July 14

Luke: An Introduction

Since I first began reading the Bible I’ve been fascinated with the Gospel of Luke. Not only do Luke and its sequel Acts comprise almost 2/3 of the New Testament, but Luke is the only non-Jewish author. He was a Gentile. Given that I, too, am a Gentile, I find his perspective– and his inclusivity– particularly relevant to my own experience.

As time went on, I began to realize the magnitude of Luke’s claims: that the Holy Spirit, formerly reserved for a few chosen servants of God, became available to all at Pentecost. That Jesus conquered sin through His resurrection. And that the spreading of the Gospel– in word and deed– continues the victory.

At Seminary I studied Greek. Admittedly I took the lite version, not the scholarly version. But as a wordsmith myself, and someone who has lived in multiple cultures, I began to realize how difficult it is for a literal translation to convey the depth of meaning of the original.

Let me give an analogy. Not long ago, one of the pastors at our church preached to a mixed group of English and French speakers. Another pastor translated the sermon into French. The preacher referred to “a home run,” and the translator dutifully translated the expression literally. But the French listeners, who did not come from a culture that played baseball, had no idea what the expression meant. The meaning was lost.

So it is with Luke’s Greek. The very first phrase is translated in the NRSV as “Since many have undertalen to set down…” But this misses the underlying meaning of Luke’s words. The Greek word ἐπεχείρησαν, translated by NRSV as “undertaken,” literally means “to put the hand upon,” as in “To put the hand to the plow.” Luke isn’t just saying that his is not the first attempt. He’s stating, quite emphatically I think, that the previous authors didn’t finish the job. Luke is about to tell us something new, something amazing, and something the others have, in his opinion, missed.

This, of course, stirs the debate about whether all the biblical authors are saying the same thing. My answer is: Of course they aren’t! Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience. Luke wrote to Gentiles. John (the Gospel writer) wrote from a more mystical perspective and uses some of the best Greek in the Bible. John (the writer of the Letters of John) was a local preacher, not a theologian. He addressed matters of immediate concern, much like Paul (if in a less educated style). And John (the Revelator) was clearly a native Aramaic speaker– his Greek grammar is tortured, much like my grammar when I try to speak other languages I’m not fluent in. And his purpose was to relay prophecy– an entirely different art.

Luke is clearly a well-educated man, and an excellent writer of narrative. He says nothing that doesn’t contribute to the movement of the story he’s telling (and I don’t mean to imply in any way that it is fiction). He uses no word by accident.

That’s why looking at Luke’s Greek is so important. In a series of posts, I will do exactly that.

As I said, I’m no Greek scholar. But I am a wordsmith, and I know how to use the tools. I understand denotation (what a word literally means) and connotation (the underlying meanings understood by native speakers). And I accept that Luke, as he lays out his narrative, does nothing by accident. What he says in the beginning supports what follows.

So I “put my hand” to an attempt, as many others have before me. Perhaps true scholars will cringe. Or perhaps the Spirit moves us to see something the literal translation misses.

If my work causes you to think, then I’ve done my job. Because I accept it as a given that the Word of God cannot be held in ink on a page. God is infinite. We are not. And as powerful as the written word is, like us it is incapable of encompassing God.

June 13

Sermon: Misplaced Faith

The second of this two-part series (following “What Can Christians Learn About Devotion from Addicts?“) considers recovery from addiction, and the flawed belief that just quitting drugs and getting a job is enough. Too recover, an addict needs something as life-encompassing as the addiction was. We need a new religion to replace the old, false religion. To rely ion the things of the world to fill the hole we carry is misplaced faith. But we’re not the only ones who fall into that trap!

January 27

God and Gender: A Theological Reflection

Talking about gender is like walking into a minefield. Some of the hazards are societal beliefs, some global and some more local, while others are reactions to those beliefs. Nevertheless, this post will venture where most sane people fear to tread. And please remember that I am speaking of what we might call archetypes– the so-called “norm.” Many of us don’t fit that norm. Yet our beliefs about gender often do.

Let’s begin with one of the Bible’s most radical statement about gender identity: that of God.

