I wonder how much the difference between Jewish and Christian faiths–doctrine and practices–has to do with the fact that Christianity emerged quickly in a defensive environment. On the one hand, they were asserting a theology within a Judaism that rejected their innovations. On the other hand, they were proclaiming a new religious faith into a pagan and philosophical culture. In both cases, Christian thinkers found themselves on the defensive almost immediately, and would have had to proceed in the formulation of doctrine and practice within those contexts.
Judaism, on the other hand, while it certainly had periods of development and evolution that occurred in similarly pluralistic contexts, evolved over a much longer time and thus had the luxury to be influenced, to become winsome in its testimony, and fluid in its theological identity. Put another way, perhaps it does not suffer from the twin anxieties of “having to be right” and having to “convert” others, because it learned to trust God, exercise patience, and respect religious diversity even as it discerned and practiced religious faithfulness.
If so, perhaps this explains why Judaism survives as a diverse, tolerant, and unified witness in the world, whereas Christianity is suspicious of it’s own diversity, judgmental, and contradictory in it’s testimony. Whereas a Jew might say of another Jew, “That’s not how I practice Judaism,” two Christians are more likely to excommunicate one another over their differences.
I believe it is in the DNA of Christianity to bear witness to a confessional religious identity without alienating those with whom we disagree, and thus I am hopeful we can reclaim it. I am thinking, of course, of Jesus Christ, himself a Jew, who practiced Judaism not according to the various sectarian traditions of his day, but who rather affirmed what could be affirmed within them, yet loved all according to his understanding of the Kingdom of God. Those of us who profess him as Lord ought better to practice the conviction and grace of the one we claim to follow–one who called others to faithfulness but who also let them chose to walk another path. He trusted God with his own life but also with theirs–he refused to condemn them.
January 1, 2017, was the 8th day of Christmas, the 8th day of Hanukkah, the Christian “Lord’s Day” of resurrection, and the 1st day of 2017. It seems an apt time to remember God’s faithfulness with Jesus the Jew.
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus celebrated Hanukkah (called in John the “Festival of Dedication”). This is the feast remembering God’s faithfulness to the Jews during the two centuries before Christ’s birth. It remembers the victory and short span of Jewish sovereignty after they expelled Antiochus Epiphany IV from their homeland. The Greeks had contaminated the Temple oil supply, but miraculously the one night of good oil lasted eight nights until a fresh supply could be obtained.
The Hanukkah menorah reminds us of God’s faithfulness and providence. Like Advent and Christmas, it proclaims the light of God shining in dark times. The menorah includes a ninth candle, called the Shamash, which is used to light the other candles and for anything else needed in the house, since the other candles may only be used for the purpose of commemorating Hanukkah. The Shamash is the “helper.” So the menorah also invites us to consider how we may be, as Jesus called us to be, the light of the world also—to be a Shamash.
Psalm 98 is a text used in the Hanukkah liturgy. As a psalm of dedication, it offers us guidance during this season of rededication in the New Year.
Psalm 98 moves through three sections, each three verses long. Verses 1-3 are a remembrance of God’s faithfulness to ancient Israel. Next follows an invitation to all nations to join the praises of Israel. Finally in verses 7-9, all of creation is invited.
The Psalm moves from the particular to the universal. It is a movement that we find throughout scripture. It is the movement from Abraham and Sarah, blessed by a particular offspring who will end up blessing all nations. It is the movement from Israel’s Hanukkah lights to Jesus as the light of the world. It is the movement from the sin of Adam—which came to all, to salvation in Christ—which comes to all. Sin and salvation both move from the particular human to all creation.
In this way, the movement from particular to universal is a reversal of the Genesis account of creation and curse. In the Creation story, God moves from the universal to the particular, finally fashioning the human from the ground of the earth. The curse is brought upon the whole world by the human. So salvation also moves from the human to the whole world. This is why Revelation, quoting Isaiah, speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth.”
All this is reflected in Psalm 98. As we rededicate ourselves to God this year, it is helpful to remember that God’s redemption moves from the particular to the general, from us to all, from what is ours to what we can share with others.
There is another movement in Psalm 98 that can guide us in rededication. It is a reading of the psalm that is verified in Jesus Christ. It is the movement from military might to social justice.
Psalm 98 likely became popular at Hanukkah to celebrate the Hasmonean uprising against Antiochus. So it begins with language like “victory” and “vindication,” and it evokes songs of triumph.
But in these early verses Psalm 98 also asserts that it is God’s “right” hand and “holy” arm that secure God’s victory in the world. It is not overwhelming military strength, but right relationships that produce peace.
