Friday, January 31, 2014

The Challenges of Christian Ecumenism in Israel and Palestine -- Sightings (Paul Parker)

Most Americans view the Israeli-Palestinian situation through a rather narrow perspective. We assume that Israeli's are Jewish and Palestinians are Muslim, but too often we forget that there is a small and unfortunately diminishing population of Christians living in these two countries. They represent a wide variety of Christian denominational traditions, and even ethnic origins. Until reading this post I hadn't even thought of the numbers of migrant workers from places like Latin America and the Philippines.  There are also millions of tourists/pilgrims who come and go, most not connecting Christian sites with actual Christians.  This article by Paul Parker is a good overview that might open some eyes.  I encourage a close read and prayers for Christians living in this region -- that they not be forgotten.

The Challenges of Christian Ecumenism in Israel and Palestine
Thursday | Jan 30 2014
Ethiopian-Christian pilgrim in Jerusalem                  Image Credit: Kobby Dagan /
The diversity and vitality of Christians in Palestine and Israel is startling if one takes into account the presence of all Christians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. These Christians live in one of the more challenging areas of the world working out a dynamic ecumenical vision of which few in the West are aware.

Christians in Israel and Palestine include: 1. Hebrew-speaking Palestinian-Arab Israelis who belong to one of the thirteen traditional Palestinian Churches (see author's note in the References section), 2. Palestinians who belong to one of the thirteen Churches, 3. Palestinian-Arab Israeli and Palestinian Protestants who belong to newer evangelical denominations, 4. Messianic Jews who do not consider themselves Christians but who are committed to Jesus Christ as their savior, 5. Russian-Israeli Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, 6. migrant workers—largely from the Philippines and an undetermined number from Latin-America, 7. asylum seekers from Africa, 8. expatriates employed by, or volunteering in, churches, NGOs and foreign governments, and 9. millions of tourists and pilgrims.

Reports about Christians in Palestine and Israel typically focus on the thirteen traditional Palestinian churches, but these reports are misleading. They barely give a nod to other Christians and to the newer Protestant arrivals—Baptist Palestinians are the largest Protestant denomination and outnumber the Anglicans and Lutherans combined.

Most Israeli and Western sources under-count Russian-Israeli Christians. Yet, these Christians may comprise the largest national group in Israel. These sources also dismiss Messianic Jews as irrelevant in number, and omit Christian expats entirely although many have lived in Palestine or Israel for years and sometimes decades. Eleven of the thirteen Heads and Patriarchs of the traditional Palestinian Churches are expatriates who live and work in Israel as guest workers not citizens.

Under-counted as well are pilgrims with undeniable economic and political influence, Christian-African asylum seekers who want to live in peace, and Christian migrant workers who speak fluent Hebrew and work for low wages without job security to provide for their families in their home countries.
An accurate count of Christians in Israel and Palestine is difficult. A close approximation appears below:
  1. Palestinian-Arab Israelis (no Russian-Israelis)       115,000
  2. Palestinians (Gaza & West Bank)                           51,710
  3. Palestinian evangelicals (Israeli & Palestinian)       3,500
  4. Messianic Jews*                                                     5,000 – 20,000
  5. Russian-Israelis*                                                     23,000 – 500,000
  6. Filipino and Latin-American migrant workers*        40,000 – 100,000
  7. Asylum Seekers                                                      40,000
  8. Expatriates                                                              Uncounted thousands
  9. Tourists and pilgrims                                               2,000,000 – 2,275,000    
         Total population                                                        2,278,210 – 3,105,210
  • Population of Israel: 8,081,000
  • Jewish population of Israel: 6,066,000
  • Population of Palestine: 4,421,000 (97% Sunni Muslim)
*Estimates vary widely for these categories due to the individuals’ legal status, their self-understanding, and the ideology of those who provide the statistics.
The Church has a significant presence in Israel and Palestine. It is diverse, international, and influential with the potential for greater influence. Nonetheless, in Israel where state and religion are intertwined and in Palestine where the state struggles for sovereignty, Christians experience social inequality, legal discrimination, limited resources, few options for development, and truncated political power. And to sprinkle salt in the wounds, many international Christian tourists come and go, unaware, indifferent, or with uncloaked disdain for Palestinian Christians and Palestinian-Arab Israeli Christians.  

