Fr. Stephen Freeman: The Violence of Modernity

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Eastern Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.

Today’s post is entitled “The Violence of Modernity”.  While all of human life has involved some degree of violence against the world and against the natural order of things, modernity has taken this up several levels.  With technological progress come unintended consequences which require more technological progress to manage; this creates even more unintended consequences which require even more technological progress to manage; and around and around it goes, where it stops nobody knows.

What is the solution?  In modernity the knee-jerk question is “How can we fix the world?”.  Freeman suggests that instead we should be asking “How should we live?” and goes on to offer a few off-hand solutions.

How should we live?

  • First, live as though in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated into the world and the outcome of history has already been determined. (Quit worrying)
  • Second, love people as the very image of God and resist the temptation to improve them.
  • Third, refuse to make economics the basis of your life. Your job is not even of secondary importance.
  • Fourth, quit arguing about politics as though the political realm were the answer to the world’s problems. It gives it power that is not legitimate and enables a project that is anti-God.
  • Fifth, learn to love your enemies. God did not place them in the world for us to fix or eliminate. If possible, refrain from violence.
  • Sixth, raise the taking of human life to a matter of prime importance and refuse to accept violence as a means to peace. Every single life is a vast and irreplaceable treasure.
  • Seventh, cultivate contentment rather than pleasure. It will help you consume less and free you from slavery to your economic masters.
  • Eighth, as much as possible, think small. You are not in charge of the world. Love what is local, at hand, personal, intimate, unique, and natural. It’s a preference that matters.
  • Ninth, learn another language. Very few things are better at teaching you about who you are not.
  • Tenth, be thankful for everything, remembering that the world we live in and everything in it belongs to God.

That’s but a minor list, a few things that occur to me offhand. They are things that encourage us to live in a “non-modern” manner. It is worth noting that when Roman soldiers approached John the Baptist and asked him how they should live, he told them to be content with their wages and to do violence to no one. They were in charge of the world in their day – or so they could mistakenly think. My few bits of advice are of a piece with that beloved saint’s words.

Easter: An Invitation to Believe

If you have been tracking with us over the course of the Lenten season, you know that we have been looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we have been looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Today we come to the seventh, and final, sign.

This sign is the answer to the question we should all be asking:  Who is Jesus?  Ultimately, this sign is what convinced his followers.  Without it, Jesus would have been nothing more than just another Jewish rabbi gone off the rails, just another wannabe messiah executed by Rome.

Jesus’ followers were fully expecting him to do exactly what every other dead person had ever done since the dawn of time:  Stay dead.  Put another way, nobody expected no body.

You see, the problem with Jesus was not with what he taught, or even with what he did.  It was what he claimed about himself.  He simply claimed too much.  And in the end it had all been exposed as a big fat lie.  You don’t crucify the Resurrection and the Life.  You don’t execute God’s Messiah, whom the Jews had been awaiting for centuries.  You don’t put the Son of Man to death.

Clearly Jesus was not who he claimed to be.  Like the other disciples, John did not expect a crucifixion and resurrection.  He expected a king.

So we pick up our story from last week.  After Lazarus, so many Jews were hyped for what was to come.  A groundswell of support was building.  That had been an undeniable act of God, and now many people were believing in Jesus.  Problem:  too many.  Jesus’ enemies were taking notice, and they had had enough.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the crowds know he is coming and are buzzing with anticipation.  The city is full of spies.  It is full of fans.  It is full of patriotic zeal.  Passover was coming, the annual commemoration of God liberating the Jews from slavery to Egypt.  The Jews were hoping for a second Passover, when God would liberate the Jews from Rome.  This had to be it.

Jesus comes into the city and is greeted by throngs of fans chanting Hosanna.  It gets political real quick.

Jesus moves all around the city, teaching, preaching.  The religious leaders are watching, waiting, hoping for their chance to get Jesus separated from the crowds and hatch their nefarious plans.  Judas loses patience and sells out to the chief priests.  He goes off and does his deal with them.

