Monday, 19 March 2018

A death so that you can truly live- John 12

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. The cross is so normal to us that we don’t usually grasp how strange it is. It was offensive and grotesque. It was a shameful and horrifying way to die. It was considered so awful that no Roman citizen was allowed to be executed that way. For Christians to claim that Jesus died on the cross was scandalous. The disconnect is particularly obvious when we buy jewelry made into a cross. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we had little gold guillotines, nooses, and electric chairs hanging around our necks.

The cross is sometimes a difficult aspect to explain for missionaries in foreign cultures. Good people aren’t supposed to die that way. The universe doesn’t make sense if they do. In the 16th century, a Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci arrived in China. He was a brilliant renaissance man who quickly mastered Chinese language and culture. In the style of Paul in Acts, Ricci attempted to find the truth in Chinese culture and use those truths to teach Christianity. … A difficult aspect of Christianity for Ricci to teach was the cross. Many philosophical and moral teachings of Christianity had their compliment in Chinese values. Ricci taught that Christianity was a perfecting of those already existing truths. , Jesus’ crucifixion, h
owever, was not easy to communicate. It did not make sense in that ideology, especially in a culture where authority was highly respected. Jesus’ condemnation by the highest religious court of the day was an offence to Chinese values. For this reason he didn’t present the cross right away. One day, however, a servant of the Chinese court happened to come across a realistic statue of Jesus on the cross among Matteo Ricci’s belongings. The shocked servant confronted Ricci, screaming at him, believing that he was practicing black magic in some attempt to kill the Chinese ruler. It was a horrifying image, so he thought it must have some horrifying purpose. Jesus’ moral and philosophical teachings were acceptable, but the cross was an offense.

We have become so used to the cross that we hardly see the horror of it anymore. The cross, when we really see it, is brutal. … It is unavoidable, though. At the heart of Christianity is self-sacrificial love. It is a love that expresses itself by willing to go to through the very worst for the beloved. Jesus explains that his sacrifice will bring incredible benefit. 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
 The sacrificial system, that was a part of almost every society, that offered animals and sometimes human beings to a divinity ended with Jesus offering himself up. His sacrifice convinced people of God’s love for humanity. Previously, sacrifice was always something humanity did to please the gods. Now, in Jesus, God offers sacrifice to bless humanity. Jesus holds nothing back to show us his love for us. That is the central claim of Christianity.

This is also a truth for the followers of Jesus. We have sometimes considered being a Christian as being something other than being a disciple. They are really supposed to be one and the same. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, 
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship) (Sorry about the non-inclusive language. I'm sure he wants women to be as discomforted as men by the call of Christ).
 Bonhoeffer spoke about churches that offer “cheap grace”. It is an easy Christianity where we are never challenged. He says, 
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without … discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).
 Bonhoeffer recognized that you can’t chose to be a Christian without being a disciple. And being a disciple requires picking up your cross and following Christ.

When Jesus said, 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24)
 he was surely referring to his own death. However, he also called his followers into a way of life that was marked by self-sacrificial love. Jesus said, 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26).
 If we want to be with Jesus then the way to walk with him is by means of self-sacrificial love. There is courage required here because it is a frightening thing to be challenged with.

For many in the early church this meant literal death at the hands of those persecuting Christians. This is true for many modern Christians as well. I have heard it said that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined. Christians dying for refusing to deny Jesus is not just an ancient historical reality- it is a present reality. Tertullian (160-220ad), perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words in our gospel reading, once said, 
“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”.
 This certainly seemed to be that case for the Roman Empire as it went from persecuting Christianity to embracing it. The few grains of wheat that died seemed to produce a crop.

Hopefully this will not be asked of us. We can pray for that. However, the same self-sacrificial love is required of us, and it will require a kind of death. This call of Jesus confronts our desire for a comfortable life. Growth almost always requires discomfort and change.

The “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer talks about is a Christianity that doesn’t expect anything of us. Cheap grace tells me I can live however I want and still call myself a Christian. Cheap grace tells me I am guaranteed an afterlife in paradise as a human right. Cheap grace gives me comfort and forgiveness, but never expects anything from me. … But, cheap grace doesn’t lead us into the change we need. It is a consumerist fast-food Jesus who gives me what I want and never offends me, and never puts me in a place where I might suffer.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him. He says, 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. ...” (Jn 12:25-26).
 Jesus doesn’t literally mean “hate your life”. He is exaggerating to make a point. He is saying that our priorities should be such that our commitment to the self-sacrificial love of Jesus makes our desire to maintain our status quo lives look like hate in comparison.

What does it look like to die to our false selves in a culture where we are being socialized to have our every desire appeased? To deny a desire is almost seen as cruel, or as an injustice. I think it is really interesting that most cultures have practiced fasting from food, even western culture until recently. Now, when we have so much, we consider fasting from food for a day or three to be extreme or even dangerous. Self-denial is a kind of death. We don’t deny ourselves for no reason, though. Jesus is pretty clear that the death we are called to is one that will glorify God. Denial of food to worship some ideal of beauty is not what fasting is about. Fasting is about entering into deeper prayer to glorify God.

There are a number of ways we can die to our false self. And this is asked of all disciples. It’s not a matter of if Jesus is calling you to die- he is. The question is what kind of death is he calling you to in order to glorify God? … We might die to our false self as we refuse to take our anger out on others. We might refuse to allow our desire to have our own way control our relationships. We might refuse to allow fear to control our behavior. We might be being called to die to a set of intellectual ideas so that we can embrace a new way of seeing the world. We might be called to die to ourselves as parents or grandparents, or partners, as we put our desires aside to serve God in others. We might have to die to a status quo in the church, or in our society. The civil rights movement led by people like Martin Luther King Jr. in the southern United States was a kind of death to a status quo. We are called to die to our false self, so that we can embrace our true self in following Christ to glorify God.

There is a cost to being a disciple. But, we should never forget that there is also a cost to not being a disciple. Jesus says the cost of not being a disciple is losing our life. It is missing out on the life God has created us to have. There is a death needed for our false self, so that the true self can live. Jesus wants our joy to be full (Jn 15:11). Jesus wants nothing less than a full life for us. But, that life cannot be a reality until the false self dies.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Look with Trust- the bronze serpent Num 21

Some of us have a tendency to take the blessings of our lives for granted. We focus on the negative, or what we lack, rather than be thankful for what we have. I don’t know if you notice this in yourself at all, but I know I see it in myself. Some of us really have to struggle against that negative habit.

This has become a significant field of research. There have been a number of studies done on gratitude and they have found that people who are thankful are generally happier, less depressed, are more satisfied with life, have a greater sense of purpose in life, and tend to be more generous. That also implies the opposite. A lack of gratitude leads to being less happy, more depressed, less satisfied with life, having less sense of purpose in life, and less generosity. The field of positive psychology has been trying to find practices to help people become more grateful in order to help people have better lives.

