle, but in God’s own action (compare Zech 4:6).

The distinctions between this king and other, previous kings continue to be drawn as this passage continues.  Although the humble mount in Zechariah 9:9 derives from a long tradition in the ancient Middle East of kingly processions where the king rode an ass (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129), this passage surely catches the point of that tradition: by riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace.

Yet this time, the prophet declares, this is no pretense: this king truly is humble, and not only comes in peace, but comes to bring peace:

 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (9:10).

Another surprising passage is Zechariah 14:13-19, which at first seems to be yet another depiction of God as warrior, and of God’s victory as accomplished through violent struggle. In the last day, this vision declares, Jerusalem’s people will plunder those who had come to plunder them (a common biblical theme; see Exod 12:33-36; Ezek 39:9-10; 2 Chr 20:25).  So that the enemy will never again be able to mount an attack on Jerusalem, a plague will strike “the horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and any cattle in those camps” (Zech 14:15), destroying their military capability entirely.

Yet despite the sweeping devastation of plague and war, the enemies of Jerusalem are not utterly destroyed: “All those left from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem will go up annually to pay homage to the king, the Lord of heavenly forces, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths” (Zech 14:16).

Similarly in the book of Revelation, even after the last judgment sees all the enemies of God’s people (including “Death and the Grave”) thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15), John can still somehow say of the New Jerusalem, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.  They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it” (Rev 21:24-26).  God’s ultimate purpose is not destruction after all, but transformation and renewal.

In Zechariah 14:6, the nations do not necessarily come to Jerusalem willingly—their participation, and particularly the participation of Egypt (Zech 14:18-19; for Egypt as a symbol of foreign oppression, see Hos 11:5; Zech 10:10-11), is coerced by the threat of plague!  Still come they do, every year, at Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.

This autumn pilgrim feast, the most important of the festivals according to many biblical traditions (for example, 1 Kgs 8:2; Isa 30:29; Ezek 45:25; Neh 8:14; John 7:2, which refer the Sukkot as “the festival”), is an appropriate time for the nations to observe fealty to the Lord, as it is also the time set for the reading and remembrance of the Law of Moses (Deut 31:10-11; Neh 8:13-18).  The nations join the faithful of Israel in proclaiming fealty to the Lord, and faithfulness to God’s commandments.

Reading these passages, I find myself thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s response to a fiery old woman, who took issue with him for speaking of Southerners as people in error, rather than enemies to be destroyed: “Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Without doubt, the imagery of warfare and struggle is part of the biblical witness.  But Scripture also, in many places, subverts that imagery, transforming it unexpectedly into imagery of peace.  What would happen if we listened to those texts, rather than focusing on the others?  How might that change the way we confront our struggles, whether internal, interpersonal, or international?  What might happen if we stopped fighting, let our anger, fear, and anxiety go, and opened ourselves to God’s peace?

AFTERWORD:

Thank you for your thoughts and prayers!  I am well on the way to wholeness, but I appreciate your continued prayers as I move into the next phase of my recovery.

Jun
2014

Biblical Disobedience, and Hezekiah’s Passover

At this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, I was honored to be asked to co-teach a lay academy class with Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor whose credentials were revoked by the Eastern PA Conference after he performed a wedding for his son, who had married another man.

As I wrestled and prayed over what to do for this class, I thought about all the conversation going on in my church about obedience: on the one side, obedience to the “clear teaching” of Scripture and tradition regarding marriage and obedience to the United Methodist Discipline (a topic on which I have blogged before (go here and read the succeeding blogs to here), on the other the call to a “biblical obedience” higher than church law.  In the end, I decided to talk about biblical disobedience: passages of Scripture where laws were broken in service to the Spirit of God and “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith.”  As part of that study, we worked with one of my favorite stories from one of my favorite, frequently ignored, biblical books, 1 and 2 Chronicles.

This week, I am sharing with you part of my commentary on this book, dealing with Hezekiah’s Passover (2 Chronicles 30:15-22).  I hope that you will see the relevance of this ancient story to our contemporary context.  The Bible quotes are from the NRSV, but I have provided links to the Common English version for comparison. The portion begins with the response to a letter from King Hezekiah of Judah, inviting refugees from Israel, who had escaped the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria (722 B.C.), to come to Jerusalem for Passover.

“Sadly, Hezekiah’s invitation is rejected by many in the north, who laugh at and scorn his messengers (2 Chr 30:10).  The reader may be reminded of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14; compare Lk 14:15-20), where the messengers are also scorned and ill-treated.  However, as in Jesus’ parable, the failure of those invited to respond does not mean that feast is not held, or that it is a failure.  Some, “from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun,” do humble themselves and come to the feast (on the importance of humbling oneself, see the discussion on 2 Chr 7:14, above).  In Judah, meanwhile, the response is once more overwhelming.  The people respond with “one heart:” that is, in unity, dedication, and singleness of purpose (2 Chr 30:12; see 1 Chr 12:38, where those who come to make David king are likewise said to be of “one heart”).  In the end, as had been anticipated, it is “a very large assembly” that gathers in Jerusalem for the feast (2 Chr 30:13).

. . . With the city as well as the temple cleansed, the festival begins on time, on the fourteenth day of the second month (see Num 9:9-11).  The priests and Levites, shamed by their failure to be prepared in the first month as well as by the example of the laity, have sanctified themselves in  sufficient numbers, and stand ready to serve (2 Chr 30:15).  They conduct themselves “according to the law of Moses the man of God” (2 Chr 30:16); as elsewhere in Chronicles, Scripture provides direction for right worship.

It is fortunate that the priests and Levites are ready, for a great number of those attending are ritually unclean, and so cannot kill their own sacrifices; the Levites must do this for them (2 Chr 30:17; for the killing of the sacrifice by Levites, see also Ezr 6:20; Ezek 44:11).  Nothing is said of the reasons for their defilement; however, since many of those said to be defiled come from the north (2 Chr 30:18), we may find here competing ideas about what constitutes ritual purity, or about the requirements for the observance of Passover.  From the Chronicler’s perspective, however, this means that “they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, in violation of God’s word in Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5).

