Augustus*/Pilate 2016: The Preferred Ticket of Megachurch Pastors

Listen to this:

If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:

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So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine

But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.

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Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.

Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.

See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.

Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?

I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.

aaaaa

*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉
 

It’s Not About the Samaritan

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We always focus on the Samaritan. Whenever I preach Luke 10:25-37, I trot out the history of the Samaritans. How some scholars maintain they came to be as the result of the Assyrian destruction of the North c.722 BCE. How they assumed the identity of being the “true” chosen people. How they were vilified and reviled by the Jews of Jesus’ time. How women were thought to be born with perpetual menstruation. How the men oftentimes were not allowed to enter town centers during the day. And then I’ll make some comparison as to who would be a Samaritan today: Osama Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. ISIS.

And that stuff’s important to know. But until last night, when I suddenly switched the texts for the week to those in the Revised Common Lectionary, I never realized that the parable isn’t about the Samaritan at all. Not really.

Most often, we focus on the violence done to the person lying in the ditch. And we should. Those are the wounds that need tending, the life that needs protecting, the victim who needs attention. Nothing can be done to take back the blows delivered to his body; we can dry the blood and set the bones, but the memories of the act remain.

To decrease the chances something like this happens again, we need to look at the forces that push the robbers into lives of brigandry. We have failed them. Our schools. Our communities. Our churches. Sure, some people choose crime but a vast majority are forced there. Desperation is as desperation does.

We need to look at the violence done to the persons who walked by. The priest who perhaps feels afraid of violating strictures on coming into contact with blood. The Levite who has internalized codes and ideas about purity that keeps him out of relationship. What are the lies they have believed, the indifference they have developed in their minds and hearts, the ways they have somehow dehumanized another person? How is that born? How is that nurtured? How is that developed? We need to look at the institutions and forces that create such a perverse and inhuman life philosophy. Because we know that human nature is to help. Just watch a child respond to human suffering. A child will try to assist, will cry out with empathy.

Remember, God creates us and declares us very good. That is our ontological condition.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a story about how we should act, it is a damning indictment of the forces and beliefs that actively keep us from doing the right thing. That keep us complicit in acts of violence, acts of malicious indifference, acts of apathy. The parable is about our own racism, our own prejudices, our own systems that value too many things other than human life. Other than human dignity, security, and happiness.

The parable is about what keeps us from being good.

To be sure, the title of this piece is provocative. The Samaritan is important. I believe the Samaritan presents us with three crucial points for pondering. One, beware of your assumptions. The priest and the Levite are expected to do the right thing, and they do not. I argue because of systems not put in place by them, but ones that they accept even though they violate the will of God that we care for one another. The Samaritan does do the right thing, and we must ask: is this because the Samaritan is a better person? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Samaritan shows us that we can learn lessons from unexpected people. Perhaps the Samaritan shows us that our assumptions about others keep us from seeing the way God is working through them; our prejudices and assumptions prevent us from seeing them as fully human.

Two, the Samaritan shows us the model of someone who does not accept rules and regulations that result in people suffering. The Samaritans largely followed the same Torah as their contemporary Jews (and please note that Samaritans still exist to this day). They were beholden to the same commandments of hospitality and the same laws of ritual cleanliness. This Samaritan put aside those strictures in favor of tending to a life barely holding on.

Three, the Samaritan demonstrates the failures of society to have structures that are life-affirming.What the Samaritan does for the beating victim is wonderful. It is an inspiration for each of us individually. But we also know that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. All of us. Each and every one. So why are there systems and strictures that keep people in lives of crime, in religious systems that alienate, and social systems that do not provide adequate healthcare for everyone simply by virtue of being human? Why do we have a society in which one must risk financial ruin or need to rely on the kindness of strangers–who cannot be expected to help everyone–and continue to make excuses for why it is not different?

The bodies in the ditches are stacking up, and the voices are crying out. Are we simply walking by? Are we regurgitating lies or nonsensical reasons and defenses of indefensible behavior? Do we really think that being pulled over for a taillight should even happen anymore? That playing with a toy gun is a capital crime? Do we start spouting criminal histories that have no bearing on the brutal circumstances of innocent deaths? Do we expect our police officers to follow procedures and practices that leave them afraid and uncertain? Do we defend the system over human life? Human worth? Human dignity?

The parable is not about the fucking Samaritan. It’s about what we’ve gotta do to get woke. God does not care about our doctrine and our dogma. God cares that we do the right thing. Start tearing down everything that keeps that from happening, and begin with yourself.

