Archive for September, 2011

Beginnings

Posted in Uncategorized on September 26, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
—Genesis 1:1-5

“In the beginning” (bereshith in Hebrew) . . . this seems like a good place, as any, to start. So we will.

The entirety of the Jewish and Christian canon of scripture flows from this opening expression. And, this expression serves as the summary of the “good news” described within the pages of the first book of the bible. Therefore, any effort to examine the gospel according to Genesis must account for the importance and character of the beginning that is being pronounced in this text.

But, just what is beginning? I will try to answer that question indirectly.

Importantly, the book of Genesis records two separate beginnings with two different yet interrelated characteristics. The first beginning or “genesis” recalls an event of cosmic significance. There, the entirety of heaven and earth emerges from nothing into something through the spoken initiation of God. Everything is created, ordered, and even named. Stars and moons are flung into the sky. Flying things and creeping things find their place. The rhythms of night and day are imbedded into our consciousness. And, most notably, God’s gracious instigation and cherishing of life is revealed.

In the second description of a beginning, something comes from nothing, too. However, this time, the something created is not plants or animals or stars or people but a people. Genesis 12 records the creation of Israel when God calls Abram and Sari to leave everything behind and risk life with God in a new venture that has equally cosmic consequences:

Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12:1-3)

The first creation recorded is the creation of everything, evidencing the cosmological affirmation of God’s gracious initiation of life itself while the second creation recorded is a further focused account meant to bring a deeper, more profound character to that life, also begun and maintained by God.

The first creation is cosmic while the second is communal. The first creation has a universal perspective while the second bears a particular one. The second beginning, while smaller and seemingly more mundane, is just as significant, and its placement in proximity to the cosmic creation story is meant to draw this very complimentary comparison. By recalling the creation of Israel as the people of God created to serve the world and invite all of the world into a deeper, more direct relationship with their Creator—i.e., “all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” the Genesis account seeks to assign to that second creation event the same degree of care, profundity, and imbued purpose as evidenced when God hung the stars, watered the earth, and knitted Adam and Eve clothing in the garden.

When the church reflected on these early stories from the faith, the church sought to draw out these purposeful connections between God’s cosmic grace and humanity’s communal role by recreating the scriptural narrative itself. Originally, what the church came to call the Old Testament existed in a different order. The Hebrew canon has the books of scripture organized according to when those books were written. Rather than utilizing this chronological ordering, the church desired an ordering that told the story of God and God’s people, from cosmic creation to the specific need for a radical and particular recreation. This new arrangement emphasized two themes in the divine narrative: (1) the divine narrative’s saturation with the initiated outpouring of grace, implying an insight into the inherent character of God and (2) the divine narrative’s recording of the lengths to which God would go to bind the eternal, cosmic workings of God to the intimate, direct workings of God with God’s creation, especially God’s proxies in grace.

The beginning announced each time in the divine narrative is the arrival of God in some definitive way. In addition, each definitive arrival marks God’s gracious and “verbal” efforts to create occasions for relating to that creation. Just as the first “beginning” and second “beginning” are connected, so, too, the new beginning confessed to initiate in the incarnation of God in Jesus implies a connection between what happened before when God spoke to creation and what will happen this time when God’s “Word” encounters creation. The divine narrative suggests that if God created everything before through the spoken word then God can recreate everything a second time through the embodied “Word.” As when God worked through the particularity of Israel to evidence a universal purpose, in the incarnation the particular work of Jesus is meant to have universal consequences, too.

Thus, the larger biblical narrative assumes a grand chiastic structure. A chiastic structure, coming from the Greek letter “X” (transliterated “chi” and pronounced “ki”), is a literary pattern that repeats itself throughout scripture. The structure is defined by its inverting of an initial literary pattern, like points on a line moving in on the top half of the letter “X” and backs out on the bottom half. For instance, the pattern might be ABBA. The first part of the pattern is inversely repeated in the second part of the pattern. The presence of the pattern is only as important as the purpose of the literary form. That form is meant to emphasize what is found in the middle of the form.

