THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG

I’m reading “Open and Relational Theology” by Thomas Oord in which he asks the age-old question which is the title for today. But he asks it with regard to faith and love. Which comes first? I began to think that I am no longer attracted to the Evangelical notion about faith. It’s like a formula or a barcode stamped on our hands to secure our entrance into the eternal Kingdom of God.

Oord directs our attention to Paul writing to the Galatians,

“For [if we are] in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith activated and energized and expressed and working through love”. (Amplified Bible)5:6

When I was a young pastor an older teen told me that he had ‘backslidden’ in his faith (a term meaning that he was probably into something bad) but then he said it didn’t matter because he was ‘saved’ and once you are saved you are always saved. Now, there’s a testimony that I will preach. NOT.

The church at Corinth always had problems of pride and greed. Paul wrote to them that without love even a faith that moves mountains is of no use. (See I Cor. 13.) Isn’t that something? Who would guess that such a faith without love is useless? Anybody with an intuitive mind would. Faith is trusting God in Christ. Love is God. Some see faith as simply an assent to doctrines. Love is the expressing of God’s life in ours and in others. And yes, sometimes non-believers live love better than those of us who have the ‘correct’ belief.

In Jesus’ day, people had their lives changed because they were touched by God’s love in Christ, through healing and hearing the Good News that God’s Kingdom had arrived for them. He invites them into God’s love before they can trust him. Think how often Jesus says, ‘Go, your faith has made you well.’ His love and their acceptance gave them new life.

When Jesus met with his disciples to wash their feet he said he was giving them a new commandment: “Love one another.” (John 13:34) He said it was the same kind of love with which he loved them.

So, the chicken or the egg? In my mind they are an organic whole. They are a unity in Christ. They are like the two wings on an airplane. We can’t trust or live without both of them together. But I will say this: The virtue of love expresses a whole lot more in this creation than believing. Sometimes I have to believe and trust in order to have love. But love is the thing.

When I go to a doctor my first concern is not if they are a Christian. Rather I want to know that this person is skilled in the art of medicine and care. All their hard work finds it’s greatest expression in love (deeds of love). Thankfully I have a doctor who has connected both. Or consider marriage. I believe in the covenant. I believe in my wife. But if I don’t love her with more than words, then I’m ‘toast’.

Finally, it’s rather easy to declare faith or belief. Love is the thing. We can’t counterfeit it. It’s relational and it changes the world.

If anyone is interested in reading the book I mentioned, it’s “Open and Relational Theology” subtitled ‘an introduction to life-changing ideas’ by Dr. Thomas Jay Oord published in 2021

A REASON FOR HOPE FOR ALL- A POSSIBILITY

There is a significant amount of conversation these days about Hopeful Christian Universalism, meaning that the Bible gives us reason to believe and hope that through Christ all people will be restored and saved and enter the Kingdom. Most Christians are fine with thinking this is NOT the case and would rather trust the research and theology that has come to us mostly since the Reformation of the 1500’s.

Let’s consider the idea of judgment for a moment. I recently read a blog written by a friend from Long Island on this point: (This following is a paragraph from the blog.)

The message is clear. No matter who you are, rich or poor, known or unknown, cleric or laymen, artist or Pope, we all have the wonderful opportunity to look up and consider God in His marvelous creation. But if we do this, we must all also consider that we will all face Him in his judgment – and that is the part that many people want to forget. It is one thing to look at creation and think that God may have had a part in it, but it is quite another to think that we all are accountable to this same God.

Christians of the Evangelical sort make much of judgment, particularly final judgment which, depending on what verses we read, can be based on faith or faith and good works done in the body or how we used the talents God gave to us. This judgment, especially for unbelievers, is dark and filled with images of hellish eternal torment rendered unto us by the loving God who in Jesus told us to love our enemies.

I want to consider a passage that is most appropriate for this Holy Week. I believe it’s an alternate view. It is a Palm Sunday scene that takes place after Jesus had raised Lazarus to life. He is now in Jerusalem and at one point reflects on his imminent death. I will pick up the scripture from there: John 12:27 ff.

