Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"And believe me, my admiration for you hasn't died...."

My mind is clearer now
At last, all too well, I can see
Where we all soon will be.

If you strip away,
the myth from the man
you can see where
we all soon will be.

Jesus!  You've started to believe
the things they say of you!
You really do believe,
This talk of God is true!

And all the good you've done
Will soon get swept away
You've begun to matter more
than the things you say!

Holy Week begins again.  Time to dust off the original recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and start playing it loudly when no one else is at home (why inflict my memories on my family?).  That's the music for Holy Week at Chez Advents:  "Jesus Christ Superstar" (original record recording, please, scratches, pops, and all.  Ian Gillan is the ONLY Jesus allowed to sing the role, IMHO.) and Bach's Easter Oratorio.  On Easter, of course.  Holy Week should be conducted with the meditation that "All your followers are blind!  Too much heaven on their minds!"  But this time around I hear the words of Judas anew.  What would it mean for Jesus to matter more than the things he said?

It's a Paul v. the Gospels question, but not the simplistic question simplistic critics of Paul think is so fatal to Pauline studies and the Pauline letters.   What Jesus did matters more to Paul than the things he said because Paul only quotes Jesus saying some of the words of institution (as we call them now) of the eucharisto (as he called it then).  It's the gospels that give us the parables and the statements about Peter ("Rock") and the miracles.  Paul only has the resurrection to rely on; but it's enough for him.

So, first:  which should matter more?  The resurrection; or the sayings of Jesus?  Well, if you go with the resurrection, then it seems that is paramount, because that is now seen as the salvific act by which sinful humanity is spared the depredations of damnation.  But if you go with what Jesus said, then the focus on the resurrection (and so salvation) is the wrong place to put the emphasis, as it tends to let you off the hook for what you do, so long as you believe the right things about the resurrection on any given Sunday morning.

Do my prejudices show yet?

It really is the dividing point of Christianity.  Easter is the most important date on the Christian calendar for the Orthodox Church.  Fortunately for the Protestant churches Easter is always on a Sunday; it isn't the moveable feast that Christmas is (this will be a problem again this year).  But in secular Christianity, Christmas is the big holiday.  Easter is relegated to hats and clothes (not so much any longer, but once.  I'm thinking that was more American aberration than not, but, no matter.) and colored eggs and chocolate bunnies.  Even churches have Easter egg hunts on Sunday after the celebration of the Resurrection; and we jammed Passion Sunday into Palm Sunday because otherwise nobody would be in church to remember the Passion story (be honest; how many people do you know attend Good Friday services?  If done right, they are seriously depressing.  If done wrong, they aren't worth the bother.  I only remember Maundy Thursday service in my Presbyterian childhood; an evening communion service, but nothing else until Sunday morning, and lots of cheery sunrise services around town.  Get up early and have the rest of the day to yourself.  Yes, I am cynical; why do you ask?).  Easter is just the other Sunday when you should be in church (well, Christmas Eve is almost never on Sunday, and when it is, do you go in the morning, or in the evening?  Never both, amirite?).

Besides, the eggs and chocolate are for the kids.  I mean, you can get a box of Godiva with affecting scenes of Spring on the outside, but chocolate bunnies are definitely not for a palate craving high-dollar chocolates.

So, which really matters more?  To the "are you saved?" crowd, it's the Resurrection, whether they realize it or not.  The whole question of faith comes down to "letting Jesus into your heart", and that means accepting the sacrifice on the cross which paid in God's blood for your sin (Anselm's satisfaction theory, but there are so many variations the distinctions begin to blur unless you are really, really interested in it.  Don't even  get me started on TULIP.  Please, just don't.)  But that's the problem with salvation in Christianity:  it's used to divide the sheep from the goats, and to make sure you are among the sheep.

An idea which would appall Jean Cauvin, by the way.  Which is kinda funny.

