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Jesus, Peter and us

I came home from Bible study last night to find my wife watching a “breaking news” report from Montana.  I was a bit surprised as most New Yorkers have only have a vague notion that Montana exists somewhere “out west.”  What could be bringing Montana to the news here?

I learned that there was to be a special election for Montana’s one and only congressional district and last night, on the eve of the election, the Republican candidate had apparently decked a reporter who was asking him questions he didn’t want to answer.  The reporter’s take was that he was just doing his job when he was “body slammed.”   The candidate’s version was that the reporter had “aggressively” put his microphone in his face and he was just pushing it away when the reporter grabbed his wrist and pulled the hapless candidate down on him.  In addition the reporter was a “liberal” which I assume was seen as a mitigating circumstance.

As it turns out there was another news team in the room and they later issued a statement that seemed to basically support the reporter.  In an ironic twist they were from Fox News.  It was gratifying to see left-wingers so enthusiastic about a Fox News report.

By this morning there was an inspiring united reaction of outrage among left-wing and right-wing sources.  Who says we can never be unified?  Of course the left was outraged by what the candidate did while the right was outraged at what the reporter did but I suppose being outraged together is a step in the right direction.

I’m not sure what I am supposed to believe about this but I would have to admit that reporters probably can be obnoxious and are also much more likely to be obnoxious to Republicans than Democrats.  Having said that it is probably not a good idea to beat them up, that won’t end well.  But for some reason the whole matter has me thinking of Jesus and Peter in the garden of Gethsemane on the night before the crucifixion.

They both see Judas coming toward them leading a gang of armed men. Jesus sees Judas in the middle of the pack but his only reaction is to say, without a hint of sarcasm.  “Friend.  Do what you came here to do.”  He does not try to take control; does not hint at retaliation.  Love would rather be seized, than to seize.

But then there is Peter, the impulsive, hot-headed disciple.  He is not going to take it meekly.  He, like so many of us, is a practical man, and needs to do something; to fight against the chaos around him.  Instinctively, he grabs his sword and swings it at a man named Malchus, a servant of the high priest, hacking off his ear.  The man screams in terror as the blood runs down and the ear lies on the ground.

Then Jesus speaks.  “Put away your sword.  For those who live by the sword, die by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”  He then presses his hands against the bloody hole in the side of Malchus’ head.  He removes his hands, Malchus ceases to be in pain and all stare in awe.   A follower of Jesus had choosen to cut rather than heal and Jesus had to come behind him to clean up the mess made by one of his own.  He’s been doing it with all of us ever since.

Peter was well-intentioned.  He was both angry and afraid.  He wanted to protect Jesus and protect himself.  But Jesus, with legions of angels at his beck and call had no need of protection.  Today we followers of Jesus feel we are in a war too; a culture war. We too can sense the enemy coming.  We too feel angry and afraid.   But Jesus has no need of our passionate displays of angry piety.  Jesus is not looking for anyone to stand up for him.

Jesus’ humble response in the garden shows us the way of the kingdom.  Peter’s act of anger and fear shows us the way of the kingdoms of this world.  One is the way of vulnerability, humility and sacrifice, the other is the way of violence, retaliation and retribution.  One says “friend, do what you came here to do.” the other takes matters into its own hands.  One is the way of the kingdom, the other is the way of the world.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to stand up for him, but to stand with him.  Jesus, who stood between the accused and the accuser when the men came for the woman who had been caught in adultery; stood with despised tax collectors, challenges us to do likewise.  Jesus is in no danger.  But people on the margins of our societies are in danger indeed.

We continually need choose between the way of the king and the way of the kingdoms of this world.  It is easy to use the language of piety, devotion, self-righteousness, common sense, and self-protection when we are angry and afraid.  We add a dash of blame-casting and scapegoating of someone who is “the other” and it even feels righteous.  But it is a righteousness at someone else’s expense.

