Friday, February 13, 2015

The Way of Jesus - Halakha
Rev Dr George Byron Koch

I remember the first time I learned that the early believers, long before they were called “Christians,” referred to themselves as followers of “the Way” of Jesus. I heard it as an apt and beautiful poetic metaphor—which I assumed they had invented for themselves.

I have since learned that the expression actually has deep Jewish and rabbinic roots, and this has opened my eyes to something truly fundamental in following Him—something we have often forgotten, or didn’t fully realize we knew. It is a rich treasure. Let me open it up.

First, the great rabbis over the centuries, as well as at the time of Jesus, had passionate and dedicated disciples. When disciples agree to abide by the teachings of a rabbi, they are said to “put his yoke” upon them. When Jesus says, “Put my yoke upon you,” He is literally offering to become your rabbi, your teacher and model. That was and is the expression used by the rabbis to define the relationship.

Second, a disciple is someone who learns “by use and practice.” He obeys the teachings of his rabbi, and emulates his behavior. This is called the “halakha” of the rabbi.

Halakha is a wonderful Hebrew word. It is often translated as “instruction” or “judgment” or “law,” but literally means “to walk.” When you follow a rabbi, you “walk in his way,” you follow in his path, and learn to do what he does. This includes:

·      Hearing how he interprets Torah (the written instructions of God through Moses in the first five books of the Bible), which tells religious Jews what to do.

·      Hearing how he interprets the Oral Tradition of the Torah to understand what to do in specific situations. This Oral Tradition is said to have begun at Sinai with the giving of the 10 Commandments. (It does predate Jesus.)

·      Hearing how he uniquely teaches his disciples about what to do in relationships with others and the world.

·      Watching how he acts and emulating his actions.

Or, more simply, doing what he says to do and following his example. Learning by use and practice. When you do this, you have his yoke upon you, and you walk in his way. You follow his halakha.

So, some examples of this (both teaching and example) from Jesus:

He said, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets stand under these two commands.”

He also said, Love your enemies and pray for them,” and
Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Jesus illustrated the two great commands with His parable of the Good Samaritan: A Jew is robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite both pass by without helping. A Samaritan stops, helps, and even pays for the man’s recovery in a local inn.

Jesus asks, “Who acted as a neighbor?”

The expert in Torah, hearing this story, answers, “The one who showed mercy.” That is, the Samaritan.

According to the Jews, the Samaritans misunderstood the nature of God and Torah (bad theology), worshiped on the wrong mountain (bad tradition). They had their doctrine and worship wrong, and so religious Jews would have nothing to do with them. The Samaritans regarded the Jews with the same disdain.

But the Samaritan who acted to help the injured man, he was the true neighbor who fulfilled the second great commandment: He loved his neighbor as himself. He acted to fulfill the commandment.

When Jesus healed a man blind from birth, or raised others from the dead, when he invited himself to eat with Zacchaeus, or forgave a woman of bad reputation, or a crippled man, or spoke with a Samaritan woman at the well, he demonstrated to his disciples how to act in relationship with others – including those who sin or that we consider in error in their beliefs and worship.

He repeatedly told them to serve others, especially those poor, or sick, or in jail—and in so doing, they would be serving Him.

So we began as followers of the Way of Jesus, of His teaching and modeling how to act to love and serve.

But…

As the Church moved out from Israel into the surrounding cultures, and the leadership of the Church became more and more Gentile, this understanding of following the Way, which was very Jewish and rabbinic, changed into a process of analysis and proposition construction—the development of theology, doctrine and Christian tradition. That is, the focus moved from how one behaved to what one believed—from following the way of a person and His teachings, to believing in a set of logical propositions: From acting to asserting.

This began innocently enough: Paul in his speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17) to contextualize the Gospel for Gentile listeners (who were, incidentally, Greek philosophers). Or when Origen wrote Contra Celsum (“Against Celsus,” ) a defense of the Way put into philosophical categories and syllogisms, because the Way had been ridiculed by the Greek philosopher Celsus as silly and lacking the philosophical foundations and rigor of the Greek schools.

The creeds are key examples of this focus on propositions. Whether the Nicene, Apostles’ or Athanasian, they are statements about the propositions we accept. There is not one word about how we are to live and act. The Way of Jesus is absent. Go reread them if you don’t believe it. This should unsettle us.

