The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 10 – Peter: The Story of Conversion

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 reading for this chapter is: Luke 5:1-11.

Conversion, like wisdom, takes a lifetime.

McKnight has a whole lot more in depth on conversion in his book, Turning to Jesus. Nevertheless, Peter is a good story to explore. He’s nice and complex.

For some, conversion is like a birth certificate while for others it is like a driver’s license. For the first, the ultimate question is ‘What do I need to do to get to heaven?’ For the second, the question is ‘How do I love God?’ For the first, concern is a moment; for the second, the concern is a life.

The Jesus Creed is more like a driver’s license than a birth certificate.

The Jesus Creed is about the totality of life, and so conversion to Jesus and the Jesus Creed is total conversion — heart, soul, mind, and strength.

I think the present-day American church has failed to grasp that, for a lot of us, the question of ‘how to get into heaven‘ just isn’t particularly interesting or compelling. It’s not much of an incentive for conversion. And if you ask any sort of more complicated question, it becomes much harder to pinpoint an instant of conversion. Peter is a good example. Let’s start by asking what should be a simple question: When was Peter converted?

  • Was it when Shimeon was introduced to Yeshua and Yeshua tells him that one day his name will be Kephas? His brother told Peter that this man might be the Messiah.
  • Was it when Peter confesses he is a sinner? Remember? That’s the odd conclusion to the fishing story. I never have quite figured out how a big catch of fish prompts the declaration, ‘I am a sinful man!’ But there you go. Is this when he’s converted?
  • Or is it when Peter confesses Jesus is Messiah? Peter does get it right when Jesus asks, but then almost immediately screws up again.
  • Or is he only converted after the death and resurrection of Jesus? After all, Peter had flatly denied even knowing Jesus and had had to be restored by Jesus after the resurrection.
  • Or is his conversion only complete when he and the others receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? After all, it wasn’t until then that Peter was willing to publicly proclaim Jesus to others.

Two other events are of note. Peter receives a vision that converts him to the reality that the church will include Jews and Gentiles. And finally, there is the Peter who writes the letters to the churches. He’s surely converted by the time these occur, but they are still noteworthy.

Still, a credible case can be made for any of the first five as the point of Peter’s conversion. And then Scot McKnight says this.

No one doubts that Peter is converted, but we may not be sure when the ‘moment’ occurs, when he gets his birth certificate. And therein lies the mystery of conversion. Conversion is more than just an event; it is a process. Like wisdom, it takes a lifetime. Conversion is a lifelong series of gentle (or noisy) nods of the soul. The question of when someone is converted is much less important than that they are converting.

That was a very freeing statement for me. Of course, I could shape my story to fit many boxes, but none of them ever felt quite right. There were many points of ‘decision’ and all of them were legitimate and authentic. They were also mostly of the ‘noisy’ rather than the ‘gentle’ variety. McKnight was the first Christian voice I heard who basically said my story of conversion could be my story, whatever it looked like. I didn’t have to have a singular Pauline experience. I didn’t have to have a point where I turned and was forever different. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, but “There is no reason to think Paul’s is the definitive model.

Moreover, even Paul doesn’t seem to fit within the context of what many today seem to mean by a Pauline experience of conversion. Paul, after all, still had a race to complete, a mark to keep before him, a finish to achieve. The thief on the cross seems to be the sort of conversion that many evangelicals really seem to have in mind. And while God can do all things, that was clearly an exception, not the rule. After all, most of us aren’t in the process of being executed.

McKnight outlines the seven stages that we see in Peter’s story as follows:

  1. Peter suspects Jesus might be Messiah.
  2. Peter recognizes Jesus as someone profoundly superior.
  3. Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah. [But Peter disagrees with the Messiah on whether or not the Messiah ought to suffer.]
  4. Peter perceives the Messiah must suffer.
  5. Peter confesses Jesus is Lord.
  6. Peter realizes that Jesus is not just the Lord of the Jewa, but the Lord of all. Here Peter sees that the Jesus Creed is about loving all others.
  7. Peter embraces Jesus’ life as the paradigm of Christian living.

Peter illustrates a progression of conversion. And I would hazard that his example is more common than Paul’s.


