Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Law of Liberty

This is my Synchroblog for July. Synchroblog is a little community of Christian blogs that post on a particular subject each month. Unfortunately I've been bad and not done one of these since January! This month our topic is "Liberty." The bloggers who posted this time are listed at the bottom of this page. Please visit us all! We're an interesting and eclectic group!

Maybe you've heard of the book The Year of Living Biblically, in which an agnostic New York reporter tries to, "follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible." He did it mainly for laughs at the expense of fundamentalists, but there are Christians in the world who do their best to live according to the Law of the Old Testament. And once upon a time I was one of them.

Just a brief bit of background: As I've mentioned in past posts, my family was Catholic. Regrettably though, I didn't pick up much about Christianity there. Then my mother who had always been a seeker, deeply interested in God, left the Catholic Church to join a small, quasi-fundamentalist group called the Worldwide Church of God (or WCG for short), and a few years later I followed her.

When I was 16 I'd had a very intense spiritual experience and I came away from it "on fire for God." I yearned to find a group that was passionately serious about following and obeying whatever he wanted humans to do, and if there is one thing that this church was, it was passionately serious, particularly about the Bible.


There is a lot I could say, good and bad, about my experience with the WCG but what I want to focus on here is their teaching that Jesus' true followers would be observing the Old Testament Law of Moses (or as we called it without fail, "God's Law.")

We understood that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross had fulfilled the bloody sacrifices of bulls and goats the ancient Israelites observed.  But that still left not only the 10 Commandments, which most Christians like, but hundreds of other statutes, ordinances, and laws about such things as fasting, what to eat, what to do about certain diseases, fabrics you can't wear, the problem of mildew, and how long a woman has to wait after having a baby before she can go back to the temple (or in our case, back to church).

And what was in some ways most important of all, rules on keeping the 7th day Sabbath and religious festivals. The Sabbath especially was seen as a special sign from God that identified who his true people were:
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘Surely you must keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.

Book of Exodus 31.12-17, NET

Many fundamentalist Churches think (or if you go back far enough, all protestant Churches thought) the Roman Catholic Church is a false, corrupted, pagan organization and the real followers of Jesus were little groups hiding in "the wilderness" through the years. My church believed that too but our contribution was the idea that you could tell the true Christians in history from not-so-true Christians by which ones had the sign of the 7th day Sabbath. If they also kept "God's Holy Days" (nicely summed up in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Leviticus), so much the better.


During my time in the WCG I learned one of the same lessons that the author of Year of Living Biblically learned: everybody interprets. Even though our ministers constantly preached against interpreting the Bible ("The Bible interprets itself!"), you really can't apply the Law to your life without interpreting it. A random example: part of the instructions for the holy day called the Feast of Tabernacles (or 'booths' or 'shelters') is to,
Go out into the hill country and get branches from different kinds of olive trees. Get branches from myrtle trees, palm trees, and shade trees. Use the branches to make temporary shelters. Do what the law says!
Book of Nehemiah 8.15 & Leviticus 23.39 - 43, ERV

I understand that Orthodox Jews in New York still faithfully build these shelters on fire escapes and places like that every Fall. But for us? Nah! The leafy shelters were interpreted into nice hotel rooms (without ever using the pagan I-word, of course).

We diligently ate kosher, although it was our own version: the story was that supposedly a rabbi could "bless" almost anything and declare it kosher, so you couldn't trust their kosher. We applied Leviticus 11 (where the kosher laws are) our way. On another subject, no intimate relations during your wife's period (Leviticus 20.18). And if she ever gave birth to a boy she couldn't go back to church for 40 days -- twice that for a baby girl (Leviticus 12).

We observed a particularly strict interpretation of the tithing (old English for "tenth") laws, largely based on some things the Jewish historian Josephus said (Antiquities 4.205 and 4.240 - 243) and so gave 30% of our income: 10% for the church, 10% so we could attend the Feast of Tabernacles (having 10% of your income to blow in 7 days at some vacation spot was pretty cool, I must admit), and 10% for the poor, widows and orphans.