In our grand chiastic structure seen in the overall narrative arch of scripture, the initial “A” is the universal creation, followed by the initial “B” seen in the creation of a particular means of salvation via Israel. The second “B” is the recreation of a particular means of salvation via Israel, this time embodied in the person of a Jewish boy. The second “A” constitutes a universal recreation through the creation of a “new heaven and new earth” in the new garden of God’s life with us seen in the book placed at the end of the New Testament, the book of Revelation. (Just as the church ordered the books of the Old Testament to serve not a chronological but narrative purpose, so, too, the books of the New Testament are not placed according to when they were written but as to how they help contribute to the overall narrative energy of the divine story.)

So, what is the central point of this chiastic structure? That central point is God’s gracious initial movement toward us to create something new as a means to connect with us, no matter how particular and peculiar. This central point gives us the answer to as to what the book of Genesis might convey as its understanding of victory. Genesis declares a victory over our assumption that we are primarily responsible for any positive movement toward God in the salvation event. Moreover, the Genesis story is a declaration of purpose for God, asserting that God will go to any-yet-to-be-imagined-length to create ways to connect with us.

The Jesus story is meant to serve as the very embodiment of this primal claim.

If God, as attested throughout the scriptural narrative, repeatedly moves initially, creatively, and relentlessly towards us, then what is to stay that God does not continue such efforts today:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)

This is good news indeed.

Advertisements

Proximity

Posted in Uncategorized on September 19, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
–Luke 10:38-42

Each week, we are exploring what different persons from the faith have either said the “gospel” is or witnessed to what they mean by “gospel” through how they live their lives. Initially, we considered the origins of the term “gospel,” recalling that the term derives from a claim of victory. So, this derivation leads us to ask each week: Victory over what? What kind of victory does this person’s life or writing claim has occurred through the person of Jesus Christ? Here, we turn to a person rather prominently placed in the narrative of Jesus’ life, Mary of Bethany.

Now, most often, we do not refer to Mary as “Mary of Bethany,” but such a descriptor is essential here because of the potentially confusing number of Marys in scripture. To distinguish our Mary for the others, we reference Mary’s hometown. Moreover, focusing on where Mary is from is helpful because it is that location that lends so much detail and import to our understanding Mary’s particular expression of the “gospel.” To understand the gospel for Mary, we must understand the proximity of Bethany to the Jericho Road. And, the importance of proximity does not limit itself to the town of Mary’s origin, but Mary’s proximity to Jesus and this story’s proximity to other story’s in Luke’s gospel supply very useful insights into Mary’s unique witness to the “good news of Jesus Christ.”

First, several clues at the outset of this story from Luke’s gospel link it to the larger narrative section in which we find it. The story begins with the description of Jesus “entering a certain village.” This expression is interesting and helpful because it ties our hearing of this story with the story of the Good Samaritan that immediately precedes our encounter of Mary and Martha with the visiting Jesus. The other clue to the link between this story with the preceding story is the fact that the story of the Good Samaritan takes place along the Road to Jericho. Likewise, the town of Bethany is located just off that road, using a geographic link to create a literary and theological link between what was described in the Good Samaritan story with what is about to unfold, here, in our story with Mary and her sister.

The Good Samaritan story emerges out of a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee—a scholar of the Jewish religious system. The Pharisee was attempting to entrap Jesus in a theological snare by asking him to choose the “greatest commandment” out of the hundreds of commandments within the Jewish tradition. In answering the Pharisee’s question, Jesus does not provide a commandment but a prayer, stating that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then adding to that prayer, Jesus appends the command to love one’s neighbor. This addition leads the Pharisee to set another trap for Jesus by asking “Who is my neighbor?,” seeking to determine what level of obligation he—as a Pharisee being a person of certain elevated standing in the community—was required to perform. Rather than answering the man’s question directly, Jesus tells a story.

In the Good Samaritan story, “a certain man” is attacked on the Road to Jericho. In turn, religious authorities walk past the man, ignoring the man’s needs in favor of keeping to their religious obligations both to avoid seeing someone’s nakedness and touching another’s blood—both eventualities that would lead to their being ritually unable to perform their religious duties. So, by doing what they are supposed to do as faithful followers of “God’s law,” we assume that they will be commended as the heroes in the story. Yet, the Samaritan comes along, challenging all our assumptions.

