Monday, April 29, 2013

All you need is love – or maybe not

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter:

“All you need is love, love; love is all you need.” So sang the Beatles. I saw a bumper-sticker once that proclaimed a similar sentiment: “My religion is kindness.” My first thought upon seeing this was a twinge of guilt and sadness, because I took it to imply an indictment on Christianity which many have experienced as less than kind. Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The measure of our faithfulness to Jesus is our love for others. And St. Paul affirms that love is kind. So, when people think of Christianity, they should immediately think, “Ah, yes, the religion of kindness.” That they don’t is a scandal.

But, upon a little more reflection, something else occurred to me regarding the bumper-sticker. “My religion is kindness” suggests that I need not be bothered by all the other trappings of religion – ideas about God, creeds, doctrines, prayer, worship, church, etc.  Love and kindness is all there is to it. But is it? It certainly is an attractive notion. But, is it that simple?
The Christian religion – the religion of love and kindness – asserts that the answer is ‘no’. Christians can affirm that the Beatles song and bumper-sticker are definitely onto something. Our story is that the world was created out of God’s love and humans, created in the image of God, are created for love. And we do well to remind ourselves of that basic truth. Our fundamental rule of life is Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us – serving one another self-sacrificially.
To be followers of Jesus – to be his disciples – means to pursue the disciplines of love, e.g., humility, kindness, gentleness, reverence, forgiveness, mercy, patience, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, self-control. We need to take that much more seriously. The classic spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, fasting, Sabbath, etc. are meant to open us to receiving more of God’s love and making us better channels of that love.

But that is only part of the story and insufficient by itself. Our problem is not simply that we need to know that love (or kindness) is the most important thing. If it was, then Jesus and the church would be unnecessary. The Christian insight is that our problem is much deeper and more serious than that. Our problem is our inability to love as we should. Or even as well as we want.

Just as St. Paul says we do not know how to pray as we ought, we don’t know how to love as we ought. There are lots of ways we confuse other things with love – co-dependence, manipulation, conflict avoidance, being nice, or even being mean and calling it love. We sometimes define love in the framework of modern western individualism. We decide that some are worthy our kindness and love and others, not so much.

We do not just need to know that love, or kindness, is the point. We need to know what that means. That is why Jesus doesn’t just say, “love one another”. He defines love. In fact he declares himself the very definition of love. To know what love is, we look to Jesus. That means we need to make the effort to know Jesus and his way of love rather than how we might imagine him to be. By becoming familiar with the Gospels for starters.

And what is that way? It is not primarily about how we feel about others, though Jesus does demonstrate deep feeling toward others. Love is about desiring good for others. It is the way of self-sacrificial service. It is the way of forbearing, cheek-turning patience. It is love, not just of family, not just of fellow believers, but extends to all neighbors and to enemies. It is indiscriminate, profligate love like the love God demonstrates in the rain that falls on the good and the wicked alike. It is mercy. And our mercy is to be perfect as God is perfect.

I can pat myself on the back for being loving. But, if I look to Jesus as the definition of love, I know that where he has gone I have not gone. And cannot go on my own.

And that is another part of our deep and serious problem. We know love is what we are supposed to be about. But we aren’t very good at it. We’re not good at the kind of love Jesus is about. But we’re not even very good at love by more mundane measures. If we were, the divorce rate would be much lower. We would all have wonderful, uncomplicated relationships with our parents and children and extended families. The church would not be divided.

Our love is skewed by our own fears, suspicions, and insecurities. Our love limps due to our own emotional wounds. We are masters of rationalization by which we excuse or deny our own failure to love. We convince ourselves that our words and actions are loving when those on the receiving end experience them as less than loving. We are often selfish and self-absorbed. We are busy, distracted, and inattentive.

Most of us are aware of the painful realization that even our attempts to love those who we love are so broken that we end up hurting one another. The Beatles sang, “All you need is love” and then they broke up. As St. Paul famously wrote in Romans 7:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Our religion is kindness – the love of Jesus is kindness and then some. But, we are, to one degree or another, failures at love. That is why I am glad one of the lines in the Apostles’ Creed is “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” (“We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in the Nicene Creed). I need forgiveness for my failure to love. I need to be honest about that failure and repent. The assurance of forgiveness frees us to do that.

Jesus doesn’t just say love one another. Jesus doesn’t even stop at showing us what that means. Jesus bears all our unlove on the cross and makes a way for us to enter into the forgiveness of God who is love (1 John 4:8). Receiving that forgiveness does not just free us from the guilt we feel for our failure to love. It frees us to love better and more fully.