Anyway, as I've noted before:

I've yet to meet a person whose theology emphasized individual salvation who didn't use that emphasis to deny comfort and succor to others.  Oh, they make nice noises about helping the destitute, but as far as really doing it, not much happens.  Individual salvation means you are individually responsible for the state of your immortal soul.  And if you are individually responsible for the state of your soul, you are individually responsible for the state of your life.  In this understanding, the community doesn't exist to take you in, it exists to set you straight, to straighten you out, to determine whether or not you are worthy of admission to the company of the Blessed.  Any help is short term and blunted, and meant to get you back to being responsible for yourself again, the way God intended! 
Which is as good a way as any to get me around to this meditation on Psalm 73 by Martin Buber, courtesy of Pastor Dan:

The good, says the Psalmist, is ‘to draw near to God’. He does not say that those near to God are good. But he does call the bad ‘those who are far from God’. In the language of modern thought that means that there are men who have no share in existence, but there are no men who possess existence. Existence cannot be possessed, but only shared in. One does not rest in the lap of existence, but one draws near to it. ‘Nearness’ is nothing but such a drawing and coming near continually and as long as the human person lives.
Of course "drawing near to God" is, in salvific terms, being "saved."  Well, in certain salvation theories; and there's the rub.  How do you draw nearer to God by drawing away from other people, or by drawing a circle round those inside the blessed, and those outside (the damned)?  Is what Jesus said at all relevant to what Jesus did, to who Jesus was?  Is the Psalm as Buber reads it relevant at all?

Can we possess the salvation of the Cross, the blessings of the resurrection?  Or can we only share in them?  Paul never hoards them for only those who appreciate the gift; he throws it wildly, like seed.  He scatters it to anyone who wants to listen.

This idea Judas expresses, what Jesus did v. what Jesus said, comes up all the time.  Just this morning in an interview at Salon about the bombings in Brussels, Pastor Dan said this:

You mention this in passing: The matter of praying for enemies, including violent ones. To what extent does that make sense, and do you feel conflicted by the issue?

I don’t feel conflicted by it, but then I’m a conflicted Christian. I don’t expect it to make much sense to someone who isn’t. From the Christian perspective, we always have to come back to the perspective that Jesus died for us all. He died for his enemies as much – if not more – than his friends.

And not just for the good people.
Maybe it's just an easier shorthand to refer to the deed rather than the words, because you don't really connect the Crucifixion to your enemies except through the words of Jesus; and, not coincidentally, the words of Paul.  But to explain that you have to put the words in context, and as Pastor Dan notes, that's not a simple task.  Easier to mention the deed (actions speak louder than words), even though the interpretation of that deed is itself a complex exegesis.

Not for nothing I'll quote the conclusion of that interview, because it saves me writing it out again, and because it points to the true importance of the Crucifixion, the lesson that has to be learned over and over again, the lesson of Holy Week and why it isn't about "just us":

Today you tweeted: “Reminder: this week we remember a man tortured to death as a potential threat to the security state.” I think I know what you mean here, but if you could tell us a little more about where you’re going with that.

The Romans were literally an occupying force in the state of Israel; it was a military occupation. The way Jesus’ enemies got the Romans to execute him was to say, “This guy wants to lead a rebellion against your occupation.”

And the Romans take the bait. If you think about what happens in that scene with Pontius Pilate: Pilate isn’t even convinced that Jesus is the threat he’s made out to be. But, he’s not going to take any chances, so he goes ahead, and kills him.

Because Jesus is a nobody. Pilate pays no price for executing just some other guy who’s getting wise about our presence in Palestine. He’s not even a military threat – but he might possibly be one. And the response is, “Torture him, kill him. Be done with it.”

Now, understanding that story, whose side do you think we’re supposed to be on? I don’t think you can really hear that story, and take it in, and not think that you’re supposed to be on Jesus’s side. And the consequence of that is you have to reject that kind of state-sponsored violence against powerless people.

One of the points is, This government is repressive and dysfunctional. And Jesus comes in way to say, both to the oppressed and the oppressors: “This isn’t working. There is a better way to do things.”

