Humanity of the Saints

Humanity of the Saints

Psalm 31.23-24:
All you who are faithful, love the Lord! The Lord protects those who are loyal, but pays the proud back to the fullest degree. All you who wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.

Psalm 148:14
God raised the strength of his people, the praise of all his faithful ones—that’s the Israelites, the people who are close to him.

Today is All-Saint’s Sunday, and this year I’ve been wondering, just what is a saint? Someone who does good things? We all do good things now and then, I would hope. Many people dedicate their entire lives to doing good things. If being a saint means doing good things, then how many good acts does it take to become a saint? I’m asking for a friend.

What is a saint? Someone who lives a life of sacrifice? How much sacrifice? Mother Theresa type sacrifice, Pope Francis style sacrifice, or not-eating-fish-on-Friday sacrifice? Martin Luther sacrifice or Jesus sacrifice? Does any sort of sacrifice qualify one for sainthood? In that case, congratulations, parents, we’re all saints.

Saints conjure images of piously perfect people. That image is reinforced by dictionaries that define a saint as someone who is “distinct because of their special relationship with God”—Moses, or Joan of Arc, for example. Saints are special. A saint’s heroic deeds are memorialized in illuminated stained glass windows of ancient, mystery-filled cathedrals. Yet, all the saints—including Jesus—were human. In some cases, their saintly being only developed after a lifetime of hedonistic (Augustine), sometimes sociopathic (Saul’s relentless pursuit of Jesus’ followers) behavior.

My all-time favorite reformed hedonist is St. Augustine, or as I like to call him, the man who destroyed Christianity.

In his autobiographical Confessions, Augustine recalls the significant portion of his life when the theft of a Pear begins a downward spiral of debauchery, licentiousness, and gambling. Augustine wrote that he often committed these acts merely because they were considered “wrong.” He didn’t really want the Pear, he just wanted to take it because stealing was forbidden.

Augustine concluded that his character was inherently flawed. He then decided we must all be inherently flawed because after all, none of us can resist the temptation to do something forbidden. Augustine used the story about Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the root cause of all our bad behavior.

I’ve written elsewhere about how mistaken Augustine is because his interpretation is Pagan, not Jewish. Today, I want to focus on what caused his change of being, for Augustine does change his behavior (if not necessarily his thinking). His enlightenment came one evening when he heard a child’s voice telling him to read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, chapter 13.13-14:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Paul’s sentiment hit the hard-partying Augustine like a jackhammer the morning after too many shots of rye at the local pub. While reading the passage, Augustine had a mystical experience that changed the way he thought and acted—a literal “sinner to saint” experience.

Now, while I’m not a fan of Augustine’s theology, I love the passage about his epiphany so much I adapted for our opening prayer today. Here it is in classical English (Augustine originally wrote in Latin):

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.

Augustine’s realization that God’s love is found within turned his world upside down. Suddenly, Augustine experienced God as the essence of being alive. He heard, saw, and emanated the unconditional, all-accepting love of God.

What I find most interesting about Augustine’s experience is that even after his powerful transformation, Augustine remained a beautiful contradiction. He urged clergy to release their slaves, but also thought God would pick and choose people for salvation. He was a champion of critical thinking, and even formulated a pedagogy for teaching critical thinking to children, yet he interpreted the book of Genesis literally and believed all Jews would be converted to Christianity at the end of time.

You win some, you lose some.

Like Augustine and Paul, we’re all a little bit saint, a little bit sinner. Being human is a rollercoaster of decision-making. I’m not a fan of “good” and “bad” labels. Every decision has a consequence. What Augustine realized is that we can make decisions from one of two places: the selfishness of our Ego, or the selflessness of God’s consciousness. Augustine encourages us to “tune in” to God, which then moves us always toward actions of love and compassion for the communal good.

Saints aren’t born naturally. They’re created by a lifetime of fumbles and forgiveness; of self-reflection on being human and the being of God; and a willingness to let go of our fears, misconceptions, and certainties to be filled with the only universal truth: We are all the beloved oneness of God.

 

The Welcoming Shepherd

The Welcoming Shepherd

“We don’t need to tolerate each other. We need to accept each other.” ― Abhijit Naskar

John 10.2-6
[Jesus said] The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.

When I was a nascent human being, we lived in a little clapboard house in small-town middle America. My favorite room was an addition to the back that opened the once-tiny family room onto a decent size den. The room was all windows and sliding glass doors, the light inviting me onto the cushy, comfy, autumn gold, orangey flames of fire shag carpet tiles.

In one corner of the room, framed by two picture windows, a black stovepipe fireplace sat on an ash-mortared brick surround. I remember many winters playing and reading in that room as the snow fluttered past the roaring fire and my content little heart.

