Thursday, December 18, 2008

Advent is Season of Believing

The biblical stories are replete with calls to believe and people who choose to believe or not to believe in God. Of course, the more familiar expression we use in speaking of this act of believing is to have faith. Whether we read stories of individuals in Israel’s history, or ancient Israel’s history as a nation, or whether we read the narratives surrounding the coming of Jesus, we are always reading about people who either had faith or about those who did not have faith.

When Jesus arrives on the scene in Mark’s Gospel, after his own experience of God’s presence in his baptism and immediately after his temptation in the wilderness, he proclaims his central message that God’s rule is near, and he calls on those who heard his message to respond, first through repentance and then by believing. Specifically, he called them to believe in the gospel of God. In doing so, Jesus was calling them not only to believe in the existence of God, but to believe that God was now among them through his own presence, and to believe that in his advent, the beginning of the end of injustice and oppression had arrived.

Yet when we consider the concept of faith, the act of believing, our modern minds tend to focus more on an intellectual agreement with some idea or proposition. Often, when we talk about faith, we speak of faith in terms of our intellectual faith; believing this proposition to be true, or that statement of faith to be true. Indeed, for many Christians, believing in certain theological statements is equivalent to believing in God. For example, many feel that one must believe that the entirety of the Bible is literally true, without any error, or we cannot have faith in God.

But when Jesus announced the coming of God’s rule and called people to believe in the gospel of God, was he calling them to agree intellectually with this? The initial answer to this question is yes. Faith, any faith, requires us to believe with our minds that something is true. But faith cannot end with our intellectual belief in God and what we think God is doing. Jesus called those who heard his message, as well as those who continue to hear his message, to a belief that is more than simply mental conformity to God’s rule. He called and continues to call folks to the actions of faith.

This is why the act of repentance is tied to the act of belief. Repentance is more than a change of one’s mind. Repentance is a continual change in one’s behavior based on hearing from God. So too, believing involves the actions of the whole self being oriented toward God and God’s purposes. If we truly believe God is doing something in our world, then we will demonstrate that belief through our participation in God’s work. If we do not participate in God’s work, then we fail to believe.

As Christians, we often give lip service to our faith. We say we believe certain ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and humanity, and we somehow convince ourselves that this makes us faithful. But this is nothing more than cheap faith, to borrow slightly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As James rightly states, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith that does not produce actions is not faith at all. The kind of belief to which Jesus calls us is a radical belief; a faith through which we are no longer being conformed to a self-centered way of living, but we are being transformed by the gospel of God.

To have a radical faith in God is to abandon all our desires for what God desires in our world. It is a call to hear what God wants from us, a call to repent from our selfish living and our long held, but often misguided, assumptions about what we think about God, and a call to believe in what God is doing now. And what God is doing now for our world is captured in the story of Christmas; a story about a deliverer who came to set the captives of oppression free and to bring peace, joy, and hope to all.

A faithful response to the Christmas story, a true act of believing, is not simply hearing the story and wishing these things to be true for the world. To believe the story, to believe in the gospel of God, is to bring to reality the peace, joy and hope God desires for the world through our acts of justice and mercy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Advent is a Season for Repenting

In following Mark’s opening verses, verses I have called Mark’s Advent story, one should notice that the actions of the Gospel narrative do not begin with the active participation of humanity. Indeed, while we have seen that we are to wait on God and to listen to God, both of these actions are passive in that they are not initiated by us; they are responses to God.

But after a time of waiting, however long it might be, and after hearing a word from the Lord, whoever the messenger or whatever the message might be, we are confronted with the choice of ignoring or acting. If we ignore the messenger and message of God, then we cannot fully embrace the gospel of God. To enter God’s rule means that we must act in response to both the messenger and message of God. Such actions are defined by two simple, but interrelated terms: repent and believe.

Much like the term sin, the idea of repentance is often pushed aside as unnecessary in our culture. Because we are told we should never admit that we have failed, often intentionally and horribly, there seems to be no need to admit our sin, and thus no need for the successive action of repenting from our sin. But this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel’s message.

Indeed, at the very heart of the gospel are the idea, the command, and the action of repenting. In fact, a careful reading of Mark’s prologue shows that the call to repent is there from the beginning. God’s words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” spoken through the prophet, is a declaration from Isaiah 40 that God will come to God’s people, and the people must respond by preparing their lives for the visitation of God. Such preparation involves recognition that we are finite humans who are in need of the love and grace of God. This recognition is indicated through the act of turning from our self-serving lives and turning to God.

Mark follows this declaration with the introduction of God’s messenger John, who preaches a baptism of repentance and to whom throngs of people come to confess their sins and be baptized in preparation for God’s coming.

But John is only the forerunner to the one who comes in the authority of God, the one who is proclaimed as the Beloved Son by God. In the coming of Jesus, we see again that at the core of the gospel is the idea of repentance, “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel.” Thus at the heart of Israel’s ancient prophet’s preaching was repentance. Central to the proclamation by the one sent as the messenger of God was repentance. And essential to Jesus’ announcement that God’s rule was near was a call to repent.

But two important questions come to mind regarding the idea of repentance. From what are repenting and what does it mean to repent? Perhaps it is best to take the second question first. Of course, we can find assistance in answering this question by looking at the word “repent”, and better yet, at the Greek word behind this English rendering, to garner a definition of the word. Simply put, the word means to turn around or to change one’s mind. But this dictionary meaning does not help us much.

We often think of repenting as our telling God that we are sorry we committed this or that sinful act and we will never do it again. Yet, what we find is that we do those things again and again no matter how serious we are in our repentance. But is repentance simply a turning away from our private and favorite sins?

While we should continue to repent of those individual sins that afflict us, the idea and practice of repentance is much bigger. Repentance is when we allow our lives to be bent continually away from our self-interests and toward the will and purposes of God. It is not a magic formula we use to get in right relationship with God; it is a yielding of our lives to the will and purposes of God and God’s just rule on earth.

And this helps us answer our first question, from what are we repenting? We are repenting from our sinful lives of selfish living in which we have failed to love our neighbors and our enemies, failed to practice justice and mercy, and failed to side with the weak and oppressed. But we are also repenting toward the rule of God in the world, and in doing so we are embracing a new life of love, justice, and mercy.

The Season of Advent is a time when we are once again reminded of the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In our celebration of this coming, we relive the story of God’s visitation with God’s people. May we “Prepare the Way of the Lord” in our own lives by repenting of our self-serving actions and repenting toward God’s rule.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Advent is a Season of Hearing

The fundamental statement of belief from ancient Israel’s history is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O’ Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This confession begins with a command to hear, a command that Jesus often reiterated through his well known statement, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen.” Indeed, throughout scripture we find many references to the act of hearing, implying that God has something to say to God’s people.

But the act of hearing need not be limited to the physiological act of hearing a sound that enters the ear. Rather, the call to listen is a call to give full attention and adherence to the Word of God. When we are commanded in scripture to listen, it is a call to silence the noise of our self-interests and listen intently to the voice of God.

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s Advent narrative, we hear various voices speak. First, we hear the words of Israel‘s prophets echoed as a way of declaring that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises. Second, we hear the words of John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, who prepares the Way of the Lord.

We also hear the very voice of God, speaking through the rip of heaven to the Beloved Son; an event through which Jesus understands his mission as God’s envoy. And in the verses that close Mark’s prologue, 1:14-15, we hear that same Beloved Son speak with the authority of God declaring that God’s rule was near. Indeed, in the very act of reading the narrative over and over, we continue to participate in hearing not only this story, but the various voices that proclaim the gospel to us.

Yet, despite the clear commands to listen, we face various obstacles that deafen our ears to God’s voice. One obstacle we face is the noise of life; noise that can drown out the voice of God to us. Another challenge to our hearing God is the fear we have that God will call us to be different than we are. Not knowing what God may say to us during a time of intense listening keeps us comfortable in our status quo relationship with God.

But another significant problem is that we staunchly maintain assumptions about what we think God says. The catch phrase that captures this sentiment goes something like this; “The Bible says it, so that settles it.” The assumption behind this way of thinking is that our way of reading scripture is always correct, and the interpretations we have maintained can never be challenged or altered.

While we must take scripture seriously in our act of hearing God and the sacred text of the Bible should form the basis of the church’s faith and life, clinging to our assumptions about what the Bible says can prevent our hearing God and can lead us to continue our cultural and political ideologies that ignore what God may actually be speaking to us.

Jesus himself faced such attitudes and he challenged them by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” While Jesus was not negating the Word of God, he was offering new meaning and understanding. In the same way, followers of Jesus must not treat scripture as a stagnant text that reiterates our culturally transmitted presuppositions about God. Rather, we must reverently approach the text with open hearts and minds, allowing God to challenge our way of thinking.

One significant way of allowing God to challenge our way of thinking is to listen to others. Listening to what others say about God and life can help to test and shape our own way of thinking to the extent that though we may not change many of our ideas, we can at least value how others have heard God speak to them. Indeed, this is part of the significance of being a member of the body of Christ, so long as the church embraces the diversity of its members.