When you start to get ahold of that, it opens up all these different possibilities. We don’t have to act in a way that’s taking advantage of one another. We don’t have to act in a way that’s violence toward one another. Life can be more than it is right now.

"Always hoped that I'd be an apostle; knew that I would make it if I tried.  Then when we've retired we can write the Gospels, so they'll still talk about us when we've died. " Almost 45 years later, those words till conjure up certain images.

Sorry; the stereo is going as I type.

The message of Jesus is easily encapsulated in the basileia tou theou, a phrase I refuse to translate because all the translations mislead into "kingdom" and "empire" and "God" in ways we're trained to listen for and understand, and I want to wear away all those meanings and plant the seed in fresh ground.  New wine in new wineskins, and all that.  Besides, I like the echoes of "basilica" there; it's appropriate, in its own way.  It's easily encapsulated there, but it's not easily conveyed there.    Which is fine; it shouldn't be easily conveyed.  You have to study the words of Jesus to understand it; and you have to study the deeds, to.

Which is not to say Jesus should matter more than the things he said.  Even God doesn't earn that distinction.  That's the creation of an idol; a figure of stone or wood or even feathers, an object of human creation, a golden calf.  We don't need that.


  1. Look at all my trials and tribulations...

  2. Tell me what's happening

  3. "I've yet to meet a person whose theology emphasized individual salvation who didn't use that emphasis to deny comfort and succor to others."

    Not that I want to make a running argument about this, but this idea of individual salvation being put in an either/or relationship with caring for others seems unwarranted. Even St. Paul at one point expressed concern that, in bringing others to salvation, he might lose his own.

    I understand, having grown up in the same environment as you, how repulsive a "save me me me" Christianity can be when coupled with a shameless indifference to others less fortunate. But surely I can care about me as well as thee, and to the extent that justification is connected to sanctification my own salvation is surely linked with entering into a relationship with others in which I do not habitually seek my own.

    When I was growing up Presbyterian I was told (I never got this confirmed) that, as part of the ordination questions, the candidate was asked whether he was willing to be damned if it were for the glory of God. That surely represents an acute case of preventing Christianity from being about my own salvation. But I think it goes too far, and posits too great a disjunction between my own self-concerns and those of others, one not demanded by the gospel.

  4. The emphasis on individual salvation is an emphasis on salvation above all else in Christian belief. And yes, I know de-emphasizing salvation is not in accord with traditional Christian teachings, but salvation as it is commonly understood (i.e., being saved from the fires of hell, or whatever hell is) is the aberration, IMHO. Even if it is a traditional teaching.

    So the emphasis on individual salvation comes from the question: "Are you saved?" That is the first issue with some strains of Christianity, and it clearly means salvation comes first, good works or caring for others, afterwards. Indeed, among such believers, works is tantamount to Catholicism, and represents a movement away from faith (Lutheranism, or so they think) toward works (which they equate with Rome): faith must come first, and only the "faithful" are among, well, in Calvinistic (i.e, Presbyterian) terms: the "Elect."

    There's no need for an "Elect" in the first place, or for TULIP, if you don't have damnation and some are in, some are out. The very idea is to deny comfort and succor to some, if only that comfort is of eternal salvation. It is a kindness, I suppose, to care for the hungry and the homeless; but it's a lesser kindness to do it while all the while convinced they are damned and probably deserve to be.

    I cannot square the concept of damnation with the concept of love, anymore than I can square that faith alone is sufficient to save me from damnation, because even the act of faith is an act on my part, which means my salvation is, somehow, earned. God, I am told, is akin to father; and I would never demand my child love me, or damn her to exile for failing to.

    Your argument is not wrong, but it is not the one I was addressing. It is not so either/or as you cannot care for others unless you care for yourself, or cannot care for yourself if you would care for others. Although the Desert Fathers might make that latter argument a bit more difficult to defend, I will leave it to them.

