Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Part I: Sacraments and the Good News


I have no use for dual natures of things. I have no knowledge of how God is present in the elements at communion or baptism, nor should I know. That is part of the Divine Mystery. What I do know is that the church marks time for its people while reminding them of the Gospel. Baptism is a symbol of being loved even though we are powerless to do anything to earn this love. Communion is the joy and celebration of gathered friends and family with recognition that the table will change and people will die and yet we hope to one day share the table again with them. There could be more sacraments similar to the Catholic sacramental model, but I affirm the Protestant argument for two sacraments. I do, however, see the need for the church to observe other “markers” of an individual’s passage through a community and life. Events like confirmation (passage into young adulthood), blessing of vocation (an “ordination” if you will), marriage, blessing of the sick, and funeral rites should all be observed and marked for the good of the individual and the community. All things we do in remembrance of the Triune God.

Good News for Today

The early church’s radical inclusivity broke with the social conventions and traditional spirituality of its era but struck a responsive chord within the souls of people who had been marginalized and minimized by the in crowd. The vision and words of Christ are always attractive: Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden; Come to me all who feel burned out on religion, and I will give you rest in the unforced rhythms of grace.

That means that our words have to look like Jesus: a mother nursing her babes, a father holding the hand of his loved ones and whispering real encouragement, a servant who steps down so that there is room for another to step up. Like Christ, the church should not be judge and jury, gatekeeper or the morals police but rather the incarnated Christ of its age, for without him there is only the stink of arrogance in the room.

Every church has to face challenges and deal with them with clarity and conviction. We know that we will never get it totally right all the time because we are only human. But we cannot pretend that the church’s actions do not cripple us sometimes and violate our best intentions as disciples. And unless we are practicing and proclaiming a Word that lifts the burdens of others with our music, our worship, our liturgy, our organization, and the way we share information as well as in acts of living compassion, then we are living under the judgment of Christ as exposed in scripture.

With this doctrine of the church, the church can do away with its competitive nature and live in celebration of diversity. The church can do away with the fear of change and live in the assurance of God’s grace through Christ as sustained to us by the Holy Spirit. This view honors the vision of Christ that the community brings good news to the economically and spiritually poor, sets captives free, and proclaims the Jubilee that is grace (Luke 4:18-21). This view honors the past traditions and spiritual practices, but does not hold one above the other. Each denomination adds a part to the full understanding of the Gospel. Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, and the other reformers are honored and their spirit of reform is followed, as the church cannot rest upon their answers but adapt their model to time and context.

Most of all the church should be about articulation and interpretation of grace. It is the proclaimer and not the source of grace. The church is a gift from God to the world, but it is not the conduit from which grace comes. What history has taught us about this view is that the church gets power hungry and corrupts the Gospel through dividing people in its definitions, doctrines, and creeds. As Justo L. Gonzalez wrote, “And because we believe, we commit ourselves: to believe for those who do not believe, to love for those who do not love, to dream for those who do not dream, until the day when hope becomes a reality. ” The church can no longer afford to divide people—it must bring them together. The church must honor that many colors and ideas are needed to paint a single landscape. The church will then have many generations with many income levels. The church will affirm diversity and cultivate a “Generous Orthodoxy” that includes all races, sexual preferences, and abilities. It will know its history and have a communal memory and vision not just a pastoral or consistory’s view. It will be a place of divine guidance.


Yael said...

Quote: The early church’s radical inclusivity broke with the social conventions and traditional spirituality of its era but struck a responsive chord within the souls of people who had been marginalized and minimized by the in crowd.

Luke, I am always curious how you hold together various pieces of your religious POV so I have a few questions for you. I know you are writing this piece for a certain crowd, but does this statement express the point of view to which you hold?

When did the early church come into existence?

Who do you think was the 'in crowd' during this time?

Who were the marginalized?

On what might you base you answers?

Fro myself, I don't see Jesus as being particularly inclusive at all. Certainly gentiles were turned aside time after time and only ministered to reluctantly. How do you view Jesus turning away gentiles for Jews?

What does it mean to be inclusive? Is it reaching out to those on the margins of your own kind and only to those outside your kind when forced?

Is this enough? Each of us striving to take care of our own kind? Perhaps it is and that's why we need many different groups so that all will be taken care of. Yet, I don't see your statement allowing for this.

A bit strange isn't it, that in the end the religion that was based on Jesus was directed to the gentiles to whom he showed little interest.

I always find it interesting that the Pharisees were a response to the exclusive Temple cult since anyone could become a Pharisee, it wasn't limited by being born a Levi or Cohen. To become a Pharisee merely required study. Yet so often I read on Christian blogs about how the Pharisees were the religious leaders of Jesus' time even though historians of this era purport the Pharisees were only one group of many and did not become the religious leaders in Judaism until after the destruction of the Temple in 135 CE.