At the grassroots level, Christians belonging to the traditional Palestinian Churches live and work together in warm ecumenism even if some of their leaders do not demonstrate the same commitment to interdenominational cooperation nor to justice, freedom, and equality. And, although Christians of the thirteen Palestinian Churches maintain good relations with each other, most members of these Churches have little contact with non-Palestinian Christians living in Israel, and tenuous ecumenical relationships with Palestinian Christians who are not members of the thirteen Churches (e.g., Baptists and Pentecostals).

The ecumenical challenge in Palestine and Israel is not limited to thirteen traditional churches or to all of the Christians living in this region. It is a challenge for Christians worldwide.

Some of the Christians living in Palestine and Israel are showing the rest of the world the way, if we will follow rather than try to lead.

How so?

In Israel, the Rev. Fr. David Mark Neuhaus SJ and seven other priests minister to migrant workers, African asylum seekers, and the Hebrew and Russian-speaking Catholic communities, which include many Palestinian-Arab Israelis. While some might argue that Catholics ministering to Catholics is hardly ecumenical, their ethnic, international, cultural, economic, and legal differences argue otherwise.

In Palestine, Bethlehem Bible College (with Baptist origins), and Bethlehem University (a Catholic Lasallian institution) frequently host international scholars and conferences that address issues of ecumenism, equality, peace, and justice.

Also, crossing state and ecclesiastic lines, the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Kairos Palestine, the Diyar Consortium, and the Jerusalem Interchurch Centre are ecumenical, independent, locally respected, and internationally recognized organizations that bridge ecclesiastic structures and cultural divides.

If Christians in the United States want to unite the Church and work for peace in Palestine and Israel, they could hardly do better than to visit, support, and join the labor of their brethren in this region.

Resources and Further Reading:

Ateek, Naim, Cedar Duaybis and Maurine Tobin, eds. The Forgotten Faithful: A Window into the Life and Witness of Christians in the Holy Land. Jerusalem: Sabeel Ecumenical Theology Center, 2007.

Collings, Rania Al Qass, Rifat Odeh Kassis and Mitri Raheb, eds. Palestinian Christians in the West Bank: Facts, Figures and Trends. 2nd Revised Edition. Bethlehem: Diyar Publishers, 2012. 

McGahern, Una. Palestinian Christians in Israel: State Attitudes Towards Non-Muslims in a Jewish State. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Mansour, Johnny, ed. Arab Christians in Israel: Facts, Figures and Trends. Bethlehem: Diyar Publishers, 2012.

Neuhaus, David Mark. “Jewish Israeli Attitudes towards Christianity and Christians in Contemporary Israel.” In World Christianity: Politics, Theology, Dialogues, edited by Mahoney and M. Kirwan, 347-369. London: Melisende Press, 2004.

Sabella, Bernard. Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel: Challenges of Transition and Identity. An unpublished paper. 2013.

Image credit: Kobby Daga /

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The thirteen traditional Churches in Israel and Palestine are grouped into four families.
  1. The first family is comprised of (1) the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church, which includes Russian and Rumania Orthodox Churches.
  2. The second family is comprised of four non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox churches sometimes called monophysite churches that rejected the two-nature/one-person Christology of the 4th Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451 CE: (2) Armenian, (3) Syrian, (4) Coptic, and (5) Ethiopian.
  3. The third family is Catholic and includes six churches: (6) the Latin Catholic Church, (7) Maronite Catholic Church, (8) Greek Catholic Church or Melkites, (9) Armenian Catholic Church, (10) Syrian Catholic Church, and (11) the Custos or Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land.
  4. And the fourth family is Protestant, traditionally known as Evangelicals, and includes: (12) Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and (13) the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Paul Parker, is the Baltzer Distinguished Professor of Religion and the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Elmhurst College. He is currently teaching a course in Israel and Palestine that introduces US college students to the cultures and religions of Israel and Palestine.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit:
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Thursday, January 30, 2014

God Breaks Down Walls of Exclusivity -- Alternative Lectionary for Epiphany 5

What are the walls that divide us today? Americans live in a politically polarized nation -- and that covers a wide variety of divides. Paul speaks of our oneness in Christ, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female (Gal. 3:28), but we remain divided nonetheless.  The vision of God, however, is for these walls to come down.  In the reading from Joshua, the walls of Jericho come down.  This might be good text to read metaphorically.  Then there is the story of Peter's vision, opening the door to the Gentiles.  To whom might the door be opened today?  And finally, we have a word about light and vision in the Gospel reading -- what vision does Christ wish to share with us in this moment in time?  I again invite you to consider these alternative lections (Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary), provided by David Ackerman, a United Church of Christ Pastor.  


