Saturday, May 31, 2014

What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions (Philip Wogaman) -- Review

By J. Philip Wogaman.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiv + 135 pages.

            We live in a world in which it is increasingly likely that we will encounter someone of another faith tradition.  In the community in which I live, in Metro-Detroit, there are large numbers of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians (of several varieties and ethnic backgrounds), along with the usual complement of Protestants and Catholics.  If you’re a student at a local school, the person sitting next to you quite possibly follows one of these “other” religions.  If you’re a Christian – as am I – is it possible to learn something from another religious tradition that can enhance your own faith?  That is the question posed by Philip Wogaman in this book. 

Philip Wogaman once served as senior minister at Washington D.C.'s Foundry United Methodist Church, a congregation whose members included Bill and Hillary Clinton along with Bob and Elizabeth Dole.  He also served as President of the Interfaith Alliance.  He has also served as a professor of Christian ethics at a number of seminaries, including Wesley Theological Seminary.  As one might expect he brings each of these experiences into this book.  It is pastoral, theological, and sensitive to interfaith concerns. 

In the course of ten chapters, which began life as a sermon series delivered at Foundry United Methodist Church before his retirement from that ministry, he invites us to reflect on the question posed by the title of the book.  He focuses his attention on primal religions, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions (Taoism and Confucianism), and atheism. He adds another chapter that asks similar questions of several religions he is unable to address more broadly -- Jainism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Baha'i movement.  He writes the book as a Christian – noting where he, as a Christian, is of a different viewpoint or where beliefs such as reincarnation differ from Christian teachings.  But even while reincarnation is not ultimately reconcilable with Christian understandings of human destiny, the idea of karma reminds us that there are consequences to our actions.

Many readers may find it odd that Wogaman includes atheism in his discussion.  As he himself notes, most atheists reject the idea that they are part of a religion – defining religion as belief in God.  If that is what one means by religion then this might be true, but if we follow Paul Tillich’s definition of religion as ultimate concern, then surely atheists have some sense of ultimate concern.  In his presentation of atheism, he discusses two forms – Marxist atheism and Bertrand Russellish atheism, which is what we see in contemporary neo-atheism.  Including atheism allows for a contrast between belief and non-belief. 

          As you read the book you get the sense that he sought to give each religion a fair hearing – trying to describe the beliefs and practices of Hinduism or Islam in a way that adherents of those religions would recognize themselves.  He works with the principle that in the course of interfaith dialogue, we must compare the best of the other with the best in one's own tradition.  This is an important point to highlight.  Too often people get into trouble by focusing either on extremists or on negative stereotypes.  For instance – many Western Christians critique Islamic treatment of women, forgetting that in a majority of Christian traditions women have similar limitations.  On the other hand, he notes the many similarities that faith traditions share – including moral imperatives concerning the common good.  This sensitivity to the way others understand themselves is also seen in his decision to invite members of the faith communities he discusses to read and critique the presentation. 

Interfaith conversations require true dialogue for them to be successful.  All participants need to feel free to teach and to learn.  So, if Christians have something to learn from other faith traditions, then surely others have something to learn from Christians.  Thus, in his concluding chapter, he shares some of the concepts that he thinks Christianity embodies that can be shared with others.  These include the significance of Jesus to the religious discussion.  Besides this, he suggests Christian efforts to pursue the critical interpretation of Scripture, ethical thinking, learning from the secular enlightenment, engagement with political life, and ecumenism.  The book closes with fifty points to consider.  Each of these points picks up on something that was discussed earlier in the book – forty-seven from faith traditions other than Christianity and three from Christianity.  Number 47, which he derives from atheism, is important to the conversation – “Religion must not be promulgated by compulsion.”

Because this book began as a sermon series, it is quite accessible and readable.  As one involved in interfaith work, I found this to be quite useful.  He also demonstrated the difficulties that we encounter when we try to make sense of our own beliefs in conversation with others.  In the discussions of Judaism and Islam, both of which have close ties to Christianity, he attempts to reconcile the Christian teaching on the Trinity with the stricter definition of monotheism present in Islam and Judaism.  Thus, in the chapter on Islam he tries to demonstrate that Christians aren’t tri-theists or polytheists, but in doing so he seemed to move to the opposite view, which is modalism (Father, Son, and Spirit end up being masks or functions rather than persons).  Of course, that is my own issue – others might not be so discomforted by the presentation. 

Whatever qualms I might have with a point of doctrine here or there, I believe this is an excellent resource for helping Christian communities understand themselves in relationship to their neighbors whose faith is different, but who share the same humanity.  Each chapter has a series of discussion questions, making this an excellent resource for an adult or even youth study group.  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

God Gives Us the Holy Spirit -- Alternative Lectionary Pentecost Sunday (David Ackerman)

I have a special affinity for Pentecost Sunday. It may have something to do with a bit of Pentecostal background (and the fact that I wrote a book on spiritual gifts -- Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening), but nonetheless -- Pentecost Sunday stands out as powerful witness to God's ongoing presence and work in the world.  The texts that David Ackerrman has chosen for Pentecost Sunday are intriguing.  In his Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary we start with a reading from Isaiah 60 -- a text full of promise of harvest blessings as the responsive Call to Worship.  From there we move to the reading from Deuteronomy, which  reminds us that Pentecost was  a harvest festival -- and such is the case with that first Day of Pentecost.  The reading from Galatians 3 reminds us that the Spirit of God comes to us as a gift.  We don't own the Spirit, control the Spirit, or even deserve it -- it is, after all a gift of grace.  Finally, the reading from John 3, reminds us that not only does the Spirit come to us as a gift of grace, the Spirit is given without measure.  As Pentecost nears, let us prepare to receiving the harvest of God's overflowing and unfettered Spirit!