And freedom is what we need. We need deliverance and healing because we are bound by our fears, insecurities, and all the emotional wounds that get in the way of our loving freely and fully. And it is freedom and healing that Jesus brings. Not all at once perhaps. Not without our participation. But, by the power of his Holy, healing, liberating Spirit he will work in our hearts to that end.

That transformation can begin now. But some of it will not come until the End that we hear about in the Revelation to John when there is a new heaven and a new earth. The world is a mess. We are a mess. We are not very good at giving or receiving love. And the mess of the world is testimony to that. Our fractured or broken relations are testimony to that. The violence and destruction that is so much a part of the world is testimony to that.

Even more troubling, we know that while each of us loves in more or less broken ways, for some the ability to give and receive love is more profoundly broken – people suffering from personality disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other mental illnesses that will only experience partial healing this side of the kingdom. "All you need is love" and "My religion is kindness" are inadequate in light of such brokenness. Without the hope of healing that is just sentimentalism. There are therapists who work to bring emotional and psychological healing. But, for many that healing will only be partial. But, we are still celebrating Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is the first fruits, the down payment on the promise that all creation will be healed, restored, transfigured, and renewed. In the end, love wins.

And that is another reason why we need Jesus. We need the resurrection hope of healing and restoration.

“My religion is kindness” is a good start. But it is not enough.

“All you need is love” is a good start. But it is not enough.

We need to know what kindness and love look like. They look like Jesus.

We need forgiveness for our failure to love. Jesus cries out on our behalf, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We need freedom from and healing of all those things in us that get in the way of and sabotage our being able to love as we desire to love. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit to heal, liberate and empower us to love.

And we need hope that love triumphs in the end. Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that we will all know resurrection and restoration.

That is the promise of Jesus. That is the promise of Christianity.

That is the promise of a faith that is kindness and love – and much, much more.

We are called to live into that promise.

We are called to live with love at the center. Jesus is at that center and he will enable us to grow in that love.

By this everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Augustine's Generous Hermeneutic

Christians read the Bible to understand – as far as it is possible – God and life. But, from before the ink was even dry on the page, Christians have had to grapple with the fact that faithful readers of scripture do not always come to the same understanding of what it means. One common solution is to claim that each passage only means one thing and what I understand it to mean is the only faithful understanding. But that way leads to factions and schism.

In an essay on Augustine’s Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Williams shows that the great saint and theologian was willing to allow that there might be more than one true understanding and that the biblical author’s intended meaning might not be the only true one:
Suppose, then, that Augustine says Genesis 1:1 means x, and I say it means y; suppose further that upon consulting Christ as Inner Teacher we find that both x and y are true. The only question is, which did Moses mean, x or y? Augustine asks, why not both?

So when one person says “He meant what I say,” and another says “No, he meant what I say,” I think it would be more pious to say “Why not both, if both are true?” And if someone should see in his words a third truth, or a fourth, or indeed any other truth, why not believe that Moses saw all these truths? (Confessions 12.31.42)

Somewhat surprisingly, it is not pride but just good Augustinian theology (and epistemology) to suspect that we might find truths in Moses’ writings that had never crossed his mind:

Finally, Lord, you who are God and not flesh and blood, even if one who was merely a man did not see all there was to be seen, did not your good Spirit, who will lead me into the land of uprightness, know everything that you would reveal through these words to later readers, even if the one who uttered them was perhaps thinking of only one of the many true meanings? If so, let us suppose he was thinking of whichever meaning is most exalted. O Lord, show us that meaning; or if you please, show us some other true meaning. In this way, whether you show us just what you showed your servant, or something else that emerges from the same words, we will in any event be fed by you, not mocked by error (Conf. 12.32.43).6

Augustine is able to be generous in allowing more than one true interpretation because of what he understands the purpose of scripture to be. Professor Williams continues with reference to Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching):

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is bankrupt, as far as Augustine is concerned. Such a pursuit springs from curiosity, which for him is no admirable trait but a vice; he identifies it with that “lust of the eyes” of which John wrote, “For all that is in the world—the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). So it is not surprising that when Augustine discusses the legitimacy of rival interpretations of Scripture, he reveals a deep concern with the morality of exegetical disputes. Undue attachment to one’s own exegesis manifests a sort of pride, the love of one’s own opinion simply because it is one’s own opinion. In Confessions 10 Augustine describes this as a form of the “pride of life,” the third of the unholy trinity of sins from 1 John 2:16. It is more grievous still when the exegete is driven by the desire for a reputation as a brilliant scholar; “this is a miserable life and revolting ostentation” (Conf. 10.36.59). Moreover, since truth is common property, one’s own opinion is not really one’s own at all if it is true; it is the common property of all rightthinking people, and no one has any individual stake in it: “No one should regard anything as his own, except perhaps a lie, since all truth is from him who says, ‘I am the truth’” (doctr. chr. Prologue, 8). Also, only temerity and insolence could justify such confidence in something we cannot actually know. We can know what Truth itself says, but we cannot know with any degree of certainty what Moses or Paul was thinking when he wrote the biblical text we are expounding. Most important of all, charity demands that we abstain from all such “pernicious disputes.”