That room was also where I first encountered The Bible. I remember snuggling into the shag carpeting in front of the fireplace and reading about Noah and Moses in the lushly illustrated “The Children’s Bible” many of you probably had as well. 
 
I don’t remember now exactly what I thought of those stories then, but I was reading them at the same time blockbusters like The Ten Commandments were first airing on television. The Greatest Story Ever Told was in theaters and Jesus Christ Superstar premiered on Broadway. 
 
These were the Marvel Blockbusters of my childhood. These larger-than-life biblical characters—Jewish people, my mother taught me—could do things like talk to God, part waters, and resurrect. I was captivated by the idea of ordinary people—slaves, even, moved by God to free others. In the Bible, God always moves people out of slavery, through the actions of humble, penitent people. 
 
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, my reality was different.
 
While I was reading these amazing stories and seeing these epic movies, everything I heard on the radio and saw on the Facebook of its era—Television—was all about civil rights and Jim Crow and an end to “separate but equal;”  all faces of outrage followed by extremely graphic, horrifying images of soldiers in Vietnam, followed by more faces of outrage. I saw these things a six-year-old doesn’t exactly understand but sees and hears, and in whatever imperfect way, remembers.
 
Forever.
 
For a kid like me, in a mixed-religion household at a time when religion was still vital in American life, what I was reading of God painfully contrasted what I saw in the world. So, I started to wonder: If God could part the waters to save people so long ago, if God could live and die as a human in order to truly comprehend and reveal an end to our suffering, then why didn’t God end our suffering already? 
 
Many of us ask this question still today. Why doesn’t God DO SOMETHING?
 
The typical Christian response is that God did something already, in Jesus. Unfortunately, for many Christians, this has come to mean Jesus is the only way to God/Heaven/Salvation and until every person on the planet becomes Christian (whatever that means, since Christianity is comprised of, appropriately, a bountiful diversity of incarnations and beliefs), the world will continue to be a conflicted potentiality rather than a fulfilled and fulfilling paradise. 
 
Many, especially American Christians, read John 10 and see Jesus gathering the faithful into the fold, INTO the sheep pen, keeping everyone else out. They say Jesus welcomes the few, not the many. It’s a pretty un-Jesus like interpretation.
 
Jesus’ Jewish interpretation is that for God to be God, all must mean all. This passage from John isn’t about keeping everyone penned up, keeping believers in and nonbelievers out, or only gathering the select few into the fold. This parable is about leading people out of those ways of thinking and being, away from the idea that God is exclusively for them and nobody else, or worse, for them and against everyone else. The Shepherd represents God. Jesus is the guard who opens “the way” for us to follow because God is calling “all of his sheep.”
 
All of God’s sheep. No exceptions.
 
John 10 harkens back to God’s great I AM statements in The Ten Commandments. This makes sense because John writes Jesus as a Moses-like character leading not only Jews but also Gentiles, out of the pen, through the parted waters, and into a new and bountiful life of perfect God connection. No exceptions.

Prayer: May we all grow to understand, appreciate, and respect, the beauty of the Christ found within every single one of us.

What is Necessary? Part 6, God

What is Necessary? Part 6, God

Isaiah 40:18 (CEB)
So to whom will you equate God;
to what likeness will you compare him?

Isaiah 40:25
So to whom will you compare me, 
and who is my equal? says the Holy One.

Psalm72:12–14:
Let it be so, because he delivers the needy who cry out,
the poor, and those who have no helper.

He has compassion on the weak and the needy;
he saves the lives of those who are in need.

He redeems their lives from oppression and violence;
their blood is precious in his eyes.

For now, this is the last topic in our What is Necessary? series. The journey was inspired by a question someone asked me at one of our 9am Sunday morning discussions: Why is God necessary? In a post-industrial, postmodern, post-superstition (mostly), information (and disinformation) based society, why is God necessary? 

I think it’s an important question for people of faith to ask themselves and each other. When we no longer require a God that controls the weather, causes and cures disease, or chooses sides in wars (although we still use God as an excuse for those things), why believe? Why have faith?

Why have God?

Honestly, I’ve been wrestling with that question most of my life. My answer as someone who appreciates the beautiful mystery of being, has been to conceive of God as the interconnecting love energy of all physical matter.

Part of my process is what we’ve just worked through, together, over the past few weeks: asking What is Necessary? about our beliefs—in our case, our Christian beliefs, to discover what God looks like and how God acts for us right here, right now.

We’ve looked at some of classical Christianity’s most familiar ideologies and dogmas with critical, postmodern eyes. We’ve given ourselves permission, as was the tradition of Jesus’ Jewish ancestors, to comment on everything, adding our voices to a many-thousands-of-years-old conversation.

We discussed the Bible not as literal historical fact (it isn’t), but rather as a library of human religious and existentialist thinking.

We’ve looked to Jesus as a mystic, perfectly connected to and made from God—just as are we all.