Jesus celebrates his final Passover with his disciples, and in the process, increases their expectations.  He announces a brand new covenant, in his blood–which must have weirded everyone out who was in the room.  The terms and conditions of this new covenant are very simple.  You know them.  Love one another.  Jesus is about to do something for the nation, except that this is going to go much farther than just the nation.  It is going to be for the whole world.

They leave.  Judas does his thing.  Jesus is arrested and taken to the high priest.  They go to Pilate because they want Jesus executed quick.  Pilate wants nothing to do with him.  They insist.  Pilate gives in, thinking that if he has Jesus beaten and released that will satisfy them.  It doesn’t.  No, they insist, he must die.

So Pilate gives in.  They take Jesus away and crucify him.  No other details are recorded because none are needed.  Once you’ve seen a crucifixion or the aftermath thereof, you can’t unsee it.

John records Jesus’ last words:  John, take care of Mom.  In the midst of all this John inserts this comment:  “The man who saw it (that would be John) has given testimony, and his testimony is true.  He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” (John 19:35)  On the face of it, this seems unnecessary.  But John is not referring to what just happened.  He is talking about what is about to happen, because that part may be tough.

Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.  You can’t bury a crucified person unless you bribe someone.  Nicodemus comes with Joseph and they hastily remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in his tomb.  They did all this because they were fully expecting Jesus to do what every other dead person has ever done:  Stay dead.

They hurriedly prep the body, because the Sabbath is coming.  They leave.  John and Peter disappear into the city.  We don’t know where they went or what they did.  But wherever they were, they were surely having conversations to the effect of “Well, that’s three years of our life that we’ll never get back.”

Early Sunday morning, there is a knock at the door.  Roman soldiers?  No, couldn’t be.  Roman soldiers don’t knock.  It’s Mary Magdalene.  She is panicked and sobbing.  They’ve taken Jesus and nobody knows where they’ve put him.  She did not assume a resurrection.  She assumed a stolen body.

Peter and John feel the urgency of the situation and take off running.  John beats Peter to the tomb (Peter was surely dead by the time John gave his account so he felt safe including that detail) but does not go in.  Why?  Because it’s dark.  Because it’s a tomb.  He wasn’t going in there.  Peter catches up and goes charging into the tomb.  Why?  Because he’s Peter.  That’s what Peter does.  He’s always saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

And there in the tomb, Peter sees the strangest thing:  Strips of linen just lying there on the ground, with the headcloth all rolled up off to the side.  Grave robbers would not stop to disembalm a body, so Peter is convinced.  John goes into the tomb.  He sees and believes.  That is his formula throughout his account:  Seeing leads to believing which leads to trusting.

This changed everything for them.  Everything Jesus said was true and could be trusted.  Eventually they would see the risen Jesus himself and there would be conversations.  John focuses on one in particular, with the disciples and Thomas.  Thomas was not present the first time around and would not believe it, and consequently got tagged with the nickname “Doubting Thomas”.  But Thomas did exactly as you or I would have done in those circumstances.

John closes with an invitation:  Believe and trust.  “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).  Why?  Because of what happened that morning.

Lent Week 1: Mother Says

Lent is the forty days before Easter. Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday. That’s actually forty-six days. Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter. We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land. Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

What we typically do around here during the Lenten season is pick a related topic and talk about it for the next five to six weeks. This year we are looking at the Gospel of John.  Specifically we are looking at seven supernatural occurrences around which John organizes his account of the life of Jesus.  These occurrences are called signs because they are not random occurrences but because they point to something, namely Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

This week we will look at the first sign.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee.  Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied.  “My time has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.  He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew.  Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.  He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

–John 2:1-11

Notice that in John’s telling of this story, he does not state the miracle when it occurs.  He assumes that the reader already knows.

Jesus was at a wedding feast and they ran out of wine.  This would be a big deal at any wedding, but in that culture and at that time it would have been a very big deal.  So Mary leans on Jesus.  Jesus responds:  Woman (much more formal than it sounds in today’s language), my time has not yet come.  In other words:  I came to save the world, not weddings.

