Monday, September 29, 2008

Hannah's New Hat

The Church's Politics

Politics continues to be on my mind quite a bit these days with the upcoming election. I enjoyed watching the first Presidential debate last Friday and look forward to the Vice Presidential debate this Thursday as well as the other two debates to follow. I find the debates to be one of the most interesting parts of the campaign because, if they are moderated well, they push the candidates toward a more constructive conversation about the issues and away from campaign slogans, stump speeches, and personal attacks. Of course, these things still take place to some degree in a debate but having the person you are running against right next to you able to respond to your comments almost immediately should at least tone down the rhetoric to some degree.

Interestingly enough, as this election approaches, I happen to be leading a Bible study on Paul's letter to the Philippian's on Monday nights. This is a letter that contains a considerable amount of political language. This was not intentional on my part. As those in the Bible study know, they were given many choices as to which book we would study and it just so happened that Philippians received the most votes.

The passage which our Bible study group will be discussing this evening exhibits some of this political language. In Philippians 1:27, Paul writes "Only politic yourselves worthily of the good news of the Messiah" (my own translation). The political nature of this verse is often masked over by most English translations when the Greek word πολιτεύεσθε (politeuesthe) is rendered with something generic like "conduct" or "live your life". The word refers specifically to acting as a citizen or in accordance with one's citizenship, a metaphor that Paul will evoke again in 3:20. Therefore, Paul is calling upon the church at Philippi to have a certain kind of politics; that is, to organize themselves in a way that is representative of the victory that God has won in Jesus Christ. The Philippian church is not to follow the politics of the Roman Empire. They are two have their own politics which are determined by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So then, what might a politics centered around the Messiah look like? Of course, it will take much more than a few verses of Scripture to answer that question. Nonetheless, Paul's elaboration on this point in the verses that follow is instructive. He says that the Christians in Philippi should politic themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that whether Paul himself is able to come and see them or only hears a report about them, the church in Philippi will stand firm in one Spirit, one body striving together in the faith of the gospel, and not fearing those who oppose them (v.27-28). Paul says that they will do this because it has been granted to them not only to put their trust in Christ but also to suffer on behalf of Christ as is Paul himself (v.29-30). In this passage at least, when Paul tells the church at Philippi to have a politics of the gospel, he emphasizes a unity in the Spirit and the ability to face suffering without fear.

For me, this is yet another reminder of what it means to be a Christian in the season of campaigns and elections. It has so little to do with who is elected or what laws are passed. As citizens in a democracy, we have been given a level of influence in the politics of the empire that the Christians in Paul's day did not enjoy and I believe we should exercise that influence recognizing that it is one of the many gifts with which God has entrusted us as stewards of his creation. However, even as we cast our vote, we must remember the American political process is ultimately about the politics of the empire and not the politics of the Church and God's kingdom. Whoever is elected, whatever laws are passed, and whatever happens to America as a nation, the politics of the Church remain relatively unchanged. Our politics, oriented around the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, mean that we must be united by a love that is greater than all the forces that threaten to divide us and that we must be willing to give of ourselves for others just as Christ gave of himself for us. A witness of fearless unity and sacrifice are the party line in the politics of the Church.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The centennial celebration at our church has been consuming a considerable amount of my attention these days. It takes a lot of planning and coordination by a lot of different people in order for a celebration like this one to take place. So first, let me extend a word of thanks to those many people who have made this celebration what it is.

In addition to thinking about our centennial celebration, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading in the Psalms lately in preparation for my next series of sermons after the centennial. This has been an interesting mixture since so many of the Psalms themselves are little sonnets of celebration. Although celebration is by no means the only note sounded in the great chorus of the Psalms, various tones of celebration do reverberate throughout the Psalter. The Psalms celebrate God, God’s mighty acts of deliverance for his people, God’s glorious artistry in creation, and the work that God does through his people as they follow God’s teaching and instruction. So many of the Psalms are verbal celebrations of life lived in God’s grace.

All of this has served to remind me of the importance of joyous celebration in the life of the Church. Genuine celebration is truly a significant part of the Christian life because when we pause to rejoice in what God has done for us, as the writers of the Psalms do, then we are overwhelmed with the various ways in which God has blessed us beyond measure. Celebration is the natural outpouring of the grace of God in our lives.

