Toward A Fair Balance

images (4) I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with Paul. A fair reading of the entire corpus of Paul, well it leaves something to be desired from a woman’s standpoint. Later, when I learned that there is wide discrepancy between “authentic” Paul and non, he fared a bit better. The worst texts were probably not written by him at all.

It has been a truism that in talking with fundamentalists, it’s my experience that Paul is quoted about 4-1 in making any conservative point. I guess that stands to reason, since pseudo-Paul fits the conservative ticket much more than the liberal side of life.

However it does seem odd that the very people who “confess Jesus as their personal savior” so infrequently quote Jesus for how Christians should behave.

It almost makes one wonder if they somehow use the scriptures to substantiate personal opinions rather than “learn how to behave”.

Plenty of so-called Christians have offered me the following gems of pseudo-knowledge:

  1. Paul endorses the notion that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, negating the present government’s attempt to “give” people stuff rather than make them get a job.
  2. Paul of course echoes God in decrying homosexuality.
  3. Paul believed women should be seen and not heard.
  4. Paul believed women should be obedient to their husbands who are their natural betters.

When it comes to Jesus, they become more brazen. Jesus, they tell me, favored owning guns for self-defense, didn’t want the government involved in taking care of the poor, and didn’t believe in minimum wages.

In today’s reading, (2Cor 8: 7, 9, 13-15) Paul finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He literally begs the Corinthians to be generous. He has, it turns out, been exhorting the Macedonians to give generously by touting the largess of the Corinthians and vice versa. Macedonia has come through with great giving and Corinth so far has not.

Paul is concerned about the contribution to the Jerusalem “saints” for a couple of reasons. First, they are genuinely in need, and Paul recognizes that the hallmark of this new way of being requires serious attention to the problem of the poor. Second, the Gentiles that Paul “leads” are still quite suspect as far as the very Jewish Jerusalem church is concerned. Paul hopes a good contribution will do much to ease the tension between the two groups, and unify them in their common quest to spread the Gospel to all nations.

Paul says some interesting things. God, Paul claims, gives Christians the grace to give lovingly and generously. Using the Macedonians as an example, he explains that God gives to those who give generously, and their generosity is met with God’s largess to them. Further he points out that if they take care of Jerusalem’s needs now, in the future Jerusalem may well be in position to help them in their hour of need.

There should be a “fair balance” or equality between them, as he puts it.

“. . .[Y]our surplus at present may fill their deficit, and another time their surplus may fill your deficit.”

No simpler explanation need be given. You give when you can, and trust that if the tables become turned in the future, others may do the same for you. Or, as Jesus might have said, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Lest there be a doubt, Paul explains that God will make it so. Quoting Exodus wherein God provided manna to the complaining Israelites in the desert:

“No one who had collected more had too much, no one who collected less had t little.”

In other words, you human need not keep score. God will take care of that. Just do what you are called by God to do: take care of those in need.

Somehow that message seems lost to many Christians today.

Continuously I hear this from conservative Christians: I object to paying taxes for “handouts” to those who are too lazy to work. I was taught to work and to not expect stuff to be given to me, but rather earned. These folks are all about give me. Our government has taught them that. The bible tells me to give to the poor, and I do so. But I decide how much and for what. That is as it should be. I’m tired of supporting dead beats.

What follows is almost always a rendition of all the wonderful things this person has done for the poor. Each believes with their full being that they have purchased salvation by their acts, although they would deny this as a blasphemous negation of Luther’s main thrust of justification by faith alone. Yet they will, as proof, point out that Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” This they claim shows that government cannot solve the problem. What they don’t say is what they also believe–the poor are there to be the recipient of charity offered to secure one’s own salvation.

What kind of God is this?

Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians suggests a different arrangement. You give the very most you can, and let God take care of the rest. God makes sure that it’s all evened out in the end.

God it seems (along with Paul) is a Marxist.

Talk of “equality and fairness” are concepts unknown to a winner-take-all free market analysis. What is fair in such a system is that smarter and harder working people are supposed to gain while slackers sink. Of course it isn’t at all smartness or hard work that make the difference really. Luck and favorable opportunity count for as much if not more. But that doesn’t feed the scenario being offered.

The very point Paul makes is ignored by the conservative Christian who prefers to focus on interpretations that support their own needs and wants. This goes along with Susan B. Anthony’s remark:

“I distrust those who claim to know what God wants when it always so perfectly coincides with their own desires.”