Peter was angry and afraid so he lashed out.  We can be the same.  We too can face our version of obnoxious reporters.  But lashing out is exactly what Jesus’ perfect love came to cast out.

Is it just me?

Well, someone who I had thought was a friend just sent me two links that has me wondering if he really likes me.

The first is an article by somebody named Riley Dennis entitled “Are genital preferences transphobic?”  My never having heard of Ms. Dennis, who is, no doubt, an earnest young woman eager to help us all, probably says more about my being hopelessly out of touch than it does about her.  I dutifully read the article which is apparently one of many Ms. Dennis has written to help us navigate the sexual universe without being judgmental.  I did discover that I have a near-hopeless case of cissexism and the very fact I have no what that means tells me I am a bad person.

But the second link was even more interesting.  It was from some kind of a Netflix based show called “Bill Nye Saves the World.” which once again I have never heard of, although – frankly – if I was going to choose someone to save the world Mr. Nye is not high on my list.   Anyway, the clip sent to me was of a song and dance from the show entitled “My Sex Junk.”  It was an upbeat, preachy little tune that told me in no uncertain terms that I had no business judging how, when and with whom she, err, used the aforementioned junk.  Okay.

I guess my primary puzzlement came from the clear, if unspoken, message that now, after thousands of years, these heroic young people have had an Aha! moment that will lead us out of centuries of sexual ignorance.  They seem blissfully unaware that sex, in all it’s how, when and with whom glory, has been an obsession of the human race forever.  What is permissible and what is erotic has swung wildly back and forth across cultures and across the centuries.  Frankly, we Christians, in our own way have always been just as obsessed with sex and just as prone to preachy lectures on it as these young people and Bill Nye.

What surprised me however was that, as a slogged through the article and the video, my primary reaction was not shock or dismay but rather was how boring they made the subject of sex sound.  There was no mystery, no sizzle; just a sort of “who cares what, just do it and don’t bother me” tone to their moralizing message.

Now, I realize that I could sound as if I am moralizing about their moralizing and I don’t want to do that; even as they seem to moralize about what is wrong with my morals.  The foundation of Christianity is that I am a sinner and there is nothing within me that can do anything about that.  But I can’t shake the feeling that as these earnest people blaze the trail toward total sexual freedom they may find, if they ever get there, that it wasn’t worth the trip.

What Christians can learn from Bill O’Reilly’s departure.

Last night at our men’s Bible study we had a brief discussion about the departure of long-time media powerhouse Bill O’Reilly from FOX News.  Some who had been faithfully following his program for years were dismayed and sorry.  One or two were angry, saying that “the left” had sabotaged him.  Nobody expressed satisfaction that he had been shoved out.  Neither did anyone comment on the reason – allegations of a history of sexual abuse – that triggered the move.

I have no idea as to what O’Reilly did or did not do and, as most of the allegations against him are sealed as part of court settlements, I doubt I will ever know.  Nobody else, except for O’Reilly and his accusers, knows either but that has not stopped a flood or angry or smug commentators from weighing in.

The subject reminded me of a comment made a few months ago by a well-respected Christian woman who has been in the business world (in her case Wall Street) for decades.  In a discussion about another alleged abuser (Trump) she just grimaced, shrugged and said “When I started in business constantly hearing crude and lewd comments or being subjected to off-color jokes just sort of went with the territory.”  Her comment was a simple statement of fact, not an accusation, not a justification.  There was no more emotion in her statement than if she had said “back then we didn’t have the internet and smart phones.”

But what she had pointed out was that a shift in cultural morality has taken place.  When we Christians rail against “our immoral culture” we are missing an important point.  What O’Reilly found out, and we need to realize, is that in many ways the culture is every bit as moral, if not more so, than it was in the mythical golden age of national morality back when people my age were young.  Women today are, more and more, coming to understand that, no; crude and lewd comments do not need to go with the territory.

