Tag Archives: gospel

How To Be Perfect

One of the major themes of this blog is the importance of clarifying and privileging the teachings of Jesus in every interaction with the Bible. My understanding of scripture as consisting of multiple subjective witnesses to claims and experiences of God in the history of Israel means that I must reject a flat or systematic reading of the Bible in favor of a Jesus-shaped critical reading of the entire library. This is a fruitful approach and, I believe, the only tenable one for a Christian. However, it is not always particularly safe or tidy. Jesus’ teaching seems to get more narrow and difficult the more one studies it.

Consider the famous saying from the Sermon on the Mount that you must “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). In English and out-of-context, this sounds like an impossible mandate. “Be flawless and immaculate, just like your abstract notion of a Supreme Being. Start… now!” Um, sure. I’ll get right on that.

The Gospel of Technical Perfection (and Inevitable Failure)

This statement comes from Jesus and so carries the weight of a command, yet it is so vaguely defined in isolation as to invite all manner of interpretive reappropriation. Here’s how it worked in the evangelical world in which I grew up: God demands that you must be technically perfect in your obedience to His Word (the whole Bible) in order to enter His presence (in heaven when you die), but no one can ever live up to this standard and be worthy by their own efforts and that is why we need a savior to die for us! I was taught this message over and over, it was called “the gospel,” and evangelists like Ray Comfort continue to shout it into their neighbors’ faces on a daily basis.

Is this really what Jesus was talking about? Did Jesus knowingly preach an impossible technical standard simply to illustrate people’s need for a religious solution to their abstract “sin problem”? Many Christians simply assume this to be the case, but it is a gross misreading of Jesus and a misappropriation of his real message.

The Ethical Gospel of Jesus: How to (Really) Be Perfect

Despite the vigor with which some Christian traditions have worked to marginalize and dilute his teaching, it’s clear from the gospel texts that Jesus was primarily a teacher. He was a rabbi who set forth an ethical vision, a dream of how human beings ought to live in light of what he understood God to be like. His sayings and parables construct a world of imagination and possibility into which his listeners are invited. The saying in question is a prime example, presented here in fuller context:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy!’ But I tell you: love your enemies! Pray for people who persecute you! That way, you’ll be children of your father in heaven! After all, he makes his sun rise on bad and good alike, and sends rain both on the upright and on the unjust. Look at it like this: if you love those who love you, do you expect a special reward? Even tax-collectors do that, don’t they? And if you only greet your own family, what’s so special about that? Even Gentiles do that, don’t they? Well then: you must be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt 5:43-48, KNT)

Three observations about this passage:

  • The saying has a context, and it is radical, inclusive love – even love for one’s enemies.
  • There is absolutely no indication that Jesus thinks his hearers incapable of responding to this teaching.
  • The Greek word translated “perfect” elsewhere indicates maturity and advancement rather than technical proficiency (see Philippians 3:15, James 1:4).

Jesus does not call his followers to the doom and despair of failing to fulfill a technical obligation to religious laws and regulations. He invites his hearers to grow up and be more like God, to give up the petty divisions and bigotries that define our sense of self and community, to embrace and include all just like God does. Of course, if we’re unable or unwilling to envision God the way Jesus does, how can we endeavor to emulate that God? In America, many religious figures and organizations move in the opposite direction, projecting and perpetuating a God who is less mature and inclusive than they are and calling their cohorts to follow that regressive path. These watchdogs of the “true faith” preach against tolerance and openhearted love, calling their followers “back to the Bible” or “back to God.” Back to which God? Surely not the God of Jesus.

For Jesus, perfection is the triumph of love over hate, embrace over condemnation, inclusion over exclusion, and forgiveness over accusation. This perfection is not unattainable or unrealistic, it is ours for the taking. We can do this!

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Called to Suffer?

This is adapted from a sermon I presented at Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church on October 18, 2015.

Two of the lectionary readings today relate to the topic of suffering. Isaiah 53 is a poetic rumination on suffering and deliverance in the Jewish exile. And in Mark 10:35-45, when Jesus’ followers want to be his henchmen in the new world order, he rebukes them and declares that suffering is his true vocation and that of anyone who follows him.

There are at least two unhelpful, would-be-Christian ways of explaining suffering. One is to imagine that suffering was something that happened once to Jesus so it need not ever happen to his “true believers.” This is built on the ancient notion that suffering is a punishment from God to be avoided by the righteous. Another approach, more honest about reality but still ultimately harmful, acknowledges that suffering is unavoidable, but sees it as a sort of “down payment” on reward in the afterlife, as a commodity or currency which garners favor with God. These are both based on the fundamental notion of God as the author of suffering.

