Easter Wishes

Three Women at Tomb - Bassa

On this day Christians celebrate the triumph of compassion, love, and self-sacrifice over venality, ignorance, and death. For those of my tradition: “Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας!” For those of other traditions, I wish you joy as well in those things that give life meaning. Whatever awaits us beyond the grave, we will surely all share in it together.

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Being Theologically Conservative

Scutum Fidei

Scutum Fidei (Wikipedia)

Enough friends have asked me how I can be pro-GLBT, pro-choice, and a socialist and still consider myself theologically “conservative” that I decided to answer in more detail here.

The first point that I should probably clear up is that being theologically conservative is not the same thing as being socially conservative. Despite what Focus on the Family and other fringe groups on the axis of intolerance want you to think, Christian views on social issues have changed from generation to generation – and they’ve changed dramatically from era to era. If Christianity is defined by a particular social agenda, then there have been almost no Christians since the third century.

Likewise, trying to use some form of convoluted logic to make the words of the Christian scriptures “inerrant” is not being a theological conservative. Clearly the people who wrote, compiled, and edited the Jewish and Christian scriptures didn’t think they were creating an inerrant collection of documents. They would have made them more homogeneous if they had. People who talk about biblical “inerrancy” are really just using a code word for their desire to subordinate Scripture to their social agenda; and they typically do so with people who don’t have the scholarly background to appreciate how ludicrous their claims really are (or to realize that the “inerrantists” aren’t conserving anything, they’re creating a new doctrine).

The reason that I began with the negatives, defining what “theologically conservative” is not, is that – for me – paring Christian identity down to the essentials was part of the process of defining my own role as a pastor. Through ordination, the Church entrusts to its clergy the custodianship of the Chruch’s identity; and so understanding what is “Christian” and what is not is part of a pastor’s role. Consequently, when I was ordained I realized it was important to try have a working definition of the word “Christian” if I was going to be able to do my job well.

If one takes this exercise seriously, it’s harder than it seems. On one side, there are the shrill voices of the fundamentalists. In order to place their counter-cultural assertions beyond critique, fundamentalists insist that even the most minute component of their doctrine, no matter how scant the biblical or historical support for it might be, is an essential part of being “Christian.”

On the other side are the real liberals. They claim the label Christian, while ignoring, denying, or contradicting nearly everything that Christians have historically believed – be it the deity of Christ or even the authority of God.

Both extremes have kept the label “Christian” because they have positive associations with it or because it gives greater credibility to their belief systems; but in neither case is the label helpful. “Being a ‘Christian’ means understanding the world exactly the way I do, even if I don’t realize that the way I understand the world is very different from how Christians have historically understood it!” is not a useful definition. Nor is, “Being a ‘Christian’ can really mean anything as long as you include the word ‘Jesus’ in there somewhere.”

But with so many groups offering so many different, and contradictory, understandings of what it means to be a Christian, where can one turn? For me, the logical answer was (and is): Scripture and History.

Scripture alone is not completely helpful in this regard. Even if one limits such a search to the New Testament, the authors there wrote from very different perspectives and with different, sometimes competing, agendas. One of the reasons for the great variation in modern definitions of Christianity is that, lacking an external locus of authority, people have picked and chosen what they liked from Scripture to define Christianity.

An example here is the debate over predestination versus free will. There are biblical passages that support both positions, but adherents to each camp will insist that their position is the correct, Christian view. They do this by privileging the texts which support their view, and subordinating the texts which disagree with them. As a result, they claim that they are simply “taking the Bible at face value” and “letting Scripture alone define their beliefs.” What they are really doing, however, is imposing their beliefs on Scripture.

A couple of useful things come out of this realization. The first is that lots of things that might be helpful to have in a consensus definition of Christianity (like, for instance, settling the question of predestination) can’t be included. That’s because the biblical record is too mixed. This is even true on really major questions like the mechanism of justification/salvation, and on key social issues like slavery. If one approaches Scripture honestly, allowing its authors to speak with their individual voices, it becomes clear that the basic definition of Christianity, its essential heart, must allow for a diversity of views on many theological points.

Also, the value of history becomes clear. “Christian” isn’t just defined by Scripture. It is defined by the people who died for the gospel in the first few centuries of the Church’s development. It is defined by the people who, 350 years after the time of Christ, selected, compiled, and edited the Scriptures that would become the Bible. It is defined, in short, by the historical identity of the Church.

In addition to the necessity of history in establishing some consensus on interpreting Scripture, a study of Christian history is essential since that is the history of the Bible. Scripture was not created ex nihilo. The same process of prayer, study, debate, and encounter with the world which produced the creeds and early doctrines of the Church is the process which produced the Christian Scriptures. The Bible did not come to be in a vacuum, and trying to interpret it outside the context which produced it is nonsensical.