We examined the different types of Gospels (“good news”) and discovered there are many more than four gospels about Jesus. We also learned that there are both gospels about Jesus and the gospel he teaches and models.

Our examination of sin reminded us that biblical stories about sin connect individual sins as they relate to the sins of the people as a whole—systemic, corporate sin.

We expanded our definition of sin to begin disassociating it with subjective, dualistic, moral values, instead focusing more deeply on sin as any thought or action, especially systemic, that separates anyone from profoundly experiencing God’s unconditional love.

Then we reignited our desire to repent, because admitting when we mess up is good for our soul and is an essential part of renewing our covenant commitment to God. Confession is a useful spiritual tool because done penitently it leads to renewal that leads to atonement—at-oneness with the Loving Originator of Realities. Repentance helps us fulfill our covenant responsibilities to God.

Now, we can start putting all the pieces together and examine how our views on Jesus, the Bible, sin, and repentance affect the way, and what, we believe about God.

I love the First Testament concept of God as utterly incapable of doing anything anyone in any universe could ever conceive of as evil. Simply, God is love, and the universe, because it is formed from God, is love and will always move toward love.

So even through the ancient, unfortunately current sins of xenophobia, homophobia, love of country over love of God, and irrational fear of anyone whose skin is a different color, God is necessary because otherwise, where do we place our hope in fixing the mess of our current reality? Are we to rely on the evolution of Human beings into a more socially conscious species? That has been a very good plan so far.

I don’t mean to imply that I expect God one day to wave a magic hand in the clouds and make everything all better. God is not a puppet master, laying out reality before us like a cosmic highway. That would be a cruel being.

Instead, I find God is necessary for hope, as the light of peace and love that infuses every soul on the planet. If we’d all just light that fuse (or, if you prefer, if we’d all just let down our guard long enough to let God light that fuse), one by one we change the world.

For the billions of people around the world whose voices are muted and souls enslaved, God is still necessary.

For the billions of people fortunate enough to live in relative comfort, God is necessary because believing in something that is more than all of us, yet also includes and interconnects all of us, frees us from the hubris of even moderate success and the sin of greed.

God is still necessary because I believe in the idea of covenant, of a relationship between two eternal entities committed to loving each other. I like that idea because it makes we humans responsible for each other in the unconditional way we believe God is responsible for us.

I think God is still necessary because God is love and without God, there is no love. Without God, the universe is just a cold piece of math. There is no justice, no compassion, no forgiveness. There is no Jesus, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other enlightened soul, because, in a cold, uncaring universe, their teachings are unnecessary.

Without God, there is no need for any moral or ethical code because the universe doesn’t care about us. I know many people who are fine with that concept. I am not. I have felt a presence that transcends time and space; that has shown me visions of realities beyond the grasp of my imagination. I have felt pure, accepting, forgiving, at-one-ment with God. I have heard the love song of the universe vibrate through the molecular core of my being into this 4D spacetime of God’s imagination.

God is necessary because I don’t think there is any way out of fear and war until we become God’s love; until we look and act a lot more like Christ. That’s why God is necessary. Even if the universe is, in fact, a cold, dispassionate place, I need to believe in a God of love—in an entire reality in which love ultimately triumphs.

Amen.

Question:Why is God necessary (or not) for you?

What is Necessary? Part 5: Repentance, Atonement, Forgiveness

What is Necessary? Part 5: Repentance, Atonement, Forgiveness

Jeremiah 24.4-7 (CEB)
Then the Lord said to me: The Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims: Just as with these good figs, I will treat kindly the Judean exiles that I have sent from this place to Babylon. I regard them as good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not pull them down; I will plant them and not dig them up. I will give them a heart to know me, for I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.

Let’s continue our discussion about the “classical” elements of Christianity and whether they are (or what about them is) still necessary for a 21STCentury, postmodern belief system.[1]

This week we’re considering the ideas of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness.

We recently observed Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement. Jesus would have celebrated this holiday for 30-odd years. He would have understood its rituals, prayers, and meditations as his covenant responsibility to God. Repentance was Jesus’ honor, an act of love witha partner in eternal, multi-dimensional spacetime.

The ancient Hebrews celebrated the Day of Atonement just after the New Year as a way for the Jewish people to restore their side of their covenantal relationship with God. Through rituals, storytelling, prayer, and confession, individuals renewed their vows to a God of overwhelming love.

In Judaism, God is a covenant partner who always holds up God’s side of the partnership. Humans, on the other hand, are easily sidetracked, manipulated, and otherwise tempted into acting less honorably. Emptying ourselves of the crap eating our souls (and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what that crap is), is holistically healthy. Penitence is good for the soul.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all today continue the ancient tradition of repentance. All the people of the book have special seasons of atonement that act as a “reset” for both our personal relationships with God and the entirety of God’s people. In the 21stCentury, I say that is regardless of what we arbitrarily call our religions.

