December 18

What Does the Gospel Have to Do with Mondays? Reflections on Luke-Acts in Our World Today

Image result for jesus healing images

It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.

Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” [1]

I remember the first publicized school shooting, back in 1979. [2] Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire on the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, CA. She came from a broken home, lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child. [3] When asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.” [4] That response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.

My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.

Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.

 My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.

To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.

 By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?

Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?

Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?

Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population. [5] We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country. [6] We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco).[7] Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.

Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.[8]

Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.

Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom. [9] What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. [10]

Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?

In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.

On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?

[1] Julie K. Brown, “To longtime friend, school shooter Nikolas Cruz was lonely, volatile, ostracized,” Miami Herald, February 17, 2018, (http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article200754714.html, accessed November 15, 2018).

[2] The first school shooting as we now define it occurred in 1974, but if it got much publicity, I wasn’t aware of it.

[3] Böckler, Nils; Seeger, Thorsten; Sitzer, Peter; Heitmeyer, Wilhelm (2013). School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies, and Concepts for Prevention (1st ed.).Springer Science+Business MediaISBN 978-1-461-45526-4. Cited on Wikipedia, “Cleveland Elementary School Shooting” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Elementary_School_shooting_(San_Diego)#CITEREFB%C3%B6cklerSeegerSitzerHeitmeyer2013, accessed November 15, 2018).

[4] “School Sniper Suspect Bragged of ‘Doing Something Big to Get On TV’,” Evening Independent (AP), January 30, 1979, 2A (https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=r8EwAAAAIBAJ&pg=6676,3418018, accessed November 15, 2018).

[5] “Top 20 countries in primary energy consumption 2017,” Statista.com (https://www.statista.com/statistics/263455/primary-energy-consumption-of-selected-countries/, accessed November 18, 2018); “What is the United States’ share of world energy consumption?” EIA.gov (https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=87&t=1, accessed November 18, 2018); “Countries in the world by population (2018),” Worldometers (http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/, accessed November 18, 2018).

[6] “10 world’s leading food producing countries,” Mediamax, (http://www.mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/261583/261583/, accessed November 18, 2018); “Food Consumption by Country,” World Atlas (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/which-country-eats-the-most.html, accessed November 18, 2018); “Global Obesity Levels,” ProCon.org (https://obesity.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=006032, accessed November 18, 2018).

[7] “Motor Vehicles per 1,000people: Countries compared,” Nationmaster (https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Transport/Road/Motor-vehicles-per-1000-people, accessed November 18, 2018).

[8] Joshua Cohen, “’Deaths of Despair’ Contribute to Declining U.S. Life Expectancy,” Forbes, Jul 19, 2018 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2018/07/19/diseases-of-despair-contribute-to-declining-u-s-life-expectancy/#513a22be656b, accessed November 18, 2018); Maya Rhodan, “Gun related deaths in America keep going up,” Time, Nov 6, 2017, (note that the title is misleading; the article states that rates have begun to go up after a long period of stability; http://time.com/5011599/gun-deaths-rate-america-cdc-data/, accessed November 18, 2018); Y. Chen et al, cited in “US leads developed nations in drug overdose deaths,” Healio, Nov 12, 2018 (https://www.healio.com/internal-medicine/addiction/news/online/%7B95b75228-d6be-4e72-bb3d-e1a3a17cedcb%7D/us-leads-developed-nations-in-drug-overdose-deaths, accessed November 18, 2018).

[9] John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or: the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/, accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance, Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus, Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.

[10] Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives that do not conform to its professed worldview.

October 1

Bible: Heaven is NOT the end.

Have you ever read the ending of the Bible? Apparently few people have. Believe it or not, it doesn’t end with us going to Heaven.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:1-2)

“Heaven and earth” is the biblical way of saying “all creation.” (See for example Genesis 14:19, 2 Kings 19:15, Isaiah 37:16, Acts 17:24, and there are many others.) Notice that we don’t go up to this new creation– it comes down to us!

Still not convinced that it’s here in this world?

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb… The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (Revelation 21:22, 24)

How could the nations walk by its light and the kings come to it if it were not on earth? This vision of the shining city on a hill parallels the word of God in Isaiah (2:2-3, 25:6-8, 49:6, 52:7).