But rather than barring these persons from participation, Hezekiah prays for them: “The good LORD pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the LORD the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” (2 Chr 30:18-19).  The Lord hears the king’s prayer, and the community is healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Hezekiah’s prayer, and the Lord’s favorable response, strike a blow against rigid legalism.  Clearly, it is more important to set one’s heart to seek God than it is to be in a state of scrupulous ritual purity.  Similarly, Micah asks, “[W]hat does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

In his teaching, Jesus as well placed “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” above ritual law (Matt 23:23).  So, for Jesus, meeting human need by healing on the sabbath was more important than strict adherence to the regulations of the rabbis (so, for example, Mk 3:1-6).

Particularly instructive in this regard is Paul’s treatment of the question of eating food offered to idols, an issue which divided the early church.  According to Acts 15:20, abstaining “from things polluted by idols” was part of that bare minimum of Jewish law which all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, were bound to follow.  Similarly, the John of Revelation held that those who ate food sacrificed to idols separated themselves from Christ (Rev 2:14, 20).  Other Christians, however, reasoned that since there was only one true God, the idols were mere statues; food sacrificed to them was no different than any other kind of food (see 1 Cor 8:1-6).  Paul refused to settle the matter legalistically, either way.  He argued that the food itself was not the issue; what really mattered was sensitivity to one another in the body of Christ.  If the faith of “weaker” Christians is threatened when they see other believers eating food sacrificed to idols, then the “stronger” Christians need to abstain (1 Cor 8:7-13).

Today, the church is divided by other questions and controversies.  Yet, we still are tempted to appeal to legalism, whether in our reading of Scripture or in our application of community standards, to resolve our differences–even though such an appeal rarely resolves anything.  We need to remember that Scripture itself rejects this narrow, rigid standard.  How much better, like Hezekiah, to trust in God’s grace to cover our lack of scrupulosity, and to recall that devotion to the Lord is our first, and highest, calling.”

AFTERWORD

This will be my last blog for awhile, as I am going into the hospital for ankle replacement surgery.  Your prayers are greatly appreciated!  The recovery will be long, but after physical therapy, I should be up walking and leaping and praising God by the fall.  You can call me the bionic Bible Guy!

 

May
2014

Why the Bible Matters

This Thursday is Ascension Day–a day sadly not much celebrated in Protestant churches.  On this day, we remember when, as the followers of Jesus watched, Jesus was taken out of their sight, and into heaven (Luke 24:50-51).  The response of the community was significant:

They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy.  And they were continuously in the temple praising God (Luke 24:52-53).

Too often, we draw a line between worship and service, or evangelism and liturgy, or Bible study and social action.  Clearly, for the earliest church, formed by the experience of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, these were unthinkable distinctions.  If they were to be the community of proclamation and service, they needed also to be the community of Scripture, prayer and praise—as do we.

The lectionary readings for Ascension Day (Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11) bridge two books in our New Testament, Luke and Acts.  Although separated by the gospel of John in our Bibles, Luke and Acts belong together, as two parts of a single work. The two books have a similar literary style and share common themes, particularly a concern for women and the poor.  But as this week’s readings demonstrate, they are particularly joined by their emphasis upon the risen, victorious, ascended Christ, and his promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4).

The structure of Luke moves inexorably toward Jerusalem.  After a prologue describing Jesus’ birth and childhood (Luke 1:1—2:52), the gospel is arranged geographically, starting in Galilee (3:1—9:50), then moving to the way to Jerusalem (9:51—19:44, often called Luke’s “special section” as it contains a wealth of material unique to this gospel), and finally reaching its climax in Jerusalem itself (19:45—24:53).  This pattern is reversed in Acts, where Jerusalem becomes the center out from which the gospel is carried to the entire world; as Jesus tells his followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem throughout Luke’s gospel.  When he at last arrives at Jerusalem, we expect great things–but he is betrayed, captured, tried, condemned and crucified!  That, however, is by no means the end.  Jesus is raised from the dead.  Faithful women see his empty tomb, but the eleven reject their report as nonsense (Luke 24:1-12).

Even when Jesus at last appears to the eleven in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43), they have trouble accepting and understanding what has happened. Jesus shows them the wounds of crucifixion, still visible (Luke 24:38-40), and even eats some broiled fish with them to prove that he is really, physically there (Luke 24:41-43).

In the Gospel reading for Ascension Day, Jesus then teaches his followers what his resurrection means:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:44-45).  

This description, emphasizing the whole of Scripture, calls to mind the division of the Jewish Bible into Torah (the Law, or the books of Moses), Nebi’im (the Prophets), and Kethubim (the Writings, including the Psalms).  The Jewish canon—that is, the collection of books deemed sacred by the community—was fixed by the end of the first century, but long before that official closure, this threefold division of the canon was in place.

In his prologue to the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha dating to the early second century B.C. sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, ben Sirach’s grandson tells us of his grandfather’s work:

Numerous and wonderful things have been given to us through the Law, the Prophets, and the other writings that followed them.  For this reason, it is necessary to praise Israel for education and wisdom.  It is also necessary not only for those who read them to gain understanding  but also for those who love learning to be of service to strangers  when they speak and write.  Because of this, my grandfather, Jesus, who had devoted himself more and more to the reading of the Law,  the Prophets, and the other ancestral scrolls, and had gained enough experience with them, was himself led to compose a work dealing with education and wisdom. His goal was that lovers of learning who were committed to education and wisdom should gain much more by living according to the Law.

Throughout his own two-volume work, Luke uses Scripture in a very distinctive way.  Unlike Matthew, who quotes and cites biblical passages (for example, Matt 2:17-18), Luke alludes to texts, writing in the style of the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.  For example, the famous Song of Mary, often called the Magnificat after its opening word in Latin (Luke 1:46-55; the new Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage) draws freely in style and imagery on the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10).  According to New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall, Luke’s “use of a [Septuagint] style must raise the question whether he thought of himself as writing a work of the same kind and thus continuing the ‘salvation history’ which he found in it” (I. Howard Marshall, “An Assessment of Recent Developments,” in It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture [ed. D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988], 9).

The degree to which Luke values Scripture is shown, not only in his Septuagintal style, but also in the content of his gospel.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found only in Luke, the rich man’s plea that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers is answered by Abraham, “They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them” (Luke 16:29).  When the rich man says that if someone came back from the dead, his brothers would be sure to listen, Abraham says, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

This proves an effective foreshadowing of Luke 24, where Jesus’ resurrection continually prompts doubt and disbelief (with the sterling exception of the women at the tomb!), until he dispels doubt by turning to the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 44-45).  Of course, reading the Scriptures alone is not enough.  Only when Jesus himself has “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27) and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45) does their meaning become powerful and apparent.  As the two friends in Emmaus say after their encounter with Jesus, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24:32).