For the Jewish ancestors of Christianity and Islam, repentance was an act of the heart that leads to at-one-ment with the conscious being of everything, God.

Let me stress that this is how the Jewish Jesus would have understood atonement (which we must think of as at-one-ment, reuniting with the perfect love of God) as well. Atonement isn’t necessary because God is mad about something we did or didn’t do. It’s required because our actions and thoughts often naturally separate us from God.

That separation is the definition of sin we talked about last week: sin is all the stuff, habits, activities, thoughts, doubts and fears that keep us from experiencing God’s love. Worse, sin often makes us falsely believe we don’t deserve God’s love.

Well, the ancient Jewish practice of repentance is a powerful way to remember that God’s love is unconditional. God’s the perfect partner, remember? God never turns God’s back on us.

From Moses through Jesus, the biblical story of God is of a force that is somehow compelled by its nature to always do the right thing. God is good. All the time. Humans? Not so much. That’s where repentance comes in. Repentance is soul Yoga. It allows us to work out our spiritual kinks and knots with God as our Guru.

For the Jewish people we read about in the Bible, repentance is about turning back to God both individually and collectively. In the earliest writings, the idea is more often used to express collective guilt than individual guilt. When the nation felt it had done things contrary to their notion of God’s perfect action, the people responded with fasting, lamentation, and confession.

Over many centuries these meaningful rituals became somewhat rote celebrations, which the 8thCentury BCE prophets like Amos and Jeremiah criticize.

Jeremiah emphasized that repentance had to be an inward returnto God which would then manifest in acts of kindness, compassion, justice, and humility. For Jeremiah, the nation is penitent only when her individuals first turn their souls back toward God, who forgives everyone. Because, God is righteous, all the time.

There is a pattern to repentance throughout both testaments of the Bible. First, one must recognize the habits and attitudes separating them from an intimate relationship with divine love. This creates space for atonement, where we are again “at one” with God, where we discover we are forgiven for our human foibles.

This is more than an action to restore ourselves to God’s good graces, though. In the Bible, especially by the time The Gospel of John is written, people think of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness as spiritual rebirth. The idea of being “born again” is the result of penitence and at-one-ment.

In confessing the habits and attitudes that keep us disconnected from the Divine Source of Being, we commit to a new (or renewed) lifestyle, one lived more fully in the awareness that God’s love surrounds us all the time, even when we think we’ve been abandoned.

Contemporary American Christians tend to view the idea of repentance differently. Evangelicals, whose Christianity is based on the Romanization of Jesus, think people need to repent because God is punishing us for “wrong” actions. This viewpoint does not reflect Jesus’ Jewish concept of repentance.

We repent not because God is angry, but rather to rid ourselves of spiritual garbage and reconnect with the One Love of the universe. We repent to atone—to become “at one” with God. We repent because our actions are making us spiritually unhealthy.

In the Bible we see people repenting, reuniting, and then falling back into old habits. Repentance and at-one-ment are cycles in most lives. In Revelation, the author calls for entire churches to repent, a shout out to the Jewish tradition of corporate guilt and sin.

If you’ve ever tried to give up smoking or some other habit you knew was bad for your physical body, repentance is the same idea for our spirit (and consequently also for the rest of our being). John the Baptist, Amos, Ezekiel, Jesus—all the great prophets tell us over and over to stop doing the things that separate us from God.

Jesus teaches us to do this by allowing the Spirit, the flow of God, to work through us, renewing us and reconnecting us, as it did in him. We do this by praying, meditating, serving our fellow human beings, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, and working our mind, heart, and soul into a place where think about the consequences of our actions before we act.

Most importantly, we atone—we reconnect—when we remember that God is pure, accepting, unconditional love. God will never turn us away because we smoked a pack of cigarettes or drank some wine. God will never turn us away if we are biologically predisposed to addiction or substance abuse. God will never shun us for any reason because God is pure, unadulterated love.

Question: How do you practice turning back to God? Does it contain elements of penitence?


[1]Discussing any “system” in postmodernism is somewhat the antithesis of postmodernism. However, nature tends to organize into systems (or humans have the habit of classifying objects into systems). In the postmodern world, human organizations will be more fluid, perhaps breaking or nullifying our current definition of “system”.
What is Necessary? Part 4, Sin

What is Necessary? Part 4, Sin

John 15.1-4 (NIV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

We’ve been discussing what we think are the necessary components of 21st Century Christianity, both personal and communal. Through our previous discussions about Jesus, the gospels, and the Bible, we’ve helped each other better appreciate the rich conversational heritage of Jesus’s followers.