Pentecost Sunday

“God Gives Us the Holy Spirit”

Call to Worship Isaiah 60:19-22 NRSV

One:  The sun shall no longer be your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night; but the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. 
Many:  Your sun shall no more go down, or your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. 
One:  Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever.  They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands, so that I might be glorified.
 Many:  The least of them shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the Lord; in its time I will accomplish it quickly.

Gathering Prayer:  Come to us today, Spirit of God, and fill us.  Show us your presence here as we gather to be with you, to praise you, and to give you glory.

Confession:  So often, God, we have grieved your Holy Spirit.  We have wasted your gifts on things that do not matter, and we have lived as though you weren’t really real.  Forgive us, God.  Help us to know that even though there are times when you seem far away, you are closer to us than our nearest breath.

Assurance:  God lavishly and abundantly pours the Holy Spirit into our lives so that we have grace beyond measure.  Through this generosity, we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have been given new lives this day.  May we respond with overflowing gratitude to God for this amazing gift!

Scriptures:      Deuteronomy 16:9-12 – “The Feast of Weeks”
Galatians3:1-5 – “Spirit and Flesh”
John3:31-36 – “The Spirit without Measure”

Commentaries and sermon helps are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

  • What, connections can you see between the Feast of Weeks as it is described in Deuteronomy 16 and the Christian celebration of Pentecost?  Do you see any connections between this festival and the promise shared by the prophet in Isaiah 60?
  •  Why do you think Paul’s tone is so edgy in Galatians 3?  What point is he making to them about the difference between the Spirit and flesh?
  •  When John 3 states that the one whom God has sent “gives the Spirit without measure” what does that mean to you?  What do you think is the reason for the reference to God’s wrath in v 36?
  • Some Christians say that they have a hard time relating to or understanding the Holy Spirit.  Do you believe that God gives you the Spirit?  What do you think the Holy Spirit is like?  Do we have the Spirit or does the Spirit have us?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  Our expressions of gratitude are not enough to thank you for the gift of your Spirit in our lives.  Teach us to show how thankful we are by living as you call us to live.

Benediction:  God gives us the Spirit so that we may go out into the world and share the good news of Jesus with our world.  So let us go now and spread the word that the Spirit has come and that through its power all things are made new.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Rule of Faith and the Canon

One of the big ideas of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code concerned the canon of Scripture.  He picked up on a popular idea that Constantine brought to an end a free-flowing Christianity and imposed a certain orthodoxy on the church -- including a New Testament canon.  The truth is, that "official" list had been in the process of development for some time.  In fact, Marcion's attempt to create a canon served as the real impetus -- and his canon was much smaller than that embraced by the wider church.  In large part that was due to a strong anti-Judaism present in his theology and much of Gnostic thought.

So, how do you decide what belongs in this listing of authoritative books?  The early Christian leaders turned to a number of criteria, including apostolic authorship and perceived age.  Of course, since many documents claimed to be early and of apostolic origin, that proved insufficient.  Thus, creedal formulations began to emerge -- what have come to be known as the Rule of Faith.  The key to discerning what belonged in the canon was its content -- did it match what at least some Christians considered orthodoxy.  Everything, including New Testament Scripture, had to be measured against this standard.

The Rule of Faith proved necessary because heterodox and orthodox alike made use of the same texts. To refute heterodox opponents the church developed the Rule of Faith, a summary of the Christian faith that emerged out of the Scriptural witness, and then helped form the New Testament canon.  Though there is a strong relationship between the Rule and the New Testament, its origins can be found instead in oral tradition.  Kurt Aland made the following comment on this rule.
It presents the deposit of the developing faith possessed by the church.  Its content accordingly changed, even when the words remained the same for a longer period of time or altogether.  The formula attained life, indeed its real existence only through interpretation.  It presupposes a definite and continuously developing basic prior understanding, even though the regula fidei was only one of the normative points in which the church of the second century saw the pure doctrine being guaranteed.  [Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity: From the Beginnings to the Threshold of the Reformation (History of Christianity) (Volume 1), p. 115].
Though it was not the only guarantee, adherence to this Rule of Faith  was seen by many as constituting orthodox Christian faith.    

Because both heretics and orthodox quoted from and used Scripture, Tertullian, in his Prescriptions Against Heretics, insisted that one should not argue with the heterodox from Scripture.  To do so was a fruitless venture.  Furthermore, since the orthodox church had ownership of the Scriptures from the beginning, they alone could argue from Scripture.  Thus, if one was to argue from Scripture, one must first affirm the Rule of Faith.  Tertullian insisted that "This Rule, taught (as will be proved) by Christ, allows of no questions among us, except those  which heresies introduce and make heretics."  Therefore, ifs you did not contradict this Rule of Faith, you could discuss as much as you liked.  [Tertullian, "Prescription Against Heretics," in S.L. Greenslade, ed., Early Latin Theology,  (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 39-41].