All these laws were originally written for shepherds and farmers so we found ourselves (or more likely the minister) trying to apply the deep inner principles of laws like,
A man might take a cover off a well or dig a hole and not cover it. If another man’s animal comes and falls into that hole, the man who owns the hole is guilty.
Book of Exodus 21.33, ERV

And so on.

Experience Good and Bad

Now you might think that living with all these strictures would be unbearable, especially for a 20th century (then) american with our individualism deeply ground into us, and it could rankle at times. But really, in a way, it was rather comforting, because you always knew what you were expected to do. I can see the attraction of living by an expanded Talmud, as the Jewish tradition is. Besides, these were Bible rules we were keeping! You weren't supposed to smoke but we had nothing against "drinkin', dancin', and goin' to the movie show" that old-time puritans used to inveigh against.

Plus I was among people who, for the most part, were zealously doing their best to obey and serve God to the best of their understanding. Since we were a small and non-mainstream group we depended on each other, which gave it a warm family atmosphere.

For the most part my experience living this way was pretty benign, but I can't and won't pretend that that was true for everybody. The full-throated legalism we espoused hurt a lot of good people. Although the WCG loosened up later on, for many years we broke up second marriages and told the wives to go back to their first husbands. People went bankrupt or just barely scraped by under the weight of those 3 tithes. Specious interpretations of the Book of Genesis bred a strain of racism in the church,  and while we did have non-white ministers and administrators interracial marriage was forbidden.

Worse in a way were the intense feelings of guilt so many had. Because, after all, "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Prophecy of Jeremiah 17.9, KJV). Although we taught that God would forgive sins we also insisted that you had to obey Old Testament Law to please God. A christian that didn't was a false christian. How could you know, with your evil, desperately wicked heart, that you had done enough? If you hadn't, no matter how sincere you may have been, your only destination was The Lake of Fire (Book of Revelation 20.15).

Somehow, this horrific fear never bothered me much (which, I suppose, meant I was a shoe in for that Lake). I just never thought a God who said,
There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death (the first scripture I ever read and understood, when I was a very young Christian)
Letter to the Romans 8.1 - 2, GNT 

would toss me into a Lake of Fire if he could possibly avoid it. God has a bias, I believe. But I know that there are thousands, some very close to me, who were scared deeply by this church and cannot get free from their chains of guilt.


Eventually, I realized that I had let other people do my thinking for me. I started over from the beginning, trying to read the scriptures with no preconceived notions. What were the Gospels and the Apostles really trying to say? There were too many things in the theology is learned that didn't make sense to me anymore, among them being how the Law, given by God, relates to the Messiah (who is God as it turns out) and has the perfect right to revamp it as he pleases. Even abolishing it entirely, as a law, and replacing it with a law 'placed in our minds and written on our hearts,' (Hebrews 8).

What I found turned out to be ordinary, everyday, garden-variety Christianity -- which was also some of the most explosive, counter-cultural dynamite the world has ever seen.

"Love, then do what you will," said St. Augustine. I don't live by the Law of Moses anymore. I am free of it. Now I, "peer into the perfect law of liberty and fix my attention there," (James 1.25) the Law of love.


Here is the list of contributors this month. Go read them all and leave a comment!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

"...A place in Your Paradise..."

Meditation for a Sunday Morning

(Here are two more of the early (AD 100 - 150) Christian hymns known as the Odes of Solomon that I posted for you last Sunday. Incidentally, they probably weren't credited to Solomon when they were written. Instead, they were usually bound together with a Jewish book called Psalms of Solomon and picked up the name by association.

In the first hymn the singer spreads their arms in worship to honor Christ's cross. In the catacombs Christians are frequently shown doing precisely this. The second ode celebrates a member of the Christian Movement entering Paradise after living a holy life. I like this one especially because it gives a window into how Jesus' early followers pictured the Paradise he had promised, [Gospel of Luke 23.43 & Book of Revelation 2.7])

Ode 27 

I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord, 
For the expansion of my hands is His sign. 
And my extension is the upright cross. 