Both of our readings today challenge aspects of these unhelpful ideas. Isaiah’s “suffering servant” (perhaps a once or future king or a representation of Israel itself; embodied and fulfilled by Jesus according to Christian tradition) does not suffer instead of Israel, he suffers with them, and by sharing their suffering delivers them. And Jesus does not tell his followers to sit back and watch him put an end to suffering, he warns them that they will inevitably suffer, as he must, if they persist in following him.

In the ethos of his message and in his death, Jesus refutes and corrects slanderous notions about God and suffering. Time and time again, Jesus rejects the idea that sickness and calamity represent God’s punishment of sinners. A man is not born blind because he or his parents sinned, but so that he and his neighbors can see God when he is healed (John 9). Insurgents killed by Rome are not being judged by God, they are victims of their own choice to follow the path of violence (Luke 13). And on the cross, Jesus nonviolently enters into the very belly of the imperial beast, the heart of human suffering, and dies with us and for us.

In the religious tradition into which Jesus spoke (and in many corners of the religion which worships him), God’s position and role in relation to suffering is as persecutor or punisher. In the divine vision of Jesus, however, God is found inside human suffering, in the midst of those who hurt and want. The Bible may not give a satisfactory answer regarding the source or purpose of suffering, but in Jesus God is found in willing solidarity with those who suffer, as friend and deliverer, not as avenger or nemesis.

Jesus says that those who follow him will suffer, but this is not (as too many have imagined) because suffering is somehow good or noble or effective in and of itself. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. But when we follow the Way of peacemaking and empathy and advocacy and charity, we are on a collision course with suffering – our neighbor’s and our own. Only when suffering is separated from this ethos and context does it become some kind of ritual or currency.

It is only when we choose to be like Jesus and to suffer with those who suffer that there is hope for salvation for them and for us. But if I’m honest, this is the war that rages inside myself. Between the path of comfort and security and the avoidance of suffering or the path of co-suffering love and solidarity, I’m ashamed at how often I choose the former.

Suffering is not a punishment from God or a currency by which He can be sated or manipulated. It is a tragic but ubiquitous reality, an experience which, when shared, allows us to transcend the status quo and encounter the divine in transforming and powerful ways we could otherwise not. In our best moments, our church embodies this perilous vocation. This is why we feed and clothe and shelter our neighbors, why we advocate for those without a voice, and why we choose to suffer with those who want and hurt. Because that is what our Lord did for us. That is what God is like.

Father, we do not understand why there is suffering, and sometimes the burden is so great that we lose hope. Forgive us for looking for religious solutions to suffering, for trying to explain suffering away or to place blame instead of following the example of Jesus, who suffered with the suffering and died for the dying. Forgive us for seeking to avoid suffering instead of helping our hurting neighbors by sharing the load. May we understand our vocation to hurt with others for their salvation and our own, until your kingdom comes. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Follow-Up to “Do You Have to Believe in Hell and Angels…?”

This is a brief follow-up to last week’s post “Do people have to believe in hell and angels before they can follow Jesus?” I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions I raised in that post, and had a few good conversations with Christian friends about it. My overall feeling after much consideration and thought is this: it is surely much better to remain agnostic concerning the supernatural than it is to doubt (or forfeit) values like compassion and mercy. This is particularly true given that the church has often erred in the opposite direction, certain about details of the afterlife and apocalyptic schedules but cautious and dubious about grace and inclusion. And after all, one of the major revelations of the New Testament is that God accepts all those who “do His will” regardless of who they are and what they believe (Acts 10:34-35).

But there is a big “gotcha” in this discussion, one which I didn’t address in the original post. That is the question of the resurrection. Isn’t it necessary that one must believe in the miracle of the resurrection to be a Christian who is “right with God”? This seems to be a juncture where belief in the supernatural becomes absolutely bundled up with Christianity. And here’s the thing: in no way do I wish to sidestep or deny the centrality of the resurrection to our faith. This is the heart and soul of what we believe! However, the fact that this comes before us as a divisive question about faith versus skepticism, belief versus exclusion, indicates just how far we’ve strayed from the essence of the gospel, and how hard we’ve worked to separate the ethos of Jesus from the pathos of his story.

A major misstep by both sides of the “religion vs. science” debates is this violent division between the sacred and the mundane, between the miracle and the message. The traditional camp has been all too happy to distinguish the miracles and passion of Jesus from his life and ethics, and to emphasize the former at the cost of the latter. Skeptics then engage them at their point of emphasis, and the central issue becomes whether or not modern/postmodern people can bring themselves to believe in these sorts of claims anymore. But without their original narrative contexts and resonance, without the story, miraculous and supernatural claims are just arbitrary and kind of empty. If you believe them, you are in. If you don’t, you are out. But what does it benefit one’s character or the world around them which side of the divide they happen find themselves on?