So God created humankind in his image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27 [NRSV])

I was raised with the vision of a male God. To be honest, coming from a matriarchal family, the idea of a female God terrifies me. But the Bible tells us something challenging: God is both male and female. This is radical because most ancient cultures had a pantheon of male and female gods. But the Hebrews had only one God, and that God encompassed both genders. The “image of God” is both male and female. One might say that the image of God is the union of the two.

Obviously this doesn’t mean God is a hermaphrodite. God has no physical body, and therefore no genitalia. Though we tend to limit our vision of creatures to their physical traits, male and female are characteristics that go beyond physical gender. The sea, for example, has most often been seen as female, as are the ships that have sailed on her. The earth is often described as female, and the sun as male.

God encompasses characteristics of both genders: creating and loving and nurturing, building and tearing down and disciplining. These are archetypal characteristics for female and male respectively. But in us as creatures, these characteristics are rarely manifested in ideal ways. Males, we believe, are responsible for propagating and protecting the species, and females for nurturing it. We know that the male role is often abused, and the female role is sometimes abdicated. Or the characteristics may be twisted into destructive forces: male (the archetype suggests) is prone to violence, and female to manipulation.

But we don’t always have perfect alignment with the characteristics of our gender, and that’s true throughout nature. The characteristics of male and female are neither exclusively genital nor consistently presented. What do we make, for example, of the male seahorse carrying embryos to birth? Or the female praying mantis decapitating her mate when he has served his purpose? Or the earthworm, each of which is biologically both male and female?

Still, our society often finds a nurturing man suspect, or a female leader. Men are not supposed to be beauticians, nor women soldiers or politicians. When you think of the word “nurse,” what gender is the image?

Much of this presupposition can be traced back to the Mosaic Law, which defined male and female roles.

A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. (Dt 22:5)

These books were finalized at a time when order was extremely important. They defined who was “in” and who wasn’t. You see, when Israel fell to Assyria, ten tribes were taken into exile. They were never heard from again. When Judah went into exile in Babylon, they were determined to survive as a people. They wanted above all to avoid assimilation. That is why there is so much emphasis placed on category.

Here’s an example: animals with cloven hooves are ruminants and provide dairy. The pig has a cloven hoof but is not a ruminant and does not provide dairy. It doesn’t fit, therefore it is unclean. The camel and the rabbit are ruminants but do not have a cloven hoof, therefore they are unclean (Lev 11:3-7). Similarly, lobster is neither insect nor fish; it doesn’t fit and is therefore unclean (Lev 11:12).

And they emphasized that different categories do not mix. Don’t wear a garment made of two fabrics, or plant a field with two kinds of seed (Lev 19:19, cf Dt 22:9-11). The practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together would have been an abomination, and a cotton-poly t-shirt would be strictly forbidden.

This concern with order extended to interpersonal relations. Just as Lev 19:19 forbids the mating of different kinds of animals– no breeding of mules in the Hebrew world– so a particular view of family was also emphasized. Not only was incest forbidden, but so was the marrying of your wife’s sister as a second wife (Lev 18:18, note that polygamy was assumed.) This is also where homsexualty is condemned. These are practices that “don’t fit,” and keeping category boundaries was imperative for survival. Similarly, men must be men and women must be women. Belonging to a category was everything.

This was embedded in Jewish culture for centuries before the birth of Christ. It was so important that, in at least one instance, category overrode the biblical ideal to “cleave to” your spouse (Gen 2:24) when, after return from exile, the Jews sent away all foreign wives (Ezra 10:3, Neh 13:23ff).

It’s only in this light that we can see how radical was Peter’s dream about eating unclean food (Acts 10:9ff). He was told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Immediately afterward, Peter witnesses the Holy Spirit coming to a group of Gentiles– non-Jews who were considered unclean. The dream was not really about food at all. It was about the inclusion of those traditionally seen as unclean, the “out” group, into God’s plan of salvation. The people who don’t belong, who don’t fit. Paul would later write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This turned Jewish traditions on their head! Category was no longer a barrier. The Jewish obsession with “in” and “out” had served its purpose.

