Sunday, June 10, 2012

Top Ten Alternatives to "Christianity Isn't a Religion..."

There's was a bit of a subcultural brouhaha a month or two ago over a viral video spoken word titled "I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus." It delighted many, angered some and no doubt confused others (not least non-Christians). You may or may not be familiar with the saying used in certain Christian circles that goes, "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship." It's usually meant to mean that Christianity isn't about keeping rules in order to satisfy God's demands (what Protestants would call "legalism"), but rather a personal relationship with Jesus Christ based on God's gracious forgiveness to us through Jesus's atoning death and resurrection.

So, there's nothing wrong with the idea per se, except that it basically fails to communicate with people based on what the word "religion" means in common use. One must first learn what these people mean by religion (something man-made and legalistic) in order to get their point. The problem is, most people in our culture can't hear it that way because that's not how Western English-speakers talk about religion. And if, as a Christian, you walked around saying "Christianity is not a set of beliefs about transcendent reality and how humans fit into it, it's a relationship", you could be justly accused of agnosticism or worse.

I thought it could be fun and useful to think of some alternatives. Here's what I came up with:

10) Christianity is not an arbitrary list of rules that are impossible to follow, it's an offer from God to deliver us from how messed up we are.

9) Christianity is not a set of practices meant to appease the angry gods, it's a gracious entreaty of reconciliation from the one true God.

8) Christianity is not the opiate of the masses, it's the proclamation of a sacred kingdom which humbles the privileged and privileges the humble.

7) Christianity is not a vague sentiment about universal spirituality, it's a concrete revelation of the Triune God.

6) Christianity is not a privately held devotion mostly or only relevant to personal growth and self-actualization, it's public news about the incarnate God who acted once for all to redeem the whole earth from chaos, death and evil.

5) Christianity is not a cultural leftover of hegemonic nineteenth-century Eurocentric imperialism, it's a preserved tradition of oppressed first-century Palestinian radicalism.

4) Christianity is not an irrelevant tradition defended by pedophiles, it's a rich spiritual heritage epitomized by saints.

3) Christianity is not an intolerant suppressor of scientific truth, it's a celebration of the God who made the human mind and the created world it studies.

2) Christianity is not a lame killjoy that hates everything fun, it's a testimony to the wise living which unlocks the secret of enduring joy.

1) Christianity is not about us, it's about Jesus.

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." ~ James 1:27

Friday, June 8, 2012

Never Let Go, Jesus

My homily from this morning, 6/8/12.  The text is Matthew 14:22-36, where the disciples see Jesus walking on water and Peter climbs out of their boat to join him.

We all know the story of the Titanic. Its sinking just had its one hundredth anniversary. It’s the subject of a billion dollar grossing movie. And why? I think it’s because the story has a kind of primal appeal, rooted in that timeworn contest between humankind and our environment. For ancient humans the sea represented a vast, untamable expanse whose chaos they distilled into myths of dragons, of Scylla and Charybdis, of leviathan and Poseidon. Today it remains one of Earth’s last great frontiers, whose depths even intrepid billionaires like James Cameron can barely begin to plumb. The Titanic itself was an early twentieth-century marvel, praised by contemporaries as “unsinkable”--a victory of humans over nature. But the icy waters of the North Atlantic claimed the ship anyway, its tale now told over and over again as only one of many times humanity’s combined reason and effort failed to meet our twentieth century dreams of progress and autonomy.

My point is that, even for the richest, most technologically equipped of us, bodies of water remain places of danger and uncertainty. Just as there’s something reassuring about disembarking from an airline flight and placing your feet on solid ground, we instinctually prefer living on land than at sea. So we should have no problem placing ourselves in the nerve-wracked and trembling shoes of the disciples in our gospel reading this morning. No problem imagining the aggressive yaw and pitch of their wave-battered vessel. And since, despite the promises of Back to the Future, there have been no major advances in water-walking since the first century, we can easily share in their shock at seeing a man walking towards them over the waves. They imagine a ghost, but the reality is far more interesting.

