Archive for the ‘Christian practices’ Category

On Misreading “Greater love…” (John 15:13)

Monday, May 30th, 2011

In my previous post, I counseled preachers not to apply John 15:13 to war-deaths. Of course I know it is done all the time. By coincidence, an old (very old!) set of friendships is being renewed on Facebook over this issue. Below is what has transpired in the last 24 hours among me (MJG), old friend #1 (FB1), and old friend #2 (FB2).

FB1: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13


This Memorial Day weekend, take time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, thank those who served and serve today to preserve that freedom, and pray “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

MJG: With all due respect, FB1, wasn’t our Lord in John 15 talking about his disciples abiding in him and imitating his radical love, rather than patriots??

FB1: ?”By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35. I choose not to dwell on the distinction between discipleship and patriotism at this time, but rather on the intersection of the same.

MJG: Once again, with all due respect, I would suggest that that is one of the most serious–and potentially dangerous choices–one can make. It’s worth thinking through again, IMHO.

FB2: Actually, Mike, Jesus was equating what he was about to do (willingly get crucified) as setting an example of the ultimate sacrifice one can exhibit. Whether for your country or your beliefs, willing offering your life still fits the example.

MJG: FB2, I would agree that Jesus is setting an example, but he is speaking to his disciples about their willingness to die for one another and for him, as disciples, in their mission in the midst of a hostile world. (See the rest of John 13-17.) He is not enunciating a general principle but articulating a potential consequence of being his friend in the world that killed him. Applying this to other kinds of deaths robs it of its meaning for mission and discipleship. Jesus is not creating a proverb (“dying for friends is a loving thing to do”) but borrowing and radically redirecting one.

FB1: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14

To expand upon my admittedly oblique point, I believe it is easier (the broad road) to compartmentalize our faith. In so doing, many have isolated themselves to some extent from the world and the issues of the world. But I make the more dangerous (narrow road) choice of integrating my faith with my life to the extent that God grants me courage, so that all of my words and actions may be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Thus, I focus on the intersection of my faith and my patriotism.

MJG: FB1, I certainly agree that our lives should not be bifurcated, and that all of life is to be brought under the Lordship of Christ. But as a good friend of mine says, “If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” Or, to put it differently, the reign of God and the Lordship of Christ challenge all our other allegiances. More to the contextual point about the quote from John, I think Jesus is telling his disciples (and therefore us) that his kingdom is indeed worth dying for. But other kingdoms do not have the right to demand our bodies and ultimate allegiances, at least in part because their claim on our dying includes a corollary, inextricable, and ultimately unChristian claim on our killing. In other words, the church is called to make and honor martyrs, not soldiers.

Memorial Day Preaching Suggestions

Friday, May 27th, 2011

This weekend, in the U.S., churches will be filled with civil religion as the civil part of the liturgical year (Memorial Day to Thanksgiving), as practiced here, kicks off.

Suggestions for what not to do this weekend if you are among those who will be preaching and choose to make some reference to the U.S. holiday/ holy-day:

1. Do not glorify war. Consider using a quote from a war-seasoned expert about war. Eisenhower, for instance, said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

2. Do not sacralize war. War is not a holy enterprise, a crusade led by God and God’s representatives on earth, but a human project caused by failures and full of evils, no matter what its rationale or outcome.

3. Do not make war salvific or Christian  by misapplying Jesus’ statement in John 15:3 about his own loving death and about radical discipleship (“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”) to war-deaths.

4. Do not let anyone leave the church thinking that any nation is the kingdom of God, or that any nation deserves the unqualified allegiance and praise due to God alone.

5. Do not let anyone leave the church thinking that there is anything more important than worshiping God and following Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit.

6. Do not let anyone leave the church thinking, “Man, that was a great sermon about this great country and our great wars!”

And one thing to do:

Make sure everyone leaves the church knowing it is Easter season and Pentecost is around the corner! It is the season of life and peace and promise.