Original Sin 11 – God & Israel

Posted: March 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 11 – God & Israel

Obviously, an exploration of the arc of the narrative of Scripture, even when trying to focus on a specific topic, could go on forever. I still have a good bit to explore in this series after I finish my “quick” look at the narrative, so I’ve narrowed this part of my series down to three more posts. These three posts will primarily shift over to the prophets. The prophets are an intriguing bunch. They were given a message from God to proclaim on behalf of God. And often that involved not just speaking it, but living that word in and through their bodies. When we look at the prophets, we get some of the clearest pre-Incarnation portraits of God in terms we can understand.

Yesterday, I explored how God’s rescue mission for mankind turned when God called a people for himself. And God’s relationship with that people can tell us a lot about his attitude toward all mankind. After all, the people of God are ultimately intended to spread through the nations like yeast (as Jesus notes), heal Babel (as we discover at Pentecost), and bring all peoples into the one people of God (as we see especially in Paul talking about the Church).

I’ve listened to many different Protestant denominations speak about God and man as informed by their perspective on the doctrine of original sin as inherited guilt. And that perspective seems to require that God not only condemns mankind for their inherited guilt, but is ‘separated’ from man. A common image is one of a gulf or chasm between man and God. There seems to be this sense that unless you are repentant and “covered” by the blood of Jesus so that God can’t actually see you at all, but can only see Jesus, then God is repelled by your sin, condemns you, and is probably pissed off at you.

But does that really describe God? I would submit it can’t describe God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, since the entire Incarnation denies it. God draws completely near to us. He becomes one of us. And he seeks out the unrighteous and the unholy. In fact, that’s one of the complaints levied against Jesus, that he eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners. But that image of God is not just denied in the Incarnation. I noted earlier in the series that God has always drawn near to us in the story of Scripture. And once he calls a people, he continues to draw near despite their unfaithfulness.

The clearest picture we see of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the face of her unfaithfulness is Hosea. Hosea is told by God to go marry a prostitute, love her, build a family around her. And when she returns to prostitution, laying with other men, he does not leave her in that state. No, Hosea goes to her, buys her back, and brings her home once more. Yes, Gomer suffered the consequences of her own actions. Their children also suffered the consequences of her actions (as told by the story of their names). But there is no sense that Gomer is judged for inherited guilt. And she is ultimately not condemned. Hosea redeems her, rescues her from the conditions in which she has placed herself.

So it is with God and Israel. God calls a people. And they remain his people. He draws near to them before they were his people and he keeps coming near to them even when they turn from him. Ultimately, of course, God comes completely near by joining his nature with ours in Jesus of Nazareth. This God doesn’t easily align with the image of a God who attributes the guilt of ancestors to descendants. It’s my observation that people tend to end up with some pretty distorted ideas about God when they try to simultaneously hold both images of God in their heads. There is just not sufficient correspondence between the two narratives.


Original Sin 9 – The Adventures of Dumb and Dumber

Posted: March 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Let’s return to Genesis 4 and begin to consider the arc of the whole narrative. I think that’s important because often today, especially in modern evangelicalism, that arc is either abbreviated or almost entirely omitted.

If you listen carefully to the problem, the solution, and the narrative connecting the two in much of evangelicalism today, you will hear something like this. The problem, disobeying God’s inviolate and sacred Law, is established in Genesis 3. The story then jumps to Romans in the New Testament where, using a couple of sentences, the guilt for the sin of Adam is said to be inherited by all human beings and that guilt cannot (for reasons that are never really explained) be forgiven by God. Instead, someone has to pay the debt we owe, but since we are human and finite, we cannot pay an infinite debt. (Of course, the explanations for the manner in which either Adam’s single act or our finite acts become an infinite and unredeemable debt are a bit tenuous themselves.) And since we owe a debt we cannot pay, we are all condemned by God.

Therefore Jesus becomes human in order to die on the cross. As a human being, he can die. And as God he is able to pay the infinite debt we had no ability to pay. The resurrection demonstrates that God accepts Jesus’ payment. And finally, to the extent it’s considered at all, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost marks the seal on that payment. It cannot be revoked.