Epiphany 5

“God Breaks Down Walls of Exclusivity”

Call to Worship:  Psalm 135:1-7 NRSV

One:  Praise the Lord!  Praise the name of the Lord; give praise, O servants of the Lord, you that stand in the hose of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God.

Many:  Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; sing to his name, for he is gracious.

One:  For the Lord has chosen Jacob for himself, Israel as his own possession.

Many:  For I know that the Lord is great; our Lord is above all gods.

One:  Whatever the Lord pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.

Many:  He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

Gathering Prayer:  When we come together, God, we form a circle of grace that is a source of comfort to us.  But sadly, it’s too easy to be comfortable with just ourselves, and we fail to make room for others as we should.  Help us, in this time, to break down walls that keep us from including our sisters and brothers fully.

Confession:  God, we are afraid of change and difference, and are easily threatened by things that we do not know.  We are too quick to listen to the voices of those who would exclude in the name of preserving some imagined righteous status-quo.  Forgive us for quenching your life-giving Spirit.  Change us, so that the vision you shared with your disciples long ago may be ours, and that we may work to tear down all obstacles that keep us from each other and you.

Assurance:  We have good news to share.  God has shown us that the walls which would imprison us from grace are all torn down.  We see anew that the way to life is not through fear but through love.  By the grace of God, let us embrace our brothers and sisters, in all their difference, with the kind of compassion God calls us to have this day.

Scriptures:      Joshua 6:1-5, 15-25 – “The Battle of Jericho”
Acts10:1-28 – “Peter’s Vision”
Luke11:34-36 – “Your Eye Is the Lamp”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

  •  As was the case with last week’s reading from Joshua, the issue of violence in the name of religion/nationalism is again at hand in today’s first reading.  What do you make of such violence?  How might the sparing of Rahab be viewed a sign of favor to the Gentiles?
  • Look at Luke 18:35-43What connections do you see between this story and Joshua 6?
  •  What walls or hindrances are in front of you in life right now?  How about for your church?  What would it take for those walls to tumble down and for you to be set free from them?
  • While the retelling of Peter’s vision (Acts 11:1-18) appears on Easter 5 of Year C, Luke’s initial description of it in Acts 10 is different enough that it merits its own hearing.  Not only that, it is crucial in terms of the Epiphany theme of including Gentiles.  Aside from removing certain food restrictions, what do you think is the bigger meaning of this vision?  How do you think it influenced Peter’s position at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? 
  • What obstacles to fully including people who are different from you do you face in your life?  What keeps the church from being fully inclusive and fully welcoming?
  • Reflect a moment on Luke 11:34-36What might we imagine is Jesus’ vision for our world?  What are some things that keep us from living out that vision today?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  We thank you, God, for all the ways that you show us how you break down every obstacle to love and grace.

Benediction:  God has given us a vision that encompasses people everywhere and leads us to abundant life beyond our imagining.  Let us go now and share the news that we are set free this day to love and serve our neighbors fully, as God would have us do.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Let's Not Try to Pretty-Up the Bible (By Steve Kindle)

The Bible is, in its newest parts, is around 1900 years old, maybe a bit younger.  The world was much different then.  It emerged in patriarchal cultures, and reflects the culture in which the parts were written.  In this it is a very human book.  At the same time, it is considered to be by many sacred scripture.  These texts were written in languages that are foreign to most in their modern form and even more foreign in their original form.  Translators must take all of this into consideration.  There are many factors that go into the process of bringing an ancient word into an understandable form.  In recent years attempts have been made by some to make the text more inclusive.  Thus, the New Revised Standard Version and the Common English Bible will, where the translators deem appropriate, translate a word like adelphoi, the Greek word for brother as "brothers and sisters."  There are some, including my friend and guest poster, Steve Kindle, who think that this may not be a good idea, for it might paper over significant differences.  I've reposted a piece that Steve wrote for his own blog as a way of opening up a conversation.  What do you think of Steve's concerns about making the text inclusive?  Does it obscure important points that prevent us from truly understanding ancient thought forms?  Or, is this an appropriate way of bringing an ancient text into our context, so that the modern reader might hear a word that speaks to them spiritually?  I'm going to open this up, and expect Steve will stop in to enter into the conversation.  I will as well!


Let's Not Try to Pretty-Up the Bible
By Rev. Steve Kindle

Although I will comment on timely issues that affect the LGBT community, mostly I flatter myself by contributing what might be called (at least by some) "think pieces." These are efforts to reframe or clarify issues of importance. By providing a different angle or detecting a nuance, we might be able to rethink a formerly held belief or position. At the very least, I hope to generate comments from other thinkers for our mutual benefit. Today's post is a case in point.