Of course, to say that the Christian life is one of celebration does not mean that every moment of the Christian life is set to the tune of angelic harps. It doesn’t mean that we should become a “happy clappy” church, a term Jess and I often use in jest to describe churches which seem to ignore the darker realities of life by just playing more cheerful worship songs. There are genuine tragedies in life, as we all know, and they should not be covered over with a fake smile and religious pretense.

The beauty of the Psalms is that they recognize that genuine happiness and celebration do not come by ignoring life’s tragedies but by embracing them as God embraces us. Celebration takes place among God’s people because we know that we do not face life’s darkest moments alone. Instead, we can give thanks because the one who has himself conquered death walks among us and richly blesses us with his words of life. That new life is what leads to our celebration.

So let us remember that, although the Christian life is a cross-shaped one, this does not make it a somber one. We can carry that cross as a symbol of our celebration because of the kingdom that it represents. Let our life together as a church be a celebration in anticipation of the new creation for which we hope.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty expanse.
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with harp and lyre.
Praise him with timbre and dancing; praise him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise him with loud cymbals; praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Great Interviews

Stephen Colbert, host of the political comedy show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, recently interviewed two Christian scholars. The first interview was with Anglican Bishop Tom Wright who is one of the most widely respected New Testament scholars in the world and one of my favorite authors personally as well. I actually wrote a very short review of the book Surprised By Hope, which he and Colbert talk about in the interview in an earlier post in my blog (see May 2008).

The second interview is with Peter Gomes a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Although I am not personally familiar with Gomes or his writings, I was impressed with this lighthearted interview about a serious subject.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

American Politics: One Christian's Perspective

This is one of those things I probably would be better off not even attempting to write about. I am hardly qualified to write anything about politics. There is truly so much that I don't know about politics and the laws of our country. This is really the first election where I have paid this much attention... but I have been paying attention; watching interviews, listening to speeches, reading the candidates thoughts in books and on their websites. I've never invested so much time and energy in hearing out the candidates as I have in this election. However, suddenly listening to so much political talk over the last nine months or so has really just reminded me that "I have a lot of catching up to do", as one of my friends recently put it.

Furthermore, it seems that a very strong opinion is a prerequisite to making your voice heard in either faith or politics. If you appear to be undecided on any issue in any either realm, then this indecisiveness is often seen as a weakness. If this is true, then I must certainly be accounted among the weak. There are almost no political opinions or party affiliations that I hold onto too dearly and while I hold my faith convictions very strongly, even in these I at least aim to be as gracious as possible in hearing the faith convictions of others, though I often fail to be Christ-like even in this simple task.

Additionally, everyone knows that faith and politics are two combustible topics of conversation that shouldn't be discussed in polite company, much less mixed together. The result of talking about both is that I will almost certainly offend someone, especially since I will speak here in very broad generalizations so as to make a point. What is worse, there are so many people who have written or spoken about the relationship between faith and politics, that I probably can't even say anything that hasn't already been said. So not only will I likely offend many who read this but I will probably do so without even having said anything that was all that provocative; truly the worst of both worlds when it comes to writing and sharing ideas.

Nonetheless, this is a post I have been desiring to write for quite some time. It is one that has been sitting in the back of my brain for at least a month. So despite my lack of qualifications to say anything about politics or even the relationship between faith and politics, I intend to do just that. I do this not so much because I imagine that I will suddenly solve this problem with which I have been wrestling for years now but mostly just so that I can get this stuff out of my head and into writing and invite others into the conversation in the process. So as you read this, I ask that you read it as just that: an invitation to a fair and honest conversation. Please don't see it as any kind of authoritative words from a pastor and certainly not as words from a McCain or Obama supporter. It is largely nothing more than my own personal struggle with what it means to be a Christian in a democracy like ours and I invite others to see if my struggle rings true with their own.
As I survey the political landscape, there is one thing that seems to be obvious to everyone: Democrats and Republicans are on the opposite end of the spectrum concerning pretty much every issue that matters to Americans today. The way in which Democrats and Republicans understand the relationship between faith and politics does not seem to be an exception to this rule. Each party seems to not only disagree about the issues but also about how one's faith should impact how they respond politically to those issues.

