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
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.
Jesus says some pretty wild things, but this week’s lectionary reading includes one of his most extreme statements in Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” I’ve only known of one instance in which somebody actually obeyed this teaching, and it was fictional. My favorite novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote a novel called Son of the Morning about a boy prodigy Pentecostal preacher named Nathan Vickery who falls into fornication and publicly gouges out his eye as an act of penance. So what do we do with this extreme teaching of Jesus besides creating a nation of cyclopses? Continue Reading
A couple of weeks ago, at Wheaton College, a very interesting dialogue happened. The campus had organized a speaking event for ex-gay activist Rosaria Butterfield whose story of converting from a leftist lesbian university professor to the homeschooling housewife of a conservative evangelical pastor has made her very popular in the conservative evangelical speaking circuit. LGBT-supporting Wheaton students held a “demonstration” outside the talk that they said wasn’t a “protest.” They held signs saying things like “We’re all loved by God,” “Rosaria’s story is valid, mine is too,” and “I’m gay and a beloved child of God.” Their demonstration was called “More than a single story.” After Rosaria’s presentation, she talked with the LGBT students. Both sides were able to respect and show grace to each other. It was a beautiful witness.
This weekend, I had the perfect setup for a stereotypical social justice Christian sermon. I was preaching on wrestling with God’s anger. My primary text was Mark 3:1-6 where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. Verse 5 says, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at the hardness of their hearts.” The lectionary Old Testament passage was Isaiah 58, in which God berates Israel for trying to win his favor by fasting when their lives are unjust. So I was all ready to talk about those religious elitists with hard hearts whom I’ve always heroically stood up against. But then God confronted me with something. It turns out that I’ve got a hard heart too. My audio is here with some additional commentary below. If you want to auto-download these sermons to your phone, sign up for my podcast.
Scot McKnight had a very interesting post last week concerning a recently popular“scapegoat” atonement theory about Jesus’ cross based on the cultural theory of French philosopher Rene Girard. The scapegoat theory’s basic idea is that God the Father doesn’t demand Jesus’ blood as the price for humanity’s sin, but that we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin. McKnight contends that the Girardian view doesn’t count as an atonement theory because in his interpretation of the scapegoat theory, “we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death.” McKnight says that for an interpretation of the cross to be atonement as such, it must implicate us in the death of Jesus, “the cross [must be] in some way against us.” Interestingly, McKnight’s terms for a valid atonement theory don’t delegitimize Girard’s scapegoat theory nearly as much as they invalidate the default evangelical understanding of the cross as the satisfaction of God’s wrath. I heartily agree with McKnight’s understanding. Humanity crucified Jesus, not God; it is our needs which the cross satisfies, not God’s. Continue Reading
A week ago Sunday evening, we looked at the story of Adam and Eve as part of our LifeSign Wrestling sermon series. After listening to Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire,” we looked at several elements of the curse of sin in our world depicted allegorically through the story of Adam and Eve. They ate the fruit because they wanted to play God. As a result, they saw that they were naked and became ashamed. This meant that the world was transformed from a garden into a plantation. God’s way of undoing the curse was to get naked through Jesus on his cross so that we would stop hiding in the bushes from God. Please subscribe to the podcast if you want to receive the audio automatically each week.
Last Sunday morning, I preached on Jesus’ statement “I am the bread of life.” I looked at the three things that we gain from feasting on Jesus, which happen to be three words that we have for the sacred meal that we share as Christians: communion with God and each other, a life of eucharist (thanksgiving) and worship, and a sacramental appreciation of God’s transcendent fingerprints in all of creation. Please subscribe to the podcast if you want to get the sermon audio automatically sent to you.
I’ve been reading an interview with outspoken atheist comedian Bill Maher in the Atlantic. The interviewer asked him a question about God and his answer was intriguing to me. The question was along the lines of Pascal’s Wager: “What if you’re wrong and you’re dooming yourself to hell? Do you ever worry about that?” Here is Maher’s response:
I’ve been reading two books recently that have me really wondering what to do with the Old Testament: RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God and Richard Beck’s Unclean. Sproul’s book uses some of the most troubling Old Testament depictions of God to define God’s holiness since holiness has to do with God’s otherness and incomprehensibility. Beck talks about the way that the ethics of mercy and sacrifice pull in opposite directions. The God depicted by the prophets seems to care mostly about mercy, while the God depicted by the priests in the Torah seems to care mostly about sacrifice. It may be a taboo question, but is the Old Testament really a debate between the priests and the prophets? Continue Reading