Monday, October 20, 2014

Whose Image?

Whenever people propose that eliminating religion would solve most of the world's problems, I know that they don't really understand the world or people very well. Religion generates such intense emotions because it is about ultimate values, as Paul Tillich pointed out. Even if you could somehow quash humanity's natural inclination to believe in a god or gods, you would still have that other repository of ultimate values: politics. In the last century a number of countries tried eliminating God and creating earthly paradises. These countries, all communist, proceeded to demonstrate just how bad purely secular nations were at not persecuting or killing people for ideological reasons. It turns out that, when they removed whatever restraint religion provides, these countries managed to kill tens of millions more people in 1 century than could be attributed to so-called Christians in 20 centuries.

In fact a large percentage of the deaths and misery caused by Christianity can more accurately be attributed to the manipulation of religion for political or economic or personal reasons. The First Crusade was proposed by Pope Urban II in order to restore access to holy sites in the Middle East for Western pilgrims. He was also hoping to channel the militaristic impulses of “Christian” princes into more beneficial actions. But the nobles involved used it to gain lands for themselves in Palestine. Subsequent crusades were used by Venice to sack Constantinople, a trading rival and also a Christian city. Anti-Semites used the People's Crusade as an excuse to massacre Jews. In the Fifth Crusade Christians allied with one faction of Muslims against another faction of Muslims. If anything, the crusades are more illustrative of people doing bad things for practically any reason other than ideological purity. Had the participants actually consulted any of the relevant statements by Jesus on violence, the use of swords and loving one's enemies, there never would have been any crusades.

Now it is true that for most of history, there was no separation of church and state. But far from the church controlling the state, it was much more common for the state to use the church to sanctify the status quo and the ruler. It was true in ancient Israel, where the king often had a school of tame prophets who told him what he wanted to hear. Most of the prophets whose books are part of the Old Testament were dissidents, critics of the standard operating B.S. and the monarchy. In Jesus' day things were worse. The Romans were in charge and appointed the High Priest. This explains why the religious hierarchy was worried about Jesus' popularity. They never for a minute considered that Jesus might be the Messiah or even a prophet. They were concerned about keeping their position of power and that meant protecting the status quo, even if it meant aligning with the interests of the pagan Romans against a fellow Jew whose arguments for changing the usual way of practicing their religion they couldn't refute.

Which is probably what led up to the events in today's Gospel passage (Matthew 22:15-22). While the priests were interested in not rocking the boat with the Romans, the average Jew was not happy about their occupiers' influence over Galilee and Judea. And they really hated the onerous taxes that they had to pay the Emperor for the privilege of being oppressed by him. So asking Jesus about taxes seemed like a good way to trap him. If Jesus supported the taxes, he'd lose the people's support. If he rejected the taxes, that would be enough for the Romans to arrest him. After all, 25 years earlier a Zealot from Galilee named Judas led a revolt because of the tax. He was killed. (Acts 5:37) So Jesus must choose one of 2 equally terrible options.

But Jesus knows what they are up to and asks to see a coin. And, surprisingly, they produce one. Why would that be unexpected? Because Jesus was in the temple, teaching. Roman coins, with their graven images of the emperor, who called himself the “son of God,” were considered idolatrous. That's why there were moneychangers in the temple. Jews coming to worship or to make donations were to exchange their money for temple-approved coins. And of course, the priests got a cut. The point is no one in the temple should have pagan money on them. So by producing the Roman coin, Jesus' interrogators were showing themselves to be hypocrites.

Jesus asks whose image is on the money he's handed. And someone says, “The emperor.” To which Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's.” And I like to think he flipped the coin into the hand of the Pharisee who first asked the question.

But what exactly can we learn from Jesus' statement?

One thing is obvious. Jesus is not an anarchist. He is not anti-government. There is a place for the organizing and law-keeping and even the taxing functions of government. And this is a pagan government! By saying give to Caesar what is his, Jesus is saying, at the very least, that if you are part of the economy, you should pay the taxes. Taxes are the price of civilization. The Romans weren't perfect but they did bring centuries of peace. They linked all the major cities of the Empire with good, safe roads. They had a reliable postal system. They eliminated piracy from the Mediterranean. They did have a rule of law, at least for Roman citizens. All of these things made possible the spread of Christianity. And those benefits were paid for by taxation.

What Jesus does not deal with here are things like excessive taxation or unjust governments. But he does uphold the principle of taxes and government. And they are preferable to the anarchy we see today in failed states around the world. We also see how difficult it is to establish good government. So anyone wishing to overthrow the government or eliminate taxes will find no support in Jesus.

Or in Paul. In Romans 13, he writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment....For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to who respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-2, 6-7) A Christian anarchist is an oxymoron.

We in the US and in the industrialized West are privileged to live in democracies where we can change our leaders and our laws. Jesus and Paul did not. We have the constitutional freedom to worship as we wish. Jesus and Paul did not. So it says something that they supported the idea of government even as they lived in an Empire ruled by men who claimed to be gods. Of course later, when Christianity was no longer flying under the radar, this would become an issue. And when explicitly told to make sacrifices to the divine emperor, then and only then, Christians would have to defy the government.

This is where the second part of Jesus' statement comes into play. We have obligations to government but we also have obligations to God and they are more important. That's what Jesus was really emphasizing. The Pharisees were trying to get him mired in political issues but Jesus stayed on message and brought the discussion back to God.

What's really interesting is the fact that Jesus was able to use the coin to make a profound point. He asks about the image on it. If what bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar, then that which bears the image of God belongs to him. And that means people. We were minted, so to speak, by God for his use. Jesus is saying here that human beings' highest obligation is not to government but to God. The government is a steward, using its resources to serve its citizens but it does not own them. We owe our government our support and input but not a higher allegiance than we owe God. And when they conflict, as Peter told the Sanhedrin, we must obey God rather than men.

But that doesn't mean getting rid of everything that can conceivably be considered non- Christian by someone. Quakers, the Mennonites and the Amish do not believe in using force. If their idea of Christianity became law, it would mean disbanding the armed forces and perhaps the police. Instead, when we had the draft, we let them opt out of armed service or opt to be a medic instead.

Nor does it mean special treatment for Christians. At the jail, as the chaplain, I approve requests for religious diets. If an inmate is Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu and asks for a kosher, vegetarian or vegan diet, I contact their clergy, confirm that they are in fact a member of one of those faiths and that the diet is a requirement of their religion. But if a Christian wants a kosher or a high-protein diet, I have to turn it down, because it is personal choice and not a requirement of our faith.

Christians obeying God and not men doesn't mean using government to stop non-Christians from practicing their religions or no religion, nor does it mean forcing them to adopt Christian practices. That is one of the reasons that our constitution prohibits establishing one religion over all others. Some American colonies outlawed Baptists or Quakers from preaching; others required that people elected must belong to a particular faith or denomination. The anti-establishment clause was formulated by James Madison at the urging of Baptists to end such abuses and ensure true religious liberty for all. It is ironic that some in that tradition now wish to reverse that.

It would be too much to say Jesus was in favor of legal separation of church and state. As we said, that simply wasn't a concept back then. But it is obvious that for Jesus the kingdom of God is not dependent on any specific form of government. He lived under a regime that required no consent from the governed and offered no rights for non-Roman citizens who nevertheless were part of the empire. They killed Jesus not for threatening the government but just for disturbing the peace of mind of those in power. And they eventually did the same with his followers. “Burn a pinch of incense to the divine emperor, call him king of kings and lord of lords, renounce Jesus Christ and you're a good citizen. Refuse and we will execute you in one of a number of novel ways.”