It is difficult to know precisely what Luke has in mind when he writes,

This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)

It seems unlikely that he is thinking of a specific text for each claim Jesus makes here about himself.  Rather it seems that the whole of Scripture extends into, and finds its fulfillment in, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  This is the point of Luke’s gospel, and the reason he writes as he does, in the style of the Septuagint, echoing its language and themes.  Luke believes that he is writing Scripture, and that Scripture bears witness to God in Christ Jesus. 

When I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, I met a Korean-born Christian named Peter Chang.  Peter, like me, had done his Ph. D. in Hebrew Bible at Union/PSCE in Richmond, and for a time he worked as an adjunct in our college Religious Studies department.  We talked often, about common friends at Union, about our discipline of biblical studies, about teaching, but also about faith.

Peter told me how he had become a Christian in South Korea.  He was a university student, he said.  At this time, he knew no Christians: his family was not Christian; he had no Christian friends.  Together with a group of other students, none of whom was Christian, Peter began a study of the gospel of Mark.  In the course of that study, they became convinced of the truth of what they were reading.  Unguided by missionaries or tracts, unproselytized by Protestants or Catholics, without an evangelist or an altar rail in sight, they gave their lives to the Jesus they met in the pages of Scripture.

I found Peter’s story amazing, but not surprising.  In my years of teaching Bible to undergraduates, many of whom had never opened a Bible before, I had many times seen similar evidence of the power of Scripture to change lives.  Many times, students have written a note on the last page of their final exams, telling me that they have started going to church, or that they have started listening to their pastor’s sermons.  One student wrote, “I think I know now what I need to do to be saved.”  Scripture has this power, not because the Bible is a magic book, but because in its pages, God comes to meet us.  Through the words of Scripture, we encounter the Word made flesh, our living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is why the Bible matters.

AFTERWORD:

The Bible Guy is thankful for Pope Francis’ powerful call for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet with him and pray for peace.  Let us join this faithful Christian leader in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, and for justice for Palestinians.

May
2014

Famous Last Words

We have long had the notion that the last words someone speaks before death–especially, someone famous–are of particular and lasting significance.  We hold this to be true, despite counter-examples, such as the last words of Socrates.  According to his student Plato, Socrates’ last words were,”Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

Certainly, last words can be moving and inspiring–like those of John Wesley:  “The best of all is, God is with us.”

Last words can also be mysterious and evocative, like those of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “Let us cross over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees.”

My own favorite last words were spoken by Union General John Sedgwick, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse: “I’m ashamed of you men, dodging that way.  They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range!”

Sunday’s lesson from Acts also dealt with famous last words: those spoken by Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was one of the first seven people to be named deacons: specially appointed to serve under the leadership of the apostles (Acts 6:1-7).

Stephen was a very effective preacher and teacher; he angered the religious leadership, however, and so was tried on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and condemned to death.

Among the last words he spoke, as the stones were raining down on him, were, Kyrie ‘Iesou, dexai to pneuma mou: “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” (CEB), or more literally, “Receive my spirit” (NRSV).  Praying in this way, Stephen follows the example of his Lord Jesus, who he asks to receive his spirit.  In Luke, Jesus’ last words are, Pater, eis cheiras sou paratithemai to pneuma mou: “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” (CEB), or more familiarly, “I commend my spirit” (NRSV).

Both Jesus’ and Stephen’s last words refer to Psalm 31:5 (in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, Ps 31:6): “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”  The Greek of that first phrase is eis cheiras sou parathesomai [a different form of the same verb Luke uses in Lk 23:46] to pneuma mou.

These words may remind you of the prayer we pray beside the grave of a loved one–a prayer our family prayed in a snowy cemetery in Michigan this past February, as we committed Mom’s ashes to the ground, and entrusted her life into the hands of God:

Almighty God, into your hands we commend your daughter Gerry, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is what we believers do for those we love: with words of confident assurance, we entrust them into God’s loving hands.

But in Psalm 31, these words are not spoken at the end of life.  The Psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of life, out of turmoil, conflict, and struggle:

My life is consumed with sadness;
    my years are consumed with groaning.
Strength fails me because of my suffering;
    my bones dry up.
I’m a joke to all my enemies,
    still worse to my neighbors.
    I scare my friends,
    and whoever sees me in the street runs away!
I am forgotten, like I’m dead,
    completely out of mind;
    I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed.
Yes, I’ve heard all the gossiping,
    terror all around;
    so many gang up together against me,
        they plan to take my life!

But me? I trust you, Lord!
    I affirm, “You are my God.”
My future is in your hands.
    Don’t hand me over to my enemies,
    to all who are out to get me!
Shine your face on your servant;
    save me by your faithful love! (Ps 31:10-16)

What could it mean to commit ourselves, and those we love, to God–not at the end of life, but right here, right now?

 

In one sense, it really doesn’t mean anything.  After all, God is Lord of the universe, whether we recognize it or not; our lives are already in God’s hands, whether we acknowledge it or not.  To commit ourselves and those we love to God is only to recognize the way that things actually are.

To pray this prayer, however, says a good deal about who we believe God to be!  The psalmist prays,

Listen closely to me!
    Deliver me quickly;
        be a rock that protects me;
        be a strong fortress that saves me!
You are definitely my rock and my fortress.
    Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! (Ps 31:2-3).

Entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, we avow that God is our rock, our fortress.  We confess that God is for us, not against us–and that confession changes everything!

First, commending our lives into the hands of a loving God changes the way that we see our own lives and circumstances.  We can face struggle, hardship, and trouble with confidence, knowing that we are not alone.  We need not be anxious about the future, because we know that, whatever comes, that future is securely in God’s hands.

Commending ourselves and those we love into God’s hands also changes way that we see one another.  We don’t need to be fearful and anxious about those whom we love.  We can let them go–trusting them into the hands of God.