The problem is compounded by the multiplication of such propositions (creeds, confessions, doctrines, theologies, traditions)—as various Christians dispute with each other—and diverge, following paths that separate us from each other, and further from the Way.

In fact, we have worshiped our propositions—basically worshiped our own ideas about Scripture, tradition, and even the Way, and shunned, anathematized and sarcastically spoken against each other. Even if my favorite doctrine is right—or more right—than yours, my disdain, condescension and venom toward you and your ideas is sin. And it separates us. The same is true for you.

We have allowed our “defense of the truth” of our propositions to divide us from each other, rather than acting in love, following the Way, the halakha, of the One Who embodies truth.

The mean-spiritedness of our attacks on each other is stunning. And wrong.

Remember Paul’s words:

“Use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (Galatians 5:13–15)

And let us not forget what James said. You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice:

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.’ You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:14–20)

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying doctrine is without value. In fact, as a method of understanding basic ideas from Scripture it can be useful. But IF AND ONLY IF that understanding actually leads to loving action. Even demons can have their doctrine right, but loving action never follows their beliefs!

We have sadly moved from Paul’s “contextualizing” of the Gospel to a religion often more focused on the worship and defense of propositions, than the acting out of love in our relationship with God and neighbor. The love of propositions has replaced acting with the love of Christ.

We lost our way. We lost the Way.

When Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, they were a mess of puffery, misunderstandings and bad doctrines, but He patiently taught them His Way, nudged them back when they strayed, protected them, and demonstrated to them what this Way of love really entailed—to act like the teacher, the rabbi. He prayed this for them and for us: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

We disdain Jesus and His prayer when we shun each other over ideas, and put out those who do not affirm precisely our propositions. There is no love of God, neighbor or even “enemy” when we do this.

Obviously, no one of us will have all of his propositions correct. No theology, doctrine, confession, worship or tradition will get it all right. Should we wrestle respectfully? Of course! We can grow from that. But true unity in Jesus will not come from all agreeing to identical propositions, but from following His commands and learning to live and love as He did.

The doctrines and creeds are insufficient unless they are followed by loving action. “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

Now to make it real: I confess my worship of my favorite ideas, and my condescension toward those who do not agree. Even where my ideas are “right,” my heart is wrong when I speak and act hurtfully toward you.

I ask for the forgiveness of any I have slandered or even held in disdain in my worship of propositions—from you, and from my rabbi, Jesus. I desire to never again to be so misdirected, or to repeat such sin.

You too may need to confess this—to make it real. And then we must covenant to honor rather than devour each another.

Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets stand under these two commands.”

Do we imagine that our doctrines, theologies, creeds, confessions and traditions stand above these two commands—or should they stand under them, as do all the Law and the prophets?

And of those with whom we might disagree? How are we to behave?

Jesus said, Love your enemies and pray for them,” and Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

And near the end He prayed for us, “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

That unity comes from following His commands and His example—acting with the love He taught and lived. His halakha. It is how we can be one.

That is the Way of Jesus. Follow it.





This article first appeared here in the blog of the Act3 Network, a ministry devoted to unity in the body of Christ.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Was this a mere "suggestion" from Jesus?

We Christians have long focused on accusing each other of faithlessness, error and bad doctrine, and excluded those we disagree with from our churches and lives, as if our primary calling as believers is to malign each other, using sarcasm and condescension. We justify this as a defense of the faith. But when I am feeling most dismissive of other Christians and their "errors," I find myself drawn inevitably back to what Scripture instructs me CLEARLY to do:

1 Corinthians 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 

1 John 3:11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.

2 Corinthians 13:11 Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

Romans 12:10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

Ephesians 4:1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

And then at last I always find myself back at the prayer, the plea of Jesus to his Father FOR US:


John 17:20 I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 

We hear His words here, but then we seem to regard them as suggestion, not heartfelt plea. Yet He told us again and again to love God, neighbor and even enemy, to love Him as He loved us. He loved and prayed for His disciples even though their theology was usually confused, and even though they often did not really understand WHO HE IS. 

He loves us just this way as well. We are to love Him and others just this way. Let's each of us choose now to begin (or continue) to love, rather than mock, to love, rather than divide.