This is why Psalm 98 ends with the “judgment of the world in righteousness” and God’s restoring “equity among the people.” This is what “justice” means in the Bible. It doesn’t refer to punishment for crimes, but to restoration of righteousness. This is the “rightness” of God’s victorious hand. And God does this, according to Psalm 98, as “the King, the Lord.” This is the ultimate purpose of Psalm 98, to exalt the God of peace who achieves victory through social justice.
So I offer two takeaways as we begin the New Year. First, let us adopt the perspective of redemption. May we embrace the world with God, not just what is good for me or mine, but what is good for all.
Second, for those of us who confess Christ as King and Lord, let us do so by working for a just society and a just world in the biblical sense.
As we begin 2017 with Hanukkah and Christmas and the resurrection of Christ, let us rededicate ourselves to the light of the world, remembering that God so loved the world that he sent his son. Let us rededicate ourselves to this love of God and love of neighbor.
What does it mean when people say, “God will provide”? It depends on whom you ask.
- Two common responses to God’s providence
- The biblical perspective on providence and stewardship
- God’s providence according to the Ethiopian Eunuch
- What baptism teaches us
- When providence appears to end
“God will provide” is a truth that has many aspects. At my grandmother’s funeral, people remembered her having said this throughout her life. They were inspired by her moving statement of faith because for many of us God’s providence, like prayer, is something to which we appeal only when we feel we need it.
Going exactly in the opposite direction, some people use the idea of providence as inspiration to plan for the future. “Provide” means “to see before,” so we attempt to look into the future and prepare. We open saving accounts and make investments and buy insurance. Some people even base career choices and decisions to start a family on what they want to provide.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with praying for providence in a crisis, or with planning ahead. But biblical providence means something more, something deeper.
One biblical perspective on providence is that God has already provided everything we need. It sees God’s providence not in individual terms, but in global terms. So, for example, there is already enough food to eliminate hunger, and enough resources to shelter all people. This perspective on providence assumes the principle of stewardship. God has provided all the world needs, and entrusted these resources to humans. God calls us to partner with providence. It’s like what I remind our church leadership about the budget: God has already provided all the financial resources for our church to faithfully pursue its ministry; those resources are in the pockets of the people in the pews.
Another biblical perspective is that God’s providence is emergent, more in the moment, serendipitous. This would be the Ethiopian Eunuch’s testimony.
He had just been to worship and was reading scripture. These are two practices that set us up to recognize God’s providence. Then Philip ran up alongside his chariot. Rather than being alarmed, the Eunuch was open to him.
The Spirit had directed Philip to that road and to that chariot. But there the Spirit stopped nudging him. Sometimes we wait for spiritual nudges when there are none to come. Sometimes to see God’s providence we just have to engage the context in which we find ourselves. Philip hears the Eunuch reading and engages him.
The Ethiopian also engages Philip. He invites him in and asks him a question. Here are two more clues for discovering God’s providence: Showing hospitality and asking questions.
So far the Ethiopian’s experience with providence doesn’t have to do with a crisis or with planning ahead (even though he was a financial planner for the Ethiopian queen). It is emergent. He was set up by worship and reading scripture, he was open and hospitable to the stranger, and he knew he couldn’t understand everything by himself, so he asked questions.
Their discussion turns to Jesus, and Acts tells us Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus. Apparently that good news included a conversation about baptism, because when they happen upon some water (more evidence of emergent providence), the Ethiopian asks for baptism.
In the original manuscript, what Philip taught about baptism isn’t described. (That’s why someone inserted verse 37 later.) But we can infer what baptism means by looking at the rest of Acts and the Gospel of Luke, both written by the same author. These books teach that baptism includes forgiveness of sin and adoption by God. It represents one’s incorporation into the body of believers. Through baptism, one receives the Holy Spirit and is enabled for kingdom living. All this and more is included in the “proclamation of the good news about Jesus.”
After baptism, the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing.” You can bet he believed in God’s providence. He didn’t rely on his own planning ahead. And he didn’t return to providence only later in a crisis. He looked for God’s providence every moment of his life. And he found it.
There’s another lesson about providence that is hidden in this story. It’s a harder lesson, beyond worship and scripture, beyond hospitality and asking questions, and beyond baptism.
After the baptism, the Spirit snatches Philip away. The Ethiopian no longer “sees” him. Providence seems to end. It is when this happens, in the appearance of deficiency, that faith applies. The Ethiopian Eunuch went on his way rejoicing, walking no longer by what he could see, but by faith.
