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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Against you, and you alone, have I sinned

These words, attributed to King David in the fifty-first Psalm, have been explained away by numerous Bible commentators down through the ages. After all, the psalm was ostensibly written on the occasion of his repentance for his sinful behavior in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah. And, as Wayne Jackson noted in his article "Did David Sin against God Only?" for Christian Courier, it is obvious that David "had sinned against the woman with whom he committed this act of vileness. He had sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. He had sinned against his family. He had sinned against his own body (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18). David had sinned against his men, who had a right to expect fidelity from their leader; similarly, in an even broader sense, he has betrayed the nation he led."

Hence, the need to explain David's apparent obliviousness to the fact that he had indeed sinned against others. That is why many of these commentators have insisted that David's words on this occasion are not to be understood literally or absolutely. In other words, he could not have really meant what is clearly suggested by him in this verse - that God is the ONLY one whom he has sinned against. For many of them, David is engaging in hyperbole. For them, he is so devoted to God that his sins against others pale in comparison to his sins against God.

But what if David really meant what he is reported to have written here? We are told that David loved God's law and thought about it continuously. Is it possible that David came to the same conclusions about the implications of God's law which are attributed to Jesus Christ, John and Paul in the writings of the New Testament?

Jesus Christ summarized the law as consisting of two great principles: Love of God and love of others (Matthew 22:37-40). In the Gospel of John, we also read that Jesus gave his disciples a "new" commandment: "Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35) Then, in the very next chapter, Christ told them: "If you love me, obey my commandments." (John 14:15) Hence, Christ clearly implied that love for (and obedience to) him was realized by loving each other. Later, this principle would be even more clearly delineated by John and Paul.

In his first epistle, John wrote: "Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before." (I John 2:7) He continued: " If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them. We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?" (I John 3:14-17) He explains: "If someone says, 'I love God,' but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers." (I John 4:20-21)

Finally, in his famous letter to the saints at Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote: "Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, 'You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.' These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law." (Romans 13:8-10)

Is it possible that David realized that his sins against himself and others were ultimately a betrayal of God? If we assume that David wasn't an idiot and really did meditate on God's law, we have to conclude that it is very likely that he realized that his sins against Bathsheba, Uriah and his people were really sins against Almighty God. Superficially, we know that David had violated that portion of the Ten Commandments which dealt with love of neighbor - he committed adultery, he coveted that which was not his, and he was guilty of theft and murder. Moreover, it is frankly illogical and absurd to suggest that David wasn't conscious of the fact that he had broken these specific commandments. In other words, he knew what he had done! David, however, must have understood what others simply gloss over - By failing to truly love his neighbors, he had sinned against God.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

One Man and One Woman?

Jerry Falwell Jr. has joined a distinguished/notorious list of Evangelical Christian leaders whose private sexual morality has not matched their public pronouncements. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Herbert W Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong and Jimmy Swaggart promoted the "one man and one woman" formula when it came to homosexuals, but not so much when it applied to themselves. Likewise, we have learned that Jerry Falwell Jr. apparently welcomed a third person into his marriage for eight years (we are told that he liked to stand in the corner and watch his wife and the pool boy get jiggy with it).

I can hear it now: "Their moral failures don't make homosexuality right!" Which I am not at all reluctant to acknowledge is certainly true. However, it does negate the moral authority of these folks to discourse on the sexual morality of others. And, if we compare such behavior to the list of credentials which the Apostle Paul outlined for Church leaders, we are forced to reach the conclusion that they are disqualified from serving as leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ.

"What about David and repentance?" some of my religious friends will demand. It is one of the foundational tenets of Christianity that ANY time we are willing to repent and ask for God's forgiveness in Jesus' name, God is willing to forgive. Nevertheless, when Paul composed his list of qualifications for Church leaders, we have to assume that he was fully aware of how grace, mercy and forgiveness worked when he recorded them. God forgave David, but we are told that he and his kingdom suffered horrendous public and private consequences for his sins. Paul said that no one can separate us from the love of God, but it is evident that he felt that folks could disqualify themselves from Church leadership!


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Jesus Christ, Christians and Politics

 As the United States is now in the midst of an election season, the inevitable conversation regarding the proper role of religion vis-à-vis politics is renewed. For Christians, one would think that that conversation would center on the views of the founder of the religion (Jesus Christ) and the principal architect of the First Century Church (the Apostle Paul). Sadly, however, many Christians in the United States instead focus on current events and how the moral teachings of the Church apply to policy.

In his article The Politics of Jesus https://lifehopeandtruth.com/god/who-is-jesus/the-politics-of-jesus/ , Harold Rhodes reminds his readers that "Jesus Christ did not involve Himself with the politics of His day." He went on to say: "Jesus had good reason to remain apart from politics. The message He preached was about government, but a government He would bring to the earth, not one that would come about through human effort. Jesus’ message was about the government of God that will rule the world and that will bring about world peace!"

