A second chance to love a stranger

I got an email yesterday from a church member that made my heart swell and she gave me permission to share it on my blog. I had preached this past weekend about Jeremiah’s call in Jeremiah 29 for his people to “seek the welfare of the city to which they had been sent.” What I said was that in addition to contributing to the various campaigns and efforts to stop poverty, we need to make the world personal for the strangers that we encounter, because loneliness is a huge problem in our day. This story is a simple, beautiful example of how God gives us second chances to love strangers when we blow them off at first. Continue Reading

From self-justification to mercy

Like many other evangelicals in my generation, I’ve got a kind of rage inside of me that keeps me awake at night. It comes from looking around and feeling convicted that we Christians have become exactly what Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being. We have become the same as the Pharisees who made it necessary for Jesus to come to Earth in the first place. We have taken the Word that was given to us as a gift and turned it into a means of one-upping each other and winning political power for ourselves. Continue Reading

Orthodoxy for the Sake of Orthopraxis

So for those of my facebook friends who don’t know, this week there’s a virtual “Rally to Restore Unity” being held by Christians on facebook and other places in response to some ferocious theological debate that has taken place on the Internet largely as a result of Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins. The idea is that we as Christians ought to promote unity in the church rather than saying that anybody who disagrees with us isn’t a true Christian. I don’t endorse everything that’s being said by other people, but I do think it’s worth reexamining how the Bible actually defines heresy, which is actually not the way that we have tended to understand things as Protestants who splinter into a new denomination every time we disagree on a theological detail.

For most of Christianity’s history (pre-Reformation), heresy was more or less judged according to whether it created schism, or a splintering of the unity of the body of Christ. The reason that Marcionism, Gnosticism, Nestorianism, Arianism, Pelagianism, Donatism, Montanism (and a whole lot of other –isms you’ve never heard of) came to be seen as heresies is because they threatened the unity of the body of Christ and undermined the ability of Christians to work together as committed disciples.

The reason I make this point is because it’s not enough to be “Biblical” to avoid heresy. The Bible is a complex enough text that you can take bits and pieces out of context to justify a practice that goes completely against the spirit of the Bible. This is why Paul told the Corinthians that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6), which was actually the verse that caused the great fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine to convert to Christianity after he had trouble taking certain Old Testament passages literally. Of course, some asinine people take this to the nihilistic extreme of saying that nothing in the Bible needs to be taken seriously if every verse can be misinterpreted. And then in response, others say that we must interpret everything literally or not at all.

The reality is that we have to make decisions about which passages get more weight than others when interpreting the Bible. If James says that “faith without works is dead” and Romans says that “we are justified by our faith and not by works,” then do we interpret James in the light of Romans or Romans in the light of James? (Personally I think that some days I need James and other days I need Romans; the fact that they seem to contradict is only a problem if I’m trying to come up with an airtight systematic doctrine that’s purer than everybody else’s.) This issue actually came up when I was helping a friend write a sermon this December. We had to decide how to read Peter’s statement in Acts 10:35 that God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” If this is true, then it seems to clash with what Paul says in Romans about God only “accepting” those of us who are justified by our faith in Christ. So do we say that Peter can’t really mean what he’s literally saying or do we somehow hold Acts 10:35 and Romans 5 “in tension” with one another (whatever that means)?

In any case, my point is simply that we need a better litmus test with which to measure true or false Christian teaching than to just ask whether it’s derived in some way from something “Biblical.” The 2nd century Gnostics did all kinds of proof-texting from the Bible to support their heresy. In response, the bishop Irenaeus wrote that Biblical passages are like a set of mosaic tiles that can be rearranged to form different pictures according to how they are prioritized and privileged. He said that properly orthodox Christian teaching arranges the Biblical tiles to form a lamb, while the Gnostics were rearranging the same tiles to form a fox. If the same words can make a fox and a lamb, we need a litmus test that helps us read the Bible in such a way so that we see the lamb of God and not some fox of Satan. The Bible actually gives us several litmus tests to use. Each of them sets the boundaries of orthodoxy (right teaching) according to the needs of orthopraxis (right practice).