So, what did this precursor to the Apostles Creed look like?  Here is Tertullian's version, which emerged at the beginning of the third century.

 The Rule of Faith--to state here and now what we maintain--is of course that by which we believe that there is but one God, who is none other than the Creator of the World, who produced everything from nothing through his Word, and sent forth before all things; that this Word is called his Son, and in the Name of God was seen in divers ways by the patriarchs, was ever heard in the prophets and finally was brought down by the Spirit and Power of God the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her Womb, was born of her and lived as Jesus Christ; who thereafter proclaimed a new law and a new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles, was crucified, on the third day rose again, was caught up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father; that he sent in his place the power of the Holy Spirit to guide believers; that he will come with glory to take the saints up into the fruition of the life eternal and the heavenly promises and to judge the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both good and evil with the restoration of their flesh.
You can see many of the elements that emerge as the Apostles Creed.  The concern is the oneness of God, who is Creator and the revelation of that God through the Word made flesh.  The Holy Spirit guides the believers to eternal life.  For a community not yet in control of their destiny that promise of heaven stands tall.

We live in a different context, with different concerns, but how do we express our faith in a way that is coherent and faithful?   We look to Scripture -- though with a critical eye -- but how do we know what texts we should look to?  Who decides the canon?  Is it open or closed?  If open, on what basis do we add books?  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Into Glory -- Lectionary Reading for Easter 7A/Ascension Sunday

John 17:1-11  (NRSV)
17 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people,[a] to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
            As the Easter season comes to a close, it’s time for us to transition from reflecting on Jesus’ visitations with his disciples to the ongoing ministry of Christ’s church in the power of the Holy Spirit.  With Pentecost on the horizon, our focus begins to look forward into the future, where God’s realm will come in its fullness. 

This final Sunday of Easter offers two textual choices.  We can focus on the Ascension story, which is developed in Luke 24 and Acts 1, or we can follow the readings set out for the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  I have chosen to engage with John 17, which helps give definition to the post-Easter reality.  Since John doesn’t have an Ascension story, per se, this reading provides us with a glimpse at John’s vision of Jesus’ ultimate destiny.  That destiny is to share in the glory that is God.  As John 17 begins, the disciples, whom Jesus has been engaging in one last teaching session, step into the background and Jesus turns his attention to the Father, whom he addresses in intimate prayer (though we are invited to observe).    

For my own denominational tradition verse 11, which speaks of oneness, is the key to this passage.  Since we have made Christian unity a centerpiece of our core message, this is understandable.  This prayer for unity, however, encompasses more than institutional harmony.  Whatever unity might exist within the community is rooted in Jesus’ prior unity with the Father. 

Jesus appeals to the Father, asking that he return to the glory that was his prior to creation.  Glorify me, Jesus prays, even as I glorify you.  It’s not difficult to read this through the lens of celebrity.  Bring me fame and I’ll bring you fame.  While that nuance exists as an expression of the Greek word doxa, I don’t think that’s what Jesus (or John) has in mind.

In context, the word doxa seems to reflect the Hebrew kabod, which can carry the meaning of presence.  Note that in verse five Jesus prays that Jesus might share in the presence of God that he had known before the world was created.  This reference carries us back to John 1, where we are told that the Word was God and that this Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.  By knowing – experiencing – relationship with Jesus the disciples have the opportunity to participate in the divine glory – relationship – that had existed from before this world existed. 

Reading this passage in a Trinitarian manner, which I think the text allows, Jesus is acknowledging his own relationship with God, a relationship of complete harmony and unity.  But he doesn’t stop there – he seeks to bring the disciples into this experience of divine presence.  This works best, I would think, with a relational/social understanding of the Trinity – by believing (trusting) the disciples are drawn into the inner relationship of the Godhead. 

If the glory that Jesus speaks of is the presence of God, then the word here concerning eternal life needs to be understood in that context.  Because the idea of eternal life too often gets linked with pearly gates and angels playing harps that it has become an unusable image many progressive/liberal Christians would rather do without the concept.  Better to be content with John Lennon’s vision of a world without heaven.  But are these the only choices – pearly gates or no heaven?    

From a pastoral perspective, not having a vision of eternity to share with the families of those who have died leaves very little good news to share.  If there is no vision of resurrection to share with the congregation, most families would leave the office or the funeral or the grave deeply perplexed and bereft of comfort.  Indeed, it should instructive that most cultures and religions have some sense of something lying beyond the grave.  There appears to be a primal need for such a vision. 