Paul is very crafty in his explanation: Give exactly what you feel is appropriate, but remember God will make sure you are given all you need to give generously. In other words, the more you give, the more you prove that God is indeed actively supporting you. Who could ignore that incentive?

There is no reason at all theoretically why one cannot take as much satisfaction in the paying of taxes for equitable redistribution as to give personally. But theory pales in the face of our very human need to feel superior and to be noted. So we insist that somehow it’s better if I choose what and where to offer my alms. At least we do if we aren’t really about the help so much as we are being sure that we are duly credited publicly for our benevolence.

We must recall as well that Paul is exhorting Gentiles to be generous with those who are making their lives more difficult–Jerusalem Christians of Jewish descent, who are still not quite sure these Gentiles are properly God’s children without converting and adopting Jewish traditions and codes of behavior.

Paul recognized that we are called to give no matter how well we relate to the recipient. We could do well to emulate that notion in our own giving. None of us will necessarily agree with every program that seeks to improve the imbalance between rich and poor, but we can be mindful of Paul’s assurance that God will sort it all out and make it “fair.”

Don’t we have enough to deal with without taking on God’ job as well?

An Excellent read on the subject of charity: Treasure in Heaven

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How Can You Mean This?

MatthewdIt is claimed that Susan B. Anthony once said something like this: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

I’ve noticed the same thing. Have you ever know anyone to say in their defense: “I myself wouldn’t have a problem with THAT, but the Bible says that God is against it, so I must follow God first.”

Meanwhile in Congress, the GOP is intent upon cutting SNAP by 40 BILLION dollars. All the while, a significant number of them are receiving PERSONALLY tens of millions of dollars in farm subsidies. You see, we must do this they claim, because these people who are receiving free food are lazy, they are becoming a “take” culture, while they themselves are simply being given some help, ironically in the food production arena, to keep America’s food shelves healthy and full.

Mathewwrong

And do you know what they claim is their moral justification for what they do? Why it is Paul’s statement in Thessalonians:

“In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

They do not of course answer the burning question of “where are the jobs”, a bellowing demand they make of this President every week, if not every day. Yet, someone people should starve because those who receive food assistance are undoubtedly unwilling to work. Work at what, they don’t say.

Yet of course all this is so much a lie. Forty-seven percent of all recipients are children under 18. Eight percent are seniors. Forty-one percent live in households where someone works full or part-time. Less than 10% of recipients receive any other type of assistance. Nobody speaks louder or more clear than the GOP when it comes to veterans. Yet over 900,000 veterans currently receive SNAP.

Those are the facts.

What of the moral argument?

It too is utter nonsense and bespeaks the usual literalist reading of scripture that these fundamentalists indulge in.

I have some personal experience here for I’ve talked with a number of people who I’ve known since childhood who tell me all about Paul’s statement in defense of their agreement with Republican goals to cut SNAP funding. They of course first start by telling me of their personal anecdotes, stories of acquaintances or relatives who get assistance and either brag or are “known” not to really need it. This is almost immediately followed by complaints that “I’m tired of working so hard for these freeloaders. My taxes are already through the roof because of Obama.” (Note that taxes in general have gone down under President Obama’s administration, but of course people believe what they want to perpetuate the myth they are living with.)

Then of course comes the scripture. “Even Paul said that those who do not work shall not eat” This is often followed by the incredulous statement that “Everyone knows that Jesus was against government!”

So there we have it. Jesus doesn’t like government and so as all  fundamentalists tell me, these things should be left up to the Church. Yes. Well, nothing is preventing the “Church” from taking on the job. Nothing has been preventing them from doing so for over two thousand years. Somehow or other, they haven’t gotten the job done. So please don’t tell me the Church should do it.

And the thing from Paul? Well, IF one were to actually read Paul with some understanding of what his letters are about, one might get a clue that this is not a statement that should EVER be taking literally.

Looking first at Paul’s overall theology, it is clear that he, like many others in the movement, expected the return of the Lord within their own lifetimes. Indeed, in his first letter to them, he calms them and reassures them that those “who are still alive for the Lord’s coming will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep.” (1Thess 4:15) Much of Paul’s teaching on marriage for instance is based on his believe that the Lord would return within most of their lifetimes. Thus he counsels that those who can maintain celibacy, should not marry. Those who find it difficult should marry rather than engage in promiscuity.

Secondly,  it is not completely accepted that 2Thessalonians, from which the “no work, no eat” comes from, was actually written by Paul. Be that as it may, Paul is writing again to Thessaloniki because a crisis has arisen. Indeed, many of Paul’s letters are in response to crisis within the believing community. New people sometimes arrive with new teachings, something teachers get off on tangents. In other words, Thessaloniki is in crisis.