John 15:12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
                                                                                                                                                                       -Jesus

Friday, June 6, 2014

Worshipping the Idols We Create in our Minds


Much of what has seemed, over the centuries, like a vital defense of God, or of Jesus, or of the Christian faith, has in fact been a battle of concepts within a philosophical framework that is ultimately foreign to the God who reveals Himself in the Bible. Just because these debates have used biblical terms does not make the debates either holy or meaningful.

RELIGIOUS IDOLATRY

What is most insidious among those who claim belief in God is the idolatry of religious doctrine, worship, polity  and culture, and the use of disagreement on these as an excuse to mistreat others. This ranges from disregard to verbal attack to physical assault to murder to genocide. All in an alleged defense of God, who is omnipotent and needs no defenders. It would seem silly were it not so profoundly tragic.

There is a reason Jesus spoke of two great commandments rather than just the one to love God. He saw that those who claimed to love God were using it as an excuse for all manner of ungodly behavior toward other people.  He said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  Then He immediately illustrated the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” by describing to His listeners a neighbor who was a Samaritan—a despised outsider whose religious beliefs were flawed.  
Jesus eliminated the loophole of claiming “neighbor” to be someone like us who we love anyway (or who has religious beliefs we approve of). And on the outside chance that someone might claim that an “enemy” fell outside even the broadest category of neighbor, He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” 

He didn’t leave any loopholes.

Why do we care? Because Christian thinking has worked out its ideas, year after year, since the time of Paul in a thoroughly Greek process, creating vast structures of themes and ideas: analyzed, extracted, abstracted, fabricated, and put up in giant conceptual arrays, like tall warehouses, filled with row after row, shelf after shelf, of analysis after analysis.

The problem is, they aren’t the story the Author wrote, and they aren’t the Author who seeks relationship with His followers. They are Concepts fabricated by the minds of people, based on a disassembly and analysis of the story.

Various groups and individuals have pulled from the scriptural narrative various themes and ideas, fabricated them into a philosophical structure, a religious Concept, have used this to guide the production of Doctrine, Ritual, Polity and more—as well as to interpret other themes and ideas in Scripture and in the world—and have given the Conceptual structure an independent status and reputation of its own.

Saying that various religious groups fabricated them is not meant to imply fraud, but rather an extended and complex process of analysis, extraction, abstraction, categorization, comparison, critique, deduction, induction and careful fabrication—piece by piece, category by category, syllogism by syllogism, reference by reference—until whole Concepts emerged from this pulling of themes and ideas from the scriptural narrative.

As these major religious Concepts evolved, they generated layers of subconcepts, including doctrines and practices, patterns of worship, methods of authority and organization (polity), forms of both promotion and defense, and more. Vast warehouses of Concepts, often each headed by a religious genius.

The whole fabrication process of Christian religious Concepts is simply Greek in its origins and methods. All of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East had been under the deep influence of Greek philosophical teaching and culture for centuries before the first New Testament book was written. Even the Old Testament itself had been rewritten in Greek  because it was a language most Jews spoke—like nearly everyone else in that day and place.

This Concept-building process, at least in its early stages, may not even have been an intrinsically bad thing. In humble hands such Concepts could help to share God’s love with others. One might even say that this is just what Paul did in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. He “contextualized” the God of Israel into concepts that his hearers would understand, so that they might accept the invitation of forgiveness and salvation, the covenant that Jesus shared and embodied.

However, the key point is that much of early Christian writing and debate—as well as the establishment of the Church after Constantine, the complete integration of the Church into the Roman Empire, the energetic establishment of Doctrine and Creed, Rituals, Practices, forms of Worship, Polity, Hermeneutical methods, the development of Systematic Theology, and then the division of the Church into countless denominations (tens of thousands at this point)—all owe their foundations to Greek philosophical methods and culture.

These produced Concepts about God and man, and these Concepts multiplied and gained independent recognition and authority. They were about God, and about Scripture (the Story of Life with God: both Old and New Testament), and they contained vocabulary from Scripture (as well as Greek philosophy), but they were neither God nor Scripture. They were Concepts. 

It is worth noting that early Christian religious Concepts were not readily accepted as equals to the work of ages of Greek philosophical schools. Critics in the Roman and Greek cultures in the first two centuries found the Church’s philosophical efforts inept and even dangerous, and ridiculed them—beginning at least as early as Paul, recorded in Acts 17 and elsewhere. 