It sounds like the Hebrew people in the book of Numbers could have used the insights of positive psychology. The people are in a constant pattern of ingratitude as they wandered in the wilderness. In the book of Numbers chapter 21, they are in the middle of complaining. Despite the miraculous way God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, they complain that they were better off as slaves. They complain that they will starve, and God provides them with manna for food (Ex 16). They complain that they are thirsty, and Moses strikes a rock and God provides water (Ex 17). They complain that they are tired of anna and want meat to eat, and God gives them quail (Num 11). … And yet, they continue to grumble. After all this miraculous provision- after saving them from slavery- after seeing the miracles- after eating the miraculous food and drinking the miraculous water in a desolate landscape- they still complain. They complain against Moses and they complain against God. Their hearts are ungrateful. They are constantly looking for what is wrong, and overlooking their blessings.

Can you see yourself doing that? We don’t want to see ourselves that way, but I think some of us have a tendency to complain and forget about the blessings in our lives. I may have told some of you about the time I went to Cuba on a mission trip. I didn’t have much Spanish, but I had a little, so I tried to make conversation. “Tengo mucho calor”, I said. Which means “I’m very hot”. It was warm, but I wasn’t really that uncomfortable. I was more just making conversation with the limited Spanish I had. When I woke up in the morning I found that the Cubans went out and bought a whole bunch fans. These are not rich people, and those fans weren’t cheap. … Upon reflection, I realized how much we tend to complain, even if just for conversation. We talk about the bad weather, or the long line at Costco. But, we have temperature-controlled vehicles and houses, so the weather doesn’t affect us that badly. In our grocery stores we have more food, and more varieties of food, than most of the world does. And how amazing that we have vehicles to help us cross great distances in very minimal time, all while keeping us out of the weather. That sure seems to beat walking or riding a horse in the rain. Still, many of us have a tendency to focus on what is wrong. Ingratitude can take root in our hearts.

There is this very strange story in the book of Numbers. The people complain and express their lack of trust in God and God causes a release of snakes. Some of the people are bitten by the snakes and they die. The snakes seem to be a symbol of the fallen and dangerous world. In the world we are in danger from the elements, from disease, from war, from famine, and numerous other dangers. The serpents invade, and bite, and people begin to die.

God is the rescuer. God is the one who rescued the people from slavery. God is the one who provided food when they were hungry, and water when they were thirsty. God has rescued them from the dangerous world many times already. God is the source of all love, life, joy, peace, and beauty. To grumble and rebel against God is to put yourself back into the snake pit. To push away from God is to push yourself into the presence of all that God wants to save you from. To push away from God is to cut yourself off from the source love, life, joy, peace, and beauty. That is a road to destruction.

In a strange kind of living parable the Hebrew people feel the pain of turning away from God- in the form of snake bites. They realize the error of their ways and they come to Moses and say, 
“We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” They repent. They turn towards God. They realize the stupidity of what they've done. Turning away from the God of life means death. 

Moses hears their cry and has compassion. He prays to God on behalf of the people. And God give Moses some strange instructions. God told Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” They needed a focus point for their faith. They needed a sacrament- a visible symbol of God’s grace. They needed to put their trust into action in a very practical way. They needed to believe that what God said was true- look and trust ... and live.

Trust in God is different than believing things about God. The people knew God existed, they just didn't believe that God would take care of them. Belief is different than trust. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent. God gave the Hebrew people a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that God will save them. Whoever looks at the bronze serpent, trusting in God's words, will live. Their trust needed a focal point- they needed an action to activate their faith.

I heard a story about a high school student. She was taking a Physics class and she was supposed to present to her class on the physics of a pendulum. She explained to the class how a pendulum worked. It has a weight that is fixed to a point by a wire. She described the physics and how, because of gravity and other forces acting on the pendulum that it can never reach the same point it is swung from. She drew diagrams. She showed the class the formula on the black board, and to really make her point she set up a giant pendulum in the classroom. It had a barbell weight secured with a rope to the ceiling in the center of the classroom. She asked if everyone understood and believed what she said and the class agreed. She then asked the teacher if she could use him as a part of her presentation. The student asked her teacher to stand on a chair at one end of the classroom. She then set up the pendulum with the 20 pound barbell. She attached the wire and made sure everything was secure. The student raised the barbell to the teacher's nose and adjusted the chair so the rope was tight. She reminded the classroom, "now remember, because of gravity and the other forces acting on the pendulum the weight will not be able to get this high again. Based on the physics I just showed you, which you all said you believe, when this weight swings back it will not be able to reach the teacher’s nose". She let the weight drop and the teacher watched as it slowly swung through the pathway between the desks. The class collectively held their breath. The teacher watched as the weight slowed and then stopped at the other side of the classroom and then started back down towards the teacher. The weight got closer and closer and … suddenly the teacher jumped off the chair, afraid he was going to get his teeth knocked out. The teacher may have understood the physics in theory, but not in his heart. He didn't believe it enough to trust it.

I like that story. It is a reminder to me that faith is something that has to be more than a theory. It has to get into my heart. I have to be willing to act in a way that reflects my belief. If I jump off the chair like the teacher did, then part of me really doesn't believe it. Of course, we need to be sure that what we believe in is worth believing. As the preacher Stuart Briscoe once said, "faith is only as valid as its object. You can have tremendous faith in very thin ice and drown. ... You could have very little faith in very thick ice and be perfectly secure". God had shown Himself over and over again to be worthy of the Hebrew people’s trust, yet they were unwilling to trust God. God never said it would be an easy walk through the wilderness, but God made promises to protect and keep them. However, they turned against God over and over again.

To help them learn to trust in a very real way God gives Moses some strange instructions. "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." "So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole." They looked at a symbol of their own suffering and death. The snakes were biting their friends and family. Instead of getting rid of the snakes they were taught to trust God in the midst of their suffering. When they were bit, they looked at the bronze snake and they lived. When they looked at that strange symbol of their suffering they lived.

These serpents are interesting. Some have looked into the Hebrew and have concluded that these were no ordinary serpents. The serpents that were biting the people were called in the Hebrew "Saraph" serpents. This word "Saraph" can mean a few things. The plain meaning is "fiery". The Serpent is a "fiery" serpent. This might mean that the bite burned like fire. …. "Saraph" might be even more mysterious though. "Saraph" might point to a kind of winged serpent that we find in the art of ancient Egypt (pointed out to me by one of my O.T. professors, Glen Taylor). Perhaps it is a stretch, but imagine an upright serpent with wings outstretched on either side. Doesn't it look like a cross? Is this is what the Hebrew people were looking at with eyes of faith. … They looked at this symbol trusting that God would save them from the poison of the world. The Hebrews looked at this sacrament- this means of the grace of God- and lived. 

This image was important to the Hebrew people. They carried it with them when they established themselves in the Promised Land. We read that around 800 hundred years later the reforming King Hezekiah smashed the bronze serpent (which may have been kept in the Temple) because people were worshipping it by burning incense to it. What was meant to be a sacrament for healing became a source of idolatry and so it had to be removed. But, imagine that this symbol remained in the hearts and minds of the Hebrew people as an object of faith for around 800 years.