And remember: Jesus broke himself so we would stop breaking each other.

 

Looking for a Job: A Sermon Series

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Week One: Jules Winnfield, Dick York, and Buddha Walk into a Bar

William James, in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, argues that all of religion has as its basis a need to understand death. We humans have tried to control death, forestall death, inflict death, commodify death. We have imagined it as an end, a birth, a portal, an illusion, a mystery, a rite. We organize space and time in relationship to it, as it pertains to others, to ourselves, to our species, to all of creation. It is the constant that drives us all, in some fashion, to do the things we do, to believe the contents of our faiths: that there can be a victory over that which alters everything in its path.

The ancient Jews had a much different relationship to death than did most other religions of which we know much; Hinduism and Buddhism are contingent upon the cessation of samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of birth, life, death, decay; Hinduism offers moksha or release from samsara through the realization that Atman, the true self, is part of Brahman, the source of all things: God. The Atman therefore reunited with God, samsara ceases. Buddhism rejects the notion of atman for annatta, no soul or no-self. Moksha (release) occurs when one sheds the false ego, traverses the dharma river, and encounters nirvana. One then escapes the power of death. To be sure, these overly-simplified descriptions forgo nuance in the pursuit of expediency, but the overall point holds: both systems seek to overcome death in some way.

The Jews were different. They were much more focused on how to live here. Now. How to craft and form a society that was governed by laws, by proscribed roles and duties willed by a God who protected them, disciplined them, loved them, and was furiously disappointed with them. For the Hebrew people, faith was a tool toward living a life in which one would be healthy, blessed with a family, have land handed down from previous generations, and would know a trade or skill that helped define one’s personal and public identity. From Classical Judaism, generally defined as the period before the First Temple period (c. 922-586 BCE) to approximately mid-way into the Second Temple period (c.527 BCE-70 CE), the only concept of an after life was connected to Sheol, a nebulous underworld similar to that protected by Hades (which eventually becomes the name of the place, in no small part because the Septuagint–the LXX, or Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible–renders the Hebrew sheol as Hades). Sheol is used often in the Psalms; see, for example, Psalm 88, the only psalm in the psalter to not contain a doxology; the narrator begins in the Pit and ends in the Pit. In sheol. In despair. Death just wasn’t a major preoccupation for the Hebrews.

So our Christian notions of heaven and hell have more to do with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Greek polytheism, Dante, and Milton than they do with Judaism. But that doesn’t mean we should not examine more closely Jewish ideas relating to death. However, attitudes toward life and death begin to shift after the split between Judah and Israel (c. 922 BCE) and the writing of the Book of Daniel (c. third century BCE), which features notions of a coming judgment based upon the actions taken in this world. And I believe, in many ways, we can see the beginning of that conversation unfold in the Book of Job.

Next week I will provide an overview of Job’s structure, various scholarly theories regarding its compilation and purpose, and we will examine the theologies embedded in the narrative. But for now, it is important to point out that the Book of Job seems to be a response to a theology that had been central to the survival of the faith amidst continued, violent repression: the Theology of Retribution. One can see examples of this throughout what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History, in which the people turn to other gods; Hashem delivers the people into the hands of an enemy; the people repent and cry out; God sends a shofet (judge) or a prophet; all is well until the judge dies, and the people slide back into apostasy. This corporate understanding of how God works translated to individual lives and cultural mores. People who were stricken with illnesses or skin conditions were regarded as sinful, as deserving of their condition. While to some extent the wealthy believed they were rewarded because of their own virtue, much more prevalent was the belief that one was rewarded because of the virtues of one’s ancestors. Filial piety is a major concern of the Scriptures, even if expected adherence to primogeniture is often challenged (think of how many times the younger brother is favored in the Bible). Sin and status are intimately connected.

And Job challenges this relationship. Consider Job, God brags. The pinnacle of my beautiful creation, no ? God tauntingly offers to Satan. Of course he is! the Adversary retorts. You’ve given him everything. Take it away, and see what happens! So we’re left with a question. A quandary. Is Job rewarded because he is religious? Or is Job religious because he is rewarded? Now we turn the questioning upon ourselves. What are our expectations of God? What is the purpose of our investment? Wealth? Health? Love? What does God offer? What does God expect?