As stated before, this was not just a miracle, it was a sign.  The stone jars were part of it.  They were representative of the Old Covenant; their very reason for existence was part and parcel of the Jewish ceremonial washing program, which was part of the Old Covenant.  In other words, Jesus used something which would soon be replaced, to point to that which would take its place.  The Old Covenant, established by Moses on Mount Sinai and represented in the story by these stone jars, would soon be disappearing, and the one who would take its place, the one to whom the Old Covenant was leading, was on the scene right there and then.

The original wine provided by the bridegroom set the stage for the better wine made by Jesus.  In the same way, the Old Covenant set the stage for the New Covenant which Jesus would bring.

Per John’s account, this was the first of the signs.  The disciples believed because they saw, and thus there was reason to believe.  Unlike John, our faith does not come by seeing, it comes by hearing or reading.  It comes via the testimony of those who were there and saw it with their own eyes.  We trust that what they say is true and they had no reason to make any of it up.

Advent Week 3: A Torah That Disrupts Peace

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards:  A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers.  Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.

Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish.  But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.  McKnight’s big idea is that by reading Romans backwards (that is, by starting with chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8), we get a sense of what was going on in the world of the Roman house churches.  We see that the theology laid out in Romans is not a systematic theology but a pastoral theology, or as McKnight would say, a lived theology, and we get a sense of the context behind this lived theology.

We started with chapters 12-16.  We saw that the Roman church community was divided.  The first believers in Rome were Jewish Christians who left when emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews out of Rome.  These Jewish Christians, referred to as the “Weak” by Paul in this letter, returned to Rome during Nero’s time only to find the world of the Roman house churches transformed into an unrecognizable place, dominated by Gentile believers who saw no value in or necessity for Torah observance, called the “Strong” in this letter.  This clash between the “Strong” and the “Weak” is what Romans was written to speak into.

Last week we looked at chapters 9-11.  In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, chapters 9-11 are a weird outlier that no one really seems to know what to do with.  But McKnight argues that chapters 9-11, far from being an outlier, are in fact the main point of Romans.  A goodly portion of this passage is addressed to the “Weak”, the Jewish believers in the Roman churches, reminding them of the surprising nature of God’s gracious election and that right standing with God now comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not via observance of the Torah, and answering questions/concerns of the “Weak” that if this is the case then God has surely rejected Israel.  Paul then turns to the “Strong” and admonishes them that they are not replacing Israel in God’s redemptive plan but instead their inclusion is an enlargement of Israel, so to speak, and they are therefore to embrace the “Weak” as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now we come to chapters 1-4.

In the standard evangelical way of reading Romans, which views Romans as a universal theological outline of how salvation works for all people in all times and all places, chapters 1-4 would be outlined thusly:

–1:1-16: Introduction with thesis statement: The Gospel has the power to save everyone
–1:18-3:20: The whole world guilty before God, subdivided thusly:
–1:18-32 Gentiles guilty before God
–2:1-3:8 Jews guilty before God
–3:9-20 The whole world guilty before God
–3:21-29: The whole world saved the same way, by grace, via faith in Jesus Christ and not works
–4:1-25: Examples of how faith, and not works, saves

…One more way of saying this is that he presents bad news (1:18-3:20), the good news (3:21-26), and how to get it (3:27-4:25). This standard reading has a clear agenda: it universalizes the soteriology of Paul. It also removes the message from the social context sketched in Romans 12-16.