Ever since translating the Bible began, from the Septuagint to modern translations, translators have obscured certain passages for a variety of reasons. Euphemisms abound. In the Hebrew Bible, the penis is referred to as "thigh," and of course, we're all familiar with "knew" as the substitute for sexual intercourse. In the New Testament, you'd never know that menstrual rags or castration are meant by "filthy rags"(Isaiah 64:6) and "I would they were even cut off which trouble you." (Gal. 5:12)  The NRSV actually says, "castrate themselves."

There has always been sensitivity by translators to tone down for propriety sake the very earthy parts of the Bible. But when it comes to actually changing the meaning of the texts, I will protest.

Inclusive language, that is, the intentional use of "gender neutral" language, has generally been around since the 1960s. It first showed up in the churches as efforts to take the masculine meaning away from the concept of God. So instead of "God, when he...," for example, we hear "God, when God...," and the like. This is a very important move as we know that 1) God has no gender, and 2) worlds of meaning are created by words. The world created by "God, he..." easily became a world in which the male is elevated over the female. I am all for the use of gender neutral terms for God in all church settings including sermons, liturgies, and conversations. But when it comes to inclusive language in Bible translations, I must object.

Inclusive language efforts try to take the offending aspects of gender and neutralize them. This goes beyond pronouns for God and includes "Parent" for "Father", substituting "members" for "brothers" when the entire congregation is meant, "they" replace "he or she," and the like.

Certainly this is a wholesome effort, but it actually makes the Bible less understandable and much less useful. How can that be?

Since these efforts generally come out of the more progressive side of the church, the interest goes much farther than merely inclusive language. They recognize that Jesus' message of a God of love often gets lost in the mix of competing images. So they go about "helping" the Bible represent good theology. We'll see how the Inclusive Bible does this in a moment, but first here's 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: (New American Standard Bible)

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (NASB)

I chose the NASB here because it is a well-known word-for-word translation to the point of being wooden. Anyone reading these verses would come face to face with biblical patriarchy (the family/state system of male dominance and subjection of women). Patriarchy is a biblical fact that runs "from cover to cover." Occasionally there is pushback such as Galatians 3:28, yet patriarchy is the dominate setting. Elders and deacons must be the husbands of one wife, making women ineligible to hold church offices in the "Pastoral Epistles." When the original 12 disciples had to replace Judas, the qualifications made sure a man was chosen. On and on we could go, but you know all this.

So, in an effort to combat the patriarchy of the Bible, and especially its negativity toward women, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation takes it head on. Here's their translation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:

Only one spouse has permission to speak. The other is to remain silent, to keep in the background out of respect, and to wait his or her turn.

Surely this is the way we wish the Bible really had it, but it isn't. This is not how the original audience heard this text. Paul explicitly demands that women remain silent in church; this says exactly the opposite, even though the original sense offends many modern sensibilities, it's the real Bible. The Inclusive Bible is merely wishful thinking. Unfortunately, most of the recent translations offend in this regard to one degree or another. The intention is honorable, but the result is devastating to biblical understanding.

Perhaps a couple more illustrations of how some translations obscure troublesome passages would be helpful. Here's Matthew 18:15-17 from the New Revised Standard Version:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (NRSV)

"Member" here is literally, "brother." "Member" suggests that Matthew's church made no distinctions in disciplining males and females. This is, of course, how many would like for the church to conduct itself in all things. However, "brother" displays the actual situation where men stand in judgment of men. The disciplining of women fell to their fathers, husbands or brothers. But all of this is lost in the cleaned up version.

One more: One of the arguments that literalists make to oppose the Theory of Evolution is that Genesis 1 uses a phrase meaning reproduction is "after their kind," which is correctly translated. They take this to mean that all the species were created at once and that there could be no evolving of one into another. (Which, by the way, segregationist used "after their own kind" to argue that the races shouldn't intermarry.) So the NRSV translates it as "of every kind," which opens the door for natural selection.

We don't want to leave people with the impression that the Bible is not a worthy companion to help us find God and lead worthy lives. But we do want to warn that reading the Bible is not an easy thing, like reading the morning newspaper. We must learn to differentiate between the culturally derived aspects of the Bible that made sense in that day, but no longer makes sense for us. Someone once said that reading the Bible is like eating watermelon: you have to spit out a few seeds along the way.