But Jesus knew that the kingdom of God could survive that. And it has. It has outlived emperors, kings, autocrats, oligarchs, collectives, committees, courts, protectors, despots, fascists, juntas, military dictators, parliaments, theocrats, congresses and every other earthly form of government. It has endured hostile regimes and friendly ones. And the rulers that were friendly to Christianity often did more damage to the faith, usually by co-opting and corrupting it. But the kingdom of God is independent of the kingdoms of this world. Because all earthly powers are affected by sin. Read enough history and you realize that the form of government is not nearly as important as the character and capability of those who govern. An incompetent and self-serving leader is bad news for his country, whether he was elected or crowned or proclaimed. A wise and selfless leader is a blessing to his nation however he came to power. Some of the Roman emperors were not bad. Some absolute monarchs did a lot of good. Some duly elected leaders are grievous mistakes.

When I choose a doctor, I choose him or her on the basis of whether they can do the job and do it well, not on their religion. When I vote for someone, I use the same criteria. In both cases, they will not affect my position as citizen of God's kingdom. They will not stop me from functioning as a member of the Body of Christ, even if they try. Jesus told us that following him meant taking up our crosses. Opposition has not killed off Christianity. Whereas having a state or official church has led to a long-term decline in belief. Look at Europe. In fact, making the state do things like require prayer in schools or at governmental functions or put the 10 commandments in courthouses just dilutes their meaning. They become background noise. If people aren't learning about such things at church and practicing them at home, merely adding them to public events and buildings isn't going to be make up for that void. That's magical thinking. (Which makes it odd that atheists also believe in the power of these things so much that they want them eliminated.)

Ultimately it boils down to whether we acknowledge that we bear the image of God and are willing to spend our lives doing what he wants us to do. If not, we are like counterfeit coins whose apparent worth is a lie. What's ironic is that people only counterfeit what's precious. No one ever counterfeited a penny or a dollar. They go after the stuff that amounts to much more. So what phony Christians really do is show just how valuable real Christians are, whose worth comes not from themselves but from God.


Of course, if phony stuff floods the market, it hurts the image of the genuine thing. Fake Christians do discount the faith in the eyes of the general public. So we need to be authentic. We need to let the Spirit burnish the image of God in each of us and prove our mettle so people will know that when we say we follow Jesus we're the real thing. Part of that is knowing what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God and not confusing the two. We belong to God. We owe him our lives. We need to act like it. We need to act like citizens of God's eternal kingdom, regardless of who happens to be ruling our patch of earth for this moment in time. For one day, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cake or Death?

To stay awake while driving home from the jail, I listen to podcasts on my Stitcher app. Usually I listen to NPR shows like Freakonomics, or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell me, or This American Life. The latter has created a spin-off series called Serial. Whereas This American Life usually presents 3 or 4 stories an episode, united by a common theme, Serial presents a long complicated story over several episodes. The pilot episode presented a doozy. In 1999, a teenage girl was killed. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted based entirely on the testimony of a friend who says he helped bury the body. The accused has always maintained his innocence and just about everybody who knew him couldn't believe he had done the crime. Inexplicably, another friend who said she was chatting with the presumed killer at the library during the time of the murder was never contacted by the defense attorney. Nor was she called to the stand to give the accused an alibi. 15 years later the reporter is trying to figure out the truth. Is the man in prison or his self-confessed accomplice lying? Why didn't the defense lawyer use the alibi provided? Why didn't the girl come forward herself? Why did she talk to the reporter and confirm her earlier story but not appear at an appeal hearing a few weeks earlier that could have reopened the case? It's an involving mystery and one so complex it will take several episodes to explore. And who knows if we will ever find out the truth.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment is the murder mystery. Every since Edgar Allen Poe created the form, authors have been churning out tales of death and detection. TV networks are brimming with shows about eccentric detectives, procedurals, updates on Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes wannabees, like Psych, The Mentalist, Bones, C.S.I. and Monk, as well as true crime shows. Why do we like these? Because at the end, they generally reveal the truth and the bad guys get punished. 

Real life is more like the case being examined in Serial. In real life 30 to 40% of homicides go unsolved. The FBI estimates that every year about 6000 people get away with murder. That's roughly 120 per state. (BTW if you want your murderer to get caught get killed in Idaho. At 3.9% they have the lowest rate of unsolved homicides.)

People get away with other violent crimes as well. Domestic violence leads to 4 million assaults on women and 3 million on men. 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. But only an estimated 5% of pedophiles are caught. There are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking, 5 ½ million of whom are children and 55% of whom are women and girls. Very few of the perpetrators get caught. Right now 64 countries all over the globe are involved in armed conflicts. How often are those who commit war crimes tried?

You can destroy a person's life without resorting to violence. In 2012, nearly 9 million property crimes—burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson—were reported in the U.S. Identity fraud, using someone's personal information to access money, strikes a new victim every 2 seconds. That amounts to 13 million victims in 2013. But you don't have to steal someone's goods or identity to hurt them financially. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says of all the wealth lost in the Great Recession the average household has only regained 45%. That's why so many still feel the effects though officially the recession ended in 2010. And remember that long line of bankers tried and imprisoned for the financial chicanery that caused the economy to nearly crash? Neither do I. It is said that Bernie Madoff is the only stockbroker and financier in jail because he ripped off the rich.

You can make a person's life miserable just for who he or she is. A recent AP poll showed that 51% of Americans express explicit anti-black attitudes and 52% of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Latino attitudes. Religious groups are persecuted in 184 countries. Christians are persecuted in the most, in 139 countries, followed by Muslims who are persecuted in 121 countries.

Many if not most of these injustices will not be redressed during the lifetimes of their victims. Which probably explains the popularity of crimefighters and superheroes in today's popular culture. We wish we could have justice in this life and we realize it would take someone extraordinary to accomplish it.

Which brings me to the uncomfortable aspects of the parables of Jesus that we've been reading of late. Jesus is talking about how people will not simply get away with murder. In today's reading from Matthew 22:1-14, people invited to a wedding banquet a king throws for his son abuse and even kill slaves sent to invite them. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Last week, in the story of a vineyard owner whose tenants mistreat those sent to get his share and kill his son are dealt with similarly. Jesus' audience tells him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” And last month, Jesus spoke of a slave forgiven a colossal debt who has a fellow slave thrown into jail for a much smaller debt. Jesus says, “And in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would repay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”

Whoa! What happened to Jesus, meek and mild? I personally have never understood how anyone who actually read the gospels could describe him that way. A more accurate depiction would be “Jesus, assertive and wild.” Jesus was gentle with those who needed it but could be harsh with those who needed to be confronted. He famously chased the crooked moneychangers out of the temple with an improvised whip. How do we reconcile that with Jesus, advocate of love?

Divine love naturally leads to justice. If you limit your love to yourself, or just your family or friends, or just your race or just your religion, or just your country, you can be unjust to outsiders. But if you love everyone, then you treat everyone equally well and demand that everyone treat each other in the same fashion. Since God is love, that love is manifested as justice wherever injustice arises. Since God is love, he cannot let those he loves harm one another or neglect the needs of one another.

God's basic way of dealing with injustice is the same as any good parent. You point it out to your child and expect them to change. If you read the prophets in the Bible, that's what it boils down to: here are your sins; now repent. And the reward is the same as it is with any good parent: forgiveness and a welcome back into the life of the family.

And God is very forgiving. As Jesus said to Peter, if he asks, forgive your brother 70 times 7. A whopping amount. And if we are to be that forgiving, then God is even more forgiving. We see that in the Bible. None of the patriarchs or kings or prophets or disciples are perfect. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter and Paul all screw up. But when they repent, when the turn from their sin and turn to God, he forgives them.

We see it in history. Bartolome de las Casas was one of the first Spanish colonists of the New World and a slave owner. He became convinced that this was a great injustice, gave up his slaves and began a long campaign to end slavery. He became the first Bishop of Chiapas and was declared Protector of the Indians.