First of all and most prominently, we have Jesus’ claim that “all the law and the prophets hang on” the commandments to love God and love your neighbor. What does this mean? The way that Augustine interpreted it is to say that all scripture has the goal of leading its readers to fulfill these two commandments. Thus the way to know whether I am interpreting scripture correctly is whether it leads me to give myself more fully to God and my neighbor in love. Interestingly, the poster child Jesus gives for the second great commandment to love your neighbor was a Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a man who was not simply a different race than Jesus’ audience of Jewish religious leaders, but someone whom they considered to be an absolute heretic because of the Samaritans’ religious mixture of Jewish and pagan beliefs.

As much as it makes us squirm, Jesus seems to be telling us in the Good Samaritan story that the priest and Levite’s orthodoxy was inferior to the Samaritan’s heterodoxy because the Samaritan was the one who was able to show mercy (though it is also true that when Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 under different circumstances, he critiques Samaritan beliefs and affirms the superiority of Jewish orthodoxy). There are certainly ways to abuse the litmus test of love. It’s perverse to say that because scripture is supposed to lead me to love my neighbor and God, then I can sidestep any Biblical passages that feel “unloving” to me because they’re uncomfortable. The only way to become a Christian disciple capable of real love is to have layers and layers of corrupt worldly socialization chiseled away from us by God largely through wrestling with uncomfortable Biblical passages.

Another litmus test comes in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He tells Timothy that the problem with “false doctrines” is that they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:4-5). Controversial speculation is the fruit of heresy; advancing God’s work is the fruit of orthodoxy. The goal of a pastor like Timothy should be to cultivate pure hearts, good consciences, and sincere faith. This means making decisions about what to share with which people at what time. When the Corinthians take Paul’s initial teachings out of context to engage in political power-play within their congregations, he explains that they have misused surface-level teachings which were appropriate to them as new believers by trying to make them into absolute norms: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

The reason God didn’t write the Bible as a flat, static text whose passages offer obvious interpretations at first-glance is because He wasn’t looking to give us a soap-box from which to launch self-righteous tirades against other people. Instead He gave us a dynamic resource full of milk for some believers and solid food for others as the occasion dictates according to the purpose of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The reason that God breathed scripture is not to give us ammunition for winning theological cage matches with other Christian but to equip us for doing God’s work. Orthodoxy exists for the sake of orthopraxis.

Notice that I’m not saying there are no boundaries; what I’m saying is that the boundaries exist for a reason – to create dedicated Christian disciples who will work as a unified body to transform the world. Sometimes heretics undermine this purpose by coloring outside of the lines of the Biblical canon; sometimes they stay inside the lines but in a mischievous way that follows the letter but abuses the spirit of Biblical witness. And ironically it’s often the case that the Christians who are the most zealous grand inquisitors of others’ doctrinal shortcomings have been deeply compromised by worldly values themselves. If you have the need to prove something with your doctrinal “loyalty,” then perhaps you haven’t yet received the good news that Christ died to take away our need to prove anything.

A third litmus test that I’ve always found helpful are the fruits of the Spirit that Paul shares with the Galatians towards the end of his letter to them. Galatians is Paul’s angriest letter because some of the Galatian leaders were trying to force a whole slew of Jewish religious practices onto the Gentiles who had converted to Christianity. We have many Galatians in the church today who try to tell other believers which political party they need to vote for and what political issues they need to prioritize in order to be a true Christian. After Paul emphatically exhorts the Galatians not to put their trust in anything other than Christ, he gives them a concrete means of measuring whether they’re living by the Spirit or the flesh: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). Whenever our doctrine causes us to be less than kind, gentle, peaceful, loving, joyful, patient, faithful, and self-controlled, then that’s a pretty good indication that we’ve fallen for a heresy of some kind. An orthodox use of scripture will result in the Spirit’s fruits blossoming in our soul.

The test of orthodoxy is more than just asking whether we are being “Biblical.” Far more important is whether we create or remove stumbling blocks for people with whom God wants us to share His love, whether we get our kicks from force-feeding the toughest morsels of spiritual meat to new believers or prayerfully discern between giving them milk or solid food as thoughtful shepherds in imitation of our own Good Shepherd, whether we promote controversial speculation for the sake of our own power play or advance God’s work for the sake of the Kingdom, and whether we justify ourselves with our own doctrinal rightness or devote ourselves to unifying the body of people who are okay with being wrong since Jesus Christ is their only justification.

If You Want to Be Good, Be a Samaritan First!