My hope is that by remembering Jesus’ tradition was to teach us to think for ourselves, we’ll give ourselves permission to question some “traditional” Christian thought. Jesus challenged the accepted thinking of his day. If we’re his students, we should follow his example.

Today, we’re going to examine the concept of sin. Jesus might be the cornerstone of Christian faith, but sin is the foundation. Some of us in the progressive, emerging Christian movement don’t like to talk about sin. I think that’s in part because we immediately think of original sin, which progressives reject.

The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary defines sin as “human deviation from the expressed will and desire of God—as it is developed and presented in the OT and NT.” The ancient Jewish people’s “prophets, priests, wisdom teachers (like Jesus) and lawmakers reflected on sin in a variety of ways.” In the early days of Christianity, this conversation also began to reflect their thoughts about God’s activity in Jesus.

So, let’s consider what it means to “[deviate] from the expressed will and desire of God.”

I like this definition of sin because it reminds me of the name of our church: The Current. We chose that name because we liked the imagery of God as a river, gently moving the universe toward ultimate love. As free-willed (perhaps), sentient beings in God, we can choose to swim with, or against, the current. Swimming against the current is deviating from “the will of God.”

According to the New Interpreter’s Bible, in the First Testament, sin and other labels are applied to any “harmful or rejected behavior that impairs relationship to the divine.” This gave the ancient Jewish people a fair amount of objectivity about sin and how to deal with it. Their original concept of sin was as a sort of “miasma” that had to be cleansed from both people and places.

The priests offered cultic ritual cleansings, but the prophets warned people to be skeptical about relying on rituals to reconnect them with God. They instead encouraged people to individually repent and confess (topics we’ll discuss next time) thereby being reformed—re-formed back into the loving image of God.

For many of us, our first exposure to the idea of sin is the story of Adam and Eve. We’re told that because they ate the apple, we all get old and die. While that interpretation acknowledges the corporate, structural nature of the story (Adam and Eve represent all humankind), it also presumes expulsion from the Garden rather than something more deeply mystical and metaphysical: that leaving the Garden was required, that learning about good and evil was necessary, for God to be fully human.

Unfortunately, the concept that Adam and Eve left the garden with God’s blessing was lost by the time Christianity became an Imperial religion.

In the 4th Century, Augustine of Hippo cemented the idea that Adam and Eve exiting the Garden was humanity’s original sin. Consequently, we’re all born sinners and there’s nothing we can do about it. Mortality is the cost of being human. Why that’s a sin still escapes me.

At any rate, Augustine, not satisfied to merely condemn the entirety of humanity to hell, then mangled the Second Testament stories about Jesus, twisting their meaning so drastically as to make them unrecognizable to their original audience. I suspect the original meanings of Bible stories would shock most Christians today.

Augustine’s Confessions was published not long after Rome made Christianity the state religion. Massively influenced by Augustine, politically motivated, and somewhat unable and unwilling to give up their Pantheistic roots, the new Roman Catholic church transformed Jesus from a humble, itinerant, enlightened Jewish buddha, to the savior and king of the universe, humankind’s only hope for salvation from Adam and Eve’s mortal curse.

For the Romans, Jesus became about the quest for immortality after death, whereas for the Jews, Jesus’ intended audience, he represented hope that God was bringing about a new world here and now, by transforming everyone into a Christ-like being.

While Augustine’s idea about original sin eventually became doctrine for both Catholics and Protestants, sin as described in the Bible is much more nuanced than merely the condemnation of humanity to mortality.

I had a terrific theology professor back in the day. I was going over my old class notes to prep for this article, and thought I’d just share these notes I took about Serene Jones, who has since become one of my favorite theologians. She describes sin in much more contemporary terms. She writes that:

  • we sin when we consider ourselves God and burden ourselves with too many tasks. Thinking we can do it all is hubris.
  • we sin when we divide people by race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and decide some people are more, or less, beloved by God. Obviously, we’re all created differently, so differences must be okay.
  • sin is structural (endemic to the entire population) as much as personal. We support sinful structures even when we don’t intend to. Owning an iPhone supports a lot of systemic sin.
  • sin is living against the good God has set out for us and all creation

Theologian Clark Williamson once wrote that human beings—all human beings—are good because we are treasured by God. He said that sin comes not from being human, but from the way humans act, especially in groups. Williamson wrote, “The crimes of the poor in the Ghetto are crimes, but so is the Ghetto.”

Question:Is your concept of sin more personal or corporate (as in the entire body of human beings)? What does the metaphor of sin mean today?

 

What is Necessary? Part 3, The Bible

What is Necessary? Part 3, The Bible

2 Timothy 3.15-17 (CEB)
Since childhood you have known the holy scriptures that help you to be wise in a way that leads to salvation through faith that is in Christ Jesus. Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.Romans 10.17 (NIV)
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

During part two of our What is Necessary? series last week we discussed “the gospel.” We looked at the history of the word “gospel,” from the Greek Evangelion, which loosely means “good news.” We learned that “good news” was the Roman Empire’s term for the information its orators, called evangelists, distributed throughout the Empire. The term “gospel” was usurped by early followers of Jesus to both protest the Empire and proclaim the real good news of Jesus Christ: that God and human are inseparable.