A personal story may help clarify why I think listening to different people is necessary for our hearing God. A few years ago an African-American gentlemen came to my home asking to do some work around the house. He and I have had many conversations since we first met. He cannot read and he is often in and out of jail. He and I come from completely different worlds, and yet when we talk, I cannot help but hear Jesus speaking to me. Indeed, he represents the voice of God to me more than most sermons I hear.

But this should not surprise me at all. A careful look at the life of Jesus shows us very clearly that he heard God in the voices of those forgotten by the world. While the religious establishment held onto their assumptions about what God had said, Jesus was hearing the new word of God through the voices of those outside that establishment; those who struggled to live life as God intended.

In hearing again the story of Advent and Christmas, may we silence the noise of our lives, turn away from our fear of what God has to say to us, and hear God, not through listening to our own assumptions about what the story says and means, but through the voices of pain and suffering that God continues to hear.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Advent is a Season of Waiting on God

This coming Sunday marks the beginning of the Christian calendar with the start of Advent. The word Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come”, and the season that bears this title consists of the four Sundays before Christmas that look with anticipation to the coming of Christ. While we observe this season as a time of looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, the practice of Advent each year is also focused on our faith and hope in what God is preparing for our future: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

As we enter into this holy season, I want to focus my next four columns on four particular words that capture the essence of the season of Advent. While Christians have traditionally focused on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, important themes as they are, I would like to glean another set of ideas from the opening of the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel of Mark.

Although Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus, as do Matthew and Luke, this does not mean that Mark is without an Advent theme. Moreover, a careful look at Mark’s prologue produces some very important spiritual practices for our renewal during this season of Advent. These practices are: waiting, hearing, repenting, and believing. We will consider the practice of waiting first.

The opening of Mark’s narrative situates the story of Jesus in the context of the past; Israel’s history of exile, and God’s promise of redemption and liberation. Although all the statements that Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah cannot be found in Isaiah, the intention of the Gospel narrator is to pick up God’s promises of the past spoken through Isaiah in order to declare the new work that God was doing in the present as the fulfillment of those promises. In the thought of the Gospel’s author, the theme of a New Exodus, which was prevalent in Isaiah’s prophecies, was now being realized in the coming of God in the person of Jesus.

But the fulfillment of this promise comes only after God’s people had experienced a long period of waiting. Indeed, a remnant of God’s faithful continued to wait and believe, hoping to experience the realization of God’s promise of redemption. In their minds, God was the only one who could act to accomplish God’s promises, and the waiting of God’s people was an act of faith and hope in the God who they believed would affect that which they had not experienced, but which God had surely promised.

In our nanosecond oriented world, we find it difficult to wait. We are extremely uncomfortable with delayed satisfaction, and we make every effort to achieve and obtain quick, but often fleeting, ways of gratifying our lives. We realize we hunger, but we fail to realize that our deepest hunger cannot be satisfied by those momentary pleasures. Our deepest longings will only be satisfied by the renewal of God, who is continually making things new, but perhaps not at the speed we would desire. And, thus we must wait.

Yet, waiting on God is not like waiting in line at the store or waiting for an appointment. Waiting on God is like a child waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. There is hope and expectation, along with the assurance that though she may not know what is wrapped in the Christmas paper, she does know the one who gives the gift and she knows that the gift is the expression of the giver’s love. While we wait on God, we do not wait in fear and anxiety of what might come in the future; we wait with faith and hope in the God who holds the future.

In our waiting, however, we do not separate ourselves from the reality of a creation under chaos. Rather, we wait with creation, and we suffer with those who suffer, proclaiming the gospel through service and healing until God’s final redemption. In doing so, we do not deny the reality of suffering and injustice, nor do are we complacent about suffering and injustice, but we work as a means of confronting the suffering and injustice of our world with the realization that they hold no eternal reign over us.

But more than anything, waiting on God is a time of preparation. Just as Jesus commanded his disciples to watch and pray in the garden as a time of preparation, so too God demands that we watch and pray while we wait. Through our time of waiting, we are preparing to experience God’s renewal as our lives of disorientation are continually oriented toward God’s future hope. And through our time of preparation, as we wait with faithfulness, we can learn to perceive and embrace God’s work in the present as we continue to look for the horizon of God’s blessings.

The period of Advent is a season in which we celebrate what God has done in the incarnation of Jesus. But it is also a time in which we wait on God to do something new in our lives, something we have yet to experience. Advent is a time of hope, anticipation and waiting. Yet, through our waiting we work, watch, and pray as we prepare for the coming God, the one who is making all things new.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Giving Thanks is a Way of Life

This coming Thursday, Americans will celebrate a treasured holiday in our nation’s history, Thanksgiving Day. On this day, families will gather around the table to share turkey, dressing, and all the trimmings before they laze away the afternoon visiting with relatives, taking a nap, or watching football on TV. While we have these well established traditions, the day is really set aside as a time for families to come together to share verbally with one another of the things for which they are thankful.

Perhaps, like many families, you and your loved ones take a few moments at the table, before you partake of the delicious food, to give every person a chance to express for what and for whom he or she is most thankful. These expressions of gratitude continue around the table until everyone has had the chance to share with the rest how thankful they really are. But when this national day of thanks ends, and the turkey, dressing and fixings are put in the fridge for leftovers, the expressions of the day are often put away until it is necessary to bring them out for the next Thanksgiving Day.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not being cynical about this holiday. I do appreciate the fact that we have a national holiday set aside for the purpose of giving thanks. I also believe that this day serves a grand, and yet, humbling purpose as a yearly reminder of our need to give thanks to God and to appreciate what is truly valuable in this life. But thanksgiving must be more to us than just a day.

Scripture tells us that we are to give thanks continually and in all circumstances. Thanksgiving is not something we do only on one day out of the year when we feel all warm and cozy in our nice homes, gathered around a table of good food with the people we love. No, thankfulness is something we are to express everyday of the year as we live, work, play, and yes, even suffer among our family, friends, acquaintances, and yes, even our enemies. We are to have attitudes of thanksgiving at all times and in all situations.

But is being thankful fully captured by simply having attitudes of thanksgiving? Can we honestly say that being thankful is merely an attitude we are to carry throughout our lives? To answer this, let us return to the events of the day we call Thanksgiving. We gather with family and friends in our warm and beautiful homes. We eat plenty of food; most often more than we need. And we cap off the day with a relaxing afternoon. Sure, we express our thankfulness through words to one another, and even words we offer to God. But are words and attitudes the true measure of thanksgiving? Can we honestly say that merely mouthing phrases of thanks to one another or to God means that we are actually thankful?

Thanksgiving is not just an attitude; it is a way of living. To express true thankfulness to God for the blessings we have received, we must do so through tangible acts of love and service to God and to those around us. In this way, thanksgiving is much like love, and indeed it is an expression of love. Love is not simply the feeling of love we have for others. Love can only be defined by the act of expressing love. Love cannot be love if it is only felt. Love becomes real when it is expressed through loving acts.

In the same way, thanksgiving is more than an attitude; and it is certainly more than a national holiday. Expressing thanks to God and to others is a way of living that is articulated through tangible acts of gratitude, service and love. Indeed, thanksgiving is the seed that produces the fruit of kindness and generosity. True thanksgiving is sharing in the blessings of God through participating in God’s work and sharing of the blessings of God with those around us through acts of love, kindness, and generosity.

So as you gather to celebrate this wonderful holiday, be thankful as you share fellowship with your family and friends, as you eat the delicious meal and as you enjoy the day we have set aside to give thanks. But bear in mind that thanksgiving extends to all aspects of life with God and others. Thanksgiving is more than a day. Thanksgiving is more than an attitude. Thanksgiving is a way of living.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Lord's Prayer Calls Us to Pray for God’s Protection during Times of Testing

The Lord’s Prayer continues to be one of the most beautiful pieces of private and public worship, lifting the hearts and minds of those who recite the words. Yet the prayer that begins on a high note ends with a tone of fear and trepidation implying the reality of humanity’s weak and sinful existence. With two statements, Jesus defines life in the world under the power of evil as dangerous to those who would seek to do the will of God, and he calls them to pray to God for protection.

But what does it mean to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, as we traditionally do? To answer this question, we need to take each statement separately and define as specifically as possible the important words. From there we can discover the essence and meaning of these declarations for Jesus’ first disciples and for those who seek to follow Jesus today.

First, the meaning of the phrase, “Lead us not into temptation,” is dependent on the definition of the Greek word peirasmos. This word can mean “temptation”, as we normally find in English translations, or it can mean “testing”. If we take the word as primarily indicating temptation, as we usually define the meaning of the English term, then we are presented with a highly individualistic prayer that focuses on our personal struggle with sin. This may indeed be part of what Jesus intends, for he certainly was concerned about personal sin, and his teachings do focus on the morality of his followers.

However, if we take account of the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, then we might consider the importance of the English word “test” or “trial” to capture the meaning of Jesus’ statement. While the persecution of early Christians was sporadic during the infancy of this Jewish sect, we know that under Nero, Roman Emperor in the late 60s, torture of Christians became an act of the state.