And if that’s not enough, beware of Revelation 11:18:

The nations raged,
    but your wrath has come,
    and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
    and saints and all who fear your name,
    both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.

As you can see, Earth is central to God’s ultimate vision. It is not destroyed, it is made new. (Yes, the old earth passes away (Rev 21:1), but only as it is remade into a new earth.)

What, then, is Heaven? It’s a temporary residence for those who have died redeemed. The Bible tells us that those who are in Heaven will return to earth when Jesus returns:

[F]or you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;

you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

God made Creation for a reason, and he’s not done with it. Earth is our ultimate destination. So how is it that we focus not on where we are and where we will be, but on that temporary “vacation” in Heaven?

November 15

Dare to Hope

Let all who live in the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming.
It is close at hand—
    a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
    a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was in ancient times
    nor ever will be in ages to come.
Before them fire devours,
behind them a flame blazes.
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
    behind them, a desert waste—
    nothing escapes them. (Joel 2:1a-3)

I had a vision yesterday. First, I saw a wave moving across the land, shaped like one of those tubular waves that surfers love. It was not made of water. It was made of locusts, and fire followed it. Then I saw fireworks in the sky, and the Lord said, “See, I am going to do a new thing.”

This is not the first time I’ve had a vision of locusts and fire. In the previous one, when I asked God if this could be prevented, he replied, “Look around you, it’s already burning.”

He also assured me, and instructed me to tell others, that “Those who dwell in the Kingdom will not be harmed.”

God uses two kinds of prophecy: historical prophecy and apocalyptic prophecy. Historical prophecy reveals events that will happen in the course of human history. For example, the fall of Israel and Judah, the Exile, and the return of the remnant to Israel were all predicted by the prophets and occurred in our historical timeline. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple which happened in 70 AD.

In contrast, apocalyptic prophesy predicts what will happen when God reveals and fulfills his final plan, at “the end times.” These prophesies deal not with individual nations or persons, but with the eventual form of God’s Creation, including the New Heavens and the New Earth. The nations are conquered. There is one ruler, and that is Jesus. But here’s where it gets confusing: The “end times” were inaugurated with Jesus’ resurrection. The battle against evil was won. The Kingdom was established… but not fulfilled.

For example, Joel writes,

Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:28-32)

The first part has already happened at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been poured out, and that will not be undone. Prophesy and visions have returned to the people of the Lord. But the second part has not yet happened. We live in the times between the inauguration and the fulfillment.

So are my visions of locusts an indication that the end is upon us? Probably not. God still works in human history in the lives of nations and people.

It should be clear to all of us that we live in a nation that fails to live up to God’s commandments. We worship wealth (You shall worship no other Gods but me). We reward the accumulation of wealth (Ah, you who add field to field…). Our system seeks the lowest possible wages to make the products we use (Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts). We wear $200 jeans made by folks who make two dollars a day (The laborer is worthy of his wage). We use cell phones and laptops made with cobalt mined by children as young as 5 years old (Children are a heritage from the Lord). We blame the poor for being poor (Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy). We burn the earth’s resources like there’s no tomorrow (For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children), and we think nothing of it (Your wrath has come, and the time for… destroying those who destroy the earth).

In past visions, God has told me that any parent, when words fail, will find other ways to discipline their wayward children. We are his wayward children. We have failed to heed his word. We have great potential to do good in the world, but we consistently fall short.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Mt 3:8)

Where is our fruit? We export weapons. We resist helping refugees. We resist anything that infringes on our fossil fuel addiction.

Where is our fruit? Suicides are up 200%. Overdoses are up almost 300%. Mass shootings are up. Antidepressant use is up. Does this sound like a nation that takes joy in the Lord?

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 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 2:8-10)

Look at your way of life. How much has it changed since you professed your faith? Does your way of living cause others to look at you strangely? If not, maybe you should look again.

It’s never too late to change. One of the consistent patterns in God’s prophecy is this: warning, punishment, forgiveness, and redemption. The sooner we repent, the less punishment we receive.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)

But those who are stubborn receive the full wrath of the Lord.

