Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Will many be saved?

In Luke's gospel (13:22-30), Jesus is asked, "Lord, are those to be saved few in number?" The one asking the question most likely presumed that the Kingdom of God was for the Jews and that the gentiles would be shut out. Jesus answered in a most unexpected way, however.
He declared that entry to the Kingdom of God was never automatic, but always the result of a struggle. The word for which "striving" is used in translation is the word from which the English word "agony" is derived. In other words, the "striving" needed to enter the Kingdom of God is one so intense that it can be described as an agony of soul and spirit.

It is not uncommon among many Christians today to think that once we haver made a commitment of ourselves to Jesus Christ, we have reached the end of the road, as it were. We can therefore sit back and enjoy, having achieved our goal. However, it quickly becomes clear that there is o such finality in the Christian life. An individual must ever be going forward, or, necessarily, fall backward.

Anyone who lives in a Christian culture (e.g. the Church) is not necessarily a Christian. An individual may enjoy all the benefits of such a community but is really living off the spiritual "capital" built up by many who came before -- sort of like living on "borrowed goodness." Jesus' answer in this passage challenges us, "What did you do to initiate this?" "What have you done to preserve and develop it?"

This passage addresses many issues in our own society. How many "Christians" are there in public life (including our elected leadership) that tout their belief in Christ but then their backs on the poor? How many use their public faith in Christ as a litmus test against others who might be "quiet people of faith?"

Perhaps Jesus' answer puts us all on notice that while we do not earn heaven by any work of out own, we are not excused from doing the work of the Kingdom before we get there!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Faith & Certitude

None of us was alive when Jesus walked the earth. If the life of faith were like a court of law, the case for his very existence would b weak: the only surviving disinterested testimony is in the writings of the imperial historiographer Flavius Josephus. And even this is simply a passing reference to what a nuisance the first Christians were.  All the rest of the testimony about Jesus has come from within the early Christian community.  In a court, this kind of testimony would be seen as less than useful -- kind of like an alibi provided by a close family member.  We must admit that we are biased: we want these events to be true.

But this is not a court of law. And faith is not about that kind of evidence. Faith is not certified by the events of the past, though it is nourished by them.  It is certified by events in the present.  Although we are the stewards of an ancient and majestic tradition, each believer can only receive this tradition in light of is or her own experience. I cannot tell you what to believe.

All I can do is tell you what God has done in my life, and listen to what God has done in yours. That is, after all, exactly what the biblical writers do: they explain the action of God in their own times in their own world, so that we will be able to look for it in our own. It will not be the same since they are two different worlds. But their search informs our search as we reach out to God.

Most importantly, we cannot prove that God is active in our lives. We can only give testimony and pray the those who have ears to hear will hear.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The firstborn among many . . .

My brother, Mark, was 10 years younger than I. Until he died an untimely death at the age of 32, I often thought (privately, of course) that he was ultimately smarter and physically stronger than I was or would ever be. Except that he died before either of us reached the prime of our respective lives spared me the experience often seen in Scripture of the older brother having to yield to the younger. I think of Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, or of Jacob and Esau. John the Baptizer too is such a figure. But unlike the others, he makes no protest when his ministry is eclipsed by that of Jesus.

It is good to think about this aspect of John's character: his humility, rather than his flamboyance. There is always going to be someone who is smarter, or stronger, or richer, or more influential. We all have need of John's kind of humility, and it need not cancel out our self-esteem.

"How am I doing?" is a question we often want to ask those around us -- wanting affirmation and support, especially in ministry. Sometimes we get it and sometimes we don't. When it doesn't come from outside, though, we must always remember that we have another source of strength: the God of love, the source of all good works.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Diversity is small things, in essentials, unity

What is it that makes us so intolerant of diversity in matters of faith and religion (or politics for that matter)?

The most proximate cause may be a lack of sense of self-worth. When I am truly comfortable with what and who I am, I will not need to beat you up with it. My relating to you will be a conversation rather than a sermon or a polemic. Sometimes those who need constant reassurance that they are acceptable feel the need most to denounce others.  People at peace with themselves are less likely to fall into that trap. Perhaps some of the difficulties our nation recently faced are related to this proposition. Can we face this challenge in our communities of faith sufficiently to be a model for our world?