In such an environment, Christians might find it easy to deny their faith in order to save their lives. Thus, while Jesus may indeed be calling his followers to pray to God for protection against the temptation to commit personal immorality, he is certainly encouraging them to pray that God would not lead them into a time of testing where they might recant their faith.

This helps us understand the second statement in this portion of the prayer; “Deliver us from evil.” Some biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus’ reference to evil was not pointing toward evil in general, but more specifically to the one who does evil, “the evil one”.

Although Jesus may have the mythical figure of Satan in mind, “the evil one” could also be a reference to a powerful person who carries out evil; an allusion, perhaps, to the emperor or any other political leader who wields power unjustly and oppressively. The petition to be delivered from the evil one is not simply a call for protection from moral failure; it is also a plea to God to be delivered from the testing brought about by Imperial persecution that could cause the disciple to deny his or her faith.

A second century story might help to illustrate my point. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was put before the proconsul of the Roman Empire and commanded to “revile Christ” or be put to the flames. Polycarp was being tested by the evil one to give up his confession of Christ and his commitment to the gospel in order to save his life. Polycarp refused and was put to death.

But Polycarp’s story, and the context of the early disciples, is vastly different from our own. While there are Christians around the world who face persecution, believers in the West do not face the tests many early Christians faced. So how do Jesus’ words remain important for us without limiting their reference only to our protection from individual moral failure?

While we may not face the power of the evil one who threatens us with bodily harm, we are confronted by an evil and powerful system that tests us to renounce the living of the gospel by our failure to remain true to our confessional practice as Christ’s disciples. By this, I am not saying that we recant our faith intellectually. We may do this. But more tragically, we recant our faith in practice when we fail to love our neighbors and our enemies, when we neglect the poor and oppressed, and when we use abusive power against others. The evil of our culture can test our faith by tempting us from authentic discipleship, and thus we must seek God’s protection from denying our faith through unfaithful living.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Calls Us to Forgive Others as God has Forgiven Us

I will never forget seeing a bumper sticker on a vehicle in front of me as I waited to pick up my kids from school one afternoon not long after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. “God may forgive, but we will not.” I realized that the slogan expressed the honest anger of many people; a normal human response to a very tragic situation. But I was also reminded of Jesus’ most troubling statement from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” These words easily flow from our lips in private moments of prayer and public times of worship, but they are probably the most challenging of all the statements Jesus gives his disciples to pray.

What do the words Jesus gives us to pray mean? Is forgiveness really demanded of all followers of Christ, or are there limits to when we forgive, who we forgive, and how far we are to extend forgiveness to someone who has harmed us? These questions require thoughtful and thorough consideration not only so that we can comprehend the meaning of Jesus’ prayer, but also so we will discover the extent to which we are called to live the gospel of limitless grace.

The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” is a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, and expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them. Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

But we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts. In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before we can even think of seeking God’s forgiveness.

But what does it mean to forgive our debtors? In Jesus’ era this would certainly mean the forgiveness of economic and political debt. In the social world of the first century, patronage was the system of social order as clients would receive money and protection from wealthy and powerful patrons. In turn, these clients were always indebted to their patrons, and patrons always held power over their clients. In this sense, Jesus calls for the forgiveness of political and economic debt, proclaiming the perpetual sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee in the new community of God. Thus, Jesus’ prayer demands the forgiveness of all economic debts.

But debtors are not limited only to those who owe political and economic debt, for we also must forgive others who sin against us. In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. We forgive because God forgives us.

But are there limits to our forgiveness? Peter asked this same question of Jesus when he inquired as to how many times one should forgive another. Jesus responded, “seventy times seven,” implying that there are no limits to the forgiveness we are to extend to those who have hurt us. As God’s forgiveness has no boundaries, so too followers of Christ cannot set boundaries around whom and when they forgive.

Some may be critical of this way of reacting to those who harm us, for our human nature is to seek punishment and even revenge. But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness. Jesus does not command us to forgive others as an act to which we begrudgingly submit. Rather, Jesus understands the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends.

In October of 2006 the country was shocked when a gunman entered the school in an Amish community, taking the lives of five innocent girls before he ended his own. Yet, people were also shocked by the response that came from the Amish. Amish men went to the home of the man’s family offering their heartfelt condolences to those he left behind. They also attended the funeral of the man. When asked by the confused media about their unusual response, they replied that God commands forgiveness.

While we often look oddly at the Amish people as living an archaic way of life, we would do well to heed their rich theological tradition of obeying the simple teaching of Jesus to forgive our debtors as God has forgiven our debts. Through their act of forgiveness and grace, they brought the living and transformative power of the gospel of light to shine in the darkness of sin and pain.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Jesus Calls Us to Pray for Bread for Today and the Coming Day

Most of us do not relate directly to Jesus’ statement in the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread”, for we live in a society in which we only need to drive to the market and pick up bread when we need it. Even though half of the world’s population lives on less than one dollar per day, leaving billions of people struggling for daily bread, those of us who have our needs met cannot fully identify with Jesus’ statement. So how might we understand these words of Jesus’ prayer, and more importantly, how do we live them?

First, we need to understand that bread was a staple of the first century diet, and calling on God to provide bread each day was an expression of one’s faith in God as the Abba-Father who provides. This image is reminiscent of God providing manna in the wilderness for the people of Israel, and is also reflective of Jesus feeding the multitudes from only five loaves of bread.

In Jesus’ day, due to mass poverty, people survived on day to day bread. Praying that daily bread would be provided each day was an expression of one’s dependence on God for life and that which sustains life. Through this short statement in Jesus’ model prayer, Jesus was calling his disciples to pray for physical bread as an act of faith in God as their provider.

Yet, we cannot read this part of the prayer without thinking of the symbolic nature of bread. Jesus referred to himself as the bread of life, and in his feeding bread to the multitudes, Jesus was symbolically offering them more than physical nourishment. Indeed, in his institution of the Lord’s Supper he re-interpreted the traditional bread of the Passover as symbolic of his own body that would be broken for humanity. Thus, although bread does mean bread in the sense of the physical provisions for nourishment, it also refers metaphorically to Jesus and his work of giving spiritual life to those who partake of him.

But if we understand the Lord’s Prayer as having an eschatological focus, that is, it is attentive to the majesty of God who will come as king, then we have no choice but to read this statement as having some sort of eschatological focus. But how should we understand this eschatological meaning? The answer lies again in the understanding of bread as a metaphor.

As I have already stated, bread was a staple of life and would have been a part of meals, particularly banquets. Such banquets would be celebrations to which the host would invite his honored guests to celebrate with him, and in doing so he would provide the best feast he could. The guests gathered around the table would be important people, for in a patron-client based society, part of having such a banquet would be to associate oneself with powerful individuals who could be influential on behalf of the host. Thus a host would choose his table fellowship carefully.

But when we look at the life of Jesus, we find something completely out of the ordinary when it comes to the people with whom he broke bread. His invitations to dine were given to the outcasts of his society; the lame and blind, the tax collectors and sinners, the helpless and the women. No one can doubt his association with these folks on the margins of society, and no one can doubt the theological significance of Jesus welcoming the disrepute of the social world.

But if we understand Jesus’ instruction for his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” to mean more than just the provision of real bread, then we might take Jesus’ words as also expressing the immediate expectation of the great banquet to come when the kingdom of God becomes a fulfilled reality.

Indeed, the statement can be translated, “Give us today our bread for the coming day.” This reading does not neglect seeing bread as that which is needed today for sustenance. More significantly, it sees today’s bread as symbolic of the bread believers will eat in God’s coming banquet. In that day, the tables will be turned, as those who will be welcomed to the feast will not be the influential, wealthy, and powerful of the world. The guests will be those forgotten by the world. Jesus will break bread in the eschatological banquet and share with those oppressed by the social structures of the world.

So, how do we who live in a world where bread is plentiful, pray this portion of the prayer? First, we pray the prayer as an expression of our dependence on God for the basic needs of life; as a demonstration of our trust in God. Second, we pray for our spiritual nourishment through our relationship with Jesus, the bread of life who feeds us the bread of God’s word. But we also pray that the final banquet of God would come when all those who have suffered under the injustice of the world will be welcomed to break bread in the kingdom of God.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Expresses a Longing for the Fulfillment of God’s Kingdom

The idea of God as king has a long and rich history throughout the life of ancient Israel. God as ruler over the creation is an expression not only of God’s sovereignty over creation, but also of God’s care over the world. In the New Testament, the idea of the kingdom of God is central to the mission of Jesus Christ. Jesus was unwaveringly focused on the biblical idea of God as king, and in his coming, Jesus announced the arrival of God’s active rule.

Yet, in the prayer that Jesus gives his disciples, he commanded them to petition God for God’s kingdom to come: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The problem in understanding this portion of the Lord’s Prayer centers on two fundamental questions. First, is the kingdom of God a present reality or a future expectation? Second, is the kingdom of God primarily a theological power forced onto a passive world by God, or is it an ethical charge to humans to participate in the coming of God’s rule through discipleship?