What then is John’s vision of eternal life?  He tells us that it is to know “the only true god, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  In other words, it involves being in relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ.  While we have a tendency to read this individualistically, in Jewish context individuals are always part of a community – that might be the people of Israel or the more compact community of Jesus’ disciples, for whom John seems especially concerned at this moment.  For John eternity is not out there in the future – it has already begun.  The choice is ours whether we wish to step into it.  What this means, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note, is that knowing God “is to follow the way of God (v. 3; cf. Ps. 9:10; 24:4; Isa. 45:3) that can lead to immortality (see, e.g. Wis. 15:3; Philo, That God is Unchangeable 143).  John adapts this thought:  Jesus is the way to eternal life- animation by God” [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 47].
While there is a dualism present here that we must acknowledge – one that should be troubling to us (Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned about the World) – there is a message to be received in this conversation.  The idea of eternal life becomes problematic when we begin to engage in deciding who is in and who is not.  What I hear in John is simply the recognition that we have a choice as to whether we will embrace the message of God’s realm.  That said, theologically I am convinced that God will do what is necessary to reconcile all things (including all humans) to God’s self.  Eternity, therefore, begins now – if we’re willing to embrace the message.  If we’re willing to embrace this message, then one consequence is that we have the opportunity to begin living lives without the fear that perfect love casts out (1 John 4:8).  It is a life lived in relationship with God (vertical dimension) that gets expressed in our relationships with each other (horizontal).  We see this expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, where the earthly mirrors the heavenly (“on earth as in heaven”). 

Looking forward into the future – Jesus asks that he might return to the Glory that is God, inviting us to share in that glory.  While we can interpret this in terms of a “pie in the sky” vision of eternal life, a vision that often undermines the ethical component of the eschatological vision; such need not be the case.  A truly biblical vision should have earthly implications.   As Clark Williamson reminds us – our choice has ethical implications.  We can carry with us a sense of ultimate doom, or ultimate confidence that overcomes certain kinds of fear. 
There is an ethical consequence of our choice, because to decide to believe in the ultimate victory of God’s love over death, transience, and nihilism undergirds and makes sense of our moral life, whereas the alternative denies that how we live our lives makes any ultimate difference.  So the option is between believing that God’s loving grace will triumph, or believing quite the opposite, that it will not.  If we take our clues about ultimate reality and what is ultimately real from the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, we will choose one way.  [Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology, p. 315].

We may not have all the details as to how this future vision will work out, but Jesus seems to offer to us the promise of a unity with God that will bring unity to God’s realm – not uniformity of course, but justice revealed in love.  That is, therefore, the promise of eternal life.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Strangers and Pilgrims Once More (Addison Hodges Hart) -- Review

STRANGERS AND PILGRIMS ONCE MORE: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World.  By Addison Hodges Hart.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.  148 pages.

AWhat does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in a post-Christendom world?  This is a question that Christians living in the West are being forced to ask, because the old age of Christendom is crashing down around us.  This is happening whether we like it or not, and we’re past the point of no return.  We can try doing CPR on the old cultural and societal foundations of a “Christian civilization,” but the body is dead.  For many in our midst this is a crushing blow, and the grief is strong.  Others among us are cheering – either because they despised a Christianized civilization or because they deplored a Constantinian Christianity. 

Addison Hodges Hart, a retired pastor and college chaplain, as well as the author of the recently published The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on the Buddha's Path (Eerdmans, 2013), invites us to imagine what this new world will look like.  His is a future-oriented vision, but even as he helps guide us out of the ruins of Christendom, he doesn’t regard the age of Christendom being a dark age.  There is much to abandon – especially the coerciveness that often went with Christendom – but there are also important gifts, including theological legacies.  Still there never was a golden age to be restored in the present. That said, from now on we go forward as strangers and pilgrims – much as we were before the embrace of Constantine.

Hart uses an ancient medieval theological methodology of sic et non (yes and no), contrasting what must be abandoned on the journey forward and what can be affirmed.  This is, Hart insists, a “book opposing Christianity to Christendom, or, at least, recognizing them as different and even often at odds in both basic principles and practical results – in both their roots and their fruits, to use the language of Pragmatism” (p. 1).  As to what Christendom is – he defines it as the alliance of church and state that goes back to Constantine.  It is also Western and European in orientation.  It is clear why Christendom is collapsing – the center of the Christian faith has shifted east and south. 

We begin by saying no to Christendom – to the cultural alliance that has undergirded Western Christianity for nearly fifteen centuries – and saying yes to Christianity – a community of exiles.  In this new context, we face many challenges, including the rise of an atheistic scientism.  Interestingly, the one place where Christendom seems to be holding on is in the United States, where connections continue to be made between Christian faith and empire. 

If this old age is passing away, what will it look like?  One expression is seen in the abandonment of dogmatism in favor of dogma.  Many might see no difference between the two, but Hart is very clear that dogmatism is coercive, whereas dogma is simply foundational beliefs – such as are expressed in the Rule of Faith or the Apostles Creed.  These early statements have a sense of open-endedness in their simplicity.  They leave room for conversation.  Hart goes into some detail about attempts to add too much definition and adding in doctrines that seem tangential – such as the Immaculate Conception.  The cure for dogmatism, Hart writes, can be found in the pragmatism of William James, such that it is by the fruit that we might judge dogmas.
Even as we say yes to dogma (foundational beliefs), we can say yes to the Bible without giving in to Biblicism.  We can give heed to the Bible, but Biblicism flattens out the Bible so that every word has equivalent value and allows for little or no critique.  To avoid such a problem, we must read it as we would read any book – with open and critical eyes.  Hart lifts up the idea of progressive revelation – such that over time the vision of God present in scripture develops and matures.  In a seemingly Barthian way Hart distinguishes between the Bible and the Word of God.  The Word is Jesus, and the Bible is the Word of God in so far as it leads to Jesus.  He rejects what he calls a “monophysite” Bible, one with one divine nature and new human element.  Hart takes us on a tour of the Biblical story and then shows us why inerrancy will not work.  By taking this route, the Bible can be a signpost on the way to God. 