The Church is a group of people defined by their unity in gratitude for the redemption of the whole of creation from the decay of sin and death, not an elaborate set of reasons why I am saved and you are not. We pray for Christian maturity so that we will focus less on ourselves, not more.

If this seems to far fetched, we should ask ourselves this question" What will we be asked when we stand before God? Were you right all the time? Did you qualify for membership in Club Christian? I cannot conceive that this will be the conversation between me and God. Rather, I will be asked simply, "Did you love others as I loved you?"

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Justice, whatever the cost

Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer in "To Kill A Mockingbird," lost just about every friend he had because he took on the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman. His purpose was to pursue justice, regardless the cost.

Sometimes we find ourselves at odds with friends or even with family because of a moral stand that becomes so evident to us. Perhaps it is little more than the decision not to respond to a racist or homophobic joke at work or the decision to call a child to account for being insensitive to a classmate who is different from them. Granted, it is often not easy to do this. None of us wants to appear priggish or "holier than thou." Certainly, we want people to like us.

But God calls us to act justly (Micah 6:8). Therefore, justice becomes more important than the approval of others. We owe it to ourselves to map out a moral plan for our lives and to pray for the courage to follow that map.

At the end of "To Kill A Mockingbird," Finch loses his case. The man is wrongly convicted of a terrible crime. Finch walks from the courtroom dejected. But as he passed his children, seated in the back of the room with the black townspeople, they all rose to their feet -- and so must we, even figuratively -- to honor someone who followed a path of justice, whatever the cost.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Christian America or American Christianity?

Many times I have heard (and myself have said) that Christian faith in its most radical form is countercultural. The difficulty we usually have with recognizing this is that in so many ways, culture has co-opted our faith. For example, how often in public discourse do we hear that "America is a Christian nation." A great deal of ink, some blood, and a lot of emotional energy has been spent to make this assertion. But, if we are totally honest, we have not made America Christian but have made our Christianity American. Prosperity gospels, appropriation into political positions of the political spectrum (more in form than substance), secularization of religious festivals, and the like have all contributed to a form of cultural Christianity that has little to do with the core of our faith.

We shouldn't be surprised at this. We know that the love of God is strange to our culture which has become the land of the prenuptial agreement (what happened to covenant love?) the careful negotiating and the angry defense of right ad privilege.

Well, this same love was equally strange to the people closest to Jesus.  It took the disciples a long time to wrap their heads and hearts around the limitless nature of God's love. Hard to forgive and be forgiven; confused as to why the Messiah was not also a political liberator; totally blown away about the manner of his death -- describe some and all of Jesus own disciples. The comfort here is that when we see their doubt and questioning, we feel better about our own. But still, we would rather not face those doubts and fears. Instead we wrap Jesus in more familiar cloth - that of our own social and political existence, even "dumbing down" the radical message of Jesus when we do so. The limitlessness and universality of Jesus' love falls to the exigencies of our cultural preferences. To the extent that we allow this, we compromise the Gospel's power to change the world in which we exist.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Faith in weakness

To often, we fall prey to the temptation that faith originates in our hearts and minds when in fact it is itself a grace - a gift from God. Falling to this temptation makes us think that we need to summon up faith all by ourselves, especially when we seem least able to do so. That makes faith hard, very hard, to possess. 
It has helped me immensely in my life to remember that I am not the author or source of my faith in God. When something bad happens, so unjust, so terrible that my heart just sinks to the floor and seems not able to rise, I am grateful that it is not within my own strength to summon faith. We don't make it ourselves; God gives it to us. 
Our pain may be such that it paralyzes our hearts, but faith endures because it is not a human creation, but a gift from God. It comes to us precisely at the places in which we need it most. I do not know why things happen the way they do, but I know from experience that God can yet bring life out of the silence and darkness of death. When in the grip of sorrow or any spiritual desolation, we might doubt God's presence in a profound way. Nonetheless, while we may remain paralyzed, it is God that moves, and once we feel that movement, the possibility of joy becomes real again.