Frankly, as Christians, we should applaud this particular shift.  It moves culture closer to, not away from, the morality we have believed all along.  To be sure, in many ways our culture has drifted (one might say run) away from Christian morality.  When Christians say, as one did today, “This would never happen if these women had been ‘keepers at home’ as God intended.” it dismays me to no end.  So here are a few O’Reilly-based ideas for Christians:

  1. Women are in the workplace whether you like it or not. This trend will only increase.  Get over it.
  2. We should be the loudest and clearest voices to say, with no qualifications, that all workplace abuse is wrong. We should NEVER blame the victim.
  3. In a sea of moral changes that disturb us this is a golden opportunity; a place where cultural morality has shifted toward Christian ethics. Just imagine the look on the face of the secular feminist when she finds you standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her striving for the protection of women in the workplace.
  4. Situations like workplace abuse are great times to ask yourself what Jesus would actually do. You might well find that our Savior; who dined with sinners, spoke to “fallen women,” touched the sick, spoke with compassion to people who Jews despised and so much more will give you opportunities to do the same.

Christians, the Cross, and Culture

As is my custom I’ve been spending a good deal of time on Holy Week contemplating all that happened during that momentous week.  I know that many of my evangelical/baptistic friends worry that too much Holy Week meditation sounds a tad too liturgical but I’ve found it to be a blessing.

This year, as often in the past, much of my thinking has gone to Silent Saturday, the day between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  From our point of view we can say that this one day interval is no big deal.  We look back to the cross knowing that everything was going to be OK, indeed much more than OK.  But to the disciples and other Jesus-followers, from the minute that Jesus breathed his last on the cross until they saw the empty tomb, it was a disaster; the most horrible, hope-dashing, thing that could have happened.

All this has me meditating on the reality that, while by no means as bad, we’ve all had similar horrible experiences.  We go along dumb and happy and then one day something slaps us in the face.  A cancer diagnosis, the sudden death of a dearly loved one, the loss of a job, a serious car accident, etc. hits us and we are devastated.    We too find ourselves saying something like “Why did God let this happen?”

While that question goes all the way back to Job and other Old Testament passages something has changed in the way we ask it.   People today are far more likely to lose their faith over suffering than in times past.  This is because our confidence in the power of our intellect has radically changed.  In the past, people never assumed that the human mind had enough wisdom to sit in judgment of an infinite God, and what God might be up to.  Only when this background belief in the sufficiency of our own reason shifted did the presence of evil in the world seem to be an argument against the existence of God.  As Tim Keller says:

“There is, then, a significant amount of faith behind modern arguments against God on the basis of evil. It is assumed, not proved, that a God beyond our reason could not exist – and therefore we conclude that he doesn’t exist…but it wasn’t true that their reasoning had undermined their faith. Instead it was that a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and ability to comprehend the depths of things, had displaced an older, more self-effacing kind of faith.”

Keller is right.  The assumption that our human reason can demand satisfactory answers from God is an act of faith, not reason.  We simply shift our faith from God to our own intellect.  It is at this point that I and many of my fellow evangelicals are ready to congratulate ourselves that we aren’t like that; that we have not succumbed to the allure of placing our own reasoning powers as the judge of all.  We can be like the Pharisee proudly declaring “I am not like this man.”

Maybe we shouldn’t.  Maybe we have actually, to some degree, placed our faith in our own reasoning.  Perhaps it is that we are just clever enough to give this faith a new name – systematic theology.  We collect verses from across the Bible, many of them ripped from their context, and assemble a belief that satisfies us on a host of issues, including the devastating problem of why disaster strikes.  We overlook that it is our reasoning that assembles these verses, not the Bible itself.