Do you think the 'every person' Pharisees turned into an exclusive sect? If Jesus was a Pharisee, did he turn around and do the same thing?

Who do you think might be marginalized and minimized by your statement today? The descendants of the very people you accuse? Is it like this in life? We become what we once fought against; we become victimized by what we once were?

And since everyone here might not know me, I am merely curious as to Luke's views and perhaps trying to push a bit since I find this statement quite vague and 'feel good' rather than very meaningful; 'Religious speak' so to speak! :)

Sorry for all the questions, but...hope we can have a good conversation.

Al said...

I like your thoughts about diversity--that variety is not to be tolerated, but celebrated. Not just as the individuals who make up the church, but the ideas and theologies we bring to the table.

That isn't easy to affirm, particularly within a denominational paradigm, but is still the only way to recognize all of the flavors that Christ himself has inspired.

Luke said...


I knew there was a reason I am friend with you! thank you for being so open and curious in this process, i know how your buttons maybe going off left and right while reading this paper. thank you for sticking with it.

Jesus couldn't have come from any other strain than the Pharisees. So when I read Jesus speaking with Pharisees, i read it as he is speaking to his own group. this is evidenced when he's questioned by the Sadducees in Mk 12:18-27 when they ask about resurrection. Pharisees believe in resurrection, Sadducees don't.

anywho... all this to say that Jesus was a reformer even within his own reform movement. Where the other Pharisees were talking about stricter codes based on purity, Jesus, i see, went the other way. He has a life based on compassion and hung out with the marginalized... the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and even gentiles. Like in the story with the Syrophoenician woman where Jesus initially calls her a dog, but gets called out and changes and is taught by the woman.

"Who do you think might be marginalized and minimized by your statement today?"

that's an excellent question. Just like Jesus, I view my tradition more as a platform to jump from than a club to carry around and whack ppl with. while some run around and state "you can't hang out with gays/Jews/buddhists/Muslims/atheists within my own tradition and then cite verse after supposed verse against them... that's not what i'm after. my view of Christ calls me to honor and serve my neighbor regardless of creed. i hope no one is marginalized by my statements but odds are someone ultimately will be because

-i'm only human and thus limited and some would say "sinful"

-they want to be limited and will purposely misunderstand my statements because being the victim is an unbeatable hand

-or a combination thereof.

i hope to be inclusive and serve all and love my neighbor as myself and try to let go of "purity standards" but i always seem to fall back into them... thanks Yael, hope that clears something up... or just clouds it more.. which ever! :-D

Luke said...

Hey Al,

love the new profile pic! classy!

diversity is a really hard thing. it's something i struggle with every minute of every day. but i find something to affirm in almost every denomination and philosophical stance. and i know that the grace of God will cover what i can't ;-)

thanks for stop'n in!

Yael said...

Hi Luke,
Yes, your posts do hit my buttons at times, but if I can get beyond that, ask questions and let you explain yourself my buttons can learn to not be so sensitive!

Now the value I see to your view of Jesus as not divine is that you can allow for him to learn and change; he is allowed to be a part of his historical setting, acting and reacting within that context.

I've read quite extensively on history just prior to and after the split of Judaism and Christianity, from across quite a spectrum. I like to push my own buttons, too. Great learning experiences happen that way. Anyway, one of the most interesting I came across was a two volume set "The Pharisees" by Louis Finkelstein. He is quite matter-of-fact in his attempt to understand the reality of life at that time and view events and people from within that context. He's Jewish of course but does not give Judaism a free pass while tearing into all others.

He brings up an interesting point about the differing views on purity laws. Galilee was far from the Temple, Samaria was between Judea and Galilee, anyone going to the Temple from Galilee was in for a long walk. So, how was it possible for the people of Galilee to keep up with the purification offerings required in Torah and these laws were many. At one time people could make offerings wherever it was they lived, but eventually all of that was removed to a central location. People who lived far from the Temple could not just take off on a multi-week journey every few days. And as is common for us all, that which we cannot observe we naturally come to dismiss. Now for the people of Judea it was not inconvenient so they tended to be much more observant of such things and as is common for us all, that which is easy for us to observe becomes much more important to us! Reputations formed: Galilee was the place of unclean people, Judea was the place for clean people. Jesus overlooking purity laws wasn't some odd happening, some radical undertaking, it was just him acting totally within his upbringing. That was the reality of life in Galilee; purity just wasn't seen as something to be all that concerned about.