After the Rupture: “Replacing Rapture with Enrapture”

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

My son Brian has an excellent post about a proper Christian response to this May 21 phenomenon. He says, in part:

It is so easy to mock the pending doomsday prophets, but we are terrible Christians if we don’t feel a profound sense of sadness for these creatures made in God’s image. The whole situation feels ridiculous, but to the people who are truly hoping for God to rescue them on Saturday, this is not a simple matter; we are talking about people’s core beliefs about who God is and how God acts in the world, beliefs that will be ruptured, not raptured, come Saturday.

The appropriate Christian response is not to condemn or mock the followers of this skewed religion, but to live an articulation of God’s current and impending restoration of all that was declared good. We can declare in word and deed that we are not hoping for a rapture to deliver us to some distant world while leaving the rest behind, but for an in-breaking of God’s space into ours, that we may be enraptured by God’s presence amid this place. This is the dream of Scripture so beautifully breathed by God. Its haunting truth can make us quake in awe, not terror, of a God who invites us to join in by being joined to the church, Christ’s body on earth. May the purifying fire reign down and rain down on us through a fascination with the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, a fire that consumes what is evil and broken and leaves us cleansed vessels. May our lives be a burning bush, animated by this fire yet not destroyed, illuminating a dark world.

Luther and the End of the World

Friday, May 20th, 2011

According to legend (a recent one, as I understand it), Martin Luther once said that if he knew that the world was ending tomorrow, he would:

1. hide in his old monastery
2. kiss his wife
3. hug his children
4. visit his mother
5. take a walk
6. plant an apple tree
7. preach a sermon
8. pray the Lord’s prayer
9. recite the 10 commandments
10. drill his church members on his shorter catechism
11. sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
12. try to convert as many infidels as possible
13. nail some more theses on a door
14. say, “those darn Anabaptists were right after all!”
15. have a cold one

And the answer is…?

Family Radio: Inside the Church There is no Salvation

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Family Radio is proffering a dangerous ecclesiology. No, that is not a typo. I did not mean to say “eschatology.” A number of people have been wondering why I have not blogged about the eschatology of Harold Camping and Family Radio. My answer would be that its obviously misguided character does not need another critique from me. But I think we should be much more concerned about the “movement”‘s ecclesiology, or lack thereof, because that is what will not be left behind when we are all still here on May 22.

A few days ago I received in the mail, with no return address, two pamphlets from Family Radio, each dated 2009. One announces the coming end of the world on May 21, 2011, gives the biblical “proof” for this date, and recommends that all readers beg God for mercy.

The other pamphlet is entitled “Does God Love You?” In a series of 14 questions and answers, the pamphlet begins with a quote of John 3:16 before quickly shifting focus to God’s anger and judgment. The word “love” with God as subject does not appear again after question 1. The “good news” is that if readers diligently read and study the Bible, they might eventually find out that God will be merciful to them, because (how or why, is not clear) of Christ’s substitutionary death, and they may be counted among those upon whom God will be merciful–the saved. In the meantime, all that sinners can do is read or listen to the Bible, God’s “Law book,” so they will be in a “place” where God can save them. There is no assurance of salvation, only the possibility that God might save us; obedience to the Law book is the evidence that one might be among the saved.

That “place,” however is not the church. The answer to question 13, “Should I attend a church?” is “Definitely NOT!” For 2,000 years, the Bible tells us, church membership was good for believers in Jesus, but now

we learn from the Bible that God is no longer saving people through the ministry of the churches. The church age has come to an end. Fact is God commands in His Law book, the Bible, that true believers are to leave their church. This is because God’s righteous judgment is upon all local congregations as God is preparing the world for Judgment Day…. The Bible teaches that at this present time, when we are very near the end of time, that it is outside the churches that God is saving a great multitude of people.

A quotation and misinterpretation of Matt 24:15, 16 (identifying Judea as “the local churches”) and quotations of 1 Pet 4:17 and Rev 7:9 underwrite this (non-) ecclesiology.