Philip also learned about God’s emergent providence. He was ordained a deacon to help serve needy Greek widows so the apostles could concentrate on preaching. But shortly after that, he himself started preaching to Samaritans. Philip was already a pretty open-minded religious person. After his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, yet another non-Jewish person, he finds himself in Azotus, and making his way to Caesarea, he proclaims the good news in all the towns.
It isn’t until about nineteen years later that we hear of Philip again. The great evangelist Paul visits Caesarea and stays at the house of “Philip the Evangelist.” Apparently Philip had continued, without any more extraordinary nudging of the Spirit, to proclaim the good news of Jesus for nineteen years. And what is more, his four daughters had become pastors.
The hidden lesson about providence in this passage is that when it seems providence has come to an end, we can apply faith. With the Ethiopian and Philip, we remember God’s providence in the past. We worship, read scripture, and remain open to the stranger. And in faith we say with the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip the Evangelist, and my grandmother, “God will provide.”
There are some words we all know that make any trip longer. “Um, a light on the dashboard just started flashing.” “I can hardly see with all this snow.” “The next bathroom is another fifteen miles from here?!” But no words which make a trip longer are more frequent that the four-word question, “Are we there yet?”
“Are we there yet” is the question of people who have had enough! The road has been long, it’s been uncomfortable, the strains of travel have worn us down, and we ask, Are we there yet?
It’s also the question of people who are excited to get where they’re going. They want to see, they have things to do. They’re ready to get started!
Sometimes parents forget this. We think that “Are we there yet?” is the question of people who only want to ANNOY. So we try to avoid the question. We sing songs. We play hunting games like “I spy.” More recently we have handed out ear buds and provided portable DVD players. Regardless of our response, “Are we there yet” always makes any trip longer.
During Advent this year Faith Church has engaged in a virtual walk to Bethlehem. From Colorado Springs to Bethlehem it is about 7000 miles. We’ve taken six weeks. It’s been for us a time of preparation, and all in anticipation for Christmas Day (and Eve), when we welcome the birth of the Savior.
According to the Bible, Joseph and Mary also walked. It was for them only about ninety miles. It would have taken somewhere between five and ten days. Historians have some questions regarding this story, but theologians agree: It is significant that Jesus be born in Bethlehem.
It’s significant because of ancient Israel’s walk to Bethlehem. It took about 1000 years. The miles were determined by lost wars and subsequent exiles. First was the Assyrian exile in the eighth century before Christ. They walked about 600 miles each way. Then it was the Babylonian exile in the sixth century. That also was about 600 miles each way. Add to that religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem for worship at Temple, and to Bethlehem to remember David.
David was the great King. He reigned about 1000 years before Jesus’ birth. He was the one who defeated the giant Goliath. His reign started the golden age of peace, prosperity, and international supremacy. And David was born in Bethlehem.
Things were never so good as they were under David. In the centuries to come, the Assyrians conquered the North, the Babylon conquered the South. Then came the Persians, Greeks, and now in the days of Jesus it was the Romans.
The people of Jesus’ day longed for another king like David. They yearned for one with roots in Bethlehem. So that’s why Jesus is born in Bethlehem. The emperor of Rome demanded people be registered. He wanted to know where everyone came from. Part of it was taxes. Part of it was control. Everything Rome did was to preserve authority. Rome liked to make lists, to have information, to have control—or at least the appearance of control.
So as the story goes, Joseph and Mary make their way to Bethlehem to be registered. By the time they arrive, all the inns are full. They are allotted a place in the stables, in the center of a circle of huts. And there Jesus is born.
In the meantime, an angel visits some shepherds. They were social outcasts, finding marginalized work. There was no place for them in the inn either—or in the town. The angels proclaim a hopeful message. A savior has been born. He is divine. He is the bringer of peace. It is the exact same message that was proclaimed when Emperor Augustus was born. The word for both announcements was “gospel”—“good news.”
Augustus brought peace through control and intimidation and violence. It was a peace only for the social elites. The peace of Rome didn’t last, of course, though it keeps trying through history, from one empire to another, all the way to the present day.
The angels who visited the shepherds promised something different.
Jesus offers different means towards peace. He replaced self-reliance with trust in God. He replaced self-preservation with compassion and generosity. In place of vengeance Jesus advocated forgiveness.
This is what the Bible means by “justice.” And Jesus was an advocate for biblical justice.