For charity is the ultimate aim of all worthy exegesis. “Whoever thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that his understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor has not yet understood them at all” (doctr. chr. 1.36.40). Charity is, moreover, the unifying and animating theme of Augustine’s treatise on biblical interpretation, De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). Its message is this: Be always mindful of the end, and be on your guard against the pernicious tendency of means to encroach upon the ends. The end of all things, Augustine insists, is God. He alone is to be loved for his own sake—“enjoyed,” in Augustine’s terminology. Whatever else is to be loved should be “used,” that is, loved for the sake of God. Even human beings, including ourselves, should be “used” in this sense, which does not mean “exploited.” But Augustine cannot quite bring himself to talk consistently of “using” ourselves and our fellow human beings, and he defines charity as “the motion of the soul toward enjoying God for his own sake and oneself and one’s neighbor for God’s sake” (doctr. chr. 3.10.16). Its opposite, cupidity, is “the motion of the soul toward enjoying oneself, one’s neighbor, or any bodily thing for the sake of something other than God” (Ibid.). Scripture, Augustine says, “commands nothing but charity and condemns nothing but cupidity” (doctr. chr. 3.10.15).

Interest in Biblical interpretation for its own sake is one such form of cupidity; exegesis is to be used for the sake of charity, not enjoyed for its own sake. In Augustine’s metaphor, it is not the distant land where we will be happy, but merely a vehicle by which we may be conveyed there.

The fulfillment and end of the Law and of all divine Scripture is the love of a being that is to be enjoyed [i.e., God], and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us [i.e., our neighbor]. . . . That we might know this and be able to achieve it, the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine providence for our salvation. We should use it not with an abiding but with a transitory love and delight like that in a road or conveyances or any other means. . . . We should love those things by which we are carried for the sake of that towards which we are carried (doctr. chr. 1.35.39; see also 1.4.4).

So overriding is this end that even misreadings of Scripture are scarcely objectionable if they build up charity. Someone guilty of such a misreading is to be corrected only on pragmatic grounds, not in the interest of scholarly correctness (an ideal to which Augustine shows not the slightest allegiance):

He is deceived in the same way as someone who leaves a road by mistake but nonetheless goes on through a field to the same place to which the road leads. Still, he should be corrected and shown how much more useful it is not to leave the road, lest his habit of wandering off should force him to take the long way around, or the wrong way altogether (doctr. chr. 1.36.41).

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Funny Jesus Songs for Bright Sunday

According to tradition in some parts of the Church, the Sunday after Easter is called “Bright Sunday” and in in some times and places it has been the custom to tell jokes on that Sunday as a means of celebrating the mirth that is ours in light of the Resurrection. As the Psalmist sang,

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, 
we were like those who dream. 
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The Lord has done great things for them."  
The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
(Psalm 126:1-3)

We have reason to laugh and rejoice. But, instead of jokes, I am offering for your amusement some funny songs that mention Jesus.

Earlier this week on the opening day of baseball season, our organist/choir director sent around this old song by Sister Winona Carr

Life is a Ball Game – Sister Winona Carr
Life is a ballgame
Bein' played each day
Life is a ballgame
Everybody can play

Jesus is standin' at home plate
Waitin' for you there
Life is a ballgame, but
You've got to play it fair.

That reminded me of another classic. I don’t know if there are any songs about Jesus and soccer (football to everyone but Americans).

Drop Kick Me Jesus – Bobby Bare
Drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life
End over end, neither left nor to right
Straight through the heart of them righteous uprights
Drop kick me, Jesus through the goal posts of life

And maybe after the game, you might want to have a beer with Jesus.

Beer With Jesus – Thomas Rhett
If I could have a beer with Jesus
Heaven knows I'd sip it nice and slow
I'd try to pick a place that ain't too crowded
Or gladly go wherever he wants to go

Or chocolate?

Chocolate Jesus – Tom Waits
Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

After all, maybe God is just one of us.

One of Us – Joan Osborne
If God had a face what would it look like
And would you want to see if, seeing meant
That you would have to believe in things like heaven
And in Jesus and the saints, and all the prophets?

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin' to make his way home?