Now I will shortly pour out My wrath on you and spend My anger against you; judge you according to your ways and bring on you all your abominations. (Ezekiel 7:8)

We’re stubborn. We don’t even like to admit that we have sinned. So let us contemplate John’s words:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

Reflect. Confess. Repent.

It’s not too late.

November 14

Idolatry, American Style

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. –Deuteronomy 6:5

Idolatrously we turn our faith and hope toward the immanent powers of technology, medicine, economic security, powerful leaders, military might, and the global rule of our empire to bring about the new world we hope for.” (Douglas Harinck, 1 & 2 Peter, 136.)

 

October 17

Paul and Women: Another Look at 1 Corinthians

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contains some disheartening passages with respect to women. In particular, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36 are the ones that have caused the most trouble. These verses are problematic not only because of what they appear to say, but because they seem somewhat incoherent. The former presents three arguments, yet the footnotes in the NRSV make clear that translators have had to torture the middle one to bring it in line with the others. The latter contradicts what Paul has said elsewhere in the same letter, namely it says that women should be silent in church when he’s already said twice that women do not have to be silent in church.

What gives? Paul may be many things, but he’s rarely incoherent or self-contradictory. Thus, as I read these passages again this week, it struck me that something is wrong with the way we interpret them.

Consider two things about Paul’s writing. The first has to do with his style: he often quotes arguments and then rebuts them. This is seen clearly in 1 Cor 6:12-13:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 

Keep in mind that Koine Greek had no quotation marks. The only way we know that Paul has quoted someone else’s argument, unless he says so explicitly, is by context.

The second is that, apart from his letter to the Romans, Paul always writes to address specific issues in a church. In 1 Corinthians, he says he’s writing “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you… For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…” (1 Cor 1:10-11). This is the theme of the entire letter. Yes, he addresses some other issues, including a situation of sexual immorality among the members (1 Cor 5), spiritual gifts  and the nature of the church as one body (1 Cor 12), and the nature of Christian love (1 Cor 13). Yet each of these can be seen in the context of the letter as a whole as arguing for unity in the Corinthian church.

It is noteworthy that 1 Cor 11 as a chapter goes on to discuss abuses at the Lord’s Supper, and corrective measures to be taken. Again, this is in the context of division within the church (vv. 18-21).

Some scholars have suggested that the three arguments about women that begin the chapter are in fact quotes of what Paul has heard from members of the church in Corinth. This has been dismissed by other scholars because, aside from a few short instances in 1 Cor 6, Paul has not done so in this letter without specifically identifying such arguments. Similarly, many scholars agree that it seems likely that the opening salvo in 1 Cor 14 is actually a quote he has heard from Corinth, but they dismiss this as improbable because he has not done so elsewhere.

Yet the result is a letter that, on these two issues, makes Paul virtually unintelligible. Particularly in the second, why would he tell women to be silent in church when he’s already discussed and approved of them teaching and prophesying in church? It’s nonsensical. Which begs the question: what if Paul did quote other arguments in both places? Read with that in mind, the issues of logic and style in the two passages quickly resolve themselves. Knowing what I do of Paul, I find it inconceivable that the illogical reading is the correct one.

Here, then, are my renditions of the two passages, which I offer as true to Paul’s style and his well-recognized ability to argue a point effectively. I’m no Greek scholar, but I have taken advantage of the ambiguity of certain conjunctions, and I have used the alternate translation noted in the NRSV.

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. And I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. 

[But some of you say,] “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”

[Others say,] “For this reason a woman ought to have freedom of her head, because of the angels. For in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. And just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”

[Still others say,] “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

Now, if you are disposed to be contentious— [Let me be clear:] We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God. (1 Cor 11:2-16)

And:

[Some of you have said,] “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

So, did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. (1 Cor 14:33b-38)

In this last paragraph, “did the word of God originate with you?” the Greek uses the masculine version of the pronoun “you.” Clearly this accusation is not addressed to the women of Corinth! It seems far more likely that it addresses those who have voiced such an opinion.

Viewed in this way, the 1 Cor 11 passage seeks not to criticize the church because women have their hair uncovered, but to resolve a dispute about that issue by stating emphatically that there’s no such tradition, so quit arguing about it. Likewise, the 1 Cor 14 passage seeks to silence those stirring up controversy over the obviously-prominent role women had in the Corinthian church.

