God’s Friend

The Old Testament accords that honor to only two humans.

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Abraham serves the three angels, painting by Rembrandt, 17th century.

I was reading in Isaiah 41 this morning when I stumbled upon this sentence fragment:

But you, Israel, my servant,

                        Jacob, whom I have chosen,

                        the offspring of Abraham, my friend…(Isaiah 41:8)

 It is part of a passage where God is addressing Israel about its divine calling–the calling to be God’s servant. But what immediately arrested my attention is that fact that God also calls Abraham his friend. I had never noticed that before.

Now this is to accord to Abraham an enormous honor, at least in the values of the ancient world. For much of the ancient world, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate of human relationships. It was a far higher form of human relationship than was marriage. I discussed in my previous blog posting Jesus’ Privileged Friends why that was.

Here in this passage of Isaiah God calls Abraham his friend. I wondered if Abraham stood unique in the Old Testament in bearing that honor. So I checked my Bible concordance to explore if anyone else had been called that.

I found that Abraham was not alone in this honor. One other Old Testament figure has been accorded that same honor: Moses. In Exodus 33:11, we read: Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. Apart from these two giants of the faith, no one else is raised to that honor.

Compassionate Friends

In the case of Moses, friendship with God is described as a relationship in which God speaks to Moses face to face. In some mysterious way Moses has access to God where Moses may speak his mind freely with God and engage in some persuasive debate. We see this in Exodus 32-33 where Moses tries to persuade God not to destroy Israel after the debacle of the golden calf. Moses becomes the compassionate defender of sinful Israel.

Likewise we see Abraham play this same role in Genesis 18 as God reveals to Abraham his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This revelation evokes from Abraham an effort to speak up compassionately for the righteous people in these two cities who will be lost in the destruction. Abraham dares to call into question God’s compassion just as in a sense Moses does as well.

This is one of the extraordinary privileges that is accorded to Abraham and Moses as God’s friends. One gets the sense that God would not tolerate such presumption from anyone else, but because of the high regard he has for both men he pauses to listen to them and in the case of Moses to even change his mind.

It is truly an extraordinary motif in these two Old Testament passages. But the most extraordinary twist upon this motif comes in the New Testament in John 15:14-15. There Jesus at the Last Supper calls his own disciples his friends:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

What is extraordinary about this passage is that the disciples are far from being giants of faith when Jesus accords them this honor. They will soon show themselves highly fallible as Peter denies Jesus that very evening and the other disciples desert Jesus in his time of greatest need.

Yet what Jesus does in this passage is point to that intimate relationship with him that he extends to all his disciples, including us today. For the end goal of spiritual formation–for most of us an arduous, life-long journey–is this privilege of becoming what Jesus says we are: God’s friends.

 

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Respectfully Yours

An apostle’s counsel on living with diversity in a congregation.

I love the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians.  One reason: it is dead-on realistic about life in a congregation. The church in Corinth was a mess. It was wracked with tensions, scandal, theological confusion, and pretensions. Sound familiar does it not?

I also love the book because we witness Paul the apostle turn into Paul the pastor. Paul had got this community of faith started. He longed to see it grow up into a mature fellowship. So he gives a great deal of attention to its needs and problems.

What Is Acceptable Christian Behavior?

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The sacrifice of a pig on a Greek altar. Depicted on an Athenian cup, 6th century B.C. Now in Louvre Museum.

One locus of tension in the church was the issue of whether Christians could rightly buy and eat meat that came from the animals sacrificed on the altars of pagan temples. These sacrifices were a major source of supply for butchers. An additional issue was whether Christians could participate in civic dinners and trade gatherings in temples where sacrificed meat might constitute the main dinner entrée.

Some members of the Corinthian church asserted that it was perfectly OK.* After all, they argued, pagan gods did not exist. Eating meat from temples then involved no endorsement of pagan gods. Other members of the church were not so sure. They were scandalized by the practice, believing that it entailed a faith compromise. The church seems to have asked Paul’s advice on the subject. He answers in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1.

I’m fascinated by his response. His advice is very practical and pastoral, but it is far from simple and clear cut. Which makes it tricky to deal with.

The dispute in the church was not one of theological principle, but of Christian behavior. One group in the church saw no problem in eating meat sacrificed on pagan altars. Nor did they have any scruples about attending dinner in pagan temples. And concerning those in the church who did not agree, they were ready to dismiss them as “weaker brothers.”

Other members of the church, however, felt scruples about these practices. Maybe they were newly converted Christians, who were not quite yet convinced that pagan gods were not real. They were therefore offended when they saw fellow believers eating temple meat.