In the story, Jesus’ miracles are not random magic tricks, they are “signs of the kingdom.” He heals human lives as a sign that peace and forgiveness have come to Israel. In the story, Jesus doesn’t die to satisfy God or become a theological hero, he is killed by a corrupt empire because influential people were unsettled by his teachings about the kingdom. In the story, Jesus isn’t resurrected as a tacked-on happy ending or so that Christians can belong to the correct religion. God raises him up in full public vindication of his prophetic message about the coming of the kingdom. There is no point in the story at which the events and claims surrounding Jesus’ life are not directly connected to his teaching about a loving God and a kingdom of peace. The story is not “these things happened and so Christianity is true,” it’s “these things happened and so grace and reconciliation and freedom and mercy are true!”

This is why I reject the rigid and literalistic belief/disbelief binary that uses supernatural claims and miracles as a litmus test for belonging to a religious tribe. We are invited into a story, and the story means something. You can choose to believe every detail in the narrative with all of your heart without ever being affected or transformed by their meaning. Or, you might find yourself struggling with the details of the story but gobsmacked by their implications. You might find yourself drawn into hope and discovery and illumination, even though you’re not sure what you believe. If we embrace the miracles but not the meaning, we’re no better off than we were. But if we embrace the meaning, the miracles are not far off. 

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Four Ways Jesus Loved His Enemies

Jesus enemiesEveryone knows that Jesus said something somewhere about loving our enemies, but to look at his followers you’d think it was just a passing suggestion or a euphemism for something much more complicated. Many modern factions of Christianity are not unlike other insular groups, very sure of who our enemies are and what God has in store for them. Even the prophets and apostles of scripture can’t seem to resist defaulting to an “us versus them” mentality, which only fuels today’s followers by providing them with “biblical” rhetoric about God’s impending vengeance on the bad guys. (Watch Paul wrestle with enemy love in Romans 12:14-21, and see him get downright scary in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12.) We give those ancient authors a pass because of the times and culture in which they lived and for the persecution they faced, but the fundamental problem persists. The results today range from easily ignored pop-culture revenge fantasies  to deeply disturbing calls to arms against specific groups of perceived enemies.

Was Jesus simply being unrealistic when he commanded his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44)? Some have taken an approach similar to Paul’s in Romans 12; we should outwardly tolerate our enemies right now like Messiah said, but only in anticipation of judgment day when he’s coming back to settle the score. We win, they lose, we just have to bide our time. But that’s not so much “love” as it is “sanctimonious condemnation and self-delusion.” The Romans 12 approach is really just the 2 Thessalonians 1 approach with a smiley face painted on it.

What about Jesus? Did he practice what he preached vis-à-vis enemy love? The biblical evidence indicates that radical empathy and subversive affirmation of the “other” are central to both Jesus’ message and his legacy. Here are just four ways that Jesus modeled love of enemy, according to the gospel accounts.

1. Jesus refrained from cursing Israel’s enemies

Jesus stood in the tradition of Israel’s prophets. The earliest prophets saw their task as twofold: 1) admonish Israel’s kings and priests on behalf of YHWH, and 2) comfort the nation by pronouncing divine wrath upon her enemies. Later prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah who were a major influence on Jesus) intensified their challenge to Israel, especially in light of the “curse” of exile, but still maintained that God would ultimately and eternally punish the pagan powers who carried the curse out. Jesus picked up the prophets’ call for reformation (he called it “repentance”), but he dropped the oracles of fire and brimstone against Israel’s enemies. He spoke some harsh and difficult words, but the worst of them were reserved for the religious authorities in his own land. This is not to say that that he condoned or ignored the brutality of Rome (for example), it simply demonstrates that he made a conscious decision not to frame his prophetic message in terms of “us versus them.”

2. Jesus told stories that inspired empathy for enemies

Along the same lines, Jesus told parables to ignite his followers’ imaginations and to challenge their presuppositions. A major theme of his storytelling is a radical rethinking of both “us” and “them.” One of the best known stories concerns a detested political and ethnic enemy who turns out to be an Israelite’s true “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37). To love this neighbor as much as oneself, says Jesus, is to know God. In one sense Jesus’ parables are subversive and shocking, and yet they are not without precedent in his own tradition. Hebrew texts like Ruth and Jonah (both invoked by gospel authors) offered stunning and countercultural portrayals of hated enemies as sympathetic and beloved of God. Jesus claimed and amplified this vision.