The Church’s development of detailed and extensive philosophical Concepts arose in part in response to the ongoing and condescending criticism it received from its critics, and in part as various Christian religious Concepts arose and conflicted with each other.  The works of Origen (Against Celsus and On First Principles ), Justin Martyr (First Apology), Irenaeus  (Against Heresies) and Tertullian  (Apologeticus) are examples of just such responses. 

Attack and defense occurred on both sides of the debate, and over the course of centuries.The problem begins to unveil itself here: Once a Doctrine gains sufficient prominence, it tends to draw not just advocates, but worshipers. Instead of worshiping God alone, we worship Doctrines about God, and promote and defend them passionately. They are easier to understand and control than a Being Who is Holy, Wholly Other, Omnipotent and Omniscient.

Even if I believe God loves me, and desires loving relationship with me, His power and otherness frighten me—as they should.

Doctrine doesn’t scare me. As with wealth, fame, success and possessions, I want to hold on to my doctrine and defend it. And like wealth, fame, success and possessions, I can and do make an idol of it.
We die for and kill for idols all the time. Humans always have. We still do. Whether “honor” or position, fame or religion, nationalism or race, gender or beauty, we tend to idolize what we want or want to keep, and we fight for it, often regardless of the harm we do to other people or to our world.
We make idols and fight to defend them. We justify such battles with self-righteous explanations, and we labor to get others to bend to our will or submit to our vision. Such idolatry is not unique to Christians, or even to religion, but it is common to our humanity. This is why Scripture is so compelling, and why we must listen again to God’s first commandment:

"You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods." (Deuteronomy 5:7-9)

In the event that anyone thinks this passage is simply about tribal gods made of stone or wood, and not about idols like pride or fame or property or wealth—or idols of Doctrine, Ritual, even Hermeneutics—just read the Bible. It is replete with such idols and exhortations against them. We began all of those kinds of idolatry right at the beginning, and they were well-known to God and to the ancient authors of Scripture. We were warned early!

Our idolatry of Concept—especially the part called Doctrine and supposedly all about God and holy behavior—leads us to attack, disfellowship, injure and hate others who cling to different Doctrines, or to none.

Even if their Doctrines are wrong, we conduct our debates as if we are exempt from God’s commandments about loving neighbors and even enemies. We attack and belittle others. We treat them with condescension and sarcasm, full of ourselves and with self-righteousness. At our worst, we murder our opponents en masse. The partisanship for and the idolatry of our Doctrine wounds the heart of God. Our actions are wrong—even if our Doctrines are right.

The problem is rooted in our focus on Doctrines, and debate about them, rather than on loving relationship with God and neighbor.

This rabid debate over Doctrine stretches from the authors of our day back to Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, Irenaeus and others. As respected as anyone might be for contributions to the faith, to the development of settled Doctrine, or to a rigorous debate on a point of theology, each also is personally culpable when engaged in loveless attack. The former does not justify the latter.

With every debate over Doctrine, division follows. People are kicked out, or leave, and another sect or denomination arises—another group with its own correct way, and defenders of its correct way, angrily contesting against the “false way” of the group they just divorced.

The children of such divorces learn from their parents what to do when they disagree: Attack the person, and divorce again. It is ironic that voices who most loudly denounce divorce in the marriage of people often celebrate the divorces of churches—their own, or those of their founders.

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” (Luke 6:46-49)

The foundation Jesus speaks of here is not transubstantiation, Trinity, inerrancy, systematic theology, baptism, apostolic succession, textual criticism, epiclesis, Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism or any such thing. The solid foundation is following what Jesus taught: “when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it.” 

If we want evidence that the Church has forgotten what Jesus taught, we need only consider the state of the Church—disputing not over how better to live as Jesus called us to live, or about love of God and each other, but over Concepts: doctrine, worship, authority, liturgy, baptism, gender, Communion, translation, hermeneutics, tradition, tongues, evolution, end-times, titles, music, Rapture and the internal structure of God. And a thousand thousand more. We have collapsed into a heap of warring factions, followers of this Concept fighting followers of that Concept. We are obsessed.