The crisis is quite obvious and is stated in the letter itself: Someone is telling the people in the community that the day of the Lord’s arrival has actually come!

“. . . Please do not be too easily thrown into confusion or alarmed by any manifestation of the Spirit or any statement or any letter claiming to come from us, suggesting that the Day of the Lord has already arrived.”(2Thess 2:2)

This is what has caused the problem. People are in panic. There is conflict. As is the case in all the cities, the household churches are supported financially by the more wealthy members. It seems that some in the community are no longer working, and are looking for the Lord to appear, and simply living off the largess of the wealthier among them. Paul says this must stop. According to him, there are various things that must transpire before the Lord returns, and these have not occurred. Everyone is to return to normal activities. Return to calm. Go back to your jobs and your normal pursuits.

What is pathetic in this use of a single sentence out of context, is that even to the most limited of readers, the context should seem most clear. Paul is not out of the blue announcing that it is a teaching of Christ that that no one who fails to work shall not eat.

This flies in the face of Matthew 25 which says something quite different:

Mathew25aThis is the great teaching of Christ.

This is what needs be followed by all who would claim the name of Christian.

While we keep these writings about scripture and faith, we urge readers to contact their congress person and demand that the cuts in SNAP be restored.

Surely we are better than this.

Amen.

Matthewc

Go and Sin No More

28In the readings for today, Paul makes an amazing admission in his letter to the Philippians. For if you read closely, Paul tells us that though he has given up all for the gospel, he remains unsure of whether he will reach the “resurrection from the dead.”

If Paul, who gave up all–his wealthy, his privileged life, his status, all for Jesus, and the ignominious job of itinerant preacher–a job that incurred stoning, and being driven from cities, and ultimate arrest and martyrdom–then who can count on being “saved?”

And yet, there are those in Christendom who loudly proclaim “I have accepted Jesus!” and then demand, “are you saved?” Somehow accepting Jesus equals being saved.

Yet, Paul felt no such assurance about his own future.

I often talk to these folks who “have accepted Jesus.” There are nice enough people and  all, but I find they oft-times hold some pretty strange views. For instance, many of them when asked what church they attend, assure me that they read the bible “all the time” and don’t need to hear anyone “tell them about Jesus.” Jesus speaks to the truly righteous through his WORD, and no explanations of “men” are necessary.

When it’s pointed out that the Trinity at least in part, represents the community of believers, and that we are as God’s creatures, certainly best in community, they shrug as if they fail to see any significance in that. That the Gospels and much of Paul relates to “church” and incidents that arise in and around churchy things, seems to make no impression either.

But what is most troubling to me is that they maintain adherence to such things as the death penalty, and the denial of social programs run by the government to assist the poor among us. I get all kinds of answers as to why this is so, and it’s not really pertinent to the point here, but I would hazard a guess that most Christians don’t find positions like this to be within the parameters of “following” Jesus.

Yet, these same folks claim that they are saved, just by the mere confession of faith. And of course they do claim the faith. In fact they claim it as an absolute. There is no doubt of any kind about anything regarding Jesus or their faith. There are SURE. When it’s pointed out that perhaps the essence of faith is believing in the face of doubt, they look aghast. This usually commences another round of “are you saved”?

While amusing, I think it raises a very important question. Can we sit back self-satisfied by our mere confession of faith? It’s the old argument I suppose of work versus faith alone. My contention has always been works identify you as one who is living in faith. How can you not serve in some capacity those less fortunate if you really have embodied the principles Jesus taught? So works to me are essential.

Moreover, faith is a constant struggle, and not something one announces loudly to everyone as some proof. Proclaiming adherence to Jesus is no more that stating an intention to mold one’s life in the direction of discipleship.

Which leads me to my second insight of the day, from the Gospel of John. Jesus sends off the Pharisees who wish to put Jesus in a corner with their request that he tell them what to do with this “adulterous” woman. Jesus of course sends them scurrying with his statement, “let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

This points out a truth that is so clear to us–we are all in sin. We are all in the process of asking for forgiveness, and starting over again to live up to the model that Jesus sets for us. After the Pharisees have departed, Jesus assures the woman that he does not condemn her either. In fact, later, in talking again with the Pharisees, he tells them, “I judge no one.” While a whole series of reflections could revolve around just that statement alone, it’s what he says before that to the woman that drew me.

“Go forth and sin no more.”