Jesus points to this Bronze serpent in the gospel of John chapter 3, "14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Jesus is saying that he is like the bronze serpent. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross. People will look at the suffering of the cross and it will become a means of their own healing from the venom of the world. We are invited to look at him and believe. We are invited to look at the cross- an instrument of torture and destruction- and, mysteriously, receive life. Just as the Hebrew people looked at the symbol of their suffering- the Serpent- so we look at death and suffering symbolized by the cross and through it we receive life through Jesus.

We don't know exactly how it works, but we are told God's motivation for doing it John 3:16-17, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." The cross, was God's self-sacrifice. It was the best way to show that God would hold nothing back- Jesus would hold nothing back- in order to show us how much he loves us.

Like the Hebrew people we are invited to respond. It is not enough to have a theory in your head about this. The bronze serpent was raised and they were invited to look upon it and believe God would save them from the venom. Jesus was raised on a cross and we are invited to look to him and believe that this is the ultimate act of love for us- this is God saving us. We are invited to see God entering into our suffering out of love for us. We are invited to put our faith into action. Like the Hebrews we are not promised that the serpents will be taken away. We are told that when we get stung by the world that we look to Christ for healing and protection.

One way that you can look to Christ for healing in the midst of the serpents is to come forward to receive the bread and wine- to receive the life of Jesus to rejuvenate your life. When we respond in faith, we stay standing on the chair as the pendulum swings back at us. We take the risk of faith. We chose to believe that it is not just theory- it is describing reality. It is not just a theory. It is in our hearts. When we come forward and open our hands to receive the bread and wine we show that we believe it. God has offered it, to give us life while we make our way through a dangerous world. All we have to do is look, believe, receive, and live. AMEN

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Morality-Ten Commandments Ex 20

The Ten Commandments have been held up as an icon of morality for at least 3000 years. In the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus was asked by a rich young man, 
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
 Jesus replied by saying, 
“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:16-17).
Jesus went on to list commandments from the famous ten. Now, we have to read this in the context of the rest of Scripture, and so account for the cross and the grace God offers us. But, this Scripture is enough to show that the Ten Commandments were highly regarded by Jesus. And so, they should be highly regarded by us as well.

When we talk about the Ten Commandments it is perhaps important to talk about morality in general. We live in a society that is paradoxically very willing to place judgement on others (see reality TV and social media), but we also aren’t very clear about what morality is besides an opinion about how things should be.

The Commandments open with the statement, 
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2).
 The Commandments start with a declaration that these are the words of God, rather than Moses. Why might this matter for us?

Moral thinking has sometimes been separated into subjective morality and objective morality.[1] Subjective morality means that the source of the moral values are in the subject who is acting. That usually means a person or a society. When it comes to a command like “you shall not murder” a subjective view of morality would say that as a society we have developed over time and come to understand that murder is counterproductive to the building of the kind of society that survives. Morality is a survival adaptation for a society. Ultimately, morality comes from the subconsciously agreed upon commands of the society. 
As society changes, then the moral commands will change as well. If a society comes to change their mind about the command against murder, then murder is no longer wrong. It is completely up to the society. 
We might even consider subjective morality as individual based. So we put locks on our doors because we have different moral values from those who might want to break into our house. 

One of the challenges with this view of morality is that one society doesn’t have much ground to stand on if it wants to judge the actions of another society. If we encounter a society like the ancient Greeks who had a terrible practice like pederasty (The practice of older men mentoring younger boys that included a sexual component), we don’t have much ground to stand on if we want to judge the practices of that society. If that society decided on a different morality than ours, then on what basis can we say that our society’s morality is better? Theirs developed by the same method ours did, but they arrived at a different set of moral values.

Similarly, we can’t even judge our own society’s past behavior using subjective morality. If we want to say that the practice of slavery was wrong for North Americans and Europeans in the 18th century, then on what basis are we able to do that? On a subjective view of morality, we would just have to say that they had a different morality than we have in modern North America and Europe. That society developed their morality through their society the same as we have. It was subconsciously and collectively agreed upon. They decided that slavery was permissible, and we have declared it detestable in our modern society. In subjective morality it is nearly impossible to declare the practices of another society, or a past society, to be wrong. They could just as easily turn around and say that we are the ones who are wrong. And from the place their are standing, that's the way it would seem. 

Objective morality, on the other hand, has its source in the universe as it has been created. It is as real as gravity. It is built into the very essence of reality. Ultimately, morality has its source in the Creator. Morality is an expression of the character of God. In an objective understanding of morality, morals are revealed or discovered (rather than created). They are revealed by God and God’s agents, and they are discovered by means of rationality based on what is logical and in continuity with the character of God. This means that God reveals a set of moral values, and hopefully over time God’s people unpack their meaning and come to live their lives more in line with these realities. (It is important to note that this always has to be done with humility and careful interpretation. It would be easy to impose a cultural assumption that is not actually the objective moral law, which was a common mistake as colonialism encountered many cultures.)

What objective morality means is that “you shall not murder” is true in the same way as gravity is true. It is a true part of reality whether anyone believes it of not. If all the societies on earth believed that murder was right, it would still be wrong, just as if all societies would be wrong if they believed the sun went around the earth, or declared that 2+2 was 5. If the objective moral value was understood correctly it would apply to all societies equally because it is a part of creation. The society that understood it correctly could  rightfully judge another society that was not conforming to it. Every society is ultimately judged by this objective standard.

So, if we encountered a culture like the ancient Greeks, who practiced pederasty, we could declare that practice as wrong and be on solid ground to make that judgment because the moral value stating it is wrong doesn’t come from us. Ultimately, it comes from the character of God. … We can declare slavery to be wrong, and to have always been wrong for all societies, if we have correctly understood objective moral truth as saying slavery is wrong.

Using objective morality, we can correctly judge as wrong the Nazi vision to reshape humanity by removing all those they decided were inferior from the gene pool by mass killing. We can judge them even though they were a different society. The Nazis believed they were creating a stronger humanity and so they believed their actions were moral. From an objective view of morality, the Nazi vision isn’t just a different morality from our society’s. It is wrong because human beings have all been created in God’s image and have inherent dignity- and we believe that is an objective truth that is a part of creation.

In fact, this is what we do all the time when we talk about human rights. The United Nations describes human rights this way: 
“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination”.[2]
It sounds like they are describing an objective moral law.

Where do these rights come from? Human rights only work if we agree that they are part of the reality of humanity. We feel justified in imposing these human rights on a society that doesn’t comply with them. We allow for some cultural variety, but there are some moral values we think every society should abide by. We judge a society as being wrong if it violates these human rights. When we look as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Mao's China, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, we can judge the many deaths as being a violation of human rights. Likewise, we can judge a society that degrades women, or that practices slavery, as being wrong, rather than being just culturally different. … This is a difficult thing to justify under a subjective view of morality, but it makes all kinds of sense in an objective view of morality.

For objective moral values to be real it makes the most sense if there is a Creator who has declared how things ought to be and who has built these “oughts” into the fabric of reality.  

In a materialist worldview where morality arises in a society as part of the desire to pass on genes to the next generation it is hard to understand how moral values could be objectively real in the way human rights are described.