The problem is that our foundation is not God, not even Scripture. It is instead Philosophy, and its Concepts. We worship our own ideas.

We are not doing what Jesus told us to do.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Application


From Matthew Henry’s commentary on Psalm 122:

If all the disciples of Christ were of one mind, and kept the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, their enemies would be deprived of their chief advantages against them. But Satan’s maxim always has been, to divide that he may conquer; and few Christians are sufficiently aware of his designs.

Those who can do nothing else for the peace of Jerusalem may pray for it. Let us consider all who seek the glory of the Redeemer, as our brethren and fellow-travellers, without regarding differences which do not affect our eternal welfare. Blessed Spirit of peace and love, who didst dwell in the soul of the holy Jesus, descend into his church, and fill those who compose it with his heavenly tempers; cause bitter contentions to cease, and make us to be of one mind. Love of the brethren and love to God, ought to stir us up to seek to be like the Lord Jesus in fervent prayer and unwearied labour, for the salvation of men, and the Divine glory. (Mathew’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008, p. 561)

Recall, if you would, all the way back to Chapter 1:

The 17th-century Lutheran Peter Meiderlin once said, “We would be in the best shape if we kept in essentials, Unity; in non-essentials, Liberty; and in both Charity.” This is an extremely valuable and effective touchstone for our journey. Let’s define the terms with precision, and use that precision to our benefit as we proceed. This will prove valuable:

An essential is something that is necessary, utterly required for something to be effective, true, or real. You may recall this expression from mathematics: if and only if. That defines an essential.

A non-essential may be profoundly important, valuable or highly regarded, but it is not necessary, not required. This is a critical distinction.

Liberty means that we do not force others to conform to our practices or beliefs on issues that are non-essential.

Charity means that we treat others with respect and love, even when we disagree or differ on either essentials or non-essentials.

We need to realize that something can be non-essential in one context and essential in another.

                    Plain, modest dressing is essential to being Amish, but it is not essential to being a Christian.

                    Ordination is essential in many denominations to be a priest or pastor, but it is not essential to teach or care for others.

                    Apostolic Succession is essential to the polity of a church in the apostolic tradition (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, others), but it is not essential to salvation or sanctification.

                    The Liturgy is essential to the worship of a “liturgical church,” but it is not essential for a church to be Christian.

Similarly, though sanctification is non-essential to salvation, it is essential to Life in Christ, to Covenant.

Covenant, Life in Christ, begins with salvation, is lived in sanctification, and finishes in glorification. Sanctification is the process of learning to live and love as Jesus did. Sanctification is the very means by which we are each conformed to Christ’s image, where we become more like Him, where we learn to love.

So, what is essential to sanctification? What is the if and only if of sanctification? What must it have to proceed? And what can it proceed without? Here’s the key understanding:

To the degree that any of our church concepts, doctrines, worship styles, polity, and so on, aid us in our sanctification, they are helpful, perhaps even important, but if sanctification can proceed without them, they are not essential to sanctification, and not essential to life in Christ.

Life in Christ, covenant, is what all Christians have in common. Sanctification is basically the living out in daily life—and in our faith tradition—of this covenant with Him. It is where we are formed in His image, where we are made into His bride without spot or wrinkle, where we mature in learning to love as He did.

It is life with and in Christ during our walk on this earth.

That’s sanctification, and every Christian grows up through it. It is to be discipled and be a disciple—to learn “by use and practice.” To learn to love.

Sanctification is essential and unavoidable for a Christian. It is our daily walk and growth. So the big question is: are the elements of your church tradition required for sanctification, and therefore for life in Christ? Are they essential? I’m not asking if they are valuable or perhaps even important. I’m asking if they are essential, required for sanctification. As valuable and honored as they may be, the answer is almost certainly, “No.”

We really have to move past the non-essentials if we are to embody the unity for which Christ prayed.

The risk in even broaching this topic is the fury that arises when religious people fear that their beliefs and practices are being attacked—and calling any one of them “non-essential,” even with careful definition of what this means—is often heard as a threat to the faith. Recall Matthew Henry’s insight:

If all the disciples of Christ were of one mind, and kept the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, their enemies would be deprived of their chief advantages against them. But Satan’s maxim always has been, to divide that he may conquer; and few Christians are sufficiently aware of his designs.