If I can speak very generally, even stereotypically, it seems to me that most conservatives see the relationship between faith and politics as a direct line or even an equals sign. That is to say, the conservative approach seems to be a direct correlation between one's faith values and how one votes on certain issues without any kind of intermediary step. For a example, a typical conservative stance in my opinion would be "Abortion is wrong, therefore abortion should be illegal." In this way of thinking, one seeks to make their personal convictions into law by sheer majority force.

As I see it, the downfall of this kind of thinking is that it completely fails to imagine what things would be like if those who shared such convictions were suddenly in the minority. In other words, what would Christians do if the majority of our nation were suddenly Muslim and that Muslim majority then sought to impose its will on the Christianity minority by requiring prayers to Allah in schools? Wouldn't we decry this as a violation of the constitution and all the principles that make our country great? My point here is simply this: while a direct equation between one's values and the law has an attractive simplicity about it, I don't think it is really a viable way of seeing the relationship between the Christian faith and American politics. On the one hand, it seems to me to be un-American in the sense that it does not take seriously the constitutional principles that we would want honored if we were in the minority. However, much more important than that, I do not believe it is a very Christ-like stance to impose our political will on a nation simply because we are in the majority. Rather than asking "How can I get more people to agree with my values so that I can make those values law and thereby enforce those values on those who don't themsleves share my values?" it seems to me that it would be much more Christ-like to ask "What is best for everyone, even those who don't share my values?"

Again, if I can paint with very broad, basically stereotypical, brush strokes, it seems like most liberals check their faith at the political door entirely. While conservatives seem to have too direct of an equation between faith and politics, many liberals seem to want to chop off one side of that equation entirely, not allowing faith to have a voice in the public arena at all. As a result, many liberals appear to be completely faithless. The ones who do have faith don't seem to want to talk about it. And the liberal who does openly speaks about his or her faith seems to want to constantly remind everyone that faith is a personal matter that has no place in a public discussion like politics (this liberal then receives odd looks and glances from other liberals who wonder why this person even brought up the issue of faith in the first place, as if something like that matters in politics).

In my opinion, this view of the relationship between faith and politics is equally deficient though, of course, in ways entirely different from the typical conservative stance. The strength of this view is that it at least acknowledges that everyone does not share my faith values and I should not force them to simply because there are more people in this country who share my faith than those who don't. However, the typical liberal role of faith in the realm of politics fails miserably from a Christian perspective when it relegates the role of faith to a purely personal and individual matter with no political consequences. This apolitical characterization simply can not be true of the faith movement that originated with Jesus when Jesus went around saying that the kingdom of God (thoroughly political language) was near which in turn got him crucified (the death reserved for political revolutionaries). The earliest Christians knew the political character of the gospel to which they had given their lives as well when they refused to offer sacrifices to images of the emperor and acknowledge him as Lord (again, a political term) because there was another, namely Christ, whom they knew to be the true Lord and savior of the world. A thorough read of the New Testament reveals that it abounds with political language to the extent that they can not all be cited here. Therefore, to say that the Christian faith is a private, apolitical matter simply will not do.

Let me take a step back at this point to make a statement specifically about the two candidates who are currently vying for our vote this fall. Both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama have spoken openly about their faith as Christians throughout the election process. I think that it is important for me to say at this point that I believe both of these men when they make that claim. Although McCain and Obama obviously see the political consequences of their faith in ways that are quite distinct from each other and both are distinct from how I would understand the political consequences of my faith, I still think that both candidates are men of integrity who are seeking to be Christian in a way that they understand to be congruent with the political office that they seek despite how fundamentally different each of their understandings of the relationship between their faith and the presidency seem to be.