What Paul has in mind in Romans 2 might not be as clear as the universalizing approach thinks, but reading Romans backwards sheds light on the sweep from Romans 1:18 through the end of chapter 4. In fact, our approach leads to a more rhetorical reading of Romans 1-4 that unlocks the door to reading the whole of Romans more pastorally.  (p 101)

McKnight sees Romans 1-4 not as a universal theological statement on the workings of salvation addressed to all people in all places and all times, but as something specific to the Roman congregation and the division between the “Weak” and the “Strong”, mentioned in previous posts.  Romans 1:18-32 is not a blanket condemnation of the sinfulness of all humanity, or even of all Gentiles, but it instead echoes a stereotypical Jewish condemnation of Gentile sinfulness, one which is found all through the Old Testament prophets but which has particular resonance with Wisdom of Solomon chapters 13 and 14.  As you read Romans 1:18-32, note the close similarities with these passages from Wisdom of Solomon:

For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.  (14:27)

But just penalties will overtake them on two counts:  because they thought wrongly about God in devoting themselves to idols, and because in deceit they swore unrighteously through contempt for holiness.  (14:30)

For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world.  (13:1-2)

Then it was not enough for them to err about the knowledge of God, but though living in great strife due to ignorance, they call such great evils peace.  For whether they kill children in their initiations, or celebrate secret mysteries, or hold frenzied revels with strange customs, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either treacherously kill one another, or grieve one another by adultery, and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.  (14:22-26)

As noted above, this is not a blanket condemnation of all human sinfulness as the most common human sins do not rise to the level of what is quoted here, or even of all Gentiles–in Romans 2:7-11 Paul speaks of other Gentiles who have taken a different path, with different results from what is described here.  Instead, this is a uniquely Jewish critique of the worst excesses of Gentile sinfulness, which has resonance throughout the Old Testament texts and is intended to set up the rhetorical bombshell which goes off at 2:1.

Starting at 2:1, Paul specifically addresses the “Weak”, that is, Jewish believers in the Roman churches who believe that the path to moral transformation and inclusion in the family of God is through observance of the Torah, through a representative character called the “Judge”.  The condemnation of 1:18-32 is intended to turn the rhetorical tables on this “Judge”, who does, in fact, condemn the Gentile world in those very terms.  This “Judge” claims the privilege of having been elected by God and obtained right standing with God by a lifetime of keeping Torah.  This “Judge” condemns Gentile believers in the Roman churches who do not keep Torah or see any necessity for doing so, in the belief that not keeping Torah leads inevitably to the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.

A contemporary version of the same thing:  Evangelicals who condemn gays, gay Christians, and/or their sympathizers, in the belief that any accommodation whatsoever of the gay lifestyle (which we all know is flatly condemned by God as sin) will inevitably lead to the path of destruction outlined in 1:18-32.

Paul undercuts the judgmental attitude shown by the “Judge” thusly over the course of chapter 2:  This “Judge” is hypocritical and just as sinful as the Gentiles he condemns (2:1-5).  God is a truly impartial judge, and the ultimate goal is not having the Torah but living in the ways commended by the Torah.  Both Jews and Gentiles are capable of doing this (2:6-16).  Paul even goes so far as to relativize the rite of circumcision, the ultimate boundary marker separating Jews from Gentiles, claiming that the outward rite of circumcision is of no value whatsoever if it is not matched by inner integrity, that is, a “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (2:17-29).

Chapters 3 and 4 continue Paul’s critique of the judgmental attitude shown by the “Weak” as personified by the “Judge”.  These chapters address many questions and objections raised by Jewish believers, and the crux is in 3:21-24:

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Addressing the “Weak” and specifically the “Judge”, Paul makes the strong point that righteousness from God is apart from and independent of observance of the Torah.  The standard evangelical interpretation of Romans universalizes this:  We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and not through good, meritorious works.  Paul is teaching “sola fide” and what he is opposing is works-righteousness.  We cannot earn our salvation by what we do, we must depend on what Christ has done.

This completely misses the point.  This passage is addressed specifically to Jewish believers in the Roman churches–the “Weak”, as personified through the “Judge”–instructing them that their insistence upon Torah observance as the means of maintaining one’s good standing before God is not compatible with the Gospel message.  The “works” Paul is discussing here are not general works of self-righteousness but the specific works of Torah observance by which Jews marked themselves off as separate from the Gentiles and in which the Jewish believers in the Roman churches trusted for their good standing before God.