We are, Hart writes, to affirm “sacramental unity” while rejecting “sacramental division.”   Baptism and the Eucharist should be signs of Christian unity – representing the gift of Jesus to the church.  Unfortunately they too often have served as barriers to unity.  In part this is due to Christendom, which enforced uniformity over unity.  The expectation that institutional forms of Christianity held out before the world is that one must submit to this authority or stay away.  We’ve seen this recently as some in the Christian community use the Eucharist as a political weapon.  For Hart there should be no barrier to the Table.  Closed communion is, he writes “the illusion of Christendom that has made it seem so, along with the idea that dogmatism trumps charity and that doctrinal purity – that ultimately impossible achievement – is more to be desired than Christ’s own open invitation” (p. 114). 

The final chapter contrasts evangelism with polemicism.  Hart believes strongly that the gospel should be shared.  But, he does not believe that polemics is the right means to that end.  Evidence will not bring a verdict, if by evidence we mean “rational proofs.”  It is one’s life – the fruit of one’s beliefs that will speak to the hearts of those around us.  Polemical debates, ultimately, are unwinnable.  Thus the only credible evidence for the faith is our lives.  With this we return to the pragmatism of William James – fruitfulness is the key.  In laying out his vision of evangelism, Hart offers a very helpful and practical set of guidelines for interfaith conversation.  Perhaps we should expect this from the author of a book who encounters Jesus in Buddhism.  The foundation of our conversation is to be found in Huston Smith’s “universal grammar” – the universality of the religious impulse.  There are many differences, but there are also bridges to understanding that can and should be pursued. 

What Hart seeks to offer is a word of guidance to Christians who find themselves once again living in the world as strangers and pilgrims rather than as settled citizens of Christendom.   As you read the book you will find that Hart doesn’t exactly fit our categories.  Some might judge him to be overly conservative, while others might see him as liberal.  He critiques liberalism for being too mushy and evangelicalism for being too beholden to neo-conservative politics and the vestiges of Christendom.  I’m not exactly sure where he stands on homosexuality, but he is concerned about the loose sexual mores of the contemporary age.  I am certain that he stands strongly against the coziness of American Christianity and American imperialism. 

Much has been written in recent years about imperialist Christianity and the end of Christendom.  Often it is post-modernism that is the chosen means to overcome this tendency, but Hart prefers Pragmatism.  Interestingly enough Church of Christ psychologist and writer Richard Beck suggested that Progressives might find a better intellectual grounding in Pragmatism than they would in postmodernism.  Why?  Ultimately both point to the importance of fruit as a sign of faith.  With that in mind, we can begin our journey as pilgrims and strangers.  And as we begin the journey, Hart offers an excellent companion for the journey.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Good Witness -- A sermon for Easter 6A

1 Peter 3:13-22

What makes for a good witness?  From Perry Mason to Law and Order, a good witness is one who promises to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, usually with the help of God. 

According to Peter, a good witness is one who gives an account “for the hope that is in you,” and to do so with “gentleness and reverence.”  This witness will be given even the face of suffering.  

As is often the case in Scripture, Peter tells his readers not to be afraid or intimidated by those who would oppose them.  Simply do what is right before God and you will be blessed.  Peter then points to Jesus, who endured suffering, died, but then God raised him from the dead and seated him at God’s right hand so that the one who was judged will sit in the judgment seat.  

Few Christians living in the United States have any need to fear suffering for our faith.  We might experience some inconveniences at times.  And, if you’re a pastor, some people believe that you will put a damper on a party.  But, there’s nothing to fear from those who would persecute us.  After all, Christianity still has the upper hand in America.

Why is this?  Well, even though Christendom, which is the merger of Christ and Culture that began in the 4th century with Constantine, is crumbling, there are enough remnants of it to keep us quite safe here in America. 

We might not have much to fear, but we do have a witness to share with the world.  As followers of Jesus, having been baptized into his death and his resurrection, we have a message to share that concerns the realm of God.  This realm that we are called to proclaim extends beyond all loyalties – including to family and to the nation. When we’re baptized, we become part of God’s realm.  We get a new citizenship card, with a certain set of expectations.  Those expectations center on living a life that is in tune with the ways of God. 

1 Peter 3 offers us an incredibly rich text, with many jewels that can be examined closely.  There is the conversation to be had about fear and suffering.  There’s the question of Christ’s death and his resurrection.  There’s that seemingly odd reference to Noah and to Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison.  Then there’s the reference to baptism as well as to the ascension of Jesus.  There are so many sermons packed into this brief passage of scripture – but alas I can’t preach them all this morning.