Both sides had merit in their viewpoints, but apparently little tolerance or compassion for other viewpoints or sensitivities. That led to contention in the church’s life.

Paul’s Counsel

In conviction Paul himself seems to have shared the viewpoint of those who saw no problem in eating the meat. But the rightness of his viewpoint was not his chief concern. Nor was it the issue that he felt the “more enlightened” members of the church should be agitated about. Paul’s chief concern was whether this intra-church dispute was going to wreck the congregation’s communal life. Were the behavior and attitudes of either side building up the church? Or were they undermining its welfare and unity?

On this point Paul was decisive. If by eating meat, an “enlightened” member of the community causes a weaker member to stumble in faith, then the enlightened member should voluntarily give up his or her liberty and refrain from eating meat. In such disputes over behavior, the welfare of the community must take priority over the rights and liberty of the individual. So he says in verse 8:13:

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

To support his argument, he sets himself up as an example. As an apostle, he is entitled to many things—including financial support from the community. But he says he has voluntarily chosen not to exercise those rights—all for the cause of advancing the gospel of Christ.** As further warrant for his practice, he claims he is imitating Christ.

He summarizes his conclusions in verses 10:23-24:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.***

 In listening to Paul’s counsel, it is important, I think, that what he counsels is voluntary restraint. He is not arguing that the community should impose conformity on all. There is diversity in the church. That diversity is not just a matter of different backgrounds and upbringings. That diversity may be inspired and created by the Holy Spirit. Therefore diversity is to be reverenced and cherished. A forced conformity may be a form of abuse and defilement of the Body of Christ.

Distorting Paul’s Counsel

Yet I find Paul’s counsel tricky to implement. One party in a church may argue that another party should refrain from certain behaviors because the first party finds them offensive. They can argue that if the second party continues in its offensive behavior, that party is not demonstrating Christian love. And so we can devolve into a situation where one party in the church becomes a minority dictating behavior for the greater whole.

I do not suspect that Paul would have countenanced his counsel be used as grounds for a tyranny by the minority. Paul, for example, did not give way to what we might have considered the weaker brothers in the case of the disputes in the Galatian churches. There he felt a serious theological principle was at stake, and he was not about to give way to the Judaizing party and its sensitivities about Christian behavior.

So I find that Paul’s counsel is not as quite as simple and clear cut as I would like. At times, our life in the church may call us to voluntarily surrender our rights for the sake of the good of the greater whole. At other times our life may call us to stand firm on our rights. This calls for careful discernment. We may find that we make many mistakes and experience a great deal of anguish.

Valuing Respect

Yet what can it mean for us today to exercise love in building up the Body of Christ, as Paul counsels? One thing I do believe it requires is learning to respect the differences among us.

Respect is a largely undervalued virtue, but it goes a long way to maintaining harmony. People hunger to be respected in their jobs, in their families, and in their communities. It is one reason I believe we are experiencing so much turmoil in our political life. Too many people in our country feel they have not been respected. In anger they raising hell to ensure they are not ignored. Something similar can happen in the church.

Treating someone with respect is letting someone be himself or herself. It does not mean smoothing out differences, but it allows diversity to be, understanding that there is a hidden wisdom to diversity that eludes all attempts to unite by imposed conformity.

Treating each other in the church with respect does not make differences, conflicts, and disputes go away. But treating others with respect does mean our disputes need not tear us apart and destroy our life together.

So the strange dispute in Corinth over eating meat sacrificed to idols becomes an occasion for Paul to illuminate an important principle in our life together in the church. Neither arrogant individualism nor smothering social conformity are to govern life in the church. Rather, says Paul, let love govern our behavior. And one manifestation of love is respect.

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* They may have belonged to a group in the church who prided themselves on their intellectual sophistication. Earlier in the letter Paul chastises them for their putting down what they may have regarded as their “less enlightened” brothers.

** Paul walked his talk. While in Corinth, he earned his living as a tentmaker. He did not receive financial support from the church.

*** The translators of the NRSV has placed certain phrases in quotation marks because they believe that those are words that Paul is quoting from the letter the church sent him.

Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?

Close reading Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus challenges a customary interpretation.

No New Testament text has held a more prominent place in my childhood religious upbringing than John 3:1-21. It recounts a conversation Jesus holds with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.

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A high Celtic cross at Iona Abbey, Scotland.

What my childhood churches latched onto in this dialogue was what Jesus says in verse 3. (It was always read in the King James Version.)

Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then repeats what he says in an expanded way in verse 5:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 These two verses became the proof texts for the constantly repeated claim that unless a person was born again, no one could hope to enter into heaven when one died. This conviction gave punch to many an evangelistic appeal.

