Outdoing one another in showing honor in light of the #NashvilleStatement

Like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, I have read with sadness the recently published Nashville Statement signed by more than 150 leaders in the Evangelical tradition.  As I read these words, I wondered aloud, again like many of my sisters and brothers in Christ, “Why now?  What purpose does this serve in a world where White Supremacists march the streets with impunity, where the threat of nuclear was is more real than ever in my lifetime, and where a hurricane has cost $23 billion of property damage and dozens of lives?”  I’ve struggled for the right words to say; how I might respond, not that the world needs to know my thoughts on the matter, but I do write a blog and bloggers always think people care about their opinions.

Of particular note, at least in my opinion, are Articles 7 and 10 of the Nashville Statement.  Article 7 is of interest because it seems to suggest that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice that is made.  Here is where our ability to have a conversation on this topic breaks down.  Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, that which would become Evangelicalism in the United States made a conscious decision to hold science at arms length and to trust in the inerrancy of Scripture.  This is why we have things like the Creation Museum, which seeks to discredit the scientific suggestion that world was not created in seven, twenty-four hour periods because one of the two Biblical accounts of creation says so.  Fast forward to 2017, and with no clear scientific study that says where homosexual attraction comes from, it is a no-brainer for the anti-scientific bias in evangelicalism to say, without hesitation, that homosexuality can be and “adopted self-conception.”  Without room for scientific exploration on the subject, there is no way sexual orientation will ever be seen as something other than a choice, and a sinful one at that.  There is no room in this mindset for conversation on the topic, even if the rest of the world still sees it as an open question.

Which leads me to Article 10, the much more destructive of the two.  I commend to you Carol Howard Merritt’s reflection for the Christian Century on this topic.  Because of the inherent danger in it, I will publish Article 10 in its entirety.

Article 10
WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.
WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

Those of you who read this blog with regularity will know that my favorite word in the Church is “adiaphora,” which means “things indifferent.”  The idea of adiaphora within Christianity came into focus during the Protestant Reformation as debates between Roman Catholics and early Reformers tended to be based on fundamental disagreements over that which was a core doctrine of the faith.  By adopting Article 10, these Evangelical leaders have drawn a clear line in the sand.  Human sexuality and gender identity are, for them, matters of core doctrine, and one’s beliefs on these matters are a part of what it means to be redeemed in Christ.  It is Article 10 that brings me the most sadness because a friend of mine from high school whom I deeply respect for his faith, even if our theologies on topics like this don’t match up, is one of the original signatories of the Nashville Statement.  Article 10 seems to say that he does not see my faith as valid, and that the only clear path for me as a Christian who affirms God’s love for all God’s children, including the LGBT community, is the road to hell.  I have reached out to my friend and let him know that while I disagree with him on this issue, I will continue to pray for his ministry as I hope he will mine.

This, finally, leads me to the Bible, the topic which this blog purports to be about.  Sunday’s lesson from Romans 12 is a quick-hitting list of admonitions from Paul to the Christians in Rome.  As we hear them, they can make us feel good, but in such rapid succession, it might be hard to note how difficult these Godly admonitions are to live by. This is especially true at the end of verse 10 where he writes, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”  Another way to translate that might be “lead the way in showing respect.”  This is affirmed in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church in which we vow, with God’s help, to respect the dignity of every human being.  We affirm that it can only be done “with God’s help” because, quite frankly, human beings can be hard to love.  Our ability to show respect at all times, is flawed, but it is by God’s grace that we are able to lead the way in showing respect.  With Paul’s words in mind and in light of current events, from Charlottesville to Pyongyang and from Washington DC to Nashville, I pray that I might have the grace and courage to lead the way in showing respect to everyone, even as I pray the same for you, dear reader.

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Humanity’s Utter Depravity

Despite the protestations of my Anglo-Catholic sisters and brothers, I am very comfortable calling Anglicanism a Protestant denomination.  It may not have been true in 1549, but by the time Thomas Cranmer published the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, he had spent entirely too much time with Martin Bucer, and the Protestant Reformation of Continental Europe had made its way across the English Channel.  Thankfully, however, Cranmer’s affinity for Eastern Orthodoxy, his coming of age under the rule of Henry VIII’s strongly Roman Catholic thumb, and the tumultuous nature of the monarchy in 1550s England from Protestant Edward to Roman Catholic Mary to Settlement-minded Elizabeth, kept the worst of the Continental influences, like Calvin and Zwingli, from taking Anglicanism beyond being Protestant and becoming fully Reformed.