When Paul said to "greet one another with a holy kiss," it's perfectly fine to give a hug or handshake today, instead. When in their culture women were subordinated, they are now free in ours. We are living into Paul's inclusive vision of Galatians 3:28 that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

So, let's not try to pretty-up the Bible.

First, it's always better to deal with reality than what we would prefer reality to be. Sweeping the problems of the Bible under the rug accomplishes nothing. If you think that cleaning up the offending passages will cure literalists from enforcing patriarchy in their churches, think again. There will always be the King James Version.

Second, if we don't know that the Bible encourages patriarchy, tolerates slavery, subordinates women, and generally represents an outdated worldview, scientifically and otherwise, we lose the fact that it is the product of human beings. Yes, human beings who wrestled with what it means to be human in the presence of the Divine, but human nevertheless. That we can stand in judgment over the Bible comes from listening to all of it, warts and all, and learning to pick the wheat from the chaff. It doesn't take much to see that the "inerrant Bible" is a fiction, but not if it's cleaned up before we get there.

Third, the answer to the problem is not rewriting the Bible; it's in doing good theology. Perhaps knowing that even the original didn't always get it right will help us to understand our human attempts are also fraught with error and subject to revision as others look over our shoulders and make our paths straighter.

So let's live with the Bible as its authors intended. We can handle the seeds just fine.

Reposted from Steve's blog -- Same Sex Marriage in the Church and in the Nation

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Table of Freedom -- Post Communion Prayer for February 2, 2014

Yours is the Table of Freedom.   It is a Table where all are welcome no matter their station in life, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for in Christ we are made one.  We give thanks to you for making this table of blessing available to us, so that as we taken up the bread and the cup, we receive into our lives signs of new life and salvation.  As we have gathered at this table, we have shared in fellowship with the one who sets the captives free.  We come to give thanks at this Table for you have set us free from the bonds of sin and death.  And having been set free, we have been reconciled to you and to one another.  As we leave this table, may we share the blessings we have received here with our neighbors near and far.     Amen.  

Written by Robert D. Cornwall

Picture -- Altar of  St. Giles Church, Oxford 

Signs of Blessing -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4A

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


                The Beatitudes, like the Ten Commandments are iconic.  They are in many ways the New Testament version of the Ten Commandments, statements that define the message of Jesus.  There is beauty to them, and yet on closer look they seem both radical and impractical.  Like the Sermon on the Mount, which they introduce, the Beatitudes turn things upside down.  We tip our hats to them, acknowledging their divine origin, but then move on to more practical things.  Or, more likely, we spiritualize them in such a way that they define what heaven will be like, but there is no expectation that these prescriptions can take effect in this world.  After all, does not Jesus use the word “Kingdom of Heaven”?  Even we who are people of faith tend to separate the spiritual from the secular.  In our Western vision of religion, spiritual things are to be kept private, while the public square is meant to be secular.  This is, of course, a rather modern vision, one that would not have fit with the age of Jesus.

                Perhaps, if we’re going to catch hold of the meaning of these statements we need to read further into the Sermon, to the place where Jesus teaches about prayer.  In that prayer many call “The Lord’s Prayer,” or “the Our Father,” Jesus teaches the people to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done “on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-11).  For those of us who pray the “Lord’s Prayer” weekly or even daily, do we recognize how the spiritual and the secular are brought together in this prayer?  Do we see this prayer as a pledge of ultimate allegiance to God and God’s realm? 

Even as the Ten Commandments serve to guide the development of Israel, so these nine statements provide the foundation for the realm that Jesus was inaugurating – not only in heaven, but on earth as well.  As Jesus went about Galilee preaching the kingdom of God and calling for repentance (Matthew 4:17), what he was doing was calling for a change of allegiance.  If this is true, then should we not see the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes that introduce the sermon as a summation of Jesus’ vision of what the realm of God – on earth and in heaven – should look like?    

If we see these statements as not just a word to the religious, but God’s vision for the earth, then not only does this seem impractical, but dangerous.  Jesus seems to suggest a form of theocracy that is not in keeping with modern Western values.  To bring this word into daily life would seem to open up a can of worms that has implications for other parts of this sacred text.  How do we discern what represents God’s vision for us today and what we should leave behind?

                As we struggle with these issues of interpretation and application, we must return to the statements themselves and ask ourselves, if we’re followers of Jesus, what it means to be blessed?  And if, as I’ve come to believe, the mission of Jesus is a continuation of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants the nations would be blessed, what is the vision of blessing that God seeks to offer? 