We can also let go of those whom we do not particularly love, and who do not love us–those with whom we are angry, perhaps for very good reasons.  The psalmist, who has experienced oppression and violence from his enemies, is very angry, and calls for vengeance on his enemies:

Lord, don’t let me be put to shame
    because I have cried out to you.
Let the wicked be put to shame;
    let them be silenced in death’s domain!
Let their lying lips be shut up
    whenever they speak arrogantly
    against the righteous with pride and contempt!  (Ps 31:17-18)

But not Stephen!  The very last words that Stephen speaks are, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).  In this, he once more follows the example of his Lord.

Luke records that Jesus prayed for his torturers and executioners, who had nailed him to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” How did Jesus and Stephen let go of resentment and anger, and forgive their enemies?  Perhaps they could do so because they trusted even their foes into God’s hands, believing that God was at work in them, bringing transformation.

Certainly, that was the case among Stephen’s persecutors.  Luke tells us, almost in passing, that before they began to stone Stephen, “The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).  Later in the story Acts unfolds, this young man becomes first, an avid persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1-3), and then, its most ardent defender–better known as Paul (Acts 9:1-21).

We need to be careful here.  Commending our lives into God’s hands is no guarantee that all will turn out well: it certainly didn’t for Stephen, who was stoned to death, or for Jesus, who was crucified!  Faced with tragedy, or failure, or frustration, we may be brought to the point of giving up.  What difference does faith make, anyway?

In his book The Irony of American History (1952, p. 63), the great twentieth century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reflected upon this mystery.  He wrote:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however, virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Commending ourselves into God’s hands, we can face whatever comes, even the worst, with courage, knowing that God is at work in us, through us, and in spite of us!  As Paul–who, recall, had been one of Stephen’s executioners–acclaimed, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).  Trusting that God is at work in our lives and in our world, may we–with Jesus, Stephen, and believers in all times and places–say this day and every day, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

 

 

May
2014

Antichrist

Recently, on my Facebook page, I used the term “Anti-Christian” to describe a statement made by a controversial political figure (more on that below).  I did not do this to be myself controversial, or to claim that this person is the Antichrist.  I did use the term deliberately, in reference not to its popular, but to its biblical meaning.

Popularly, the term Antichrist is thought to refer to a future world ruler, predicted in the book of Revelation, who will force everyone to wear his “mark of the Beast.”  Some go so far as to identify the mark with, say UPC codes, or to identify a current world leader  or the United Nations with the Antichrist.

The term “antichrist” (Greek antichristos), however, does not appear in the book of Revelation at all.  It is found only four times in Scripture, in 1 John 2:18, 22 and 4:3, and 2 John 7.  The word may have been coined by the author of these short works, who identifies himself simply as the Elder.

In 1 and 2 John, the term refers not to one person, but to many: indeed, the Elder warns of  a spirit of antichrist.  According to the Elder, this spirit tragically comes out of the community of faith:

They went out from us, but they were not really part of us. If they had been part of us, they would have stayed with us. But by going out from us, they showed they all are not part of us (1 John 2:19).

But the Elder expresses confidence in the community: they know the truth and so will not be mislead by lies (1 Jn 2:20-21).  In fact, the distinguishing mark of antichristos IS the Lie: the denial of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Elder addresses antichristos particularly in his teaching regarding spiritual discernment (1 Jn 4:1-6):

Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. So they speak from the world’s point of view and the world listens to them. We are from God. The person who knows God listens to us. Whoever is not from God doesn’t listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The term “false prophets” (pseudoprophetai) is sometimes used in the Septuagint where the Hebrew simply has “prophet.”  For example, in Zechariah 13:2:

On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        I will eliminate the names of the idols from the land;
            they will no longer be remembered.
Moreover, I will remove the prophets [Greek pseudoprophetas, or "false prophets"] and the sinful spirit from the land.

This word, which may have been invented by the Septuagint’s translators, is used by later Jewish writers such as the historian Josephus and the philosopher Philo.

In the New Testament, however, the rise of false prophets can be used as a sign of the last days (so Matt 24:11, 24:24//Mark 13:22; and Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).  That is the position of the Elder in 1 John.  But for this Christian teacher, discerning true prophecy from false is straightforward: as in 1 John 2:22, the denial of Jesus is the evidence of antichrist.  In 1 John 4, however, antichristos specifically denies the Incarnation:

This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God,and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world (1 Jn 4:2-3; see also Jn 1:14)

Conversely, the confession of Christ is the means to victory over sin and evil, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).  This leads to a test in practice: the true spirit of Christ rather than antichristos is shown in Christlike love for one another and for God (1 Jn 4:7—5:5).  1 John 4:7-8 is the Golden Text of the entire Bible:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

What an extraordinary confession: the greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  This affirmation parallels the most famous text in Scripture, John 3:16-17:

 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus is the demonstration and proof of God’s love (see also Rom 5:8).

In 2 John, drawing directly from 1 John, the Elder follows Jesus’ example in proclaiming the new commandment of love (2 Jn 5-6; 1 Jn 2:7-8).  It is in connection with the love commandment that the Elder warns about antichristos, which denies “that Jesus Christ came as a human being” (2 Jn 7).  Rejecting Christ means more than rejecting a religious doctrine.  It means rejecting Christlikeness: the way of love followed, enabled and empowered by Jesus.

So, where is antichristos manifest in our world?  Not, to be sure, in peace signs, or UPC codes, or the United Nations, or Harry Potter!  Wherever professing Christians speak violence and hatred, yet claim to speak in God’s name, there is the spirit of antichrist.

When Governor Sarah Palin said, in a speech to the National Rifle Association, “Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists”–that is the spirit of antichristos.

When Ugandan bishop Charles Wamika, in his Easter message at St. Charles Lwanga Catholic Church “called for a blessing for Uganda’s Christians who worked so hard to ‘free the land of gays’”  and “asked for parents to hand over their gay children to authorities, so they would be rewarded in heaven,” that is the spirit of antichrist.

We cannot let such abominable speech stand.  When it occurs, wherever it occurs, we need to name it for what it is, and reject any implication that these words are in any way compatible with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God grant us the courage to condemn the antichristian language of hatred and violence, and to pursue the language and practice of love.

