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.

May 6

Welcome to Israel

Israel is a strange place. First of all, I took this photo on my phone and posted it to FB. But now this photo (and only this photo) is missing from my phone. I can only speculate as to how that might have happened.

They did let me in. I was concerned that with my history of peace work and my friendship with some critical voices, they might not. But they barely asked me any questions at all.

One of my friends was not so lucky. An American Christian, he was detained for four hours at passport control because his last name is Lebanese. They did eventually let him in. They had no reason not to– and no real reason to question him in the first place, since he was a member of a tour group from a Christian university. But one thing I am learning: Israel likes to let people know who has power and who doesn’t.

We spent much of today seeing religious sites. St. Mark’s Church, a Syrian Orthodox church that boasts the Upper Room, and King David’s Tomb, which also boasts the Upper Room. Today we saw the Church of the Holy Sepluchre, where Jesus was crucified and buried. Tomorrow we’ll see the other place where Jesus was crucified and buried. We’ll also walk both paths he took to his death. Such paradox seems fully accepted in the world of religious tourism.

In a similar vein, we visited the Church of the Dormition, where Mary died–based on a 12th century story that led to the construction of this “ancient” church in 1910 by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Clearly, religious real estate is at a premium here such that there’s a market for new ones!

How does one evaluate the validity of what one sees here? It’s not easy. Jerusalem was razed by Emperor Hadrian in 132. There’s some archaeological evidence for some of the sites. But mostly, I go by feel. The Upper Room at St, Mark’s was a primitive room under the church, since centuries of building layer-upon-layer have put the first century stuff well underneath. The Tomb of David, on the other hand, has the Upper Room upstairs (over a tomb that is itself of questionable validity). But more to the point for me, when I entered the Upper Room at St. Mark’s, I felt a flash of Spirit. When I entered the other one, I felt nothing. That’s hardly a scientific diagnosis, but it works for personal use.

What else is there to say about my first day in Israel? I had a lovely lunch at a sandwich place run by Palestinian Christians who served an excellent spicy felafel sandwich. for 15 shekels. I later discovered I could have paid three times as much around the corner near the tourist attractions. That’s not much different than anywhere else.

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