I spent a lot of time talking generally about morality. In the few minutes we have left I would like to just say something about how the Ten commandments generally fit into our lives as Christians. … Overall, I believe the Ten Commandments are an expression of the Moral Law that was written into creation. These principles are ultimately traced back to the character of God. They are, as Jesus said, ultimately about loving God and loving our neighbour (Matt 22:36-40). (Since these principles are built into creation, we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that there is so much overlap in the realm of morality with the various cultures of the world.) These laws are given to draw people towards God. To follow the principles of these commandments is to live a life that more closely reflects the character of God. We are created to be God’s image bearers. The more we reflect God’s character, the more we are who we were created to be. However, because of sin we need these laws spelled out for us. The Commandments act like a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly. We see how we often don’t reflect God’s image very well. This leads to us realizing we need more help than we thought. Having seen ourselves clearly, in humility, we are made more ready to receive God’s grace. “God’s grace” is really just another way of saying “Jesus”. Jesus then helps us as we seek to lead a God-shaped life, by both saving us from sin and empowering us to follow God’s leading in the world.

For more reading regarding morality see:

Chapter 9 of The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

[1] This is a distinction I first heard from theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig.

I thought I might say a few words about the commandments. The first thing to maybe mention is that there are at least three different ways to number the commandments. 

Exodus 20 
20 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

This is a declaration of monotheism. Only God is to be worshiped. Dennis Prager mentions that monotheism is necessary to create a moral society because multiple deities might also produce multiple moralities. We should also be willing to see things like flags, power, money, ideology, etc. as potential deities. The mention of slavery may also indicate that these commands are about living as free people. 

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

God is not to be "put in a box". (See apophatic theology.) God is always bigger than our words about Him.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

We usually think about this as don't say, "Oh my God". Actually this is probably more about misusing God's name to grant your project authority- such as driving a plane into a building. This is referring to doing evil in God's name. This jeopardizes the whole enterprise of creating a moral society based on divinely sourced moral law.   

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

People are made to be free. We are to take a day to remember that the world doesn't revolve around us. I don't think this has to necessarily be Sunday. That's not practical for everyone. But, we should take one day to remember that we are not slaves to our jobs, and the world will not fall apart if we are not working. However, we shouldn't underestimate the power of a shared sabbath day. Sunday used to be a day where families gathered and built relationships. Now schedules are so complicated it can be hard to get people in the same room at the same time and on the same day. This might actually be the first national law in favor of the fair treatment of animals. 
12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Not everyone gets along with their parents, but there should be a healthy respect for parents. I think we can also infer from this that there should be some kind of respect for the authorities in our lives. Our attitude towards authorities and elders in our lives will have an effect on how we view God as well. No society can survive love with children turned against parents. Societies are based on families, and statistics tell us that the healthiest place for children to grow up is in a family with a mature mother and father. Respect for parents should also open the doors for healthy relationships with grandparents and extended family as well. Honouring our parents will also set a precedent that our children will honour us. 

13 You shall not murder.[c]

This is sometimes translated as "kill". In Hebrew there are two words- harag (kill) and ratsach (murder). The Hebrew in this command refers to murder, which is "wrongful killing". It might seem redundant to say "it is wrong to wrongfully kill". To understand what makes the killing wrong we have to look to the rest of the Bible that goes into more detail regarding when killing might be permissible. Jesus sets the bar even higher-
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire." Matt 5:21-22
As disciples of Jesus we should look to the root of murder, which is anger. How many murders would happen if we had anger under control? 

14 You shall not commit adultery.

This command takes the power of the sex drive seriously. It recognizes its power to tear apart families, which are the building blocks of our society. Adultery involves deception. It damages marriages, and threatens the stability of the home of children. 
Jesus again intensifies this command, 
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matt 5:27-28
Again, Jesus is pointing to the root of the problem, which is lust, not the act of adultery itself. If people controlled their lust, how often would people commit an act of adultery? While this command is specific to a married person having sex outside the marriage, I think this can also lead us to consider sexual misconduct generally. 

15 You shall not steal.

This overlaps with other commands. Denis Prager points out that murder can be understood as taking a life that doesn't belong to you. Adultery is taking a sexual relationship that isn't yours. Coveting is the desire to steal. We are to respect the boundaries of peoples property. This too is an important foundation for society.   

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
This primarily seems to refer to a courtroom, but I think it implies truth telling in life in general.  
Jesus again intensifies this command.  
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. Matt 5:33-37
Oaths are needed in a world where lying is assumed to be somewhat normal. If we need an oath to know when people are really telling the truth we are really assuming that people are not telling the truth. 
For a society to be healthy we have to value truth. Truth is a big question mark in our society.   

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Coveting isn't liking your neighbour's car. It is wanting it so bad you are thinking of ways to can steal it. The Hebrew lachmod implies an intensity that is more than just appreciating something that belongs to your neighbour. Coveting is a heart issue. Coveting something that is your neighbour's is the root cause of much sin. Lusting after your neighbour's spouse is coveting. Coveting is the root cause of stealing. In Buddhism desire is viewed as the root cause of suffering.   

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Faith vs Scientism- Romans 4- Lent 2

In the letter to the Romans, the faith that Paul is talking about is trust in God to do what seems impossible. Abraham and Sarah believed in God to give them a child, even in their old age. In a sense, it was a promise to bring life out of a dead womb. Paul relates this to the faith Christians are to have. Just as Jesus was resurrected- life out of a dead tomb- so Christians trust God to bring life out of death. 

Being “right with God” doesn’t come from obeying the law. You can obey a lot of rules while not really trusting God. Actually, Abraham didn’t have any rules to follow. He had no Law. He trusted in God and the promise that was made. Faith is a relationship word. It isn’t about proofs. It isn't really about knowledge. It is a recognition that God is in control. Faith is choosing to trust that God is good and will follow through on promises made. Faith is trust in God’s actions and God’s motivations.

Faith has become a tricky thing in our society. When I think about talking about faith, I feel this roadblock. There is this whole hidden mental framework that is all around us, but we don’t really see it. We are like fish swimming around, but we don’t really notice the water because it is all around us all the time. Sometimes it is worth drawing our attention to the framework. It can be more powerful when it exists hidden in the shadows.   

Generally, our society assumes a way of looking at the world that is sometimes called materialism[1]. Materialism, in a philosophical sense, doesn’t mean being obsessed with money, which is how we use the word in an everyday sense. Philosophically, materialism means something like “what you see is what you get”. Matter is all that matters. This life is all there is. There is no supernatural reality out there. The universe amounts to the interaction of matter and energy according to the physical laws of the universe. And there is nothing else. The universe came into being with a Big Bang, and some day it will all fade away into the heat death of the universe. The things you do are determined by your genes and the way your psychology has reacted to the things you have experienced. … The assumptions of materialism are in the background when we start talking about faith. That’s the water we are swimming in.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has tried to describe the process of secularism.[2] He describes how Europe in the 1500’s went from being a culture that assumed God and the reality of the supernatural, to the reality we are faced with that generally assumes the supernatural is not real. Academic discourse generally assumes an agnostic or atheistic worldview. Most public discussion assumes the same. Religion is pushed to the edges of our society as being something like a private hobby for those who are into it (but please don’t talk about it or we’ll roll our eyes and talk about you behind your back). Or, religion is (at worse) a superstition that doesn’t belong in the modern world- Some might even think it’s dangerous. Religion, in its various forms, is something weak people need when they can’t face the facts, or it is tolerated as a part of someone’s culture. So, Islam might be respected, but not because it might speak truth. Rather, it is treated respectfully out of a desire to be “inclusive” and “accepting”, or maybe out of fear of being labeled a “bigot” towards a foreign culture and people.