    I think the problem is salvation itself, a doctrine I more and more think at odds with the Christ of Scriptures. After all, Caesar was known as the Savior; so the title originally had political overtones, and was linked to material well-being. It became wholly spiritual much, much later.

  5. If I could edit my own comments I would, and add:

    I'm not arguing this to have the last word, as most internet "discussions" tend to do. I simply don't accept that, while my daughter doesn't have to earn my love, I have to earn my salvation from damnation. I have a photo somewhere on this site, of an old man who looks Inuit, captioned by a dialogue that runs something like: "Eskimo: If you hadn't told me about Christ dying for my sins, and how I must accept him or be damned, would I have been damned?" Priest: "No, I suppose not." Eskimo: "Then why did you tell me?"

    I accept the notion of Christ as Savior; but not in the way usually understood. Because, frankly, I find that concept indefensible.

    YMMV, of course.

  6. "salvation as it is commonly understood (i.e., being saved from the fires of hell, or whatever hell is) is the aberration, IMHO. Even if it is a traditional teaching."

    I come back to the naming of Jesus, whose name means "Yah saves," and about whom the angel says that he will save his people from their sins.

    Maybe it's because I have been thinking a lot about Dante lately, but I am increasingly convince that it's as simple as "sin is hell" and "hell is sin." Of course we find abhorrent the idea that a mistake about God sends anyone to a never-ending torture chamber. But if we choose to sin, and the sin is itself the torment, then the very turn from sin, which is the turn from selfishness, hatred, greed, makes salvation by definition a turn in love toward God and one's neighbor.

    To jettison the terribly possibility that one can choose sin, choose to enter hell and stay there, takes from the Christian message that there is a danger of falling into that maelstrom. Part of me wants to believe that God will simply make us all good. But another part can't help but know that God, for whatever reason, has refrained from forcing us to love and has left it to us whether we choose life or death, blessing or curse. It therefore seems to me that it is the obligation of the Church to exhort us with some urgency to repudiate complaisancy about the way of self-destruction, and I have no problem with seeing that as the "salvation" which is so central and demanding in the gospel.

    Just my two centavos.

  7. One of the many problems with salvation from sin is that you first have to know the condition of sinfulness.

    Because otherwise the cosmic situation is truly bizarre.

    But once it is explained to you, now you're subject to it. If you don't know, how can you be, since you can never choose to avoid it (and so are damned without hope, and then we're back to the worst side of predestination, which even Catholics found pernicious, and rightly so).

    So are you in sin if you know nothing of the concept of sin? Do you need salvation from something you aren't subject to until you know you are? And isn't cruel to then tell you about it, so that now you must choose something you were safe from in your ignorance? Doesn't that make evangelism the work of condemning people so you can offer them salvation from condemnation?

    Besides, "sin" to the Jews/Hebrews was not/is not sin to a Christian, mostly because the Jews consider themselves alone subject to the laws of Moses and the covenant of Abraham. It's not a universal condition they must explain to the world, because the world is subject to it whether they realize it or not.

    Is the Great Commission really "Go and tell all the world that God's gonna get you if you don't watch out!"? Or is it something much more positive than that?

    I find Christianity can be a much more positive message without hinging the whole business of avoiding hell and damnation. Especially since I don't find any message of hell and damnation for the non-believers in the letters of Paul (although Peter seems to have waffled back and forth over whether Paul was a heretic because he insisted on taking the message of Jesus to the Gentiles).

    The "way of self-destruction" requires an understanding of human existence that I just can't countenance. It's like the woman in my first church asked me the day we'd read the Psalm about God knowing the Psalmist was a sinner in the womb. Did that mean, she asked, that God had damned a baby from birth?

    Calvin might have been comfortable telling her so; but that's not the way I understand the Psalmist (who had no Christian idea of hell or damnation) and not at all the way I understand the good news of the Gospel.

    Because it's kind of hard to get past "The good news is, you're going to hell. The better news is, you don't have to!" Self-destruction is rather a different issue altogether from that.

    IMHO, anyway.