I have a considerable amount of respect for Sen. Obama precisely because he seems to have given more thought to the relationship between faith and politics than most other politicians. Obama has broken the liberal mold to some extent by speaking openly about his faith and saying that faith values have a substantial role to play in politics. Now this is not to say or even suggest that I agree with all of Obama's policies or that he is the only acceptable candidate for which a Christian should vote or anything along those ridiculous lines. There are some ways in which I think Obama could be more Christian and less Democrat just as I think there are some ways that McCain could be more Christian and less Republican. Nonetheless, I appreciate the simple fact that Obama seems to have spent some serious time and energy thinking about the relationship between faith and politics.

However, having said all that, I often find myself thinking that even Obama's nuanced articulation of the relationship between faith and politics is insufficient. Obama often talks about the need to "translate" our faith values into values and arguments for the common good that will make sense even to the person who does not share our faith. This approach has some susbtantial advantages over the two extremes I articulated earilier. On the one hand, it takes seriously the constitutional rights of others as well as our Christian responsibility to be gracious toward others who disagree with us thus righting the sterotypical conservative shortcoming. On the other hand, it does not exclude faith from the political discussion as a purely individual and personal conviction thus righting the stereotypical liberal shortcoming. Despite this substantial improvement on the two extremes, I still wonder if this is a truly Christian position for the relationship between faith and politics. I find myself wondering "If I have to "translate" my Christian values into secular ones, then isn't that just another way of eliminating faith from the public discourse? If I can't make a purely secular argument for a conviction I hold because of the way my faith causes me to see the world, does that mean I shouldn't bother entering the conversation at all?" Of course, I do not think that it is Obama's intent to eliminate faith from the public discourse. I believe that he intends just the opposite; to allow faith back into the liberal side of the conversation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Obama's idea of "translation" still does not allow for a genuine dialogue between faith and politics. It seems that even in Obama's genuine attempt to take a legitimate step forward in the dialogue between faith and politics, the faith is still getting trumped by the politics.

So then, where does that leave us? As Christians, how can we be certain that our faith is not relegated to the sidelines of public discourse as an apolitical, purely "spiritual" and individual matter while also showing a Christ-like love and genuine respect to those who do not share our faith? Perhaps, like a bad science experiment, the way that I have posed the question has already revealed my biases. The answer is obviously not in being Democrat or Republican since both parties fail to be Christian in one way or another. However, to just give up on politics entirely because of the failures of both parties would not be a proper Christian response in my opinion either. After all, God expects us to exercise the power and freedom that he has granted us, even through political means, in a responsibly Christ-like way. However, I think the key here is that we not use those powers and freedoms to try to create God's kingdom here on earth since we can never do that anyway. Instead, it is our role to use those powers and freedoms to witness to the kingdom that will one day be a reality.

The ironic thing about being a witness, at least in the way that word is used in Scripture, is that it combines elements of bold proclamation with elements of weakness and vulnerability. The Christian witness does not abandon the grammar of his or her faith in the public square even when it fails to translate into secular values but neither does the witness impose his or her faith on others. Or to put it more concretely; the vote that a Christian casts in a given election or concerning a specific issue, while a necessary part of Christian stewardship and witness, will probably not be the most important political act for any Christian. This is because the end result of the voting process is not ultimately the Christian's concern which is in turn true because the Christian knows that it is ultimately God's kingdom and not the American political system which will set things right in our world. Again, this is not some kind of predeterminism that says it doesn't matter what we do because God has already determined everything anyway and it is not some kind of escapism that says that this world doesn't really matter so why bother anyway. It is just the tension in which we constantly live as Christians, as people who believe that we have been entrusted with the care of this world while also recognizing that we can not right all of its wrongs since only God can do that in the establishment of his kingdom.