First, Jesus surely saw his coming as the incarnation of God’s rule in the world. He announced that the kingdom of God was near to the creation that was under the power of chaos, and he demonstrated through his power over evil that he was bringing about God’s rule on the earth. So, it is clear that Jesus saw the kingdom of God as a present reality that was active in the world.

However, his command that his disciples pray that God’s kingdom would come certainly seems to suggest that the kingdom either had not come in him, or it had not be fully realized in Jesus’ incarnation. Indeed, while Jesus did announce the arrival of the kingdom, and while he also understood that in some way this kingdom was being fulfilled in him, the reality is that the fullness of God’s kingdom was not experienced in Jesus’ life on earth. The kingdom of God was already present in Jesus, but it has not yet become a full reality in the world’s experience.

We know this because we continue to long for the day of redemption in which God will bring about the new heaven and new earth, and the powers of evil will be vanquished by the God who rules justly and who will establish justice for all. Thus, while the present reality of the kingdom of God was experienced in Jesus’ preaching and miracles as signs of God’s rule, the fullness of God’s kingly power over the world remains a future expectation for a creation that longs for the day of redemption.

The second question concerning Jesus’ command for the disciples to petition God to send forth the kingdom of God is whether the rule of God is solely dependent on God’s actions, or does it have anything to do with the ethics of discipleship? In other words, does the creation wait passively for God’s rule to reach its completion, or do humans who seek to follow Jesus in faithful discipleship participate in God’s coming rule?

The answer to this question must be both. First, the coming of God’s kingdom into the world is indeed dependent on God’s actions. This is the reason Jesus calls his followers to pray that the kingdom of God would come. Moreover, the kingdom comes from God and is alien to the world both in its power and in its ethics. Yet, in offering an adjacent statement to the petition for God’s kingdom to come, “Your will be done,” Jesus indicates that the kingdom of God must have ethical implications for humanity.

Jesus said very clearly, “The kingdom of God is in you” (Luke 17:21). Certainly Jesus could have meant that the kingdom was among those around him in his presence among them. But I think, given that so much of Jesus’ ethical teachings focused on how to live under the rule of God, especially those we find in the Sermon on the Mount, that a faithful response to the coming of God’s kingdom through our discipleship means that we participate in the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

This does not mean that the final realization of God’s kingdom is totally up to human efforts. We still pray and long for the future realization of the completeness of God’s just rule in the world. But it does mean that as citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called to love and bring the peace and justice of God to a world lost from God by doing the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Calls Us to Revere God’s Name in Word and Deed

It is well known by many who are familiar with ancient Judaism that the covenant name of God found in the Hebrew Bible, transliterated as Yahweh, was never spoken by Jews. Certainly this was one application of the commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (Ex 20:7).

But the practice also demonstrates the extent to which ancient Hebrews went in making sure that references to God were reverent and worshipful. Indeed, even in contemporary usage, many Jewish theologians, when writing about God, inscribe the term as G-d. The purpose is to ensure that God’s name is not defaced and that homage and honor are given to God’s name.

In response to his disciple’s request for him to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers to them what becomes known as the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer opens by addressing God with a term of intimacy, Abba-Father, through which the one who prays kneels before a God who is close to and cares for humanity.

Yet, in offering them an intimate name by which they should address God, Jesus does not domesticate the name or person of God to the extent that we relate to God in exactly the same way that we relate to finite humans. In fact, Jesus is clear to include right after the prescription to call God Abba-Father, statements that express the transcendence of God’s being and the holiness of God’s name.

Although the image of God as Father works very well to express the intimate relationship humanity has with God, the Abba addressed in prayer is not wholly similar to a human father, but transcends human existence and finiteness. Jesus’ reference to God as living in heaven may have been a literal place in the minds of ancients, but we might more fully understand the reference as expressing the breadth of God’s transcendence as one who exists outside of human space and time. While God can act in time and space, specifically through acts of wonder and, for Christians, in the person of Jesus, God, unlike humans, lives in eternal existence outside the finiteness of time and space.

Yet, what exactly does the next petition of the payer, “Hallowed be your name”, mean? To answer this we need to consider the type of statement this is, and then we need to define what “hallowed” and “name” might mean. From there we can gather an understanding of Jesus’ meaning and how it affects our own praying of the Lord’s Prayer.

First, the statement is an appeal asking God to make God’s name hallowed, and thus, in praying this petition, the one who prays recognizes a world that disregards the name of God. Second, the hallowing of God’s name is the hallowing of God’s character as God. Again, the statement assumes a world apart from God, and the petitioner is called to ask God to make God’s character hallowed in the world.
But what about the term “hallowed”? More modern English translations attempt to help us understand the term by translating the statement, “Make your name holy.” While this helps, it does not fully capture the meaning and importance of the petition.

There may be a double meaning to the phrase. One meaning is theological in the sense that ultimately it is God who makes God’s name holy. This idea is expressed through the use of the passive verb, which hides God as the subject of the verb; another practice by ancient Jews to honor the name of God. Thus making God’s name holy can only be accomplished by God. While the fulfillment of this petition will not be achieved until the completion of eschatological time, the prayer does voice the desire of all believers who long for the day that injustice and evil will be vanquished by the holy character of God.

A second meaning, however, is an ethical one. The prayer is a petition that God’s name be revered in and through the faithful living of the followers of Christ. For sure we should not take the Lord’s name in vain in our speech, but more importantly, the prayer calls us to venerate the name of God in our discipleship. Through our discipleship we bear witness to the holy name of God to those who do not know God or who disregard the name of God. And in hallowing God’s name through our living in imitation of Christ, we bring God’s rule of justice into the world, foreshadowing the coming of God’s kingdom.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Lord’s Prayer Expresses God’s Intimate Relationship with Humanity

Each Lord’s Day Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer. While it is unfortunate that this practice has been removed from many congregational worship services, the words of the prayer are familiar to many believers, to the point that they can recite the prayer word for word.

Yet, despite our acquaintance with the prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray, we may not have grasped both the meaning and significance of the words of the prayer. Over the next few weeks, I will be offering a reading of the Lord’s Prayer that seeks to capture the essence of Jesus’ statements and how these remain powerful words for our own lives of discipleship.

Before addressing the specifics of the prayer, however, we need to have an understanding of why Jesus offers this particular prayer to his disciples. While Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, we should not assume that they did not know how to pray before they met Jesus. As Jews, they would have offered regular and faithful prayers to God.

So when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it is not because they did not know how to pray. Rather, they asked because they recognized Jesus to be the one sent from God, and they understood that they needed to have a new focus for their prayers. Thus, they were concerned that they pray rightly for God’s coming kingdom. In answer to their request, Jesus gave them the prayer we find in Luke 11:1-4, and in a different version, in Matthew 6:9-13. Matthew’s version will be the primary focus of my discussions.

The prayer begins with the well-known address to God as “Our Father.” These words do not constitute a formal address to a distant unknown God, but an intimate appeal to a God who is near to us and who cares for us. Jesus teaches us to pray in this way, because he himself prayed this way. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, and in his prayers to God he called God Abba. This was a common way for Hebrew children to refer to their fathers, and it served as a term of intimacy, signifying the close relationship a child had with her father.

We need to be careful with this term, however, for two reasons. First, while popular views have suggested that this term Abba is equivalent to our use of the term daddy, and some Christians have practiced addressing God in this way, Abba is probably not exactly equivalent to our term daddy and we need to be cautious in how we address God.

Second, we must not suppose that the use of Father or Abba in reference to God assumes that God’s characteristics are exclusively masculine, or that referring to God in male terms supports any ideas of male superiority over women in either nature or practice. Indeed, while the scriptures do use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to God, there are scriptural images that reflect God’s femininity. Still, the term Abba does help us see the intimate relationship Jesus was defining between the disciples and God.

Why does Jesus instruct us to refer to God as our Abba? The simple answer is that it reflects Jesus’ own practice of prayer and intimacy before God. The Gospels are replete with references to Jesus’ intimacy with God, beginning at the event of his baptism and continuing through to the intimate moments in the garden just before Jesus’ arrest, where, according to Mark, Jesus calls out to God using the term Abba. This intimate relationship, however, is also extended to Jesus’ followers as they are welcomed into the new family of God, over which God is the loving and caring Abba.

Thus, when we approach God our Abba in prayer, we address a God who both cares for us and who has the power to change the world. We pray to a living and loving God, who is not remote from humanity’s pain, but who, in the incarnation of Jesus, is God with us. When we approach God with authentic prayers, we come before a God who desires to hear our concerns because God is our Abba, and we kneel to a God who is able to meet our concerns because our Abba is God.

Thus, the God we approach in prayer is both intimate and transcendent, and the prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray expresses intimate communication between the God who is close with us as our Abba, and who is at the same time transcendent above creation as holy God.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christians Must Reassess a Belief in Divinely Sanctioned Violence

For all of the good that religion does in our world through the generous acts of people from all faiths, much attention has been given over the last few years to evil acts performed in the name of religion. Yet, no single religion monopolizes evil done from religious conviction, as Westerners tend to think. Christian history demonstrates that the Christian religion has often been used as a pretext for supporting demeaning attitudes and violent acts against others.