Sermon for 7/11/2010
Text: Luke 10:25-37

If you want to be good, be a Samaritan first. Most people reading the Good Samaritan story put the focus on being “good”; I want to put the focus on being a Samaritan. We can do all the good in the world; we can stop and help every person with a flat tire on the beltway; but unless we have a Samaritan heart, the good that we do won’t do us any good at all.

It’s hard to get past a surface level reading of the Good Samaritan story since everybody knows it. Even people who don’t go to church know when they hear “Samaritan” in the news headlines, it’s a story about a nice and helpful person. So I could just say, “Y’all know the story; don’t be like those other Christians who walk past the bleeding man on the side of the road; be a good Methodist and put him on your donkey.”

The problem is that back in Jesus’ day, Samaritan didn’t mean nice person. Jews hated Samaritans, and it wasn’t just racism. They had several centuries of reasons.

Let me give you some background. After Solomon died, ancient Israel split into two kingdoms – the north and the south. The northern kingdom was a lot wealthier and more successful militarily than the south, but the south stuck closer to its spiritual roots in Yahweh, the God of Abraham, since the south had Yahweh’s great temple in Jerusalem. The northern kingdom was more religiously “cosmopolitan”; they prayed to Yahweh some of the time, and Baal and Asherah other times. Despite its early success, the north made some bad choices that led to its being conquered by the Assyrians, who renamed the whole region Samarita. The Israelites who resisted the Assyrians were deported and sold into slavery. But the ones who disguised themselves by selling out the God who had brought them out of Egypt for the new gods of their conquerors – they became Samaritans.

Meanwhile, the Judeans in the south kept their faith and held their holy city of Jerusalem even under Assyrian siege. When Judea finally fell to Babylon a century and a half later, the Judeans went into exile until the Persians took over and let them go back to rebuild their temple. When the Jews came back home from Babylon, they found this group of Samaritans claiming to be their distant cousins and claiming to have the same religion even though they had disfigured it beyond recognition.

Samaritans were not just a different race; their quarrel with the Jews was not just a misunderstanding; the reason that the Jews were so upset with the Samaritans was that while the Jews had suffered through exile and persecution due to their religious beliefs, their Samaritan cousins had sold out their God to save their own skin.

The reason I gave you all this historical background is so that you would understand how utterly bizarre it was for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of his story. What did this descendent of heretic sell-out traitors have in him that the pious, devout priest and Levite didn’t have? Something was in the Samaritan’s soul that caused him to be “moved with pity” when he saw a man bleeding on the side of the road.

About a year ago, I got myself in a bind that helped me understand this story. The kids in my youth group loved to eat at the flea market, which they called the “pulga” in Spanish. The problem with the pulga was that it had a gravel parking lot with some really sharp rocks. So when we went to the pulga in the church van one searing hot afternoon, we got a flat tire and didn’t have a lug wrench big enough to change it. Several cars away from us was a Hispanic man who was loading his little girls into their car seats. My teenagers ran over to him before I could stop them and asked for help

Now I would have been irritated if I had just buckled up my kids’ car seats, but he just got his AC running and came over to survey the problem. I explained that we needed an abnormally large lug wrench. He said to give him twenty minutes and he would take his girls home and bring back his whole socket wrench set. I tried to stop him but he told me he wasn’t working that day and had nowhere to be. So he went home, rushed back, and we found a socket big enough to turn the nuts. The nuts were so rusty that we had to put two tools together to get leverage. It worked to get the nuts off but in the process we broke his tool. I offered him $10 to help pay for the cost, but he wouldn’t accept it. He said that other people had helped him before and he was happy to do the same.

I wanted to make this incident into a teaching moment so I asked the youth to turn off their ipods and reflect on why this man did what he did. “That’s easy,” they said, “he’s Mexican!” (which makes a little more sense if I tell you that 90% of my youth were Mexican-American).

I was a little disappointed in their response, but as I was driving them home, my mind started turning over what they had said. Is there something about being an immigrant in America today that’s similar to being a Samaritan in Judea 2000 years ago? The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think there is one. Just like Jewish people had a reason to be mad at Samaritans, many people who look like me have a reason to be mad at immigrants, at least illegal ones. And just like the Samaritan in Jesus’ story probably had nothing to do with his ancestors’ betrayal of Judaism, the Hispanic man who helped us might not have been illegal, but because he spoke no English, my mind put him in a box just like Jesus’ Jewish audience put all Samaritans in the same box.