From there we discussed several interpretations of the good news written about Jesus in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and the gospel Jesus teaches and lives, which reveals God’s all-inclusive, vision-changing, soul-awakening love, infinitely and intimately bound together in the flesh of the universe.

We can discuss our ideas about “the gospel of Jesus Christ” because stories about him and the history of his Jewish people have been preserved for thousands of years, first orally, then later in written documents. Many of these are collected in the Bible. Others are preserved in extra-biblical texts. Hundreds of fragments from ancient versions of scripture are still being discovered around the world today.

The Bible is a collaborative work. For thousands of years, every story in The Bible was written and rewritten by many hands and retold by many voices. The diverse documents in the Bible are recollections of a people’s heritage and their faithful perseverance as they develop a social identity. In the Bible, we read the ancient Jewish people’s questions and answers about community, the nature of God, God’s interaction with humans, the origins of the universe, and other existential questions we still ponder today.

The Bible we use today is a collection of these ancient musings. It contains letters to and from people asking timeless questions that profoundly affect the way we view ourselves, each other, and our planet. The Bible includes short morality tales akin to Aesop’s Fables, commonly called parables; letters to and from people and faith communities; and epics like Genesis and Revelation. 

The people in the Bible wrestle with the consequences of their actions, just like us. They wonder why bad things happen to good people. They struggle with civil justice and imagine a God of ultimate righteousness, upon whose idealized, perfect actions they base their own civic ordinances.

The Bible reveals our struggle to understand the chaos in our lives and our hope that there is some benevolent force providing comfort in the darkest days of our souls. The Bible also reveals the need for the answers to our quests to remain fluid. From Genesis to Revelation, we see a transition in human thinking from a God and society of retributive justice to a God of forgiveness, and a world of peace, an ideal literally embodied in the parables of and about Jesus Christ.

The original Hebrew Bible upon which our Bible is based was a living document. The Rabbis in charge resisted writing anything down because they were afraid that once written, the open dialogue about God, the meaning of life, and the Jewish people’s place in the cosmos, would be forgotten. Ancient people gave writing intense authority. The ability to read and write beyond the basics was rare, so written documents carried tremendous weight.

Initially, these stories so many people now call “The Word of God,” were not holy, untouchable, infallible, God-scribed magical tomes, but were, instead, understood as words about God. A conversation. Scripture is a breathtaking example of human creativity full of our musings, ramblings, contradictions, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and jubilations. These stories were intended to inspire, not to be sanctified.

The Bible is an incredible collection of ancient thought, and we are fortunate to have the compilation available today. We should remember, though, that it was assembled in a highly charged political environment in the 4thCentury, by a bunch of Western Europeans who woefully misunderstood the Middle Eastern context of The Bible and did precisely what the Rabbis warned against: they glorified the texts.

In America, today, glorifying the Bible is still part and parcel of many denominational creeds. In fact, I would say that for many Christians, the Bible is more important than Christ.

For example, in my recent travels, I stumbled upon one of those little Christian cards that drop out of used books or pants pockets. These cards present a version of the gospel that is affirmed by many American Christians, even though many others (myself included) reject this particular Christian brand.

I suspect we’ve all at least heard this language before. Perhaps in the past, some of us have used this language to describe our relationship with God. Try to read the card without emotion and judgment. It is one interpretation of one Biblical theme. In keeping with our rabbinical tradition, let’s enter into conversation with it and see what our souls reveal.


Question: Knowing what you do about the gospel and the Bible, if you could write “The Gospel According to (Your Name),” what would it say?

What is Necessary? Part 2, The Gospel

What is Necessary? Part 2, The Gospel

ACTS 10.34-35 (CEB)
Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”

ROMANS 1. 16-17
I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

Last week we talked about Jesus, and what we as Christians find necessary to believe about him. This week, we’re going to consider the biblical stories written about Jesus, what Christians refer to as “The Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

To have a conversation about what in the gospel is necessary for us—to believe, to live, to emulate—we must consider two things: What is a gospel, and what is the gospel of Jesus Christ? There is no simple answer, by the way. Some Christians have told me, “there is only one Gospel,” but in fact, there are many pieces of many stories, each a distinctly nuanced interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus, my enlightened rabbi from a backwater piss-hole named Nazareth.