At the pinnacle of the Medieval Church, Christians slaughtered Muslims, persecuted Jews, and tortured “heretics” all in the name of God. During WWII, one of Hitler’s reasons for exterminating millions of Jews was that, in his mind, the Jewish people were responsible for Jesus’ death. Since the birth of the modern State of Israel, conservative Christians have mostly supported Israel’s oppression of Palestinians because of a misguided apocalyptic theology. And Christian faith is frequently a basis for intolerance and subjugation of people because of gender, race, or sexual orientation.

Is Christianity a religion that legitimizes intolerance, subjugation, and violence, or is it a faith of tolerance, equality, and peace? More importantly, what does the Bible say about violence and oppression, and how do we solve the theological conundrum that views the Christian faith as a peaceful religion when parts of scripture sanction oppression and violence?

To answer these questions, we need to consider why the Bible might authorize intolerance and violence, and then we need to propose how to read the Bible from a critical position that recognizes that not every part of the canon exhibits normative patterns of behavior and values.

An exhaustive discussion of how the Bible legitimizes oppression and violence would take a more extensive investigation than I can offer here, but a good place to begin is with Ancient Israel’s war against the people of Canaan. While the Hebrew Bible tells the story of God ordering and giving Israel violent victory over their enemies, we need to consider that these stories were expressed from a backward looking theological interpretation.

This was not an uncommon way of viewing victories in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one’s victory over one’s enemies was always the victory of one’s god over the gods of one’s enemy. This means that when we read the stories of the Bible, we need to think critically about these narratives and question whether or not God actually gave authorization for this violent conquering of the land. If we do not, we run the risk of forming a theology that legitimizes religious intolerance, subjugation, and violence.

Yet, since these stories are included in what the church has affirmed as the Word of God, how do we handle a canon of scripture that at times sanctions demeaning attitudes and violent acts toward others, but at other times calls us to promote peace, love, and justice in our world?

First, every text of the Bible must be understood within the norms of its original context, and thus the initial commands and behaviors offered in particular texts do not necessarily apply equally to the contemporary world. Indeed, forcing certain “principles to live by” from some of these texts will only lead to misguided theology.

A case in point is the way some biblical texts seem to place females in inferior positions to males. The society of the first century viewed women as inferior to men, and thus the biblical commands that limit the rights of women reflect the society at large, even if theological reasons are given for supporting male authority over women.

However, as the rights of women have progressed in the modern world, these particular biblical texts should no longer be normative for how we see the roles of women in the family, society or the church. This way of reading could also apply to the way that we view other marginalized populations in the modern world.

Second, we must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will. The Bible was not written by God, but was written by historically situation humans who were seeking to understand God, humanity, and the world. Thus, those passages of scripture that picture God as one who legitimizes demeaning attitudes and violence must be assessed in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all human life. A faithful reading of the Bible must give careful attention to the original meaning of a biblical passage, but such readings must also give preference to those texts that testify most clearly to the God who is discovered in Jesus.

Finally, we must recall that scripture points to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Christianity is a christocentric religion that views Jesus as the full revelation of the unseen God. Early Christians understood Jesus in light of promises found in the Hebrew Bible and they reread the Hebrew Bible in light of their experience of Jesus. Thus, the words and deeds of Christ serve as the interpretative filter through which we understand all scripture.

From a Christian point of view, Jesus’ authority has primacy over other portions of the Christian Bible. Scripture’s normative message of God’s desire to love and redeem all humanity calls us to repent of our intolerance and violence toward others, and opens our hearts and minds to authentically love our friends and enemies through acts of peace and generosity, not oppression and violence.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jesus’ Life and Words Demand a More Economically Just Society

Anyone familiar with the teachings of Jesus knows that he often spoke harshly about those who had wealth. One of his more critical statements illustrates this very point: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Why does it seem that Jesus condemns the rich and favors the poor? There may be several reasons, but three seem certain.

First, Jesus was born into poverty and he chose to continue to live in poverty as an adult. He felt a deep sense of belonging among the poor and he clearly embraced and identified with those who were economically oppressed in his society.

Second, because he so closely associated with the poor, Jesus witnessed firsthand the tremendous gap that existed between the rich and the poor. This gap was the consequence of the rich gaining their wealth through oppressing and neglecting the poor.

Third, Jesus believed that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, and he called all who truly sought the kingdom to give up the possessions that hindered them from entering God’s rule. His statement about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God implies that Jesus believed that the poor were more receptive to the message of God present rule. In his mind, the rich were too self-sufficient and self-satisfied to heed his message. Thus it is clear from his life and his message that Jesus had a significant problem with how the rich viewed and handled their wealth in light of the revelation of God’s kingdom of economic equality and justice.

One of the more fascinating stories that demonstrates this point is the Parable of the Rich Landowner in Luke 12:13-21. The story is about a rich man who gets richer, and yet whose greed for riches causes his downfall and judgment. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there are some subtleties in this story that provide a deeper sense of meaning to Jesus’ message about wealth.

What seems to me to be most interesting about this story is that the man is the only character in the parable. In fact, he thinks he exits on his own. He speaks to no one but himself and his conversations are about no one but himself. The pronouns “I” and “My” are frequent in this story and they express not the loneliness of the man, but his satisfaction to live life with no thought of anyone but himself. This wealthy landowner has given no consideration to the God who has blessed him or to his economically depressed neighbors who suffer around him. In fact, he goes so far in his narcissism that he makes plans to live out his days in egocentric comfort.

His words and his actions express the dangers of wealth that Jesus consistently attacked, for in his desire for wealth he has failed to consider God’s kingdom of economic justice and he has failed to recognize the plight of his neighbors. Instead of giving his wealth to those around him who were suffering, he planned to tear down his storage barns in order to build bigger ones to stockpile his plenty.

In recent days we have all heard the tragic news of a financial crisis hitting our nation. While economists will debate the cause of this crisis as well as the possible solutions, I wonder what Jesus might say to those on Wall Street and others who have spent their lives gaining wealth at the expense of the poor. If I understand Jesus’ thoughts about wealth correctly, I would say that Jesus would indeed speak very harshly to those wealthy who have created a crisis that will have a tragic impact on millions.

Like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, instead of seeking economic justice for all, these rich have sought to build bigger barns in which to store their abundance. And yet, what we will find in the near future is that the consequences of their drive for more and more wealth will be born on the backs of those who already struggle to meet their needs and the needs of their families. The richer will be richer and the poor will be poorer.

Yes, our governmental leaders can and must seek a solution to this crisis. But such a solution cannot be effective if the rich are not confronted with their sin. Any permanent solution to this tragic situation must begin with the rich confessing their sin of greed that leads to the oppression and neglect of the poor, and must be followed by authentic and tangible acts of repentance that seek to create a more economically just society.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Loving Our Enemies Requires Authentic Acts of Love

Returning to the subject of Jesus’ command for us to love our enemies, we must ask the more practical question, “How are we to love our enemies?” In other words, in what realistic ways are we to express the transformative and redemptive love of Christ to those who have wronged us? If Christ has commanded us to love our enemies, then such love must be authenticated through tangible action. But through what actions do we express this kind of love?

There are many good deeds we could view as actions of love, but there are some foundational actions that are at the core of the gospel message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions towards those who were his enemies.

First, we must respond to the harm that is done to us by our enemies with actions that are nonviolent. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of conflict between him and his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.

This does not prevent us from seeking justice, but it does call us to seek true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence. Moreover, Jesus’ command for us to turn the other cheek is not a command for us to become weak in the face of evil done against us. Rather, through our turning our cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for love and peace between us and our enemies.

Second, in loving our enemies we must express to them an unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed against us. God’s forgiveness for us is not based on our own action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.

Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. There are offenses and crimes that cannot be excused. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. We are not commanded to forgive when someone serves their penalty for a wrong. We are called to forgive apart from that penalty.

Third, through the strength Christ gives us to love our enemies, we must be moved to the point of welcoming and embracing our enemies. Again, we can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end; an act which served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy. Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would be enemy. While Judas moved ahead with his evil intentions against Jesus, Jesus remained true to the character of God by continuing his hospitality and intimacy with Judas. Though Judas rejected Jesus, Jesus refused to reject Judas, and instead, he embraced his enemy.

There is a prevailing sentiment in our diverse culture that says we need to be tolerant of others. Tolerance, however, is not an authentic expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to love others through the transformative power of welcome and embrace. Only by extending welcome and embrace do we live out the truthfulness of Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

To be sure, these are challenging steps for us to take. But the gospel is challenging, and indeed, it is threatening. But loving our enemies is part of the gospel of discipleship. If we only voice an insincere and distant love for enemies in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are right with God, then we have failed to love our enemies and we have failed to live the gospel.
Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a mental assent to a set of propositions about who Jesus was.