And here is my all time favorite funny Jesus song:
If Jesus Drove a Motor Home – Jim White
If Jesus drove a motor home,
I wonder would he drive
pedal to the metal, or real slow?
Checking out the stereo.
Cassette playing Bob Dylan, motivation tapes.
Tricked up Winnebago, with the tie-dye drapes.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Be glad.
And laugh.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Martin Luther on the New Testament

A few weeks ago I posted a couple of excerpts from Martin Luther’s introduction to the Old Testament. In one of those excerpts, he asserts that the Old Testament is analogous to the manger and swaddling-clothes in which Jesus is laid, suggesting that the Old Testament is not to be equated with Christ. In the other he insists that “all laws aim at faith and love, none of them can be valid, or be a law, if it conflicts with faith and love.”

Here are the last few paragraphs of Luther’s Preface to his German translation of the New Testament (1522): 

Which are the true and noblest books of the New

From all this you can now judge all the books and decide among them which are the best.  John’s gospel and St. Paul’s epistles, especially that to the Romans, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the true kernel and marrow of all the books.  They ought properly to be the foremost books, and it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and most, and by daily reading to make them as much his own as his daily bread.  For in them you do not find many works and miracles of Christ described, but you do find depicted in masterly fashion how faith in Christ overcomes sin, death, and hell, and gives life, righteousness, and salvation. This is the real nature of the gospel, as you have heard.

If I had to do without one of the other – either the works or the preaching of Christ – I would rather do without the works than without His preaching. For the works do not help me, but His words give life, as He Himself says [John 6:63] . Now John writes very little about the works of Christ, but very much about His preaching, while the other evangelists write much about His works and little about His preaching. Therefore John’s Gospel is the one, fine, true, and chief gospel, and is far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.
(The Protestant Reformation, Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1968, p. 42)
I am sympathetic to Luther’s approach to scripture. It is quite different from the approach I was taught growing up, i.e., that all of the Bible (except, of course, the Apocrypha), every word and verse, was equal in inspiration and authority.  But, in fact, I do not think there is anyone who does not in practice, if not in theory, give priory to some scriptural texts or themes by which the rest are measured. Luther was just more up front about it. I have suggested my own here: Getting off the Fence – Interpreting Scripture and more broadly here: The King or a Fox? Configuring the Mosaic of Scripture.

While I am sympathetic, I am less reductionist than Luther – at least as he is in these texts. I would insist for example that the Gospel of John must not be read apart from the other three gospels. And I think the Epistle of James has much to teach us not least because the faith vs works dichotomy as Luther presents it is too simplistic and does not reflect what Jesus taught or, for that matter, Paul.

In any event, Luther’s introductions to the Old and New Testaments present an approach to the Bible other than what is common among modern American Fundamentalists and indicates that from the beginning of the Reformation there has been more than one way to come at the Bible and understand it’s inspiration and authority.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Resurrection = Something Real

Against the claims that one hears from some this time of year that Christian faith does not depend on the Resurrection being something very real – empty tomb and all – here is something from Frederick Buechner:

We can say that the story of the Resurrection means simply that the teachings of Jesus are immortal like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Beethoven and that their wisdom and truth will live on forever. Or we can say that the Resurrection means that the spirit of Jesus is undying, that he himself lives on among us, the way that Socrates does, for instance, in the good that he left behind him, in the lives of all who follow his great example. Or we can say that the language in which the Gospels describe the Resurrection of Jesus is the language of poetry and that, as such, it is not to be taken literally but as pointing to a truth more profound than the literal. Very often, I think, this is the way that the Bible is written, and I would point to some of the stories about the birth of Jesus, for instance, as examples; but in the case of the Resurrection, this simply does not apply because there really is no story about the Resurrection in the New Testament. Except in the most fragmentary way, it is not described at all. There is no poetry about it. Instead, it is simply proclaimed as a fact. Christ is risen! In fact, the very existence of the New Testament itself proclaims it. Unless something very real indeed took place on that strange, confused morning, there would be no New Testament, no Church, no Christianity.

Yet we try to reduce it to poetry anyway: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.

Unlike the chief priests and the Pharisees, who tried with soldiers and a great stone to make themselves as secure as they could against the terrible possibility of Christ's really rising again from the dead, we are considerably more subtle. We tend in our age to say, "Of course, it was bound to happen. Nothing could stop it." But when we are pressed to say what it was that actually did happen, what we are apt to come out with is something pretty meager: this "miracle" of truth that never dies, the "miracle" of a life so beautiful that two thousand years have left the memory of it undimmed, the "miracle" of doubt turning into faith, fear into hope. If I believed that this or something like this was all that the Resurrection meant, then I would turn in my certificate of ordination and take up some other profession. Or at least I hope that I would have the courage to.