The Book of Job is an indictment on the expectation for justice. The sense that one is deserving of anything. And reading Job now, with what is going on in this country, we must ask: can a system that was never designed to protect and serve non-whites and women ever be sufficiently reformed to provide equal justice? We do we mean when we say the word justice? I know from experience that my friends of color often answer that question with a much different perspective than do I. So do we believe in a uniform, unchanging justice? Do justice and compassion have a relationship? If so, how? What impacts that relationship? Is it the same for everyone? The questions seem endless.

The Book of Job challenges us to confront a God who is so insecure that Satan is able to goad, cajole, one could even say manipulate, to such an extent that Job’s children are slaughtered as a test of faith. A God, who at the end of the story, blithely replaces Job’s family, not through resurrection, but through a new cast of characters. It’s like Dick Sargeant replacing Dick York all over again, and nobody’s supposed to notice? Come on, God!

Are we confronted with a text that shows we of the Abrahamic faiths worship a capricious and even vindictive God? Or might there be something else here? Something bubbling under the surface, beckoning us to investigate, to lay bare our assumptions, and to confront fundamental questions in new ways? With new eyes? Over the next five weekly installments, will be sit on the dung heap with Job and listen. And then, in the words of Jules Winnfield, we’ll say, “Well allow me to retort!”

Practicing Resurrection: Naked Night Fishing

Lunker 1997 by Peter Doig born 1959
Lunker 1997 Peter Doig born 1959 Presented by the artist and Charles Booth-Clibborn 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P11550

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

 

This week has been dark for me. Painful. Disconcerting. Maddening. As each day passed, with its attenuating missed experiences, I sank further into a dirty nest of blankets and sweat. It is an odd thing, this illness. I have no broken bone or plummeting T-cell count to which I can point and say, “Here. This is why I can’t. This is why I simply can’t.” Even the experts who provide my care admit, at some point it just takes faith that we’ll figure out how to deal with the chemicals that course through my brain. It seems almost everyone has an opinion: eat this, don’t eat that; do this, don’t do that; have you tried yoga? How can I do yoga when I’m night fishing nude and nothing is biting?

It is perhaps my greatest fear: to be followed by people and for us to catch nothing. To be sitting in the boat, completely exposed, with people looking at me and shaking their heads in disappointment. That demon visited this week; he unpacked, got himself comfortable, and refused to leave my side. In the darkness, when I cast out my line, nothing worth keeping bit. Self-doubt, fear, feelings of insecurity, dread, and self-loathing were abundant; they leapt into the boat and flopped around, fighting for the same air as I. As they slapped against my naked flesh, my demon sat in the boat with me, pointing to each species and saying, “This? This is what you will use to feed the people? This is what you offer to others in service to your God? This isn’t palatable. No wonder the congregation is shrinking.”

Sarah Silverman has a comedy special titled Jesus is Magic. Sadly, this notion often passes for theology. Despairing? Give it to Jesus? Angry? Look to Jesus. But what we often forget is that there are times in our lives in which we will be nude, fishing in the dark and catching nothing. And that’s where I was, my boat becoming a rotating cast of people I feared I was disappointing or letting down. Family. Friends. Congregants. Each had a turn. Some stayed longer than others. Some came back for repeat visits. For me, depression is not lonely. It is filled with visitors. And it matters not that I am, in reality, surrounded by wonderful, amazing, supportive people who love me; in my head, they are just being fooled. I know the truth. In the darkness, I see who I really am.

At least that is the best way for me to describe it. Depression is not rational; it cares not for degrees or loving words from others. Depression eats happiness and sows seeds of self-hatred. It shuts everything else out and demands my full attention.

This morning I think I heard Jesus whisper “Child.” The boat seems less filled with menacing creatures, and I do believe that is sunlight rising behind Jesus’ form. And I tell you, I want to jump out of this boat like Forrest Gump greeting Lieutenant Dan. The Greek text describes Peter as girding up his loins with his clothing, and jumping into the water instead of waiting for the vessel to dock. I get that. It is a sense that the darkness might be abating.

There are times when we stay on the boat with all the fish Jesus has helped us to gather, and there are times that we jump into the water, determined to get to Jesus first, even if it only lasts for a few precious minutes. The thing is, I don’t think God judges us one way or the other, really. When I’m strong, when I’m doing well, when the meds are doing their work and I’m doing mine, I’m on that boat. I’m gathering the fish together and telling the others on the boat to take a break and go see Jesus. I got it covered. I’ll finish the haul. I’ll mend any nets needing tending. Go. Be with God. I’m good.

