Love of enemies and random thoughts after a Derek Webb house concert

Posted: December 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Love of enemies and random thoughts after a Derek Webb house concert

I went with a friend (his CD is pretty good too — shameless friend plug) to a Derek Webb house concert tonight. Unlike many people who attend his concerts (from what I gather), I’m a latecomer to Christianity and never knew anything about Caedmon’s Call, whom I gather were popular in the CCM context. Instead I was introduced to Derek Webb by the aforementioned friend with his Mockingbird album. David Ramirez opened with a few songs and I was blown away by some of them. I’m looking forward to listening to the CD I bought. I loved the atmosphere of a house show. It’s much different than even a small venue staged show.

But this post isn’t exactly about the concert. In all places and all times, I have thoughts and ideas for something I could write (not necessarily a blog post) flit through my head. Many of them soon vanish. Some stick and keep bouncing around, at least for a while. I had a few such thoughts during the show. I won’t flesh them into full blog posts, but I decided I wanted to write briefly about at least one or two.

At one point Derek mentioned how instinctual it is, even from a very young age, to want to hit someone back  when they hit you. It’s in our blood, I believe is the way he put it. And Jesus’ command to love our enemies often makes no sense at all to us. I realized that’s the perfect description of the impact of what the Orthodox call ancestral sin. Because that instinctive desire to retaliate is tied to our need to protect our person and our identity, and ultimately that is tied to our mortality and our innate fear of that mortality. That permeates everything we think and do for as much of our lives as we can remember. It saturates our relationships and the whole world around us. We act as we do because we are enslaved by death.

Think about it. If I am not enslaved by my mortality, I have no innate or instinctual drive to strike back to protect myself. But it goes much deeper than that. We do not live in the perfect love and communion of the Trinity because of our fear of death. We encounter someone in need. Why don’t we meet that need? We ask, what will happen to me or to my family, if I meet that need? We cannot love the other because we are trapped, even if we believe we are free. That’s why the early church held all things in common and all gave freely so that none lacked. That’s a description of the sort of communion we understand the Trinity to have with each other. The Resurrected Christ had broken the gates of Hades/Sheol. He had crushed death. And their freedom was freedom from the slavery of death. They could freely give their resources to meet all needs because perfect love had driven out fear.

I also realized I so quickly connected to the patristic (and Orthodox) teachings on the passions because it truly is a part of my formation. I grew up with people around me ruled by things over which they had little or no control. Many of those people loved me and many of them never intentionally did anything to harm me. In fact, most of the time they loved me and acted accordingly. The problem is that when you are ruled by something, you simply cannot always place others first, even those you dearly love and to whom you wish to express the care flowing from that love. That which rules you, your passion, at times does so to the exclusion of everything else. It’s not that they don’t love. It’s that sometimes that which rules them blocks the effective expression of that love. And that can manifest in all sorts of ways.

So I’ve always understood ‘passions’ and their implications. It’s almost written in my DNA. A passion is something we suffer because it doesn’t just harm others. It hurts those it rules. Those subject to a passion cannot always do as they wish to do. Sometimes they do as they do not wish to do, and suffer as a result.

Christ offers freedom, and by freedom he means freedom from our universal bondage to death as well as freedom from the ruling passions we suffer. But it’s a freedom we must seek to the extent that we are able. If we fail to do so, even though mankind and creation have been freed by Christ, we will continue to live as slaves to the cruelest masters of all.


The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Last week I briefly posted on love of enemies, one of the most difficult aspects of Christianity. Today, Khouria Frederica answers a question on the topic. How can I forgive someone if I’m afraid they’ll do it again? She notes that people often confuse forgiveness with vulnerability, but they are very different things. When we forgive, we let go of our desire for vengeance, which we often call justice. We may have been genuinely wronged and the one who wronged us owes us a debt. We release them from that debt. That frees us more than it frees them. We are the ones keeping track of the wrongs. Often the one who wronged us is not. We are expending energy, not them.