I’ve always thought it was a nuisance that God didn’t, in one clear passage, simply tell us in unmistakable terms what to believe.  It is clear that, no matter how much fun, and how helpful, systematic theology is it has never led the church to uniformity on many issues.  I am aware of this now because next week our Bible study group is going to turn to II Peter 2: 20&21.  Our “once saved, always saved” members are going to have to struggle with verses that seem, if taken literally, to imply some can lose their salvation.  They will have to explain to our lone, smiling, Arminian, why we believe that “of course they were not actually saved, they just thought they were.”

Lest you think I am picking on the TULIP lovers in my group I know that there are verses that can turn the table and let them be the ones sitting smugly.  This problem continues on many issues because, gasp, we too have put our faith in human reason; in our ability to properly assemble the “right” systematic theology.

How galling it is to admit that our own intellect is so flawed.  How uncomfortable it is that, when faced with unexplained and painful happenings, and Bible verses we can’t figure out, that we are forced to simply live in the assurance that God is in control; to live each day trusting that the Gospel is true.   We are forced to live each day and be glad in it, to lay down our sin and rely totally on Jesus, even when we can’t figure him out. We have to live each day determined to be joyful in Jesus, knowing that, should something radically change tomorrow, the Lord is our God and our only refuge.  How hard it is to admit that, more often than we’d wish, we are clueless.

Are We Like Lot?

In our Wednesday night Bible study we are slogging our way through II Peter and, last night, we were in II Peter 2.  This book, and in particular this chapter, with its no-holds-barred condemnation of false teachers, is not what you could call uplifting.  Peter is brutally blunt in his description of what happens to false teachers, particularly blatantly immoral ones, and to those who follow them.

Along the way we stumbled into a long discussion on the description of Lot as “a righteous man.”  We spent some time in the story of Lot in Genesis 19 where he comes across as something less than a stellar saint.  Some in our group thought the discussion was meaningless because “the bible says Lot was righteous, case closed.”  Others picked up from the verses that Lot was emotionally and spiritually distressed as only the righteous can be when confronted with blatant sin around them.  I found myself in this group but, like some of the others, found Lot’s actions dubious at best.  In the end we found the whole subject to be a ringing endorsement for the grace of God because, after all, “if Lot was deemed righteous there is hope for us too.”

But in the end the subject shifted to comparing ourselves with Lot, not so much spiritually but rather culturally.  There was Lot, treading water in a sea of iniquity, grieved on the inside but seemingly doing nothing to either challenging the prevailing culture or separating himself from it.  The question was raised – are we the same way?  Are we swimming in an ever-decaying culture where morality is going out the window?  If so, what should we do about it?  I ended up thinking about this long into the night.

My primary reaction is to think that, while morality is seriously changing, it is not declining.  In fact, our culture is growing increasingly rigid on sexual morality in particular.  There is no faster way to feel the moral wrath of our culture than to speak against the accepted morality.  The problem is that traditional Christian morality is rapidly moving toward being on the outside looking in.

The historic cornerstone of Christian sexual morality has been the restriction of sex to being within a married (for life) heterosexual relationship.  On many levels this is now frowned upon.  Don’t like sex outside of marriage?  There is something wrong with you.  Think that “one man, one woman” is the only accepted relationship?  You are bigot.  Oppose divorce?  You are an unfeeling brute.  The problem is not immorality but a changed morality.

So what is a Christian to do?  Some, including a few last night, champion the idea that, thanks to the wise leadership of our current President, we are on the cusp of a great resurgence of traditional morality.  I disagree.  There is no way to unscramble that egg, particularly not through legislative or executive political power.

As an evangelical I am a firm believer in a change of heart through the saving grace of God.  I believe that the song “I once was lost but now am found” can be a reality in anyone’s life.  I accept and believe that no one, absolutely no one, is beyond the reach of the grace of God.  But the only active morality I actually change is my own.  I cannot change the heart of another.

Frankly I think too many of us have lost sight of what is important.  We focus on a losing battle of trying to enforce what we think is moral behavior and miss chance after chance to speak the truth in love to those around us.  We sit in our echo chambers decrying the morality “out there.”