Furthermore, the born-again experience was understood as denoting a conversion experience where one confessed one’s sins and accepted Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Only if one had undergone such a conversion could one be assured that one would be saved at the Last Judgment.

It was generally assumed that this conversion experience would also be dramatically emotional. It would provide an intense sense of relief from guilt followed by a deep assurance of peace. The words of hymnody often described the experience best: Once I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

This kind of preaching troubled me as a youth. I had not experienced any such dramatic conversion. Did that mean I was not born again? Such questioning triggered many fears.

As a result, I have long wrestled with this text. Did my religious upbrining understand John 3:1-21 correctly? There is an element of mystery about the words Jesus speak. Could Jesus mean something different from the customary interpretation I was taught as a child?

From my wrestling with this text, I have come to believe that the customary interpretation is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ message. There is much, much more to what he is saying.

Paying Close Attention to the Words

A close reading of the text demands that we give acute attention to the exact words Jesus uses. For example, his comments concern seeing or entering the kingdom of God.* The customary interpretation assumes this phrase means heaven, the place where God, the angels, and saints live.

But that is not the primary meaning of kingdom of God in the New Testament. The English phrase translates the Greek words basileia tou theou. Basileia does not denote the land or state ruled over by a king. Rather it refers to the king’s authority or power as king. A more correct translation would be kingship. That is why many modern English translations render it reign of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) kingdom of God is linked to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This parallelism is important to understanding the terminology. God’s kingdom is the reality of living harmoniously within God’s will. Certainly God’s will is fully realized in heaven. But Jesus’ message** is that the time has arrived when that will is going to be fully realized on earth as well.

The import of Jesus’ words is not about the prospect of going to heaven when one dies, but the prospect of living under God’s kingship here and now.

The next two words I note is that Jesus talks about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Seeing is about perceiving. How can we perceive the kingship of God at work in the world and in our own lives here and now?

The general assumption of humanity is that as we look at the affairs (the often chaotic affairs) of the world in which we live, we see no evidence of God being present or at work. Rather everything usually looks out of control. How can Jesus say otherwise?

When Jesus talks about entering the kingship of God, he is talking about how we can truly experience that we are living under the beneficent rule and providence of God. How can we come to live in submissive harmony with the will of God?

Ambiguous Word

The answer Jesus gives to both questions is that we must be born anothen. Anothen is a Greek adverb that can mean both 1) again, and 2) from above. Because it can have both meanings, it is an ambiguous word. Jesus may use it because he intends both meanings. There must be a new beginning to life, but it is a new beginning coming from divine rather than human initiative.

That becomes clear from the context. Nicodemus assumes anothen means again. So he asks how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born again. He assumes anothen has one and only meaning.

But verse 5 demonstrates that Jesus understands anothenprimarily as meaning from above. He does this by saying a man must be born of water and the Spirit. We are clearly dealing with a kind of spiritual birth or beginning. That becomes even clearer as Jesus then goes on to talk about the invisible wind blowing where it will. The Greek word for wind (pneuma) is also the Greek word for spirit. The critical term anothen has a dual meaning, but the spiritual meaning is primary in this discourse.

So to summarize Jesus’ statements, if one is to perceive the kingship of God in the world and to live harmoniously within it, one must undergo a spiritual initiation analogous to a natural birth.

New Birth as Spiritual Awakening

What is this new birth? I have come to believe it is a form of spiritual awakening by which a person gains the capability of perceiving God’s kingship in the world and living within it. This awakening involves a transformation in consciousness. It places within a person a kind of spiritual sense organ that allows one to perceive and enter into the world of the divine spirit.

What am I talking about? Let me turn to another analogy to explain. We now know that radio waves fill the atmosphere. They did so even before human beings came to discover them. But human beings could not tap into those radio waves and use them for communication until we developed the instruments to transmit and receive radio waves.

God’s kingship is a reality in the universe. But we do not perceive it and we do not come to live harmoniously within it until we receive the spiritual sense organ for such perception. That sense organ is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

The Spirit is a gift, a gift from God, not our achievement. Entering into the realm of God’s kingship is always a gift. That is the significance of using anothen with the meaning from above.

Jesus’ words also suggest that that gift has a beginning point. It is analogous to a birth. But Jesus’ words do not imply how that initiation happens, except for the ambiguous phrase of water and the Spirit(more on that in my next blog posting). Nor does the initiation confer spiritual maturity. The initiation launches us on the spiritual journey, but we must go deep into that journey to attain spiritual maturity.

So what do I end up with as I read this passage? I hear Jesus saying that in order to enter into life under the kingship of God we must be lifted up into a spiritual plane. That lifting up does not abolish our life in the flesh, but adds a more profound spiritual reality to our life. The gospel writer John will call that spiritual life eternal life.