Samaritans were cousins of the Jews, “corrupted” by inter-mixing with their Assyrian conquerors and diluting the purity of the faith. Their neighbors to the south automatically despised these law-breakers. The very name “Samaritan” became a synonym within Israel for all that is wrong with those that do not quite get it, religiously. Yet, in the story, the Samaritan is the one that Jesus and the Pharisee affirm as the proper neighbor and the one whose life we should emulate. The expected roles and barriers of God’s kingdom are being challenged at their very core. In the Samaritan story, those that do what they are supposed to do are judged to have acted wrongly and the one who is the very embodiment of impurity and unseemliness becomes the epitome of commendable action and faith.

The outside is now inside. Barriers are down. The impossible seems all too possible.

The story of the Good Samaritan becomes the example of true love of neighbor. Yet, as mentioned before, the story of the Good Samaritan emerges from a conversation following Jesus’ exchange with a Pharisee over two commandments: (1) the love of neighbor and (2) the love of God. If the story of the Good Samaritan is about the love of neighbor, then that story leaves us expecting another, partner story to present itself, helping to illustrate what true love of God means, too. Fulfilling that expectation, we have just such a story offered to us in the story of Mary of Bethany.

Beginning like the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and her sister Martha’s house is introduced by saying that Jesus entered a “certain village,” as mentioned before a village that happens to be a short distance from the Road to Jericho. This natural, geographical link solidifies the link between the last story that exemplified the love of neighbor and this present story that we assume will exemplify the love of God. Here, in this certain village, a woman named Martha—like the two religious leaders before her—does what she is expected to do as a woman showing hospitality to her guest. Martha, fulfilling her cultural role, is preparing a meal for a guest and is disturbed that her sister is not sharing in the work. Martha goes to Jesus looking for some support, yet—surprisingly—Jesus supports the actions of her sister, Mary.

Just like the story of the Good Samaritan, in the Mary and Martha story someone does what they are expected to do only to turn out to be the one judged to be wrong by doing what she presumed was right. In the Good Samaritan story, the Samaritan is the unjust one who turns out to be the most just in his actions. Similarly, Mary is violating two social norms. First, she is not preparing the meal, a responsibility of women in the household. And, second, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet, a euphemism for taking the position of a disciple and a position generally reserved for men.

By taking this action, Mary is directly challenging the religious and social structures of her day, threatening the established gender norms and religious protocols with her actions. Yet, when asked to affirm those norms, Jesus does the exact opposite. Jesus affirms Mary’s rebellion much like he affirmed the Samaritan’s righteousness in the face of Jesus’ rejection of the “righteous” religious leaders. If the Samaritan becomes the embodiment of the love of neighbor, then Mary’s proximity to Jesus establishes a new norm for the love of God, a norm that denies any gender divisions between who might love God as a disciple and leader in the God’s kingdom. Moreover, Jesus celebrates a love that shows an undivided attention and devotion to God, resisting the distractions of everyday social pressures, conventions, and expectations.

Therefore, Mary’s actions are a declaration of victory over any kind of marginalization from leadership for women in God’s kingdom. That kingdom lets in the outsider, tells the insider they might need to reevaluate their centrality, and dissolves barriers to leadership and our expectations of who those leaders should be. Scripture is mixed on this conclusion of gender equality, but that confusion endears scripture—at least for me—as an honest expression of the faithful struggling to understand their experience of a liberating God in the face of social structures that resist change, let alone liberation. Maybe such an honest appraisal of the faith and the faith’s inconsistencies in and uncertainty about how to integrate our religious experiences with our daily lives is a kind of proclamation of a victory in itself, a victory of our faith over our own totalitarian claims to possess and dispense divine truth. Just like the two religious leaders and Martha, each thought they were certain they knew what was right. But, in the end, those leaders and Martha go from being right to being wrong on a quick turn of phrase. Maybe such a realization that our claims to absolute certainty might not be so absolute will bring us a little closer to the feet of Jesus, too.

Hindsight to Foresight

Posted in Uncategorized on September 12, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life . . . .”
–Deuteronomy 30:19

Today, I offer a brief detour from our weekly reflections on “the gospel according to . . . “ series. The detour takes the form of a short reflection as we enter a time of personal and corporate remembering following yesterday’s ten-year marker of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Ten years ago, I was serving in my first appointment as a young “preacher.” As it happened, each Tuesday morning I joined a group of retired women from one of my congregations for prayer. That Tuesday was no exception. We prayed dutifully and with a newfound earnestness that morning vacillating between watching the television coverage and returning to our intercessions and supplications. It was a surreal moment. That evening, at my other church, we had scheduled a tree planting to beautify the exterior to our recently completed fellowship hall. On my knees for a second time that day with a group of parishioners–this time packing dirt around the base of a newly-planted tree, I found myself deep in a conversation about fear and uncertainty and about what our appropriate faith-filled responses should be. I am certain I said some wise and many foolish things that day. However, mostly I am glad to have shared that day with thoughtful, faithful companions struggling with what it means to follow the Prince of Peace in a world that is often anything but peaceful.