Of course many use this to mean that Jesus judged the actions that brought her to him as sinful. But since there was no proof presented, that seems unlikely to be true here. Surely Jesus was unlikely to be teaching that a charge alone was sufficient. So what did he mean by his statement? The only conclusion I can come up with, is that Jesus was not referring to her alleged adultery at all, but was simply referring the sin that we all carry by virtue of being human.

Jesus is urging her, and us to step forth from our lives as we presently live them, and to step up the ladder to him. That ladder may be high and fraught with mis-steps, we may stumble, nearly fall, and scramble to aright ourselves and reach for the next rung. We are constantly in a state of trying to “sin no more. ”

That is the beauty of God. Jesus reminds the Pharisees after this incident, that they (and us) judge by human standards. He does not. By our standards he does not judge at all. The woman’s “adultery” are of no real concern. It is the state of her heart, and her desire to climb the ladder toward God that concerns him. That he wishes to encourage in her!

Being forgiven is all that we need to take a deep breath, aright ourselves, and reach again for the next rung of the ladder. We are forever in sin, yet free from sin, and in that brief moment in time, we reach to God.

Amen.

 

A New Look at Romans 1:26-27

This is a reprint of a post from Nota Bene:

I believe it is the most interesting and convincing argument I have yet seen on the issue of homosexuality and “Paul’s” alleged beliefs about it. It is compelling in my opinion.

Romans

Whenever I’m debating with someone who authoritatively declares that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and who cites the infamous Romans 1:26-27 as proof, I almost always offer this rejoinder: “What do you make of the vocative at the beginning of Romans 2?”

The question is admittedly pretentious on my part but I’ve found it effective, because those often most eager to wield the Bible as an authoritative weapon are also often those who have read it only in translation, and not very closely at that.

But it’s not an idle question.


Anyone who has engaged the issue of sexuality and the Bible has at some point contended with Romans 1:26-27, in the NRSV: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Sounds pretty bad, and indeed, so does the entire last half of the first chapter of Romans. Who, broadly, is being described here? Most agree it’s the Gentiles, and most agree that what is being represented here is boilerplate, Hellenistic Jewish material that attacks the Gentiles. But the condemnatory nature of the verses from 1:18-32 also fits awkwardly, if at all, with the spirit of the rest of the epistle, which goes from talking about the “uprightness of God” in the early verses to suddenly referring to the “anger of God” here, an anger that God uses to “hand over” these people to all manner of horrible behaviors.

But then, they’re Gentiles. They’re rotten, horrible individuals. Did you hear the sorts of things they do? In fact, as pointed out by scholar Calvin Porter, “they” recurs in this section with striking concentration, with repetition of the third-person pronoun αὐτός thirteen times, the reflexive (“themselves”) once, and third-person plural verbs over and over: “No other section of Romans contains such a concentration,” he observes.

What’s even more striking, notes Porter, is what comes next: an abrupt change to the second person in Romans 2:1:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?

It’s actually a very big question.

Scholarship has been preoccupied often with the content of verses 1:26-27 to the distraction of its context. Scholars such as James Miller and Mark D. Smith have gone back and forth as to whether the behavior described in those verses can be considered “homosexual” from our culture’s standpoint, or whether they refer to something else entirely. But an even more interesting angle surfaced in Roy Bowen Ward’s entry into the fray: “It is still open to question whether these two verses represent Paul’s voice or the voice of a rhetorical spokesperson in Rom 1:18-32, whom the apostle criticizes beginning in Rom 2:1.”

That’s right. Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.”

Other explanations of what ὦ ἄνθρωπε is doing here are less satisfactory. Some have suggested that Paul is sincerely making these condemnations, stressing here (but only here) God’s anger instead of his kindness (as in 2:4), and then he imagines some onlooker applauding what he’s saying and turns to address him, condemning him for judging but somehow still agreeing with the content of what was just said.

Porter’s argument (which he thoroughly supports with rhetorical models from antiquity) makes much more sense: that the arguments present in the last half of Romans 1 were typical of those made by Hellenistic Jews to distinguish themselves from the Gentiles (thus the repeated use of “they” as noted before), and Paul, as an apostle to the Gentiles, finds this condemnation problematic and thus seeks to refute it, leading up ultimately to his similar conclusion in Romans 14:13, using strikingly similar language to that in 2:1: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

Paul goes on to offer advice on healing the rifts between Jew and Gentile, so Porter’s reading is compelling, and certainly the best I’ve seen for answering the question of who’s being addressed in 2:1: “The shift to the direct address, the second person singular, along with the coordinating conjunction, διό, indicates that the reader who agrees with or is responsible for 1.18-32 is now the person addressed.”