Authentic faith can only be expressed by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to die to ourselves, including our need for vengeance against our enemies, and a call to enact God’s redemptive and transformative love for all people through nonviolence, forgiveness, and embrace.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Through Christ We Find the Strength to Love Our Enemies

There is no doubt that Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. Moreover, there is no room for negotiation with Jesus on this point. No intelligent person can present a persuasive argument against taking his command seriously. Indeed, while we attempt to evade Jesus’ clear teaching by placing limitations on his command, specifically related to who we love and how much we love, these limitations cannot be accepted by those who seek to follow the teachings of Christ with great sincerity.

But we are all human, and there are times when all of us find it difficult to love others, especially our enemies. We must be honest with ourselves that this is a very difficult, if not an impossible thing to do. But if Jesus’ command is clear and non-negotiable, which will often result in our utter failure to be obedient, then why would he command us to do this? If it is difficult and often impossible for us to love our enemies, why would Jesus offer such a stringent command? Has Jesus only set us up to fail?

While loving one’s enemy is a difficult and often impossible struggle, viewing Jesus’ command as unattainable misses something deeply theological that is rooted in the heart of the gospel of grace. In our finite human existence, we believe that the strength to love others is found in ourselves and in our ability to muster up a forced love. We hear Jesus’ command, believe it to be true, but grit our teeth and force what is humanly impossible to do; love someone who has hurt us. But such a view of Jesus’ command will certainly lead us to fail.

The ability to love others, and especially our enemies, comes not from our own strength. Rather, we find the strength to love our enemies through the character and image of Christ that dwells in us. In other words, our love for others comes not from our human capacity to love. Our human capacity to love is limited and will lead us to fail. It is only through God’s empowering grace, given to us through God’s limitless love, that we find the power to love others, even our enemies. Our strength to love others can only be discovered in our identity in Christ.

This is the importance of the baptismal imagery we find in the New Testament. Through our baptism into Christ Jesus, we have become fundamentality transformed from the inside out, and our experience of this God empowered transformation has brought about a new identity in Christ, one whose foremost characteristic is love. Our love flows not from our natural existence as humans, but from our experience of God’s enabling grace and our existence as new creations in Christ.

This means that we do not love out of legalistic obedience to Jesus’ command. We are not called to muster up a forced love for others. Rather we love as a part of our participation in God’s love for the world. We bear the image of Christ to the world, and the image of Christ is love.

Thus, to express love toward others, particularly our enemies, is not simply a choice to love when we feel like loving. Loving our enemies as God has loved us, means that we act in love towards others as a way of being and living. Love is the fundamental character of God, and thus it is the fundamental characteristic of being a follower of Christ.

When Jesus speaks about loving our enemies, he speaks about a love that comes not from this world, but from God. Thus, the love that Christ teaches and shares with us is a revolutionary love that has the power to transform even the hardest of hearts. It is the kind of love that is alien to our world; but it is the kind of love that is, as Dr. Martin Luther King famously stated, “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

There are those who would argue that we cannot and should not love our enemies, whether on a personal or a global level. They argue that love will not change the relationship. But this argument is theologically short-sighted. For, if we believe that love is the prime characteristic of God, and that the love of God is powerful enough to change the world, and if we have embraced and now bear that love in our new identity in Christ, then we must believe that the love we share with others is the power through which God seeks to love and redeem all humanity, even our enemies.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jesus Modeled What It Means To Love Our Enemies

A few years ago, as I was teaching on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, a very perceptive young man asked me, “How far should we go to love our enemies?” Not only was this a thought provoking question, it was one I had never seriously considered until that moment. Certainly I understood that Jesus had called his followers to love their enemies, but I had never pondered to what extent I was to live this command.

One thing that makes the command so challenging is that Jesus does not qualify which enemies we are to love. Nor is he explicit in how far we are to go in loving them. Can we pick and choose which ones we are to love? Can we decide on how much love we are to show them? These are relevant questions for us to consider, but Jesus’ command to love our enemies does not help us one bit in deciding how far we are to go in doing this.

Whenever I find myself struggling to come to grips with one of Jesus’ more difficult commands, I often discover clarification by looking at what Jesus does; how he responded to the challenge of doing God’s will. After all, if I claim to be a follower of Christ, it only makes sense that I emulate the way he lived. Jesus is not only the one who makes our way possible to God; he also acts as the example of true faithfulness before God. Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple of God’s will.

Thus, in struggling with the student’s question concerning the lengths we are to go in loving our enemies, I need to find incidents in the life of Jesus that give me guidance in understanding the command he has clearly set forth. While we could point to various stories of Jesus’ love for others, and indeed, the whole story of the incarnation itself is a story of Christ’s love for humanity, there is a very interesting and underlying twist in the account of Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet, which may very well prove to be an answer to this perplexing question.

We often hear sermons preached from this scene that focus on the portrayal of Jesus as the true servant, who sets an example of service for his followers. Undeniably, this is the crux of the story. What we may not see, however, is a subtle, but powerful, detail of the story; the interaction between Jesus and the one who sets himself up as the enemy of Jesus, Judas.

We are very familiar with Judas’ story. He seems to have followed Jesus with hopes that Jesus was the political Messiah who would stir zealous passion in the people to rise up against Rome. We also know that Judas’ dreams did not become reality, as Jesus talked of another kingdom, one characterized by peace, love and justice, and not by arrogance, violence and war. It was this realization that may have caused Judas to plot with the religious leaders and hand him over to their authority. John 13:2 makes it clear that Judas’ plan was in the works even as they gathered for the Passover.

What is interesting about this scene, however, is that when Jesus takes up the symbol of a house slave, the towel, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, nothing is said about him passing over Judas. In fact, if we read it carefully, we find that Judas does not leave the table until after Jesus had completed his act of service. Are we to assume that Judas was a recipient of Jesus’ service? Does the story lead us to accept the distasteful fact that Jesus washed the feet of every disciple, including Judas? If so, then the follow-up question is why would Jesus wash the feet of any of his disciples, and especially the one who would become his enemy?

The answer may be close at hand in John 13:1. The verse can be understood in two ways. First, it might be translated, “He loved them to the end.” Or it could read, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” Regardless of which reading is more correct, both capture the essence of Jesus’ act of love towards his disciples, including the one who became his enemy.

Notwithstanding the evil plot and action soon to be taken by Judas, Jesus continued to express his complete love for Judas to the last possible moment. In the face of betrayal by one of his own, Jesus showed persistent love. While evil was being plotted all around him, Jesus returned love.

Paul declares in Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” He continues, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Like Jesus, Paul is not unaware of the evil people will do to others. But, as Jesus both taught and modeled for us, retribution toward those who do evil is not the way God calls us to respond. Rather, Jesus taught and modeled for us that loving our enemies means always seeking to love them through repeated acts of goodness that express the limitless love Christ demands of us.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

We Can Trust in God’s Good and Sovereign Providence Despite Suffering

Anyone who is even slightly observant about the happenings in our world must draw the conclusion that there is indeed great suffering across God’s creation. From the abject poverty millions face each day, to the wars that continue to rage, to the depletion of the environment, we witness many problems in our world that call us to question God’s providence. Indeed, I have written in the past that the suffering we witness each day, whether locally in the lives of people we know, or globally to the strangers we never meet, should cause us to question God about God’s providence.

But such questioning does not necessarily prevent us from trusting in God’s good providence. Yes, many who have suffered or who have witnessed great suffering have abandoned a belief in God, arguing that if God exists, then why is there suffering? But the suffering of our world, no matter how devastating, does not automatically negate the existence of God, or the belief in God’s good providence.

But how shall we understand the idea of God’s providence? If we are to hold on to our faith in God’s goodness while we witness evil and suffering, how are we to comprehend God’s good providence?

First, God’s providence should not be confused with some sort of arbitrary manipulation of things that happen in this world. God is not a puppeteer and we are not God’s puppets. Nor should we see God’s providence as a fixed fate in which the world runs like a machine. Indeed, we are wrong to assume that God has predetermined all that happens. No, God’s providence is God’s will and work in this world to achieve God’s purposes for all of creation and particularly humanity.

The Psalms are a treasure chest of poems from the life of ancient Israel that express real human existence, good and bad, in relation to God. While the psalmists often cry out to God because of the evil and suffering they see and experience, they also offer praise to God, declaring the goodness of God’s providence over creation. These psalmists affirm God as the almighty God, who is both the Creator and Sustainer of all. And they avow God’s divine intervention over all of creation.

The biblical story informs us that God’s good providence flows from God’s sovereignty over creation. The psalmists proclaim God’s wonderful and unreachable being as that which is great and wondrous, expressing a faith and understanding of a God who is sovereign over creation.

To say that God is sovereign is to say God exists apart from anything else; God has no beginning and no ending. If this is true, then we must also affirm that God has created in freedom. God was not forced to create. No outside being or source was present to prompt God to create, and nothing forces God to act in creation. God creates and acts in freedom.