Apr
2014

While This Liquid Tomb Surveying

A little over a year ago, I shared this baptismal hymn on one of my first blogs, after hearing it sung by Michael Wallace in our seminary chapel that Holy Week.  I thought of it again, today, as student preachers shared excellent sermons on Genesis 1:1-5, reflecting on this ancient confession of God’s creative ordering of watery chaos and its significance to this season of resurrection.  Today, I share it again as a powerful statement of our resurrection faith.  Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

“Baptism Hymn”

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

-John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)

AFTERWORD

There will be a celebration of the life of Gerry Rodan on Saturday, April 26, at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park , PA, at 11:oo.  We thank all of you for your thoughts and prayers.  May light perpetual shine upon you, Mom!

Apr
2014

You Keep Using That Word…

In “Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion.

In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt 21:9).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.  

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.

From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.

In Matthew’s gospel in particular, Jesus’ death is connected to our sinfulness: our rebellion against God.   At Jesus’ birth, the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or "Savior"], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  

As we will remember this Thursday, Jesus shared the Passover meal in Jerusalem with his followers.  Then, Jesus took a loaf, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.” Then, pouring out the wine, he shared the cup, saying “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt 26:27-28).  

Somehow, it is in his death that Jesus becomes “Jesus”–Yeshua, Savior.  Somehow, he takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin–and takes it away.

It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” brothers and sisters–”Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.  

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.

AFTERWORD:

Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!

Apr
2014

Where Is God?

In the first chapter of Exodus, God is not mentioned at all until the seventeenth verse–nearly the end of the chapter.   Through the account of Israel’s explosive growth in Egypt, God does not appear.

Through the changing of power in Egypt, as a new Pharaoh comes to the throne “who didn’t know Joseph” (1:8), God is apparently absent.

Even as this new Pharaoh, in hatred and fear, subjects Israel to unjust enslavement, even as the escalating scale of abuse leads to the first stage of genocide, God does not appear.

To carry out Pharaoh’s racist campaign, born of hatred and fear, to eliminate Israel, he enlists the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as his agents:

When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live (Exod 1:16).

 

But the midwives disobey, and in their disobedience, we encounter God for the first time in this book.  This first mention of God is indirect: God is experienced through the faith of the midwives, who would not do as Pharaoh commanded because they “respected [the Hebrew might be better translated "feared"] God” (Exod 1:17).  Given God’s absence in the narrative to this point, we might think that they should better fear Pharaoh–but no!  Shiphrah and Puah revere God, despite God’s apparent absence.

Of course, even as dim a bulb as Pharaoh appears to be in this story is bound to notice that more and more Hebrew boys keep turning up!  He summons the midwives to explain themselves:

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them” (Exod 1:19).

Cleverly playing off of Pharaoh’s prejudices, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie they know he will be likely to accept: those Hebrews breed like animals; their brutish women don’t even need midwives.  Foolish Pharaoh believes them, and Israel’s baby boys are saved.

Now, for the first time in Exodus, God is said to do something!  God performs a double act of blessing.  First, this initial attempt of Pharaoh to eliminate Israel is not only routed, but reversed: “So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong” (Exod 1:20). Pharaoh will find another solution, and God will provide a more lasting counter–one that liberates his people completely from Egyptian oppression. But for now, because of the midwives’ courage and cleverness, people Israel continue to flourish.

Second, as for Shiphrah and Puah, “because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own” (Exod 1:21).  The Hebrew is waya’as lahem batim: literally, “he made for them houses.”  The implication is not simply that, as the NRSV reads, God “gave them families.” Rather, God has made these two Hebrew women the heads of clans!  There were families in Israel, this story claims, who traced themselves back, not to a man, but to a woman: to Shiphrah, and to Puah.

Why retell this ancient story today?  In part, because today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a day of savagery that left 800,000 people slaughtered–many hacked to death with machetes.  Today, Rwandans gathered to remember, to mourn, and to declare that the world must never let this happen again.

Events like the slaughter in Rwanda, like the ongoing slaughter today in Syria, force any believer in a loving God to ask where God is to be found in such horrors.  Yet the first chapter of Exodus reveals that this is not by any means a new question.  Surely it is no accident that, through the story of the beginning of Israel’s oppression, enslavement, and attempted genocide at Pharaoh’s hand, God is nowhere to be found.  Nowhere, that is, except in the faith of the midwives, who choose to live as though God, not Pharaoh, is in command.  Somehow, for Shiphrah and Puah, God’s presence is experienced precisely at the point of God’s absence.

Another reason to tell this story today is that we are approaching the end of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week–the remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering and death that culminates, for believers, in the celebration of Christ’s victory over death on Easter morning.  In the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ identity is acclaimed in the very first verse: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son”  But the reader waits in vain for someone within the story to catch on, and echo this confession.

Even when Peter confesses, at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), the following verses make plain how little he understands his own confession:

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him.  Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:31-33).

Only at the end of Mark, when Jesus is hanging dead from the cross, does anyone at last understand who he is: “When the centurion [the Roman officer who oversaw Jesus' execution], who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘This man was certainly God’s Son’” (Mark 15:39).  In Mark, the seal of God’s presence in Christ is not Jesus’ miracles, or his authoritative teaching, but his cross–where God seems most absent, where the dying Jesus himself cries, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34).

In his haunting memoir Night, Elie Wiesel, remembers his youth in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his mother, father and sister died.  Wiesel tells of the execution of a young boy, beloved by everyone in the camp.  The boy was hanged, and as he struggled and died the inmates were forced to file by and watch.  Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask again and again, “Where is God now?”  Wiesel writes, “And I heard a voice within me answer him:   ‘Where is He?  Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows’” (Night [Avon, 1960], p. 76).

Christian writer François Mauriac writes, in his forward to this memoir, of meeting Wiesel:

 And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day on the face of the hanged child?  What did I say to him?  Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the  Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world?  Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? . . . All is grace.  If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to him.  This is what I should have told this Jewish child.  But I could only embrace him, weeping (Night, pp. 10-11).

In his anguish, Wiesel was more right than he knew.  God was there, on the gallows.  The good news of Scripture is that God is most present where God seems most absent: in the slave pens of Egypt, on the gallows at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Rwanda—or on the cross of Calvary.

 

 

 

Mar
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Not the Right Question

It occurs to me now, at the end of this series, that the title I have given to these blogs is probably misleading.  After all, if the question was, simply, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality,” this would have been a very short conversation:  “Are there passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality?”  “Yes, there are.”