Of course, there will be all sorts of arguments apologizing for the words of 2:1 so that one can keep the words of 1:26-27 as a straight-up, unambiguous condemnation, which one can then rely upon to rationalize all manner of discrimination against gays and lesbians. But the flurry of scholarship on this score, not to mention all of that preoccupied with the words of 1:26-27 themselves, should in the very least make it clear that it’s not all that clear.

It’s yet another example of how close study of the Bible – in this case, the function of a single word – raises far more questions than it does answers.

All We Need is Love

The Beatles - All You Need Is LoveToday we hear the great Pauline statement of love, sometimes called the wedding reading. Although I don’t understand the Beatles to be great spokesmen for formalized religion, they certainly got the message.

Paul, (the saint I mean!) makes it most clear, that above all things love is the key. It is the key to God, it is the very definition and essence of God.

Let us read the words again, and let them sink in:

If I

speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, it is not pompous,
It is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing
but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.
If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing;
if tongues, they will cease;
if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially,
but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
At present I know partially;
then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.
So faith, hope, love remain, these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

We are told through the media what love is. It is tied up in sexual yearning and romance. It is surrounded by diamonds and roses and get-away vacations to tropical destinations. It is emotions brought to the boil. It makes one “weak in the knees” and unable to eat, unable to focus on work or daily concerns. We worry about it, we obsess about it. We pick apart every conversation, every word searching for hidden means. We rejoice when the phone rings and we despair when it doesn’t. This is what the media tells us.

But Paul tells us something quite different. He explains what real love is. It is patient, kind, not rude, not jealous. It forgives easily, wishes only the best for the other, rejoices in the others victories and suffers with failings. It is based in faith, hope, and trust. It is an eternal thing.

But Paul is not seeking to explain to us how we are to love each other, even though that is part of it. He is explaining what GOD is. He is telling us that this is what God is to us as beloved. This is what we must be to God.

Yet, it is how we are to be with one another. It is to permeate our very being and form our foundation for being in the world.

Why is this?

Paul explains that we are mere mortals, and given our humanness, we cannot see the true reality of existence or of God. We see as if through a glass darkly as he points out. St. Augustine remarked that most all we think we know about God is in all likelihood wrong.

If this is so, then why do we bother? Why do we bother to try to know God and why do we try to do  what we believe he would have us do? We are doomed to failure it seems.

Paul admits that our prophesies will come to nothing and our knowledge will fail, so why the attempt?

It is because with the love which is inborn within each of us, we have a chance. Not to understand perfectly for Paul is correct, that can never be in this life. But love guides us to make the better decisions most of the time. We will not always choose as the Spirit would have us do, for we are willful humans with pesky human desires that sometimes overrides the still small voice within.

But if we cultivate love in our lives as our singular goal, we will most surely choose as God would have us more than not. This will enable us to speak truth, and to use our gifts for the betterment of all, and for the glory of God. Love ever before us, brings us to right thoughts, and right action.

Amen.

Striving to Be One Body

seastarsWe know that Paul did not know Jesus in the flesh. He tells us that, and informs us that he has not received the Gospel from other sources, oral traditions or some writing, but has in fact been privileged to receive the Gospel firsthand as revelation from Christ.

Paul, it seems, takes this knowledge with great respect, and from time to time, he clearly points out when he is talking from his own conclusions, and when he is speaking directly from what he received.

In 1 Cor 12: 12-30, we receive from Paul no sense that his conclusions about the body of Christ are his own ideas. Rather his instruction is clear and precise. We are all of the body, and whatever part we have in the body, we are a necessary part of that whole, and but for us, there can be no wholeness. All parts are of equal value, even though some parts garner more attention than others. All gifts of the Spirit are essential to the full and complete functioning of the organism.

Speaking to the Corinthians, these words must have made much sense, for everyone knows that a body missing a foot or the ability to hear, or a hand or an eye, is dysfunctional to one degree or another. Paul’s larger point, that Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, we are all part of the essential whole, was no doubt more difficult to digest. . Speaking to either Jews whom he wished to convert to the new movement, or to Gentiles, whom he wished to reassure, Paul’s words (or Jesus’ words if we may be so bold) ring right and true to us today.

We wonder how it was in  Colonial America that these words did not strike deep at the heart of the slave owner, or the Puritan who was all too quick to dismiss as wicked the Catholic or the Quaker. We wonder how they missed the obvious, that ALL are necessary to the proper functioning of the good body.