By these means, Jesus offers peace. It is why he is the New David from Bethlehem. It is why he is born to marginalized, harassed people. It is why he is born in such impoverished conditions. It is why shepherds were the first to hear the good news. It is why all who heard it were amazed. Jesus offers peace by different means than Augustus.
So are we there yet? Yes and no. We’ve already been given so much in Christ. We have the assurance of God’s presence, and the confidence of God’s faithfulness. These are the beginnings of peace.
But Christ has also given us so much to do. We’re called to trust God. We’re called to love our enemies, to forgive our persecutors, to serve our neighbors. We’re called to work for peace by Jesus’ methods.
One of the best ways we’ve found to handle the “Are we there yet” question is to envision. We ask, “What do you want to happen when we get there?”
So what will it look like to arrive in the kingdom, not of Augustus, but the Kingdom of God? Some things we want to happen will have to wait. But some things we can begin to do now. But always in the meantime, if we can’t act for justice, we can hope, we can pray, and we can serve.
Are we there yet? No, but we’re getting closer. And God is with us every step of the way.
The practice of some Armenian churches teaches us important lessons about Christian faith and devotion: theology is more important than history, and peace is found in Jesus as Lord and King.
- The unique country of Armenia
- Why Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on different dates
- The timelessness of Jesus’ life
- What the Magi teach us about true faith and peace
The ancient country of Armenia is reputed to be the first to declare Christianity as its national religion. The map below shows the territory of the Armenians before and after the genocide committed by Turkey from 1915 to 1920. Nearly 1.5 million people, or 75% of Armenians, were killed or displaced. Hitler reportedly cited the success of the Armenian genocide in arguing for his attack on Poland.
One branch of Armenian Christianity celebrates Christmas on what has come to be called “Old Christmas Day.” Before telling you when that celebration will occur this year, I need to offer some history.
First, Julius Caesar promulgated the official Roman calendar, known as the Julian calendar, in 46 BC. At that time, the year was calculated as 365.25 days. Most people today still say this is the time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun. In actuality, it takes 365.242199 days, which means the Julian calendar is off 11 minutes, 14 seconds each year.
After some 40 years of recalculations, it was Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 who finally offered a corrected calendar. By that time, the Julian calendar was off by 10 days, so in that year October 5 was followed by October 15. Even though in this instance the church was perfectly aligned with—was even the leading source of—scientific truth, some countries hesitated to adopt the Gregorian reform. Protestant countries refused because they didn’t want to recognize the authority of the pope. Others refused because of their tradition. Greece was the final country to adopt the Gregorian calendar in . . . wait for it . . . the 1920s!
Second, the Feast of the Nativity (what we call Christmas) wasn’t officially assigned to December 25 until the early 4th century in Rome. In large part, the church was motivated by competition with the surrounding culture. In other parts of the church, the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated as part of Epiphany on January 6. “Epiphany” is Greek for “appearance” and it refers here to the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity. Epiphany celebrations recognized four instances when Jesus’ divinity was revealed: at his baptism, when he turned water to wine in Cana, when the Magi visited him, and at his nativity.
Today most of Christianity celebrates the Feast of the Nativity as we do on Christmas, December 25, and Epiphany on January 6. The emphases on these days are divided. In the West, December 25 is the Nativity, and January 6 is the visit of the Magi. In the East, December 25 is the visit of the Magi (as part of the Nativity), and January 6 is Christ’s baptism. This is why, by the way, Christmas is a season that lasts twelve days from December 25 through January 5.
Third, some Eastern Orthodox churches don’t recognize December 25 as the Feast of the Nativity. They celebrate the Nativity on January 6. In some cases, the celebration is January 7 due to the irregularity of the calendar. And in one case, the Armenian Orthodox Church, they still don’t follow the Gregorian calendar, so their January 6 celebration of Nativity is our January 19! So you could conceivably celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, January 6 or 7, and January 19 if you were so inclined and willing to travel.
Here, finally, is the point. The actual date of Christ’s birth is unknown. If Luke’s story of the “shepherds abiding their flocks by night” is historical, then it would be in the Spring, perhaps March, when such abiding occurs. So when it comes to the Bible, we have to remember that it is less about historical accuracy and more about theological testimony.
The Bible answers questions not about human history, but about God’s future. Asking the question, “What does Bible say but about our future with God?” recognizes the priority of theological issues over historical ones. More to the point, the life of Jesus—each part of it: his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return—is outside of history. It is for everybody in every time. The whole of Jesus’ life is for every day.