Ode 11 

My heart was pruned and its flower appeared, then grace sprang up in it, 
And my heart produced fruits for the Lord. 
For the Most High circumcised me by His Holy Spirit, then He uncovered my inward being towards Him, And filled me with His love. 
And His circumcising became my salvation, and I ran in the Way, in His peace, in the way of truth. 
From the beginning until the end I received His knowledge. 
And I was established upon the rock of truth, where He had set me. 
And speaking waters touched my lips from the fountain of the Lord generously. 
And so I drank and became intoxicated, from the living water that does not die. 
And my intoxication did not cause ignorance, but I abandoned vanity, 
And turned toward the Most High, my God, and was enriched by His favors. 
And I rejected the folly cast upon the earth, and stripped it off and cast it from me. 
And the Lord renewed me with His garment, and possessed me by His light. 

And from above He gave me immortal rest, and I became like the land that blossoms,
And rejoices in its fruits. 
And the Lord is like the sun upon the face of the land. 
My eyes were enlightened, and my face received the dew, 
And my breath was refreshed by the pleasant fragrance of the Lord. 
And He took me to His Paradise, wherein is the wealth of the Lord's pleasure. 
I beheld blooming and fruit-bearing trees, 
And self-grown was their crown. 
Their branches were sprouting and their fruits were shining. 
 From an immortal land were their roots. 
And a river of gladness was irrigating them, 
And round about them in the land of eternal life. 
Then I worshiped the Lord because of His magnificence. 
And I said, Blessed, O Lord, are they who are planted in Your land, 
And who have a place in Your Paradise, 
And who grow in the growth of Your trees, and have passed from darkness into light. 

Behold, all Your laborers are fair, they who work good works, 
And turn from wickedness to your pleasantness. 
For the pungent odor of the trees is changed in Your land, 
And everything becomes a remnant of Yourself. 
Blessed are the workers of Your waters, 
And eternal memorials of Your faithful servants. 
Indeed, there is much room in Your Paradise! 
And there is nothing in it which is barren, but everything is filled with fruit. 
Glory be to You, O God, the delight of Paradise for ever. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Theologian Thursday: Vincent on Finding the Real Thing

The straight stuff
Many, many people claim to follow Jesus or be part of the Christian Movement, even while disagreeing widely with each other. How do you know you're getting the real deal? Today's theological visitor, Vincent of Lérins, tells us that if you want to find the straight stuff you need to go old school.

In the universal or catholic Church itself, we must make sure that we hold the faith that has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For what is actually and strictly "catholic," or "universal," as the name itself and it's nature imply, is spread out universally.  And we will be following this rule if we follow these three things: universality, antiquity, consent. We follow antiquity if we do not depart in any way from the teachings and understandings that were obviously held widely by our holy ancestors and fathers. And we follow consent when we stick to the consensual definitions and determinations of all -- or almost all -- the priests and great teachers in antiquity 
...But someone might say, "Then, won't there be any progress in Christ's Church?" On the contrary, there will be as much progress as possible. Only someone who envies humans and hates God would try to stop it. But it must be real progress, not alteration, of the faith. In progress something grows within itself, but in alteration it is transformed into something else. So the intelligence, knowledge, wisdom of individuals and of everyone, of a single person just as much as the whole Church, should grow and make vast and vigorous progress over the ages and centuries. But this will happen within each type of thing, that is in the same teaching and in the same meaning.  

Vincent of Lérins (died AD 445)
Commonitory, chapters 2 & 23

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Life After Death, Part 2

The gateway to Sheol
(The first two sections of this series are Life After Death, Part 1 and A Revelation About Revelation. In Life After Death, Part 2 I want to briefly cover what the God of Israel revealed about death before Jesus came.)

In the Garden of Eden God reveals the icy fact that doing wrong leads to death. The revelation that there is something after death is made only a few chapters farther into the story of mankind. Interestingly, this piece of information is spoken of (by the ancient patriarch Jacob) as though it is common knowledge, something that's been known for a while.

