Sunday, October 13, 2013

Unchained and Unchanged

There is a great line in the movie, V for Vendetta. Creedy, one of the villains in the film, is trying to kill the mysterious masked man who calls himself V and who is singlehandedly bringing down the fascist government. He unleashes a hail of gunfire but the man known as V still stands. “Why won't you die?” Creedy screams. V, advancing on the villain, says, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.” The line is a slight reworking of a line in the original graphic novel. Some have traced the germ of that line back to something Victor Hugo wrote: “A stand can be made against invasion by an army; no stand can be made against invasion by an idea.” And I think the germ of that thought can be found in today's passage from 2 Timothy 2, specifically where Paul says, “the word of God is not chained.”

Paul is a prisoner for preaching the gospel. In reaction to what he was saying, the authorities locked him away. That is always the response of repressive regimes to unwanted ideas. But Paul is right: you cannot chain the word of God; you cannot stop the good news of God in Christ acting to save the world.

Paul knew that the gospel would survive even his death. You see throughout this letter Paul encouraging Timothy to persevere. Thus he brings up Jesus, who was raised from the dead, and who is the focus of what appears to be a fragment of an early Christian hymn:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are unfaithful, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”

The first line is fairly straightforward: If we die with Christ, we will live with him in eternal life. Paul could be referring to dying with Christ in baptism as he said in Romans 6. But it is likely that the imprisoned Paul is thinking here of physical death. He says in 2 Timothy 4, “For I am being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” He will die as Christ died and he will die with Christ in his heart. He knows he will therefore soon be with Christ, enjoying life with him.

Timothy will physically outlive him though and go through tough times, as Paul outlines in chapter 3. He wants him to endure all of this so that he will reign with Christ. Paul also refers to this in Romans 8 when he says we are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” In 1 Corinthians 6, we are told we will judge angels. And it says in Revelation 20, “I saw thrones on which we seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who were beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his marks on their forehead or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Indeed, we were created to rule this earth as God's regents but we have messed that up. However, transformed by his Spirit, when we are mature in Christ, we will reign with him.

However, Paul reminds us that “if we deny him, he will deny us.” This is confirmed in Matthew 10:32, 33, where Jesus says, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” That's hardly surprising and certainly not unjust. Jesus is our God and our King. Denying our allegiance to him would be akin to denying one's country. It is renouncing our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. If we disavow any connection to Jesus, he is not obligated to uphold a nonexistent relationship.

But “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” How is this different from denial? The Greek word translated “deny” means to reject. If we are faithless, we have failed to fully trust Jesus but not necessarily disowned him. Everyday we hedge our bets about God and Jesus. We do to an extent put our trust in our money, our position, our own abilities. Some of this is unavoidable but when we think we are secure from life's misfortunes because of them or are divorced from Jesus' demands on us or from the responsibility to act as good stewards of these gifts of his, then we are betraying his trust.

But Jesus remains faithful because that is a central to who he is. He cannot deny himself. That is a great reassurance. Jesus is faithful. He will not abandon us for our faults and failings. Nadia Bolz Weber has written, in regards to the Kyrie eleison, that maybe it is “just shorthand for 'Please do not punish us by our sins'...maybe asking God for mercy is like saying—we beg you, God, that our sin is not the final word.” Because Jesus is faithful even when we fail to be, we know that he will keep his promises. If you have been following the Bible Challenge with me you are going through a long patch of the Old Testament where the prophets are telling God's people at length about their sins against God and their fellow human beings and going into excruciating detail about their impending punishment. And then, like a ray of sunshine breaking through dark clouds, God will assure his people that he will restore them at last. He will not totally wipe his hands of us though it seems at times that he has. He is faithful because that is who he is.

So Paul tells Timothy to reassure his flock. And then he says to “warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words.” That's a pretty solemn warning. What exactly the words they were arguing over are not disclosed so I think there were just people who were nitpicking God's word or the gospel they were given. We've all seen this. We've all met people who pick apart the exact wording of something in order to foist some pet interpretation upon their audience. We see this in certain extremist patriot groups who claim that the government does not have the constitutional right to tax citizens. My son, who has his friends over for roleplaying games, says they are called “rules lawyers,” because of their tendency to use the exact wording of the game instructions to get around the clear intent of the game's creators. Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing that with God's word, twisting it for their own purposes. Such hair-splitting doesn't do the listeners any good, points out Paul, but can ruin their understanding of God's word.

Now sometimes looking at the exact wording of the Bible is informative, revealing nuances that we might miss in a superficial reading. But every interpretation must be in accordance with the spirit of the passage and all of scripture. If, as Jesus says, nothing in the law and the prophets is greater than the commandments to love God and love our neighbor, then it is pernicious to interpret any passage to say we can abuse or oppress or kill people on the basis of their real or inferred sins. Instead we must in every situation love others. Only the way we show our love varies.

And this tallies with Paul's comment about rightly explaining the word of truth. Here is a good example of how properly interpreting the word can help. The King James very literally translates this “rightly dividing the word of truth.” Most other translations use the word “handling” rather than “dividing.” The literal meaning of the Greek word is “cutting straight.” In secular usage it was connected with driving a straight road, or plowing a straight furrow, or cutting and squaring a stone so it fits where it should. So Paul is saying here, “keep on track, keep on message; don't get diverted onto these side issues.”