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My language in the previous paragraph betrays the fact that I am grateful for our avoidance of some of the excesses of Continental Protestantism, I do realize that there are times that Anglicans find their theology lacking some fullness because of it.  One such example came to mind to me this morning as I considered the second half of Peter’s Confession which we will hear read on Sunday.  Last week, Peter declared Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, just seconds after that declaration, Peter’s mind has already been drawn away from things heavenly and become focused on human things.  There might not be a better example of humanity’s utter depravity, a topic Episcopalians avoid like the plague, than Peter’s immediate about face in this moment.

As faithful Christians, we strive to follow the will of God.  We engage in prayer, we read the Bible, we interact with other disciples, all in the hopes of discerning God’s will for ourselves and for the world God has created.  Like Peter, we have moments when we nestle into the bosom of God, and there we find revelation.  The mind of God is slowing revealed to us, again and again, as we return to the Father.  Again, like Peter, it seems we almost immediately slip away again.  We get prideful about how our own work brought us to deeper understanding.  We get nervous that God might call us to do something we don’t want to do.  We get envious of those who seem to hear God more clearly.  No matter how it happens, it seems that the utter depravity of humankind is distinctly highlighted the closer we get to the heart of God.

It seems to me that we should name this condition.  It is in ignoring it or being afraid of it, that we give our proclivity toward sin its power.  Instead of avoiding the reality of our sinfulness, what Calvin called our “total depravity,” we should see it, name it, and welcome God’s help in moving beyond it.  While Episcopalians ever get comfortable with our total depravity?  I doubt it.  Reformed Christians, we are not.  However, the more we do come to terms with our sinfulness, the more we are able to lean into God’s grace by taking up our cross, laying down our depraved lives, and following Jesus.

A haughty text

At various times in my ministry, I have described myself as a Walmart Theologian.  Though I rarely shop there anymore, my basic test for a theological point is whether or not it will stand up to the Walmart test: can I explain it to a parishioner who I might run into in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store?  If the answer is no, then I need to work a little harder at bringing the Good News out of the ivory tower in which I have spent plenty of time, down to the grass roots, where people live.  This goal is one of the reasons why I sponsored legislation to authorize the Contemporary English Version of the Bible to be used in Episcopal worship.  It is a text that is theologically sound, translated by scholars, and is still able to be presented “in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding, both of the readers and hearers” (Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549), published in the 1979 BCP on pages 866-7).

This line of thought came to mind yesterday as we read Psalm 138, as I reflect on verse 7,
7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.
It returned this morning as I read from the NRSV the 12th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans,
16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

self-righteousness

A haughty text, indeed.

Haughty, it seems to me, is no longer a word of the people.  According to Google, it is used 700% less often in literature now than it was in the early 19th century.  While we might have an basic idea of what we think haughtiness might mean, it is so rarely used as to feel like it fails the basic premise of Paul’s writing.  If we are called to not be haughty, then it seems we should maybe find a better way to say it.  The CEV puts it this way,
16 Be friendly with everyone.  Don’t be proud and feel that you are smarter than others. Make friends with ordinary people.
Still a bit stodgy in its construction for my taste, at least the CEV clears up the language a bit.

As we engage with an increasingly Biblically illiterate culture, it would be of benefit to those who we seek to engage with the Gospel if we offered them texts that were able to speak to their hearts, lives, and the way in which they speak.  Though it may never happen that Church Publishing puts out a CEV lectionary book or lectionarypage.net changes over to the CEV, I think it makes sense for parish leadership to evaluate, from time to time, the texts we use, always asking ourselves, does this meet the Walmart text?  Does it live up to Cranmer’s “easy and plain understanding” marker?  Or, is it time to seek out scholarly and sound Biblical translations that can be heard and understood by the majority of those who come through our doors.  Maybe it has just been a haughty couple of weeks, and I’m not suggesting we rush to replace the NRSV at Christ Church, but rather, just a note to myself, as much as anyone else, to take note when the words don’t resonate.  Don’t just shrug it off, but really listen to how the Scriptures speak.  If they are no longer “living and active” in our lives, that is when it is time to think of new ways to read and hear.

