Friday, March 19, 2010

The Good News

On the discussion board for my book, someone asked the question "What is the gospel."

And at first I gave the answer representing what the gospel Jesus spread would have been: the idea that the time of the Kingdom was at hand to a people who had been yearning for it for centuries. By the way, I discuss this gospel in a youtube video here.

But then the person asked me "But what is the good news for me?" And that is an excellent question...what is the Good News today...I decided I'd give my answer here for anyone who cared.

Well, there are several pieces of good news for you:

First piece of good news:
God has declared through Christ that God's Kingdom is now open to all races. You, as a Gentile, no longer are excluded from God. You are no longer a second-class citizen simply because you do not follow the covenant given to Abraham's heirs. That's a HUGE piece of good news that people today simply take for granted. But consider the situation of 1st century Gentiles, many of whom were attracted and respected the Jewish faith but could not bring themselves to convert. The idea that the Jews no longer had God's favor cornered is a huge bit of Good news.

Second piece, related to the first:

God has declared through Christ a new covenant whose joiners receive the holy spirit as a "signing bonus." This is an INCREDIBLE piece of good news if you put yourself in the mind of a 1st century believer. The Jews had only rarely tastes the Holy Spirit, and only for short bits of time. This person or that person of old may have been "in the spirit" for a time, receiving special revelation...but now EVERYONE in God's community has access to it. UNBELIEVABLE. Note that the Spirit is what Christ refers to at the end of Luke when he says "That which was promised" and in John he says it can only come if he dies...and in Acts it is repeated referred to as "the gift"

Third piece of Good News:
God has declared through Jesus' resurrection what God intends to do to everyone later on. Jesus resurrection is proof that God raises the dead (and it also is a warning to those who think they can do anything they want in this life without consequences). Note Paul's words to Felix in Acts 24:14-21 .

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount

I was asked by the church I attend to write a short study/meditation for the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. It was part of a larger, 14-week study the entire congregation had been doing.

Having just finished it, I wanted to post it here in case anyone is interested. Each day was supposed to have some specific reading, either from the Sermon on the Mount itself or from a separate passage relating to it. The guide was supposed to also offer opportunities for meditation, reflection, and response.

The Upshot: Concluding the Sermon on the Mount

Day 1: Matthew 7:7-28

What do you expect at the end of a sermon? We all give sermons to others, or at least we imagine giving them occasionally. How do you finish yours?

Matthew 7:24-28 is not really the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the conclusion of the conclusion. The larger passage from 7:7-28 is the conclusion of the sermon. In the body of the sermon (5:21 to 7:6), Matthew reports specific teachings and admonishments, the commands Jesus mentions in 5:19. The conclusion, though, includes no such specific requirements and possesses a different texture.

Does Matthew 7:7-28 incorporate the aspects you expect in a sermon’s conclusion? How?

What do you consider the basic purpose of the Sermon of the Mount (either in Jesus’ ministry or in Matthew’s presentation)? Does your reading of the conclusion support this view or ask you to alter it?

Day 2: Matthew 28:18-20
What common themes can be found by comparing the end of the Sermon on the Mount (verses 7:24-29) to the end of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20)?

What imperatives are given in both? What justification is given for the commands discussed in both?

How does the wording of Matthew 5:19 connect the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount to the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel?

Jesus asks Peter, John, and the rest to make disciples of all nations. What does this word mean to you? Is this meaning reflected in the passage? Are there ways you see yourself fulfilling the call to make disciples? Are there endeavors you are considering that would fulfill Jesus’ call to make disciples of others?

What aspects of the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel (28:18-20) do not appear to have counterparts in either the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount or its conclusion?

Day 3: Luke 11:9-13
Comparing Matthew 7:7-11 to Luke 11:9-13 reveals something interesting. The “good things” that the Father will give according to Matthew’s gospel are rendered as “The Holy Spirit” in Luke’s account.

How does this relate to the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel mentioned in yesterday’s meditation? In particular, how does it relate to those aspects that might not have obvious parallels in the introduction or conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount?

Very rarely, a rabbi would arise who was said to have “authority” (Jewish term: semikhah, though many other transliterations are possible.) Such a rabbi had the right to promulgate new interpretations or rabbinical traditions. These teachings would then be passed down to later rabbis. This practice maintained a certain degree of consistency among the teachings of Judaism since rabbis were not generally free to make up their own interpretations.