But that does not necessarily mean that we continue to make ourselves vulnerable to that person in the future. If they have acted in a dehumanizing way toward us in the past and we reasonably believe they will continue to do so in the future, it is not loving to allow someone to dehumanize themselves and us.

You are never required to allow someone to hurt or abuse you, physically or emotionally, and in a case like that, permitting abuse could make you an enabler and partner in that sin.

Someone also asked Frederica how we can love an enemy who wishes to kill us and destroy our country. She responds much as Fr. Stephen did in the podcast I linked in my post last week. She also includes a long quote from St. Nikolai Velimirovic (AD 1881-1956). I’m going to include the entire quote. I found it helpful. Given recent events, it could easily be applied to someone like bin Laden.

He is a man; do not rejoice in his fall. He is your brother; let not your heart leap for joy when he stumbles. God created him for life, and God does not rejoice in his fall. And you also, do not rejoice at that which grieves God. When a man falls, God loses; do you rejoice in the loss of your Creator, of your Parent? When the angels weep, do you rejoice?

When your enemy falls, pray to God for him, that God will save him; and give thanks to God that you did not fall in the same manner. You are of the same material, both you and he, like two vessels from the hand of the potter. If one vessel breaks, should the other smile and rejoice? Behold, the small stone that broke that vessel only waits for someone’s hand to raise it to destroy this vessel also. Both vessels are of the same material, and a small stone can destroy a hundred vessels.

When one sheep is lost, should the rest of the flock rejoice? No, they should not. For behold, the shepherd leaves his flock and, being concerned, goes to seek the lost sheep. The shepherd’s loss is the flock’s loss too. Therefore, do not rejoice when your enemy falls, for your Shepherd and his Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, does not rejoice in his fall.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Good Shepherd, remove malicious joy from our hearts, and in its place plant compassion and brotherly love. To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

I do not pretend there is anything easy about forgiveness and love of enemies. People hurt us. They often hurt us deeply. I have been hurt and I’m sure I’ve hurt others. I do not pretend that I’m any good at forgiveness and love. But I can perceive their beauty, even if dimly. Ultimately, if anything draws me to Christ, it’s this. On my better days, I want to love. But even on my worst days, I want to want to love. And I think that’s at least a start.


Love of Enemies

Posted: June 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Love of Enemies

Like many, I was disturbed by the gleeful celebration of so many Americans at the death of Osama bin Laden. Was his death necessary? Perhaps. Fortunately, I was not the one who had to make that decision or act upon it. But as Christians, we worship the God of life who joined his nature to ours that we might live. Our God was betrayed, mocked, tortured, unjustly convicted, and executed while forgiving all of those who wronged him.

And he commands us to do the same.

Love of enemies is a hard thing. I’m not particularly good at it. I don’t feel any particular sorrow at bin Laden’s demise.

But …

I recognize that my God does.

And at least in some small measure, I long to be like him.

I think the best thing I heard on the topic was a podcast by Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God. It’s only about ten minutes long. I invite everyone to pause a few moments and listen to it. It’s well worth the time.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 22

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

53. By a single infinitely powerful act of will God in His goodness will gather all together, angels and men, the good and the evil. But, although God pervades all things absolutely, not all will participate in Him equally: they will participate in Him according to what they are.

In this text, St. Maximos begins to draw the threads of his answer to the proceedings questions together. Yes, God draws all creation to himself. God fills all things. But angels and men participate in God according to what we are.

If that thought does not give you pause, I don’t know what will. It’s hard for us to be honest with ourselves, but I have some inkling of the sort of person I am. Do I love God? I don’t know that I would be so bold. Most of the time, I believe I want to love God. I’ve reached a point in my life where I am confident he loves me, for I know there is no-one he does not love.

But do I love God?

Can I even answer that question honestly and without delusion?

I see how little I love my enemies and I realize, if that is indeed a measure, then I don’t love God very much at all. To what extent can a man who does not love his enemies participate in a God who loved and forgave the men who mocked, tortured, and unjustly killed him?

