One of the most important and often neglected threads of the gospel stories of Jesus is the ongoing debate that he has with the Pharisees about the nature of holiness. It’s very important for us to recognize that the Pharisees represent the very best that we could do without Jesus. They were genuinely trying with all their hearts to follow God, but God wanted better for his people which is why Jesus had to come. The forty days of Lent before Easter are a time for Christians to grapple with the nature of holiness together. So for this year’s Lent at Burke United Methodist Church’s Sunday evening Lifesign service, we will be looking at a series of stories that illuminate the distinction between Jesus’ holiness and that of the Pharisees. If you’re not able to make it in person, please subscribe to the podcast. Continue Reading
This was the final sermon of our Wrestling series a couple of weekends ago. We went through a whole lot of scripture to try to understand where the Bible is coming from about sex. Paul provides us with three excellent principles for sexual ethics in 1 Corinthians 7: 1) “free[dom] from anxieties” (love of self), 2) “promot[ing] good order” (love of neighbor), 3) “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (love of God). So we looked at how these principles applied in various different scriptures, including the question of homosexuality as a concern of promoting the good order of society. Please subscribe to the podcast if you aren’t already.
There’s a movement within United Methodism called “Biblical Obedience” whose name itself is offensive to many Methodists because it advocates full inclusivity for LGBT people. I’ve already written about my understanding of what the Bible actually teaches on this issue, but what I really want to contemplate today is the question of obedience itself, setting aside the LGBT issue for a moment. The most radical example of Biblical obedience I can think of (other than Jesus’ journey to the cross) is when God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. This story raises difficult questions. Is obedience always a good thing? How do we know whether we’re obeying God or conforming to the world, particularly if our world happens to be saturated in church culture? How does Abraham’s radical example translate into our day? Does it look more like Huck Finn’s quest to free his friend Jim from slavery in rebellion against his cultural values or Adolf Eichmann’s willingness to follow orders and carry out the genocide of the Jewish people? Continue Reading
I think that the reason many Christians can’t understand each other, particularly with regard to how we read the Bible, may end up boiling down to different personality types. I am an INFP, according to the Myers-Briggs system. I would tend to call it the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic. According to the Internet, people like me “do not like to deal with hard facts and logic” and we “don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.” I think that’s reasonably accurate. But the important thing to understand is that English majors don’t hate truth; what we hate is when people make truth look ugly and stupid (i.e. what an ESTJ probably calls “hard facts and logic”). So I thought I would list some instincts that English majors bring to reading the Bible that make the fundamentalists gnash their teeth at us. Continue Reading
At this Wednesday night’s Ecclesia National Gathering plenary session, Mandy Smith used a great metaphor that captures what irks me about the attitude toward Bible study I have seen at times in conservative evangelicalism. She was preaching from Hebrews 4:12-13, which says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” The Bible is supposed to be a sword that pierces our heart and does spiritual “surgery” on us so that we can be sanctified in our personal lives of discipleship. But we don’t let it do this to us when we have turned the truths of the Bible into our personal ideological display-case like a collection of dead, preserved bugs, each conquered and stabbed with a needle for a middle-school science project. Continue Reading
I’ve been enjoying the stimulating conversation at the Ecclesia National Gathering in DC. Scot McKnight started things off with a polemic against the “skinny-jeans evangelicals” (like me, sometimes) who tend to define the kingdom of God as happening “when good people do good in the public sector for the common good.” I think his polemic is legitimate. There is a furious backlash among evangelicals of my generation against the culture wars, which can turn us into generic “social justice” activists who no longer have any concept of church. “Kingdom” gets used as a code label to define a here-and-now social gospel over against an “eternal fire insurance” gospel. As McKnight says, “If the kingdom means everything, it means nothing.” He comes up with five Biblical principles for what the kingdom must include. But I think he needs some help from a “skinny-jeans evangelical” heckler like me, because I don’t think his five principles avoid reaffirming and returning to the problematic Christendom of the past. Continue Reading
I’ve been at the Ecclesia National Gathering in DC. It’s a network of moderate evangelicals who use the word “missional” a lot and plant churches and stuff like that. We just had a presentation from Bill Webb about the nature of the Bible’s authority. One of his points was that the Bible’s authority is always “accommodated” to its particular cultural context. He shared two very awkward Biblical commands, Proverbs 31:6-7 and Deuteronomy 25:11-12, that I’m pretty confident no Christian would ever obey. Continue Reading
I keep on getting busy and forgetting to post my sermon podcasts. Last weekend, for our Wrestling sermon series, we wrestled with heaven and hell. To provide a different framework than the usual one in which the question is concerned, I looked at two passages from Isaiah. Isaiah 2 starts off by talking about God’s vision for a beautiful peaceful world (vv. 1-4) and then talks about the entrenched idolatry and injustice that will need to be destroyed for God’s peace to be established (vv. 5-19). This was actually the topic of one of my first major blog posts if you’d rather read than listen. The second passage I looked at was Isaiah 6 which captures what it’s like for a human to stand in the overwhelming presence of God. I have a typed manuscript of a sermon on this that I preached in the Dominican Republic two years ago. These two components, God’s promise of a peaceful kingdom and the ability to face God with integrity, are the foundation for how I understand what heaven and hell are. Here is the audio. Sign up for the podcast if you’d like to auto-download it into your phone.
One of the main reasons that many Christians fall short who are earnestly seeking to live Biblical lives is their refusal to see legitimate analogies between issues of controversy in the time of the Bible’s stories and our lives today. Most Christians completely miss the significance of three important social teachings in the New Testament because they deal with issues that were a huge deal in their day but are completely uncontroversial now: Sabbath healing, circumcision, and unclean food. No one is going to criticize a doctor whose on-call pager goes off in church on a Sunday morning so he can save a patient’s life; neither will anyone tell the parents of a boy whom they elected not to circumcise as a baby that they are not welcome in worship; neither could we imagine telling anyone that eating meat from a grocery store owned by a Muslim or Buddhist is an offense against God. So we don’t allow these three major New Testament controversies to teach us anything, because we’re unwilling to recognize the deeper principles they teach and apply these to the actual controversies of the faith in our day about which many Christians are every bit as tight-fisted and hard-hearted as the 1st century religious leaders who crucified Jesus and persecuted Paul.
A few months ago, First Things ran a post critiquing emergenty evangelicals like me for dabbling in the theology and sacred ambiance of high church traditions like Orthodoxy and Catholicism without being willing to submit to the hierarchy. Whether it’s inconsistent and incoherent and irrational, there’s something that causes Christians like me to have one foot in the Occupy camp with the irreverent hooligans and one foot in the cathedrals that enchant us. Two images have grabbed my heart over the past few weeks: when the Russian Orthodox monks stood praying and risking martyrdom between the cops and the protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, and when the anarchist girl punk band Pussy Riot got whipped by Cossacks for recording a punk video in Sochi this week. Half of my heart belongs to Russian Orthodoxy and half belongs to Pussy Riot; it’s just the kind of Christian that I am. Continue Reading