But what the Bible says and what those passages mean for our life of faith are two different questions.  “Because the Bible says so” has never been enough–not for any of us.  All of us, without exception, are selective in our application of Scripture.  If we worship on Sunday and do yard work on Saturday, we violate Sabbath law.  If we enjoy ham and crab cakes, we violate dietary law.  If we accept or charge interest, we violate the economic principles of the Scriptures.  Should we Christians say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament, we are even more caught in a bind!  The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)?  Jesus explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage. But how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin?

United Methodist preacher and author Adam Hamilton advocates a “three buckets” approach to reading Scripture:

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Into the first bucket go “passages like the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. . . passages that call us to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,’ and to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”  Hamilton is persuaded that  “Most of the Bible fits into this category.”

Into the second bucket go, for example, the ritual laws of ancient Israel: “the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.”

The very idea of a third bucket, Hamilton recognizes, may be threatening.  However, he writes,

Here are a few examples of scripture I don’t believe ever accurately captured God’s heart, character, or will:  Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death.  In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.”  God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later kills 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.

The problem with Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach is, how are we to know what goes into which bucket?  Further, we might wonder why a God of wisdom and love would even reveal the material in buckets two and three.

Perhaps a better approach is to ask a very fundamental question: what is the Bible?  We may answer, “The Bible is the word of God.”  But what does that confession mean?  Do we mean that God WROTE the Bible?  But then, shouldn’t the Bible be unified, in language, style and theme–in the way that, say, Charles Dickens always sounds like Dickens, or John Steinbeck always sounds like Steinbeck? The Bible, however, does not present itself in a unified style, characteristic vocabulary, or even a common language. Deuteronomy does not sound like Leviticus; Amos does not sound like Isaiah; Matthew does not sound like John; Paul does not sound like James.  Plainly, the various authors of Scripture are not taking dictation from the one Author.  Nor are the individual identities of these persons overwhelmed by the inspiring Spirit–the distinctive personalities of the apostles and prophets still shine through!

If we try to make Scripture into an argument, or a series of logical propositions, then the Bible becomes a book about God rather than an invitation to relationship with God.  Faith becomes, not an orientation of the entire self to God (see Galatians 2:20), but belief: holding the right ideas and opinions about God.  This approach is fraught with problems, however, because the Bible is not uniform or univocal–that is, it does not speak with one voice.  Inevitably, by this reading, we adopt (whether we acknowledge it or not), Adam Hamilton’s “bucket” approach–also sometimes called a “canon within the canon”–prompting us to impose on Scripture the uniformity that it lacks by emphasizing some texts, and de-emphasizing others.

Perhaps the best way to approach the Bible as Scripture is to acknowledge that it is at one and the same time human, historically conditioned word and the Word of God–in the same way that Christians confess Jesus as both fully human and fully Divine. Every word of Scripture is human word, expressing the encounters of women and men with God, in a bewildering variety of circumstances and over an immensely long period of time.  Therefore, every word of Scripture bears the hallmark, and carries the limitations, of its particular context in time and space. However, as every word of Scripture speaks out of an encounter with God, every word also has the potential to become again transparent to God’s presence.  To put this another way, God meets us in the Bible.

Bono, lead singer for U2 and an unapologetic witness for Christ, speaks powerfully on God’s love and grace: 

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. . .Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

I propose that the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to relationship calling for our commitment, not a list of propositions requiring our assent.  This reading of Scripture has its problems, too–in particular, one might argue that if the Bible is not a rule book, then we have no basis for any rules: the only alternative is an “anything-goes” morality.  I do not accept that conclusion.  As we come into relationship with the God revealed in Scripture, we grow into God’s love, and desire more and more to live in accordance with that love: that is, to love what God loves, and as God loves.  This, as we have seen, is a golden thread woven through the many threads in Scripture, upheld by the Torah, by Jesus, and by Paul.

What would an ethic of love look like?  Poet, theologian, and agrarian reformer Wendell Berry wades boldly into the cultural divide between “liberals” and “conservatives” on the issue of homosexual marriage, with little patience for either “side”:

The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their religion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for some restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to homes that are empty all day every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that cannot be compromised.

Berry proposes that we need to take people more seriously than faceless absolutes.

Oversimplified moral certainties—always requiring hostility, always potentially violent—isolate us from mercy, pity, peace and love and leave us lonely and dangerous in our misery. The only perfect laws are absolute, but perfect laws are only approximately fitted to imperfect humans. That is why we have needed to think of mercy, and of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of the law. 

The challenge is for us to relate to one another, not as categories (white/black, liberal/conservative, male/female, homosexual/heterosexual), but as people:

Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob, which makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness, as there was at the crucifixion and has been before and since. This mob violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.

Finally, Berry observes, no marriage is “made” by church or state; rather, any real marriage is forged by the commitment of a couple, each to the other.  The freedom to take and make personal vows of commitment and faithfulness cannot be either enforced or restricted:

No church can make a homosexual marriage, because it cannot make any marriage, nor can it withhold any degree of blessedness or sanctity from any pledged couple striving day by day to be at one. If I were one of a homosexual couple, the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple, I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians.

The commitment to an ethic of love does not mean that “anything goes.”  Indeed, to affirm same-sex marriage is to affirm the virtues of commitment or fidelity at the heart of any marriage.

I hope that these posts have made clear why I, a Bible-believing Christian, urge my church to fully include LGBTQ people.  I have not always thought in this way: I wince and cringe as I replay in my memory jokes I told in college and in seminary–not knowing that some of my dear Christian friends were LGBTQ. My mind was changed by many things, but first and foremost, it was changed by Bible study.  

Early in my ministry, I was approached by an Evangelical Christian brother struggling with same-sex attraction, who asked me what the Bible said on this issue.  I set out to discover what I could learn. I still have those notes–they cover some of the same ground we have covered in these last few weeks.  My study led me to realize that the biblical case against homosexuality was not strong–certainly, not so strong as I had thought that it was.  Still the argument from creation seemed to me sufficiently strong that the most I could then say (reading from those old hand-written notes) was, “Homosexuality not an evil, but not a good.  God has a better plan.”  Later, as I came to know more and more gay and lesbian students and colleagues, some in long term, committed relationships, I realized that I could no longer, on biblical grounds, regard their relationships as intrinsically immoral–any more than heterosexual relationships are intrinsically moral.  My mind had been changed.