Therefore, this morning I want to focus on verses 15 and 16.  Peter, or more likely someone writing in his name near the end of the first century, sends a circular letter to congregations in Asian Minor, telling them to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”  And, do this “with gentleness and reverence.” 

The word “defense” – in Greek – is apologia.  For those who enjoy studying etymology – here’s the root of our word apology.  Now, when I think of this word “apology,” I usually think of having to say “I’m sorry.”  As a child my mother would say, “Now Bob, apologize to Mark and Paul for waking them up at 11:00 in the morning.”  Of course, I wasn’t sorry.  I wanted to play basketball and they were wasting away the day!

But, that’s not the kind of apology that Peter has in mind!  So, what does he have in mind?  

Some Christians hear this passage as a call for Christians to prove our case for the Christian faith before a skeptical world.  This is called apologetics.  Back in high school, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Walter Martin, who was known as the “Bible Answer Man.”  He was the king of apologetics, and I hoped that I could be his successor!  If you don’t know who Walter Martin is, perhaps you know the name Cliff Claven – he was the master of all kinds of trivia on Cheers – that’s kind of what a “Bible Answer Man” is like.  But, Peter isn’t asking us to memorize Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict so we can win debates about the truthfulness of the Christian faith.  For one thing – it rarely works.  And for another, Peter has other, more practical things, in mind.

I will say this, however, I’m still concerned about the need to move toward a fuller understanding of the Christian faith.  That is, I do think that theology is important.  In fact, I’ve been trying to make that case this past week on my blog, which means that the “Bible Answer Man” might still be alive in me.  As Disciple theologian Joe Jones puts it:
Friends, it matters what you believe about God.  It matters to your own spiritual formation whether you believe God’s aim for the world is ultimate destruction of the many and the salvation of the few.  It matters whether you believe God called America to be a light to the nations and therefore America is always justified in the purity of its motives and its own going to war against enemies of God.  It matters whether you believe Muslims are included in that category of the neighbor and strangers we are to love. 
Think about it.  It may be that our spirituality is at stake in what we believe or do not believe.  It matters whether we are formed in Christ or malformed by the spirits of the world. [Joe Jones, A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Churchp. 36].
Yes, it does matter what we believe about God and about God’s relationship with the creation.  We are called to love our neighbor, but this love flows out of our love for God.  But, I don’t think that Peter is calling here for a theological debate.  No, I do think that he is pointing to the way we live our lives before God in the world.  As Addison Hodges Hart puts it:  
Ours is not an argument, but a life to be promoted – and only in the way that life is lived openly will it be accepted as credible.  This is a point that cannot be stressed enough.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are given flesh and blood as “evidence” through the witness of Christian lives. [Hart, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, p. 129].
  In this letter, Peter calls us to live faithfully – offering a witness that is gentle and reverent -- even if this means putting our lives in danger.  

This word of encouragement follows a rather controversial section of Peter’s letter, where he encourages the congregation to not buck the system unnecessarily.  He tells wives to obey their husbands and husbands to care for their wives as “weaker vessels.”  That should seem old-fashioned to us, but Peter’s point is this:  fit in where you can, but in the end, do what is right. 

Remember how in the Book of Acts, Peter, James, and John are hauled before the religious leaders and told to stop preaching the gospel.  They responded – who should we obey – God or human authorities?  As far as they were concerned, “we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:13-20).

How then, should we live before God and in the presence of our neighbors?  How should we express our faith in a way that is gentle and reverent?  How do we provide a witness to the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives?  In other words, what makes us different because we follow Jesus?  

Since this is Memorial Day Weekend – a time when the nation is called to remember those who died in service to the nation, perhaps we can begin answering the question of what this witness looks like, by thinking about the way Jesus would have us relate to our country.  Remember the prayer we prayed earlier in the service – does it not call on us to give our allegiance to God and to God’s kingdom before all other loyalties?   And did not Jesus tell us to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God? (Mark 12:17). 

While I’m proud of the country I live in, I know that we must judge it by a higher standard – God’s standard.  Being a dual citizen – I must make my decisions based on my prior loyalty to God’s realm, even if that conflicts with my loyalty to the nation I love.  That is because, as Peter puts it, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, with “angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”

So, when I’m asked to make my defense of my faith – I don’t have to offer up a complex philosophical explanation for the existence of God.  But, Peter does tell us that we should be able to point to our lives and let that be a witness to the presence of God in our midst.  As we move into the fullness of this reality, it’s good to know that we do so within the amazing grace of God who loves us fully and without qualification.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 25, 2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014

First Things -- Paul's Creed

Earlier this week I wrote a post that suggested that it might be valuable for us to consider the witness of the early creeds.   In making this suggestion, I was in no way implying that we should make creedal formulations tests of fellowship.  At the same time, I am concerned that one of the reasons why progressive churches are struggling is that we do not know how to speak our faith -- and that starts in the pulpit.  While I affirm the premise that the first witness we must make involves the way we live our lives, having the ability to say why we live the way we do is important.  Can God-talk get in the way of doing what is good and right?  Perhaps, but it's not necessary.  

