Monday, July 6, 2015

The Gospel Compels Us to Tear Down Walls of Hostility and Make Peace

One of the greatest events to take place in the last few decades was the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For almost three decades this wall stood as a visual reminder of the hostilities that existed between the parties on either side of the wall. Yet the demolishing of this wall brought a new sense of hope to the world and the beginning of a new relationship between countries that once were hardcore enemies. 

And yet, despite this historic event, walls still remain barriers between groups of people who often do not trust one another, and who do not care to associate with one another. Some of these walls exist as physical representations of one of the fundamental problems of human societies: a deep fear of the other. But, there also exists the non-physical walls that keep us from building authentic community.

Ephesians 2:11-22 addresses the idea that in the incarnation of Jesus, God was bringing about a new creation, not just of those individuals who became new creations in Christ, but also a new creation of one new humanity in which the barriers between two specific groups of people, Jews and Gentiles, were brought down in order to bring the two into one.

In Christ, the wall of division has been brought down, and the two people that once existed apart from each other are now one new humanity. This transformation in relationship is not God’s attempt to create two covenant people, Jew and Gentile. Nor do the Gentiles take the place of Israel. Rather, the Gentiles have been brought near to God and are now joined in union and in peace with God and God’s people.

What really is at the center of this passage is the idea of peace. The word appears four times, and the peace that is discussed is that which is connected to our peace with God through Christ, as well as our peace with others. And this peace is certainly what our world needs now to break down other walls.

As we have seen even in the last few weeks in witnessing the heinous shooting of African-Americans in their own church, even in our modern world violence continues to plague our homes, our neighborhoods, and indeed, countries around the world. Division and fragmentation continue to work against God’s desire and dream for true community that is based in love and peace.

Much of the problem is that although people desire community, they often cannot find authentic community. We don’t know everything about the gunman that took the nine lives in the Mother Emmanuel Church, but we must wonder, at least to some extent, about his community and whether or not he had a community that nurtured something other than racist hatred.

Would it have made a difference if he had a loving and caring community that offered him both acceptance and accountability? Would this have nurtured him to be a different person? 

And we must also wonder and reflect on who we are as a society that we continue to allow these tragic events to be possible. Our radical individualism, as much as we take pride in this as Americans, has caused us to lose the view that we are a collective society. Even if we show concern for others and seek community with them, we are more likely to do so with people who are like us, who look like us, and who agree with us.

Christ came to bring peace and community among all people. And, if we read the Gospels carefully, we find that Jesus was concerned with community, including the mission to bring those who had no community into his community.

And in his mission, Jesus, as the writer of Ephesians puts it, created, “In himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

But the message of peace, reconciliation, and unity cannot be limited only to the divisions that existed between Jews and Gentiles. Christ’s death was an act of God to bring all people into a new relationship with him, and this includes coming into new relationships with others.

No longer are we to stand on either sides of the wall so that we can vilify the other. Rather, in Christ, God has brought us near to God’s self, and thus we are near to people from all walks of life. God desires to destroy the barriers that divide us and Christ teaches us to embrace others.

If we are followers of Christ, to embrace others means we are called to be peacemakers. As Jesus plainly stated, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

In the closing verses of the Ephesians passage, the writer uses the image of the temple, a structure that once stood in Jerusalem that symbolized the division between Jews and Gentiles. Ephesians states, however, that the two people have become one united holy temple in which God dwells. 

This temple is never finished or closed; it is a living and ever growing inclusive temple. It is a community of faith that seeks to bring near those who are far off; that seeks to welcome aliens and strangers; that seeks to bring hope and community to those who do not have these. As we participate in what God is doing, we cooperate with the spirit of God in fulfilling God’s dream to continue to create break down wall and create one new humanity of peace.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Critical and Communal Interpretation of the Bible