Paul’s Commandments

Last week, in dealing with Paul’s call to “not be conformed” to the ways of this world, I wrote a post that invited us to think less about the “thou shalt nots” and more about the “thou shalts.” That post received some good traction on Facebook because it resonated with people’s unfortunate experiences with the modern day Church of Paul.  In doing some reading on the history of the Church of England last night, I learned that this really isn’t all that new.  In describing the rising tide of Puritanism during the Elizabethan Era (1558-1603), Moorman noted that the draw to the Puritan way of thinking was natural after the rapid changes of the first half of the 16th century.

There is no doubt that, to a large number of people the Puritan way of life held out great attractions.  In a period of considerable confusion, Calvinism provided a clear-cut and authoritative system both of thought and of governance which gave a sense of security.  To many people the attitude of the government seemed deplorably vague and ambiguous.  It seemed to be ‘halting between two opinions,’ unable which to accept and what policy to follow.  After a generation of rapid changes, people felt lost and insecure. (A History of the Church in England, 3rd ed.)

I tend to think that this was the cause of the mega-church movement in the latter part of the 20th century as well.  Following the 2nd World War, the Baby Boom, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights movement, Americans were in need of some stability and so they sought out churches that were Reformed and Calvinist, eager to know precisely what the rules were.  This lead, in my opinion, to the rise of Pauliantiy as the national religion of the United States.  Rather than focusing on the Red Letters in their pew Bibles, members of these churches focused on the morality codes that Paul had tried to impose on the fledgling churches in Asia Minor.  They refused to let women preach and got strict about human sexuality.

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As I’ve grown out of that tradition, I’ve been grumpy about Paul for the last 10 years or so, forgetting that it really wasn’t Paul I was mad at, but a particular interpretation of Paul.  In fact, Paul wasn’t just about “thou shalt nots.”  This week’s lesson from Romans 12 is full of “thou shalt” moral teaching that sounds an awful lot like what Jesus was concerned about during his time on earth: Love one another, show honor, serve the Lord, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, contribute to the needs of others, show hospitality, bless those who persecute you, associate with the lowly, live peaceably with all, and overcome evil with good.

This is, of course, not any easy religion to practice.  Loving and serving and caring and blessing is a whole lot harder than judging and cursing and bitching and moaning.  We can barely pull it off for ourselves, let alone those we love, and “God forbid” our enemies.  But alas, the claim of Christ on our lives is a call to loving service for the whole world, even a rapidly changing world that we would like, more than anything, to pull under control.  So to make amends for my decade long discomfort with Paul, I’m taking on a new mantra for life and taking it directly from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

When the Bible doesn’t say what the Bible says

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Matthew 16:22

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus’ first [pseudo] Passion Prediction is fairly well known.  Jesus, having just been confessed as Messiah by Peter, begins to tell his disciples just what that means.  “I’ll have to suffer and die, but on the third day rise again.”  It seems obvious that the guy who just got the “keys to the kingdom” wouldn’t want that kingdom to come to an abrupt end while its founder hung on a cross, so Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord!”

“God forbid it, Lord!” is a clever turn of phrase, but it is also rife with trouble.  It raises questions of hierarchy in the Trinity: can God, the Father, I assume, overrule the Son?  Can God force the Son to do something he really doesn’t want to do?  It also raises questions about the whole confession bit we just heard from Peter.  If Jesus is the “Son of the Living God” and Lord, then what role does his own will have to play in the Messianic work he has come to do?  Finally, it makes me wonder just who Peter thinks he is to rebuke “the Son of the Living God” by invoking the God card?