I think so many of us today are reluctant to ask for mercy because we cannot see ourselves as we truly are.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

Posted: December 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 1 – Oral Culture

I’ve noticed over the years that many of the ways that modern Christians discuss and employ the Bible are highly anachronistic. In this series, I’ll reflect on the nature of ancient texts in general and the Christian Holy Scriptures in particular. I was going to do it in a single post, but then I realized that would be a long post even by my standards. At a minimum, this series will help me organize my own thoughts on the topic. It’s possible others will find it interesting as well.

Before we even begin looking at the specific ways texts functioned in the ancient world, we have to step back and look at the culture in which they were embedded. While ancient cultures varied greatly, they did all share one feature. They were oral cultures. We live in a highly literate culture so it can be difficult for us to imagine what that means.

First, it does not refer to how many people in the culture can read or write. That varied wildly. At some times and in some places, hardly anyone could read or write at all. In other times and places a large percentage of the population could read and write at least to some extent. Homer and Plato, despite their great literary works, developed them in the context of an oral culture. The primary feature of an oral culture is that forms of speech are the means of encoding and conveying knowledge across space and time. Oral cultures tend to have as many specialized forms of speech as we have literary forms.

Moreover, when the cultural means of conveying and preserving information is different, our brains actually adapt themselves to the task. We’ve learned a lot by studying members of some of the remaining oral cultures today. In an oral culture, our capacity to store large amounts of orally encoded information almost verbatim expands tremendously. Moreover, we become highly attuned to nuances of speech. As long as the culture itself remains intact, oral cultures seem to retain information across generations very well. Of course, when the culture fades, it leaves less of that information behind than a highly literate culture does.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so difficult for us to reconstruct ancient history. We’re always working from bits and fragments. Much was never recorded at all. And time has damaged or destroyed much that was recorded. We actually know much less with certainty about the ancient world than many people today assume. Now that’s not to say that we know nothing or that the assumptions and patchwork with which we’ve filled in the gaps is wrong. Much of it is reasonable. But reasonable does not necessarily mean those assumptions are right. Ancient history is a fluid area of study. As we find something that seems to invalidate an earlier assumption, we have to reshuffle our conceptions.

I will note that ancient pagan religions of all sorts were largely mystery cults that were “traditioned” orally. When an ancient religion faded, that means very few markers were left about the religion. In most cases, we know very little about the religion itself. For instance, we actually know almost nothing about the Celtic Druids or any ancient Celtic religion. We don’t actually know very much about the inner workings of ancient Norse religions. We know a little bit more about ancient Greek religions, but still less than some would imagine. Moreover, the things we do know about ancient religions that faded in the mists of time are mostly confined to their outward forms and displays. The inner workings were never written down and thus died with the religion.

That’s really why I was never deeply attracted to modern neopaganism. I’ve had friends who were adherents and have attended some of the more open rituals. But I also knew that most of it couldn’t have any real connection to those ancient religions. Of course, a more accurate reinvention would have been completely repellent (and possibly illegal). Animal sacrifice, sacrifice of enemies, child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and many similar things were a part of many actual ancient religions — though again it’s hard for us to reconstruct specifics. That’s probably part of the reason I was always more drawn to the ancient Eastern religions that are still practiced today. There is a continuous thread of connection and practice.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that writing this series would help me organize my thoughts. That’s also something that’s pretty common in a literate culture. We write to organize our thoughts. We write lists to organize tasks. We write speeches before delivering them. We write essays and papers to develop our train of thought or to construct an argument. Oral cultures don’t work that way at all. If something is written down, it’s usually to help convey it to a distant destination or because someone else wrote it down as it was delivered (usually on behalf of someone who couldn’t be present). It’s not just the way our memories function that changes, the way we process and organize our thoughts changes as well.

It’s important to understand just how different an oral culture truly is from a literate culture. Those of us who are thoroughly shaped by a literate culture will never truly be able to place ourselves inside the mental context of an oral culture. Still, if we are aware of the difference, it can help keep us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. It seems to me that many of the anachronistic ideas arise simply because people interpret something from the ancient world through the lens of their modern, literate formation and mindset. We almost can’t help but make that error to one degree or another, but if we keep the distinction always in mind, we can make fewer erroneous assumptions than we otherwise would.