I hope to be back there soon. As I said, the sun is coming up and I’m about to jump into the water and start swimming. I look forward to being with God, and to the breakfast I will share with others. A few months ago, the Session of the church I serve agreed to allow  Communion each Sunday after the service during the season of Easter. I’m anticipating that it will be the most delicious, filling, and empowering meal I will have had in a long time. People will be there. Not visitors. Not demons.Not creatures demanding to be named and acknowledged. God’s children. Together. And we will be fed. And we will see Jesus. Some will have taken the boat. Some will have swam. But we will be there together.

But Wait, There’s More: The Three-In-One God

 

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Twenty-first century pastorates are a bit different; many of us find ourselves serving as ministers to people via Facebook or IM. I know that I have at least half a dozen people who consider me their pastor, but for various reasons cannot or do not want to attend the church where I hold the pulpit. I cherish these relationships, but they also require me to function slightly differently than I would if I could refer them to a bible study or class I lead. This leads us to today’s post: Is Jesus God? Is God Jesus? If so, how?

I imagine that my fellow pastor/professor/theologian/biblical scholar friends are laughing right now, as these questions are literally the stuff of dissertations and careers. Looking at my not insubstantial book collection, I can see no fewer than fifteen titles on the unorganized shelves that directly relate to Christology. So please know that my musings are not meant to be, nor are they, definitive. But if we pastors cannot elucidate such basic concepts in simple language, we really should not be calling ourselves preachers and teachers of the Church.

The Council(s) and the Controversies

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After the death of Jesus, the Apostle’s Creed emerged seemingly out of nowhere. Tradition holds that each of the Twelve Disciples (we assume not Judas Iscariot, but rather his replacement Matthias) contributed to the creed (or its forerunner), and Patristics note that it is mentioned throughout the writings of Church Fathers. While we are uncertain of how it emerged, it is an attempt to set forth the basics of what one needs to believe in order to be a card-carrying member of Team Jesus.*

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Let me say that I ascribe to the Apostle’s Creed with very little nuance needed. This pretty much summarizes my faith. But let’s break it down. Notice, the divinity of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) is not set forth in the creed; this, according to some historians, opened the door for later controversies, most especially Arianism. Also notice that this seems to be saying that we believe in one God, one person, and one spirit. So, are we pantheists? Are we polytheists? Are we Jewish plus? Questioned abound.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

Arianism arises from the ideas of Arius, a Libyan theologian who was dead set against emerging Trinitarianism (discussed below). The foundation of his ideas was threefold: God the Father and the Logos (John’s term for the second person of the Trinity; “Word” that becomes flesh as Jesus Christ) were not of the same substance or essence (ousia); that the Son (Logos) was a created being; and as a created being, there was a time in which the Logos did not exist. Arius referred to the Logos as a “creature,” a being that was divine in that it was created ex nihilo, and was a participant in the creation of the universes, but a being that is not coequal with God. Seem complicated? It kinda is. But it boils down to this question: Are Jesus and God the same thing? Arius said no. And he was excommunicated.

In fact, when the Council of Nicaea met in 325 C.E. to address the divinity of Christ, they formed a creed that many people think they know. But most don’t. Why? Because there is an entire section dedicated to refuting Arianism that was later pulled out in the Council of Constantinople (381). Imagine hearing this recited in St. Peter’s Basilica each week:

But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Arianism has never fully been put down in Christian circles–Unitarians by and large accept the Apostle’s Creed and agree with Arius, but have issues with subsequent creeds–but it has been a heresy since the 4th century, for whatever that is worth. Needless to say, the issue of Jesus’ divinity was not settled in 381 C.E., with the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. (And, again, apologies to all my friends who are early Church historians for glossing over so many details that it is just simpler for me to say that there is much, much more to the story.)

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, True God of True God, Begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; And ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of the Father; And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets; And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the Resurrection of the dead, And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Those who are interested in minutia should research the filoque controversy  or how the statement “not one iota’s difference” emerged from the Council of Nicaea. What we can say, though, is that there were early and very violent disagreements among followers of Christ regarding his divinity and relationship with the Trinity. In fact, there is no explicit biblical statement supporting a Trinitarian view of God. The term first emerged through the writings of Tertullian , a second century theologian who wrote about three persons (tres personae) united in one substance (substantia); the unity he called tri-unity, or Trinitas. While Tertullian’s particular vision of the Trinity was adapted and altered over the years, his contribution became the foundation for orthodox thinking regarding the relationship of the persons within the Godhead.