Does what I have written mean that I’ve plumbed the mystery of this text? No. It remains a mysterious text. But that mystery also cautions me to be careful in how I read it. It will always evade a simple understanding.

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* Interestingly, these two verses are the only two places in the Gospel of John that the gospel writer uses the phrase kingdom of God. This phrase is used profusely in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but except for these two verses, it is found nowhere else on the lips of Jesus in John.

** Mark 1:15summarizes Jesus’ preaching as: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospe

New Directions in Evangelism

What might chocolate chip cookies have to do with the Christian message?

Evangelism today is challenging. In our mean world of controversy and polarization, Christians have adapted well to the surrounding culture. We are now best known for our mean words and actions.

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Photo credit: Procsitas Moscas

Both undermine our efforts to share the gospel. We call our message good news. But many outside the church hear it as bad news. Our words come across as hollow and inauthentic. Instead of enticing people into our fellowship, we drive them away.

How do we change that dynamic? By acting out kindness, says Andrew Ponder Williams, a campus minister in southern California, in a blog posting titled Kindness is the New Evangelism. He describes the power of simple kind acts such as handing out free cookies to people passing by on the street. The unexpected free gift puzzles people, opening an opportunity for conversation.

I found it a very thoughtful essay. It sent my thinking into new directions. I think it might do so for you, too. I would encourage you to click on the link above and read it for yourself.

Our Ego and God’s Kingdom

Spiritual growth involves a surprising paradox.

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St. Martin’s Cross at Iona Abbey

As I read through some of the popular modern writers on the spiritual life (for example, Richard Rohr), I encounter a paradox that has baffled me.

These writers like to talk about the two stages in the spiritual life. In the first stage, normally associated with our youth and young adult years, our challenge is to develop a strong identity and a strong ego. This is very important, they say. We need a strong identity and ego in order to assume our proper place in life in our world.

But in the second half of our spiritual life, we are called upon to surrender if not our identity, then especially our ego. The second half of life is about letting go, letting go of everything we have worked so hard to acquire: our social achievements, our well polished skills, our professional competence, our wisdom and knowledge, and ultimately of our very body in death. This is necessary to rise to the fulfillment of our spiritual destiny.

As I said, I have found myself baffled by this paradox. If developing a strong ego is so important, then why is it imperative to surrender that ego in the second stage of life? Is that saying that these writers are engaged in a contradiction? In the end is our ego not as important to acquire as these writers say? How can I make sense of such talk?

I’ve wrestled with these questions for some time. Here’s how I came to a personal resolution for myself.

The Importance of the Ego

I think daily life as well as modern psychology both demonstrate the importance of young people developing a strong personal identity. Without such a strong identity, young people will prove unable to stand resolute when the gales of life, such as social and work pressure blow against them.

Along with that identity, young people need to develop their God-given talents and acquire the skills and knowledge they need to hold down jobs and invest themselves in service to the world. Education and training are of fundamental importance.

I argue that all of this is part of developing a strong ego. So what’s the problem with a strong ego? There is no problem with a strong ego per se. What becomes the problem is the ends to which we put that ego, with its talents, hard-won skills and knowledge. Do we use them all simply to advance our own well-being and self-aggrandizement?  If so, then we adopt a basic stance of ego-centrism in facing the world. Our lives are all about me and my well-being.

Or do we place our talents, our skills, and knowledge in service to a purpose beyond just our own well-being and self-aggrandizement? Do we marshal our identity into service to something that exceeds our own person? If we do not, then our egocentrism does indeed become an obstacle to growth, both in the spiritual life as well as in healthy human relationships.

That purpose that goes beyond our own welfare and enrichment may take many forms. It can be a devotion to a family, a business, a community, or a social or political cause. It can be a religious vocation. It often takes the form of patriotism or some form of nationalism. It is why when we become involved in a cause greater than ourselves, we can feel that our lives are more expansive, more meaningful.

Jesus’ Counsel

All this can be very good, but I think Jesus suggests that it does not go far enough. In all of these cases, devotion to a greater cause than ourselves can be corrupted into another form of egocentrism, as we try to impose our own vision and desires upon the cause we serve.

Jesus offers an alternative in his Sermon on the Mount when he preaches:

…strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things [the necessities of life, like food and raiment] will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. [Matthew 6:33-34]

It does not seem to me that in this counsel Jesus is denying the importance of a strong ego, especially those talents, skills, and knowledge that we bring to our daily living. But he is directing us to put those assets to work in a cause greater than our own self-survival and enhancement. Place your life in service to God’s kingdom, says Jesus.