Both are consistent with what we know of Paul, who partnered with both men and women in spreading the Gospel, and whose friend Priscilla became a church leader first in Corinth and later in Rome.

This is not the place to discuss 1 Timothy, which was written by a different writer, though attributed to Paul. It, too, contains some passages that many women find troubling, but it was written decades after Paul’s death and addresses a different time and context.

Ephesians is another matter entirely, and one which deserves a blog post of its own. Suffice it to say for the moment that the most repeated command in that letter’s passage on marriage is that husbands treat their wives with agape, the love of God, an observation that sheds further light on the opening admonition in 1 Cor 11:3.

The goal of this post is to reconsider these two problematic passages in 1 Corinthians with a rational approach that expects Paul to use the effective rhetoric for which he is so well known, and which our current translations fail to deliver. Admittedly, this leads to the conclusion that Paul is actually arguing the opposite of what many traditionalists think he’s arguing. You’re welcome to disagree with me. But it bothers me to be satisfied that Paul was having an off day when he wrote this one, and thus produced not one but two passages that don’t make much sense, and both on the same general topic.

 

September 23

Why I Hate Theology

“In the most radical and existential uniqueness which he is, man has to reckon with the fact that this mystery of evil is not only a possibility in him, but that it also becomes a reality, and indeed not insofar as a mysterious, impersonal power breaks into his life as a destructive fate.” (Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, trans. William V. Dych (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1996, 102-103.)

I encountered the following sentence as an undergraduate. It is a pivotal thought on evil in one of the most important books by Karl Rahner, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. But what does it mean?

Diagramming the sentence suggests that it is self-contradictory. So what is Rahner trying to say? I’ve puzzled over it for ten years, and I still don’t know. His “pivotal” thought makes no sense. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a translation error, though my understanding is that Rahner was no more intelligible in his native German. His brother, when told that Rahner’s work was posthumously being translated into English, is said to have quipped, “That’s wonderful. I hope someday they translate him into German!”

Obviously precision is important when postulating a systematic statement of the nature of God, his Creation, and our relationship to both. Many theologians, like Rahner, go to great lengths to express complex thoughts in precise terms.

Unfortunately, the result is unreadable for even many university-level readers.

This level of theology creates an ivory tower, a bastion of particular intellect that develops its thought in enforced isolation from the world by virtue of its unintelligible diction. (How’s that for a wordy sentence?)

In other words, Christians and theology live in separate worlds that can never (or at least only rarely) meet.

Can you imagine if Jesus spoke like that? How many followers would he have gained? Instead, he spoke in simple concepts. “The Kingdom has come.” “Feed the poor.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We take Jesus’ simple concepts and discuss whether they are prophetic or apocalyptic, pre-millennial or post-millennial, and the veracity of dispensationalism.

Perhaps these are valuable intellectual exercises. Surely some people enjoy such parsing. And I have to admit, Rahner challenged my horizons when I studied him as an undergraduate. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much this level of thought contributes to the Kingdom of God.

This semester, we’re reading Charles Scobie. He’s much more readable than Rahner, but just as wordy, dissecting and analyzing (not always effectively) the main points of Christianity. The 1,000+ page book contains five (5!) chapters about Jesus. He’s written more about Jesus than the Gospels themselves!

This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a pre-Christian Jewish reformer:

“That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow; this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary…”

In my congregation, there is a woman whose brain was damaged in an accident when she was a child. She reads at what I would describe as about a third-grade level. Yet she is one of the most loving, Christ-centered people I have ever met. If you want to know what the Kingdom looks like, meeting her is far more demonstrative than reading Rahner.

The truth is, I don’t really hate theology, but I do fund it tedious and often distracting. Often wonder which is the better use of my time: reading 1,000 pages of systematic theology, or going out and doing what Jesus told us to do.

August 23

Buddha, Ram Dass, and the Gospel

“Eternity: Smoking or Non-Smoking?”

That’s what this month’s marquis asks at a local church. And while it’s clever, that’s not the most important question for me.