The Feast of the Nativity—Christmas—is about Jesus’ birth and our rebirth. It is about God with us and us with God. It is about divine peace through reconciliation in contrast to human peace through vanquishing one’s enemies. It is about God’s dream for ALL nations, not just ancient Israel and not just Christian nations like Armenia. And all these meanings are included in the story of the Magi.
What we learn from the story of the Magi is that you can’t trust what you hear—especially from politicians. King Herod was nominally Jewish. He had the title “King of the Jews,” but only because he was a puppet of Rome.
Herod boasted impressive achievements. He built palaces for himself, reconstructed the Jewish Temple, and provided advanced infrastructure.
Herod used violence and threats of violence to overcome his political competitors and promote and maintain his narcissistic, ego-maniacal, insecure position.
Matthew tells us that the Magi “heard” Herod. I suspect they knew something was up. Herod requested to meet with them “in secret and inquired as to the exact time of the appearance of the star.” Only then does he direct them to Bethlehem. They had to have sensed that he was already plotting something nefarious. (Remember, after Herod realizes the Magi have betrayed him, he kills all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old—in accordance with the timing of the star’s appearance.)
When the Magi set out for Bethlehem, the star reappears. They apparently had lost track of it, which is why they stopped for directions from Herod in Jerusalem. But there they learned something of great importance to believers in Jesus.
They learned that what politicians say doesn’t address our deepest needs and desires. Even without the prophet (since they weren’t Jewish), they were trying to find a new king who could be known as, “Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace.” (see Isaiah 9:6)
Herod was not that that king. He would not become that king. He didn’t want that kind of kingdom.
Those who seek true and lasting peace cannot look to a man who is placed in power by questionable means. It does not come from a man who consults religious leaders only to enhance his political image.
Those who seek true and lasting peace follow the course of the Magi. It comes from seeking the light of Christ, and when finding him, paying homage to him. Peace results from avoiding the Herods of the world and returning home another way—by the way of Jesus Christ.
- What do you think of “ex cathedra” and are there any examples you don’t agree with?
“Ex cathedra” is Latin for “from the chair” and refers to doctrinal statements promulgated by the Pope as the Bishop of Rome. Such statements are considered infallible (perfectly conforming to God’s will). There are two such dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church, namely the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the bodily Assumption of Mary. These were promulgated in 1854 and 1950 respectively. The first refers to Mary’s having been conceived without sin. (It does NOT refer to Jesus’ having been conceived without human sexual intercourse—most people get this wrong.) Since Jesus received his human nature from Mary and was without sin, the Immaculate Conception of Mary explains how he did not inherit sin from her. The second has to do with Mary’s ascent to heaven completely intact as body and soul. It is left unstated whether she actually experienced physical death. The point here is that her earthly life is so meritorious that it is perfectly preserved in heaven.
These dogmas have a complicated history, and the simplest and most gracious way to approach them in faith is to appreciate what they intend to assert. From this perspective, I see them as attempting to preserve Jesus’ uniqueness as a completely faithful person, obedient to God without letting doubt derail his mission, and exalting Mary’s example of faith. Both are presented to us as models to emulate. To that extent, I am happy to affirm the dogmas.
As to whether the Pope (or anyone else) necessarily and perfectly expresses the will of God, I consider such an assertion to jeopardize God’s sovereignty and to be vulnerable to human hubris. I respect people’s prayerful and studied articulation of God’s will, especially when it’s done so in the context of a thoughtful and prayerful community of faith (which is a principle of my Presbyterian tradition). But to state that someone infallibly expresses God’s will crosses a line with which I am not comfortable.
- Do you think the interpretation of the Bible should change along with the changing times? For instance, the church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage?
The interpretation of the Bible necessarily changes with time because interpretation is by definition a contextual exercise. EVERYBODY interprets, and the people who say they do NOT interpret are the most dangerous commentators on scripture because they are blind to their own contexts, which include biases and ignorance. This does not mean that every and any interpretation is as valid as any other. It does mean that interpretations are subject to criticism and change. It also means that interpretations are necessarily subjective, and so each should be received with a degree of skepticism. Modern interpretations are not necessarily more accurate than ancient ones. Academic interpretations are not necessarily more faithful than those arising from uneducated circles. Interpreting the Bible or any text in community is perhaps the best safeguard against interpretations that are so far outside the intentions of the authors or texts that they could be deemed just wrong.
The issue of the churches teaching on same-sex relationships is the current hot issue. But the history of the church’s interpretation of the Bible is full of examples where it has changed with the times: With regards to the role of women, the legitimacy of slavery, how the church should relate to the state, the justification for war, whether divorced people can remarry, just to name a few.