I believe that with care, willingness, and charity for each other, there is a path beyond our divisions, to a common place of safety and godly mutual respect, to Reconciliation.

HOW TO RECONCILE

I want to begin here a series of examples of how Reconciliation can be applied with actual followers of Jesus who differ markedly in their Concepts, Doctrines, Subdoctrines, Worship, Polity, Hermeneutics, dress codes and more. In other words, with Christians who often have little or nothing to say to each other, and even less to do with each other—except perhaps in derision and distancing themselves—lest they be tainted by the other’s embodiment of the Faith.

If you begin to live as a Reconciler, an ambassador for the Gospel, and are able to find the unity Jesus prayed for—with others who differ in their Concepts (Doctrines, and so on), visit the Web site (WhatWeBeliveAndWhy.com) of this book, and please share your story with me. I will post those that are appropriate online and in future editions of this book, and let this section on Application grow.

More to come...

In Christ,

Pastor George

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reconciliation-part 2


I believe we are at the beginning of a major reformation of the Christian faith—a Reconciliation of believers across many boundaries that had once separated us and put us at swords with one another.
 It would be easier for any of us to remain cocooned, but the Lord is afoot and calling us to common cause: His.

Our denominationalism, our religious wars, our vitriolic doctrinal disputes, and the holy isolation we use to keep ourselves separate and untainted by each other’s patterns of worship and belief, belie any claim we make to all be Christ’s own. We each act like He is our private possession, formed according to our image of Him, blessing just our worship, and approving only our doctrine and our orders of ministry. We imagine that at best He tolerates the worship, doctrine, and polity of those who are not like us. What amazing pride we have.

Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he    prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

The Pharisee is certain that he knows it all, and it seems he has it all correct—doctrine, behavior, tithing, isolation from the sinful—but none of it counts before God. Yet the prayer of the sinner, seeking mercy, counts for everything.

The pattern for us is in heaven: All the angels and tribes around the throne aren’t arguing about who is most right, nor jostling to see who gets to sit at Jesus' right hand. They are not identical, but they are side-by-side, adjacent, in awe and ministering together to the Lamb.

The earthly incarnation of this heavenly scene is just how we should work together. It is the heart of Jesus, and it should be our heart as well. It should be your heart.

It should reflect this common desire: We respect each other’s tribe. We work and minister together, yoked to each other and to Him. We love each other as one.

Jesus makes this blazingly clear in His prayer for His disciples and for us:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23, NIV)

We have failed miserably to do this in our past. Perhaps now we can at last begin to do as Jesus commands.

THE KEY TO THE FUTURE

So to restate the point: We have taken the narrative telling of Life With God, written down as Scripture, and (in a process that owes its methods to Greek philosophy) drawn from it multitudes of religious Concepts, and from them multitudes of ideas about doctrine, worship, polity, hermeneutics, behavior, dress, ordination and much more, and then we have separated into religious tribes, each idolizing and worshiping its own Concepts, and fighting the tribes that idolize and worship other Concepts.

The Concepts can have usefulness in drawing and introducing people to God, and in helping them understand what He desires of them. But as often as not, they grow instead into idols, and are worshiped in place of the God that they were developed to help explain.

Some may be more helpful than others, and some may well be quite wrong, but this difference provides no justification for the scorn and often violence we have shown toward each other. Worse, the way we have behaved is radically contrary to what Jesus has told us to do, and it is Him who we all claim as Lord!

For a true Reconciliation of the faith to occur, there must be a reconciliation of the faithful, and a coming together to embody the unity for which Jesus prayed. We do not have to surrender our favorite Concepts, or patterns of worship, polity, ordination, or even doctrine, to be reconciled. We can even continue to wrestle with each other about these, but we cannot do so without first acknowledging our own idolatry, confessing our lovelessness toward each other, repenting of it, stopping it, forgiving each other, and taking action to bless and protect each other—that is, we have to incarnate the love Jesus called us to do toward others.

He desires that unity from us—honoring, safeguarding, and building each other up—not just when we reach heaven, but now. But we each have to confess, forgive, and then live with reconciling love for the faithful, refusing any longer to scorn or harm each other in defense of ourselves and our religious Concepts.

Remind the people to respect the government and be law-abiding, always ready to lend a helping hand. No insults, no fights. God’s people should be bighearted and courteous.