Paul’s message for the “Weak” also included words that the “Strong” were intended to hear.  This is indicated by Paul’s repeated use of the word “all”, bringing the “Weak” and the “Strong” together under sin and under the justification freely given by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  But first and foremost, Paul’s priority is for the “Weak” to grasp that Torah observance is not the heart of the matter when it comes to righteousness in Christ.

In reading Romans backwards, we are pressed to keep our eyes on the Weak and the Strong — that is, Jewish and gentile believers, not Jews and gentiles per se. We are pressed to keep in mind the Strong’s insensitivity to their privilege and the Weak’s judgment of the Strong’s moral scruples. This passage destroys the “privilege” of both: the Weak are sinners, and the Strong are sinners; both need redemption; that redemption will not come from Torah observance, and status in the church does not come by way of Torah observance or Torah nonobservance; and it does come from God’s gift — Christ on the cross, who secures atonement for all who believe, Jew or Greek. So, Paul is saying, “apart from works of the law,” to speak not to Jews in general but to the Weak in their particular problems with the Strong in the churches of Rome. (p 121)

As noted above, Paul’s intent in this section of Romans is not to build a case that all Gentiles and all Jews–and consequently, all humanity–are guilty before God in order to set up a universal teaching on how all can be “saved”.  Paul’s intent is to utilize theology to dismantle the specific conflict between the “Weak” and the “Strong” of the Roman churches and place them both on the same footing regarding sin and regarding justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not Torah observance.

Advent Week 2: A Narrative Leading to Peace

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas. What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we are going to work our way through Scot McKnight’s latest book, Reading Romans Backwards:  A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire.

Paul’s letter to the Romans can be a daunting challenge to many readers.  Reading it straight through from beginning to end, one gets the feeling that Paul’s intent is to prep the believers in the Roman churches for a masters-level systematic theology exam.

Usually the best way to read Paul’s epistles is from start to finish.  But the early chapters of Romans are so weighty that more often than not the reader is overwhelmed with exhaustion when he/she reaches the chapters at the end which provide context for all of the systematic theology in the early chapters.  McKnight’s big idea is that by reading Romans backwards (that is, by starting with chapters 12-16, then 9-11, then 1-8), we get a sense of what was going on in the world of the Roman house churches.  We see that the theology laid out in Romans is not a systematic theology but a pastoral theology, or as McKnight would say, a lived theology, and we get a sense of the context behind this lived theology.

Last week we focused on chapters 12-16.  We saw that the Roman church community was divided.  The first believers in Rome were Jewish Christians who left when emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews out of Rome.  These Jewish Christians, referred to as the “Weak” by Paul in this letter, returned to Rome during Nero’s time only to find the world of the Roman house churches transformed into an unrecognizable place, dominated by Gentile believers who saw no value in or necessity for Torah observance, called the “Strong” in this letter.  This clash between the “Strong” and the “Weak” is what Romans was written to speak into.

This week we come to chapters 9-11.  In the standard evangelical reading of Romans, Paul leads with his formulation of the Gospel message, which is his thesis (1:1-17).  1:18 all the way to the end of chapter 4 lay out the problem: all have sinned and are therefore in need of the Gospel.  Chapters 5-8 lay out the answer:  The Gospel – justification by faith in Christ alone, leading to sanctification and ultimately to glorification.  Chapters 12-16 give the application, what the Gospel looks like when lived out in the faith community.

But what ever do we do with chapters 9-11?  Some use texts from these chapters to lay out a doctrine of election (9:11-18), to serve as part of a gospel presentation calling people to faith in Christ (10:9-13), to argue for the importance of missions and preaching the gospel (10:14-17), or to argue for a dispensational view of eschatology centered upon Israel (11:25-26).  But on the whole, these chapters are basically treated as an outlier, an interesting parenthetical aside that has nothing whatsoever to do with Paul’s larger point:  The Gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone as the key to personal salvation, and how this is applied in the church community.