Reality

Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reality

Sometimes it seems to me that a great many Christians in our present culture and age have surrendered the reality of our faith. That manifests in a host of different ways and crosses both the modern “liberal” and “conservative” Christian divides. I’ll try to explore some of those ways in this post, but I’m not trying to be comprehensive. Rather, I’m trying to peel back the layers and at least make an effort to reveal what lies underneath.

Some ways this happens are obvious. For instance, there are many who deny the historical reality of our faith. They reject the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other facets of our faith yet often want to maintain some connection or identification with it. While our faith is not merely historical, it collapses if God did not in fact become one of us — fully and in every way — confronting the powers and ultimately defeating them. An euvangelion is a particular sort of “good news.” It’s the good news of a victorious king who has defeated the enemies that assail his people, and who has thereby made his people safe. Either that’s what Jesus accomplished or as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to be Christian.

Perhaps I see the demarcation more clearly than some who have been raised and formed within some sort of Christian context. I have been other things and I have worshiped other gods. Whatever similarities you can find between them, they say fundamentally different things about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. That’s why in some contexts (ancient and modern) Christianity is said to be the end of religion. God has intruded into history and in Jesus, the eternal Son and Word became one of us in every way. Jesus makes God known to us. Jesus reveals God to us. And Jesus provides the path through which we can know God and be one with God. If Christianity is true, we aren’t guessing about reality any more. But that’s only the case if Jesus of Nazareth truly forms the center of human history.

Sometimes this disconnect from reality happens in other ways. For instance, I’ve never been able to grasp what Christians who assert that the cosmos are only a few thousand years old are trying to achieve. That’s so clearly and demonstrably false across virtually every discipline of knowledge that it comes across more as a denial of reality than anything else.

It is true that as Christians we do not share the same understanding of reality as materialists who hold there is nothing beyond the sensible realm (though things like quantum mechanics stretch what we mean by sensible realm). But we should not deny the clear evidence of our senses. Where a materialist, for example, would perceive nothing but the physical mechanics of, for instance, the processes of evolution, a Christian would (or at least should) see a process infused by the particular sort of God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence for that view is in the Incarnation, not in anything we can learn through our study of nature.

How do you perceive a God who is sustaining and filling everything from moment to moment? How do you see the God who is maintaining the existence of both the observer and the observed? If we had the capacity to know God on our own, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. Everything we learn or know has the capacity to draw us to God or away from God. The result is really up to us. But we aren’t going to be able to somehow distill and separate God from his creation. Yes, God certainly transcends creation. That’s why he had to become human — to empty himself — in order for us to know him. But he’s not a separate aspect or element in creation. The smallest particle, the least bit of energy, the smallest fragment of a wave are all sustained moment by moment in and through Christ. There is nothing that has any independent existence. Only God is self-existent and eternal. Everything else is created and depends on God. Fortunately our God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation. It would be a frightening thing for existence to depend on the whim of the capricious God so many imagine.

Reality itself is thus fundamentally sacramental or a mystery of God. And our role within it is to act as priests — to minister God to creation and offer creation back as thanksgiving to God. If you can perceive reality through that lens, it makes a mockery of Zwingli’s musings. His idea that anything could merely represent God or, as is often said today, could be purely symbolic could only be true if there were, in fact, some sort of division between God and creation. His ideas require two thing that are altogether missing in the Christian perspective of reality — distance and self-existence. If water is never merely water then how can it become merely water when it is used sacramentally? It can, perhaps, become even more truly water, but it cannot become less. The same is true of oil and incense and bread and wine. They become even more real, not less.