To all who have come with me on this pilgrimage: thank you.  Perhaps you have found validation here for your own beliefs; or perhaps your mind has been changed through this study, as mine was.  Then again, perhaps this study leaves you committed to the traditional view of marriage and sexuality.  If so, I ask you to remember that we who think differently on this issue may do so, not despite the Bible, but because of the Bible.

In his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15: “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand. And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.”  Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: 

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

May I extend that same invitation, brothers and sisters?  Can we affirm our fellowship in Christ despite our differences?  “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? . . . If it be, give me thine hand.”

 

 

Mar
2014

What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Genesis and Natural Law

Both of the Genesis creation accounts refer not simply to God’s generic creation of humanity, but specifically to the creation of women and men. Genesis 1:27 says,

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

Genesis 2 describes the special creation of the woman from the very stuff of the man.  In its climax, this account of creation declares,

This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2:24).

As we have seen, Jesus’ affirmation of marriage quotes both of these passages, grounding God’s intention for marriage in creation itself. Similarly, in his statement of opposition to same-sex relations in Romans 1, Paul makes reference to God’s will manifest in creation, although he does not quote from Genesis in this context.  He does cite Gen 2:24 in reference to sexual immorality, however: “Don’t you know that anyone who is joined to someone who is sleeping around is one body with that person? The scripture says, The two will become one flesh“ (1 Cor 6:16; compare Ephesians 5:31-32, which reads this passage as a metaphor for the unity of Christ and the church).

Many interpreters have concluded that Genesis presents the union of male and female as God’s intention for humanity, and indeed for all the natural world.  By this reading, same-sex intercourse, since it does not involve a union of differences, violates God’s will.  New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who is inclined toward this view, proposes that human sexuality needs to be viewed as a part of “God’s differentiated creation, which nevertheless is designed to work together.”

The official stances of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches on marriage and sexuality further derive from Genesis the foundations of a natural law regarding human sexuality.  Since, as the early Christian theologian and scholar St. Jerome (340-420) observed, “God’s first command” is, “‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth’” (Against Jovinianus, 1.3; see Gen 1:28), this approach holds the purpose of sexual intercourse to be procreation.  Since same-sex intercourse cannot result in children, then, it violates this natural law.

United Methodist pastor and scholar Maxie Dunham has spoken in support of the United Methodist Church’s position rejecting homosexuality, as stated in  The 2012 Book of Discipline (p. 109), on the ground of harmony with this teaching of the whole church. He writes:

This is the corporate, and continuing witness of the Church. We need to keep in mind that how we think must not be restricted to random feelings and even individual interpretation of Scripture; We need to be in harmony with the whole Body of Christ and all the saints now and forever.

The natural law argument, in various forms, is very old.  The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BC-50 A.D.) objected to the Greco-Roman custom of pederasty in part on this basis:

. . . the man who is devoted to the love of boys [Greek paiderastes] . . . pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species (Special Laws 3.7.39).

So too the Wisdom of Solomon, a first-century B.C. book of Jewish wisdom, not only attributes the sexual immorality of the Gentile world to idolatry (compare Wisd 14:22-26 to Rom 1:18-32), but also defines one aspect of that immorality (see Wisd 14:26) as geneseos enallage, literally “the alteration of generation”–that is, engaging in sexual acts that cannot result in offspring.

Christian ideas of natural law, especially relating to sex and procreation, derive particularly from the work of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-371). Augustine’s Pelagian adversaries, who rejected the doctrine of original sin (the teaching that humans are by nature sinners), argued that accepting the notion of original sin would require one to condemn marriage itself, since sexual intercourse must therefore be held as inherently sinful. Indeed, even Jerome taught,

. . . while we honour marriage we prefer virginity which is the offspring of marriage. Will silver cease to be silver, if gold is more precious than silver? Or is despite done to tree and corn, if we prefer the fruit to root and foliage, or the grain to stalk and ear? Virginity is to marriage what fruit is to the tree, or grain to the straw  (Against Jovinianus, 1.3).

To the implication that the Christian seeking to avoid sin should remain celibate, Augustine replied,

the marriage of believers converts to the use of righteousness that carnal concupiscence by which “the flesh lusteth against the Spirit.” For they entertain the firm purpose of generating offspring to be regenerated—that the children who are born of them as “children of the world” may be born again and become “sons of God” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.5.iv.)

Still, according to Augustine, producing little Christians is all that sex is good for: “The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage. But he makes a bad use of this good who uses it bestially, so that his intention is on the gratification of lust, instead of the desire of offspring” (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.5.iv.).  This, of course, means that same-sex relations must be condemned–but that is not all that it means.  By this logic,  heterosexual intercourse simply for pleasure, even with one’s spouse, is also sinful.  Although this sin may be only venial (that is, a sin that damages, but does not break, one’s communion with God), it may become mortal sin:

It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful: it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin. For although propagation of offspring is not the motive of the intercourse, there is still no attempt to prevent such propagation, either by wrong desire or evil appliance. They who resort to these, although called by the name of spouses, are really not such; they retain no vestige of true matrimony, but pretend the honourable designation as a cloak for criminal conduct (On Marriage and Concupiscence, 1.17.xv.)

Contraception (“evil appliance”), non-genital intercourse, and any other “wrong desire”–that is, any sex that cannot potentially produce a child–is a mortal sin, leading to damnation.

The natural law argument reached its most developed, closely reasoned form in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274), particularly his massive Summa Theologica.  There, for example, Aquinas reasons that, even if there had been no fall, there would still have been generation by means of sexual intercourse, as “what is natural to man was neither acquired nor forfeited by sin”: therefore sex is not, in itself, sinful (Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 98, “Of the Preservation of the Species,” Article 2).  In the Supplement to Part 3 of the Summa (Question 49, “Of the Marriage Goods,” Article 6) Aquinas poses Augustine’s question, “Whether it is a mortal sin for a man to have knowledge of his wife, with the intention not of a marriage good [according to Augustine, these goods are "offspring, fidelity, the sacramental bond" (On Marriage and Concupiscence1.19.xvii.)] but merely of pleasure?”

Aquinas reaches a somewhat different conclusion than Augustine had, in no small measure because he views pleasure differently.  To understand pleasure, he turns for guidance to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 10:3-4, where the philosopher concludes:

One might think that all men desire pleasure because they all aim at life; life is an activity, and each man is active about those things and with those faculties that he loves most. . . now pleasure completes the activities, and therefore life, which they desire. It is with good reason, then, that they aim at pleasure too, since for every one it completes life, which is desirable. But whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life is a question we may dismiss for the present. For they seem to be bound up together and not to admit of separation, since without activity pleasure does not arise, and every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure. 