McKnight argues that the standard evangelical reading of Romans has it all wrong and that chapters 9-11, far from being merely an interesting parenthetical outlier having nothing whatsoever to do with Paul’s main point, are in fact the main point of Romans.  In this section of the book, McKnight argues that the point of Romans 9-11 is to remind his readers/listeners in the house churches of Rome of the story in which they have now become participants.

The key to understanding Romans 9-11 is 11:13, in which Paul says, “I am talking to you Gentiles”.  This is a pivot:  Up to this point Paul had been addressing one audience within the Roman church (the “Weak”), now he is turning to address a different audience (the “Strong”).  As noted earlier, the “Weak” and the “Strong” are the two principal factions who were in conflict within the Roman church.  The “Weak” are Jewish believers, mainly lower class, who placed a high value on Torah observance and were upset that the “Strong” were introducing Torah-hostile ways to the Roman church.  The “Strong” were Gentile believers, mainly upper class, who saw no necessity whatsoever for Torah observance, and who looked down their noses at the mainly-lower-class Jewish believers who valued Torah observance.

Some of the larger themes in Romans 9-11 are as follows:

–The surprising nature of God’s electing grace (9:1-29).  As McKnight puts it (p. 69):  “These elections demonstrate that God’s plan is not uniform, not predictable, and that individual Israelites dare not assume that they are next in the redemptive historical line of God’s plans.”  This is consistent with how God has operated throughout Israel’s history, just one more surprise in a long line of surprises.  While remaining faithful to Israel, God has created an unexpected way for those who were not part of His people to become part of His people.  Consequently the “Weak” need to make room at the table for their fellow Gentile believers, who now share elective privilege.

–Because Jesus has come, right standing with God now comes via faith in Christ and not via works of the Law (9:30-10:21).  For the “Weak”, it was their observance of Torah that assured them they were part of God’s people.  But God is now accepting Gentiles as part of His people–and not making them observe Torah.  The “Weak” must realize this, stop insisting upon Torah observance, and join their Gentile brethren, with whom they all stand before Christ on equal ground.

–God is faithful to his promises and will not reject Israel (11:1-12).  By this point the “Weak” are asking:  If God has now upgraded Gentiles to the level of Israel by means of faith and not Torah observance, then does that mean Israel has lost its privileged position in the plan of God?  To put it more bluntly, has God rejected Israel?  Paul gives multiple examples here to reassure the “Weak” that no indeed, this is not the case.

–Now Paul pivots and addresses the “Strong” (11:13-36).  Here is McKnight’s summary of what Paul has to say to the “Strong” (p. 88):

To the Strong, Paul says God is faithful to Israel both in including gentiles and in promising a future redemption for Israel. The Strong cannot become arrogant and think they alone are privileged because their God, who is the God of Israel, is faithful to the covenant. In fact, God’s calling of Israel is irrevocable. That irrevocability, however, takes surprising turns, including the Messiah and gentile inclusion and a future turning of Israelites to Jesus as Messiah. Since God is faithful to Israel, the Strong are to embrace the Weak as siblings in Christ.

This Is What Love Requires of You?

Last week the government rounded up undocumented workers in a way that left children crying in parking lots on the first day of school.

“Today,…we are once again becoming a nation of laws”, said Mike Hurst, US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, on the day of the raids, which impacted food processing plants in central Mississippi.

Think about this through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is to support a president for whom such inhumanity toward those who are not here legally is part and parcel of his policy and message…no.  Just no.  There is no such case to be made.  That’s all there is to it.

Fr. Stephen Freeman on Praying for the Dead

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.  The post is entitled “You Have One Job – Pray – On Behalf of All and for All“.  It raises some important points on how Catholics and Protestants view the afterlife, and specifically the subject of praying for the dead.