I’m also confused about how modern Christians perceive reality when I see how many of them treat variation in Christian belief and practice almost as matters of personal taste and preference. Even after fifteen years, it makes no sense to me and it seems to be a pretty modern occurrence. As recently as two hundred years ago, though there were many differences among Christians, they all believed those differences really and truly mattered. Now? Not so much. But our perception of God defines our understanding of reality. If, for instance, Calvin accurately described God, then reality is very different than it would be if, for contrast, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s description is more correct. One of them could be right. They could both be wrong. But they cannot both be right. They offer divergent and often completely contradictory images of God. Athanasius and Anselm both wrote on the Incarnation and they do not say the same thing. God is the fundamental ground of reality and how we understand him is vitally important, not a secondary concern. To the extent we misapprehend God, we misapprehend reality.

While we do have some limited capacity to shape reality within the sphere of our personal power and will, to a large degree reality is simply what it is and lies beyond our ability to mold. And we certainly can’t change God just by imagining him to be a certain way. There is a name for that space between reality and our perception of it. It’s called delusion. Personally, I would prefer to be as free from delusion as I can be. I know I can’t do that on my own. Christianity proclaims that I don’t have to. The Word became flesh and gives us the grace, which is to say himself, to know God. Christianity tells us that, if we are willing, we can see reality as it is.


Rebaptized?

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Last week @writingjoy tweeted the following question.

Theology ? of day: What is baptism? If U R baptized very young & decades later awaken to genuine faith, should U B re-baptized?

In response to a question, she followed it up with the following explanation of genuine faith.

I mean more than acknowledging facts, actually loving God & living what those facts demand of a person.

I didn’t respond at the time since from my perspective it’s an extraordinarily complicated question in this day and age and I couldn’t think of anything vaguely meaningful I could say in 140 characters or less. But the question has been percolating in the back of my head ever since. Hopefully Joy won’t mind me using her tweet as the basis for a post on the topic. This won’t be a developed essay or theological analysis. I do, however, have a hodge podge of thoughts and reflections on the subject.

Most of my children and I have been baptized once, though the actual circumstances are a lot more complicated than that simple statement makes them seem. In my case, I was baptized at a young age (though old enough to remember my baptism) in a Baptist church. However, my formative experiences and movements into and decidedly away from Christianity were complex enough that I typically date my conversion (whatever you might take that to mean) to sometime in my early thirties when I found my identity actually being shaped as something like a Christian. It doesn’t mean that any prior encounter or experience of Christian faith was somehow inauthentic (or that my embrace and experience of other religions was inauthentic either), just that life is often more complicated than any simple formula can compass. Although, within the Baptist narrative, it would have been reasonable and acceptable to be rebaptized, I never embraced the idea that Baptism meant nothing more than getting wet.

My wife, however, had been baptized as an infant within the Roman Catholic Church and we had had my younger son baptized as an infant in a Lutheran Church. Both of them were rebaptized in our Baptist church, each at the appropriate time in that context. I don’t think that introduces any deep crisis or problem. While I wouldn’t say that such things make no difference, I also find that this strange Christian God I’ve found is relentlessly loving and willing that none should perish. He is working constantly for our salvation and especially in our deeply confused and confusing age, I don’t see such particulars posing any real problem.

Nevertheless, baptism matters and it matters deeply. One cannot read the New Testament without encountering that truth again and again. It does not represent a commitment or symbolize repentance (though if you are an adult, repentance is necessary and the forgiveness of sins is certainly part of what is accomplished). The Orthodox question in the Baptismal rite drives right to the heart of what is happening: Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ? In baptism, that is what we do and why, from the pages of the New Testament until the modern era, most Christians have baptized their infant children. Why would anyone deny their children union with Christ and the seal of the Holy Spirit in this dangerous and perilous world?

There is also a conceit in saying that a child cannot be baptized (be Christian) that often goes unnoticed. After all, we can all relate to a baby. We can love a baby and the baby in turn can love and relate to us. So we can do something that God cannot? Are we perhaps saying that until a child can verbally express their thoughts, God cannot possibly relate to that child and that child cannot be filled with love for God? I’ve seen such faith and love especially in my youngest daughter. I cannot point to any time when she did not know God and love Jesus. We were in a Baptist church so her baptism was delayed, but there was no change when she could finally express her faith and love enough in words to satisfy the adults in the church. She was simply expressing what she had always known and lived. Was there any gain for her in a delayed baptism? I think not.