Surely they themselves, Puritans especially, were most familiar with being shunned for their unfit beliefs and practices? Surely they saw themselves in the stead of slaves or Gentiles whom Paul welcomed as equally important members of the new community of Christ.

Yet, of course, they most certainly did not see the larger point Paul makes, nor do they realize that to the Gentiles of Corinth, the majority no doubt of that city, they were being asked to sit side by side with slaves or former slaves as equals. Were they not being asked to see something so much bigger than we might today? Today, we say, well of course, EVERYBODY knows that there is no rightful distinction between people!

Yet, there is though we are loathe to admit it. We separate people into groups of us and them, every single day. Paul’s listeners were being asked to stretch their minds around a larger concept, a concept that is most obvious to us today.

Yet, we believe that one of the strengths of scripture, is that however you envision it, whether as the actual perfect word of God, or as the inspired word of God, or as the honest, truthful, and thoughtful beliefs inspired by the Spirit of otherwise fallible humans, one of the things we revere most about scripture is its timelessness. Wisdom literature is noted for its ability to inspire us hundreds and thousands of years after the fact, in new and very different circumstances.

We read scripture asking it to speak to us today, in our lives, in our society.

And if we apply that to Paul’s remarks in Corinthians, are we not being asked to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone as well?

What is the body? If we believe that our God is the God of all peoples in all places, in all circumstances, then the faith tradition is not important, and the social mores are not important, nor the various orientations of our peoples are not important. Atheists, and Muslims, Sikhs, and Transgenders, Native Earth Religions and Pagan belief systems, are not ours to reject, for they too are part of the body, and necessarily part of a well-functioning one. If there is to be rejection, it is far beyond our poor efforts to comprehend, and far beyond our choices to judge.

Is that not the horizon we are asked today to seek? To see all people as God’s people, with gifts to offer us and each other, with each giving an essential something that is necessary if we are to be complete. This is not about actions that are harmful to others–we intuitively realize that we must reject actual harm offered by anyone to others. We are talking about who people ARE as beings.

We reject people for being “different” or for not following the social mores that we deem appropriate at our peril. For we are talking about excising a portion of the body. We are choosing to be less than fully human in our humanness, and in that, we are making the  body dysfunctional.

Paul calls us to consider again the Body before we reject those who seem for whatever reason, different, alien, or wrong-thinking.

Amen.

Vanity of Vanities

 

 

Paul spoke:

Brothers and sisters:
I declare and testify in the Lord
that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,
in the futility of their minds;
that is not how you learned Christ,
assuming that you have heard of him and were taught in him,
as truth is in Jesus,
that you should put away the old self of your former way of life,
corrupted through deceitful desires,
and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
and put on the new self,
created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Eph 4: 17, 20-24)

He tells us that we must not continue to live in the “futility” of our minds. When we think of our minds, we think of our intellect. Futility means, in the Greek, Mataiotes or vanity, which alludes to emptiness or uselessness.

What does he mean by this?

Gentiles, the unbelievers, live by their minds. They have no purpose beyond what ever they define as success in the world about them. They may seek power, money, professional success, public fame, or any number of things that seem to the intellectual thought process worthy ends.

But are they? Can you take any of them to the grave? Will they do you any good if you do?

Of course not. Such goals are fleeting, passing with our mortal bodies. They are empty goals.

Paul attempts to explain to these new believers that they have become different by their baptism. They are no longer seekers of transient things such as money or fame. They now seek permanent goals–loving God and the promises of heaven. They have purpose finally. Real purpose.

This is not to say that intellectual pursuits are bad, as some would claim. In fact many on the far right would dismiss the intellectual , considering it dangerous and unbiblical,  based on a simplistic reading of this passage. But Paul is not saying that at all.

What he is saying is that God and Godly pursuits are beyond the logical results of our thinking. We cannot welcome the spirit of God simply by logical analysis. It requires a leap of faith–something beyond 1 + 1 = 2. Basing our entire life on the logic of intellectual reasoning will take us far, but never far enough–for that we need to put on a new self, and be renewed in the spirit of our mind.

The Spirit offers us a new way of examining the world, a new way of judging if you will. We no longer rely on  slide rules and Socratic methods as our sole means of determining our reality. The Spirit offers us a new plane of existence, a new way of examination, to over-lay upon our three-dimensional world.