In the secularized world the universe is a machine. The gears of the universe spin according to the principles of physics. The universe is unconscious. It is just stuff- matter- things and unconscious energy. There is no real ultimate purpose. Human beings are just animals who have developed over time to have certain attributes because it was helpful for survival. We are survival machines that exist partly due to chance.

As we became secular, God was pushed to the fringes of accepted and respectable thought. This thinking even infiltrated the minds of Christians. They whittled down their beliefs to what was respectable and defensible in a secular world. … This is where Deism came into being. It is the belief in a God that created, but who then walked away. It is a God who doesn’t interfere. But, it is a gutted religion with no real room for those things that define a belief system. No real room for prayer except for it being psychologically helpful. No room for ritual, except for it being an action that binds the community together. There was some room left for God as a source of morality, but even that was often suspect as the culture of the Bible was felt to be less evolved than modern culture (and every age feels more evolved than the previous age). Religion became internalized and personalized. Authority, in the realm of religion, was mostly removed. Authority, if there was any, was now grounded in personal experience. Really, there was no longer any “truth” when it came to religion. It came down to what was "true" for "me". But any objective religious truth "out there" was almost offensive. … All this is in the background as we talk about faith. It is the current we are fighting against as we seek faith.

These assumptions seep into the mind of our society and suddenly they are assumed without the need for proof. People in our society weren't convinced of materialism at a meeting where proof and arguments were presented and then they decided to change their mind about how the universe works. It was an assumption that was in the air and they breathed it in over and over and over, until it just became a part of them. The scientist and the academic become the new priests. Their word becomes trusted as law. If you want to grant a statement authority in our society you say, “scientists say…”. The general public don’t usually do experiments themselves, so they don't really have personal first hand experience with the scientific method. But, they have faith in the scientists and academics who tell them what they have seen- like Moses coming down off the mountain to tell the people. 

These materialist beliefs are assumptions about how the world works. Assumptions aren’t based on facts. It is an assumption on their part that consciousness is confined to the human brain, and when that brain dies, so does the consciousness of that person. It is assumed, but not proven, that the natural world has no purpose. It is assumed that there are consistent laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy. It is assumed that we aren’t in a reality like the matrix. These are assumptions that aren’t provable by science. They are assumed starting points.[3]

I should say that I am not against science. I married a molecular biologist. In various churches I served I had as parishioners both a head of a chemistry department at a university, and a particle physicist who worked on the God particle and was regularly invited to CERN. I recognize science as a tool, but it is not a tool for every job. I’m against the assumption that science can answer all our questions. For example, science can’t tell us about right and wrong, and science can’t tell us what is beautiful. Science can't tell us about the meaning of life, or why there is something rather than nothing. Those who assume that science can answer every question, and impose materialism onto science, have shaped their version of science into a kind of religion.[4] They see religion and science as being the same kind of creature and answering the same kind of questions.

I once heard a story about a scientist who was on his hands and knees looking through the grass in his front lawn. Some of his students walked by and asked what he was doing. He said he lost his watch and was looking for it. The students offered to help and they all got on their hands and knees and started combing through the grass. After about 45 minutes the students hadn’t found anything and one of them asked the professor, “where did you see it last?” He answered, “in my study”. Shocked the student shot back, “why are we looking out here then?” “The light is better out here”, he said. … Science can give us a lot of confidence in certain areas of knowledge, but not everything that can be known is out where the light is bright. God will not fit into the test tube. That is not the way to go about searching for God.

So when we talk about having faith, or trust, in God, this is what we are facing. The waters we are swimming in as we get our education, and as we watch the news, assumes an agnostic or atheistic universe. Over the years those assumptions penetrate out minds without our really even knowing it. The ideas are just there, we haven’t been convinced of them by an argument, they are just there like the air we breathe. And as Christians we sometimes find ourselves having to fight against these ideas that intrude into our minds.

In the letter to the Romans, the faith that Paul is talking about is trust in God to do what seems impossible. Just the sheer existence of God can seem impossible in our society. In a materialistic mechanical view of the universe, senior citizens don’t conceive children, and the dead aren’t resurrected. … Sometimes we are holding onto our trust in God by our fingernails.

I don’t have any scientific experiments to show you that can help you trust in God. That’s not the way to go about it anyway. There is no law, there is no lab, that will guarantee God for you. Paul talks about the error of using the law to guarantee God being for you. Faith, trusting in God, is a relationship. You are trusting someone. Faith is like trusting in your surgeon before you go into surgery. Faith is when a spouse trusts the other to love them and work for the benefit of their relationship. … Faith isn’t about knowledge of facts. Faith is trust in a person. And the materialism we are swimming in is fighting against you knowing and trusting that person.

So what do we do? … Materialism has soaked into us through the society we participate in, the way we are educated, the news we read, the music we hear. It is all a vast liturgy that shifts our mind without the need for the direct use of arguments and proofs. They are assumptions that we slowly take on as our own. 

To counter that we need to soak ourselves in different assumptions.  We soak ourselves in God’s story. We read Scripture, everyday. We pray, everyday. We participate in eating the bread and drinking the wine- and we fight against the thought telling us that nothing special is happening in that moment. We enter into God’s story that tells you that you are not here by accident. You are wonderfully made by your Father, the Creator of the universe, who has every hair on your head counted. You are so loved that God came as Jesus Christ so that you would know Him and so He can save you. He was even willing to die for you. Your loving Father is constantly seeking after you- always trying to help you- always showering you with love, even when you don’t see it. … Trusting in God means trusting that story, and being soaked in that story, more than the materialist story that tells you we are in a purposeless, unconscious universe, and are here by accident. Just as Abraham and Sarah trusted that God could bring life from a dead womb- and just as Paul trusted that the resurrection of Jesus was the first of many resurrections that were to come- so we are called to trust God’s love for us in the face of materialist voices that tell us the future is death and meaninglessness. 

[1] There are a number of different ways to define a metaphysical framework the rejects the supernatural. For example see naturalism, and physicalism.

[2] A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It is notoriously hard to get through- both because of length and language. If you want to learn his ideas I would recommend James K. A. Smith’s How (not) to be Secular

[3] Rupert Sheldrake, the Science of Spiritual Practice. The conclusion gives an interesting summary of secularism. 
If you are interested in learning about some research that challenges materialist assumptions you might want to look at Sheldrake's Science Set Free.
I don't agree with everything Sheldrake says, but I like the challenge he poses to materialism. In other books he shows research regarding dogs who know when their owners are coming home, as well as the sense of being stared at, which he concludes are experiences that are verified through research.     