Below, I include an excerpt from a September 7, 2011 article in Christianity Today. I include this piece for two reasons. First, I offer the excerpt because the person cited is Will Willimon, presiding bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, will be our Hamilton Lecturer this November at YHC. Second, I offer this excerpt because after enjoying the weekend with nearly 100 students on our Spiritual Life Retreat, I am pretty much spent.

From Bishop Willimon:

On 9/11 I thought, For the most powerful, militarized nation in the world also to think of itself as an innocent victim is deadly. It was a rare prophetic moment for me, considering Presidents Bush and Obama have spent billions asking the military to rectify the crime of a small band of lawless individuals, destroying a couple of nations who had little to do with it, in the costliest, longest series of wars in the history of the United States.

The silence of most Christians and the giddy enthusiasm of a few, as well as the ubiquity of flags and patriotic extravaganzas in allegedly evangelical churches, says to me that American Christians may look back upon our response to 9/11 as our greatest Christological defeat. It was shattering to admit that we had lost the theological means to distinguish between the United States and the kingdom of God. The criminals who perpetrated 9/11 and the flag-waving boosters of our almost exclusively martial response were of one mind: that the nonviolent way of Jesus is stupid. All of us preachers share the shame; when our people felt very vulnerable, they reached for the flag, not the Cross.

September 11 has changed me. I’m going to preach as never before about Christ crucified as the answer to the question of what’s wrong with the world. I have also resolved to relentlessly reiterate from the pulpit that the worst day in history was not a Tuesday in New York, but a Friday in Jerusalem when a consortium of clergy and politicians colluded to run the world on our own terms by crucifying God’s own Son.

Have a wonderful rest of your day and remember our various events offered both today at 5pm in the Robinson Dining Room and tomorrow at 7pm in the Village Seminar Room as we explore what it means to live in world after September 11, 2001.

Peace.

Be Perfect

Posted in Uncategorized on September 6, 2011 by yhcreligiouslife

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
—Matthew 5:48

Each week, as we imagine the “Gospel,” we are exploring how a different author or figure from the faith has uniquely understood and articulated the “good news.” This week, we turn to someone who not only offers a unique perspective on the Gospel but someone whose unique perspective on the gospel led to the creation of an entire religious movement, a movement called Methodism.

Reared and ordained in the Anglican tradition and educated at Oxford University, John Wesley was steeped in the theology of the Reformation and the practices and beliefs of the western institutions of the church. Shaped, in part, by the systematizing thought of Richard Hooker, this theology centered heavily upon (1) scripture as the primary and necessary source of God’s salvation narrative, (2) the informing importance of traditions from the church’s worship life and historic claims, (3) and the use of reason as an interpretive, mediating tool for making theological determinations about appropriate thinking and moral practices in light of scripture and tradition. Following Wesley’s encounter with some Moravians, particularly his conversations with Moravian Peter Bohler, Wesley saw the essentiality of personal religious and broader life experience to round out this interpretive formula.

Yet, this linking of personal experience with scripture, tradition, and reason is not the most significant of Wesley’s theological emphases. Rather, more significant is Wesley’s commitment to a gospel that demands personal and social transformation as a necessary consequence to encountering the good news of Jesus Christ. His term for this concept of transformation is “perfection,” and perfection is a result of sanctification. Held together, perfection and sanctification are part of a larger theological formulation where the grace of God dominates everything Wesley imagines.