I do not have the time or energy to critique the problems with this soteriology and non-ecclesiology. But if you ever wonder after May 21 why so many people are absent from church, it will not be because they have disappeared into the rapture zone. It will be, in some cases, because they have disappeared into the wrath-filled zone of certain forms of “Christian” radio.

N.T. Wright on Osama bin Laden’s Death

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Tom Wright has submitted the following surprisingly strong text to the Times of London.

By Tom Wright

(Rt Revd Prof N T Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews)

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.

But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?

Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts ‘extra-legally’, performs the necessary redemptive violence (i.e. kills the bad guys), and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.

Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by most Presidents, as Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (2004). The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.

Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What’s more, such actions invite retaliation. They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.

Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?

I am indebted to my friend Mike Bird at Euaggelion for pointing this out. Mike thinks that terrorists fall outside the the rules of war and therefore permit nations to do what the U.S. has done. But Wright, who has not identified with the pacifist position in the past, makes good points about functional American exceptionalism (that is, even if other countries do such things on occasion, the U.S. would not approve of it if the shoe were on the other foot) and about core American myths, and he brings the most fundamental Christian perspective to bear on this issue.

Tom Wright for Everyone

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

No, that’s not a typo but the title of a new book from SPCK.

I guess this was inevitable!

Theological Reflections on the Death of OBL, part II

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Hopefully Miroslav Volf’s online piece for the Christian Century will appear later today. (On FB he has posted the first and last paragraphs.) In the meantime, lots of good reflections have appeared, including those listed here by Church of Christ minister David Smith, as I commented last night.

Two main, interrelated thoughts have struck me since yesterday. First, the common theme in Congress, in the media, and on the streets seems to be that this event has pulled the diverse and factious body of people called Americans together like nothing else in a very long time.

That should give everyone, Christian or not, at least a little ethical hiccup. How sad is it when the killing of a human being is the chief cause of human unity, even for a day or a week?

But wait–and here is the irony–for us who call ourselves Christians, the killing of a human being actually is the cause of our unity, only for us it is the being killed rather than the killing, the heroic role of victim not victor, that is the source of unity.

Which leads to my second main point. The values that are drawing Americans together at this point are not, as some have tried to argue, the high moral values of justice (in a philosophical or theological sense) and commitment to the good of the world. No, they are the old-fashioned values of nationalism, retaliation, vengeance, kick-a** power (witness the Naval Academy plebes’ video), and “American” justice, complete, in some cases, with a strong dose of civil religion. That these are not gospel values should go without saying, yet many Christian Americans are blinded to this truth by this powerful, seductive nationalism.

I conclude by quoting (as a Methodist) the Vatican’s statement issued yesterday by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman:

Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end. In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.

This is relatively minimalist, but good. Would that American Christians could at least take this statement as their starting point.

Some Thoughts on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Do the horrible events of 9/11 justify murderous retaliation? What is the Christian community to think?

“Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” God, speaking through Ezekiel in Ezekiel 33.11 (HT Kurt Willems; for his full comments, go here)

“The necessary fruit of the love of God is the love of our neighbour, of every soul which God hath made; not excepting our enemies, not excepting those who are now despitefully using and persecuting us; a love whereby we love every man as ourselves-as we love our own souls.” John Wesley, “The Marks of the New Birth” (HT Doug Strong on FB)

“You have heard Jesus say… but we say unto you…” (Ian Packer on FB)

Why does the story of the terrorist-turned-apostle named Paul not give people pause in their lewd rejoicing? (Brian Gorman on FB)

And don’t forget: a son and several grandchildren were murdered in the failed attempt to kill another enemy of the state two days earlier. Apart from the question of morality, is a weekend of state killing the best way to prevent future deaths?

Must-See Film: “Of Gods and Men”

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

If you have not yet heard of this film, it is the story of a small monastery in Algeria that lives among and serves the local Muslim population, including the provision of medical treatment. When terrorists come into the region in 1996, the eight men must decide whether to flee or stay.

Their work, struggle, and witness, both before and during the crisis, are stirring examples of cruciform love that expresses itself in interfaith sensitivity, solidarity, and courage. My advice: find it and see it–now.


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