Of course, in so many ways, this kind of stance toward politics is still painfully incomplete (but to be fair, I warned you at the beginning of this that I shouldn't be writing about politics in the first place). There are so many questions that it leaves unanswered. It says nothing about which candidate a Christian should vote for or how a Christian should vote on certain issues. But in some ways, I guess that's partially the point. In order to be something that is worthy of my ultimate allegiance, the kingdom of God has got to be something that transcends our petty partisan squabbling. It has got to be something that relativizes any other commitments or allegiances that I have in this world. It relativizes those allegiances to such an extent that I begin to wonder if, from a Christian perspective, the many conversations that I have had and will have about politics over the course of my life might be a more substantial political act within the kingdom of God than my vote in the American political system ever will be. Perhaps the Church's public proclamation of the values of the kingdom is actually more politically significant than whether or not those values are ever codified into American law. Maybe the only proper approach to the American political system for a Christian is that of critically distanced participation; seeking to witness to God's kingdom through the political process while recognizing that God's kingdom alone is our ultimate political hope.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Relevance of Romans 14

In Romans 14, Paul has a rather lengthy speech for the Church in Rome about eating meat and eating vegetables. Paul says in 14:2. "One person has faith that he may eat all things but he who is weak eats only vegetables." For us, who are so separated from Paul's cultural and historical context, it is easy to wonder what eating meat or vegetables could possibly have to do with faith. Neither does Paul give us much help in this passage so that we might understand why those who eat vegetables are weak but another person has the faith to eat all things. Presumably, Paul has no need of explaining this because his audience is already well aware of their own reasons for what they eat or don't eat. Paul is simply trying to address the division that has arisen from these differences.

One very likely scenario for understanding this passage is to read it in light of what Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. In that letter, Paul spells out clearly that the issue is not just meat but meat that has been sacrificed to idols. As nearly any commentary on 1st Century Greco-Roman culture will point out, much of the meat that one could buy at the local market was meat that had been used in pagan worship practices. Many markets of that day probably had kosher sections designed specifically to do business with Jews who would not eat meat that had been used in the worship of a false god. However, changing circumstances may have lead to these kosher meats being unavailable in some locations at a given time. As a result, someone who wanted to avoid meat sacrificed to idols had no choice but to avoid meat all together, at least until kosher meats became available in the local market once again.

In Corinth, the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a point of potential division in the Christian community. Apparently, some Christians believed that they were free to eat meat, even if it had been sacrificed to an idol because they knew that the idol was really nothing. It had no power and therefore could cause them no harm. On the other hand, it seems there were some Christians who believed that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols because by doing so they would be participating in the worship of that false God. It seems very likely that this is the same issue that Paul is addressing in Romans 14. There is the threat of division in the church at Rome because when these Christians sit down to eat together (which was probably a common practice in the early church) some feel as though others are breaking the faith by what they eat.

Paul responds to this by saying that those who are strong enough in their faith to eat meat must not look down on those who are weak and eat only vegetables. (Isn't it interesting that it is those who follow more rules are considered "weak" in the faith?) Likewise, those who eat vegetables must not have contempt for those who eat meat. Paul says this is because the one who eats, eats to the Lord and the one who does not eat meat also does so to the Lord. For each person, the choice that they have made is an act of obedience and praise to God. Paul sees the issue of eating meat as a non-essential issue in the Christian life and therefore allows for a great variety of opinion on the matter and asks the Church at Rome to take the same approach. (As a side note, this should demonstrate just how much God's action in Jesus Christ and the dawning of the new age relativized everything in Paul's world view. It is difficult to imagine Saul, the strict Pharisaic Jew, making any allowance for meat sacrificed to idols since foods laws were one of the primary markers of Israel's identity.)

Of course, just because Paul allowed for a wide spectrum of behavior regarding the eating of meat does not mean that there is absolutely no rule of behavior in the Christian life and that anything goes as long as one is personally convinced of one's own actions. It should be obvious from everything that Paul has written up to this point in this letter and in his other letters that Paul believes in Christians holding each other accountable in the faith to certain non-negotiable beliefs and behaviors. However, it is alo equally clear from this passage that Paul is willing to allow for a considerable amount of liberty in how those beliefs and behaviors are actually lived out in each faith community and each person of faith.