All my life, people have told me, “Be grateful you’re alive.” That never made sense to me. Even in my earliest memories, I wasn’t glad to be here. My undiagnosed autism made my life a challenge, and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” I was suicidal at age 15. The suggestion that we suffer in this lifetime so we can be in Heaven in the next was, to say the least, unsatisfactory, It spoke of a cruel, even sadistic, God that I could not accept.

I rejected that god and became an atheist at age 13. Later, as I sought help with my addictions at age 25, I graduated to agnostic. That’s a natural state for an autistic person who often needs to see in order to understand.

When I got serious about exploring a spiritual life, I tried several churches. All of them proclaimed a message of future salvation. None of them addressed my primary questions: How do I live in this world? What do we do about suffering? When I accidentally stumbled onto Buddhism, I heard a different message. It wasn’t based in faith in things unseen, but in a practical set of steps to take to address the problem of individual suffering. Summarized, the Buddha’s first sermon, the Four Noble Truths, can be stated this way:

  • Life is suffering.
  • If there is suffering, then there must be a cause. That cause is attachment.
  • If there is a cause, then there must be a means to remove that cause. That is nonattachment.
  • The means to nonattachment is the Eight-fold Path.

This made more sense to me than anything else I’d ever been told about life and how to live it. I became a Buddhist for several years.

Then the 1992 riots devastated the city I lived in. It was clear to me that people who could behave that way were in a lot of pain. This brought up a new question I had not considered: what about other people’s suffering? Was it enough to simply relieve my own suffering?

As I pondered this, I became convinced that it was not. My meditation teacher said that compassion meant being aware of the suffering of others while remaining in nonattachment. Hindu teacher Ram Dass said something different: “There is a paradox: everything is the way it is supposed to be, and our job in this life is to work to end suffering.” This sounded better, but still lacked the promise of making things better. Later, I heard Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne say that if you have compassion, you must help those who are suffering. This made more sense. I followed this instruction for about a decade. I helped his organization with planning and strategy, learned a lot about community development, and eventually became a field researcher and strategist for the peace movement in Sri Lanka on a team that helped bring about the 2002 cease fire.

I came away from that experience exhausted, traumatized, and bitter. I vaguely sensed that something was missing. By that time, I had finished my BA in Theology. I’d had a very powerful experience of the presence of God. But it terrified me, and I ran away from God– or tried to.

It took years before I revisited the “God question.” When I did, it was because of suffering. This time, it was not the meaningless of life I struggled with, but grief over the loss of a baby. And this time, I was led inexorably though not unwillingly to Christ.

I have great respect for Buddhism. It does contain truth– though in my opinion based on 50 years of experience, not the whole truth. I still agree that the biggest question in life is not eternity, but suffering.

It is with this lens that I approach the Gospel. And the Gospel meets me there. Jesus’ ministry was not simply about salvation after death. His first proclamation in the oldest of the four Gospels is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The King James version said, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The Aramaic Bible in Plain English reads, “the kingdom of God has arrived.” Darby reads, “has drawn nigh,” while Young reads, “hath come nigh.” Revelation adds, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Messiah… (Rev 11:15). 

This Kingdom of God that Jesus announced is not some future event– at least not entirely. It is herenow.

Then there’s the Great Commission. Mark’s version (the earliest) reads,

Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. (Mark 16:14-18)

The other versions omit references to healing, but Jesus says in Matthew for example, “Observe all I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). This would surely include his earlier instructions upon sending them out for the first time:

[P]roclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. (Mt 10:7-9)

Then there’s John’s report:

“Do you love me?… Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)

The Gospel cannot, in my reading, be separated from relief of suffering. Yet it is not our selves that do the work (John 14:10). This is what was missing from my life: I tried to do the work. It was an impossible job for a mortal. But nothing is impossible for God (Mt 19:26). And in John, Jesus tells us:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (Jn 14:12)

The Gospel is clear: God’s Spirit works in us and through us, empowering us to change that which mere mortals cannot change. The Kingdom of God is obviously not fully present, and suffering cannot be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced. That goal is what gives my life meaning, purpose, and connection with God, which in turn reduce my own suffering.

The burning question for me is not where I’ll spend eternity, but what to do about suffering, mine and others’. The Gospel answers these questions. In my opinion, any theology that doesn’t come to this conclusion not only misreads the Gospel, but is not very useful.