3. Jesus interpreted scripture by filtering out violence and retribution

It is fascinating when studying the gospel texts to consider when and how Jesus invokes the Hebrew Scriptures in his teaching. Which books does he quote? Which books does he not quote? Which passages does he quote, and when? What does he leave in, what does he leave out? There is a growing scholarly interest in “how Jesus read his Bible.” One of the patterns that emerge from such a study is Jesus’ apparent intentional hermeneutical move away from violence and vengeance. This finds broad expression in the way Jesus reframed the Torah law to focus on relationships and empathy rather than technical compliance (see Matthew 5:21ff.). But consider also Luke 4:16-30, wherein Jesus quotes Isaiah (61)’s announcement of “the year of YHWH’s favor” (when God rescues “us”) but omits the very next line about “the day of God’s vengeance” (when God punishes “them”). By the end of the passage, Jesus’ disappointed neighbors are trying to throw him off a cliff. This dimension of Jesus’ bible teaching is challenging on a number of levels, in its original context and our own. (This topic is addressed in a fascinating book called Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood, who is currently writing another book specifically about violence in scripture.)

4. Jesus blessed his enemies as they murdered him

It’s one thing to avoid hateful rhetoric and to reconfigure an abstract religious/political framework around love and empathy. It is quite another to stare an enemy in the face as he brutalizes you and to declare him “forgiven.” This is exactly what Luke portrays (in chapter 23) when Jesus is crucified and prays, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” The ramifications of this moment in the gospel narrative cannot be overstated. On the one hand, our notions of right, wrong, and forgiveness are turned inside out, as a divine agent pronounces forgiveness over unrepentant murderers. At the same time, Jesus is living out his own teaching to the utmost extreme, practicing his preaching to a confounding end. It is one of the great climactic moments in our Bible, second only to what comes a chapter later. (And there’s more that could be said about the non-vengeful nature of the resurrection tradition in contrast with popular messianic expectations.)

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Of all the moral imperatives in scripture, none remains more elusive and challenging than Jesus’ call to empathy and selfless love. This is the theme not just of his teaching, but of his life, his death, and his glorious legacy.

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Repent of Bad Religion! Part 2: Dismantling the Bad News Gospel

This is the second in a series of posts about repentance. In the first post we clarified the notion of “repentance” itself, using Jesus’ message as recorded in the bible to demonstrate that true repentance means embracing good ideas and killing off bad ones, even (or especially) bad ideas about God and religion. Today I want to focus on a central but often poorly-defined element of Christian religion: “the gospel.” [NOTE: I teased last time that we would be talking about “salvation” in part 2, but I changed my mind (repented?) and chose a different topic. “Salvation” and “the gospel” are not the same thing, which is one of the points I will be pushing here!]

“The Gospel” in Contemporary Christian Parlance

In Christian nomenclature, “the gospel” is a phrase that carries a lot of weight but is often very flexible in its meaning. Most people in the church and outside know that “gospel” means something like “good news,” but what precisely that good news is changes radically depending on whom you ask. For most evangelical Christians (my people, that’s why I pick on them so much), the gospel is something like this: “You are a depraved sinner with a grim future but God loves you so much he provided the possibility of salvation!” Not only is this a specious representation of some important biblical ideas, the biggest problem is that this news isn’t very “good” at all!

Many factors (biblical misunderstanding? individualistic Western worldview? obsession with legal sin guilt and personal morality?) seem to have conspired to weaponize our gospel. The “good news” is actually the worst news you’ve ever heard: the universe itself is against you and we’ve got a bunch of hoops you’ll have to jump through if you want a shot at the “free gift of salvation.” In practice this gospel is little more than a burden we place on our neighbors, or worse a club with which we pummel them in the name of God.

Meanwhile, in the church, the meaning of “gospel” is stretched even thinner and it becomes a tool of destruction among those who consider themselves its ambassadors. Inside Christian culture “the gospel” has become a codeword for everything that will be lost or compromised if your terrible ideas and preferences win out over my terrible ideas and preferences. Don’t agree about which people should be excluded from our church? You’re compromising the gospel! Disagree with my stance on a social issue? There’s a hole in your gospel! Think the napkins should be blue? That’s an affront to the gospel!