[4] Sometimes called Scientism. “Metaphysics” is an overall system that the physical understanding of the universe sits into. “Meta” means “after” or “beyond”. Metaphysics is a theory about what is beyond physical reality. Science can’t really say anything about metaphysics, since science is concerned with the physical universe by definition. The minute a scientist comments on God the scientist has left the realm of Science and has entered the realm of philosophy or religion.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Lent 1- Noah’s Ark

There are a few directions we can go when it comes to dealing with the story about Noah’s family and the flood. The first is the story we often tell on the walls of nurseries- It is a floating zoo and wouldn’t that be fun? We don’t go much further than that though.

Others will look at the story and seek out a way to prove the story as a historical reality. Could it be that 7-9000 years ago the straight between Greece and Turkey breached and the Mediterranean flooded into the basin that is now the Black Sea, making it seem like the entire world had flooded? … Others look for clues while scrambling up frozen glaciers in the Turkish mountains searching for wood and nails, evidence of a lost ship run aground in the mountains. They seek to prove the historical event that inspired the story we have about Noah.

Still others will read the story and dismiss it. It is sheer mythology. A story of an ancient people, like the epic of Gilgamesh. Evidence of an expired mythology and an expired idea of deity. The cynical and suspicious abandon the story with a roll of the eyes.

If we believe that the Bible is inspired, however, then our focus should be on what this story teaches us about humanity, God, and our discipleship to Jesus. If we start with the assumption that God is in some way speaking to us through this story, then there is still treasure to be found here. If we can resist distancing ourselves from the story by minimizing it into a cutesy story for toddlers about a floating zoo. If we can resist treating the story as a historical fact to prove in all its detail- If we can resist looking down on the story patronizingly dismissing it, we may yet have something to learn from it.

So, what can we learn? First, we learn that sin is a big deal, and it has an effect on God.
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Gen 6:5-6

Paul often talks about Sin as a force that keeps human beings captive. Sin describes both individual choices to turn away from God’s will, and a power that overwhelms people, which they have to be rescued from. Sin is something we have to own as individuals, but it also has to do with the society we are a part of. When it comes down to it, sin is just a way of saying things aren’t the way they should be- they aren’t the way God wants them to be. The world is upside down and sideways. It’s not the way it was created to be.

We don’t need much convincing that sin is a reality in our world. We are reminded every time we watch the news. Corruption, hate, violence, and exploitation are all regular and expected content. It rarely surprises us anymore. It’s normal. Sadly, we have even come to expect school shootings.

Sin was a reality in Jesus’ time as well, though, which is why his ministry starts with a call to repentance- 
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
 Repentance means admitting to the fact that we live with the reality of sin and we are called to turn away from it, so that we can turn towards God. We protest. we refuse to accept sin as a permanent reality.

In Noah’s story sin had gotten out of control. We read that 
“every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).
 It was a situation God wasn’t going to allow to persist. 
“The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6).
 I hope we can hear the pain of God there.

What caused this pain to God? Think about that sin that makes your soul call out for justice. Think about that sin that causes anger to rise up in you. Don’t think about God looking on disapprovingly about you shopping on Sunday. Think, instead, about armies that steal children in the middle of the night, force them to kill their families, then get them addicted to drugs, and force them to fight on the front line of whatever battle they are fighting. … Think about a woman describing being raped, over and over, from the time she was a child. … Think of that kind of sin. Then think of a world full of it- swimming in it. People destroying each other. This is not what God created the world for. …. Then think about God’s grieving heart. This can’t continue. Each new generation exploited, and corrupted, by the previous generation. 
“So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created… for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Gen 6:7).

That might have been the end of the story.

Then we read 
“But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord” (Gen 6:8).
 There is hope. In all the darkness there is one bright spot- Noah’s family. With the presence of Noah there is another possibility. Noah has God’s favour. We read over and over that Noah did all that God commanded him (6:22; 7:5; 7:9). God makes a new covenant with Noah. Noah is the model of faith.

The overwhelming evil of Noah’s society made Noah’s holiness stand out even more. He was able to swim against the current of his society. Chrysostom comments that, 
“Scripture not merely called [Noah] ‘blameless’ but added ‘among the [people] of his day’ to make it clear that he was so at a time when the obstacles to virtue were many” (Homilies on John 71). “If someone cultivates virtue among those who refuse it, he makes it much more worthy of admiration” (Homilies on Genesis 23.4).
 Noah’s goodness in the midst of so much evil made his holiness all the more impressive.

Of course, the early church found in Noah an image of Christ. He represents faithfulness in a sea of sin. On him God will rest hope for creation. The faithfulness of Noah and the wooden ark is the salvation of creation. Augustine saw the ark as 
“a figure of the church that was saved by the wood on which there hung [Jesus Christ] … As for the door in the side, that surely, symbolizes the open wound made by the lance in the side of the Crucified- the door by which those who come to him enter in, in the sense that believers enter the church by means of the sacraments that issued from that wound. … So it is with every other detail of the ark’s construction. They are all symbols of something in the church” (City of God 15.26).
The early church saw symbolism everywhere in this story. Some early interpreters saw the flood as representing baptism, which washes away sin, and the mention of 40 days as representing Lent (Maximus of Turin in Sermons 50.2). The mixture of clean and unclean animals aboard the ark represents imperfection within the church, and the variety of animals as representing salvation of all the nations within the church (Augustine in Faith and Works 27.49; Tractates on the Gospel of John 9.11.1). The dove that returned with the olive branch they saw as representing the Holy Spirit that came to Jesus at the time of his baptism (Ambrose in Letters 40.21; Bede in Homily 1.12; Maximus of Turin in Sermons 49.3).

Just as through Noah God saves creation through the wood of the ark, so God saves creation through Christ and the wood of the cross. After the flood, God makes a new covenant relationship with humanity and the rest of creation- 
“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11).
 God ties Himself to these creatures. God is no longer only Creator. God becomes Protector, choosing to not deal with sin by wiping out sinners. God’s weapon is put down not to be picked up again. God binds Himself to creation. God limits Himself regarding how sin will be dealt with.

And yet, Sin must be dealt with. This Covenant sets God on a road to deal with sin from the inside. This road reaches a climax in the passion of Christ on the cross. There we see God deal with sin not in the sheer power of a flood, but through vulnerability and weakness on the cross. There we see God binding Himself to humanity, willing to experience even the brokenness Sin made of God’s good creation. And through entering that brokenness providing a way to overcome sin and providing a way of union with God’s creatures in a creation set right. The cross becomes a kind of lock pick for the human heart, so God can work on sin from the inside, rather than destroying it from the outside.

In Lent we are called to remember the seriousness of sin, and the mercy of God who chooses not to deal with it through destruction and violence. God has provided another way. Through Christ our sin has been ultimately dealt with, and we are invited to participate in the ways of God’s kingdom as we become more fully people expresssing God’s image.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ash Wednesday

When I noticed that Ash Wednesday (the official beginning of Lent) falls on Feb 14th this year I found myself fantasizing about drawing ash hearts on people’s foreheads.

“Saint Valentine”, the (probably legendary) 3rd century Roman priest and martyr who is connected to the day of romance lends nothing much to the day, save his name. Chocolate, flowers, and heart-shaped everything are the true icons of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against romance. I got my wife a heart-shaped something. I do, however, think it is interesting that these days overlap this year. There is no lack of tension in the air tonight.