Since my denominational tradition sees itself as non-creedal (we require only that one make the Good Confession -- Matthew 16:16),, but has historically sought to root itself in the biblical witness, perhaps we should start with the creedal statements found in scripture.  One of the clearest and earliest summaries is found in 1 Corinthians 15, a section of that letter that focuses on the resurrection.  It is important to note here that Paul, writing only two decades after we assume Jesus was crucified and probably two decades before the first of the canonical gospels was written, focuses on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul is not that interested in Jesus' teachings or the way he lived his life -- but this set of events and the later appearances of Jesus to a significant number of followers, himself being the last.  

15 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters,[a] of the good news[b] that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters[c] at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[d] Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.  (1 Corinthains 15:1-11 NRSV).
 Does the historical Jesus matter?  Yes.  Should we heed his teachings?  Yes.  I'm not arguing against that.  But I think we need to also hear the rest of the early Christian witness, one that emerged early on.  Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, both distinguished Disciple Bible scholars, make this comment on this particular confession.

For Paul, the resurrection is not one topic among others, but is integral to several of the ethical problems the Corinthians had asked about or on which they had challenged him.  Some of them had minimized or eliminated the future dimension of the Christian faith, supposing that they already lived the full life of the Spirit and were like the angels. 

What Paul shares in this passage is likely the creed or summary statement of the Christian faith that he had been taught at his conversion.  As Craddock and Boring note -- for Paul this isn't just abstract theology -- it has important ethical implications.  And so they write:
Thus, 15:3-5 is very ancient Christina tradition, formulated within a very few years of Jesus' death and resurrection .  It is crucial to see that this earliest summary of the Christian faith does not portray the "life and teachings of Jesus" as a great hero to be emulated, but refers to his death (his truly human life) and his resurrection (God's act, not an "accomplishment:" of Jesus).  The death and resurrection stand for the Christ event as a whole, the act of God for human salvation.  This is the gospel, the good news, of God's act in Christ. ( Boring and Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary, p. 541).
Sunday I'm preaching from 1 Peter 3:13-22  a passage that calls for the reader to be ready to give their defense (witness) for their faith.  While I don't believe that this involves trying to prove the truth of our faith commitment, it also doesn't mean that we should not, if we're in the position to do so, to move from faith to understanding.  It is, as Disciples theologian Joe Jones puts it:
Faith involves believing something about God, believing that God is characterized in some definite ways.  In particular it focuses on God's being characterized by the life of Jesus Christ.  So, faith is always at least believe that God is characterized by the life of Jesus Christ.  So, faith is always at least belief that Gd is characterized as the Almighty Creator of all things, as the Reconciling Lover in Jesus Christ, and as the Redeeming Spirit.  (Joe Jones, A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, p. 7).  
What then is of first importance and why is it of first importance?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Blood Doctrine (Christian Piatt) -- A Review

BLOOD DOCTRINE: A Novel.  By Christian Piatt.  Portland:  Square Core Media/ Samizdat Creative.  186 pages.

            Reviewing a piece of fiction is not easy, especially when you’re used to reading and reviewing non-fiction works.  This is just a feeling, but reading fiction is a more subjective experience.  You know what you like – genre wise – and that influences the way you read and respond.  I enjoy mysteries and science fiction, and I’m a theologian.  So, when you bring these together I’m happy.  At the same time, I tend to become anxious about the theological elements of a book that delves into theology.  I can become overly critical and miss the point of the book.   Oh, and you have to deal with the question of how much plot to reveal in the review!  If you like to go into a novel knowing little about the book you might want to wait, but if you'd like a little introduction keep reading.  I'll try to offer my reflections without ruining the joy of reading it.

            With that said, I approach my review of Blood Doctrine by Christian Piatt with a sense of openness to something new.  I’ve read and reviewed a number of works written/edited by Christian.  We’re both part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Christian is married to an ordained pastor and he serves on the staff of his wife’s church in Portland, Oregon.  He is a blogger and writer and media creator as well.  He likes to write and produce materials that are provocative, push boundaries, and make people think.  That’s what I like about him.  Even when I disagree, I appreciate the spirit in which he works.  So, in this book he invites to consider what might happen if someone got a hold of some genetic material belonging to Jesus.

            So, what do I make of Christian’s first attempt at writing a novel that has an affinity to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code?  I have to state here that while I enjoyed the page-turning nature of Dan Brown’s book, I wasn’t impressed with his theological acumen.  Christian is a much more theologically attuned writer.  He’s liberal/progressive in orientation.  He’s not afraid to raise problematic questions.  After all he’s edited several volumes that bear the title “Banned Questions.” 

            As one would expect of a first novel, it’s not perfect.  Not all characters are fully developed and the story line tends to jump from scene to scene.  And the ending leaves one either wanting more, or at least the assurance that a second novel is forthcoming to help us better understand the point of the book. 

            At the heart of the story is the true identity of Jesus – a character that stands behind the book but rarely appears in the story -- and a possible connection to the present.  I should note that the reference here to blood really has nothing to do with atonement theory.