Commander and later Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of planes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After World War II, he met a former flight engineer of his who had been a POW under the Americans. Not only was Fuchida surprised that the Americans did not torture their prisoners, he was astonished that they were ministered to by the daughter of missionaries who had been killed by the Japanese. That this woman, Peggy Covell, did not take revenge on the Japanese for her parents' deaths, a duty under the Bushido code, was inexplicable. He became obsessed in trying to understand such love and forgiveness. Later he read the story of an American bombadier who was captured by the Japanese and who came to God despite imprisonment and torture. Fuchida finally read the Bible and became a Christian. He spent the rest of his life telling people of how God's grace brought him to Jesus Christ.

It happens today. Joshua Milton Blahyi was an African warlord, who has confessed to killing 20,000 during the 14 year civil war in Liberia. He had performed human sacrifices since age 11 when he was made a tribal priest. He later became an adviser to then-President Samuel K. Doe. Blahyi would sacrifice children before each battle, sometimes eating their hearts. He was dubbed “General Butt Naked” because he would go into battle with only shoes and a gun because he believed he was invulnerable to bullets. Then, during one of the most brutal battles in the war, his life changed.

Blahyi says, in the middle of the fight, he saw Jesus appear to him in a bright light, rather as Paul did, telling him to repent. He laid down his weapons and left the battle. He was one of the few warlords to confess his crimes before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now he seeks out those he hurt, admits he is 100% guilty of what he did and asks forgiveness. Despite death threats, he preaches the love of Jesus. In a PBS documentary he said, “It's only Christianity that can help this nation, because Christianity, it is the only belief, the only faith that tell you to love your enemies, that tell you to accept and forgive the one who hurts you.”

Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, became Christians in prison. Dahmer was baptized before he was killed by another prisoner. Berkowitz has refused parole, seeing his mission field as the prison. He wrote an introduction to the Bibles I distribute in the jail. People can and do change and return God's love.

But what of those who don't, who are not moved by the love of God displayed in the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus? As C.S. Lewis said, there are those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom, ultimately, God must say, “Very well, your will be done. If you don't want any part of me, so be it.” Love can not be forced. God gave us the ability to choose so that our love would be real and not pre-programmed. But that means we can choose not to love him. And people do.

But if we want no part of God, who is the source of all good things, that means rejecting those as well. Things such as those Paul commends to us in our passage from Philippians 4:1-9—whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is is excellent and worthy of praise. God cannot, Lewis reminds us, give us good apart from himself. It's like asking for sunlight but without the involvement of the sun. It's like asking for nutrition without the components of food. It's like asking to breathe without oxygen. Not wanting anything to do with God or his gifts means going into exile.

And it is a self-imposed exile. The gates of Hell are locked from the inside, said Lewis. And we see this all the time--people who reject the love of family and friends, and withdraw from their lives and lock themselves into a lifestyle where they only have room for their ego and their misery. They build barricades out of bottles, or drugs, or meaningless sex, or money or whatever else distracts their minds and dulls their feelings. Now, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, if one ceases to exist after 70 or 80 years then the kind of person you are doesn't matter much in the long run. Your misery will end. But if you are to live forever, then the kind of person you are becoming is of paramount importance. As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “a person wrapped up in himself makes a small package.” And over eternity, such a self-centered person becomes ever smaller, a ever-denser ball of bitterness and resentment and grievances against God and other people. He becomes like a black hole, sucking all the joy and light out of anyone and anything near them. And that's hell.

Hell is not a place; it is a state of being. It is not where anyone is going; it is what they are becoming. It is what we become when we turn our back on God's love and grace, when we neglect his good gifts or twist them into uses he never intended, when our attitude is “to hell” with anyone other than ourselves or those we think of as ours, when we make ourselves or anything other than God the center of our universe, when we want to get as far from him as we can. In which case God doesn't need to torture or punish us; we are quite good at doing it ourselves. If we keep engaging in such toxic thinking, speech and behavior, if we refuse to change, the result is one hellish existence.

But because it is a process, there is time to reverse it. It is interesting that in today's parable Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding banquet. This was not like a modern wedding reception which runs for hours. In Jesus' day, they would run for a week at least; for a king, 2 weeks or more. (That's why the wedding Jesus was at in Cana was in danger of running out of wine.) The whole community could then find some time to come and celebrate the wedding. Which makes the people in the parable especially rude. They couldn't find one day in 2 or more weeks to come to the king's banquet.

The point is--there is always time to come to God. Every second of your life is a second chance. Despite popular eschatology, God is not going to simply cut everybody off at an arbitrary time hidden in the scriptures. This week in the Huffington Post, there was an excellent article by Zack Hunt about how he discovered that there is no “Rapture,” as popularly imagined, in the Bible. He points out that God always journeys with his people through the hard times. He doesn't magically extract them from tough times. And he talked about the selfish attitude engendered by the false idea that Christians get pulled out of the world when it needs them most and distinguishes that from the very biblical belief that Jesus will return and expects us not to be standing around waiting for lift off but to be doing what he commanded us to do. He writes, “One allows us to neglect the present world and let it crumble away while we focus on our own eternal glory. The other beckons us to participate in God's restoration of creation by loving His people and showing them how to live the life God intended until He does return to bring that work of redemption to final completion.”

The time will come when God in his wisdom wraps things up. The point is that right now he is giving us the time to get on board with his mission to heal a very sick world. What looks like God delaying in giving sinful people the justice they deserve is really his mercy in giving them time to accept the grace that none of us deserve. And our task is heralding that good news. In the parable we are those the king sends out to invite everyone we encounter “both good and bad”--Jesus' words!--to the feast.


In the movie Auntie Mame, the title character's motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” And oddly enough, that's what Jesus is saying in this parable. It puts a very different spin on Eddie Izzard's question, "Cake or death?" Why choose the latter when Jesus is inviting you to enjoy the former? The kingdom of God is a big banquet with love, forgiveness, healing, joy, and peace and, according to Jesus, the kingdom is in and among us now! A lot of people don't realize the true nature of what God is offering. Perhaps they've heard a false description of what it's like. So let us spread the word with love. Let's ring the dinner bell and yell, “Come and get it!” 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Spirit of the Law

Grammar on the internet is terrible. And punctuation is apparently an exotic concept to many. There are a few memes that have fun with that fact. One has a sentence written 2 ways to illustrate the real problem of not punctuating properly. The first sentence says, “Time to eat Grandma.” And the second goes, “Time to eat, Grandma.” Leaving out that comma makes a big difference in what you are saying.

Of course, most human beings will be able to quickly figure out what you really meant. Machines might not. If I tell our secretary to make a 250 copies of the bulletin, she would say, “Really? Don't you mean 25?” But if I accidentally type that into my computer or a copy machine, they will never question it for a minute. That's what bothers me about artificial intelligence. If you goof up an instruction it has no common sense to make it say, “Wait a minute! Do you really mean that?” It might just prepare Grandma as the main course because you forgot to add the comma.

That idea bugged legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He hated Frankenstein stories where the creation of scientists would turn on them. He reasoned that ethics would be programmed into any artificial intelligence. With his editor John Campbell, he hammered out what are now known as Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. The first is that a robot cannot harm or by inaction allow harm to come to a human being. The second is that a robot must obey all instructions given to it by a human being, unless it contradicted the first law. So no robot could be commanded to kill a human. The third law is that a robot must try to protect itself (it is after all an expensive piece of technology) unless that conflicted with laws 1 and 2. All in all, it is a simple and elegant ethical system.

But Asimov was too smart to think that moral conflicts would not arise for intelligent robots and most of his stories examined the gray areas and contradictory situations that they and the humans who controlled them might find themselves in. What if one human was trying to kill others? Can the robot stop a human from taking the lives of the victims without killing the murderer? The fact is that there is no ethical system that offers an obvious solution to every possible situation.

