Useless Titles

Fifth Sunday of Easter

 

 1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Goodness, I love Jesus so much. And goodness, I cannot stand Christians. The chasm that exists between Christ and Christians in the West seems to be as wide as the chasm between Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in hell. I am closer to Gandhi than to most American Christians these days: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Amen, buddy. Amen. Read more

On Being Mishandled, Misunderstood, Misapprehended

Second Sunday of Lent

Mark 8:31-38

“Jesus spoke plainly about this.” I have never noticed these words before, at least not so conspicuously. Other translations offer “openly” and “frankly.” Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter without beating around the bush.

This had not been the case previously. He taught opaquely in parables, obscuring the heart of his message intentionally for the crowds, because “the secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you.” And yet, his disciples didn’t understand, and Jesus had to interpret his own parables for them. I might chuckle at the disciples’ dimwittedness, except that I am certain I would not have been any smarter than they. 

When we reach Mark 8, the game has changed. Peter, that incorrigible spokesperson for the disciples, declares that Jesus is the messiah. Again, Jesus divides his disciples from the crowds and orders them not to tell anyone that he is the messiah. This information is theirs alone for the time being.

And yet, his disciples still don’t understand. Jesus explains plainly, openly, frankly what this means: suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection, but now dimwittedness has mutated into willful ignorance. Instead of asking for more clarification—as in the case of the parables—Peter is just not having it, and rebukes Jesus. I might scoff at Peter’s obstinance, except that I am certain I would not have been any more receptive than he.

Jesus is God, yes? He is the source of all power and wisdom. And yet it astounds me at how okay he was with being misunderstood, mishandled, and misapprehended. Certainly, he responds to Peter’s rebuke quite sternly, since nothing would stop Jesus from his world-changing mission. That mission, though, includes and absorbs our misunderstanding.

Christ’s death on a cross can be seen as something of a cosmic misunderstanding. Jesus was not received as he should have been. Rather, he was rejected by the very ones he was sent to save. Jesus hung on the cross as a criminal, though he had done no wrong. Jesus died for our sins, though he was sinless. This was for the crowds, the elites, even his own disciples. He was consistently misunderstood and paid dearly for it, but that payment was turned inside out, and the result was the salvation of the world. 

It causes me to reflect on how we exist as the Body of Christ in the world. If you have ever taken a course on evangelism strategies or church-growth theory, you have heard means and methods for making the Christian narrative easily digestible to others. Even worse, obviously, have been the episodes in church history when coercion, violence, and conquest were employed in order to extract an orthodox confession.

I desire to live faithfully to the gospel as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom. I also desire to make plain, open, and frank my obedience to Christ to my family, my neighbors, and my enemies. If I am following Jesus closely, walking in his manner, I can expect to be misunderstood, mishandled, and misapprehended. I think this is what carrying the cross must include, for many will ignore me, but some will respond in the way that the people responded to Christ: by attempting to control him, like Peter, or kill him, like the crowds and the authorities. 

However, my obedience to Christ includes the belief that this misunderstanding can and will be used by God for the kingdom, that my carrying the cross, my costly discipleship, my being misunderstood, is part of my bodily sacrifice to God that will multiply in ways that I have no control over, nor do I want to. I leave that to God, trusting that he is wise and powerful.

Belonging Before Believing

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:31–46

When did the disciples “believe” in Jesus? Whatever we mean by “believe,” the different gospel writers put that point at different times depending on their particular agenda. Read more

Returning to the Scene

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Exodus 3:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

I have been experiencing depression for the first time in my life over the last year or so. While not recognized as an official pathology, climate depression (or climate anxiety) is on the rise. I lose a lot of sleep. I find that I simply cannot read certain portions of the newspaper. At last year’s Ekklesia Project, I had to excuse myself during Mike Budde’s talk because I couldn’t bear to hear him detail the irreversible damage happening to our home, our planet.

Part of the problem is recognizing how complicit I am in climate change. The militaries of the world, aluminum smelting, concrete manufacturing, global shipping, industrial agriculture, certainly these are all among the chief culprits of our crisis. But I have traveled extensively around the world. I cool my home so that it can be more comfortable. I shop on Amazon. I am trying to change my habits and choices, but I also recognize I have so far to go. Read more

Stalemate

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Matthew 5:21-37

I have come to the conclusion that we are at a stalemate. Now, your mind may be jumping to all sorts of binaries in the world, but I’m thinking about the divide between the Church and the world. No matter how you conceptualize that binary, Scripture is clear that there is a difference and that the difference matters. The Church and the world are oriented toward different ends and are interested in steering the other side toward their own agendas.

But that steering, that’s the stalemate I’m thinking of. Whether we are talking about ontological proofs of God’s existence, evolutionary biological proofs against the creation narratives of Genesis, the plausibility of Christ’s resurrection, social scientific accounts for religious phenomena, we all can marshal evidence in support of our beliefs. Nobody has yet provided the definitive evidence in support of theism or atheism.

This was what modernity was supposed to. Science and empirical rationalism would provide all the necessary explanations for existence and causation. God would fade into irrelevance as people gradually awakened to the reality that He is unnecessary. The Church in the era of modernity took the bait and attempted to “play the game” on the world’s terms. The Church attempted better arguments for the existence of God, for the existence of miracles, for the life of Christ. We would convince the world of the necessity of Christ through our arguments.

Several decades into postmodernity, however, we can see that this has not happened, not on either side. Since the Church was never supposed to play by the world’s rules, we have at best arrived at a stalemate. More realistically, we, the Church, are licking our wounds and regrouping, turning again to the Scriptures to understand not only our identity as the Church, but the rules of our engagement with the world.

When the Church turned its attention to tighter arguments for the existence of God it allowed itself to bifurcate the cognitive life of the apologist from the worshipping life of the community. An obsession with “grace alone” arguments within a guilt/innocence framework neglected the Bible’s emphasis on Christ’s reign as king and our relationship to that king as one of the “obedience of faith.” This is not to suggest that we ought never to think rightly about God or to never think within philosophical frameworks (it is unavoidable, in fact). Rather, just as in ancient traditions of rhetoric, where the character of the speaker was intertwined with his/her argument, the Church must always keep in mind its own character.

The writers of our lectionary passages in Deuteronomy and Matthew understood that the shape of our witness is the shape of our communities and vice versa. Proper relationship with God required a proper relationship with one another and when those two dimensions are aligned then the world will take notice.

In the case of Israel, they were to be a beacon to the world, drawing all the nations to Israel to marvel at their God, who makes perfect laws. When they failed to do so, they were ejected out of the land of their inheritance for they lost sight of the purpose of that inheritance. In the case of the Church, they were to be a beacon to the world, going out into all the world where it all belongs to the Lord and none of it belongs to us.

There is a remarkable passage in the ancient letter to Diognetus: “And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.”

The nations noticed these peculiar people within their lands and it was the particularity that marked them as different. It was the witness of their ethical communities that was the greatest testimony to Christ.

So we are indeed at a stalemate with the world at large with regards to our arguments for the existence of God and the plausibility of the resurrection. We believe in Christ so we find the proper arguments. They do not believe in Christ and so they find their proper arguments. Let us instead stop playing by the rules of the world and instead focus on the shape of our communities, where Christ’s otherwise insane commands against hatred, lust, marriage, and oaths become possible. Let us be a Church that demonstrates the gospel through our restored relationship with God through our restored relationships with one another. There can be no argument against it.