Beyond its overly simplistic nature — reality, not to mention God, isn’t that simple — the fundamental problem with that particular narrative is that it omits most of the actual narrative of Scripture. It distorts the shape of that narrative significantly in an attempt to make it somehow fit within the confines of the above framework. Even the climax of Romans, the text in which much of this modern evangelical narrative tries to root itself, loses its context and thus most of its meaning. What should be the climax of the text of Romans becomes a parenthetical discussion. The Gospels themselves tend to be reduced to narratives that exist almost solely to establish the historical setting for the Passion of Christ.

However, the creation narratives are  in reality followed by the narrative of Genesis 4-11. There are varying ways to read these texts. I’ve found some intriguing insights at Just Genesis and if you are interested in such things commend that site to you. I’ve heard Scot McKnight describe Genesis 4-11 as “the adventures of dumb and dumber” and in some ways that seems like an apt summary description to me. But this narrative ends at Babel. That should not be overlooked. Instead of one people with one God, humanity consists of many peoples and nations with many gods. And this is the ancient state of man.

And though it’s a bit of an aside, that brings us to an important point regarding most of human history. Those of us in the modern West are highly conditioned today to regard faith or religion as an individual, private choice that each person must make for themselves over the course of their lives. But that image does not describe most of humanity. In the ancient world (and still to some extent in many parts of the world today) gods were largely tied to place and/or people groups and nations. If you were born in a particular place to certain parents, then your god or gods were largely determined by your birth. That was never an absolute, of course. From time to time, people did shift from one religion to another. And, of course, new religions did arise (though they too quickly became tied to some people or place).

Household gods (like we see in some of the early scriptures) were tied to the household and moved with the household. But if the gods were taken or if you left the household, then those gods were now removed from you and you needed other gods. It’s a very different lens for interpreting reality and if you try to read our Holy Scriptures through the modern, highly individualized spiritual lens, you will misread them.

If you have not read and understood one aspect of Pentecost as the healing of Babel, then I would suggest that you have missed an important part of the arc of the story of God and man. In fact, you may be too focused on the question of guilt and forgiveness and not enough on the themes of healing and restoration. I would suggest that the latter are actually more central to the narrative of the Holy Scriptures than the question of guilt. We’ll continue to explore the narrative arc of scripture tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 15

Posted: November 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 15

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 4-5 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  second podcast on chapter three which more or less tracks this post.

Fr. Schmemann now turns from the “day” to the “year.” And he does so in a way I found unexpected. In order to understand the “Christian year,” you have to understand what it means to feast. And we have largely lost that understanding today. (Oh, we have no problem consuming great quantities of anything. But that has little to do with knowing how to feast.)

To speak of it [Christian year], however, is even more difficult than to speak of Sunday, because for the modern Christian the relation between this “Christian year” and time has become incomprehensible and therefore, irrelevant. On certain dates the Church commemorates certain events of the past — nativity, resurrection, the descent of the Holy Spirit. These dates are an occasion for a liturgical “illustration” of certain theological affirmations, but as such they are in no way related to the real time or of consequence to it. Even within the Church itself they are mere “breaks” in the normal routine of its activities, and many business minded and action-oriented Christians secretly consider these festivals and celebrations a waste of time. And if other Christians welcome them as additional days of rest and “vacation,” no one seriously thinks of them as the very heart of the Church’s life and mission. There exists, in other words, a serious crisis in the very idea of a feast, and it is here that we must begin our brief discussion of the Christian year.

I want to note that Fr. Schmemann is primarily speaking to Orthodox above. He is not critiquing other groups. He is critiquing the life of the Orthodox Church. I would say the situation is much, much worse elsewhere, especially in those of us who have abandoned all semblance of a Christian year.

Feast means joy. Yet, if there is something that we — the serious, adult, and frustrated Christians of the twentieth century — look at with suspicion, it is certainly joy. … Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. … The modern world has relegated joy to the category of “fun” and “relaxation.” It is justified and permissible on our “time off”; it is a concession, a compromise. … With all these spiritual and cultural connotations, the “Christian year” — the sequence of liturgical commemorations and celebrations — ceased to be the generator of power, and is now looked upon as a more or less antiquated decoration of religion. It is used as a kind of “audio-visual” aid in religious education, but it is neither a root of Christian life and action, nor a “goal” toward which they are oriented.

And, of course, in traditions like my own we’ve largely discarded even the “audio-visual” aid. And in so doing, we no longer experience time together as a shared experience. We no longer know how to properly feast. We’ve rendered “church” itself irrelevant.