During a worship service in the women's unit at the jail, I was preaching about Jesus' famous command to respond to someone hitting you by turning the other cheek. And one inmate asked if she had to do that when being beaten by an abusive husband. It stopped me cold. I had never thought about it in that context. I don't think Jesus meant it applied in that context either. Jesus is speaking of someone who means it as an insult and who would be shamed by his victim's calm and controlled offer of the right cheek. It doesn't work if your assailant is in a fit of rage and could very well kill you but would not be likely to observe or care that your action was a moral response. Nor does it take into account that if you have children, protecting yourself is protecting them. 

In the case of the Nazis, they counted on the Jews docilely going to their deaths. Had they all resisted as they did in the Warsaw ghetto, I doubt the Third Reich would have managed to kill 6 million Jews. On the other hand nonviolent resistance did work for Gandhi and for Martin Luther King Jr. precisely because their opponents saw themselves as good Christians and were eventually shamed before the world for their immoral and violent responses to people who weren't fighting back. Turning the other cheek is a kind of spiritual judo using the opponents' morality against them. If they have no sense of morality or a very warped one or are acting in a fit of pure rage, it may not work.

This is why Jesus did not simply give us a set of rules and leave it at that. He gives to those who open their hearts to him his Spirit as well. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul tells us that we do not serve the letter of the law but the Spirit. And that is a vital difference. We all know of people clever enough to not cross the line of the letter of the law but whose actions definitely violate the spirit of the law. Like a certain president who declared that he did not have sexual intercourse with a certain aide. Technically, he was right; it was oral sex. Morally, it was adultery however you slice it. Courts, cops and elected officials have been known to use the letter of the law to harass people. And large companies have lots of lawyers to help them exploit the omissions and ambiguities of the law. They really don't care about the intent of the law; just the actual wording and how they can creatively reinterpret it.

And some Christians do that, too. (And I'm not just talking about the Inquisition or the Crusades, where people did things in Jesus' name that not only went against the Spirit of Christ but against his explicit words.) What we have today are people who can quote scripture and then go and do something that goes against the intent of that scripture. For instance, in my marriage classes I like to take a close look at Ephesians 5. A lot of people zero in on verse 22, where Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Except it doesn't. Actually, the verb “submit” isn't in verse 22 but in verse 21. The whole thing is one of Paul's massive run-on sentences. The relevant phrase in Verse 21 concerns all Christians “submitting to one another.” Verse 22 literally reads, “...wives, to your husbands...” In other words, what the wives do is just an example of what all Christians should do for each other. It is not a unique command targeting only them. But then I point out that Paul goes on to say, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her...” In other words, if you are going to focus on wives submitting to their husbands, you shouldn't ignore the fact that men are supposed to love their wives to the point of self-sacrifice. So there is no pretext here for husbands to treat their wives as slaves or to abuse them. In fact, the husband has a tougher command to follow. To emphasize one command and not the other violates the spirit of the overarching command to love one another as Christ loved us.

I once saw a poster that said, “When in doubt, do the friendliest thing.” It's a good rule of the thumb. For Christians it could be restated thus: “When in doubt, do the most Christ-like thing.” Or in other words: “What would Jesus do?” There's a reason why that question is so popular whereas I've never seen the phrase, “What would the Bible say to do?” But a lot of people act like the second question is a valid alternative to the first.

The problem is that the Bible is not just a straightforward book of rules. It has history, poetry, parables, proverbs, satire and even sarcasm. Because of this and because it gives a "warts and all" portrayal of the people in it, not everything in Scripture is prescriptive; some is merely descriptive. David may have been a man after God's heart but he was a man. When he slept with Uriah's wife and then had Uriah killed in battle to cover it up, God calls David on that. Obviously we are not supposed to imitate that. Just as there are examples in the Bible of virtuous actions we should emulate, there are also examples of sinful actions we should avoid. Because God works with sinful people (are there any other kind?) sometimes the people God chooses do things he abhors.

In addition, some of the commands are clearly not valid today. We live under the new covenant instituted by Jesus, not the old covenant put in place by Moses. Nor do we live in Iron Age theocratic Israel. So we do not stone adulterers or gays or disobedient children or people who work on the Sabbath; we do not keep slaves or own women; we do not exclude the handicapped or deformed from worship. In Christ we are not under the law; we are free from it and live in the Spirit.

Like the husbands addressed in Ephesians 5, we actually live under a stricter standard: that of the Spirit of the love of God in Christ. That means we cannot neglect the needs of whomever we encounter. If we see someone hungry, we must see to it that she gets something to eat. If we see someone threadbare, we must see to it he gets some clothes. If we see someone sick we must see to it that she gets medical care. If we see someone who is a stranger in a strange land, we must see to it that he is made welcome. We must act as Jesus would and treat other people as if they were Jesus.

And sometimes we must improvise. Today we must confront problems that simply didn't exist in Jesus' day but do so while staying in character, so to speak, as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus never had to deal with the internet. But we can still figure out how he would want us to act based on the principles he espoused. Theft is still theft whether you are breaking into a person's home or hacking into their bank account. Adultery is still lust in the heart, whether you are getting suggestive in a chatroom or watching through a webcam. Jesus says calling someone a name puts you at grave spiritual risk and thus so would cyberbullying and emailing or posting death threats to an atheist or a Muslim or anyone else. Whenever you are harming or degrading a person created in the image of God (are there any other kind?), you are not living in the Spirit.

Nor can we get away with merely being polite; we must be proactive. It's great to feed the hungry or help the homeless or visit the sick when the occasion arises. But we know these things exist and we should do what we can to eliminate them or reduce the problem as much as possible. But we can't do this alone. Nor did Jesus intend us to. Jesus didn't need the help of the Twelve; they needed him. And they needed each other, so when he sent them out to preach the Good News and heal the sick, he sent them out two by two. Jesus is not a fan of Lone Ranger Christians. Possibly because without another perspective we tend to forget that we are called to think like God and start believing that God thinks just like we do. Jesus said that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name, he is in the midst of them. Maybe he based that on the Jewish legal principle of requiring 2 witnesses to an event. If two or three people are each trying to be in tune with the Spirit, each acting as a confirmation and possible corrective for each other, they are more likely to be get it right.

Thus you have churches running homeless shelters or offering soup kitchens. You have denominations sending out disaster teams and staffing clinics. And you have denominations working together on big problems. Jesus didn't explicitly tell us to set up such things but they are obviously products of the Spirit. And as long as they stay strongly connected to the guidance of the Spirit, they will continue to reflect Christ. The principal danger is not staying focused on their original mission. Too often the primary purpose of a group shifts to ensuring the continued existence of the group. And when you're focused on mere survival, you will do anything. We've seen this in secular organizations, in political parties and sadly in some churches. Sometimes they will change disastrously simply to survive in some form.

This is not to say all change is bad. Some change is necessary. When the tire is flat, you need to change the tire. But you don't get rid of the hub. You don't change the essentials. And the way to know which is which is to focus on Jesus—who he is, what he has done for us, and what our response should be—and to stay in deep contact with his Spirit. After all, Jesus changed things that were part of the old covenant—the dietary restrictions, what you could do on the Sabbath, the definition of what was unclean and who was an outcast. He drew up a new covenant where the 613 commandments in the Torah were summarized in 2. He drew up a new covenant where the badges of faith weren't special rituals so much as serving God through serving those created in his image. He drew up a covenant you entered not by cutting the flesh but through cleansing the soul and which was sustained not by eating a lamb but by feeding inwardly on the Lord.


We live in a world obsessed with externals. We need to correct that by being in touch with the one whom the world cannot see. We need to stay in communication with him by staying in contact with the Spirit of God in Christ. We need to become reflections of his love and conduits of his grace. We need to realize that people won't really get the gospel if we recite it mechanically but only if we back it up with actions done in the right Spirit.    