Beginning with the first statement – about the poor in spirit – there has been a tendency to think of this statement in pietistic form.  That is, those who are humble in their spiritual life obtain the kingdom.  It is a word of encouragement to those who take up the monastic life.  But does Jesus have in mind voluntary poverty or those whose life of poverty was not chosen?  There likely are blessings to be found in the monastic life, but is that what Jesus has in mind?  Or is Jesus saying that as the realm of God begins to make itself felt, it will be the poor who inherit the earth?  And if so, as people of God, what is responsibility if we are not counted among the poor?

Since his elevation to the papacy, Pope Francis has called for the church to be the church of the poor.  He has demonstrated this in his own acts and lifestyle choices.  He has also put the call to the church in official words – words that have raised the hackles of many wealthy Roman Catholics.  But is there not something of Jesus vision in the words found in Francis’  Encyclical Evangelii Guadium?
                183. Consequently, no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics”, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”.[150] All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ. At the same time, it unites “its own commitment to that made in the social field by other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, whether at the level of doctrinal reflection or at the practical level”.[151]  [Evangelii Guadium, par. 183]
I include this entire paragraph because it brings Jesus’ message into clear relief.  The vision espoused by Jesus, is a call to build a better world. 

Each of these nine statements challenge us to pursue a new vision of life, where the poor stand at the center of our concern as church, where those who mourn receive comfort, where those who resist nonviolently the encroachment of this world’s values inherit the earth rather than being vanquished from it.  Hungering and thirsting is something that the satisfied rarely do, but those who suffer will seek after the nourishment from God and receive this blessing.  Purity comes, largely through the refining fires of human realities.  Peacemaking is something many embrace – we erect our peace poles and celebrate Peace Sunday, but to what degree are we willing to work for peace?  And as for braving persecution – are we who have tasted the comforts of this life hesitant to put ourselves in the crucible? 

Each of these nine statements deserves to be delved into individually.  Each statement has integrity that is worked out elsewhere in scripture.   Taken together, however, they offer us insight into God’s vision for this world.  As people of God, we are invited to consider what it means to live according to this vision.  That is, if we’re ready and willing to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven.  If we are, then we place ourselves in a position to share in the blessings God has promised to provide, and we become agents of that blessing.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Slaughtered Lamb (Greg Stevenson) -- A Review

A SLAUGHTERED LAMB: Revelation and the Apocalyptic Response to Evil and Suffering.  By Gregory Stevenson.  Abilene, TX:  Abilene Christian University Press, 2013.  240 pages.

                The Book of Revelation is one of the most polarizing books of the Bible.  The continuum of responses ranges from the Hal Lindsey types who read every event in the newspaper into Revelation to those, like the late Robert Funk, a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, who suggested that we would be well served by removing it from the canon.  My expectation is that few Mainline Protestant preachers delve into this book for preaching resources.  Better to ignore than open cans of worms – thus out of sight, out of mind.  But are these the only options?  Since the book is in the canon are there responsible ways of interpreting this book that has lent itself to misinterpretation and misapplication?  It may be a dangerous book, but it is firmly ensconced in the canon of Christian Scripture.   

                Fortunately there are skilled and thoughtful interpreters.  One of these interpreters worthy of giving a hearing is Gregory Stevenson, a professor of New Testament at Rochester College (Rochester, MI).    Stevenson, like Rochester College, is affiliated with the Churches of Christ, a faith tradition related to my own, that has a reputation of being conservative.  Whether Stevenson’s interpretation is conservative or not is likely in the eye of the beholder.  What I see in it is a careful scholar who recognizes that this often misunderstood and misinterpreted book of Scripture has a message that is accessible and necessary for our day. 

His approach is scholarly, but also informed by a commitment to the sacredness of scripture.  That is, as he reads it, he does so with a spiritual intent.  He expects to hear a word from God in the words of Scripture.  That expectation guides his work of interpretation.  While this is a book that has deep scholarly roots, the intended audience is much broader than the academy.  He writes with the person who wants to engage this text responsibly, but could be a preacher or maybe the general reader. 

As he writes his commentary, Stevenson believes that Revelation has something to say to the contemporary Christian.  He doesn’t read it as a blueprint for last days.  He believes that the original recipients would have recognized themselves in it.   He sees it as an apocalyptic response to evil and suffering – thus the sub-title.  But, Revelation is not a theodicy in the traditional (modern) sense.  That is, John is not trying to defend God in the face of suffering and evil.  That would not have been part of John’s understanding of God or reality.  It is too modern.  But, John makes two assumptions – God is sovereign and that evil and suffering exist.    The question then is what is the meaning of this reality?