Since, Aquinas observes, “the same judgment applies to pleasure as to action, because pleasure in a good action is good, and in an evil action, evil; wherefore, as the marriage act is not evil in itself, neither will it be always a mortal sin to seek pleasure therein.”  Still, like Augustine, Aquinas argues that “if pleasure be sought in such a way as to exclude the honesty of marriage, so that, to wit, it is not as a wife but as a woman that a man treats his wife, and that he is ready to use her in the same way if she were not his wife, it is a mortal sin; wherefore such a man is said to be too ardent a lover of his wife, because his ardor carries him away from the goods of marriage.”  Once more, sexual activity is held to be mortally sinful if divorced from its purpose, namely procreation.

The positions of Augustine and Aquinas on human sexuality are still, in large measure, the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Casti Connubii (“On Chaste Marriage,” 1930), by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life,” 1968), and by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” 1995).  But the effectiveness of the Church in persuading its followers to embrace and live by this teaching is another matter.  A recent poll of Roman Catholics worldwide, conducted by the American Spanish-speaking television network Univision, found that 78% of respondents support the use of contraceptives–ranging from 91% in Latin America to 31% in the Philippines.  So too, a majority  (58%) disagreed with the statement, “An individual who has divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, is living in sin which prevents them from receiving Communion.”

The natural law argument, followed consistently, takes us to places most of us would rather not go. But given our proclivity for self-deception and sin, that need not mean that the argument is invalid.  The notion that sexual pleasure for its own sake is inherently sinful is, however, scarcely compatible with the goodness of the physical world and of embodied existence emphasized throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Repeatedly, the first creation account (Gen 1:1–2:4a), tells us what God thinks of the world God is calling into being: “God saw how good it was” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 25)!  Then, after the work is done and before God’s sabbath rest, the text declares, “God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good” (1:31).  In Proverbs 8:30-31, God’s Wisdom declares her delight in God’s creation, and particularly, in humanity:

I was beside [God] as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
     frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race.

In the Song of Songs, there is a frank recognition and celebration of human sexual passion that is certainly about more than child-bearing!

Set me as a seal over your heart,
        as a seal upon your arm,
for love is as strong as death,
        passionate love unrelenting as the grave.
Its darts are darts of fire—
        divine flame!
Rushing waters can’t quench love;
        rivers can’t wash it away.
If someone gave
        all his estate in exchange for love,
        he would be laughed to utter shame (Song 8:6-7)

The apostle Paul too affirms the inherent goodness of sexual intimacy in marriage:

The husband should meet his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should do the same for her husband.  The wife doesn’t have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband doesn’t have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  Don’t refuse to meet each other’s needs unless you both agree for a short period of time to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come back together again so that Satan might not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor 7:3-5).

When we read the opening chapters of Genesis, it is important for us to remember that they are neither history, nor science, nor law.  They are confessions, made by communities of faith–grounded not only in universal, timeless ideas but also in the particular circumstances of their authors.  The affirmation in Gen 1:27 that maleness and femaleness alike reflect the image of God hits like a thunderbolt: it can scarcely be ascribed to the typical attitudes of its patriarchal culture!  This extraordinary valuation of the feminine need not be read, however, as restricting God’s intention for humanity to the union of male and female.  Certainly Jerome, with his eloquent defense of celibacy, did not regard singleness as condemned by this passage!

On the other hand, the call to “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it” (Gen 1:28) is no surprise: it fits neatly into the flow of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua.

As God’s people endure threat after threat, seeming always on the edge of extinction, the imperative to be fertile is essential for their survival.  In particular, Gen 1:28 prefigures the growth of the people into a great nation, despite Egyptian persecution (see Exod 1:6-7, 20) and despite the faithlessness of the wilderness generation (see Num 22:3-4),  in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (see Gen 15:5-6).  We may question, then, whether this “first commandment” is intended as a universal imperative.

Similarly, as an etiological narrative, Genesis 2 seeks to make sense of the world that Israel inhabited.  Specifically, this account of man and woman as parts of an original whole is an attempt to come to terms with both the generative and the potentially disruptive power of sexual attraction in Israel’s clan-based culture: “This is the reason that a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24).

This verse, then, is an explanation, not a commandment; it is descriptive, not prescriptive–just as Jesus’ quotation of this passage is an affirmation, not a prohibition.  That Genesis 2 deals with the dominant (and, in its Israelite context, the only officially sanctioned) mode of sexuality in human culture  is scarcely surprising: after all, the survival of the culture through the birth of children, as well as the threat posed to the culture by a force stronger than loyalty to one’s clan, are alike in the background of this passage. But again, Genesis 2 is a narrative, not a law code.

While we must of course recognize and honor the power of tradition to give shape to our experience of God and the world, it is God, not tradition, that we worship.  Dr. Dunham does not acknowledge that many faith communions have indeed already departed from traditional views of marriage and sexuality.  The United Methodist Church, for example, permits remarriage after divorce, offers no objection to contraception, and practices the ordination of women.  Churches with which we are in full communion, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, ordain LGBTQ persons.

A final word must be spoken.   While sexual intimacy is an important part of any healthy marriage, it is far from the only part.  LGBTQ people seeking marriage do not do so simply out of sexual desire, any more than heterosexual couples do.  They want to proclaim their love for one another before God and before their sisters and brothers in faith–embracing, in Augustine’s terms, the “marriage good” of fidelity.  What is more, LGBTQ couples seeking marriage long to declare their covenantal commitment to one another: in the ancient words of the liturgy, to pledge to one another their faith–embracing the “marriage good” of lifelong commitment, if not, in Catholic terms, “the sacramental bond.”  I see no barrier to that commitment in the Genesis accounts of creation.

 

AFTERWORD

Wendy, her brother Mark, and all our family thank all of you for your thoughts, prayers, calls, emails, cards, and gifts.  Your support has meant the world to us: we have felt loved, lifted up in our sorrow by the body of Christ.  We thank God for Mom, and give thanks for her life that in Christ will never end.  May light perpetual shine upon you, Gerry!