March 20

Gilded Torments

Photo from Vanderbilt Lectionary.

“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets warned of idolatry. In the New Testament, Jesus too warned of worshipping the wrong things. Yet many Christians today who invoke the name of Christ show by their actions that they worship something else.

When we place money, safety, or security ahead of serving God, we are idolaters. Jesus is clear on this. From Matthew 6:19-21 to Mark 10:17-27, from Luke 12:13-21 to John 13:34-35, Jesus tells us that we are called to focus on God and on helping others, not on material wellbeing. Yet our supposedly Christian society tells us otherwise. And many of us have bought the message. In a 2018 poll of Christians, Lifeway Research reports:

Churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs (75 percent) are more likely to agree God wants them to prosper than those without evangelical beliefs (63 percent)… One in 4 (26 percent) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.”

Two-thirds of Christians polled believe God wants them wealthy! And nearly a third think they can earn God’s favor in the form of wealth. Apparently, the point of becoming a follower of Jesus is to get rich. Yet if one follows where Jesus went, one is likely to get (from the world at least) what Jesus got: not wealth, but execution.

I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” But have you ever noticed that you can’t do both at the same time? Our allegiance is to be to God’s Kingdom, not any power or principality. Yet many Christians see the United States as somehow chosen by God and thuis beyond criticism– and worthy of support and protection. And not just from heathen in other places. We don’t welcome our fellow Christians seeking refuge from Latin America, Palestine, or Africa as fellow members of the Body of Christ. In fact, we pay billions of dollars to help Israel repress Palestinians–including Palestinian Christians. (Israel makes no distinction among Palestinians based on religion; they are all non-Jews.)

Perhaps this is not unexpected. Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, documents from original sources the shift in focus of Christianity from radical behavior change in its first three centuries, to cultural compromise and a focus on belonging by the 8th century. This shift largely began with Augustine, who saw baptism as more important than a change in behavior. Perhaps this was because, by his own admission, his church was filled with people who wouldn’t behave in a biblically-Christian manner.

The shift was helped along by Constantine and his successors, who not only legalized Christianity but made it mandatory. Obviously many pagans became Christians because they had to. And rulers and aristocrats likewise became Christian in name, but could not as rulers take seriously the injunctions to “love your enemies” or “feed the hungry.” (Can we even imagine a leader who embodies Isaiah 11:2-4?)

Kreider writes,

In Christendom there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between church and state… a symbiotic relationship.” (95)

In addition, because it assumed that there is no choice but to be Christian, religious training and practice become “perfunctory,” and standards of behavior are coerced rather than taught (96-97).

In our own context, this symbiosis emphasizes a national concern with wealth and cheap energy. Eventually, we have today what too often passes for Christianity: militarism, individualism, greed, and selfishness. We idolize the free market and the individual. Politicians from both parties have proclaimed that “Greed is good”– a slogan that is not only unbiblical, but was coined as a satirical reflection of our society.

We point to our enemies. Iraq, Iran, ISIS, North Korea– Name any enemy of the United States, and read the history of that enemy. You’ll find, with few exceptions, that we created that enemy ourselves through military or covert action.

Too often we are satisfied with the assurance that we are saved by grace. We are! But that’s not the end of the story.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

As a society, we idolize wealth and security. Church father Cyprian, who was raised as an aristocrat before his conversion, called these “gilded torments.” They distract us from God, and from the Kingdom. And yet they are accepted as legitimate parts of Christian walk in many churches today.

What if we started naming things as Jesus did? What if we called greed idolatry? Or militarism an ungodly use of force that should be reserved to God? What if, in the face of those who resist refugees, we quoted 1 John 4:20?

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.

I suspect I know the answer. What would happen would be that we would follow where Jesus led: to the Cross, indicted by society’s religious and political authorities. Jesus commanded us to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), and we would be doing just that.

Preaching the Gospel is dangerous. But should that stop us?

If we believe, it should not stop us at all.

January 29

Against the Wall

I realized today that I am not happy with the arguments I’ve heard against the border wall. Don’t get me wrong: I oppose the wall, and I oppose the fear of immigrants. But it’s not because Leviticus tells me to welcome the stranger, or at least not only because of that. It’s not because my heart breaks for those who live in fear and squalor, though it does. And it’s certainly not because I hate America, because I don’t. My ancestors founded this country on a dream, and I believe in that dream.

The reason I oppose the wall is simple: God reigns.

This is the message of the Gospel. Satan is defeated, though given a chance he will still make his mischief. Death has been defeated. Fear has been defeated. God’s Kingdom has been established, and we get to choose whether or not to be part of it.

I choose God as my sovereign. Jesus is my Lord. That means I do not give in to the fear pandered by people seeking political power in this world. They are not in charge. God is.

That means I will not bow before powers and principalities, though they may have certain powers over my life (and I accept that). It means I rebuke the demonic powers of fear, nationalism, and narcissism that infect so much of our culture.

I choose Jesus as my model. This same Jesus healed not only his own people, but a Roman centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5ff) and a Gentile’s daughter (Mk 7:24ff), offered the water of life to Samaritans (Jn 4:1ff), and held up a hated enemy as an exemplar (Lk 10:25ff). His disciples went not only to their own people, but to the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Admittedly, Jewish Christians were afraid of what might happen when these outsiders came into the Church, but James (the brother of Jesus) wisely made cultural accommodations (Acts 15:1ff). Clearly the Church would not have been the same otherwise. Its early theologians were almost exclusively Gentiles, hailing from such places as Rome, Antioch, Smyrna, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Augustine was a pagan in North Africa before becoming one of the Church’s most important theologians.

We are a nation of immigrants. (Just ask any Native American.) No one stood on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and told my ancestors, “You can’t come in without the right paperwork.” On another side of my family, my grandfather came from Ireland on a visa, but he overstayed it by 50 years before he finally got right with the law.

Some will argue, “But that’s England and Ireland. They’re different.” I could reply that when my grandfather came, NINA (No Irish Need Apply) was a common sign in American businesses, and people debated whether or not the Irish were really white. They were characterized as criminals and drunks. They were supposed to be a bad influence on American society. But yesterday’s enemy has become part of the fabric of our nation.

I think it’s more important to appeal to Paul:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).

And John:

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (1 Jn 4:20).

John tells us that God is love. Paul says that if I do not have love, I am nothing. Jesus says that if I only love those who love me, that’s no credit to me. I am called to love my fellow Christians, wherever they may be from. But beyond that, I am called to love each and every one of the people God made in his image.

And I am called to do it without fear, because God reigns.

I am the child of immigrants, some more recent than others. That suggests compassion.

I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. That demands more.

Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same (Lk 3:11).

This country will do as it wills. But as for me, I refuse to deny the Lord who lifted me from darkness. Jesus is Lord. God reigns. I submit.