Indeed, according to the Gospel of John, when Christ was on trial before Pilate, he made plain to the Roman governor that his kingdom was not part of his world. We read: "Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. 'Are you the king of the Jews?' he asked him. Jesus replied, 'Is this your own question, or did others tell you about me?' 'Am I a Jew?' Pilate retorted. 'Your own people and their leading priests brought you to me for trial. Why? What have you done?' Jesus answered, 'My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.'" John 18:33-36, NLT

In similar fashion, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy about the responsibilities and proper relationship of a Christian minister to the world they inhabit. He said: "Timothy, my dear son, be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus. You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others. Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. And athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules. And hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Think about what I am saying. The Lord will help you understand all these things. Always remember that Jesus Christ, a descendant of King David, was raised from the dead. This is the Good News I preach. And because I preach this Good News, I am suffering and have been chained like a criminal. But the word of God cannot be chained. So I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen." II Timothy 2:1-10, NLT

And, finally, the anonymous author of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote about the great heroes of faith in the God of Israel. We read: "All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." Hebrews 11:13-16, NLT

Hence, in our role as Christians, we should probably think twice about choosing sides in political debates, endorsing candidates or advocating for particular policy positions. Christianity is about spiritual salvation and a kingdom that is not part of this present world. Now, obviously, a Christian can also be a citizen of the United States and take part in this government of, by and for the people. Nevertheless, Scripture makes plain that these are individual decisions that should not be engaged in on behalf of Jesus Christ or his Church.


Sunday, August 9, 2020

This life as preparation for the next?

To one degree or another, most religions (including Christianity) tend to view this life as a preparation for the next. Hence, any pain or suffering that one experiences in the here and now is said to be inconsequential when compared to the hereafter. Likewise, any joy or happiness that one experiences here must not be allowed to interfere with our prospects for a future life.

For Christians who are suffering, Paul's epistle to the Romans is considered definitive. He wrote: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." Romans 8:18

Likewise, Moses' rejection of the good life in favor of the reward that he would eventually receive from the Lord is held up as an example for Christians in the epistle to the Hebrews. We read: "By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward." Hebrews 11:24-26

In short, many Christians tend to remember Paul's instructions to the saints at Corinth and focus all of their energy and attention on the hereafter. He wrote: "For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." II Corinthians 4:17-18

Unfortunately, as with most things related to religion, too many Christians take this advice to the extreme. In other words, life in the here and now becomes meaningless or even worse, an unpleasant and unwelcome distraction. Yes, the above verses are part of Scripture, but there are a few others that should cause us to temper our application of them.

After all, if this life is unnecessary, then why did God cause us to experience it? And, for better or worse, the book of Ecclesiastes is also considered to be part of the canon of Scripture. Tradition informs us that the wisest man who ever lived (King Solomon) mused: "There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God." Ecclesiastes 2:24 And: "Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion. Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God." Ecclesiastes 5:18-19

Hence, while those of us who are Christians should keep our eyes on the prize, we should also remember to stop and smell the roses in the here and now. It is not only OK to experience joy, love and happiness in this life - God expects us to do so! And finally, continuous misery and sorrow seem to me to be poor preparations for an eternity of bliss and happiness. In other words, if you've never experienced those emotions in the here and now, how will you be able to recognize them in the hereafter?

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Age of Ignorance?

Mel Rhodes has posted a piece that appears to be a rebuttal to my post "Faith of Our Fathers: A Racist Legacy." His post, "The Age of Ignorance," opens with a tribute to Handel's The Messiah (with which I have no problem). He wrote: "Today, we live in what can best be described as the age of ignorance.
Whatever the issues of the day, Black Lives Matter, slavery, and abortion, to name but three, a great deal of ignorance abounds.  Gone is the grounding people once had in the Christian scriptures.   Now, people spout their opinions, whatever they may be, exposing their ignorance on all topics.
The secularists may still appreciate the Hallelujah Chorus, for the inspiring music, but gone is the faith of their ancestors.  It has been replaced solely by ignorance."

My first date with the mother of my children was on the occasion of a performance of The Messiah at the Von Braun Civic Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Then, as now, I felt inspired and appreciated the allusion to the fulfillment of God's plan for humankind as outlined in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Hence, my admiration for this composition could never be described as being secular in nature.