Some of this reversal we accept. No longer do we recoil at mixed garments or different crops planted side by side. Mules may have fallen out of fashion, but labradoodles are popular. I was even recently served lobster at a Jewish wedding!

But other aspects remain challenging for us. Not long ago it was still considered scandalous for a woman to wear trousers in public. Based on the comments of some female pastors, for some people it still is! And I’m old enough to remember the comments made about men with long hair and women with short hair. Underlying these comments is a common concern: “They don’t fit!” For us, as for the ancient Hebrews, category remains important.

But God has overthrown human categories. In Christ there is no male and female. This challenges us! Men, according  to our accepted archetypes,  want to “manly men doing manly things.” We want our women to be feminine, however we might define that. (As a man, I dare not speak to what women want.) To consider that gender is a category that has been overthrown challenges our social order. Jesus wouldn’t do that, would he? Yes, he did exactly that. “So the last shall be first, and the first last…” (Mt 20:16). This was not just spiritual, and not even just economic.

This has far reaching ramifications. The most obvious have to do with gender equity and gender identity, but it doesn’t stop there. If God represents male and female, what does that say for leadership styles? For a system of incarceration based on punishment? For our foreign and domestic policies? For judging a presidential candidate (male or female) on their fitness to lead the nation through troubled times?

Society, of course, has a hard time with this. Category remains an important tool for preserving order, and we are acutely aware of who is “in” and who isn’t. But as Christians who follow the Gospel, we are called to challenge societal norms. God is both male and female. So is the Body of Christ. How can we transform our own vision to that of the Bible?

January 5

Dusk: An Epiphany Lament

There is a kind of darkness that lies like a blanket, thick and oppressive. Even the moon, shrouded by clouds, is barely discernible. The blackness weighs on the heart and soul, a darkness within and without.

This is what the Lord showed me today as I worshipped with my congregation in celebration of Epiphany, the coming of the light.

Dusk is falling.

In the coming night, the light will seem to have departed. But, like the moon obscured by clouds, it will not depart, for the darkness cannot overcome it.

The coming of the night should not surprise us if our eyes are open. It has been on the horizon for some time. But perhaps we didn’t recognize the signs.

How could we know that elevating science over spirituality would empty us of meaning? That consumerism would shift our allegiance to personal comfort and the elevation of self rather than societal wellbeing? And that this shift would change the political landscape to promote sameness to protect our comfort at the expense of others? That it would shift our economic outlook to seek short-term comfort rather than long-term stability? Or that such an attitude might mirror the addictive behavior now ravaging our communities?

We couldn’t have known, unless we happened to read and understand the Bible or any of the sacred texts of any world religion. Even Buddhism, arguably the religion friendliest to science, warns against materialism and self-centeredness.

These, of course, are now far in the rear view mirror as we have found new sins to practice: arguing rather than listening, rejection of responsibility in almost any form, and entitlement. Their manifestations devour our society in polarization, military adventurism, and self-destructive behavior from individual overdose to premeditated climate devastation.

I have prayed for change. I have worked for change. But the change I have seen has been in the wrong direction. There’s no point in assigning blame, there is plenty to go around, just as the consequences will affect each and every one of us.

We could, of course, blame Trump, a president who has now turned his back  on nearly every element of his declared foreign policy. We could blame the violent words and actions of some of his supporters. We could blame Democrats for running a losing candidate against him. We could blame thirty years of structural violence that led to our present political polarization. Or a foreign policy that has created the enemies we now face–including the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s history, and we now face the future.

We have reached a point of no return. There is no turning back.

Dusk is falling.

Those with a cyclical view of time will not be surprised. Night must come before morning. This is the good news: at the end of whatever kind of night this is and however long it goes on, light will once again shine. Something new will have dawned, and the promise of a new day. What will we make of it then? Will we have learned from our mistakes? Will we teach to our descendents the lessons we learned? History suggests that such lessons are soon forgotten.

But that is yet in the future. For now, what lies before us is the dark night.

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.