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Mind of Christ

I am visiting my dad who is on hospice. I left on Saturday and wrote this to be read, in a slightly modified form, by the laymen leading worship at both my churches in my absence,

At the recent Diocesan Clergy Conference Bishop Pierre Whalon, Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, asked the priests and deacons to read and meditate upon 1 Corinthians 2:16--”But we have the mind of Christ.” This led to a wide ranging discussion of what precisely Paul meant. There were lots of views, some holding that this idea could lead to arrogance. I was reminded, though, of our New Testament lesson for today where Paul urges the Philippian church to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...” And his purpose is quite the opposite of making them arrogant.

Paul is making an appeal for unity among the church members. As The New Bible Commentary says, in verse 1, Paul gives us 4 reasons for such unity: the encouragement we find in Christ, the consolation we experience in love, the fellowship in the Spirit in which we participate, and the compassion and sympathy we get from God. But in verse 2 he mentions having the same mind and being of one mind. And the mind he is thinking about is the mind of Christ.

Paul points out that far from being conceited because he was divine, Christ did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself of all such privileges and took on the form of a slave. He humbled himself and was obedient to God's mission, even though it meant dying, and especially dying horribly on the cross. So having the true mind of Christ in us does not lead to arrogance but to humility, service and self-sacrifice.

The goal of Christianity is becoming like Christ. He is, as it says in Colossians 1:5, “the image of the invisible God.” In other words, that image in which we were created can be seen in Jesus. Of course, that image of God in us has been marred by our sin. But by letting his Spirit work in us and direct us, that image can be restored.

But God is a Trinity, 3 divine persons who are absolutely one divine being, bound by love and defined by love. Thus the image of God is seen most clearly when we are one with others, united by love. So unity is not something that is optional. It is an essential part of the image of God in us. It is, according to Jesus, how the world will know that we are his disciples.

“Disciples” is just a fancy word for “students” though it does have the sense of being voluntary students, passionately devoted to their master. Jesus was clear on how essential unity is by praying that we become one as he and his Father are one. And all Paul is doing is giving practical tips on how to keep that unity.

So being of one mind, being on the same page on essentials, is a major part of that. And since the mind Paul had in mind was Christ's, we need to steep ourselves in what he said and did when he was living as one of us. People can disagree on interpretations but if we focus on what he did and said and emulate those things, we shall be on the right track. Jesus fed the hungry; so can we. Jesus treated the sick; so can we. Jesus helped the poor; so can we. Jesus forgave; so can we. Jesus treated the outcasts of society, such as lepers and Gentiles, with fairness, mercy and love; so can we. Jesus stopped his disciples from censuring someone outside their group, who was nevertheless doing good deeds in Jesus' name; so can we. We may disagree over the meanings of some of Scripture but not what he did. And if we do what he did, his words will seem a lot less abstract and less open to wild misinterpretations. His actions, imitated by us, will provide a context for his words. It's hard to hold that Jesus didn't really mean what he said about visiting those in prison or welcoming the alien or feeding the hungry when you are face to face with them and hearing their stories and seeing how desperately they need what you can provide.

A Methodist once told me that theology divides but service unites. We all explain the relationship of the divine and human natures in Christ, the significance of the sacraments, and the mystery of the Trinity in somewhat different ways. But what Jesus commanded us to do—the many ways of demonstrating our love for God and for one another—are very clear and compelling. As an actor finds the core of the character he is playing by simply saying the words written and performing the actions he is directed to do, over and over again, we will find the mind of Christ by immersing ourselves in his words and imitating his deeds.

We also have the advantage of the indwelling Spirit. As Jesus says in John 14, the Spirit brings to mind what Jesus teaches and guides us into the truth. Christians go astray when they do not heed the Spirit. That's how people can do terrible things in the name of Christ that obviously run contrary to the Spirit of Christ. They are resisting and quenching the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we are simply trying to follow Jesus through our strength and by leaning on our own understanding. That's a recipe for failure. We need to stay connected to the Spirit if we are to have any hope of being fruitful Christians.


In Romans 13 and in Galatians 3 Paul tells us to “put on Christ.” The metaphor is that of putting on clothes. And it's a good way of looking at the process of becoming more Christlike. Let us pray everyday that we put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray that our eyes be his eyes, our ears be his ears, our hands be his hands, so that we see people as he does, hear them as he does, and touch them as he would touch them. And the Spirit will, through those experiences, shape us and bring us closer and closer to the wise and loving mind of Christ. Not only that, but as we act as Jesus would act, people will see and hear and feel him through us. And some will be drawn to him and listen to his call and enter his kingdom. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Plot Twist

We are such huge consumers of stories and so familiar with every basic plot and trope that it is rare for a movie or TV episode to turn out exactly as one would think from watching its beginning. If it did we would be bored. So now everything has a plot twist. That person you thought was a good guy? Wrong! He's a bad guy. That secret gizmo everyone is trying to get their hands on? It's a red herring; there's another secret scheme being played out instead. That event we were told could never happen? Well, it's happening right now!

You expect it from Doctor Who, where the time traveler can meet someone for the first time, although from their point of view they've met him before. And that person can be his assassin, his wife, his current companion's baby or all 3. But now all shows are doing it—even if it makes no sense. As long as it's unexpected, they will do it. They want to surprise us. They want to keep us guessing. But my wife and son are usually one step ahead of them.

The Bible has been around so long and we have heard its stories so often that we forget that it too has plot twists. In today's reading from Jonah, we see a few of them. Jonah, though a prophet, did not want to preach to Nineveh. Because he didn't want to warn them of their doom? No, but because he was afraid they would repent. He knew that, despite the fact that they were foreigners and enemies and worshipers of other gods, there was the possibility that they might take him seriously when he pronounces the terrible judgment coming from Israel's God. Which they do. Then Jonah grimly sets up camp outside the city, hoping to see it consumed in fire and brimstone. Instead a bush grows up which gives him shade from the brutal Middle-Eastern sun. Then it dies and Jonah is on the verge of heat stroke. Plus Nineveh still stands. Jonah asks God to let him die. “Why?” asks God. Because Jonah knew God was gracious and merciful and way too prone to forgive people when they repented. Jonah wanted Nineveh obliterated! God then contrasts Jonah's grief over the death of the bush with his concern over the potential deaths of 120,000 pagans, who didn't know right from wrong. And also their animals.

Imagine how this struck the original audience. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and taken them into exile. And unlike what happened with the Judeans 200 years later, this was an exile from which those Israelites would never return. They are the 10 lost tribes of Israel you hear about. So Nineveh was like Nazi Berlin. And God wants Jonah to preach there. No wonder the prophet went AWOL. No wonder he wanted those people to get their just desserts. And so would the Jews listening to this story. They too might be shocked that God would forgive their enemies. Whose side is he on anyway?

God is too merciful in a lot of people's minds. The Westboro Baptist Church can't wait for God to sweep everyone—except them—into hell. On their website, among the statistics they list, like how many pickets they have held and how many cities they have picketed in, is a countdown of how many people have been cast into hell since you downloaded their page! They tellingly give the number of people saved from the flood in Noah's ark (8—tiny number, just like the church which consists almost entirely of Fred Phelps' family) as well as their estimate of how many people drowned back in prehistory (16 billion or more than twice the world's current population. No source for this enormous figure is given.) They also list 0 as the number of nanoseconds sleep they will lose over “your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiings!” (Their spelling.) I wonder how they interpret God's speech to Jonah? Would they, like Jonah, feel God is just not wrathful enough for their tastes? Do they realize that their theology says more about them than it does about God?