WHAT IS A GOSPEL?
The word “gospel” derives from the Greek Evangelion,meaning “good news.” It’s important to understand that in the early 1stCentury, the good news was delivered from a single source: Rome. Professional orators pronounced Rome’s heavily filtered good news in public squares throughout the Empire. People would gather to hear the good news about the completion of the latest citywide sanitation project and the end of a skirmish on the Empire’s northern border. Romans commonly gathered to hear the gospel of the emperor, whom they often called the son of god.

When people began writing about Jesus, they confiscated terms like “good news,” and “son of God” to contrast Rome’s fragile, temporal kingdom bound together through violence against Jesus’ vision of a peaceful, loving world united by faith in God’s unconditional love.

For his followers, the gospel began to refer both to Jesus’ teaching and the stories being told about him. Both were Jewish stories, written with metaphorical reference to current events the Jewish people of that particular time and place understood. Paul’s letters, Mark’s reportage, The Book of Revelation, are written in a language the Gentile Romans did not understand. This was intentionalbecause, in the early days of the Jesus movement, the effort to spread the gospel was illegal in the Roman Empire.

There is coded language in the gospel, just as there is coded language in the spirituals of the slaves in the old South or the tomato fields today. When you want to turn the globe upside down, you speak in code or die.

For three hundred years, people exchanged their thoughts and ideas about Jesus in these coded gospels—there were probably hundreds of them at one time. Then, in 313, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. In 380 it became the state religion. By then, the Gospel was 100% devoid of Jewish participation—and more importantly, Jewish interpretation.

Because the Romans read the gospels of Jesus through a very different lens than their Jewish authors, Christianity was paganized. The Romans treated Jesus like one of the gods of the pantheon—perhaps thegod of the pantheon. They read the Jewish texts with Roman preconceptions about life, death, the afterlife, and the direct involvement of gods in the lives of humans.

Rome was an empire, so the Catholic Church it created became the primary purveyor of “the gospel,” the one and only, any disagreement voce vel in scripto(voiced or in writing) must be burned out of the collective memory.

In America today, the Roman Gospel of Jesus is the only story many people have ever heard: that Jesus was God in the flesh, who came to earth to reconcile human sin, which was caused by our disobedience to God in Eden. Jesus had to live a life of suffering and ultimately sacrifice his life for the good of all humankind.

Paul later expands on this idea, so Jesus’ sacrifice encompasses all of humanity. A cynic might say this was because he’d already lost his Jewish audience and was preaching mainly to Gentiles, and Paul was nothing if not pragmatic.

Similarly, in the middle ages St. Augustine claims that hisinterpretation of the gospel reveals original sin. For Augustine, there is no virtue in being born. Humans are sinful and require God’s redemption. This line of thinking—the presumption we are guilty of something as soon as we’re born, continues to turn Jesus’ gospel of our wholeness in God into a gospel of fear and reproach. This is woefully ironic considering that’s the same battle Jesus was fighting. On the other side.

Like everything having to do with faith and religion, there are many ways to interpret the writings we consider holy. Jesus taught in a rabbinical tradition that encouraged creative interpretation of scripture. There was only one rule, and it’s the same rule I use when considering what’s necessary in the gospels of and about Jesus: what does my interpretation say about love? How does it reveal a universe in love with creation? Creation in love with God? What does my interpretation teach me about the love of God in and through each other? And through these questions I not only check myself, but I also kind of understand the people who say “there’s only one gospel” and realize that I think so too, and that it’s the gospel of love.

Question: What is necessary for your Christian belief about the gospels of Jesus: the one he taught and the ones written about him? 

What Is Necessary? Part 1, Jesus

What Is Necessary? Part 1, Jesus

Matthew 3.13-15 (CEB)
At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

 Luke 24.25-26
Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Acts 4.12
Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”

We were moving our son into his dorm in New York recently. While we were there, we visited one of our favorite charity thrift shops. The kids are great thrifters. They’ll look at second-hand clothing, shoes, bags, and tchotchkes for hours. I look around the store more quickly, maybe trying on a shirt or two before I find something to read from the used book rack and settle into a comfy chair for the duration. And I do mean settle in. I’ve finished “War and Peace” in one thrifting session.

In this particular, somewhat peculiar shop, I discovered a book called Shantaram. It’s set in modern-day India and describes the country in a way only someone in love and awe writes about things. It’s not blind love. It’s love even through hurt and pain and suffering. It’s unconditional love of every magnificently odorous nook and cranny of India, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As the book opens, the main character, Lin, has escaped imprisonment for armed robberies in Australia. He’s traveling with a fake New Zealand passport when he arrives in Bombay.

Lin hires a guide, Prabu, and in quick time they become friends. Through Prabu’s contacts, Lin is also befriended by a variety of dreamers, malcontents, government officials of various ranks, and scoundrels who have an uneasy respect for one another. They also have a keen understanding of the intricacies of the corrupt order of things, a stable system of bribes and favors even while the cast of players is ever revolving.