- Why do you think you were called to be a pastor?
This is quite a personal question, fully subject to my experience but yet confirmed by a community of faith. Without that confirmation, I would be incapable of answering. It started with my desire to help people. I discovered this desire and some ability through a peer counseling program in high school. Next came the comfort and direction I received through my involvement with Christianity. My faith oriented my life. I enjoyed studying theology, history, and the Bible, so I went to seminary but did not intend to enter the ministry. At this juncture, the community of faith made its first significant contribution when a pastor advised me to enter the “becoming a pastor” process since it lasts three years (the same time required for seminary), and so I might as well go through it.
That process required me to answer questions in a prayerful and thoughtful way, and in conversation with others. My studies were life-giving to me, and all these factors led me (some would say “God led me”) to the ministry. As long as a community of faithful people entrust me to lead them, and as long as I have a desire to contribute to others and serve God in this way, I consider myself called to be a pastor.
- If Jesus was crucified for his “rebellious” ways, then why were people so accepting of Paul’s teachings?
To answer this question I have to make some assumptions, as the question is a little unclear to me. I agree that Jesus was crucified for his rebellious ways—teachings that contradicted the Jewish religion and Roman politics of his day. I assume that the question has to do with Paul’s accommodationist teaching with regards to these two forces—but with qualifications. Paul proclaimed the inclusion of the non-Jews (Gentiles) in the covenant promises of God, which scandalized his Jewish contemporaries. And he also was eager to die a Christian martyr bearing witness of Christ’s lordship to the “Caesar is Lord” Roman authorities of his day. But at the same time, he allowed Timothy to be circumcised (to appease his Jewish audience), and urged submission to the authorities. I think people were accepting of Paul’s teachings because of his authority as a religious scholar, his testimony as a convert, his ability as a teacher, and his authenticity. These are, as I write and think about it, great criteria by which anyone, myself included, should be judged.
- Do you find yourself questioning Christianity because of Paul’s will to convince the people about a man as fulfillment of prophecy, even though he never met Jesus?
Paul did meet Jesus, just not the historical Jesus. Paul’s testimony begins with meeting the resurrected Christ, probably best understood in terms of having had a transformative vision. But Paul’s experience with Jesus was also mediated through existing disciples of Jesus. In other words, Paul had some kind of ecstatic experience with Christ and some kind of personal experience with his disciples. When you think about it, this is all anyone who lives after the crucifixion can hope for, and is in fact what anyone should base their Christian faith upon. I think Paul may have gotten it wrong about Jesus sometimes and in some circumstances, but that is what question 2 above is all about. Paul has his interpretation—and it is perfectly valid in his day and in his circumstances—and it is helpful and authoritative for us today. But we have a responsibility to discern our own positions. So I welcome Paul as a fellow faithful interpreter, but one who is limited necessarily by context.
- What makes Christianity so appealing that it is the world’s largest religion?
Good question. Lots of factors. Here’s a listing in no particular order. We’ve been at it a long time. We inherited a great foundational story in Judaism. We value the body because we believe in the resurrection, so when others fled the sick and needy, we served (and continue to serve) them. It is adaptable to culture because truth is independent of culture. At its core, the story of Christianity—that light prevails over darkness, good over evil, life over death, hope over despair, redemption over loss, community over alienation—is a really good story. It shares the ethic of love with all faithful religions and thoughtful non-religionists.
- Where in the Bible does it say homosexuality is a sin?
I don’t believe the Bible teaches that homosexuality as we understand it today is a sin. The Bible condemns same-sex activity as a violent, xenophobic tactic, and as an exploitive, hedonistic pursuit. Monogamous, loving, committed, same-sex relationships as we witness today—these are inconceivable in the cultures of the Bible’s texts, so whatever verses (and there are 6-7 of them) people might cite against homosexuality actually address something quite different.
- Will Christianity ever reform into something more progressive?
Yes. It is right now, and some have and will evolve with it, and others will marginalize themselves with the traditional form. To find the progressives who will survive and thrive, read Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren. To participate in a live attempt to bridge tradition and contemporary/future faith, come to Faith Presbyterian Church.
- Since there are a lot of religions, do you think others have pieces of truth that can be applied to Christian’s lives?
Absolutely. Thanks to our world having been shrunk into a 10 minute internet search, I have learned from the other great religions (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native Religions, Taoism, Confucianism) and their MANY sub divisions. I encourage every curious soul to search. The truth is not threatened by questions. I caution against the despair of “well, nothing matters” which sometimes concludes the search of some people. Of course it matters. The search is, some argue, what matters most! The Dalai Lama is reputed to have said, “Pick a religion and practice it faithfully.” OK by me! It’s the practice that matters.