It has become common interpretation to see Revelation as a word of comfort to those who are experiencing suffering because of their faith.  The assumption has been that this book was likely written during the imperial reign of Domitian.  While Domitian did require worship of his image, it is unknown as to how much official persecution was meted out to Christians.  But, being a Christian did put one on the margins of society and could lead to suffering.  Thus, there is a word of comfort – that is, God will reign victorious. 

There is another group, however, to whom this is directed.  That is, it is directed to those who have chosen to collaborate or to embrace imperial culture.  That such persons might be addressed is seen in the letters to the seven churches.  While some churches are experiencing suffering, others are described as complacent and accommodating to a culture that stands opposed to the teachings of Christ.  To these persons the word is different.  John wants them, according to Stevenson’s interpretation which I find compelling; to understand that this culture they’ve assimilated themselves too stands under divine judgment. 

The key image is that of the Slaughtered Lamb, which Stevenson interprets not as a sacrifice for sin, but as one who endures suffering with and for those who follow the Lamb.  In line with this interpretation, Stevenson writes that for John, the Slaughtered Lamb stands as a contrast to the imperial systems (not just Rome, but all imperial systems), that rule by way of violence.  In other words, Jesus, the Slaughtered Lamb, turns the tables on the system.  Yes, God will reign supreme, defeating evil, but not in the way we might expect, viewing things from an imperial perspective.

            In exploring this text, Stevenson helps us better understand apocalyptic language, including its dualism.  For the writer of Revelation, there is a battle going on, a spiritual battle, between two kingdoms, the Kingdom of this World and the Kingdom of God.  It is not a battle of equals, for the Kingdom of God will prevail, but the Kingdom of the World, over which Satan presides, is offering significant resistance.  Thus, a key message in this text, a word offered to those who suffer and those who collaborate, concerns allegiance.  To whom will you pledge your allegiance? 

It is a word to those who suffer promising that God will prove victorious over evil, but shall do so in the form of the Slaughtered Lamb (via the cross).  But there is another audience -- that is the folks who compromise with the world, the collaborators. They are informed that the imperial system in which they've placed their trust stands under judgment and will not survive.  Thus, it is a word concerning allegiance -- to the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of the World. 

While Revelation is clearly a dangerous book, we needn’t shy away from engaging with it.  What we need, however, are adept interpreters.  We’re fortunate to have a number of them in our day, and one of these interpreters is Greg Stevenson.   With his skillful guidance, we can hear a word from God.  And in our American situation, where real suffering for one’s faith is rare, the word we might take away from this reading is a challenge to our complacency.   Living as we do in a Christian majority country, it is easy to equate culture with religion.  We can become comfortable with our situation, thinking that the aims of our culture are those of God.  In reading Revelation, we might find that the system in which we’ve placed our allegiance stands under divine judgment. 

It is because this is a word in season that we should read this book.  

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Embracing the Mission -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon 3

Acts 1:6-11

Every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series – begins with Captain Kirk narrating the mission statement of the starship Enterprise:
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared twenty years later, the producers made a few changes to the statement. Instead of five years, the new crew was embarking on a  “continuing mission,” and they replaced the words “no man” with “no one.” But, they still had a mission – to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and boldly go to new places.

Although we’re not going into space, the church does have a “continuing mission” to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  The words I want to emphasize here are “continuing” and “boldly.”  Our mission is rooted in a mission that was established by God long before any of us were born.  It is rooted in the call of Abraham and Sarah, in the ministry of Jesus, and in Jesus’ commission to the disciples, that they should go into the world as his witnesses.  Jesus also tells the disciples to wait for the Spirit, who will give them power – that is boldness.

Yes, ours is a continuing mission, but I like the idea of five-year increments.  My sabbatical this fall marked the end of my first five years of ministry at Central Woodward.  On my return, we begin the next five-year mission together.  In the past five years we have explored new worlds, we’ve sought out “new forms of life,” and we’ve even gone boldly into these new adventures in the Spirit.  But, the mission hasn’t ended.  As we look forward into the future, five years at a time, we can expect God to take us to new places and provide us with new opportunities for ministry in this world.  In taking up this call to mission we accept the designation of “evangelical.”  

For many today, the word “evangelical” designates a conservative religious party that has particular doctrinal and political beliefs.  While there is truth to this belief, the word also has a much broader meaning.  In fact, in Europe the word evangelical means Protestant.