You may remember the story: Jacob's children were jealous of his favorite son Joseph, so they sold him to slave traders and ripped up Joseph's famous "coat of many colors," soaking it in goat blood. Jacob was given that as evidence that "a wild animal has devoured him! Joseph is surely torn to pieces!"

That is the situation when Jacob says this, for the first time in the Bible, about a place called Sheol:

He refused to be consoled. And he said, “No, I shall go down to my son to Sheol, mourning.” And his father wept for him.
(Book of Genesis 37.35 New Revised Standard Version)

For the Hebrews, Sheol was the place you go when you die. As they interacted with their God over the years, they gradually learned some details about this place, although giving a grand tour of Sheol never seemed to be high on God's to-do list.

What Sheol is not

It's important to know that there are two ways that Sheol is mistranslated in some Bibles. One is to render it as "hell." The old King James Version tells us for instance that the guests of Folly, "knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell," (Book of Proverbs 9.18 KJV). But Sheol, as we'll see, was nothing like the dreadful fiery place that "hell" conjures up in our minds today.

Another incorrect translation of Sheol is "the grave." This one is understandable because sometimes the Scriptures will say something like, "Your pride is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your harps; maggots are your bed beneath you, and worms are your covering," (Book of Isaiah 14.11). But even in the first place it's mentioned, Sheol can't mean just a grave. At this point in the story, Jacob believes his beloved son Joseph is torn to shreds in the wilderness, unburied and his bones scattered. Yet he is sure, despite this, that Joseph is in Sheol, where Jacob will eventually join him: "I shall go down to my son, to Sheol."

A grave is to Sheol what the front door is to a house. Graves are "the gates of Sheol," which you can be "summoned to go through," (Isaiah 38.10, LEB).

Dark, dusty, silent
Photo by Kecko
What it was like

Sheol was conceived of as being underground (Book of Amos 9.2, Book of Ezekiel 31.16) or under the sea, as deep as you could possibly go (Book of Deuteronomy 32.22, Book of Jonah 2.2, 6). This was because Sheol was as far as you could be from Heaven, where God is (Book of Job 11.8, Book of Psalms 139.8).

You existed in Sheol as a repha, which was very similar to what we would call a "ghost" -- a disembodied spirit (Job 26.5, Psalms 88.10, Isaiah 14.9, etc.). Modern Bibles translate this word as "shades" or "phantoms." On at least one occasion a necromancer was apparently able to bring Samuel the Prophet's repha up from Sheol at the request of the Israelite King Saul, (1st Book of Samuel 28.8-19).

At first people thought of Sheol as dark (Job 17.13), dusty (Job 17.16), a quiet place (Psalms 115.17 and 31.17) where not a lot happens (Book of Ecclesiastes 9.10), and you were pretty much cut off from God (Psalms 6.5, Isaiah 38.18). But they realized fairly soon that nobody is ever cut off from God: "Sheol and Destruction are open to the LORD, how much more the hearts of the children of men!" (Book of Proverbs 15.11).

As time went on the later prophets revealed that Sheol wasn't quite the quiet, do-nothing place the Israelites had assumed. Both Isaiah (Isaiah 14.3 - 20) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 32.21 - 32) describe a louder and more active Sheol, with Kings welcoming other Kings to the underworld and whatnot.

Years ago some scholars would brush all this off as just "poetic descriptions of the grave," and even now the occasional preacher will claim that that's all Sheol is. But honestly, there are 65 mentions of Sheol in the scriptures, and many more passages using synonyms. Taken together, there is no way it can just refer to the local cemetery. As John Cooper says in his book Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, a standard work on the scriptural view of the afterlife:
In fact, there is virtual consensus that the Israelites did believe in some sort of ethereal existence after death in a place called Sheol... As far as I know, the general description is undisputed among Old Testament scholars.

(Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Duelism - Monism Debate, pp. 52 - 53)

One for all?