- What is the hardest thing to convince non-Christians is true about the Bible?
The hardest thing to convince non-Christian and other thinking people about the Bible is the literal facticity of absurd verses of the Bible. You can’t convince me, a Christian, of these statements, either. But facticity and truth are two different things. The Bible conveys truth, even when it is factually impossible. A beginning list: 7 day creation, geocentric universe, worldwide flood, sun standing still, raising dead people to life, virgin births.
- What are your views on other religions?
I wish I had more lives to live them. My life is as a Christian, so I start and end there. But I appreciate, enjoy, and borrow from the other religions as often as they are helpful. I hope I do so respectfully and faithfully.
- Do you think the decline of Christianity in modern times is wholly negative?
Not at all. The decline of Christianity as defined by privilege and presumption is positive and should be welcomed. It is uncomfortable and disorienting, full of fear and anxiety. But it will lead the faithful to greater faithfulness.
- Who are your favorite women of the Bible?
I like Sarai who laughed at God’s revelation. And Mary who submitted herself to it in faith. I like Jael who nailed a dude in a tent. I like Junia who was an apostle and whose praise by Paul causes patriarchal people of the past and present to try to rewrite the Bible. I like Ester who got a bad guy hanged, and Lydia who was successful in business. I appreciate the balance of Martha who took care of details and her sister Mary who prayed deeply. Eve deserves way more respect than she gets, and I wish I knew more about Noah’s wife. I’m unwholesomely attracted to Delilah and Bathsheba. I deeply respect the Woman at the Well and all the women in Jesus’ parables.
- What is your view of the spiritual experience inside other religions? Do you believe that this is God speaking to people in a way that speaks to their experience?
I do, with the same skepticism and qualifications as I do such testimonies within my own tradition. Just because someone says, “God told me,” or “I felt the Spirit,” doesn’t mean it’s real. If it doesn’t pass the test of love, I have serious reservations. I do believe that God tailors (in my tradition, John Calvin says God “condescends”) God’s communications to our situations. But I also believe we can delude ourselves.
- There are thousands of denominations of Protestantism. Are they wrong or just different?
Both wrong and different. But that’s true of all religious and philosophical credos. And there are not thousands—that’s an overstatement. MAYBE over 100, but certainly not 200. To be gracious, each has something to contribute to the puzzle. But I would say those who are less thoughtful, prayerful, and communal, have less valuable things to offer. And I would venture that some are just plain wrong and can be ignored without consequence.
- What is your favorite portion of the Bible?
Hard question. I like the prophet Isaiah beginning especially with chapter 40. These chapters deal with a people whose faith has been so severely challenged as to lose all hope. I go there a lot. I love the Psalms, but especially when I’ve run out of words to sustain my faith or articulate my heart in prayer. Jesus in the Gospels always challenges me, and Paul’s theology intrigues my mind in ways no one else does. When I take the time, the great narratives, especially of Genesis, yield much to think about. Ecclesiastes is my go-to when my cynicism takes command, and Job is a close friend when I take issue with God. I have more books I dislike than I like. . .
- Why is the “Word of Faith” movement considered cultish?
I don’t know much about this, except that any “name it, claim it,” prosperity, “health and wealth,” happy/clappy gospel proclamation is unfaithful to the Bible and is idolatrous. If you’re not challenged to “lose your life in order to find it,” “experience greatness by becoming the servant of all,” “let your good works shine before others,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “sacrifice yourself in love for the benefit of others,” then you’re not going to be as faithful a Christian as you’re called to be.
Light and darkness are powerful metaphors that run throughout Bible and are universal. The Gospel of John puts Jesus at the center of this metaphor, and so does Christmas.
- Metaphors in the Gospel of John
- Why Christmas is December 25
- John, Jesus, Jews, and Germans
The Gospel of John loves metaphors. Jesus is the shepherd, the gate, the path, and the vine. The metaphors of bread and water receive more lengthy discussions, but light is probably his favorite metaphor. As light shows up in the first and last chapters of the Bible, so it appears throughout the Gospel of John. It shows up in different contexts. In the Newer Testament, “light” appears most times in John, and it inaugurates the Gospel. It seems John wants to say that you can’t understand any of the other metaphors without enlightenment.
In the prologue, John refers to Genesis. He writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was life and light.” Genesis begins, “In the beginning was darkness, and God spoke, creating light.” Though John doesn’t have a birth narrative for Jesus, he remarkably captures the essence of Christmas with his prologue.