But if we believe that God is free to act, and that God acts with goodness, then we must also affirm that God’s sovereign providence over creation flows from God’s heart of goodness. God is the source of all that is good and from the very heart of God’s goodness, creation was crafted from nothing and finds its source of life and goodness, not in itself, but in what God created it to be.

God’s sovereignty over creation means that creation, and particularly humanity, finds its existence, its being, its meaning and purpose, and its life and end in the eternal and good will and work of God. That very purpose leads us to understand that to assert that God is sovereign is to say that all of creation is dependent on God and that God is moving and shaping creation toward God’s divine and righteous will.

Jesus reminds us about God’s sovereign providence in his teaching in Matthew 6 concerning anxiety. “Do not be anxious about your life,” Jesus says. God provides food for the birds, beauty for the flowers of the field, and life for humanity. The birds do not sow and reap. The flowers do not toil and spin. And no one can add to his or her life. The existence, being, purpose, and life of all of creation are found in the good and sovereign providence of God. Despite the evil and suffering we experience and witness in our world, we can affirm the biblical perspective of God’s love and goodness by trusting in the goodness of God’s providence.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Until God’s Redemption is Complete, We Must Be Discontent

In my last column, which appeared a fortnight ago, I wrote about how we can discover contentment through the experience of God’s continual presence, the present that God gives us to live today, and the relationships God brings into each of our lives. During the interlude between that piece and the one you are currently reading, I spent a week away from work with my family, relaxing, reading and reflecting. This was a great week of respite in which I found contentment once again.

However, during that time of reflection, as I thought more about discovering my own contentment through what God has given me, I could not help but be reminded that for followers of Christ there is a paradox inherent in our discovery of contentment. Yes, in opposition to the temporal and material things of life, we can find contentment in our relationship to God and to others, as Jesus modeled for us. Yet, through my reflection, I also discovered that my own contentment must never eclipse my discontent about the world’s predicament apart from God’s fully realized redemption.

There is a degree of discontent we must embrace that keeps us from becoming too complacent and comfortable about ourselves, the world, and the delay of God’s justice and redemption. I see three particularly important and interrelated areas in which we should discover and express our discontent as those who seek to follow Christ.

First, we ought to be discontent about our failure to be who Christ calls us to be. While we find contentment in the enabling grace of God that extends God’s forgiveness and restoration to us, we still struggle to be faithful in our discipleship. We are very much like the person Paul speaks of in Romans 7, doing what we are forbidden and failing to do what we know we are commanded. We live with the tension of God’s redemptive grace and our struggle to rebuff our sinful natures.

I am not speaking here of guilt. Guilt is only a trap that holds us prisoners to our sin nature. The gospel never calls us to bear feelings of guilt. Rather, our discontent is expressed in our mourning over our sin to the extent that we are led to repentance through which we find contentment in God’s forgiving grace. The continuous practice of confession and repentance verbalizes our discontent and opens us to the forgiveness of God.

Second, we must always be discontent with the evil and injustice that remains in our world. Often, we ignore the larger world in which we live and we disregard those who suffer under the weight of poverty, oppression and injustice. We follow the popular preachers of self-fulfillment, who treat the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as primarily the power that feeds our own insular spirituality. As long as our spiritual hunger is fed, and our needs are met, we find comfort. But in doing so, we fail to accept the fullness of the gospel of discipleship that calls us to embrace the pain of our world and identify with those who hurt.

Though Jesus found contentment in his relationship with God and the mission to which God had called him, he was discontent with the hurting people experienced in an unjust society. His mission and message brought healing to those under the weight of oppression, and judgment against those who oppressed. He was never content that evil and injustice were ravaging God’s good creation, and his miracles of healing and restoration were works that sought to release those captive to injustice and oppression.

The third area in which we ought to be discontent is directly connected to the first two mentioned above. We must remain discontent about the delay of Christ’s return and the full redemption of all of creation. Although Jesus’ message was that the rule of God had come, the fullness of that rule has yet to be realized.

We live in the “already, but not yet” interval in which we look in the past to God’s work on the cross and to the future to the emergence of God’s full redemption. We must long for and pray for the time of Christ’s return when the new creation of God will be made real. Indeed, as Paul states in Romans, the whole of creation groans with the pains of birth for the day of redemption. We join creation in that groaning, discontent with the delay of God and calling on God to bring the fullness of God’s rule and justice to bear on the world.

In this vein, we pray the words of Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and we work to create a more just and loving world in which signs of the coming kingdom become recognizable as the work of Christ.

In the second Beatitude of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus was not speaking of a general sadness or mourning. He was speaking of our mourning over the state of humanity and all of creation apart from God’s full redemption. He was speaking of our discontent over our struggle with sin, the prevalence of injustice, and the delay in the full realization of God’s redemption.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jesus’ Life Offers a Model of Contentment

We live in a restless and discontented world. Each day we are confronted with problems and circumstances that test our peace and contentment. We worry about financial problems, health problems, and family problems. We are anxious about raising our children, succeeding at work, and maintaining a certain standard of living.

Moreover, the pace of our daily lives, the demands of nanosecond technology, and the drive to outdo others are only a few of the factors that contribute to our anxiety and restlessness. We never have enough time or enough money to do and buy all we think we need. We are a discontent and stressed out generation.

Why are we discontent? Why are we restless? Perhaps the most challenging obstacle to finding satisfaction in life is that we are constantly in want. We live in what someone has called the “prison of want”. We always want what is bigger, nicer, faster, and newer. We want a new job, a new car, a new house, a new gadget, and new clothes because we believe that such things will provide lasting contentment.

We want because we live lives of comparison. We see what others have and we want something better. We see what others become and we want to become something better. We are in a constant pace to keep up with and even out do our neighbors.

We also want because the illusion of comfort convinces us that we will be happier with more stuff, with a new job, with a new car, and many other things we desire. We want possessions and prestige because we have the false impression that these will take away the pains and disappointments we experience in life. Yet, unhealthy wanting only leads to lust, jealousy, anger, resentment, failure, and sadly, a life that never finds contentment.

So what is the secret of contentment? How can we live lives free of anxiety and filled with satisfaction? How can we overcome the desire to want? We find the answer in the model of living that Jesus gave to us. Never wanting or desiring that which was not given by God, Jesus, though continually living in the shadow of death, found contentment in his relationship with God and others. Three primary characteristics of Jesus’ life demonstrate this very idea.

First Jesus found contentment through living in God’s presence. He was in constant communion with God, being led by God’s Spirit to do the will of God. Through living in presence of God, Jesus found satisfaction and peace. The famous Psalm 23 captures the essence of what Jesus knew to be true; living in God’s presence and looking to God for the needs and blessings of life leads to a life of peace and contentment.

Second, Jesus found contentment by living in God’s present. We are always looking past today to tomorrow, and we rush through life without appreciating the present that God has given to us. Jesus’ life, however, reflected his command, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” He embraced the present time that God had given him as an opportunity to embrace the will of God for him. In this he found peace.

The Psalmist of Psalm 118 reminds us that each day is “the day that the Lord has made” and we should “rejoice and be glad in it.” Instead of rushing through our lives of stress and strain, hoping that each day will be better than the previous one, we ought to live in the present that God has given us, finding God’s grace for today even if our circumstances are painful.

Lastly, Jesus found contentment in relationships with others. Though spending much time alone in communion with God, Jesus was not insular. Indeed, we might say that his time alone with God resulted in his intentional act of creating relationships with others. In those relationships, though often disappointing, Jesus found friendship, community, and contentment.

To find peace and contentment, we must cherish our fellowship with God’s people. The greatest gift we have is not the things, the possessions, the prestige, or the popularity we find in life. The greatest gifts we have in life are the relationships God has given us. Instead of replacing these relationships with busyness, superficiality, and isolation, we should ensure that we give priority to building loving relationships with the people God has placed in our lives.

We will never find contentment in the things of this world that rust and decay. Nor will we experience peace through the things of this world that bring fleeting pleasure. True contentment is experienced through living in the presence of God, the present God has given us, and with the people God has led into our lives, even as we live in a world that is so discontent.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Religious Doctrine Must Not Serve As a Weapon

When I was in seminary, the institution I attended experienced a radical shift to the far right. During those days I witnessed a theological battle that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On one particularly rough day, my Hebrew professor came into class and made one statement that has stuck with me ever since. “Theology is never the issue. It is always the weapon. Power is the real issue”

I have often pondered those words, and particularly when I witness or hear of Christians using theology, and by this I mean what they consider orthodox theology, to oppress and exclude others by denying people their rights as human beings and their full participation in the body of Christ. While I could write in general concerning the violent tendencies of religious ideologies in all religions, including Christianity, I want to address here a more underlying and yet ever present force that some use to strengthen their long held prejudices.

In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, religious scholar and Baptist theologian Charles Kimball lays out five warning signs for when religious perspectives have gone too far and are on the brink of becoming evil. I don’t have the time or space to detail each of the five warning signs suggested by Kimball, but the first in order is what he defines as “absolute truth claims”. By absolute truth claims, Kimball means, “particular interpretations…which become propositions requiring uniform assent and are treated as rigid doctrines.” Kimball goes on to argue that once we have established such truth claims, we can then justify our actions, any of our actions.