Interesting to me that Jesus had no problem hanging out with John the Baptist even though John was an Essene who held to even stricter purity laws than the Pharisees. Did you ever wonder why he never took John to task for being even more exclusive than the Pharisees? Maybe because they were related?

I hear you about marginalizing. Tough to converse with someone who is a perpetual victim. I guess the only thing to hope is that the person will eventually move beyond this stage and try to take responsibility for their own responses. Been there, trying to do that.

Kind of amusing to think about how many modern 'purity' rules there are that people adhere to so religiously. The ultras in my world are terrible that way. The ultras in your world just as bad, and then there is the spectrum for the rest of us, what we accept, what we exclude.

Also amusing that Jews were forced to be the despised tax collectors that Jesus reached out to, and as a result Jews were despised by Christians. I find it quite interesting to think about, how ideas play out through history, how people become what they once hated but somehow miss that they have done so. Tough thing to avoid, tough thing to overcome.

Now perhaps you answered my question about the in crowd and I'm just not picking up on it, but if you don't mind, perhaps you could just state straight out who you pictured when you used the term 'in crowd' and why that picture came to your mind? Thanks.

And thanks for the kind words. I find great value in our friendship as well.

Luke said...

I've been reading Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, two Christian historians and they pick up on the same thing your author does. I gotta check out that book because it seems he goes more in depth. Fantastic!

let me answer your questions straight out.

"When did the early church come into existence?"

At Pentecost. before then the disciples were in hiding, something made the come out. whether it's Jesus actually showing up physically or they remembering their teacher, something happened that sparked a change. i don't think reason or history can explain it.

Who do you think was the 'in crowd' during this time?

the temple authorities and the Roman occupiers. the temple system was corrupt and there were many reactions to that... zealots, and such... and as you point out, John the Baptist.

Who were the marginalized?

my NT prof, Greg Carey, just wrote a book called "Sinners: Jesus and his earliest followers" that's a pretty quick read. talks about the socio-cultural landscape as well and how Jesus overturned his cultural norms. from a review of the book: "Carey examines Jesus as a friend of sinners, challenger of purity laws, transgressor of conventional masculine values of his time, and convicted seditionist. He looks at early Christian communities as out of step with "respectable" practices of their time. Finally, he provides examples of contemporary Christians whose faith requires them to "do the right thing," even when it means violating current definitions of "respectability."

On what might you base you answers?

scripture and various other texts of the time. also on the theology that has been past down as well yet noting the limitations of time and context. like Augustine isn't such a bad guy after all, just gotta update his thoughts.. and there's a lot of anti-jewish thought in there as well. i'm not going to update that. i'm going to learn from it and attempt not to do the same. i'm not going to hide behind my theology.. i'm going to go out and get my buttons pushed ;-D

hope that is more direct to your questions!

Yael said...

Hi Luke,
Thanks. I do think "The Pharisees" set is an excellent resource. It's older and out of print but fortunately I was able to nab it from shul...Don't tell anyone.

You said: something happened that sparked a change. i don't think reason or history can explain it.

Chabad has a similar story. I'm going to have to dig through my stuff and see if I can find the files I once read about them and their rebbe. His followers say he did many miracles and that he was messiah. When he died they claimed he would come back. Since this story was already done once before I found it quite interesting to see the progression from an admired leader to being an almost divine figure. Before he died he had quite a following, people used to line up for hours just to spend a few seconds in his presence. For me, what happened with him sheds some light on the more known rendition of this story, how such things happen. Was it real? Was it not? I don't know, but for myself I have no interest in rebbe worship, in either version. If I find the files I'll post the links so you can read if you choose.

I find the stories eerily similar but the most fascinating part is that Chabad doesn't seem to even be aware of this. Strange.

Yael said...

BTW, the book you linked looks quite interesting. I may have to add it as part of my 'spectrum' reading on that time period.

Anonymous said...

"I do, however, see the need for the church to observe other “markers” of an individual’s passage through a community and life." (Luke)

The birthplace of religion is ritual. I am sort of for and against rituals - I see the benefits and the downfalls. I like having markings that make sense of the journey (I dig that!). However, I dislike rituals since they can become insincere - or just plain repetitive (and this is just me being me).

"With this doctrine of the church, the church can do away with its competitive nature and live in celebration of diversity" (Luke)

I want to celebrate diversity too! Grand idea!

"The church can do away with the fear of change and live in the assurance of God’s grace..." (Luke)

Can the church change? Pockets of the church can - but the whole thing? I think this is a much needed vision or the church may become a memory in some places.

"The church will affirm diversity and cultivate a “Generous Orthodoxy” that includes all races, sexual preferences, and abilities." (Luke)

I like the vision this idea puts in my mind. It's like a kum-bye-ya scene around a campfire. I liked camp (in all honesty).