We certainly haven't been following Paul's advice these days. We have let the message of the gospel get obscured by all kinds of other messages. We have gotten sidetracked by issues either barely mentioned in the Bible or not mentioned at all. We have over-emphasized certain parts of the scriptures while ignoring other parts.

Here's an egregious example. There is a museum in Kentucky that has animatronic dinosaurs frolicking with prehistoric people. It was built for $27 million by a group that promotes young earth creationism. The museum's mission is “to point today's culture back to the authority of the Bible and proclaim the gospel message.” Putting aside the fact that the Bible never mentions dinosaurs, don't they have it backwards? If a person doesn't accept the gospel first, what do they care about the authority of the Bible? I looked through their website and as far as I could see they have exactly one exhibit that focuses on Jesus: a 15 minute film called “The Last Adam.” Which you can download for $8.99. (After scrolling through 131 other videos offered on their site.) How much of the $27 million went to that? What does that say about their priorities?

I'm a geek. I love discussing the minute details of Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Marvel comics, science fiction, and other elements of genre. I am a Bible geek as well, constantly adding to my knowledge of the scriptures. But I know what needs to remain front and center: Jesus Christ—who he is, what he has done for us and what our response to him should be. When we lose sight of that, when we get lost in the weeds of controversies over other issues, when we conflate the trivial with the essential, or even confuse what is important with what is essential, we commit precisely the blunders that Paul is telling Timothy to avoid.

Paul kept his message focused on Christ. In his shortest letter, a personal message to Philemon, he mentions Christ 8 times in a mere 25 verses. He said in 1 Corinthians 2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In the earliest letter of his we have, 1 Thessalonians, we learn that Jesus is God's son, that he died to save us, that he rose from the dead, and that he will come again. He reminds us that God has taught us to love one another and that he gives us his Holy Spirit. So all the essentials are there. For all of the other issues Paul dealt with, he stayed on message.

The gospel he preached still spreads throughout the world. The church is growing by leaps and bounds in South America, Africa and Asia. It is shrinking only in the West. Why? There are a number of reasons but one that pops up a lot among young adults and those who claim no religious affiliation is specific issues that are not at the center of the faith. While 90% of all Americans view Jesus favorably, only 78% call themselves Christians. And when it comes to the church rather than Jesus, only 16% of non-Christians aged 16 to 29 has a favorable view of Christianity. 87% of non-Christians see us as judgmental, 85% see us as hypocritical and 75% say we are too involved in politics. They find most Christians not to be very Christlike either in our attitudes or our actions. They see us as more like the Pharisees, who, in Jesus' words, “do not practice what they preach..." and "...have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matt 23:2, 23) It's a sad day when non-Christians can make a good argument for having a more moral stance on some pressing issues than so-called Christians do. We say one thing with our words but another with our works.

If you look at the folks Jesus had the harshest words for, it was the very visibly religious people of his day. With those who were visibly unrighteous, he offered forgiveness and friendship and new life. One group thought they were right and saw no need to change. The others knew they were wrong and that change was their only hope.

At its heart, Christianity is about change. Not random change or change for change's sake or a change for the worse. But it is not about maintaining the status quo. It's about change for the better in a world that is not static. Speaking of things that are constantly changing, the ancient Hebrews saw the sea as a symbol of chaos. It's interesting that Jesus chose as the core of his disciples fishermen, men of the sea. Every sailor knows that even if you started out in the right direction, you still have to pay attention; you have to make sure you don't drift off course. You have to make course corrections if you want to get to your destination. You have to take the way the wind is blowing and the the way the current is flowing into account. And you have to keep an lookout for storms. The sea changes. The methods you use to keep afloat and get safely to port do not.

If we want to communicate with the world, we need to acknowledge that it has changed. We need to realize it changes quite rapidly these days. Yesterday's rhetoric may not work. People don't speak in “thee” and “thou.” They do not accept the authority of the Bible. They do not respond to the idea of hell with fear and they base their lives more on what affects them here and now than on the hereafter. They do, however, understand injustice. They long for love. They hunger for someone they can trust and something they can believe in. Though they may not realize it, they are looking for Jesus. They are looking for the good news that can only be found in our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord.

The content of the gospel doesn't change. And it's not going away. It is as bulletproof as any idea any human being ever came up with. But how we present it, what words we use, the metaphors we chose, where we put the emphases--those things can and must change with the culture in order to reach our changing audience. The word of God is not chained to any translation, or medium, or order of worship, or denomination, or ethnic group. It is not chained to any building. Like Jesus and the disciples we need to go where people are. We need to bring the gospel to them. It's not like they are breaking down the doors to get in here. We've got a beautiful liturgy and music and the sacraments and the word of truth. What we don't have is young people. That doesn't make us unique as a church by any means. But it needs to make us creative.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly said, “Because that's where the money is.” If we are to be fishers of men and women, we need to ask ourselves, where are the people? How do we get to them? What are they reading, watching, listening to, talking about? How can we talk to them about the gospel in terms they relate to? And most importantly, what's stopping us from getting on it right now?  

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