The interesting thing is that everybody goes to the same place in the Hebrew scriptures. Job actually rhapsodizes about it. Nowhere do the Old Testament mention different destinations for the good and the bad. We are told that Sheol has "chambers" (Proverbs 7.27) but no clue what they're for. But as we get down to the Book of Daniel, and the subject of resurrection comes to the fore, we do get a hint that the life you lived matters in the afterlife: "At that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever," (Daniel 12.2 - 3).

*          *          *

In the next installment of this series we'll get into what Jesus himself taught about life after death and before resurrection, and how it all ties together with what we talked about today.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Grounded in History

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?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"....I believed in the Lord's Messiah..."

Peter in the Catacombs (by Styka)
Meditation for a Sunday Morning

(Other than a few snatches of song in the New Testament (like this and this), the Odes of Solomon is probably our oldest collection of ancient Christian music. These lyrics were written between A.D. 100 - 150, probably closer to 100.

A Roman bureaucrat named Pliny who met up with some Christians at about the same time tells us that, "they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god," (Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97, "To Emperor Hadrian"). What were Jesus' early followers singing as they furtively gathered in the pre-dawn Sunday hours to worship? Probably something a little like these two songs.)

    Ode 29

        The Lord is my hope, I shall not be ashamed of Him.
        For according to His praise He made me, and according to His grace even so He gave to me.
        And according to His mercies He exalted me, and according to His great honor He lifted me up.
        And he caused me to ascend from the depths of Sheol, and from the mouth of death He drew me.
        And I humbled my enemies, and He justified me by His grace.
        For I believed in the Lord's Messiah, and considered that He is the Lord.
        And He revealed to me His sign, and He led me by His light.
        And He gave me the scepter of His power, that I might subdue the devices of the people, and humble the power of the mighty.
        To make war by His Word, and to take victory by His power.
        And the Lord overthrew my enemy by His Word, and he became like the dust 
which a breeze carries off.
        And I gave praise to the Most High, because He has magnified His servant
 and the son of His maidservant.


Ode 30

        Fill for yourselves water from the living fountain of the Lord, because it has been opened for you.
        And come all you thirsty and take a drink, and rest beside the fountain of the Lord.
        Because it is pleasing and sparkling, and perpetually refreshes the self.
        For much sweeter is its water than honey, and the honeycomb of bees is not to be compared with it;
        Because it flowed from the lips of the Lord, and it named from the heart of the Lord.
        And it came boundless and invisible, and until it was set in the middle they knew it not.
        Blessed are they who have drunk from it, and have refreshed themselves by it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Theologian Thursday: Wesley on The Secret of Perfection

John Wesley
Jesus of Nazareth was perfect -- sin-free -- and we are supposed to be like him (1st Letter of John 2.6, Gospel of Matthew 11.29, and 1st Letter of Peter 2.21 - 24). But how can we possibly become perfect like that? How can we fallible and, frankly, very weak humans become holy, just as Jesus was? There must be a way because Jesus himself ordered his students to be perfect (Matthew 5.48) and the Apostle Peter wrote that we must be holy (1st Peter 1.14 - 16).

Yes, God very kindly forgives our sins, but that's not what we're talking about here. How can our deeds, our words, and our very motivations become perfect and holy -- or as close to it as possible in this life, before the resurrection happens?

Many Jesus-followers down through the ages have thought that the secret lies in a strict, rigorous, austere life of self-denial and discipline. John Wesley, our guest theologian for today, believed that himself in his younger days. And throughout his life he was one of the most disciplined, self-controlled men you could ever meet, if you ever read about his life. But Wesley came to realize that strict austere rigor or adherence to a list of rules does not, and cannot, make you holy.

So how do you live a life that is "perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect?" How do we become like a holy God... a God who defines himself as love (1st John 4.8, 16)?

Here according to Wesley is the secret.

What is then the perfection of which man is capable while he dwells in a corruptible body? It is the complying with that kind command, "My son, give me thy heart." It is the "loving the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind." This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. 
 The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself:" Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets:" These contain the whole of Christian perfection.

John Wesley
On Perfection