In our society we generally dislike the challenge of Ash Wednesday. It feels like such a downer. “Remember that you are dust” doesn’t get the heart pounding in the same way as “be my valentine”. February 14th this year is an unfair fight between a romantic dinner and liturgical reminder of our brokenness and death.

Perhaps there is a connection, though. The most tear-jerking moments in romantic stories usually have to do with one lover risking their life for the beloved. Think of the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. Or, think of the moment Jack sinks into the freezing waters so Rose can survive the sinking of the Titanic. I wonder if those stories have such an impact because they point to another greater sacrifice for the sake of love. Perhaps an ash cross is a more appropriate symbol of love than an ash heart.

Sacrificial love seems to count for more. We don’t want someone to just love us when it is convenient. We want someone to love us even when it is hard- when it costs them something. Love that costs us something feels more valuable, more real. That’s what makes the cross so powerful. It expresses a love that doesn’t hold back- it expresses a love that is willing to give it all even to the point of excruciating pain. (ex crucio meaning 'from the cross'.)

That goes both ways though. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and to pick up our own crosses- all for love. The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote 
“If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation” (Cost of Discipleship).
The discipline of Lent is about love. It is a way that we can enter into sacrificial love for our Lord.

The cultures of the world practice challenging disciplines as a part of practicing their faith. Fasting, for example, a traditional Lenten discipline, is a discipline of self-denial. It is an interesting coincidence that in our own society, that knows abundance and comfort like no other in history, has such an issue with practices of self-denial.

Sure some in our society might diet if it means fitting into those jeans again. Some might endure the pain of lifting weights for the sake of more impressive arms. (Dare I say these are disciplines of self love?) … But, sacrificing for spiritual reasons (for the love of God) has fallen out of fashion.

Jesus speaks about ego-destroying practices. 
Give, but don’t let anyone know it’s you. 
Pray, but pray where no one will pat you on the back for your holiness. 
Fast, but don’t tell everyone how hungry you are. 
Why all this secrecy? Jesus is planning the death of our false self. That is the self that needs people to be impressed by us. It is the self that is puffed-up by comparing ourselves to those around us. It is the self that does the rights things for the wrong reasons. It is the self that will do the right thing when they are being watched, but not when there are no social pressures to punish or reward. It is the self that doesn’t really think it needs God.

The secrecy Jesus calls us to exposes the desires of the false self. 
If we will only pray at church, but not alone at home- 
If we will only give if there is a brass plaque attached to the gift- 
If we will only fast when we hear friends say, “I don’t think I could do that. You’re so disciplined”- 
then our false self is probably driving those practices.

Jesus’ talk about treasure is really a way of talking about desire. Human beings follow what they truly love. Our desires will drive our actions. If we desire our egos to be stroked, then secrecy will starve that desire. If we desire God, the secrecy will purify that desire. The secrecy Jesus calls us to opens up questions within us- “Do we desire the right things? Are our desires aimed at the right goals?” Or are we, as the atheist Jean Paul Sartre said, a “useless passion”.

When we receive the ashes on our foreheads we are receiving what a friend of mine called, “a reverse sacrament”. A Sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. A reverse sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual need. … Our deepest need is to love God. When that desire is purified everything else will fall in place. Without it life is just ashes (see 1 Corinthians 13). Lent is a time for the purifying and testing of that love.

God bless your journey and preparation for the cross where the God you loves you more than you can imagine held nothing back… all for the sake of love . AMEN

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Epiphany 6- Is God a Dude?

Image result for early church women

The question we are going to deal with today has to do with the maleness of God.

Throughout the Bible, God is constantly referred to in male terms. In the Old Testament, the grammar of the Hebrew describes God as male. In the New Testament we see a similar theme in the Greek grammar and with Jesus referring to God as “Father”.

There are, however, a few hints of God being referred to using female imagery. For example, Hosea 13:8 describes God as being like a mother bear. Deuteronomy 32 uses similar female imagery describing God as a mother eagle (vv11-12) and as giving birth to the nation (v18). Isaiah compares God to a mother in a number of places (66:13; 49:15; 42:14). One of the Hebrew words to describe God’s compassion is (R-H-M) rachum, which is related to the word for womb, rechem. So, we might say God’s compassion is womb-like.

In Luke 15 Jesus compares God to a woman looking for a lost coin (15:8-10). In Matthew Jesus says to Jerusalem, 

“… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37).

The Holy Spirit is complicated in terms of gender. The word “spirit” in Greek (which doesn’t always refer to the Holy Spirit) is neuter and neither male nor female. In Hebrew, “spirit” is feminine, but when the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “comforter” a masculine pronoun is used.[1]

While the Bible doesn’t refer to God directly in female terms, neither is the Bible bothered by occasionally using feminine imagery for God.

Male imagery of God is probably more dominant because the culture was a patriarchal culture. Everyone found their place under a protective male head of the family, so it was a natural image to use for God in that society.

Under the influence of feminism, there have been those who have questioned the overwhelming use of male imagery of God. Some have called for a more balanced approach, using both masculine and feminine images. For example, some will call God “Mother” to try to balance out the use of “Father” imagery. …. Others have tried to remove gendered language when referring to God. Instead of saying, 
“God refers to Himself in Scripture”.
 They might instead say, 
“God refers to God’s-self in Scripture”.
 Or, instead of saying “him” they will just say “God”. This can get a bit awkward. For example, in Gen 1:27 we read, 
“So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”.
 To try to remove the gendered language we might say, 
“So God created humankind in [God’s] own image, in the image of God [God] created him; male and female [God] created them”.

The overall motivation of feminism towards the Bible is to rightfully bring out feminine aspects, and to lift up female contributions. These are very important insights. Feminism has been important for addressing the inequality between the sexes. The contribution of women has been suppressed, and it is impossible to deny the violence women have endured throughout history. 
Not everyone, however, is in agreement about pronouns for God. Switching pronouns from male to female can get cumbersome and confusing for some. Calling God “it”, rather than “he” or “she”, feels impersonal. “It” is usually reserved for inanimate objects. God is not a chair, or a robot. The God of the Bible is personal and that would require a “he” or “she”.

It is also a historical reality that having a female deity hasn’t always meant liberation for women. For example, the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth in the first century is said to have had around one thousand female slaves that functioned as temple prostitutes.[2] Just as an image of a male god can trap us in an image of maleness as dominance and warfare. It is also possible that a goddess can trap us in an image of femaleness as a sexual object, as a womb, and as a mother.

So what is the answer? There is an ancient type of theology called Apophatic theology, or sometimes it is called Negative theology. The concept is that all images of God ultimately fail to show us God’s true essence. The 10 commandments instruct us to “not make for yourself a carved image” for worship (Exodus 20:4). Any image we have of God will eventually fail us. In the end, carved images tell us something not completely true. God says in Hosea, 
“I am God and no human, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9).