The battle to recodify our morality is over – we lost.  When we come together and whine about culture we are like Lot; we are simply anguished on the inside.  Even worse, we might, like some our Puritan forefathers, grow to smugly see ourselves as the elect and turn our backs on others.  Maybe we need to spend more time eating with, and listening to, “tax collectors and sinners.”  Lot held on to his inner anguish as he (apparently) did nothing but silently grieve.  It could have been worse.  He could have said “Yippie!” when told Sodom was to be destroyed.  Are we like Lot?  Better?  Or worse?

The Benedict Option

There is a lot of flap online about the recently released book The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.  The book proposes “a strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation.”  He bases his book on the monastic order that St. Benedict formed in the dark ages and calls for us to retreat into Christian communities and more or less hide from a declining culture.

Dreher is a decided pessimist. While many evangelicals are elated about the election of President Trump and see this as an opportunity to “bring our nation back to God” he sees this as merely an interlude in an already lost war that gives us “time to prepare for the coming dark age.”  In fact, he says “There are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization….This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world, and only the willfully blind would deny it.”

So, is he right?  There are already a lot of online opinions about this.  You can see a few them here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Trust me, there are many others but I got tired of creating links.  While most of those links go to respected evangelical sites like Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition I’ve included one from a progressive Christian and one from an out-and-out nonbeliever.  If you feel that listing to people who disagree with you threatens your salvation then for sure skip those two.

Another thought that came to me, and that I am in the process of doing, is that we might want to read  The Rule of St. Benedict itself in a modern translation and see what this dear saint said directly.

I have two preliminary thoughts on the concept.  The first is that, in our connected world, there is no easy comparison to the Benedictine era building of a wall around your little community and shutting the outside out.  Just ask our Amish friends or even better the vast, supposedly self-sufficient, Mennonite Colonies in South America.  They strive to be separated from “the world” but constantly find they can’t do it.

The second thought is that if our churches are not already the sort of “in the world but not of the world” sanctuaries we want then there is something wrong with them.  Church, the community of believers committed to each other and to the word of God, is where we draw our strength and comfort as we then go forth to engage that big bad messy world out there.  In other words, we as believers are already not of the world.  Hmmmm.  Where did I hear that?  Oh yes, I remember.

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”  John 17:14-19

A Gospel Issue?

I have a friend who is fond of saying “if you don’t believe Genesis 1, you can’t believe John 3:16.”  He calls this “a gospel issue.”  What he means of course is if you don’t read Genesis 1 exactly the way he does you don’t believe the gospel.

If you do a web search on the phrase “a gospel issue” you will find that, in addition to Genesis 1, there are all sorts of things being called a gospel issue.  Among them are race relations, conservation, abortion, complementarianism, human dignity, and a host of others.  In addition there are several helpful articles explaining just what a gospel issue actually is.  I read a number of them and consensus is clear – the issues they think are gospel issues actually are but the issues raised by others with which they disagree aren’t.

To decide what meets the standard of being a gospel issue it would seem that we first need decide what the gospel is.  While I don’t claim any more inerrancy of my opinions than I am willing to give to others I thought I’d say what I truly think the gospel is.  So here goes, I believe the gospel is that…

…Jesus pre-existed with the father from before the foundation of the world.  He took on human form in accordance with the scriptures.  He died on the cross for our sins as predicted by the scriptures.  He was buried and then rose from the dead, once again in accordance with scriptures. After a period of time on earth in which he appeared to many he ascended to heaven where he sits at the right hand of God as Lord.  One day he will come again in power and as judge.

This is what I must believe –and act as if I do – if I believe the gospel.  I’d be happy to know other explanations of what the gospel is but I am convinced that, no matter how important we think those other issues are, they are not the gospel and can’t be gospel issues. I’m not diminishing the study of these other matters.  But I continue to be concerned about the way we imply – or even outright say – that you must agree with me on them or else you don’t believe the gospel.