When it comes to “the gospel,” some clarification is in order. If only there were some ancient documents we could consult…

The Gospel of Jesus

According to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus’ “gospel” was a single simple (but huge) idea:

15 “You’ve waited long enough!” he said, “God’s kingdom is here! Turn back and believe the good news!” (Mark 1)

17 From that time on Jesus began to make his proclamation. “Repent!” he would say. “The kingdom of heaven is here!” (Matthew 4)

43 “I must tell the good news of God’s kingdom to the other towns,” he said. “That’s what I was sent for.” (Luke 8)

The gospel according to Jesus of Nazareth was the “kingdom of heaven” or “God’s kingdom.” As we’ve noted elsewhere, this is not a reference to a far off supernatural location but a present reality. God is becoming king of the earth. A million and one things pour out from this declaration, but if we want an authentic and pure definition of “the gospel” as Jesus understood it, here it is.

Of course, Jesus’ proclamation is only good news if the God it envisions is good. An angry and retributive God taking over the world is not terribly good news, and many before and since Jesus have imagined just that type of hostile takeover. But in his “kingdom manifesto” (in Matthew 5-7), in his “kingdom parables,” and in his boldly selfless life and death, Jesus insists that the God of this kingdom is a God of peace, love, forgiveness, and inclusion. In direct contradiction of the modern Christian sensibility, Jesus says that his gospel is good news for sinners and screw-ups and normal people – their rescue is here! – but bad news for the religious gatekeepers who would force others to jump through hoops to obtain God’s grace. Check this out:

13 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Jesus continued. “You lock up the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You don’t go in yourselves, and when other people try to enter you stop them!” (Matthew 23)

So Jesus’ gospel isn’t good news for a small number of devout VIPs and horrible news for everyone else. It’s excellent news for all of creation, and bad news for anyone who doesn’t want to live in a world where peace and forgiveness flow like a waterfall. Most of all, it’s bad news for religious spoilsports who would wield “the gospel” as a weapon against their fellow humans.

But what about the apostle Paul? Most contemporary Christian defense of “the gospel” appeals to the thoughts and writings of Paul. Notwithstanding our tendency to overemphasize and even absolutize Paul’s message to the point where it threatens to eclipse even that of Jesus, the question is pertinent: what is “the gospel” according to Paul? Is it different from the one proclaimed by Jesus?

Paul’s Gospel

The temptation with Paul is to allow Reformation theology (and its many modern mutations) to put words into the apostle’s mouth or to perform origami on his epistles until they say what we’re expecting them to say. Most of us who grew up in the American evangelical church have been trained to think that Paul’s message is about “justification by faith, not works” according to a multi-step “plan of salvation” that moves the individual from the “damned” column into the “saved” column. As a result, it has been difficult for some of us to reconcile the radically simple and joyous gospel of Jesus with the seemingly technical and burdensome “gospel” of Paul. Are the two really so different?

We don’t have room in this short essay for a full exploration of Paul’s thinking and writing (though something like that will happen soon on the podcast). For now, however, it’s quite possible to get a handle on Paul’s understanding of “the gospel,” as he was kind enough to spell it out for us in the opening verses of his letter to the Roman church:

1 Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings; 3 the good news about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, 4 and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord! (Romans 1)

Paul’s gospel is Jesus himself, the embodiment of the good God he proclaimed, and the king of the good kingdom he announced. The message is the same, though the focus is different. In historical context, it’s as if Jesus said “God’s kingdom is here, you don’t have to live in the Roman empire anymore!,” and Paul said, “Jesus is king, you don’t have to serve Caesar anymore!”

Paul does go on to craft many complicated arguments about life in the early church, mostly about how Jews and Gentiles could possibly live together and get along as followers of Jesus. But these arguments and their details should not be mistaken for “the gospel.” Paul’s gospel boils down to the same news as Jesus’ gospel: the peace, love and forgiveness of God himself have been unleashed into creation and it’s time to celebrate!

Conclusion: What Do We Do With This Gospel Today?

The way many Christians “preach the gospel” is actually antithetical to the good news found in the pages of scripture. Having clarified the fundamental goodness of the news proclaimed by Jesus and echoed by Paul, we might ask: how do we embrace, proclaim, and live this gospel today, here and now? Jesus himself gave us a beautiful glimpse at what life in God’s kingdom looks like. There is no anxiety (Matthew 6:25-34). Neighbors choose to love rather than condemn one another (Matthew 7:1-6). Evil is non-violently resisted and enemies are loved (Matthew 5:38-48). These things don’t come easily or naturally, and so this “gospel” manifests as a life-long journey rather than a forced, one-time decision.

The gospel of the Good Kingdom of the Good God calls everybody to repentance. But this is not the shallow, burdensome contrition imposed by religious hypocrites. It’s a rejection of that poisonous gospel, that bad news, and all “gospels” of shame and domination. If it’s not good news that sets captives free – here, right now, today – then it’s not the gospel.

NEXT TIME: Rescuing ‘Salvation.’

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