To understand the true nature — and “function” — of feasts we must remember that Christianity was born and preached at first in cultures in which feasts and celebrations were an organic and essential part of the whole world view and way of life. … A feast was thus always deeply and organically related to time, to the natural cycles of time, to the whole framework of man’s life in the world. And, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not, Christianity accepted and made its own this fundamentally human phenomenon of feast, as it accepted and made its own the whole man and all his needs. But, as in everything else, Christians accepted the feast not only by giving it a new meaning, by transforming its “content,” but by taking it, along with the whole of “natural” man, through death and resurrection.

And that is important, as Fr. Schmemann moves to that peculiarly Christian lens.

“Through the Cross joy came into the whole world” — and not just to some men as their personal and private joy. Once more, were Christianity pure “mysticism,” pure “eschatology,” there would be no need for feasts and celebrations. A holy soul would keep its secret feast apart from the world, to the extent that it could free itself from its time. But joy was given to the Church for the world — that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy. Such is the “function” of Christian feasts and the meaning of their belonging to time.

Fr. Schmemann then proceeds to illustrate his point in this section using just Easter and Pentecost as examples. They are rich illustrations, but not really the sort of thing that can be summarized. In the podcast you’ll find a good discussion of the feasts and what they mean within the context of the Christian year.


For the Life of the World 13

Posted: November 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post continues with my thoughts on sections 1-2 of the third chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter three if you’ve not already listened to it.

As we leave the church after the Sunday Eucharist we enter again into time, and time, therefore, is the first “object” of our Christian faith and action. For it is indeed the icon of our fundamental reality, of the optimism as well as of the pessimism of our life, of life as life and of life as death. Through time on the one hand we experience life as a possibility, growth, fulfillment, as a movement toward a future. Through time, on the other hand, all future is dissolved in death and annihilation.

Fr. Schmemann dives right into the existential crisis of time in his opening to this chapter. Time is not some uniquely Christian problem or paradox. Philosophers of all stripes have tried their hand at it. However, I like the way he puts Christianity’s response to the conundrum of time.

Here again what the Church offers is not a “solution” of a philosophical problem, but a gift. And it becomes solution only as it is accepted as freely and joyfully as it is given. Or, it may be, the joy of that gift makes both the problem and the solution unnecessary, irrelevant.

We cannot accept that gift if we turn Christianity into a religion (in the pejorative sense that Fr. Schmemann uses the word) that saves us from time rather than within time.

Christians were tempted to reject time altogether and replace it with mysticism and “spiritual” pursuits, to live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations; to insist that time has no real meaning from the point of view of the Kingdom which is “beyond time.” And they finally succeeded. They left time meaningless indeed, although full of Christian “symbols.” And today they themselves do not know what to do with these symbols. For it is impossible to “put Christ back into Christmas” if He has not redeemed — that is, made meaningful — time itself.

I didn’t remember that last line above when I wrote my first post. I think his sentence definitely sums it up quite well. Christ entered into all creation in the Incarnation and that definitely included time. In the Resurrection he has made creation new. The Resurrection itself happened within time, as I’ve already mentioned, on the first day that is also the eighth day of creation.

And thus our question is: did Christ, the Son of God, rise from the dead on the first day of the week, did He send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, did He, in other words, enter time only that we may “symbolize” it in fine celebrations which, although connected with the days and the hours, have no power to give time a real meaning, to transform and redeem it?

N.T. Wright points out that in every description of the eschaton which we have there are still sequences of events. There are still ongoing activities. In other words, though time (which is fundamentally the ordering of events) is assuredly made as new as everything else in creation, it doesn’t simply go away. Yes, we will be partakers in the very life of God through theosis, but the leaves of the tree are still for the healing of the nations. The Christian eschaton seems to be many things, but it is not boring or somehow timeless. Why do we seek to make it so?