It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this.

I want you to put your foot down. Take a firm stand on these matters so that those who have put their trust in God will concentrate on the essentials that are good for everyone. Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print in the law code. That gets you nowhere. Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness he cuts himself off. (Titus 3:1-11, The message.)

We need to stop trashing each other! It doesn’t matter how many religious words we use, how many Scriptures we quote, how much we disagree with the religious Concepts, doctrines, or practices of other believers—we do not have the right to treat them with lovelessness. In truth, we are required to treat them with love—action to bless them. And let’s be clear: Pretending to “love” someone by “enlightening” them with sarcasm, shame, or cruel words is not love. It is sin.

WHAT JESUS TAUGHT

With any text as large and content-rich as the New Testament is, one could probably pick any of a hundred themes and construct a Concept out of it and proclaim it to be the central message of Jesus. Even knowing this, and being aware of all that I’ve just cautioned against, I’ll dare to suggest that Jesus’ key teaching is just exactly what has been addressed above—reconciliation—the reconciliation of people to God, and to each other. This is salvation, and the beginning of the covenant He offered.

This reconciliation unfolds through love, repentance, and forgiveness, but it begins with love. The character of love is embodied in how Jesus lived and opened the way to God for others. Though He made it clear that He had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He quickly recast the understanding of God’s intentions. God was not a rule-giver who required rule-following in order for anyone to have approval or access; rather, He offered openness to all, even those desperately lost in sin. He did not approve of sin, but He did invite sinners to come close to Him. When they came close, they fell in love, their hearts turned, forgiveness was granted, and they were reconciled with God. This was and is salvation, the initiation of Life in Christ, covenant with God.

The many stories of Jesus eating with and encountering sinners, which rankled the self-righteous religious people around Him, gives testimony to this open presence of love in Him. But perhaps one of the most compelling testimonies is also the shortest:

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2)

The second sentence shows how the religious people responded to what Jesus did with sinners, but dwell just a moment on the first sentence: “Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”

What a revealing insight: The despised agents of the Romans, and notorious sinners, somehow feel safe with Jesus. You know it wasn’t because He was saying their sins were of no concern. But does anyone suppose for a moment that they flocked to be near and learn from the self-righteous religious people who looked down on them and condemned them? Of course not.

Look at Jesus’ stunning encounter with the woman caught in adultery. The self-righteous said she should be stoned for her sin, to which He replied that the one without sin should cast the first stone. After they all fled, having been convicted by His words,

He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
(John 8:10b-11, NKJV)

Jesus doesn’t tell her the sin was not sin, but He implicitly forgives her for it, and then tells her not to do it again. Certainly the love she experienced in this encounter filled her and strengthened her not to fall so easily again.

She is treated as one beloved, who has been lost—not as one despised who must be publicly shamed and harmed.

All the way back in Chapter 2 I talked about salvation. This is it. It is being reconciled to God, and it comes not through our efforts to be good, or right, but by the love of God. When we realize our distance from Him, how we have wasted what we have received, and realized—at last—that life with the Father even in its most humble forms is better than life with the pigs, then He willingly restores us—joyfully, with abundance, with sonship! That is salvation; that is what the name Jesus means, in His very name, and in His teachings, life, love and sacrifice. He is the author and finisher of reconciliation, because our faith in Him brings all of us before Him, together. He is the foundation we all can stand upon together. He is the One who can bring unity to all believers.

All who know this love can stand adjacent together before the throne, fully reconciled though they differ in religious Concepts, doctrine, worship, polity and all the rest.

They honor each other’s tribe, and even honor what is important to that tribe, even when it is not essential to Salvation, or Sanctification, or Glorification.

They watch out for and protect each other, rather than themselves.

They do not fight over the pedigree of the other’s fellowship.

They cling to the essential, which is the reconciling love of God that Jesus offers, and the Life in Christ that it initiates.

They enter into covenant.

They listen and do simply as Jesus said:

Love God, neighbor and even enemy.

Treat others the way you want to be treated.

People matter. Things don’t.

There is no “yes, but…” There is confession, repentance, stopping, forgiveness, love and unity in the One who came to reconcile all of us to God, and to keep us in His covenant.

This truly is good news. Let’s choose to live it, beginning now.

In Christ,

Pastor George