Christmas is properly the “Feast of the Nativity.” It was chosen in the 4th century to be on December 25. That was the date of the winter solstice, at least according to calendar at the time. (The actual solstice is December 21—it’s a long story: Check back in a couple of weeks . . .)
“Soltice” comes from the Latin words Sol (sun) and Stitium (to stand still). In the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to rise to the south little by little, creating shorter days and longer nights, until it “stops and turns around” on December 21. This is the winter solstice, and it happens in reverse from then to June 21, the summer solstice.
In 274, Emperor Aurelius, declared December 25 to be the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” Roman culture was already celebrating Saturnalia from December 17-23, a festival for the god Saturn. It was characterized by gift-giving, banquets, and a carnival-like atmosphere. The excesses of Saturnalia were already a concern for church, but the impulse to celebrate light over darkness was irrepressible. With the introduction of the birthday of unconquered sun, the church saw an opportunity.
Referring to the last chapter of the Older Testament Malachi 4, the church recalled that Malachi urged the people to, “remember the teachings of Moses,” and promised to, “send the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord.” On that day, Malachi promises, for those “who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
With Jesus in mind, the church declared the day of the invincible “sun” to be the day of the invincible “son.” In other words, the church built a bridge to the culture surrounding it. Much later this festival became Christ’s Mass, eventually to become Christmas.
Bridges are two-way streets, and there has always been some hesitation about solstice celebrations infiltrating the festival of the nativity at Christmas. This is why the Puritans outlawed Christmas (see last week’s message). But two-way bridges have their advantages. In this case, the two cultures—Christian and pagan—can complement, instead of compete with, one another.
This insight leads us to consider John’s prologue anew. Clearly he is referring to Malachi. The Day of the Lord has arrived in Jesus. John is the promised Elijah. Jesus is the promised sun of righteousness. In chapter 8, Jesus declares that he is, “the light of the world.” John is saying something new, yet by using the words of Genesis, he is saying that this new thing is really, “from the beginning.”
For John, Jesus is the “Word” of creation in Genesis. He is the foundation of all that is. In Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich’s language, Jesus represents God as the “Ground of our being.” For John, Jesus is life-itself, and this life begins, as Genesis does, with light.
Jesus came to the world which was created through him, but had forgotten him. He came to “his own,” the Jewish people, but they did not recognize him. They still worship God and celebrate light (think of Hanukah), just not through Jesus. This propelled Jesus outside of Judaism to Gentile (non-Jewish) nations. As a result, now all people can recognize they are children of God.
This is what John means by referring to Jesus as offering “grace upon grace.” Grace means being chosen by God. There was grace in the Law of Moses, which was the characteristic distinguishing ancient Israel as chosen. John says there is “grace and truth” in Christ. What is this truth? It is that we are all children of God, not just the Jews.
This inclusive ethic is, according to John, “closer to the Father’s heart” than Moses’ exclusive Law keeping. This truth is “from the beginning.” It is the light “that darkness could not overcome.”
This is what we welcome across the bridge from the other side, from the solstice celebrations of light and life, from the “Christmas” rejected by the Puritans. If we were to make this bridge one-way, we would risk not accepting Christ, risk forgetting that we are children of God. We could backtrack from grace and truth to just grace through law. And some in the church desire to do just this.
But Christmas is about grace upon grace. It is about grace and truth, the truth of all being children of God. It is about the “light that enlightens every person.”
The traditions of medieval Germany help us to remember the value of keeping the bridge two-way. In Germany, Advent is called lichtwochen, “light weeks.” In the weeks prior to Christmas, they light candles. The lights on Christmas trees originated from Germany. In the most well-known expression of Christmas light in Nuremburg, they have the Angel, a resplendent being in pleated gold dress representing the lighted star which guided the Magi to Jesus. And in Germany, it is the Christkindel, “Christ child,” who brings gifts, reminding us that in Christ, we are all children of God.
With thanksgiving we receive these reminders of what solstice celebrations of light offer to the Christian church celebrating the birth of Christ. And we must also remember Germany’s plunge into darkness in the last century. They forgot the revelation of John. They forgot the grace of God offered through the Law of Moses. They forgot truth of all people being God’s children. In nationalistic insanity, Hitler tried to eradicate Jews, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, and non-Aryans.
May it not be so today! As we approach the winter solstice, let us remember the meaning of Christ’s birth—the light that enlightens every person has come, and we are all children of God.