And, although the first two Hanoverian kings of Britain recognized Handel's talent, neither of them could fairly be characterized as "Christian" kings - unless we are using that term in the generic sense - as in, Donald Trump is a "Christian" president. George I was an adulterer who imprisoned his wife for seeking solace in the arms of another and had several children with his mistress. Likewise, George II had several mistresses and was estranged from his father and heir (the Prince of Wales) for many years. Both George's were crude, vindictive men who spoke little English and used the British throne to further the interests of their principality in Germany (NCK objected to my characterization of it as a minor principality in the previous version of this post). Moreover, as far as the "Divine Right of Kings" is concerned, the only reason the Hanoverians ascended the British throne was that Parliament had barred the legitimate heir to the throne from the succession because he was a Roman Catholic!

In fact, the quotation from Dr. Roy Atwood is a perfect example of the kind of sentimental/nostalgic/fairytale history that I referenced in my post. For those who are interested in correcting the errors of their forefathers, the solution is relatively simple. It only requires a little intellectual curiosity, an open mind, a desire to be a better person and faith in God's ability to transform and forgive.


 

Monday, August 3, 2020

God's Forgiveness

The notion that God's forgiveness of us is inextricably linked to our readiness/willingness to forgive those who have offended us is firmly fixed in Scripture. Indeed, Jesus thought the principle so important that he included it in the Lord's Prayer (see Matthew 6). Later, he gave a parable about a wicked servant who had been released from a great debt, but who was unable to see his way clear to forgive a much smaller debt that one of his associates owed to him (see Matthew 18).

In similar fashion, the Apostle Paul reiterated this principle in his epistles to First Century Christians. Paul told the saints at Ephesus to "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." Likewise, he told the Colossians to "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you."


FAITH OF OUR FATHERS: A RACIST LEGACY

A friend forwarded me an article today that appeared in The Atlantic at the end of last month. White Christian America Needs a Moral Awakening by Robert P. Jones encourages Christians to confront "their faith’s legacy of racism." Unfortunately, this article will not be well-received by many of the folks it was intended to address. The notion that their forefathers' spiritual views were tainted with racism - a racism which influenced the faith that was passed on to their descendants - is anathema to many of them.

Nevertheless, Jones is on a firm historical footing when he talks about the overt support for (or ambivalence toward) black slavery and notions of white supremacy which existed within most Christian denominations of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Moreover, this racist underpinning was not confined to Protestant denominations - European Catholics were convinced that it was their mission to convert the ignorant black and brown heathens of the world and save them from roasting in hell. In short, the notion that white Europeans were specially favored by God was widespread and extended to all areas of human endeavor (be they cultural, political, economic or religious).

Of course, this is not the history that has been taught or emphasized in most American classrooms. And Jones points out that this fairytale version of history has not been confined to the narrative we tell ourselves about our nation as a whole - that it has also extended to the story which these denominations tell about themselves! He writes: "Underneath the glossy, self-congratulatory histories that white Christian churches have written about themselves—which typically depict white Christians as exemplars of democratic principles and pillars of the community—is a thinly veiled, deeply troubling past. White Christian churches have not just been complacent or complicit in failing to address racism; rather, as the dominant cultural power in the U.S., they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy. Through the entire American story, white Christianity has served as the central source of moral legitimacy for a society explicitly built to value the lives of white people over Black people. And this legacy remains present and measurable in the cultural DNA of contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast."

Jones goes on to underscore the fact that these racist proclivities continue to exercise a powerful influence on white Christians of today. Is there any hope of changing this dynamic? He writes: "Today, 400 years after the first enslaved African landed on our shores, and more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery in America, a combination of social forces and demographic changes has brought the country to a crossroads. We white Christians must find the courage to face the fact that the version of Christianity that our ancestors built, “the faith of our fathers” as the hymn celebrates it, was a cultural force that, by design, protected and propagated white supremacy. We have inherited this tradition with scant critique, and we have a moral and religious obligation to face the burden of that history and its demand on our present. Inaction is a tacit blessing on white supremacy’s continued presence as a Christian habit and virtue. Doing nothing will ensure that, even despite our best conscious intentions, we will continue to be blind to the racial injustice all around us."

Many of our forefathers worshipped together regularly and thought of themselves as Christians. They didn't see any irony in doing so while simultaneously taking land away from Native Americans and enslaving their black brethren. Like them, white Americans of today often fail to see the incongruity in proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ and accepting and supporting the system that their forefathers created. The entire thesis of Jones' article is that white Christians must eventually confront this incongruity for the sake of their own souls.

He wrote: "If we are finally going to live into the fullness of the promise of liberty and justice for all Americans, we will have to recover from our white-supremacy-induced amnesia. Confronting historical atrocities is indeed difficult, and at times overwhelming. But if we want to root out an insidious white supremacy from our institutions, our religion, and our psyches, we will have to move beyond forgetfulness and silence. Importantly, as white Americans find the courage to embark on this journey of transformation, we will discover that the beneficiaries are not only our country and our fellow nonwhite and non-Christian Americans, but also ourselves."