Human beings tend to believe that the only good enemy is a dead enemy. But God says that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead in their turning to him and living. (Ezekiel 18:23) God's preferred method is turning enemies into friends. That's a plot twist I wish the growing number of shows and movies that include God as a character, even if not shown, would employ. Usually such films are about apocalyptic battles between good and evil and no quarter is given by either side. God is depicted as much more interested in punishing evil people than in redeeming them. Rarely is the idea of forgiveness by God broached, much less demonstrated.

One of the semi-exceptions is the recent Seth Rogan comedy This Is The End. This Not Safe For Church movie has Rogan and his actor friends portraying shallow Hollywood versions of themselves who are facing the end of the world as envisioned by some evangelicals. Good people are raptured first and the half dozen stars holed up in James Franco's mansion mostly die in gross and sometimes hilarious ways. But those who sacrifice themselves for others are belatedly raptured. However it has to be sincere and not calculated. Franco lets his friends escape by offering himself to the cannibalistic hordes chasing them. They attack him and he begins to be raptured. Then Franco gloatingly flips off the cannibals and just like that, the heavenly tractor beam fades and he falls into the eager hands and teeth of the mob. Even though the characters at one point consult the Bible and read that they must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, no one does this and this isn't a biblically accurate film. But the fact that forgiveness and salvation are even depicted, however imperfectly, surprised me.

God is surprising, though. He makes the world a paradise but he allows us to make our own moral choices despite the risk that we will ruin things. And when we do, he doesn't wash his hands of us but promises to redeem us. And he doesn't pick a powerful or numerous people for his plan but the offspring of a nomadic shepherd. And when his people are enslaved, he doesn't send a warrior but a spokesmen to lead them into freedom.

When his people demand a king, he gives them one but still holds him responsible for his own behavior. This is surprising because usually religion's function in society is to bless the status quo. But God starts a whole network of critics of society called the prophets. And when his people don't heed them, he lets other nations defeat them and take them into exile. But he brings them back after 70 years and tells them to rebuild. And he promises them a Messiah, a prophet, priest and king anointed by God's Spirit who will deliver his people from their worst enemy.

When his people essentially invite the Romans into their country, and then find them taking over and becoming their oppressors, God sends his Messiah. However he doesn't send a warrior as his people expected but a healer and teacher. And when the inevitable confrontation comes between the Messiah and his enemies, the blood shed is his. This is how he delivers us from our worst enemy: our own sin.

I remember when I realized that the cross was a major plot twist. I was 10 and my family went to see the major motion picture epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told. We hadn't gone to church in ages and I was surprised and horrified when Jesus was crucified. This wasn't a typical Hollywood ending. The good guy doesn't die. How could this happen?

In that, I was in line with the original disciples. They also were surprised by Jesus' execution. This wasn't how God's Anointed King was supposed to end up. And it shattered them. They huddled in a room, behind a door locked lest the authorities come for them. They were in despair.

But God had yet another plot twist for them. Jesus the Messiah wouldn't stay dead. God raised him up and he bypassed the locked door to reveal that God had a totally different mission for Jesus than his disciples thought. And it's not like Jesus didn't tell them about it. It was just so radical they couldn't accept it. Now that it was an undeniable fact they cautiously took it in. But it took Jesus 40 days to teach them what it all means and what the next step was.

And it was not to spread the word of the kingdom of God by the sword, as other kingdoms had done. It was not to pretend that Jesus had been a success as the world gauged success. It was not to promise people a good and prosperous life if they followed Jesus' principles. It was to simply tell the story of what God had done in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And it was to tell others that living a life of trusting God and following Jesus, even to a death like his, was worth it. And they called it, unironically, the Good News or Gospel.

And the surprising thing is: people were attracted to it. They saw in Christ's teaching a deep wisdom the world couldn't grasp. They saw in his life and actions the grace they longed for. They saw in his death the love of God. They saw in his resurrection a triumph that does not consist in dealing out death to others. And they saw in the Spirit a power that was unlike that the world wielded. Instead of a power that enslaved, they experienced a power that freed them from the limitations the world imposed. There was no Greek or Jew,  no slave or free, no male or female in Christ but a unity born of God's love and justice.

So what happened? Today's church is not a place people look to for surprises. They see the same squabbles, the same power plays, the same greed, the same lust, the same rage, the same arrogance in it that they see in the world. They see the same sins that Jesus was supposed to free us from. We are supposed to be carrying on his mission but we have become just like every other organization. We have become the worst kind of sequel: Highlander 2, where all that was good and unique about the original is undone.

We need a reboot. We need to recapture the Spirit of Jesus. Or rather we need to be recaptured by him. We need to really renounce ourselves, our fears and desires and agendas, and take up our crosses and walk in his ways. We need to stop sowing hatred and start showing Christ-like love. We need to stop sowing discord and start showing unity. We need to stop injuring and start offering forgiveness and healing. Only then will we be able to turn doubt to faith, despair to hope, sadness to joy and darkness to light.

The world doesn't really like light. It reveals its flaws, its sins, its lies, its hypocrisies. Explosions it likes. They look cool and they destroy what we really don't want to deal with. Most Hollywood movies end with explosions and the hero walking away from the flaming destruction he has wrought. Then the screen goes black. No surprise there.

In 1 John 1:5 it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” The story of the Bible begins with God saying, “Let there be light” and it ends in a gleaming city of gold, of which it says, “The city has no need for the sun, neither of the moon, to shine for the very glory of God illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23) Paul said, “You are all children of the light and children of the day.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5) The story of the Bible is the triumph of the light over darkness.


Which leads me to the blessing at the end of the Eucharist we celebrated at the Lutheran Clergy Retreat this week. A shell of consecrated oil was given to the bishop. He turned to the person on his left and anointed him and gave him the shell and that person turned to the person next to him and anointed her and so on. And as we were were anointed we were told something that we in turn passed on the person we anointed. And I want to pass it on to you. It's surprisingly simple and surprisingly profound. And it's this: 

“Christ is light; 
you are light; 
be light to the world.” 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do the Right Thing

In Spike Lee's incisive film Do the Right Thing, we see how a hot day, people's individual problems, and racial tensions blossom into the death of a black man, destruction of a local business and a full blown riot. At one point, a kindly drunk called Da Mayor tells Mookie, a black pizza delivery man who's in the middle of all this, to “do the right thing.” But he does not further elucidate precisely what that means. And audiences are left to judge if Mookie, or indeed anyone in the film, does the right thing.

When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he said, “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and and with all your strength.” And then he adds, “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30, 31) In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40) And indeed that seems to cover it all. But what precisely does that mean in different situations and contexts? Does that mean ignoring the sins of others because you love them? Or does it mean telling them where they are wrong? And if they continually wrong you but each time come back and say they are sorry, isn't there a point at which you are enabling their bad behavior?

If those two commandments cover it all, it still would be helpful to see what the loving things to do is in tricky and emotionally-charged situations. And that's exactly what we see in the 3 Track 2 readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

In Genesis 50:15-21, Jacob has died and his sons are afraid that without his presence, their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, will finally get his revenge. They tell him that their father's last words were for Joseph to forgive them. At this Joseph begins to weep. So do his fearful brothers, throwing themselves at his feet and saying they are his slaves. “But Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.'” Joseph had every right to get back at them. Because they didn't like the implications of his dreams, and his being their father's favorite, they had intended to kill him. Their brother Reuben talked them out of murder and so they merely sold him into slavery. That's still pretty harsh. And now  as second-in-command in Egypt, Joseph has all the power. Power tends to corrupt because if you can do something, it's really hard to convince yourself you shouldn't. Statistics show that handsome or beautiful people are more likely to stray sexually. Why? Because they can. Wealthy corporations get federal subsidies even though they don't need them to get rich, only to get richer. Why? Because they can. Why do the powerful take advantage of the powerless? Because they can.