Now we do not conclude that something is either good or bad, right or wrong, beneficial or harmful based on a “me” approach. That is what the pagans do. No, we see the totality of the world as all of creation, and that changes the equation dramatically.

Now some may say that I am only talking about a sense of morality, and those who consider themselves “atheists” also can and do have great moral standards that include considering the entire world in their calculations of good and evil. I would agree, such people often do exhibit such considerations, and there are many an atheist who is a good deal more moral that a good many self-defined believers in God.

But of course, just because one is unaware on the intellectual plane of the God who graciously offers guidance, doesn’t mean that they don’t open themselves to that gracious assistance, simply by calling it something else. Now I admit that is an argument that is circular in nature and surely won’t satisfy the average thinking atheist. All I’m saying is that atheists can be perfectly moral while at the same time having no way of knowing why they are. I choose to think that God works in those who profess no faith, yet who open themselves to divine instruction, unknowing as it may be.

Paul concludes by telling us that this new self is created in God’s way, in righteousness and in holy truth. We, these new creations are bound to seek and speak truth, for all truth is holy. All truth is righteous, all truth is God’s way.

Pray for truth in the renewal of the spirit of your mind.

Amen

 

 

 

Who is This About?

I found myself this week reading a few new blogs I came across written by women who were in the throes of transformation.

And the transformation was exceedingly painful, and the end result mostly unknown. These were women raised, and deeply indoctrinated in fundamentalist faith systems. They had broken out of such systems, and the real struggling began.

Never have I read such painful, heart-wrenching descriptions of soul-searching.  My heart literally broke in agony as I read these stories. At first questions, and then more, the searching for evidence, and the final acknowledgement that nothing they had been taught was true.

And that is the issue. The Nothingness. Each expressed in various ways the loss of foundation, the mooring of one’s being in a philosophy that grounded one’s life. The anchor had been removed. As one put it, “there is no right or wrong, no up or down.” These women could see no basis for any moral decision, in fact they could no longer define what was morality.

In some cases they were plagued with fears that the very thoughts they were thinking were the work of Satan, causing them to rethink what they had determined. They were in chaos, swimming in circles, grasping for a lifeline.

Some were still determined to find God in all this mix. Others were not sure at all that any faith was any longer possible. This is the insidious evil of fundamentalism. It is taught as an all or nothing thing. “Either every word in this book is literally true, or we have no basis for believing any of it is true, and our faith is nil.”

It is the faith of fear, threat, and punishment. If you question, you are possessed by the devil and are going to hell. Open that bible, pray. Such people often end up in mental hospitals under sedation. Any psychiatrist will tell you that many a patient is locked in a vicious loop, the perfect catch-22, and some can’t escape.

As I have said many times, fundamentalism causes more atheists than any other single factor.

I left comments on a couple, offering sympathy, and hopefully insight. I offered hope. I offered encouragement. I offered a listening ear.

I, to date, have received no reply. And I was saddened.

And that caused me to think deeply as to why I was so saddened. Why had my overtures been seemingly rejected?

Of course, that is not necessarily the case. My offers of help, of counsel, may have been taken in and treasured deeply for all I know. There is a time for everything as Ecclesiastes tells us.

But I was more concerned over my own feelings.

They gained clarity with today’s second reading from Paul to the Corinthians. (1Cor 1:10-13.17). In it Paul is lamenting the “factions” that have arisen in the city among the faithful. Some are “for Paul”, others “for Apollos”. Others “for Cephas.”

In Paul’s time, there were indeed factions. Three or four to be certain. Paul represented the most “liberal”. His position was that these new gentile Jesus followers need do nothing than profess Jesus as Lord. Cephas, or Peter, represented a more moderate “Jewish” position. Namely that the new gentile members should follow at least some of the Jewish laws. Presumably Apollos represented another school, perhaps the stricter one that all new gentile converts needed to be circumcised and follow all the laws.

In any case, Paul admonishes them all, claiming that the message is distorted if it’s about who is right on all these particulars. The greatest thing by far, is the message of Jesus. That is what they are all called to preach. Losing sight of the goal is damaging to them all, as well as causing damage to the real point, the preaching to the ends of the earth of the saving power of Christ.

I began to realize that this is what I had gotten caught up in. I wanted these women to acknowledge and validate my advice. I wanted the “oh you don’t know how much you have helped me, how you have clarified things, set my heart at ease. I know that my faith is real!”

It was about me.

And I was humbled, as I thought about this. For indeed, I had never agonized over my faith in this way. I had never tossed and turned, fearing, and trembling. I had never felt the painful insecurity these women expressed.

