Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day

If you live in the United States, like the bulk of this blog's readers do, you'll probably spend today celebrating Independence Day. This is where we band together and enjoy the fact that, despite it's many, many problems, flaws, and disagreements, we have a pretty good country here. Personally, I'm a big fan of the US and proud to be a citizen of this country.

For a long time there's been a general suspicion among us americans that the rest of the world probably thinks we're jerks. This goes back decades to the days of the "Ugly American" and is supposed to be more intense now that we're the only superpower. But in fact a worldwide survey by the Pew Institute recently found that most of the world likes us too. So I'd say we have a right to celebrate ourselves at least one day a year.

Most people have probably felt the same way about their homelands down through the ages. Mongols were proud to be mongols, serfs were proud of their lords, and romans thought it was an illustrious thing to be a roman. Even St. Paul would pull out his roman citizenship on occasion:
Paul (loud enough that the police can hear):  Just a minute. This is unjust. We’ve been stripped naked, beaten in public, and thrown into jail, all without a trial of any kind. Now they want to release us secretly as if nothing happened? No way: we’re Roman citizens—we shouldn’t be treated like this! If the city officials want to release us, then they can come and tell us to our faces [that we're free].
(Book of Acts 16.37, Voice)

Where Paul claimed his rights as a Roman

Real Country

Interestingly enough, a few years later Paul wrote a letter to the group of Jesus' followers in Philippi, the city where this happened. In it he makes a point that we 21st century US citizens would do well to keep in mind as we celebrate our country.

To the very people who had witnessed the Apostle forcefully insist on his citizenship in the only superpower of his time, Paul reminds them what country they really belong to.
 We are citizens of heaven, exiles on earth waiting eagerly for a Liberator, our Lord Jesus the Anointed, to come and transform these humble, earthly bodies into the form of His glorious body by the same power that brings all things under His control. 
(Philippians 3.20-21, Voice)

No matter what nation we live in or how much we may love it, members of the Christian Movement have given their allegiance to another country and another ruler.

Paul had just finished writing this:
So God raised Him up to the highest place
     and gave Him the name above all.
So when His name is called,
     every knee will bow,
     in heaven, on earth, and below.
And every tongue will confess
     “Jesus, the Anointed One, is Lord,”
      to the glory of God our Father!
(Philippians 2.9-11, Voice)

I'm particularly fond of N.T. Wright's little quote, "If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not." Jesus of Nazareth is our true King now, and eventually "every knee will bow" to him.  Our knees -- the knees of the Christian Movement -- have already had the privilege of bowing to him. We have independence from every 'Caesar' that rules anywhere.

Today amidst our fireworks and barbeque and current geopolitical dominance, remember who you really are and where you really live.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Does the Bible Teach Anything Clearly?

Photo courtesy Rushay (RUSH) Booysen
"Well, that's an odd title for a Christian blog," you may say to yourself.

Maybe, but a scholarly blog I ran across recently (thanks to Twitter) quotes Wayne Meeks, a famous biblical scholar, who believes we should stop using the phrase, "The Bible clearly teaches..."

So let us renounce the phrase, “the Bible clearly teaches” (says Dr. Meeks).  And every time we hear it let us immediately be on our guard... In our situation, when people say, “the Bible clearly teaches,” instead of, for example, “we can learn from the Bible if we stand within a certain community’s tradition,” or “we can find these ideas in Scripture if we construe Scripture in such-and-such a way”… when they do that, they are really masking the locus of the authority they are claiming.


Now, I have to agree with Dr. Meeks in one sense. Most of the times that Christianity has had egg on its face over the last 2000 years have been times when we weren't actually insisting on some scripture but on our own explanation of it. Handy example: the legendary conflict between Galileo and the Catholic Church. What the Church actually ended up defending was the greek scientist Ptolemy's idea of how the universe works -- not that "God the Father Almighty [is the] maker of heaven and earth," as the old creed says. Galileo himself believed that too, after all.

Teachers of Christianity always have to make sure that what we're defending is what the Bible itself says and not our explanation of what the Bible says.

That isn't my main point today but it would make a good topic, so I may post on it in the future.

Fuzziness

That doesn't seem to be Dr. Meeks' main point either. He appears to be saying that the Bible itself isn't clear, that you can't say the Bible clearly teaches anything because it clearly doesn't. To get anything worthwhile out of it at all you must "construe" it or draw its meaning from a "certain community's tradition."

But think about this: All of the things the Bible contains were written by people who knew what they meant at the time. And much of it was written to other people who also knew what they meant. And although we live at a 2 to 3 thousand year remove from their time, it is still entirely possible to recover what they meant. Historians and textual critics and archaeologists do it all the time and with all kinds of books -- not just the Bible.