Just because they are his brothers, it doesn't mean that Joseph can't be angry with them. Often the people we get most angry with are our family members. Their habits and flaws loom large because we are in so much contact with them day by day. Plus we know how to push their buttons and they know how to push ours. A quarter of all murder victims are killed by someone in their family. And Joseph can do this legally!

But through his faith in God, Joseph can see the big picture. If he hadn't been sold into slavery, he never would have come into Potiphar's house. If Potiphar's wife hadn't accused him of rape, he wouldn't have been thrown into prison, and a higher class prison at that. If he hadn't been put in that prison, he wouldn't have met the Pharaoh's cupbearer. If he hadn't met the cupbearer and interpreted his dream, he wouldn't have been remembered by the cupbearer when Pharaoh had a bad dream. If he hadn't been brought in to interpret Pharaoh's dream, he wouldn't have been put in charge of managing food supplies for the famine the dream predicted. And if he hadn't been put in charge, thousands would have starved and he never would have see his father and brothers again.

I often cite the story of Joseph to the inmates I counsel. The story teaches us hope. It teaches us that even what looks like misfortune can be used by God to ultimately help and save people. But it also teaches forgiveness. Joseph had a legitimate reason to be angry with his brothers. He had the power to exact his revenge on them. But he forgave them instead.

Joseph forgave a lot. But what about when it's not so much the size of the wrongs but the number of them. How often to forgive is the point of Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks how many times he's expected to forgive someone who sins against him. He generously volunteers 7 times. Jesus ups the ante to 77 times. Obviously he is not giving a figure after which we are free to be unforgiving. Some translations render it 70 times 7. Jesus is basically saying not to hold grudges, to simply keep forgiving people. That's sounds nuts to us. Isn't he enabling the sinner?

This is where the parable about the king and his slaves comes in. The first slave owes his master the ludicrous amount of 10,000 talents, probably more than the king's income for a year and more than all the coinage in Egypt. It would be the equivalent of a worker's wages for 100 million days, an impossible amount according to the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, to which I am indebted to these figures. Jesus is, once again, speaking in hyberbole for effect. After the slave begs for time to repay, the king forgives the debt. This would be extraordinary in Jesus' time, when rulers never forgave debts, except possibly in the event of widespread crop failure. So this is an exceptionally merciful ruler.

Immediately after this, the man runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 workdays' wages. The first slave grabs the second by the throat and demands immediate payment. The second slave as for time to pay off his debt, using almost the same words that the first man used before the king. But the first slave is unmoved and has his debtor thrown into prison until he can pay him back. Upset, the other slaves tell the king. He scolds the merciless man for not forgiving his fellow slave as he was forgiven. Then he hands him over to guys with hairy knuckles who will see that he pays the entire ridiculous amount.

The unmerciful slave is totally ignoring the Golden Rule, since he does not treat his coworker as he himself asked to be treated. But God expects us, if we wish to be forgiven, to be just as forgiving to others. And God forgives us a lot and does so whenever we repent and ask for his mercy. Because of the sincerity of the penitent it's not a matter of enabling but of being as merciful to him as God is to us.

You know whom, though, we find hardest to forgive? Someone who believes differently than we do about how Christians should behave regarding various non-essential rites, rituals and principles. Paul came out of a background of zealous observance of the law to the freedom we have in Christ. So he says in Romans 14:1-12 that those who were vegetarians (because most meat was sold by pagan temples after it had been presented to an idol) are weak in the faith. Apparently he feels the same about those who strictly observe the Sabbath or other Jewish holidays. We are not saved by observing the law but by God's grace through faith in Christ. And so these people's faith is not as robust as that of Christians who know the idols aren't real or who see every day as the Lord's day. 

Nevertheless, he says that neither kind of Christian should judge the other. Provided we are convinced in our own mind, it is a matter between us and God. I imagine Paul would feel the same about Christian denominations who argue over how baptism should be performed, or the exact form of the Eucharist, or whether we should worship on the 7th day or 1st day of the week, or whether you call your clergy Father or Pastor or Brother or Rev. It's not a matter of whether everybody does the same but whether we respect each person's conscience in the matter. 

We have couples in this church who I am sure don't agree on every little thing. Right now on Buzzfeed Video there is a very funny video about the little things couples argue about: how to fold towels, which way the toilet paper roll should hang, how to squeeze the toothpaste tube. Couples also can have major differences on political parties or denomination. In love, they decide to respect each other's choices in matters that do not touch on the core values of the marriage, like love and family and character and good ethical behavior. Out of love for each other, Christ's followers should follow suit.

A lot of harm has been done to the cause of spreading the gospel because of Christians fighting over non-essentials of the faith. When the world sees such things it just thinks that the Body of Christ is like any human organization: rent by disagreements over things that are not fundamental to our mission. And certainly we haven't exactly been providing them with lots of evidence to the contrary. We have denominations splitting over the proper loving response (the only kind Jesus allows) to gays. We have churches splitting over how to vote politically, somehow having gotten the idea that one party is totally in line with God's values and the other is completely opposed to what the Bible commands us to do. We have pastors and priests who cannot distinguish between what the Bible says and what their tradition says and that the second must be subordinate to the first. We squabble over the stupidest of things at times and we ignore the fact that on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus first prayed that his disciples be one even as he and the Father are one. For some reason, many Christians do not value unity to the extent our Lord does. Nor do we realize how important it is that we act toward each other in love. Because he said, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jon 13:35)


That is the mark of the Christian: love. Love that forgives great sins; love that forgives many sins; love that overcomes differences and respects other Christians' sincerely held convictions even if we think they are wrong. Let's face it: there are lots of people with lots of opinions in this world. And they constantly fight over their differing opinions, convinced they are right. What the world has in short supply are people who feel they are right and yet who can sincerely love other people who in turn think they are right and that the first group is wrong. What we lack are enough Christians, conservative and liberal, who understand that unity does not demand uniformity and that among the gifts God's Spirit gives us are different perspectives so that we can see God's world in depth. We need Christians who can say, “I think you are wrong but I know you are my sibling in Christ. And I will go to the Lord's table with you and I will work with you to spread the gospel and to help the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters. We may not agree on everything but we agree that God's son died to save us and rose to give us hope. We agree that the two great commandments are to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We agree that we must disown ourselves, including our agendas, and pick up our crosses if we are to truly follow Jesus. And we agree that there is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in us all. (Ephesian 4:5-6) If we can do that, we will be doing the right thing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Body, Soul and Spirit

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the title character finds himself confronted with a mortal enemy who has had, for all intents and purposes, a conversion. The Daleks are mutants bred to wipe out all forms of life than themselves. The particular Dalek the Doctor encounters this time has discovered beauty and a respect for life. It is also damaged and the power source of its mechanized shell is leaking radiation. When the Doctor stops the radiation, the Dalek reverts to its usual murderous self and starts killing humans. The Doctor then tries to change the Dalek back by expanding its awareness of the universe, declaring that, having saved the Dalek's life, he will now save its soul. While it's obvious he wants to make the Dalek good again, what exactly he means by “soul” is left undefined.

Something similar happens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that universe, when one becomes a vampire, one loses one's soul and is possessed by a demon. Buffy falls in love with Angel, a vampire whose soul was restored by gypsies in order that he may be tormented by the evil he has done over the centuries. Angel joins Buffy in the fight against other vampires, monsters and demons to atone for his misdeeds. Though the soul in this context seems to function as a conscience, we nevertheless encounter a lot of humans in the Buffyverse that have souls but are very evil. We also meet demons who are good guys. So again, the precise nature of a soul is vague.

This may merely be a reflection of the fact that our usage of the word “soul” is similarly loosely defined. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it can mean the immaterial aspect of all living things, the spiritual principle in humans, a person's moral and emotional nature, or a person's passion. It can be used metaphorically to mean that someone or something exemplifies a quality (ie, “he is the soul of discretion”). It can also refer to African American culture such as food or music. To understand which meaning is intended when someone uses the word “soul” you have to look at the context.