 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiahremains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

Now, here’s how I understand what is happening in this conversation. Jesus is speaking about his death on the cross and concluding that his death will bring about the judgment of the world. His death will bring the world into a crisis by which the love of God expressed by Jesus on the cross IS the judgment of the world that Jesus is taking into himself. Evil, sin and Satan will be defeated on the cross. Read Colossians 2:13-15 [NRSV]:

13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, Godmade you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

See, this is the work of Jesus on the cross. To forgive us all, erasing all the legal punishments against us, and disarming Satan. Some will say it’s only true for those who believe. But in verse 32 of John 12, Jesus says that he is going to draw, pull, or drag ( Greek) all people to himself.

Now we can still say that this drawing does not save, only attracts more people. But left over from my Calvin days is the idea that such drawing is a work of irresistible grace on God’s part that will ensure that all people will come to Christ. It may be in this life and it may be that it happens after this life. I picture Jesus from his throne opening his arms of love to enfold the entire world for which he died. He didn’t die just for believers. Read I John 2:2: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world.

Having written this I need to say that there are scriptures that signify a severe punishment for unbelievers (in whatever way such people are determined) but there is much in scripture that leads us to conclude that God will restore his whole creation back to himself, even through penalty after death that lasts for a season or eon. See Colossians 1:20. But many Christians don’t want to study those passages or dwell on them lest they be led astray, they think. But we want to consider the whole counsel of Scripture. The early church Fathers did. Read what they thought of hopeful universalism before the 6th century. (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement, St. Jerome and others anyone can look up.)

My point is to say that God loves his whole world and wants the salvation of all to take place; and restoration of all creation is possible through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I believe Jesus even puts an exclamation point on that possibility by forgiving the men who crucified him. So judgment may have taken place on what we call GOOD FRIDAY, only to be affirmed by the SUNDAY RESURRECTION.

I am hopeful that the God of love revealed in Christ will do more than we think or imagine in restoring all people to him. Paul writes that God is not counting the sins of anyone in the world against them (2Cor. 5:19). To me, that’s the Good News we can proclaim in Christ. That’s the kind of love that changes peoples’ hearts.

Grace does matter.

By the way, a wonderful book to read in the above vein is THE EVANGELICAL UNIVERSALIST by Gregory MacDonald.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO GRACE? MY WIFE SAYS SHE MOVED TO MINNESOTA.

Really?!

My point is that often we evangelical types forget the magnitude, the outrageousness and the wideness of God’s Amazing Grace. I would love to explore this with any of you who would like to respond. I begin with a passage from Ephesians chapter 2.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

In the Voice Version this is how it reads:

But God, with the unfathomable richness of His love and mercy focused on us, united us with the Anointed One and infused our lifeless souls with life—even though we were buried under mountains of sin—and saved us by His grace. He raised us up with Him and seated us in the heavenly realms with our beloved Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King. He did this for a reason: so that for all eternity we will stand as a living testimony to the incredible riches of His grace and kindness that He freely gives to us by uniting us with Jesus the Anointed.

Words like unfathomable, indescribable, and even incomprehensible are not too extreme to describe God’s grace.

And this passage goes further to say that we have been saved by grace through faith and none of it is our doing, none of it. (Not even the faith part)

So where in any of the above passage do we see anything of our own doing in this salvation grace of God? Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end.

The only ‘work’ that we might be able to do is to leave, walk out of that relationship with God. Let’s put it this way: we are in until we opt out. This is one of the premises of Christian universalism. Now don’t stop reading. This universalism idea has much to offer in the conversation about Grace.

Let’s consider this analogy. We are all in the river together being carried along in God’s love. Some choose to make the leap out of that flowing water. I had a tropical fish that once jumped out of the tank. It’s not long before it realizes the need for water. And so it is with us. After a season God will place the wandering fish back where it belongs. Some fish will see the error of their ways and struggle to get back home by themselves. Kind of like the prodigal son. Ok, maybe it’s not the best analogy but I like it.

But here’s the thing. God’s salvation is through the faithfulness of Christ to show the incomparable riches of his grace. (Verse 7)

How can those riches be displayed, and how can the glory of God be known when we take credit for somehow making salvation possible by our belief? Remember that in the Bible we are looking at a microcosm of salvation encounters over a period of say 100 years in the New Testament narratives. But God’s incredible grace is at work through all eternity and everywhere in all God’s creation.