The topics of heaven, hell, purgatory, hades, life-after-death, the judgment, etc., are not among my favorites. There is a particular reason for this: everybody thinks they know more about this than they do and most people assume the Church says more about this than it does. Much of the problem, I think, lies in the fact that we torture the faith into geographical shapes, when it belongs in relational dynamics. That is to say, we think that describing heaven and hell (and other such terms) along with the rules for how they work (as places) somehow states something important and explains life-after-death. This is not only not true, but terribly misleading. It has also been a problem within Christianity for a very long time.

The debates between Protestant and Catholic, beginning in the 16th century, often centered on the rules for life-after-death (generally subsumed under the notion of how we are “saved”). That debate tended to press Christians into saying more and more about what they did not know, and forced institutions into hardened positions of dogma where no dogma belonged. Orthodoxy is neither Protestant nor Catholic, nor did it take part in the debates of those centuries. As a result, many things that are treated as hard and fast matters of assurance and dogma by Western Christians are simply not found in a definitive manner within the Orthodox faith.

One surefire way to give most evangelicals a good hard case of the heebie-jeebies is to mention anything about praying for the dead.  Why?  Because much of the 16th-century debates that drove the Protestant Reformation centered around how to “get saved”–which of course has very strong implications concerning life after death and what that looks like.  This led the Church–both Catholic and Protestant–to make hard and fast definitions concerning heaven and hell and how those places work.  Much of this goes well beyond what the Bible actually says on the afterlife, and leads us to a conception of heaven and hell as geographical places that operate mechanistically:  it’s either one or the other when you die, and there is no possibility whatsoever of changing places.  As the tree falls, so it lies, for all eternity.  Consequently, there is no point whatsoever in praying for anyone who is in hell.  Catholics of course hedge this with purgatory, an in-between place that is neither heaven nor hell.

As a consequence, much in the way of evangelical preaching and/or personal evangelism (what many of us would call “witnessing”), is designed and intended to lead people to the question “Where will you spend eternity?”.  If you’ve ever wondered why that is, this is the reason.

But what if we’ve got it all wrong?  What if the primary driver for how the afterlife works is not geographical, but relational?  Nowhere does the Bible present a clear, systematic theology on the afterlife.  What we get instead is a variety of images, all of which point to a relational dynamic:  You are either with God, or you are apart from him.  You don’t want to be apart from him.  So the Orthodox pray for those in hell–because hell is a relational state and not a geographical place.  “The point isn’t the place or its name, but loss of communion with God and the torments associated with it.”  Freeman notes the messiness of how the Scriptures and early Church Fathers handle the subject of the afterlife, and says:

What the Church preaches is not a doctrine about places, but a doctrine of our relation and communion with God. If place-names are used, they are a matter of convenient imagery rather than a description of the topography of the larger world.

So we pray.  We pray to the God who is Lord of all and over all, over time and over eternity, this life and the next.  We believe that God wills good for all, including those who have passed beyond our sight and now dwell in realms beyond our experience, whose workings are unclear to us and–we must admit–we do not have access to the systematic theology on how said realms operate.

There is nothing beyond the reach of the Church’s prayers. This is true both in this life and the next. God is the God of all things, everywhere and at all times, and we can ask for anything of Him and make intercessions with boldness, trusting that He is good and that He wills good for us and for all.

Freeman goes on to illustrate some of the prayers used by the Orthodox for the departed.  Faithful or not, the Church intercedes for them that their sins might be forgiven and they might know eternal rest.  Even a prayer such as this is offered:  “Visit the bitter destitution of souls far removed from You; O Lord, have mercy on those who hated the truth out of ignorance, let Your love be to them not a burning fire, but the cool delight of Paradise.”

This prayer speaks to the heart of the relational dynamic of how the Orthodox understand heaven and hell.  There is no doubt that everyone is met with the love of God.  At issue is how that love is perceived–either as a burning fire or as a cool delight.  Thus the age-old Catholic/Protestant debates on heaven and hell and how to “get saved” are all a massive exercise in missing the point.