“Take heart,” Jesus says, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” A man walking on water requires some rethinking; at least a ghost tends to float. Jesus, having just shown his power over resources in the multiplication of the fish and loaves, ups the ante by treating the hazard of open water as though he were strolling on a garden path. Six chapters earlier, a squall ceased at his command. Now, even the most basic elements behave on his terms rather than their own.

Our other lead actor in this story is Peter. Notice that Jesus does not first call to him, but rather Peter takes the initiative. Peter sees something being done that no one has ever done before. Nowhere in all the stories of their forefathers had such a thing been heard of. God had cleared the waters away so that his people could walk on dry ground, but here was a man walking on the water itself. For Jesus, the security of dry ground was unnecessary.

I believe Peter had the right instinct: he says, “I want to go where the impossible is happening.” Because, honestly, what’s so interesting about everyday life? About the way the world works most of the time? I’m sorry, but it’s too boring. It’s too cruel and too casual. Peter saw Jesus on the water and recognized what was going on: “The God who rules the waters is among us,” he thinks. Perhaps he recalled some stirring Psalm, some oracle of Isaiah, some theophany out of Job where Yahweh’s lordship over the waters is proclaimed. Or maybe his thoughts simply drifted back to the beginning, when the very breath of God was hovering tremulously over the waters.

Peter has not yet made his strong proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, but it would seem here that he is well on his way. He would have known that the God who created the world is the God of Israel’s covenant. As it says in Psalm 95, “The sea is his, for he made it... we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” He has that flash of recognition that all who know Jesus can identify with, that moment when we see things go differently when he’s around. Where otherwise we would drown and die, Jesus lifts us up. Peter has the right idea: go where Jesus is. But it turns out he’s not quite ready. He sees the violence of the waves, remembers the nature of the world he lives in and begins to forget about the Savior, begins to sink in just like anyone else would.

How many of us can identify with Peter here? If you’ve ever gone out on a limb in order to follow Jesus I’d be surprised if you can’t put yourself in his shoes. We know that things go differently when Jesus is around. The dead are brought back to life--how different can it get? We might have a sense of calling to go here or there, to do this thing or that, knowing it’s risky, putting our faith in the one who calls those things that are not as though they were. Who brings light from darkness. Who makes nothing into something. That’s the God of our confession, the Savior to whom we belong, and somewhere in our hearts we know we’d be foolish to live our lives in a different way.

But then we see the powerful waters surrounding us. The bills come in. Our plans don’t come to fruition as we’d hoped. The car gets totaled. Our heart gets crushed by--fill in the blank. Disappointment. Betrayal. Loss. Not least, it’s often when we’re standing out there with nothing but Jesus that we start to learn what we’re really made of. Like Gandalf said, “It's a dangerous business... going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Again, Peter has the right instinct. As he’s slipping down into the sea he cries, “Lord, save me!”, and Jesus pulls him up. It’s this response, this petition that must be our lifeblood. Quoting the prophet Joel to talk about Jesus, Paul wrote that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter’s walk onto the water shows us that it’s being with Jesus that counts, and only that. The waters didn’t stop churning when he walked out. The situation didn’t change, but the authority of Jesus changed how Peter could relate to his situation. It’s an exciting prospect to know and follow Jesus, but it’s not a safe one. Notice that being with Jesus meant being out of the boat. Going with him will look crazy and suicidal to other people, but being with him is the only way we’re ever really going to live.

So, what do we do? I’m challenged to look at the churning waters in my own life. Money. School. Ministry. Personal Growth. And so on. Honestly, sometimes I feel crushed and hopeless about the challenges I face. And yes, Jesus probably gets frustrated with me like he did with Peter. “Really?” he might say, “Where’s your faith? C’mon!” But, his hand is always held out. I can always call on his name. No matter what I did yesterday or what I might do today, I can call on the name of Jesus and expect salvation. All of us can. Amen.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Church Fathers

"The ancient Eastern churches did not have scholars or theologians, but rather 'Fathers of the church.' The assumption behind that language is: Only when we see the authenticity of your piety, and your commitment to the church, will we take your scholarship seriously."

~Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes (IVP), 123.