I think the way that Paul addresses the issue of eating meat in this passage is tremendously significant for the Church today. Although meat that has been sacrificed to idols is not exactly one of the most pressing issues that the church faces today, dialoguing with one another about where we can allow for a liberty of opinion is and always will be. The kind of approach that Paul takes in this passage is actually very dear to me personally as I reflect on my own experiences in the Church and continue to minister as a pastor in the Church. There are so many petty things that threaten to divide us: worship styles, the color of carpet or paint, pews or chairs, Democrat or Republican (yes, even though I think politics are important, in comparison to God's kingdom, they are virtually inconsequential), social drinker or teetotaler (oh, does that one hit too close to home for us Nazarenes?). The list of "meat eating" issues that we have, at times, allowed to become the things that define us is nearly endless. We often forget that "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (13:17). And this is no small matter because when we impose our own personal preferences and opinions on the gospel message, we often drive people away unnecesarily from its life giving hope. When we don't allow for this diversity of opinion in the non-essentials, we make it extremely difficult for those who don't fit our preconcieved notions of what it means to be a Christian to make the journey of discipleship with Jesus. Therefore, it is imperative for the Church today to truly wrestle with what it means to be the Church and to allow for diversity, as Paul did, in the things that are not essential to this identity.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Love: The Fulfillment of the Law

Last week, I wrote about the importance of love without hypocrisy in the Christian life. In Romans 13:8-14, Paul continues to elaborate on the importance of love for the Christian community at Rome. This time he does so by bluntly stating that the one who loves has fulfulled the Law. It has been a little while in Paul's letter since we have heard anything about the Law, a theme which played such an important role earlier in the letter. Paul here brings it back into the minds of his audience reminding them as he has several times already in this letter that the Christian life lived under grace is not an antinomian existence. Rather, it is a life lived by a different law, the law of Christ and the love that he demonstrated in his life and death. Although the Christian community at Rome is not subject to the particulars of the Jewish Law, they are subject to the law of love, which Paul seems to believe fulfills the true intention of the Torah.

Of course, Paul is not introducing a new idea here. Jesus himself, when asked which was the greatest commandment, responded by saying that it was to love God and that the second was to love one's neighbor. This not only shows that Jesus believed that Torah could be summed up into these two commands. It also demonstrates that the religious authorities of the time considered this to be at least a likely possibility as well (otherwise, why would Jesus have been asked the question in the first place?). This is further substantiated by other Jewish Rabbinical writings that have been found which provide an assessment of the Torah very similar to Jesus' own response.

Paul then says that the believers should do this "knowing the time". Paul is reworking another theme from the previous chapter; that of the new age. The Church is to be a community shaped by the law of love rather than Torah precisely because of the time in history, the new age has begun through the arrival of the Messiah. Therefore, Paul reminds the church at Rome that the "night" or the old age is coming to an end and the "day" or the new age is dawning. This is an extremely apt metaphor for describing Paul's overlap of the ages in which the believers (and the Church today) live. This is because daylight does not come all at once. Instead, the darkness of night is slowly overtaken by the rising sunlight. So also the establishment of Christ's kingdom is not immediate like someone flipping the light switch in a room. Instead, the inauguration of this kingdom is followed by a substantial amount of time in which the old darkness and the new light intermingle to such an extent that it is not clear where one ends and the other begins although it is absolutely clear that something new and remarkable, something entirely in contrast with the darkness is invading the night sky. Eventually the light will prevail and expose all that the darkness covered but for now the light and darkness exist inseparably along side of one another.

Paul closes this passages by spelling out some specifics of what it means to live "knowing the time". He mentions specifically things like drunkenness, sexual immorality, strife, and jealousy. It is quite possible that Paul chooses these specifics acts because they would have actually been associated with night time and would therefore serve to extend the metaphor of darkness that he has utilized. However, it is also worth noting that these are activities that very much involved the body. Perhaps, Paul is awakening yet another theme from the previous chapter; that of offering our bodies as living sacrifices. Either way, Paul clearly believes that Christian love is not just a warm feeling of friendliness or mere sentiment. Christian love is demonstrated by concrete, physical actions that we do (or in some cases don't do) with our bodies. This is a substantial contrast to our own culture in which love is often thought of as nothing more than emotion or sexual desire. Simultaneously, it seems our culture is questioning more and more how the "religious" or "spiritual" has anything to do with what we do to our bodies or the bodies of others as long as no one gets hurt. This passage of Scripture is a challenge for the Church to reclaim the connection between the physical and the spiritual and thereby to reclaim an embodied and therefore Christian understanding of what it means to love.