Heavily influenced by Eastern Church writers, Wesley proffered a threefold notion of God’s grace, beginning with what he called prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is the idea that all of life is imbued with God’s gracious love as a dual result of both willed creation and the incarnation. Both mark the primary initiative of God to enter into and restore relationship with us. Building on God’s prevenience, justifying grace is the notion that through the gift of faith—again imparted by God—we come to recognize God’s love for us and our restoration to a proper relationship with God. Next, if justification is about being united with God, then sanctification is about being (re)made into the image of God. Distinguishing justification from sanctification, Wesley said in his sermon “Justification by Faith” that “[justification] is not the being made actually just and righteous. This is sanctification . . . .” Or said another way, it is the difference between being with God—i.e., justification—and becoming like God—i.e., sanctification. It is this notion that our lives in faith actually transform us to be like God that is distinctive in Wesleyan theology and that sets him apart from many of his theological contemporaries.

So, if sanctification is being like God, how does Wesley assume this happens? This is the perfect question, because for Wesley the answer is Christian perfection.

In Wesley’s estimation, sanctification is a gift of God experienced through the transforming, repetitive presence of the Holy Spirit encountered through our engagement in holy habits of love or being “habituated in love,” e.g., participating in the life of the church, celebrating the sacraments, sharing in small groups, praying, fasting, caring for the poor, looking after each other, concern for the powerless and dispossessed, etc. In other words, perfection is loving God and loving each other. For Wesley, Christian perfection is nothing more than saying we must learn to love as God loves. These acts of loving gradually change us, molding our nature from one form to another. Thomas Langford, a Methodist theologian, summarizes Wesley’s theology this way: “The experience of sanctification is the restoring of the defaced image of our creation. As fallen, persons have forfeited their authentic humanity; as sanctified, they are restored to and mature in the life that God intends.”

Wesley was insistent that his articulation of Christian perfection is not work’s righteousness. Rather, Christian perfection is always God’s gracious presence and initiation that is the cause of our righteousness and perfection. However, human participation is a necessary condition of sanctification. Wesley was adamant about that point. God does not force but invites. Prevenience enables us to respond.

Importantly, this notion of perfection is different from how we often used the term. When we think of perfection, we think of a complete whole, a perfect state, one where something cannot change because it “is” perfect. To add to what is perfect would alter it, moving from perfection to something else. Similarly, to take away from this perfection, would be to diminish it, again moving it away from perfection to something else. As with Wesley’s notion of sanctification, his concept of perfection similarly derives more from an eastern perspective rather than a western one.

Our word “perfect” in English originates with a Latin word “perfectus.” Like most Latin words, “perfectus” is substance-based. Meaning, the word connotes a material reality. For example, a house is a “perfect” example of a particular style. A book is a “perfect” masterpiece. We most often use “perfect” to indicate a fix state of being, describing a material quality of a certain object. However, unlike Latin, Greek is a relational language. This relational environment is what produced the concept of “perfection” that Wesley borrowed. In this context, perfection is not a static notion but a kind of “teleiosis,” or a transformation by progression from one level of love to another, much like a growing relationship. (It is this word—“teleiosis”—that is used in our text from Matthew, above.)

For Wesley, this is always a kind of perfection depicting how we love and our willingness to love, not necessarily depicting results. We may act with the purest of intentions but will always be limited by the realities of our existence and others’. As Kenneth Kinghorn—another Wesleyan scholar—states, “[b]ecause sanctification does not free us from the human limitations of understanding and judgment . . . [our] performance remains flawed by our human finitude and handicaps, but our intentions can be pure and loving” (109).

Since in perfection we love as God loves, our loving becomes all encompassing, merging the transformation of self and society into a single purpose because of the singular love that accounts for both creation and the incarnation. Thus, our faith assumes the necessary outpouring of loving intentional acts for God and others, acts that gradually change God’s world and us. Such a faith is always a faith that assumes our souls and the world should be loved wholly and transformatively. In Wesley’s estimation, there is no complacency in faith, no static place but always a progression toward a more complete image of God. Such a transformative faith means that there can be no separation between our concern for the self and our concern for our neighbors, societal systems, and creation itself. A lack of concern about one would be an abdication to them all.

This leads us to ask, for Wesley over what is the victory that the Gospel proclaims? For him, the victory is twofold: (1) a recognition that faith is always an initiative of God and never a human achievement and (2) that faith is not a description of an individual’s assurance but is a description of a transformation of the individual and the world through our embodied love of God.

What does this kind of Gospel mean for us? If we are to embrace this kind of Gospel, we must always press towards a loving transformation of the self and society on the way to our inhabiting the image of God perfectly imprinted in everything.