And so, in my personal journey to find a working, consensus definition of Christianity, I turned to Scripture and history. Fortunately, at that point my work was really done. Christians had already worked out two beautiful, consensus statements of what it means to identify oneself as Christians: the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. Interestingly, neither statement makes any mention of social issues or addresses the kinds of minutiae that Christians use for division and dispute these days. There was already enough history of dispute over those kinds of things that the Church knew that any statement of faith which was based on them would exclude more Christians than would include them.

Instead, the creeds focus on the heart of Christianity: a specific understanding of metaphyscial reality. This includes the preeminence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reality of the Holy Spirit, the brokenness of humanity, the need for restoration to the divine reality of God, the importance of community, and the defeat of death through the suffering, execution, and physical resurrection of Jesus, God Incarnate.

It is not in its practical morality that Christianity defines itself. Lots of groups produce moral views that are nearly identical to those held by most Christians. Nor is it in its explanation of the inexplicable that Christianity defines itself. The creeds are noticeably lacking in the kind of theological specificity that modern logic craves. The holy is, by definition, “other” and undefinable.

The uniqueness of Christianity is found in its metaphysical claims, its assertions about the nature of the human condition and the reality of a holy Creator seeking a relationship with us. It is for that reality – made explicit in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – that the martyrs gave their lives. It is that reality that Paul proclaimed on Mars Hill. It is that reality which, no matter how it is encumbered by our own agendas and weaknesses, changes lives to this day. To deny any part of those metaphysical claims is to create new set of metaphysical beliefs, essentially a new religion. If someone wishes to do so, far be it from me to stop them. Nevertheless, a new religion needs a new name. It is not “Christianity.”

To finally answer the question, I define myself as “theologically conservative” because I define the gospel – the good news of Christianity – in a way that is consistent with how Christians have historically defined it. No matter how trendy or convenient, I will not take away anything from the heart of that confession. There is a God, incarnate in Jesus, who died of necessity to restore relationship with a broken humanity, and in his resurrection is victory over death.

Nor will I add to that definition, as fundamentalists do with (ironically) their own kind of liberalism – assuming somehow that their specific, modern understanding of morality and social issues is the unique and most accurate understanding of Christianity. In so doing, they ignore both the consensus of history and the diversity of Scripture, treating both dishonestly or, at best, disingenuously.

I am theologically conservative because I believe that, to be a “Christian” means to neither add to nor subtract from the common beliefs of those who died to give the word its meaning.

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Are We Really Saving People from Hell?

In a conversation about the Roman Road and the influence of nineteenth-century evangelism on soteriology an aquaintance talked about people perishing in flames and such if the gospel were not shared with them or if they did not accept it. Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that Almighty God is planning to condemn four billion (five billion? six billion?) people to an eternity of agony and torment because they either did not hear or were not persuaded that they were sinners and that Jesus died for them?

Before anyone asks, no, I do not ignore those texts where Jesus or others warn about perishing in a fiery afterlife. When those texts come up, I preach them faithfully. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that those texts are generally directed as warnings to believers, and I think they serve best that way. In other words, Hell works best as a prod to keep us as Christians seeking the narrow path that leads to life rather than as an assumption about the eternal destination for the vast, vast majority of humanity.

Somewhere in the union of Western individualism with revivalist evangelism salvation ceased to be about the singular divine act of mercy in Jesus and became a question of individual status. We stopped talking about “God’s salvation of humanity” and started talking about “Jesus dying for you.” Instead of asking people to join in the divine drama of salvation and sanctification, we started asking, “Are you saved? Is she?”

The biblical record is incredibly ambiguous and even contradictory on how salvation works and who is or is not saved. The Church as a whole, likewise, usually comes up with a new dominant model of salvation for each major era of Western thought (and I suppose a new one is forthcoming as we move into postmodernism), so it’s obvious that we don’t and never will fully understand the concept of salvation in this life. Certainly, my own ignorance causes me to significantly mistrust the value or power of human consent or understanding in the process of salvation. Perhaps more importantly, I am aware that Jesus’ strongest warning about the dangers of eternal torment are directed at his followers who think they are safe.

For me, then, Hell should be primarily a concern for believers. Evangelism, then, is not about saving the unwashed hordes from Hell; it is about inviting people to have their lives transformed by joining into a relationship with their Creator who, taking human form and suffering as they suffer, died out of love for them to save them and who was resurrected on the third day offering them and us all hope of eternal life.