The same is true of the use of the words translated “soul” in the Bible. So in order to answer this month's sermon suggestion question, “What is the difference between the soul and the ego?” we're going to have to look at definitions and contexts of both words.

The Hebrew word for “soul,” nephesh, occurs 755 times in the Old Testament. Its basic meaning, according to the New Bible Dictionary, is “possessing life” and thus refers even to animals. It also means, in certain contexts, the “seat of physical appetite” (Deuteronomy 12:15), “the seat of emotion” (Psalm 86:4), and even the “will and moral action.” (Psalm 119:129). The soul can at times mean the individual, the self. When God breathes life into the first man, the Hebrew says “he became a living soul.” Perhaps this is what prompted George Macdonald to say, "You are a soul. You have a body." 

The Greek equivalent, psuche, is just as flexible as its Hebrew and English counterparts. It can mean life, the mind, the heart or the self. Again we figure out which meaning is intended by context.

The term “ego” also come from the Greek, where it basically means “I” or “me”. Later, Sigmund Freud used it to mean the part of the self that mediates between the urgings of our superego or conscience and our id or pure animal desires. But more often we use ego to mean “self-esteem,” or “conceit.” Someone who is egotistical is self-centered.

So what is the difference between the soul and the ego? Since they both can mean the “self”, it would seem as if there is no difference. But often in colloquial speech we use “soul” to mean the”higher or spiritual nature” and then there would be a difference. But biblically there is another word which tends to be used for that. It is the word “spirit.”

Spirit, ruah in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, means literally “wind or breath.” It is the word for a powerful, invisible force. It can be the life force, such as when it is part of the phrase “the breath of life.” Yet while it does in those instances overlap with the usage of the word “soul,” in the Bible 78% of the time the word refers to the spirit of a human being or the Spirit of God. So usually the word “soul” means the life or identity of a physical being; “spirit” usually means the part of the human being that comes from and is connected to God, if not God's Spirit himself.

Perhaps the clearest contrast between the two is when Paul is explaining the difference between our present body and the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our natural body, which he literally calls the “soulish body,” with our future body, which he calls the “spiritual body.” It is not a contrast of a physical body to an immaterial one but of a body ruled by its physical nature, of which the soul is the seat, as opposed to one ruled by the Spirit of God. The bodies we receive at our resurrection will have, as did Jesus', solidity and the ability to touch and be touched. They are spiritual in the sense that we will no longer be slaves to our appetites and weaknesses; we will be free to live in the Spirit without those hindrances.

There's a lot more I could go into about the body, soul and spirit but the problem is that such discussions not only seek sharp distinctions that aren't there in the Hebrew and Greek (they aren't technical languages but everyday tongues), but they also act as if these things were removable components or modules. But the Bible sees the human being as a unit. The soul or spirit is no more independent of the body than a heart and brain. Only after death can they be separated. But they belong together. And we all know that. Hence the universal horror of ghosts (spirits without bodies) and the undead (moving bodies without souls or spirits.)

We are not, as the ancient Greeks thought, spirits imprisoned in bodies or chained to corpses. We were created to be both physical and spiritual beings: amphibians, as C.S. Lewis put it. We were meant to bridge the two realms and be comfortable in either. But because we are fallen, God has sent his Son to do what we can't: reconcile the two.

Human efforts to deal with the two dimensions in which we live tend towards oversimplifying the situation. In the early church, the Gnostics painted all matter as evil and only the spirit as good. Their legacy still troubles the church. 

The modern approach is to go to the opposite extreme. It is to overemphasize the physical world and to make the spiritual, at best, merely a psychological phenomenon and at worst, an illusion. Consequently most secular people neglect their spiritual nature and don't even investigate the claims of Christianity or any religion. And considering all the scientific findings about the physical and mental health benefits of religion, this is not wise. For instance, according to the Gallup organization, the more religious the country, the lower its suicide rate. Whereas 6 of the 10 least religious countries are among the 36 countries with double digit suicide rates, none of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of Christians are among them. And if you eliminate small anomalous countries like the Vatican City, and include countries with at least 10 million Christians, then only 2 of the 10 nations with the highest percentage of Christians (Poland and Romania) have double digit suicide rates. Hope is hard to maintain without the Spirit of Christ.

On the other hand, most modern spirituality is focused inward: on our personal peace, our personal happiness, our personal well-being. Its social ethics are not particularly robust. And its relationship with God is more concerned with what he can do for us than what we should do for him. Sadly some Christian churches do this, even proclaiming that God will make all the faithful wealthy. Which must be news to Jesus who counted the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the imprisoned and the immigrant among his brothers and sisters in the faith.

Because we are both spiritual and physical, our faith should be balanced between the two. It should not consist of trying to withdraw from the world, except for periods of prayer and reflection. It should not consist of denying normal healthy appetites, except for the occasional fast. It should not consist of harming or disfiguring the body. Our faith sees the body as a gift from God.

On the other hand, our faith should not value social approval over God's. It should not approve of any kind of overindulgence—in food, in sensation, even in exercise. Moderation in all these things—knowing what is enough and what is too much and observing that limit—is not only Christian virtue but also a lifesaver. Our faith however should not be afraid to push the body a bit beyond its comfort zone. Studies actually show that too much sitting can shorten your life. Don't let having a Lazyboy be an excuse for you to become one. Our gratitude for the gift of a body should motivate us to take care of it and to dedicate it to God's service.

Neither should we neglect the spiritual part of our makeup. Just as we should set aside time for physical exercise, we should set aside time for spiritual exercise—prayer, Bible study and meditation. Time spent speaking to, studying and thinking about God nourishes our spirits. And doing all of that with other people increases that sustenance. Numerous studies show a strong connection between regular church attendance and a host of physical and mental health benefits. This is a tremendous paradox to secular scientists, who have a hard time acknowledging that things of the spirit, which they think do not exist, should have measurable positive effects on our physical well-being. And yet the evidence says this is true. Even economists concede this, as demonstrated in a recent podcast of Freakonomics Radio entitled “Does Religion Make You Happy?”(here) (The answer, by the way, is "Yes.")

This only makes sense if we are in fact spiritual as well as physical beings. And since they are both part of us, what affects one can affect the other. An unhealthy or malnourished spirit can harm our physical health. And doing things that are unhealthy for our body can adversely impact our spiritual health.

This is not to say that the primary purpose of doing these things is for our own benefit. Recently Joel Olsteen's wife and co-pastor, Victoria, said, “When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy.” That's like saying, “when you love your spouse, you're not doing it for them; you're doing it for yourself. Because your spouse takes pleasure when you're happy.” The truth of the second part of the quote does not carry over to the first. Being happy for doing what we ought for God or someone else is a side effect, as is most happiness. Happiness is not something you can achieve by aiming for it. It's something that arises from doing other things—good work, helping others, entering an immersive experience, or appreciating others. They only make you happy if you lose yourself in them. If you constantly stop to take your emotional temperature, you will dissipate any real happiness.


We were created to love and to be loved by God. We can express that love physically—by doing good, by speaking, by singing, by writing, by making, by dancing, by storytelling, by doing a million things—even though that love itself is spiritual. Because the physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning. That's what we can do that neither the other animals nor the angels can. Because we were created as unions of body and spirit. Lest we lose either dimension and thus our connection to God, he sent his Son to become one of us. And through him, we can regain our balance. By keeping body and soul together, we can be whole again, as he always intended us to be. We were created in the image of God, and in Jesus we see that image clearly, expressed in terms of flesh and blood, spirit and soul, time and space and humanity. And not only do we see what God is like but in Jesus we also see what we can, and one day will, be.