“God forbid it, Lord!” is a clever and challenging turn of phrase that Peter may not have ever really said.  Newer translations seem to pick up the Greek “hilios soi” as an idiomatic expression meaning “God forbid it,” while older versions play of the meaning of the adjective hilios and say something very different:

  • NRSV – And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
  • KJV – Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
  • Young’s Literal – And having taken him aside, Peter began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Be kind to thyself, sir; this shall not be to thee;’

The vast majority of the Bible didn’t first exist in a written form.  The stories of the Old Testament as well as the life and ministry of Jesus were carried in the hearts and minds of gifted story tellers, teachers, and ultimately the faithful who heard them told again and again.  They were told in Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, and Greek.  They were the stories of the people, told in their language and their idioms. Two thousand plus years later, we have the difficult challenge of trying to understand the language and culture of a people so far removed from us as to be nearly unimaginable.  Oh, and if Hebrew or Greek are like the paintings of Michelangelo, English is the finger-painted mess of a two year old.

A visual expression of English’s ability to capture the nuances of ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek.

Did Peter really say to Jesus “God forbid it”?  Maybe he did, but I don’t think so.  I think Peter forbade Jesus’ idea of Messiahship and he wanted Jesus to know that in no uncertain terms.  Sometimes the Bible doesn’t say what we think it says, and I find that to be a real gift.  Instead of being a dead book, etched in stone, the Bible is living and active.  It had meaning for the first souls who told the stories of the faith and it still has meaning for us 2,000 years later.  The truth of God’s steadfast love for us doesn’t change, but it’d be hard to argue that the Bible’s call for our response to that love hasn’t been constantly in flux.  That’s part of the life of faith: growing deeper into our understanding of God’s pull on our lives.  That’s why, after 8 years, I still blog about the Bible four days a week.  I am an ever changing person.  It is an ever changing book.

Who is Jesus?

Last week, in a real change of pace for this blog, I spent the whole week dealing with the lesson from Romans 12.  Conveniently, the Gospel lessons for last week and this week actually work better together, so this week I’ll get to deal with them both all at once here.

To review, last week’s Gospel lesson was from Matthew 16:13-20.  There we were in the third week of trying to answer the question “Who is Jesus?”  On Proper 14, we heard the story of Jesus walking on water in which Peter twice calls Jesus “Lord.”  The first time it is with some level of suspicion, “If it is you, Lord…” while the second time it comes in the voice of sheer terror, “Lord, save me!”  We also are told that once Jesus safely the boat, the disciples worshiped Jesus calling him “the Son of God.”  For Matthew, who is careful to not upset the Jewish Christians in his Church, who always talks of the “Kingdom of Heaven” rather than the “Kingdom of God” this title is very important.  Jesus isn’t just any old Messiah-type person, and there were more than a few of them running around, but Jesus is the Son of God.  

On Proper 15, the Canaanite Woman calls out to Jesus with still another title.  Yes, he is “Lord,” but for this Gentile woman, he is also the “Son of David.”  Here too we see Jesus being given a Messianic title, but this time it about the fulfillment of prophecy.  As the Messiah, Jesus will restore the throne of David and God’s steadfast love will remain upon it forever (1 Chronicles 17:13).

Proper 16 begins the two-part story of Peter’s Confession, Jesus’ Passion Prediction, and Peter’s Rebuke.  Here we see Jesus called not just Lord, but “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  While the Canaanite woman is praised for her faith, as an outsider, she didn’t quite have the big picture of who Jesus is.  Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples who have followed Jesus, more or less faithfully, for roughly two years, gets it perfectly right.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Son of David, the Son of Man, who has come to bring salvation to the whole world.

Which brings us to Proper 17, and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday, in which Jesus goes on to elaborate on just what it means that he is the Messiah.  Being the Messiah means upsetting the status quo.  It means being betrayed and arrested.  It means enduring great suffering at the hands of the religious leaders.  It means being killed by the Gentile occupiers.  It means a bunch of stuff that Peter and the gang don’t want it to mean, but it also means Resurrection.

Jesus is the Messiah and the Messiah has power even over death.  That’s who Jesus is, hard as it may be to hear and understand for Peter and, quite frankly, for us.  As the story unfolds, we’ll learn more about what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but for this week, we’ll have to sit with the confused disciples and try to understand how the Messiah can be killed and still be God.