When we talk about belief, faith or trust we are simply recognizing that there are people who do acknowledge that Christ is the author of our salvation.It is Christ’s faithfulness and his alone that brings salvation to the world. Recognition of Christ and obedience to Christ are essential to the Christian walk but God is up to something quite astounding in bringing the whole creation back to God.

I realize that we can ‘find’ other scriptures to ‘prove’ other than what I have written but let’s do this; let’s consider them all and see what kind of picture they present of the incredible riches of God’s kindness.

 

 

 

 

RELIGIONLESS CHRISTIANITY

I have taken up readings by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) once again.

He was a Lutheran pastor who gave his life in resistance to the Nazi Reich of the 30’s and 40’s. And what he observed in Germany was a piety that pushed God away from the center of a person’s life. In this way God was safer.

This marginalization of God was done by language, ceremonies, and even church sacraments. One could be a Nazi and still give allegiance to God through the label of ‘Christian’ and even go so far from the center to have a ‘God blessed baptism’ without the effects. (It reminds me of a scene from ‘The Godfather’.) The same people who received the church sacraments could be the same persons who were anti-Semitic and executed their own citizens for the security of the Reich.

It’s hard to imagine how the German Nationalists could live with themselves. The reason perhaps is that they pushed God to the periphery of their lives, A God to whom they were only accountable for their religious observances and not their day to day lives.

We do and have done the same in America, myself included. We use our religious labels like ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical’ as ways of aligning ourselves with the God of religion. We get baptized, carry large study Bibles and join churches as a means of attaining an acceptable righteousness with God.

But what truly matters is very little of any of this. What matters is Christ, not religion. Christ is the understanding of Bonhoeffer was the epitome of ‘giving ones life for another’. In Philippians 2 Paul writes that we are to have the attitude, the mindset, the character of Jesus who ‘gave up power’ and his equality with God to become a servant to humanity even to the point of dying on the cross. That’s the center where Jesus lives and to where he calls us. In the vocation of salvation, to which we are called, we are to be a people who are for ‘all the others’ not just the few who belong to ‘our group’. Jesus didn’t die for only the Jews. He died for everyone, for all people. He was/is the Lamb of God who takes away ‘the sin of the world’. (John 1)

So if I am called to be Jesus’ disciples whom do I get to exclude in the name of nationalism, politics, the economy or even safety. Jesus did not call us to be ‘safe’ in this world. Rather he said we should carry a cross and deny ourselves, which is the only real way to discover who we really are.

‘Religion’ keeps us thinking that this is what we have really done. I Tithe. Wow, what a burden, a cross to bear. Jesus said that the very people who tithed were the same ones who neglected weightier matters of just and mercy.

Here’s the Message Version of Luke 11:42 “I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.

And now one of our states has a ‘good Christian’ man running for the U.S. Senate. His past is questionable with several allegations of sexual abuse. He has been compared with Joseph the carpenter who married a young virgin, Mary and bore a son, Jesus. So what’s the problem? And it was 40 years ago. It’s not relevant, some say. And he’s good for the country, a quality that outweighs any past behavior.

See what Bonhoeffer means by pushing God to the peripheral even while using God to condone our own character.

Remember Paul in 1Cor. 13 writing that we can ‘do’ or ‘perform’ all the right acceptable and seemingly moral behaviors but with love it counts, in the salvation vocation to which we are called, for nothing.

God did not send his Son to only save our personal souls to go to heaven when we die but to establish once and for certain His Kingdom, the beachhead for a reconciling of earth and heaven. In Luke 4 Jesus tells about his own presence on earth.

God’s Spirit is on me;
he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
to set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”– Message Version

We are called to follow Jesus in the center of all life, loving others, those on the fringe of life, needing to know the love and blessing of God for everyone. We are called to be the light of the world- the whole world.

And as Jesus taught, ‘not even the powers of hell can stop that kind of church’.

We are the bride, getting ready for the Bridegroom to meet us, to feast with us and to restore this creation to a new heaven and new earth. That cannot happen with God on the periphery of our lives. We are not looking for a Christian State but rather the state of Christians to make Christ the center.

And listen- I’m no pillar of virtue when it comes to all the above. I have performed many religious acts and ceremonies that I have thought appeased God and even after 60 years of being ‘a Christian’ I need Christ more than ever at the CENTER, the center of all I am and do. Thanks be to God for his grace in all of that.

Maranatha