If we call God “Father” what do we mean by that? Do we mean that at the time of creation the Creator of the universe was a flesh and blood human being? And not just a human being, but a ‘male’ human being? With all the accessories that makes one male? … It is the image of an old man in the clouds. Is that an accurate image of the God who created the universe? … So, what do we mean when we say “Father”? … It is an analogy. Just as a loving father (and not everyone had one) cares for his children- teaches them, guides them, and provides a place for them in his home- so God cares for His people.[3]

We have to be careful to allow the analogy to say something true, but we have to be careful to not push the analogy into absurdity and make it say something untrue. So there is a way in which God is like a father and a way in which God is not. … In Psalm 18 we read, 
“who is a rock, except our God?”
 Well, we don’t mean that God is inanimate and not conscious. Psalm 18 is saying that God is strong, everlasting, and can be relied upon. If you stand behind a rock you are protected. If you build your house on a rock (rather than sand) it will be stable.

Apophatic theology reminds us that God is always beyond our words. Ultimately, when all analogies fail, when they are pushed to their very limit, God is not like anything but God. As Isaiah says, 
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Is 46:9).
 As the 4th century archbishop and theologian St. Gregory Nazianzen said, 
“It is difficult to conceive God, but to define him in words is impossible”.

Now we can’t stay there for long because then we can’t speak about God. We end up in a wordless contemplation. We need our analogies, while also recognizing their limits. I mentioned Apophatic theology. Well I want to also mention Cataphatic theology[4], which is a theology that embraces analogies. We have to use the things of creation to speak about God. God is like a rock. God is like a bridegroom. God is like a shepherd. Or, we can use less concrete analogies- God is light; God is love. We need to be able to speak about God, and to do that we need analogies.

God is so other- so transcendent- that we can lose all ability to speak about God. It is essential that God reveals God’s Self to us through the creation, otherwise it is impossible to know God. This is why the incarnation is essential. The letter to the Colossians tells us 
Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
 God has expresses God’s self to us most perfectly through Jesus. Jesus is the dynamic image of the revelation of God. 

I tend to use masculine pronouns when it comes to God because that is the scriptural language, but that doesn't mean I'm not very aware of the limitations of the analogy. If we drift too far from the language of the Bible, however, I think we cause more problems than we solve, theologically. I tend to side with theologian David Yeago who has said, 
"If feminist concerns can only be received in the Church against the grain of the biblical texts, there is every reason to think that feminism will lose out. Any reform of Christian language that requires that we censor or discredit persistent features of the Bible's discourse will always be artificial, fragile, of severely limited effectiveness and extremely doubtful survival value. ... In the long run, then, the Christian Church throughout the world will read the Bible and learn its talk of God from the Bible, skillfully or ineptly. Surely it would be better, even on sheerly pragmatic grounds, to embrace important feminist concerns from within a credible reading of the Bible, rather than getting embroiled in a struggle against the Bible." (The Apostolic Faith, Unpublished).

I do want to come back to the original feminist motivation behind the question. This is important and deserves much more time than we are going to give here. The role of women in the church has been incredibly important from the very beginning and that role has often been suppressed and not celebrated. 
For example, in Romans 16:7 
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
 "Junia" is a woman’s name, and Paul says she is not just an apostle, but prominent among them. She has not been spoken of much, and recent scholarship has found that in her name had been transformed to make it appear male even though it was not a known male name in the ancient world. Her name and status as an apostle of the early church was suppressed. John Chrysostom (around 344AD) said this about her, 
“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles- just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle”.[5]

Some scholarship has shown that cultural understandings can drastically change the meaning of some of the more difficult passages of the letters of the New Testament having to do with women. For example, knowing that worship in some places may have been conducted in a more formal language that was usually known by men, but not women, may have had something to do with comments about instructing bored women to quiet their chatting down during the long sermon they couldn’t understand. Or, perhaps it would be helpful to know that in Ephesus the cult of the goddess Artemis was dominated by women and trying to create ordered worship when women were used to dominating worship might include instructions that would be understood very differently without that cultural backdrop. Paul even instructs women on proper dress while praying and prophesying in worship in 1 Cor 11:2-11, which wouldn’t make sense if women were expected to be perpetually silent.

We know women were very active in the early church. When the Roman governor Pliny (61-113 AD) was trying to uncover what Christians were all about, among those he captured and tortured were two female ministers.[6] These women were probably selected because they were leaders in the church.

There are many other women mentioned in the Bible who play very important roles, but we don’t celebrate them very often- Hulda the prophet, who was asked about the Torah by young King Josiah, which led to a massive reform (2 Kings 22); Queen Ester, who saved her people; Deborah, who led Israel as a prophet, a warrior, and a monarch all that the same time; Mary, who Jesus accepts in the role of disciple, learning at his feet, when Martha says she should be away from the men in the back rooms with the other women (Luke 10). 

We could say a lot about women in the Bible and in the early church, and they deserve to be spoken about and celebrated, but we will have to save that for another day. I believe that the Bible provides us with resources for lifting up and valuing women and their contributions. We need to pay more attention to these aspects of our faith. It is important that we listen to what faithful feminist voices are teaching us about our faith.    


[1] The Greek word for spirit is the neuter “pneuma”. The English pronoun would more correctly be “it” rather than “he”. Though, scholars argue about this citing examples when the Greek may break the grammatical rule and use a male pronoun with pneuma when it refers to the Holy Spirit- Jn 14:26; 16:13-14. The Holy Spirit has also been associated with feminine Wisdom in the Old Testament by two of the Church Fathers and Syrian liturgies often saw The Holy Spirit as feminine. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is “ruach”, which is feminine. However, the masculine pronoun is used when the Holy Spirit is referred to by the masculine word Parakletos (Comforter) (John 16:7-8).

[2] According to the Greek geographer Strabo

[3] While I use the male pronoun in reference to God I try to practice capitalizing it (Him) to remind myself and readers that this is a different order of “Him”. It is a metaphor and not essential to the nature of God. It is a necessity to refer to God as a person, but also dealing with the unfortunate reality of not having a helpful pronoun to replace it with that won’t result in cumbersome sentences and confusion.  

[4] Sometimes spelled “Kataphatic” theology.

[5] In ep. ad Romanos 31.2.  Similar things were said about her by Theodoret, and John of Damascus

[6] “The Story of Christianity”, Justo Gonzalez, “the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan p.40. 

Further Reading:

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky
(This is not an easy read, but it is a pretty foundational text in Eastern Orthodox Theology regarding Apophatic Theology)   
Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis Paperback by Marion Ann Taylor
(Marion Taylor was one of my Old Testament Prof. in Seminary. I highly recommend her work on historical female interpreters of Scripture).

Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide by Marion Ann Taylor and Agnes Choi

Women in the Story of Jesus: The Gospels through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters by Marion Ann Taylor and Heather Weir

Women of War, Women of Woe: Joshua and Judges through the Eyesof Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical interpreters 
by Marion Ann Taylor

Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright
(See especially chapter 4: The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women)

Junia Is Not Alone by Scot McKnight
(This is an excellent essay about the female apostle Junia and how her name was lost amidst patriarchal assumptions. McKnight also points towards numerous other women in the Bible and in Christian history whose names should be commonly know, but sadly are not.)

Finally Feminist (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology): A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender by John G. Stackhouse
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