I’m not interested in getting into the politics of immigration any more than Jesus was interested in talking about the history behind the conflict between the Samaritans and Jews. What I will say is this: the priest and the Levite faced a similar disadvantage to the one I have. They had the privilege of being God’s chosen people in the same way that I have the privilege of being a citizen of the best country the world has to offer right now born into a stable middle-upper class Christian family. Why is this privilege a disadvantage? Because the world I have always lived in is a fair place where people who stay in school and work hard grow up to have successful, stable families of their own. Since I didn’t grow up in a neighborhood where people get beat up, and it doesn’t fit with my view of how the world’s supposed to be, I’d rather walk across the street and let someone who knows what they’re doing take care of the bleeding man.

Either that or I do stop, because I’m trying to prove how mission-minded I am. Maybe I’ve got latex gloves, blankets, and band-aids in my car just in case I see a bleeding man on the side of the road. But if we look closely at this story Jesus told, the point is not whether my church has an effective outreach ministry to people who get beat up by robbers and left for dead. What Jesus wants to know is whether there’s enough space in my soul for the Holy Spirit to move me with pity. Or have all my theories about the world and my need for it all to make sense closed me off to every attempt God makes to light a fire under me? Can I be “moved by pity” like the Good Samaritan was? Not unless I become a Samaritan.

I think that’s what Jesus is saying here. And the reason I think that is because Jesus became like a Samaritan in His own life and death. That’s why I included the Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah in today’s reading. “He was despised and rejected by men… Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” The reason early Christians knew that Isaiah was talking about Jesus in this passage is because Jesus’ decision to become a hated outcast is central to how He saves us.

We think we understand Jesus’ cross. We put it on our diagrams and in our four spiritual laws, and think that’s all there is to it. It’s become for us like a giant credit card we swipe on our way into heaven. But what does it really mean that the Creator of the universe, “who was by nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing… and became obedient to death on a cross”? The cross was the ultimate shame in Roman culture, the form of death reserved for petty thieves and scoundrels deemed unfit for a Roman sword, in other words, the Samaritans of the Earth.

See, the cross is not just a payment for sin. Jesus is the ultimate Insider who knows every word that comes out of our mouths before we even think about saying them. But when the ultimate Insider becomes the ultimate Outsider by going through the most disgraceful thing a human being can possibly go through, it means that other outsiders can see that we’re not alone. We can tear off the masks we’ve put on for other people and wear our shame openly since our Creator wore the world’s shame openly on the cross. We can be Samaritans because our King let Himself be a Samaritan so we could take up our crosses and follow Him.

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ call to take up our crosses, but I suspect we misunderstand what it means. We think that taking up our crosses means committing to a certain number of hours a week of church work. We’ve reduced the cross to self-sacrifice. But carrying a cross wasn’t just a sacrifice; it was a “symbol of suffering and shame”; people spat and threw things at Jesus while He was carrying His cross.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” what He’s saying is you don’t have to be afraid of your shame anymore. “I died for you to free you from all the things you’re so embarrassed that other people will find out about you, the things about you that might make other people treat you like a Samaritan. Now accept the freedom to stop trying to prove that you’re not a Samaritan when you know good and well that you are!”

Did something happen in your past that you’re not proud of? It’s okay; take up that cross and follow Jesus! Do you have to take pills every morning to keep from getting depressed? That’s fine; take up that cross and follow Jesus! Is your kid not meeting all of the learning milestones that the pediatrician says he’s supposed to? Take up that cross too and follow Jesus! Taking up your cross means giving up the lie that everything in your life is going just fine, making peace with the fact that you’re a sinner who Jesus died for, and taking the risk that other people might treat you like a Samaritan.

When we’re not willing to take that risk, we end being like cranky Hank from Pastor Ed’s sermon last week. The reason people like Hank are so cranky is because they’re scared to admit that they don’t have it all together. It’s my nervousness about my own flaws that makes me want to judge other people. But when I admit that I’m a hopeless sinners and I trust Jesus enough to take my shame to the foot of His cross, then I can be free like that Good Samaritan – liberated from caring what other people think so the Holy Spirit can have its way with me.