After several adventures, Prabu invites Lin to his home village, a tremendous honor. Prabu is inviting Lin into the family. Honored, Lin accepts.

Chances are that even if one has never been to India, they are familiar with its notoriously overcrowded train system. There is no reserved seating in the general classes and the train cars are filled with many more people than seats. The fight for a seat is a brutal, cacophonous maul of a ritual as passengers kick, scratch, and beat each other for seats like hippos fighting for dominance at the waterhole.

In this scene, Prabu has stretched himself across an entire bench seat, saving a place for Lin even as others attempt to remove him from his position by tearing at his flesh, kicking him in the ribs and beating him over the head.

Prabu withstands the attacks and manages to save the seat for Lin.

Lin, of course, is astounded, riddled with guilt, and heartbroken that his friend would make such a sacrifice for him. Prabu, as Lin’s guide, considers it nothing more than part of his job. As they’re discussing the situation, the train begins to take off. Suddenly, the cacophony of violence stops.

A new protocol takes place once the train is in motion. As if God pressed pause on an iPod, the train falls virtually silent. Everyone sits quietly and politely, wherever they are. There is respect for personal space, as much as possible on an overcrowded train, to the point of people apologizing to one another if one foot even gently taps another in passing. It’s a stark contrast, the vicious boarding process and the serenity of the train ride.

At first, Lin can’t comprehend the dichotomy and is understandably shaken and angered by the experience. Over time, he learns there is an “unavoidable and unspoken question in all of India: What is necessary?” What is necessary in this situation? In a country that is overcrowded by billions of people, is it necessary to respect the rules of overcrowded spaces and the tranquility of my fellow travelers? Is it necessary to claw my way to a seat in order to visit my family or get to my job? To live in a slum to shelter my family?

What is necessary?

In the book Shantaram, it’s a question asked not only about individual beliefs and actions, but also about governments, religions, and other institutions to which we (mostly willingly) forfeit some of our brain space.

I’ve been asking what is necessary about religion and faith, both personal and corporate, for as long as I can remember. I’m fascinated by the things people will believe and the reasons they give for believing them. So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to ask ourselves what is necessary for us to believe about certain aspects of Christianity. I expect answers to be slightly different for all of us, and that’s okay.

I think some Christians are scared to honestly share what they believe because, in America, we’re told that all Christians are supposed to believe the same thing. But let me say right now, believing the same things about Jesus and Christianity is not necessary for one to claim Jesus as their Buddha, Savior, teacher, or guy they occasionally think about.

Discussions about who Jesus was and what he taught began moments after he died and continue to this day. There is not now, nor has there ever been one homogenous “Christian” belief system. So, there are no “wrong” answers, only answers that are right for you right now. Answers that will—and should—change over time as we all go ever deeper into our spiritual being. In contemplating “what is necessary?” for your Christianity (and perhaps it’s not even called Christianity) I hope you’ll discover both new answers and new questions.

We begin then, this week, talking about Jesus.
What is necessary for you to believe about Jesus?

CHRISTOLOGY
In the places where people all have beards, smoke pipes, drink fancy bourbon and wear corduroy jackets with elbow patches, they call the topic of Jesus, Christology. It concerns the way we think about the idea that Jesus represents something both fully human and fully divine.

In general, a person has either a high or a low Christology which determines whether we call Jesus something exalted like “Son of God,” or “Savior,” or something more down-to-earth like “teacher” or “rabbi.” In this case, “High” and “Low” have no ranking significance. They are simply different ways to think about Jesus as divine, or heavenly (high above this mortal coil); and/or earthly, mortal, flawlessly flawed.

People with high Christologies generally think God worked through the crucifixion of Jesus to repair the human/divine relationship. People with a high Christology often say Jesus “died for their sins,” but that’s not necessarily true for all folks who understand the important idea behind a divinely human Jesus.

A person with a low, or what I would call humanist Christology, generally uses the language of “following” rather than “believing in” Jesus. The human aspects of Jesus’ life, especially service to systematically oppressed people, are more important than the idea that God incarnated to be crucified for our salvation. People with low Christologies often think it is the divine love exemplified in Christ that motivates us to serve. Jesus saves not literally through death, bloodshed and resurrection, but by showing us how to live in an ascended state of being here and now.

A new world ( a “saved” world in middle-ages parlance) comes about when we discover our own Christ connection and begin acting like Jesus: compassionate, loving, a force for social and political change, tuned into God’s universal and unconditional love all the time.

So, let’s see where we all fall in the Christology spectrum. Ask yourself, what is necessary for me to believe about Jesus? And as we’ve been discussing, don’t forget to ask why you think what you think. Journal your ideas so you can refer to them again later. If you want to discuss, just shoot me an email: pastormichael@gowiththecurrent.org

Question: What do you find necessary to believe about Jesus? Why?