Of course, as the child grows and develops, that faith and love also need to grow and develop. Life is not static and so faith can never be static. I’ve been amazed at the core of faith and love my daughter has maintained now into her teenage years, but I also know that life is hard and I pray for her. We can grow in faith. We can also grow away from Christian faith and place that faith in different places.

And that begs the question of genuine faith. I am growing in faith or I am falling away. There is no standing still. As Molly Sabourin so eloquently put it, I was saved 2,000 years ago, I am in the process of being saved, and I pray that I will be saved. If the measure of my love for God is my love for my enemies (St. Silouan), then I’m not sure I love God very much at all. I want to love him, but love is a hard thing and I have to be healed so I can truly love. If we waited until we had genuine faith, until we were fully converted, until we were truly Christian, I’m not sure any of us would ever dare be baptized. That is not the measure. Baptism unites us with Christ so that one day we might become Christian.

When you perceive baptism through those lens, only a Baptism undertaken with deliberate deceit or a Baptism other than one in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, could be considered invalid. Have you been united to Christ? I’ve always understood Luther’s declaration, “I have been baptized!” In the end, what more can we say? Either Jesus is who we believe he is and we are united to him in Baptism, or he’s not and we just got wet somewhere along the way.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 11

Posted: October 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 11

28. Blessed is he who knows in truth that we are but tools in God’s hands; that it is God who effects within us all ascetic practice and contemplation, virtue and spiritual knowledge, victory and wisdom, goodness and truth; and that to all this we contribute nothing at all except a disposition that desires what is good. Zerubbabel had this disposition when he said to God: ‘Blessed art Thou who hast given me, wisdom; I give thanks to Thee, 0 Lord of our fathers; from Thee comes victory and wisdom; and Thine is the glory and I am Thy servant’ (1 Esd. 4:59-60). As a truly grateful servant he ascribed all things to God, who had given him everything. He possessed wisdom as a gift from God and attributed to Him as Lord of his fathers the efficacy of the blessings bestowed on him. These blessings are, as we have said, the union of victory and wisdom, virtue and spiritual knowledge, ascetic practice and contemplation, goodness and truth. For when these are united together they shine with a single divine glory and brightness.

It has always been the Christian teaching that our true inner transformation, our reshaping according to the image of Jesus, happens in and through the power of God. As St. Maximos says here, “we contribute nothing at all except a disposition that desires what is good” — which is to say a disposition that desires God.

However, there sometimes seem to be many Christians today who discount the importance of that disposition. We must desire the light over the darkness. As John writes, “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)” If we choose to walk in darkness, if we choose to try to refashion ourselves in the image of idols, God will let us do so.

However slight, we must begin with a disposition turned toward God, which necessarily means a disposition turned toward love. We might not even be able to want to love our enemies. But perhaps we can want to want to love them. Failing that, if we can even want to want to want to love them, it’s a place to start. (I believe I heard that once from Fr. Thomas Hopko.) We have to have a disposition that desire good and desires God, however faint that desire might initially be.


Jesus Creed 19 – Believing in Jesus

Posted: September 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 19 – Believing in Jesus

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28.

The opening theme of this chapter reaches out and grabs you.

The goal of a disciple of Jesus is relationship, not perfection.

Let that sink in for a while. I deeply sense this is not how most of my fellow believers would formulate this statement. I once heard someone in my church describe ‘being Christian’ as ‘trying to be perfect even though we know we will fail.’ I can only describe my reaction to that statement as one of horror. I tried to share my reaction with some who were close to me and whom I thought might understand, but nobody really understood the depth, breadth, and intensity of my reaction against that description of the essence of Christianity. I know that ‘horror‘ seems melodramatic, but it’s not too strong a word to describe my reaction. If that statement captures what it means to be Christian, then I want to be something else. The statement strikes me as a rejection of all I understand it to mean to be Christian. This focus on ‘perfection‘ is not a minor side issue for me.