Baptists, Eucharist, and History 21 – St. Cyprian on the Union of Wine and Water

Posted: August 5th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Baptists, Eucharist, and History 21 – St. Cyprian on the Union of Wine and Water

We continue today with St. Cyprian’s letter on properly preparing the Cup of our Lord. I’m going to skip around a bit to highlight the specific meaning that St. Cyprian sees in the Cup of water and wine mixed together. I’m going to skip past the references he uses from the septuagint. I do recommend reading that part, though. In it you will see the practice of the Church of reading and interpreting what we call the “Old Testament” in light of Christ. Of course, we are told that Christ himself said that he was the fullness of the revelation of the Law and the Prophets. And after Jesus’ resurrection, we are told he taught his disciples how to read the Scriptures through the lens of himself. We see that mode of interpretation over and over again in the pages of the “New Testament” from Peter’s proclamation at Pentecost onward. (Actually, we see Jesus himself doing it in the Gospels, but we don’t really see the Apostles doing it until Pentecost.) And we see it here as St. Cyprian expounds the tradition of interpretation of the Scriptures that he has received.

We then have a long treatise on the connection of water to Baptism. That will become important in this post. I recommend reading it as well. Finally, St. Cyprian says the following.

Nor is there need of very many arguments, dearest brother, to prove that baptism is always indicated by the appellation of water, and that thus we ought to understand it, since the Lord, when He came, manifested the truth of baptism and the cup in commanding that that faithful water, the water of life eternal, should be given to believers in baptism, but, teaching by the example of His own authority, that the cup should be mingled with a union of wine and water. For, taking the cup on the eve of His passion, He blessed it, and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Drink ye all of this; for this is my blood of the New Testament, which shall be shed for many, for the remission of sins. I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day in which I shall drink new wine with you in the kingdom of my Father.” In which portion we find that the cup which the Lord offered was mixed, and that that was wine which He called His blood. Whence it appears that the blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord’s sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblation and sacrifice respond to His passion. But how shall we drink the new wine of the fruit of the vine with Christ in the kingdom of His Father, if in the sacrifice of God the Father and of Christ we do not offer wine, nor mix the cup of the Lord by the Lord’s own tradition?

So the blood is the blood of Christ and our sacrifice cannot be legitimate or respond to his passion if there is no wine in the cup. But on that night, he did not use a cup of wine alone, but a cup of wine mixed with water. Therefore, we must not only offer wine, but mix the cup according to Jesus’ own tradition. Why?

For because Christ bore us all, in that He also bore our sins, we see that in the water is understood the people, but in the wine is showed the blood of Christ. But when the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people is made one with Christ, and the assembly of believers is associated and conjoined with Him on whom it believes; which association and conjunction of water and wine is so mingled in the Lord’s cup, that that mixture cannot any more be separated. Whence, moreover, nothing can separate the Church—that is, the people established in the Church, faithfully and firmly persevering in that which they have believed—from Christ, in such a way as to prevent their undivided love from always abiding and adhering. Thus, therefore, in consecrating the cup of the Lord, water alone cannot be offered, even as wine alone cannot be offered. For if any one offer wine only, the blood of Christ is dissociated from us; but if the water be alone, the people are dissociated from Christ; but when both are mingled, and are joined with one another by a close union, there is completed a spiritual and heavenly sacrament. Thus the cup of the Lord is not indeed water alone, nor wine alone, unless each be mingled with the other; just as, on the other hand, the body of the Lord cannot be flour alone or water alone, unless both should be united and joined together and compacted in the mass of one bread; in which very sacrament our people are shown to be made one, so that in like manner as many grains, collected, and ground, and mixed together into one mass, make one bread; so in Christ, who is the heavenly bread, we may know that there is one body, with which our number is joined and united.

So, as water is our Baptism, in the cup it is the people, and the comingling of the wine and the water make real the comingling of Christ and the Church. The same is true of the grain and water used to make the bread. There is an immense richness and depth in all of this that so many of us today have simply … lost.


Pentecost – The Healing of Babel

Posted: June 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pentecost – The Healing of Babel

I keep finding in Orthodoxy not a new perspective, but rather a tradition that says things that have long been my perspective. Father Stephen’s post on Pentecost is but the latest example. This arc of the story had always seemed obvious to me. The narrative of “fall” ends with the tale of Babel and the dispersion of man into nations who stand against each other and who speak with different tongues. That’s immediately followed by God calling a man to form a people and the long story of the people of God culminating in the faithful man, the faithful Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth. In him, God then forms one people from the nations exemplified by the healing of the division of Babel at Pentecost.

In Father Stephen’s post I read that that has always been the way the Orthodox Church looked at it. Further, they extend it to the healing of creation.

Thus the trees.