For my purposes I want to lift up the missional dimension of the word evangelical.  But before I do that I need to acknowledge my own Evangelical roots.  After all, I’m a graduate twice over of a leading Evangelical seminary.  Because my spiritual journey has taken me into the evangelical movement, and because I wanted to focus my sabbatical on touching base with “founding visions,” during our trek to Southern California, Cheryl and I spent several days on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary.  We had dinner with my mentor and his wife.  I attended a class, met with faculty old and new, and reconnected with this important part of my own journey.  In doing this I want to reclaim that part of my own journey, especially the focus of this movement on mission.  

For me, to be an evangelical is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world in word and in deed.  The word evangelical comes from a Greek word that is translated as good news.  Surely that is our calling.  We are bearers of good news to the world.  Through our lives and our ministries, the nations are to be blessed.

In Matthew’s Gospel, after his baptism at the Jordan and his time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus retreated to his hometown in Galilee.  Then, after the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus went down to the Sea of Galilee and began to preach.  Like John he called on the people to repent, to turn around their lives, and give them to God, because the “Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

As Jesus went around the region preaching, he invited others to join him in his evangelical mission.  He started by inviting four fishermen to leave their nets and the security of their employment and join him in fishing for people.  Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples went around Galilee, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:12-23). That is the evangelical imperative – preach the good news and bring healing to body, soul, and even the community itself.
One of the leading exponents of this vision in the eighteenth century was John Wesley, who with his brother Charles, helped found the Methodist Movement.  Methodism was then part of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England.  During my trip to England I had the opportunity to stop in at the Methodist Central Hall in London.  I even had my picture taken with a life-sized statue of Wesley.  I bring up Wesley because he strongly believed that the church is called to reach out beyond its walls to the people.  He caused quite a stir in his day by going out into fields and even public squares and preached to all who would listen.  For Wesley, the church doesn’t engage in mission, it is mission.  Therefore, a church that focuses on maintenance isn’t really the church of Christ.
When I arrived here in 2008, I came to a congregation that was committing itself to being a missional church.  We studied together Martha Grace Reese’s books Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism and Unbinding Your Heart These studies helped us reclaim our calling to share our faith with the world.  Then in February of 2009, we gathered for a retreat and came up with a core values statement that set us on this missional course.  So, if we’re to be true to our purpose as a congregation, then we will be a missional church.  And therefore, everything we do should proclaim the good news that the realm of God has come near, which means we’re an evangelical church.  
This calling is further defined in Jesus’ final message to his disciples before he departed.  In Acts 1, after the disciples ask him if he’s going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” he tells them not to worry about such things, instead he gave them a mission.  In verse eight, Jesus tells them that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Book of Acts is built on this principle.  After the Spirit falls on the church at Pentecost, giving them power and courage, they begin to preach the good news of the kingdom.  They start in Jerusalem, where a church is born.  Before long, the mission takes them to the rest of Judea and then Samaria.  From there the mission extends to the ends of the earth.  Although the Book of Acts ends with Paul in a Roman jail, Luke leaves the story open so that we can continue writing this story.

In the two previous sermons in this series, along with the sermon I preached before I left for the Sabbatical, I linked our continuing mission as a congregation to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah. In taking up this calling to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, we participate in this covenant of blessing.

Bringing Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 to the present, I have previously compared Jerusalem to the people living in a five to ten-mile radius from the church, especially the community of Troy.  This is the starting point.  From there we move outward into Metro Detroit and the state of Michigan – our Judea and Samaria.  From there we join in a ministry that takes the good news, the blessings of God, to the ends of the earth.

Wherever it is that God has placed us, we have the opportunity to embrace God’s mission.  In doing this we reclaim our founding vision, and in doing this we become  evangelicals – in the broad sense, not the party sense.

I want to bring this message to a close by sharing the words from a  Charles Wesley hymn.  It’s not one of his more famous hymns, and so you won’t find it in most hymnals.  The words might even sound a bit dated, but I think they capture the evangelical spirit to which we’re called to embrace: 

When first sent forth to minister the word,
Say, did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
Was it our aim disciples to collect,
To raise a party, or to found a sect?
No; but to spread the power of Jesus' name,
Repair the walls of our Jerusalem
Revive the piety of ancient days,
And fill the earth with our Redeemer's praise.

[Quoted in Paul Wesley Chilcote. Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and     Charles Wesley, (p. 99). Kindle Edition.]

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 26, 2014