The Councils of Constantinople and Chalcedon

But controversies continued. At the Council of Constantinople, the bishops rejected Apollinarianism, the idea that the divine Logos overtook the mind and soul of the human Jesus. In other words, Jesus was more divine than human. This was rejected because, according to atonement theology, Jesus must be fully human and fully divine to achieve the salvation of humankind. This gave way to what is known as Hypostatic Union, the two natures (human and divine) united perfectly in one person. A few decades later, in response to Hypostatic Union, another controversy, this one called Nestorianism, which argued that Christ has two natures, but that there is no union. He would go from “mode to mode.” Again, problems with needing to adhere to atonement theology prevented Nestorianism from being a viable, orthodox Christology.

All of this came to a head with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E., and the resulting creed, which again solidified the dual nature of Christ united in one person, and present in tri-unity within the Godhead.

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.    

We describe this as “fully human, fully divine.” If you push most theologians to his or her limit, we would have to defer to the divine mysterium. Somehow, Jesus is fully God but also fully like us, except for the sin part. This is the view that won out. At least until the Protestant Reformation.

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So what does all of this mean? That the question is not simple and is not without controversy. Orthodox theology would say, “Yes. Jesus is God. Jesus is human. Jesus is both fully and completely, and is so because his death on the cross must atone for original sin.” If you don’t believe in original sin or if you do not accept atonement theology, the nature of Christ becomes more difficult. Or easier, depending on your viewpoint.

I always tell congregants that I don’t necessarily think that I am correct, but I will always explain how I have alighted upon my own decisions regarding central issues in our faith tradition. I have spent a goodly amount of time assembling a quick journey through the history regarding Christ’s nature, and I affirm that this is what we historically have believed regarding Jesus. He is unlike anyone or anything else; he is truly God, truly human, truly the Messiah, and truly perfect. And if that works for you, awesome. Great.

But if it doesn’t, does that mean you are out in the cold? Not at all. The truth is, what we have within the canonical scriptures are a selection of ideas about Jesus, but not the full picture. Texts such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Judas, the Sayings Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy of James, and a whole host of other gospels were written at the same time that Church Fathers were wrestling with these questions. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, sets forth the idea that salvation is achieved through Wisdom, and that the divine nature is within human beings other than Jesus. We see from the earliest levels until today the notion of the “moral influence” of Jesus’ life on followers; the notion that Jesus is the finger pointing toward the moon, but is not the moon itself. Scores of scholars and theologians have argued that the greatest mistake Christianity made was worshiping Jesus rather than following him. Luckily, we do not burn people at the stake anymore for daring to question orthodoxy.

I find that there are generally two types of people who seriously consider religion: those who want certainty and those who want direction. Those who want certainty are very comfortable in orthodoxy. Questions are answered clearly and definitively. There is a right way and a wrong way. There does not need to be debate because the debates have already occurred and the Holy Spirit has spoken. The other type of people–and here is where I place myself–are those who like that religion gives direction, but want the autonomy and ability to puzzle things out for themselves.

I do not believe that Jesus had to die in order for God to be satisfied for the debt we owe as a result of original sin. I do believe that Jesus died as a result of sins, but the sins of arrogance, fear, greed, indifference, and the need for power. I believe that through his life, Jesus definitively (yet not exclusively) revealed the mind of God, providing human beings a template on how to lead an existence that brings forth love, peace, justice, compassion, and joy. I attest to the resurrection of Christ–this will need to be another post unto itself–and believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to human persons, but the Holy Spirit has been called countless names throughout time. I attest completely to the existence of a creator God, to whom Jesus was intimately connected and for whose sake Jesus gave his life in order to bring hope to those cast aside by humankind.

Is Jesus God? Well, let me ask you a question. What do you mean by God?

*Credit for “Team Jesus” must be given to Deacon Gilah Pomeranz.

Why Study the Bible? A Progressive Case for Biblical Literacy

This Sabbath, I began leading a seven-week exploration of the Gospel of Mark in my church. Sunday morning at 9:30, many of us with coffee in hand, about a half dozen fellow congregants and I shuffled into our church parlor, sat in a circle, and looked at one another. Bibles were opened and situated on laps; some were stacked on the coffee table sitting in the center of the circle. As I felt all eyes on me, I realized something horrifying: I’ve sold this class as “Bible study for people who don’t like Bible study.” Have you really thought about what that means, Aaron? I asked myself as I circulated handouts outlining background information on Mark and highlighting central themes that emerge in the first chapter. You’ve really done it this time, I thought as I opened my mouth to begin the class.