Have you ever read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey?  You may not have gotten every cultural nuance but did you pick up the main points? Doesn't the Iliad clearly teach that Agamemnon and Achilles, both full of pride, quarrelled over the captured princess Briseis causing Achilles to leave the battle (trust me, it does).

What about Plato and Aristotle? Do we know pretty clearly what they taught? Yes. Why? Because we know a lot about them, their world, and can read their language. Sort of like any other book you read. Including the Bible.

If we read it intelligently, the Bible is quite clear. True some passages are a bit obscure (nobody is sure what St. Paul is getting at here, for instance. Or here.). But it is not a fuzzy, obscure book, and there is a disturbingly large number of things that 'the Bible clearly says'.


Friday, June 26, 2015

The Gospel of Invasion

Jesus Preaching, by Tissot

It might be held... that the ethics of Confucianism have an independent value quite apart from the story of the life of Confucius himself, just as the philosophy of Plato must be considered on its own merits, quite apart from the traditions that have come down to us about the life of Plato and the question of the extent of his indebtedness to Socrates.

But the argument can be applied to the New Testament only if we ignore the real essence of Christianity. For the Christian gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost good news, and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers.

True, they called Christianity 'The Way' and 'The Life'; but Christianity as a way of life depends upon the acceptance of Christianity as good news. And this good news is intimately bound up with the historical order, for it tells how for the world's redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The first recorded words of our Lord's public preaching in Galilee are: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe the good news."

F. F. Bruce
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?







Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What Preaching Should Do

Preaching must either break a hard heart or heal a broken one.

--John Newton


Preaching (including internet preaching) is foolish, you know. The Apostle Paul said so himself:

Since in the wisdom of God the world by its own wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. (1 Corinthians 1.21)

"Preach" is something of a dirty word today: "Don't you preach to me!" Preaching is supposed to be criticism.  But in reality, Christian preaching is supposed to be about the Gospel, the message Jesus sent us to spread all over the world.  And the Gospel is really an announcement -- the Great Announcement as we like to call it on this site: "The universe has a king, namely, Jesus of Nazareth! His Kingdom is here, now and will put everything right! Come join it; everyone is invited."

Oh, and as part of the bargain, every wrong, selfish thing you've ever done will be forgiven forever.

As this blog frequently points out, Paul also said that this announcement, "is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes," (Romans 1.16). This announcement, itself, is charged with that power.

When people hear it -- truly hear it -- the hardest hearts can break with compassion for their fellow beings, and the most injured hearts can heal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

All Live

by RadicalBender
So all live to God.

Gospel of Luke 20.27-38, Voice



God lives in eternity, outside of time. When he looks at us humans he sees all of us all at once from the beginning to the end, everyone who ever was or ever will be. And so, "All live to God."

And also -- everyone who ever lived, lives now, or ever will live in the future will continue to live. We are not eternal, of course, because we had a starting point but after that point we will continue to live -- somewhere.

God's bias on the subject of where you should continue to live is plain. In one of our ongoing series here, here, and here so far) I'm spelling out what details we have about where we go when we die, but we all do go somewhere.

And so, "All live to God."






Monday, January 19, 2015

Challenge

Jesus enters Jerusalem
Crowd of Disciples:  The King who comes in the name of the Eternal One is blessed! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest! 
 Pharisees (who were in the crowd):  Teacher, tell these people to stop making these wild claims and acting this way!
 Jesus: Listen—if they were silent, the very rocks would start to shout!

Gospel of Luke 19.38-40, Voice


The Kingdom of God is an irresistible thing. Some of Jesus' followers today fear, and many who are not proclaim, that the days of the Christians are numbered. The scales will  eventually fall from our eyes and people will see that science has shown them to be deluded. Sure, they've been saying that, off and on, since Voltaire and rationalism in the 1700s but this time, we are assured, they are certainly right.

Now, I love science myself, and am no fan of the fundamentalist approach to knowledge.  But I can't help but notice that this makes a nice challenge, in a way, because Jesus of Nazareth will have none of it. You may recall his take on the subject:
Simon, son of Jonah, your knowledge is a mark of blessing. For you didn’t learn this truth from your friends or from teachers or from sages you’ve met on the way. You learned it from My Father in heaven. This is why I have called you Peter (rock): for on this rock I will build My church. The church will reign triumphant even at the gates of hell.
Gospel of Matthew 16.17-18, Voice

Let's wait and see who's right.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Risk


The path we walk is charted by faith, not by what we see with our eyes.

2nd Letter to the Corinthians 5.7, Voice

Every venture of faith involves the element of risk. Risk is everywhere where faith is concerned. And faith has to be exercised in our relation to everything. The man who will not exercise faith because there is a risk, will not venture anywhere, for there is no such thing in this world as absolute knowledge concerning anything.

In every age it has been the faith that risked that has moved mountains, cast out devils, and healed the nations.

James Hastings