Is this “another gospel” because it does not emphasize the threat of Hell? (Please note that I’m not denying the threat of Hell, just blanket pronouncements which ignore how it is used in Scripture and which direct the focus outward.) I don’t think so, because such a gospel does not deny: the reality of our sinfulness, the consequence of sinfulness, the deity of Jesus, the uniqueness and perfection of Jesus as both the answer to and the antidote for sin and its consequences, or the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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The Gospel Charge

This was originally written as a Charge to the Candidate for a dear friend, but I have come to realize that it is, for me, the best and only charge I can give to any candidate for ordination. It is also my most succinct statement of the gospel and over our obligation as ministers of word and sacrament.

In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the Apostle reminds Timothy of the day of his ordination. Starting in verse 6 of chapter 1, Paul writes:

Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel….Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

“Rekindle the power you received in the laying on of hands.” That’s dangerous language in the modern Church for several reasons. “Power” for instance has been abused by so many religious leaders that a seminary education these days is as much a course in surrendering pastoral authority as anything. On top of that, talking about conferring some sort of “powerful spirit” sounds a little too Pentecostal for high church, mainline Protestants like us. We’d be much more likely to talk about what the laying on of hands symbolizes rather than what the laying on of hands does.

Yet Paul is very clear here. In laying our hands upon you we are endowing you with a fire, a powerful flame. There is only one source of that fire, the gospel, and we entrust it to you as it was entrusted to us. You have a choice. You can either use that power to set the world on fire, or you can keep it bottled up inside. As part of my charge to you, hear my warning very clearly: if you ignore or deny the power of the gospel, it will either die out inside you or it will constantly burn you up from the inside until you let it out.

I don’t see that in your future, and so I charge you with one thing and one thing only: the gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news that, though we are broken sinners living in a broken world, merciful God loves us enough to die for us in the. The good news, that in dying for us Jesus, his body raised from the tomb, destroyed death itself and offered us life without fear.

Our own sinfulness and God’s mercy, the reality of our fears and the absolute reality of God’s overcoming them: that is the gospel. If you believe the gospel, live the gospel, and preach the gospel, then you will set the world on fire. I am not speaking hypothetically or exaggerating. In this place you are being entrusted with the same good news that led St. Francis to surrender his armor and his wealth and preach a gospel of peace. You are being entrusted with the same good news that led Clarence Jordan to found Koinonia Farm and Millard Fuller to found Habitat for Humanity. You are being entrusted with the same good news that led Julian of Norwich into a life of prayer, that brought Frederick Buechner to tears when first he heard it, and which relentlessly hounded Hildegard of Bingen until she would pick up her pen and write it down.

The simple good news of God’s mercy and Jesus’ victory over death is so powerful that knowing it and it alone, without seminary educations or even the ability to read, thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands were willing to die, to give up their very lives, rather than compromise it even the tiniest bit. If we, having been entrusted with that same gospel, fail it, then their blood is on our hands as well.

How do we avoid failing the gospel? First and foremost we must believe it. That can be harder than it seems as a pastor. We have all the education we need to interpret away things we don’t like. We have the credentials and self-assurance to convince ourselves that we don’t need anyone. But to preach the gospel, we have to live it first, and that means coming to terms with our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, and our own weakness.

When we finally come to terms with our own sin, we then face an even harder task – we must accept God’s mercy. My friend, the day will come when you feel like you’re a failure in ministry. Let me tell you in advance so that, when that day comes, you can remember it. Dear one, God knows all about it and God forgives you. God loves you.

It is in that moment, when you realize what a sweet and generous gift forgiveness is, that you will be able to truly preach the gospel. But remember when you do that you must preach all of it. You must remind us of our sinfulness and brokenness. It is those fragile, painful, scary parts of our lives that is the territory of a pastor. And when you come to those places, you must never fail to offer us the tangible hope of God’s mercy – available to every single one of us, male, female, gay, straight, liberal, conservative. You must find ways to remind the people whom you love that we are sinners, and you must find ways to offer God’s grace to the people whom you cannot stand. If you shortchange either group, the gospel loses its power.

But if you can find a way to preach the gospel, then you can find a way to live the gospel. You will have to determine for yourself what shape your professional goals will need to have for you to live the gospel, but I can point to a few characteristics to shoot for. The gospel leads to healing, it leads to unity, it leads to hope, and it leads us away from the transitory concerns of our mortal lives and focuses us on the holy and the eternal. With your gifts and talents you have so many options open to you. Choose the ones that will honor the power entrusted in you, the power to change the world, to draw us away from our petty problems and into the radical claims of the gospel.

You are worthy of our trust, and you will be wise in how you spread the fire of the gospel. You will not use it to burn and scar as some have. Instead, you will use it to bring light and warmth. You will not shirk from its strength as some have. Instead, you will burn away the thorns and weeds that threaten to choke out the eternal life within us. You will bear the trust of the apostles well, and so I close with the words of Scripture rather than my own:

For I [hand] on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. [I Corinthians 15:3-4]

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