People in my church are incredibly well-educated and smart. Even if they do not have advanced degrees, they are intellectually-curious, thoughtful people. So part of my approach is to lead the discussion in the same way I do when I am teaching my university courses: I point out critical details, and then ask for interpretation. This approach worked well in the church class, for everyone spoke and seemed engaged. But my internal voice was shouting, You’re letting them down, Aaron. You’re not offering anything new or exciting. Then, as we were wrapping up, one of the participants–a loving saint of the church who has quickly become a dear friend–turned to me and said, “I was expecting something different.” Uh-oh, I thought. This is what I feared. “This is supposed to be Bible study for people who don’t like Bible study. So, maybe next time, we can discuss why we should study the Bible. I mean, why not some other text? Why this?”

I must admit that I was taken aback, not because of the content of his question but rather because he has a point. Why the Bible? Why not more updated texts, ones that don’t require hours of associated study and information? If one does not have an appreciation for the contours of Roman occupation during the first century, one will most likely miss key aspects of the Gospels. So what is the point for us in the 21st century–especially those of us who find parts of the Bible to be very difficult to interpret or accept–studying this text? I left the class a bit shaken, but smiled to other congregants, claiming that the meeting went well and that it is off to a good start. Inside, though, I was wrestling with the question. Why study the Bible?

I believe that I have an answer. We study the Bible because is links us, across space and time, to the billions of Christians that have preceded us. When we open up the Bible, we are connected with billions of fellow Christians who are practicing their faith simultaneous to us. We draw from the same well; we drink from the same cup; we are nourished by the same Living Waters. We read it because it is the basis of our tradition; further, we read the Tanakh because it reminds us of our Jewish roots. This is something Christians too often forget.

But we also study the Bible because the stories belong to us as well. I make no secret that I have great difficulty with biblical literalism. Along with being a rather new form of exegesis, biblical literalism reduces the Scriptures to a false paradigm: true or false. The “God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it approach” pays little respect to the depth and beauty of biblical texts. Must the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son be “real” people in order for Jesus’ parables to have meaning? Of course not. So why do we put it past the power of the Bible’s authors to use metaphor, simile, and figurative language? The Scriptures invite us into relationship, with ourselves, with others, with God. The Bible is a brilliant–and, yes, frustrating–collection of texts that chronicle the greatest of human questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? How should I live? What does God expect of me? If there were only one answer to each of these questions, there would be only one religion, one church, one denomination. But there are not. Religions are Legion, as are interpretations, especially within the Christian faith. So while we Progressive Christians are lambasted for desacralizing the Scriptures, we are doing nothing of the kind. We are following the lead of Origen, who believed that a literal reading of the Bible would drive a person mad. Allegory, he argued, is part and parcel of biblical hermeneutics.

But I do not want this to descend into another “culture wars” discussion. And I most certainly don’t want to say, We read Scripture so we can triumph over those with whom we disagree. That leads nowhere.

Ultimately, we read Scripture because we seek transformation; we desire to see how living in a new way can bring about healing, can produce a more authentic way to love, and can bring us into meaningful relationship with an increasing number of people. We read Scripture because a passage from Romans changed St. Augustine’s life. We study the Bible because Martin Luther was so convinced that God was communicating to him through Scripture that he nailed 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, setting into motion the Protestant Reformation (or Protestant Revolt, depending on the side one takes). This same collection of texts inspired Henry Ward Beecher to oppose slavery; allowed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to utilize biblical principles in order to change the minds of people, as well as to demand a non-violent approach to change; and has been the source of inspiration for people around the world to speak truth to power. We read Scripture because in the pages of the Bible, we encounter the Living God. We see how commitment to love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness produces an alchemical response: We can turn lead into gold by changing hearts. If one loves one’s enemy, that person ceases being an enemy. This is a lesson that never, ever is outdated.

As a member of the United Church of Christ, I ultimately answer that we read the Bible because God is still speaking. And God speaks through the Bible, with stories, eloquent language, and challenging requirements that cause all of us who believe to interpret ourselves. Where am I in this story? Because we are there, and sometimes in very surprising ways.

So, to quote the child Augustine heard chanting as he sat in the garden, “Take it up and read. Take it up and read.”