But occasionally someone received special revelation for a short time and would do or say things while being “in the Spirit.” We normally think of this in terms of prophecies, but often it was for instruction. An utterance made while “in the spirit” was cherished and given special authority. The biblical writers use this idiom in Matthew 22:43, Luke 2:27, and Acts 19:21 to describe actions or words provoked by God’s call. The idea that the Spirit of God would be available to everyone all the time was probably incomprehensible, and it is unsurprising that the apostles spoke in such humbled terms of the Spirit’s availability. It is called the “gift” and the realized “promise” multiple times in Acts, and chapters 13-16 of John put the Spirit in the spotlight as well.

If we temporarily set aside the mental pictures Matthew 7:7-11 plants in our Western, individualistic minds, we can grope for how Jesus may have intended this message on a community-wide scale. The Sermon on the Mount repeatedly speaks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” that the Jews were expecting to come upon them as God’s people. The Jews of Jesus’ day commonly prayed for their national salvation. If Matthew 7:7-11 is an allusion to that, we see in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount the first hints at one of the most amazing nuances of the coming Kingdom: that it would be a revolution by spiritual revelation. Instead of suggesting his Jewish brothers ask for an army to bring about their deliverance, he asks them to pray for the Spirit to come.

Just imagine living in a faith society where the Spirit of God had been almost silent for centuries, very rarely possessing anyone and only for short periods of time. How amazed early Jewish Christians must have been to find the Spirit pervading their community and touching all believers! That which was once desperately rare had become abounding, as though diamonds were falling like rain.

What role does the Spirit have in your life?

Day 4: Matthew 7:1-6 and Romans 11:11-21
In the sermon’s conclusion, Christ discusses the twin dangers of following those who should not be followed and failing to follow those who should be.

Christ’s final admonition, Do not judge lest you be judged, leads into this conclusion by suggesting the Jews in general are not being a good example to others. He tells them to remove the plank from their eye so they can see to remove the specks from their brothers’. And he follows that up with a curious statement: Do not give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs, otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.

When this phrase is quoted today, people often think Christ is saying “don’t waste your time on those unreceptive to your message,” but there is nothing anywhere near Matthew 7:6 that suggests he has this in mind. It would be rather strange for Jesus to ascribe pearls of wisdom to those he had just called hypocrites and accused of having planks in their eyes. Furthermore, the idea that we should not engage those we do not believe are receptive would go against Christ’s own model. He debated the scribes and Pharisees in his own ministry and even addressed the aristocratic Sadducees, who were probably even less receptive to his views. His later disciples would similarly engage all manner of people, not allowing their prejudices determine who was fit to hear the gospel.

Instead, Matthew 7:6 is probably a reference to the danger of God’s favor passing to the Gentiles [“pigs” and “dogs” were both Jewish epithets for Gentiles, the former emphasizing their living outside God’s law, the latter emphasizing their idolatry]. By continuing in disobedience, the Jewish nation risked having their inheritance retracted and given to someone else. This theme has already come up earlier when Jesus asks in Matthew 5:13 (the only other place where “trampled” appears in his gospel): You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people. This concern shows up several times later as well, in Matthew: 21:33-41, 22:1-10, 23:37-39, and perhaps 25:28.

We might think that his concern for the Jews is an academic one, irrelevant to us today. However, Matthew saw fit to capture this concern (as did Luke) in gospels many believe were written long after the Jewish leadership rejected Christ. How do Paul’s words in Romans 11:11-21 interpret the loss the Jewish nation suffered? Do Christians run the same risk?

Do you see the modern Christian church prone to dangers like those Christ and Paul warned their audiences against?

Day 5: Luke 6:46-49 and Exodus 23:20-32

Luke’s version of the conclusion to Christ’s sermon (note how Luke 6:37-49 matches up with Matthew 7:1-27 if verses 6-14 are omitted) can aid our interpreting of Matthew’s account. Fitting together Luke 6:46-49 with Matthew 7:21-27 suggests that Luke 6:46, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I tell you? is Luke’s version of Matthew 7:21-23.

How does Luke 6:46 guide your interpretation of Christ’s words in Matthew 7:21-23?

In addition to comparing Matthew’s version to Luke, we can compare it to the scripture Matthew undoubtedly had in mind when portraying Jesus preaching laws on a mountain, an obvious reference to Moses on Sinai. The commandments given there composed the statutes for the Mosaic covenant, a “lease” of sorts between God and Abraham’s descendents for their occupation of the promised land.