Regardless of which Christian tradition we call our own, the sacred texts of the Bible are always central to that tradition.  While we may affirm different canons of scripture, all families within the Christian faith have great reverence for the scriptures and view them as having a vital place of authority in shaping Christian belief and practice.  Yet, we must realize that the texts of scripture never stand on their own. The Bible does not interpret itself, but must be interpreted by those who read the text; those situated in various times and places who seek to grasp what these texts say about God.
There are many reasons people may read the Bible, e.g., historical or literary, but the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.  Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity.  In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world. 
But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era.  These stories extend beyond their own frame of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.
So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live?  Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God?  Answering these questions fully would take more space than allotted here, but I want to offer at least a rudimentary approach to reading the scriptures theologically.
One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation.  In other words, we can extend our critical approach to the Bible past simply asking questions about the history of the Bible, to asking questions about what the Bible says.  A critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.
A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations.  Reading the Bible critically means not only giving close attention to the literary nature of the text, and to the genre of a specific text, but also to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours.  They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently.  Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.
Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture to this end, we must also recognize our own presuppositions.  Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us.[1]  We approach the biblical text with these ideologies, which often leads to our reading our presuppositions into the texts of scripture without realizing it.  Our gender, our race, our sexual orientation, our socio-economic class, and even the various events we have experienced and continue to experience all contribute to the assumptions we have about what the Bible says and means.  Moreover, we often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and not doing so can cause us to cling consciously or unconsciously to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.  
Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside altogether.  They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything.  To be sure, we would be uncomfortable and untrusting of what we read without them.  But, if we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology and practice, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.
Of course, we could read the Bible critically in isolation, but that may only lead us back to our presuppositions.  A more fruitful practice of reading would be to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings.  A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture.  Certainly we can be helped by those trained to read these ancient texts; those committed to the study of their original languages, settings, and purpose, but we need not all be biblical scholars to read, appreciate, and live out the meanings of the biblical texts. 
Each of us approaches the texts with different experiences and thus each of us has different presuppositions.  When shared in a community of textual readers, however, such experiences can enrich one’s faith and lead one to be more faithful in his or her discipleship.  The richness of the biblical texts cannot be limited to authorial intent or authoritative interpretation.  Rather, the Bible contains a multiplicity of valid interpretations, and reading in community can help us see other meanings and other ways of assessing the Bible.
Yet, while we can read the scriptures in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions.  Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, and reading in like minded community is an exercise in biblical and theological interpretation that can shape our discipleship. 
But, reading the text with people from other races, other cultures, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different.  And such a practice may help us to see God differently by offering the Spirit a way of leading us to fresh interpretations that shape our theological thinking.

[1] See V. George Shillington, Reading the Sacred Text: An Introduction to Biblical Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2002), 5.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Balancing Freedom in Christ with Unity in Christ

Individualism and freedom are hallmarks of Western society.  In fact, we Americans are very proud of our freedom.  We want to be free and independent to make our own choices about how we live our lives, how we make decisions, who we support in political elections, and free to choose what religion to follow, or to choose not to follow a religion at all.  Freedom is a value we should cherish.

Even when we talk about the gospel, we speak about being free in Christ; free from sin and the law and its demands.  In fact, the central idea of salvation, that God has bestowed God’s grace on us, is based on the idea that this is a free gift, given not because we have earned it, but because God is gracious towards us.  We are indeed free in Christ.

Yet, although the gospel message is one of freedom, we may often take individualism and freedom to a misguided extreme.  Certainly individual Christians are free to hear and follow God as God so leads them.  However, believers must also take into account that individual freedom may at times contravene Christian unity, which can bring harm to the faith of other believers.

The Apostle Paul, who was certainly the most ardent proponent of the freedom offered in Christ, was nevertheless concerned that Christian freedom find a home within a community of faith, in which we are members of the same body of Christ.  Indeed, in reading Paul’s letters we find that he constantly sought to balance Christian freedom with Christian unity.

As evidenced by the letters which he wrote, Paul frequently dealt with issues being raised in the churches across Asia Minor; issues that endangered Christian unity.  One particular congregation that received most of his attention was the church at Corinth.  This church brought many questions to Paul, and Paul sought to answer these concerns through two epistles that were eventually selected to be a part of the New Testament.

One particular issue that Paul addresses is the eating of food that had been offered to idols.  Eating such food was a common practice in the ancient world, but in Corinth, questions must have been raised concerning whether or not believers could eat the meat that was used in such rituals and still remain faithful to Christ.  Thus, this church turned to their beloved apostle for answers.

But if we read carefully the passage from 1 Corinthians8:1-13, we will discover that Paul does not see this issue as the basic problem.  Indeed, Paul only uses the issue of eating to point to a deeper problem, one of arrogance and misguided freedom.  It seems that some in Corinth thought themselves to be so much more spiritually knowledgeable than others that they thought they were freer than others to choose to eat the meat offered to idols.

Their rationale might go something like this: “We know that idols do not exist, for God is the only living deity.  Therefore, since we have greater spiritual knowledge, we know that the meat sacrificed to these idols is only meat, since the idols are not real.  Therefore, since we have this great knowledge, and because we are free in Christ, we can eat the meat that is sacrificed to these idols without defiling ourselves.”