My conversion was more intellectual. I made an assessment of arguments both for and against. I truly believe that God brought that to a head for me. And the choice was obvious to me. Still is. But I did not wrestle with the angel as Jacob did. I made a decision. I question it from time to time, I go over the “evidence”, but I don’t cry out and moan in pain.

And in some ways, I guess that means, that these women have a faith hugely bigger than mine. It is a faith fighting a behemoth of misinformation and out right lies, told to them for years. And they are still in the fight. I’m not sure I would be. Many a newly created atheist sure isn’t.

I am awed, and I am humbled. Perhaps I need do a bit more listening and a lot less giving of advice. Perhaps I am the one who needs to learn something about faith.

Entering the Kingdom

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. We are wont, I believe, when we think of Christ as our King, to think of images of coronation and imperial power that we are historically familiar with.

Certainly we recall Napoleon’s coronation, and many of us recall the grainy black and white film of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. We see pictures in history books of other Empresses, Emperors and Kings. We recall Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus.

When we think of kings, we think of royalty although we are none too clear what that means. We think of palaces, and crowns and precious gemstones, ermine, and purple gowns and trains. We think of sceptres and thrones, and ladies-in-waiting. It all seems quaint and far removed from our daily lives.

So it is natural, when we announce that Christ is King, that we picture him returning in a glory of crown, robes and sceptre, upon a throne of gold and diamond, and millions prostrate before him. In one sense the Church has done little to dissuade us from that image.

Certainly to the people of his day, a king was perhaps thought of somewhat differently. Some may have recognized that courts of various kings existed, but few if any had seen such grandeur. Few had been to the courts of Herod, or Tiberius. There were stories of King Cyrus no doubt, but only stories.

The most important king to the Jews was no doubt King David and King Solomon. Something of the grandeur of both of them remained in the Temple. Yet, both were more renowned for their military exploits and building programs than for ruling their people I dare say. There was little of pomp and ceremony that came to mind regarding them.

But to the degree that these were real kings, stories of which abounded, then it is natural that those in Jerusalem placed Jesus alongside these ancient kings, and what? No doubt they found him wanting. In Luke, at the time of the crucifixion, Jesus is mocked. “Save yourself, King of the Jews!” they snarled. If you are this king, then act like one!

The “good thief” seems to have a sense that this is king in a very different sense. He asks only to be remembered when “you come into your kingdom.” Jesus promises that he will be with him in paradise that very day. (Lk 23: 35-23)

And what are we to make of this? What is this kingdom over which Jesus presides?

It is not a kingdom in any sense that either the Jews or we would expect. It had nothing to do with palaces and thrones, sceptres and robes. It was a kingdom of full interconnection with the very Godhead itself.

Jesus, was and is the in breaking of  that kingdom. As Paul tells us, “he is the image of the unseen God,” the “first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and invisible, . . . .” (Col  1:12-20)

Jesus is the way to the kingdom. Not a kingdom of idyllic life free from work or sweat or pain or aging, but a relational connection with God that brings us into full unity with all of creation itself. Paul further describes Jesus as the head and the Church as the body. Together we co-create with God, Father and Son and Spirit, to build a world of justice and love, freedom and compassion.

The harshness of the mocking by the soldiers and others at the cross always strike me with a shuddering audacity. Even the Roman soldiers believed in gods, and surely the Jews who believed Jesus to be no more than a fake, still believed in Yahweh as the only God.

The remind me of some unbelievers today, who are not content to not believe, and make public argument to that effect. They are most free to do that of course, and we need to have that discourse, lest our own faith become thoughtless. But to mock believers, to make fun of Jesus, whose life is well-documented-whatever you believe of his divinity, seems more than thoughtless, it seems stupid.

For no non-believer “knows” the truth. They only in fact “believe” what they profess. There is no way to disprove the existence of a real “invisible” reality. And so when I read the mocking words of those who sought Jesus’ death or who sought to discredit it, the echos I hear are the young men and women of today who taunt and bully, mock and joke, about those who believe and about what they believe.

Believers, on the other hand, need to remember that they “believe”  rather than know. They have no business threatening unbelievers with hell and damnation. They do not speak for God.

As Paul shows us that Jesus is the “image of the unseen God,” then it seems to me that what we should be about, simply is imitating Jesus as best we can. If we believe that the kingdom enters into history through him, then our job is to build that kingdom, one step, one person, one heart at a time.

And if we do, perhaps we shall be as lucky as the “good thief” who was promised a vision of paradise THIS very day.

Amen.

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