             It is a story that has two time periods – first century CE and the twenty-first century.  Jesus (Yeshua) is dead and buried and resurrected (though as to the manner in which Jesus is resurrected is left to the imagination).  We’re introduced to Jesus’ brother Ya’aqov, his mother, other brothers, and Mariamne (Mary Magdalene).  There is the suggestion here that Yeshua was part of or influenced by the Essenes.  The nature of Ya’aqov’s involvement in leadership of the fledgling Christian community is part of the story, and we return to it throughout the book.  As a theologian and student of the Bible, part of me would like to have had an appendix where Christian explained the basis of his portrayal of the early Christian community.  Trying to go too in depth in the story itself would detract – but perhaps something at the end of the book would be helpful to those of us with such interests and questions.

            The primary plot, however, focuses on a young man named Jacob, whose identity is in question.  The book focuses on a mysterious religious group that is up to something, though we’re not sure what, and what appears to be either genetic engineering or cloning based on recovered DNA from the Titulus Crucis (the board that would have hung around Jesus’ neck announcing the charges made against him).  Jacob experiences what seems to be something akin to the stigmata (bleeding). The other characters in the story include a journalist  named Nica, who is trying to track down a conspiracy that has religious implications, a priest named Scratch who has helped raise Jacob but who might be involved in the plot, and a young woman who is Jacob’s girl friend Elena. 

            The plot leads us to Jacob’s sense of discovery of his identity and the revealing of some aspects of the plot – but not the full form of it.  The ending of the book suggests that more is to come.

The book is an interesting read that keeps your attention.  There is plenty of action (something that appeals to my tastes in novels), and it raises interesting theological questions.  There is one aspect of the book that I’ll point out, while admitting this might be a generational thing, and that is the use of “language” throughout the book that was taught not to use in polite company while growing up.   I know that times have changed and what is acceptable is changing – but I think it is worth noting.

That all said – I congratulate Christian Piatt for taking this bold step to enter the world of the novelist.  He has allowed his creative side to fully engage.  If he chooses to continue pursuing this track, the works produced will become increasingly sophisticated.  With that, I look forward to the next installment in the story, so I can find out what The Project is doing!

Note:  I made use of an advanced reader’s copy – so some elements could have been adjusted in the final product.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Good Lifts Us Up -- Alternative Lectionary for Easter 7/Ascension Sunday

The Easter Journey is coming to an end.  Over the course of seven Sundays we have contemplated the ongoing presence of Jesus.  But as the Gospel reading reminds us -- it is time for Jesus to complete his journey.  It is time for his ascension.  John doesn't have an ascension story like that found in Luke/Acts, but he is clear about there being both presence and absence, and we should not be afraid.  In these texts  chosen by David Ackerman for his alternative Beyond the Lectionarywe explore images of rescue (Jeremiah) and ultimate glory (Revelation).  John on the other hand seems to be a bit coy about his plans -- at least among those not ready to head his message.  The question then for us -- are we ready to receive the message, or we live in denial -- as was true for the advisers of King Zedekiah?  


Easter 7/Ascension Sunday

“God Lifts Us Up”

Call to Worship:  Psalm 142

One:  With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my vice I make supplication to the Lord.  I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.  When my spirit is faint, you know my way.

Many:  In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.  Look on my right hand and see – there is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.

One:  I cry to you, O Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”  Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.

Many:  Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.  Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name.  The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

Gathering Prayer:  We come today, God, filled with hope and expectation.  Life has beaten us down, but we look to you now to raise us up.  Be with us, we pray.

Confession:  Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you by our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We have spun inward and gotten ourselves stuck in pits of despair.  The depth of our hopelessness is too much for us.  So now we turn to you and look to you for grace.  Raise us up, God, when we cannot deliver ourselves.

Assurance:  God raises us from every pit of desolation and death.  God lets go of the wrongs of yesterday and leads us into a life that is full of the kind of joy that nothing on earth can ever take away.  Let us live, then, as people who truly count our blessings and are genuinely thankful for God’s deliverance.

Scriptures:      Jeremiah 38:1-13 – “Ebedmelech and Jeremiah”
Revelation 21:15-21 – “The New Jerusalem”
John 7:32-36 – “Going to the One Who Sent Me”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you think is significant about the fact that a castrated African servant is the hero of today’s story from Jeremiah 38?  Have you ever felt like you were cast into a miry pit and an unlikely hero came to your defense?  What was that like for you?  Did it change the way that you thought about people?
  •   What do you think is significant about how the author of Revelation 21 describes the dimensions of the New Jerusalem?  What might the twelve jewels, gates, and pearls represent?  What do you think a first-century person would have thought of these images?  How would you describe heaven?
  •  Often in John, people don’t get Jesus’ points, but the author wants his readers to get them.  What do you think Jesus is talking about in chapter 7?  Is his departure something sad (because his followers will miss him) or is it something good (because it gives us hope)?
  •  Depression may be described as the feeling of being in a pit from which there is no evident escape.  Can God raise us out of that?  Can God use people like Ebedmelech to lift us up?  How about Jesus?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  God, we thank you that we share in your Easter victory and in the new life that you give us through our risen Savior, Jesus.

Benediction:  God sends us out with a message of resurrection that says that no pit can keep us from God’s grace, mercy, and love.  Let us therefore go out to share this message with a world that longs to be found by God!  Amen.