Of course, history has shown this to be true across the religious spectrum, as all kinds of atrocities have been executed in the name of religious truth claims. But even within the bounds of contemporary Christianity, and particularly conservative Christianity, we have witnessed beliefs and acts that though not violent, they are nonetheless mean-spirited and harmful forms of exclusion and repression.

One pertinent example is the prohibition against female pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as in other denominations. This represents a form of exclusion that denies one gender the right and privilege to serve a calling from God that is as equally valid as that issued to males. While those holding a position that forbids women from serving as pastors claim that their position considers women as equal in essence to men, they deny that females are equal in the role they play in the church, particularly in leadership positions. But such religious chauvinism has not stopped at banning women from the pulpit.

In recent years there has been a robust and calculated push to put women under the rule of their husbands. Instead of affirming the biblical egalitarian view that sees husbands and wives as equal and co-submissive to each other, this position claims that even in the modern world men should rule women and specifically in the confines of marriage. Tragically, one Southern Baptist theologian recently suggested in a sermon that some spousal abuse is the fault of women who do not submit to the rule of their husbands. His rationale is that when a husband’s leadership is threatened by a wife who is not submissive, that husband may respond with abuse. He clearly places the blame on the woman.

Gender inequality in the home and in the church, as well as other issues of inequality and repression, represent the idea that theology can be a powerful weapon of authoritarianism. While we can and do disagree on theological issues, they should not be used as litmus tests of orthodoxy and should not be used to deny persons their rights to live as they believe God intended them. Neither we nor our narrow authoritative interpretations of Scripture can stand in judgment of others. Only God is our judge.

Asserting absolute truth claims that are not central to the faith and that lead to the exclusion and repression of others is not the witness of the gospel to which Jesus has called us. The gospel’s truth cannot be communicated through propositions or prohibitions, especially when such propositions and prohibitions shackle people. The gospel is best communicated through acts of love and compassion and through attitudes of openness and humility. Love is the fulfillment of the law of God and love bears witness to the grace of God that calls all of us to put down our theological weapons and relinquish our power over others.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Good Samaritan Teaches That There Are No Limits To Our Community

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar and beloved parables told by Jesus. Yet the danger in knowing the story too well is that we have often understood the story apart from its original social context, leading us to miss the shock the parable had on its first audience. While the parable can stand on its own as a good story about one person showing compassion to another, hearing it as the first hearers did opens to us the real sting of the tale.

Luke, the only evangelist to tell the parable, narrates that a man approached Jesus asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Underlying the man’s inquiry is an attitude of self-service, for it appears that his question sounds more like, “What is the least I have to do to ensure that I have eternal life?” The man’s motivation appears not to be a desire to love God or others, but rather a need to satisfy his own eternal security.

In response to the man’s query, Jesus invites him to answer his own question by asking, "What is written in the law?" The man replies with theological accuracy, quoting what every Hebrew knew from childhood, that the law is summed up as a dual command to love God and to love one’s neighbor. In response to the man’s answer, Jesus affirms his orthodox statement and assures the man that if he does this he will indeed have eternal life.

The man’s next question, “Who is my neighbor?” seems innocent at first, but since Luke tells us that the man was seeking to justify himself, we might presume that in asking the question, the man desired to limit his neighborly community. In other words, the man’s real question might be, “Who am I required to love in order to gain eternal life?” It is this question that prompts Jesus to tell his shocking parable.

The tale begins with a man traveling on the treacherous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he is attacked by robbers and left for dead. By chance, a priest passes by the man without helping. Likewise, a Levite sidesteps the victim. The man who questioned Jesus is probably elated that neither of these religious officials stopped to help, for he himself is not a priest nor a Levite; he is a lawyer and not a temple official.

Yet, the man knows that to resolve the story there must appear a third character and perhaps he thinks that this third character in the story should be a person like himself; the one that would stop and help his fellow Judean. Yet, to the dismay of the man, the third character is a Samaritan. Why does Jesus choose a Samaritan, and how does this shock the audience?

The Samaritans were considered by most Judeans as an inferior race. They were believed to be descended from Israelites who had intermarried with other nations after being exiled to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. While Samaritans claimed the Torah as their law, Judeans did not view them any better than they viewed Gentiles. In the minds of Judeans, Samaritans were half-breeds.

The shock and offensiveness of Jesus’ parable, then, is that the unlikely hero of the story is not a racially pure Hebrew, but a member of a people believed to be lesser and impure. Indeed, the man is so shocked by this turn of events that in response to Jesus’ question, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man?" the man cannot even utter the word Samaritan, but simply replies, “The one who showed him compassion.”

In response to the man’s answer, Jesus commands, “Go and do likewise.” Jesus is telling the man, “This Samaritan has set for you the example of what it is to be a neighbor to others, for he has widened his neighborly community to include someone who hates him and someone he has been taught to despise.” If the lawyer truly desires to have eternal life, he must become like the Samaritan he loathes.

What the Samaritan’s action teaches us is that there are no limits to our neighborly community. Yes, the story has been used to speak about how we are to show compassion towards others. But this interpretation only serves to reinforce our assumptions that if we do acts of service towards others, we are living out the moral of the parable. But this is only partly true.

In showing compassion to someone from a race that despised his own, and one which I am sure he had been taught to hate, the Samaritan put away those prejudices that may have caused him to pass by like the priest and the Levite, and he widened his own conception of who was his neighbor. His generous act was more than a one-time act of compassion. His good deed reflected a deeper understanding of who he believed was a neighbor in his community.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

“Patriotism is not Enough”

Several years ago, while on a family trip to London, we were making our way up from Trafalgar Square to St. Martin’s Place. As we headed toward the National Portrait Gallery, I glanced at one of the many statues that surround this area of Britain’s capital. My glance at the stone monument, however, quickly turned into an intense focus and reflection on the words below the figure carved there. The words read, “Patriotism is not enough.” The woman whose representation was situated atop that citation was Edith Cavell.

I later discovered that Edith Cavell had been a nurse in Brussels during WWI, and that she had been executed by the German army in 1915 for helping Allied troops escape German occupied Belgium. But I also discovered something about her that brought a sense of meaning to the words inscribed on her monument; words she apparently spoke to a minister on the night before her death. Edith Cavell had not only assisted Allied soldiers during the First World War, she had also given aid and comfort to German troops, the very enemy of her home country of Britain. And on the eve of her death, she expressed her rationale for doing so; “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

While reflecting on these simple words, I have often felt that Christians have become too ingrained in American patriotism that we have lost a sense of identity and mission that views God as the God of all humanity and that witnesses to Jesus’ love for all, friends and enemies. There is a great danger to the church and its bold witness of the gospel to our world if we continue to blur the lines of division between patriotic loyalty to country and faithfulness to Christ. When we do so we run the grave risk of allowing American culture to influence, weaken, and indeed, supersede the church’s prophetic witness to the state.

This is why, as I have written before, we should not have symbols of our nation, including patriotic themes and songs, incorporated into our worship or our areas of sacred space. Doing so not only profanes the sacred time and sacred space of worship, it also brings into question and confuses our loyalties. The mixture of patriotic themes with Christian worship and witness reinforces beliefs that America and Christianity are inseparable, and that America is the Christian nation.

Moreover, if we celebrate patriotism within the context of Christian worship and practice, how does such a witness affect non-Americans? A pastor once shared with me that on a Sunday before Memorial Day, at the close of the worship service, the minister of worship lead the congregation in the singing of “God Bless America.” As the congregation sang this well known song, the pastor noticed many non-Americans in the audience and he noticed that they were not singing. They were not citizens of this country and this was not their song. The worship of God in Christian unity that had characterized the service to that point, ended on a patriotic note that excluded those who were not American.

We can certainly be good citizens of both the kingdom of God and America, for Christians are called to be salt and light in the world. And in a democracy where there is the free expression of religion, the church must participate in promoting just governmental policies for all. But our ultimate loyalty must be to the life and teachings of Christ, particularly his call for justice and peace for all people, especially toward the marginalized of our society.

If we are forced, as were early Christians, and as was Edith Cavell and Dietrich Bonheoffer, to choose between loyalty to Christ or loyalty to country, will we be able to distinguish between the two?

Loyalty to Christ means always choosing peace over war, love over hatred, poverty over wealth, forgiveness over revenge, and inclusion over nationalism. True freedom is found not in preserving security through power, war, or torture, but is discovered in being bound to Christ, his cross, and his gospel that extends beyond the boundaries of nation and culture to embrace the world.

As we celebrate Independence Day, let us do so with a sense of pride in what is good and right about America. But let us also witness boldly against America when policies and practices are put in place that are unjust and that ignore the gospel’s message of peace, justice, and life for all. We should always remember Nurse Cavell’s last words, and her life should cause us to consider the dangers inherent in uncritical and xenophobic patriotism. If we are to be faithful followers of the one who came to save the world, the words of Edith Cavell must become ours. “Patriotism is not enough.”