Covenants between rulers and vassals in ancient times shared a common structure. After the stipulations describing what was required of the vassal came a set of blessings, a set of curses, and provisions for the ongoing validity of the covenant. In the case of the Mosaic covenant, the stipulations were the Mosaic Law (e.g. Exodus 20:1 – 23:19) and a short version of the blessings, curses, and continuity provisions can be found immediately afterward (Exodus 23:20-32). (A longer version can be seen in Deuteronomy, where the Laws span from chapter 5 through 27, the blessings, curses, and provisions for the continuity are found in chapters 28-32.)

The body of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:2) parallels the commandments given on Sinai, the stipulations for Israel’s occupation. It is unclear if the conclusion of the sermon is intended to be analogous to the blessings, curses, and provision for continuity typical for a covenant. Still, there are interesting parallels between Exodus 23:20-32 and Matthew 7:7-29.
What points of contact do you see between these two passages?

In the Exodus passage, the Israelites were told to destroy the altars of their pagan neighbors, and God promised to drive those idolaters from the land. How does this apply to us today? What altars are you called to smash down? What do you yearn for God to drive out from within you?

Day 6: Matthew 5:13-20
A common formula for public speaking is “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them what you told them you would tell them, and then tell them what you told them,” referring to the introduction, body, and conclusion of a speech. So far, we have looked at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount as its own entity, in comparison to Matthew’s conclusion to his gospel, in comparison to Luke’s account, and in comparison to the account of Moses giving the Torah. The final place to look for confirmation that we understand the sermon’s meaning is in its introduction.

How do specific sections of Matthew 5:13-20 match up with Matthew 7:1-29?

We tend to read the Bible in a piece-meal fashion, often remembering just a verse or short passage that speaks to us without reference to what part it plays in the writer’s overall design. When we see individual passages as relating to common themes in a letter, it can change our views on a passage’s intended meaning. Verses we assumed meant one thing we can find were really aimed at a different objective entirely. For each match-up you find, explain how seeing the introduction and conclusion in parallel modifies how you have viewed/interpreted the individual parts.

The Sermon on the Mount is a well known phrase. Many people have heard of it without being able to identify any particular part, other than perhaps the Beatitudes. If you overheard a group of people in a coffee shop laughing about how they all knew the phrase “Sermon on the Mount” without really knowing anything about it, what would you tell them?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The mundane Holy Spirit

I wanted to give air to an idea that has captured my thoughts from time to time. Today people talk blithely of the Holy Spirit and ascribe to it this wonder and that duty, but there is a decided lack of appreciation for its effect on early Christianity.

We live in a faith tradition where the Holy Spirit is a commonplace article. We are familiar with it as one of the many gifts of God. What we don't take into account is that the people of God did not always have it. We read our New Testaments as though they were textbooks describing this or that function of the Spirit without fully realizing how profound of a change the advent of the Spirit was to the earliest Christians.

For centuries prior to Christ, the "Spirit of God" was said to have been silent. The idea of being "in the Spirit" referred to occasional divine revelation or provocation to do or say something. Christ refers to David speaking while "in the Spirit" in Matthew 22:43. Other examples are presented in Luke 2:27 and Acts 19:21. It was exceptionally rare both in terms of possessing people very rarely and in terms of only possessing people for a limited amount of time.

It had to be shocking, utterly shocking, then for early Christians to find out that, in the new covenant, EVERYONE could have the Spirit ALL THE TIME. I don't think we really appreciate how significant a change this was to their views on God's providence. I further believe that the more we realize this, the more we can find in the Bible indication that the sending of the Spirit was considered the gift obtained by Christ's work.

Christ refers to it as "what was promised," and that term "promise" is used several times in Acts to refer to the Spirit. The term "gift" is practically synonymous with Holy Spirit throughout the teachings of the apostles in Acts. John's account has Jesus saying that the Spirit's advent was contingent on his death. Once your eyes are open to it, these types of allusions show up all over the place.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The philosophy of Jesus

I am taking a screenwriting class in which each participant is invited to present one screenplay or idea for a screenplay. I wrote up an idea for an allegory of the Christian faith, and part of that allegory presents a teacher [Poima] discussing what belief in their god [Diacyntanis] means when it comes to making life decisions. It is essentially a representation of what it means to be "wise" in terms of Christianity, which is nothing more or less than answering the question "what does it mean to live by faith." In particular this is not a faith that God exists, but rather a faith that God possesses certain qualities (it is also a statement of faith in Christ's return).