Yet, there is a fundamental problem with their logic: Does their act of freedom demonstrate any faithfulness to God through whom believers have their existence as members of Christ’s body?  In other words, does their freedom in Christ allow them to do that which might be harmful to the body of Christ?

Paul’s implicit answer to the Corinthians is very akin to what he makes explicit other places:  Freedom in Christ is not an opportunity for the flesh (see Rom. 6:1-2; Gal. 5:13).  When we are given freedom in Christ, it does not mean that we can live the way we want to live.  Despite our emphasis on our individual relationships to God, we are always and forever members of the body of Christ, and to a great extent we are responsible to other members of that body. 

As Christians we do have freedom in Christ. Yet, freedom must always be guided by love; love for God and love for others.  The problem for us is that we do not consider how our attitudes, beliefs, and actions will affect others, and we often disregard their best interests.  Some of our actions can be so serious as to alienate others from their own faith in Christ.  We need to re-examine our actions and form them in ways that build up others through loving relationships with one another. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Having All Things in Common: The Essence of Christian Community

The book of Acts includes two summary passages that describe the character of the first century church (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37).  In both references, Luke, the author of Acts, narrates that the early believers gathered for worship, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread.  Even in our churches today, these actions are familiar and normal to us, as these are still considered the central acts of worship of the gathered people of God.

But perhaps more striking to our ears are the statements in which Luke tells us that these believers “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  He goes on to say, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

What might cause such radical generosity among these believers?  For sure, it was the power of the Spirit that compelled them to share what had been their own with the needy of the community.  Indeed, the indwelling Spirit transformed their understanding of property as that which is privately owned, to viewing private property as that which must be shared with others.  Their sharing with others demonstrated that there was a reevaluation of worldly possessions in light of the new work that God was doing in Christ.

But was the relinquishing of private property simply a form of asceticism through which the believers renounced the things of this world to focus on the things of God?  To some extent, we would have to say yes.  However, the giving up of private property for the well being of others was not simply an expression of genuine generosity that both provided for the needs of others as well as liberated those who acted this way from the temporal things of this world.  This action was also a major step, if not the major step toward the formation of the beloved community.

The giving over of one’s possessions for the good of others was more than a simple life void of the distractions of private property.  It was something much greater; it was one of the primary characteristics of community living among the early believers.  Indeed, without the giving up of possessions to share with others, true community among the believers would not have been realized.

Consequently, these earliest followers of Jesus instituted something radical for their world.  For sure, there were other communities in the Hellenistic world which held common possessions, following the teachings of those like Aristotle, who taught that friends held things in common.  And the community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived this way.  But Luke’s narration of these summary portraits of the early church informs us that what they were practicing was different from much of the world around them, and the significance of their common living was brought on by the gospel and the power of the Spirit. 

Yet, while the actions of giving up private property in the new people of God may have been something radical, and remains so today, the reality is that these actions, according to Luke, were actually normative for Christian identity and community.  Luke’s narration of their selling private possessions is not so much for the purpose of informing us of the ideal to which the church is to attain, though this reason is there.  Rather, the practice of community sharing among the early believers was a fact of being the Jesus-following, sprit-empowered, people of God.  It was who they were.

The portraits of the church in Acts, therefore, are not primarily models of unreachable ideals the church is to hopelessly pursue; though Christians should continue to pursue authentic community through such acts.  Instead, these narratives express that which was and is normative for the church to be the church.  To act differently means to be less than what the church is to be.

Through the practice of sharing possessions, the believers were materially expressing something deeper that was essential to their being the community of Jesus.  Simplicity and communal sharing of possessions had become the normative economy of the new people of God, and this practice opened the way for other normative practices that shaped the community.

Service became the normative model of social relationships, instead of holding power over the other.  Inclusive welcoming of all, rather than exclusion, became the norm of community formation.  And humility, not power, became the norm for living in peace.  Once the right to claim private possessions was reevaluated in light of God’s new work to create and shape a new community, and once these symbols of status were removed through the guidance of the Spirit, service, inclusion, and humility further shaped and characterized that community.

Western Christianity, and especially our American brand of Christian religion, has privatized religion to the extent that we cannot legitimately call it Christian, at least, I think, from a biblical perspective. This privatization of Christianity is in direct opposition to the original call of Jesus, who, although calling individuals to follow him, called them to a social community in which they were formed by his character and the Spirit and in which they found new existence and identity. 

The pictures of the early church in Acts portray what Jesus envisioned as normative for the community of faith; a community through which individual character formation takes place that shapes the broader collection of God’s people into a true community of sharing, service, inclusion, and humility.