I think Scot captures my perspective, in part, in this statement:

Faith is an ongoing relationship and therefore like a marathon. The Jesus Creed is not for someone who believed, in the past, but someone who believes. Christians are called believers not believeders.

If you don’t immediately grasp the truth and implications of that statement, I simply don’t know how to make them clearer. Our faith can be stated as simply as, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ’ or ‘Jesus is Lord,’ though those statements then need to be worked out.  McKnight uses an interesting example of Shammai and Hillel on this point. It’s worth reading.

Faith is a relationship with Jesus Christ.

In theory we all agree with that statement, but do we live that way? I’m not convinced. I like the following. (I think Scot is quoting someone else.)

We cannot have a relationship with our christology — we can have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Our soteriology cannot save us from our sins — our Savior can.

Our ecclesiology does not make us one — the Lord of the Church does.

Our eschatology will not transform this flawed universe — Jesus the King of kings and Prince of Peace will do that.

And, no matter how much we love theology — it will never love us back.

Only God in Christ loves us, and that is why believing is a relationship.

Those are extremely good words. Of course, ‘relationship‘ is also something of a tricky concept. The English word can describe our most intimate bonds and our most shallow connections. I can say I have a ‘relationship‘ with my wife, but I can also say I have a ‘relationship‘ (a business relationship) with the man who delivers my newspaper. In the context of Christianity, we’re using the word more in its former connotation. A lot of our words, like fellowship or knowing, have the same problem. That’s one of the reasons I’ve come to believe that the English word communion is probably the better choice.

Salvation is union or communion with Christ and being Christian is the process of growing in communion. And that necessarily means also growing in communion with our fellow human beings. I think a quote by St. Silouan captures this dual reality very well indeed.

We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.


The Jesus Creed 6 – A Creed for Others

Posted: August 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The ones for this chapter are: Luke 10:25-37; Mark 12:28-34.

This chapter turns to the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate its central point. I liked this statement. “Jesus tells parables that catch his readers in the web of a moral dilemma so they can learn.” This parable starts because an “expert in the Torah” asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the Torah says, and the man responds with both love God and love others. He had already grasped part of the Jesus Creed.

But then he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” McKnight points out that he’s really asking ‘who is pure and who is not?’ What’s the classification system? Who is to be loved?

And in the parable, it’s important to realize that the priest and Levite followed the letter of the Torah. They were not supposed to come in contact with a dead body, not even allowing their shadow to fall over it, or they would become impure and unable to fulfill their duties. That’s why they went to the other side of the road. It was not out of heartlessness, but out of obedience to their understanding of Torah. However, it illustrates a great irony. By ‘obeying’ Torah, the priest and Levite  actually disobey what lies at the heart of Torah; loving others.

It’s the stereotyped outcast — the one who would have been considered an enemy — who actually does the right thing. Jesus’ answer to the potential conflict of ‘love-of-God-as-obeying-Torah’ versus ‘love-of-God-as-following-Jesus’ is clear: “Loving God properly always means that we will tend to those in need.”

Now Jesus is not against the Torah. Rather, he is against any reading of the Torah that does not encompass love God and love others. That is the spirit of Torah, however you interpret the letter of Torah. Jesus reshapes the question from ‘Who is my neighbor?’ to ‘To whom can you be neighborly?’ Don’t we all often fall on the wrong side of that distinction?  We tend to look down on the priest and the Levite, but are we really any different?

Neighborly love begins in our home. From the way some people act, this idea might be a shocker, but those in our family are also our neighbor. And it’s also a ‘whenever love and whereever love’. It’s not a question of whether or not the person “deserves” your love. As in our love for God, it’s only a sacred love for others if it is without qualifications.

“Neighborly love is moral love.” That’s an interesting statement. We are not called to ‘tolerance’. “Toleration condescends; love honors.” McKnight notes that in quoting Leviticus to establish his ‘love others’ addition to the Shema, Jesus is using its moral framework. Respect parents. Honor your word. Care for the physically challenged. Seek justice for the powerless. Live in sexual purity. Show love for your  enemies. And a whole lot more.