I think that is a major disconnect in Christianity today, the idea that faith impacts our life not merely because we believe God exists, but that our beliefs in God's attributes modify what decisions we make. When Jesus chastises his Jewish brothers in the parable of the clever steward (Luke 16:1-13, and 16:8 in particular), this is what he refers to: those who believe in God were not acting in a way that makes any sense with those beliefs...just as someone who believes in gravity is unlikely to let go of a glass vase in mid-air --- the person's general beliefs about gravity, when applied to the specific situation of the vase, should cause the person to come to a realization that letting go of the vase in mid-air is unwise. In the same way, our beliefs about God's attributes, when applied to individual situations we face, should lead us to find that the wise course of action is different from what those who do not hold those beliefs about God.

I am pasting below what I wrote for that class regarding this screenplay, which puts a finer point on the ideas above:
This screenplay addresses gross misrepresentations of Jesus’ story, which has all too often been hopelessly pulled from its Jewish context. It also provides an alternative view to the fundamental nature of Christianity.

In addition to this, and interleaved within it, is the philosophy of Christianity, which is seen in Poima’s teachings. Within this philosophy, people are enslaved two things:

1) Intrapersonally, they are enslaved by a futile egoism married to psychological baggage that causes them to treat others (and themselves) in ways they are not proud of. They are not the people they want to be because, for whatever reason, they cannot bring themselves to act in the way they wish they could.

2) Interpersonally, they are hindered by external agents due to those agents’ own intrapersonal enslavement. In any oppressive or unjust scenario, both the victim and the aggressor are dominated. The victim is dominated by the perpetrator, and the perpetrator is dominated by whatever is causing him to partake in his behavior.

The above might look quite reasonable and not particularly exclusive to Christianity until one gets a fully picture of what the actions in category 1 include. Poima teaches that this futility comes primarily by a lack of faith in the goodness and power of Diacentanys, that people act the way they do because they do not truly believe that:

i) Diacentanys desires the good and has the power to effect the good.

ii) Because Diacentanys desires the good (for all people), so should we.

Thus, at its heart, her teaching is against selfishness because selfishness comes from a belief that the only way one can be fulfilled is to put one’s own happiness before that of others. Contrarily, a belief that Diacentanys desires and has the power to effect the good suggests that one is most fulfilled by caring about the happiness of others. Thus, belief that Diacentanys has these qualities (a desire for, and power to effect, the good for all) makes unselfish behavior the natural and wise choice.

For example, Poima teaches that the people should give their excess money to the poor rather than save up for retirement. This is an example of how our desire to dominate our future (and our need for security in case Diacentanys cannot provide or does not want to provide) leads us to abandon others in their need. Poima teaches that people should desire the good of all because, in this, we emulate Diacentanys.

Thus, fundamentally, Poima teaches a type of liberation from slavery-to-self by fully recognizing the desire and power of God to provide. Part of this philosophy is that one can fulfilled and happy within the confines of that desire. This is the liberation from number 1 above.

Regarding liberation from number 2, which can only occur when people live in a society where all have been liberated in the sense of number 1, Poima indicates such a kingdom is coming.
Poima also tells her disciples that through her obedience to Diacentanys’ will, she has earned her prophesied position as Queen over not just the traditional land of the Draed’s, but over all land.
She will be returning to claim this kingdom, not merely to overthrow the Morka. When she returns, all governments will be dissolved, and there will be only one kingdom. That kingdom will operate along the same principles as her teachings [that actions designed to benefit others are wise] and hence only those whose previous behavior suggests they will contribute to this society will be allowed in.

Poima tells her disciples to take her teachings to everyone, both for their liberation in the current time, and so they know of her future coming. Diacentanys resurrected her from death, and the same shall be done to everyone else when Poima returns.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Addendum to Grace Post

A long time ago, I posted a blog on the meaning of grace.

You can read the whole thing, but essentially it comes down to a discussion of "favor that is granted outside the bounds of contractual obligation." However, this does not mean it is necessarily "unmerited" or "uninstigated." In my book I give the example of Cornelius [among others]. In the case of Paul, the point is that Christ's coming was not a blessing obtained (and hence exclusive to) the Jews based on their keeping the Mosaic regulations and ordinances (and hence Gentiles are not bound to convert to Judaism to benefit from Jesus' work.)

Someone wrote me a question regarding this topic, and in answering it I noticed a place where Christ refers to grace/favor (Greek = charis) in terms where it is clear that the grace is not without instigation: Luke 6:32-35

Indeed, if one reads the Matthew version in parallel to Lukes (c.f. Matthew 5:46- 6:4) we see Matthew using the term "reward" in the same way that Luke is using the term "favor/grace/credit"

Of course, this is not to say that favor/grace/credit always refer to an instigated boon, but does show that the principal idea of the term is not "without reason," as is often thought.