Instead, we pray. Prayer is the consistent and unending response of the Orthodox believer to the death of anyone. We trust in God who is our salvation. Jesus has revealed to us the love of God and done everything that is necessary for the salvation of the whole world. There is nothing lacking. Our prayers do not add to what Christ has done. Rather, they unite our hearts to what He has done and offer to God, with groaning, the prayer of Christ for all: “Forgive them.” If this is not the prayer of our heart, then our heart has become estranged from God, at least in that matter.

But our hope is not in places, nor in mechanical operations of salvation. Our hope is in Christ who has done all that we could possibly ask or think. When we pray, our thoughts should be towards Him, and the infinite goodness of His mercy.

Fr. Stephen Freeman: Theophany

Today I give you a post from Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the most influential Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.  The post is entitled “Theophany:  Showing the World to be the World“.

One of the problems with sacramental thought is the notion that when a thing is blessed it somehow becomes something other than what it really is.  (And this is why many evangelicals recoil at the sacramental way of looking at things.)  There is a problem here:  If this is true, then it limits the work of God in the sacrament to the church, the altar, the font, etc.  This creates a two-story sacramental order in which an object becomes blessed but the rest of the world around it remains exactly as it is.

Freeman lays out an alternative view in which the sacraments show us things as they really are.  It is us who fail to see things as they really are.  The Jordan is the Jordan, but we don’t see it as the Jordan, we just see it as a bunch of water flowing over a bunch of rocks.  This is secularism, the great heresy of our age:  a denial of the sacramental character of the world.  The world is not a material thing that exists apart from and devoid of God, rather it is the means by which God shows himself to us.  That is, n essence, the sacramental way of looking at things.

Read:  Theophany – Showing the World to be the World

Pat Robertson Is Back

I’ve said it before:  If I could set up some kind of Google news feed on Pat Robertson this blog would practically write itself.

Just when you think Pat Robertson can’t get any crazier, he always manages to one-up himself.  With a major hurricane out in the Atlantic this past week threatening to make landfall over the Carolinas, this is what he did:

Well, at least Robertson kept the hurricane out of Atlanta, Georgia.

Morgan Guyton: I’m Tired of Auditioning to Be Your Pastor

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Morgan Guyton.  Guyton is a Methodist campus minister in New Orleans, Louisiana, and he blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.

In this post Guyton speaks of the dual existence he leads as a college minister:  On the one hand, being a pastor to those students who have chosen to have him as their pastor, while on the other hand dealing with those students where he is “auditioning” to be their pastor:

…It’s a world not dissimilar from the one inside the Hillary Clinton campaign revealed in those email leaks where everything is meticulously calculated. It’s a world at the mercy of the mysterious human psychological forces called momentum and traction and buzz. It’s a world where I’m supposed to be perfectly hip and on-point at all times. Where I’m supposed to be lighthearted and not have any actual emotions other than intuitively mirroring back whatever vibe is in the room. Where I’m supposed to exude the indifferent, playful confidence our culture calls cool that innately attracts people to me so that I never have to pursue anyone. Where I’m supposed to be endlessly available and not at all bothered when nobody shows up.

In the world where God happens, I’m having a great ministry with a small group of people. Among the students with whom I’ve developed spiritual intimacy, my heart gushes with love and joy. I’ve watched several students who had been exiled from the church because of their queer identity blossom and discover their spiritual gifts. I’m able to relax and be myself. I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to manage every conversation that we have, because silence doesn’t feel like it’s my fault.

But in the world where I’m auditioning to be your pastor, I’m failing miserably. Sometimes you’ve given me some pretty obvious hints that you want me to go away. More often you’re sending me legitimately mixed signals. Sometimes you don’t respond to several messages inviting you to events, but then when I ask you how you’re doing, you answer without any annoyance or hesitation. I suppose what ruined me vocationally is that I was a union organizer before I was a pastor. And union organizers are trained to keep calling and leaving messages until you pick up the phone and say don’t ever call me again.

Read:  I’m Tired of Auditioning to Be Your Pastor by Morgan Guyton