If we are serious in following his counsel, we will find that truly seeking the Kingdom of God constantly challenges our own conceptions and desires as to what serving the kingdom of God is. God defines the kingdom, not us, and what the kingdom needs. If we truly seek the kingdom of God first, we will constantly be challenged to subordinate our own ego needs and demands to that spiritual reality. And that will often be experienced as a form of death.

Yet the paradox is that as we consent to that kind of death of the ego, we find that our service brings the very enhancement of life that our ego so ardently desires and presumes it is giving up when it consents to its death.

Here it seems to me lies the resolution to the contradiction that I said has so baffled me.

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Author’s Note:  I think we can attribute the popularity of this vision of the two halves of the spiritual life to two important writers of the early 20thcentury. They are the psychiatrist Carl Jungand the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Both writers have had a profound influence on conceptions of the spiritual life that we find reflected in popular writings today.

 

 

 

When Faith Doesn’t Stick

Transmitting one faith to the next generation is always a chancy endeavor.

The Bible gives us precious few details about the family of Moses. We know his wife’s name is Zipporah. She is the daughter of a priest of Midian that Moses meets in the Sinai desert. They have two sons. Their names are Gershom and Eliezer.

We know they did not succeed their father as leader of the people of Israel. That fell to a family outsider, Joshua. Also in a short genealogical reference in 1 Chronicles 23:15-17, we learn that Gershom had a son named Shebuel, and Eliezer a son named Rehabiah. But that is the last we hear anything about Moses’ descendants, with one exception.

In the Book of Judges we encounter one more mention of another grandson of Moses. His name is Jonathan. The brief mention is a curious one.

Unsettled life in Israel during the era of the judges

The era of the judges in Israel was an unsettled one. The Israelites had entered the land of Canaan after their 40-year trek through the wilderness. They begin to take possession of the land. That process, however, comes across as a fluid and unsettled. Tribal boundaries were not yet fully delineated.

The religious life of Israel was also fluid and unsettled. The Biblical text suggests that adherence to the aniconic (prohibiting images) monotheism of the Sinai covenant was not yet firmly established everywhere. Israelites frequently adopted religious practices as well as the gods of the Canaanites. Syncretism was more properly the order of the day.

The migration of the tribe of Dan

Chapter 18 gives us a window into both of these realities. We read there an account of the migration of the Hebrew tribe of Dan, which seeks out a new patrimony on the northern border of Canaan. There they attack a peaceful people living in a town named Laish. They slaughter the residents, burn the city, and rebuild it as their own. They rename it Dan.

Storm god on bull

Image of a Canaanite storm god aside a bull.

It’s a rather grim story. The Danites come across as murderous bullies. This witnesses to the widespread violence of this era in Israelite history.

On the route to their raid, the Danites invade the homestead of a man named Micah. There they rob him of a cast-metal idol along with some other religious objects. They also give the free-lance Levite priest who serves as Micah’s chaplain an offer he can’t refuse. They carry both to their new city, where they set up the idol in a shrine for themselves and appoint the Levite as priest.

In verses 30-31 we learn that Micah’s chaplain is Jonathan, Moses’ grandson. The text then says that Jonathan and his descendants continue as priests at Dan for several hundred years.

This stray mention startles us. Moses’ grandson and his descendants have been set up as priests to serve a graven image.* One wonders how the Danites justified their action. It is possible that they did not see this idol as a rejection of the worship of the God of Israel. They may have just been following in the same mindset as the Israelites did in the exodus story when they set up the golden calf at Mount Sinai and worship it as a material representation of God. But were they not falling into the same deviance that those earlier Israelites had fallen into?

They also co-opt a member of the family of Moses in the process, just as the earlier Israelites had co-opted Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make the image for them.

One also wonders how the Moses of the Torah would have reacted if he had lived to see this development. We read in Exodus 32 the rage that Moses showed when the Israelites under Aaron had erected a golden calf at Mount Sinai and made it the object of their worship. It was a serious breach of the covenant, for it violated the very first two commandments of the Ten Commandments. Surely Moses would not have been tolerant of this violation of the covenant by his grandson.**

How do we account for Jonathan’s deviance from his grandfather’s way?

I call it a curious story because a reader of the Bible does not expect to find that a grandson of Moses would be skirting on the edge of his grandfather’s strict monotheism. How do we account for this?

One answer might be that the historical reality of early Israel was different from the picture we get in the Torah. Israel’s monotheism may not have been as settled in the beginning as the Torah suggests. Judges may give a more accurate picture.

But the story of Jonathan may also reflect a common reality in the life of faith. Transmitting one’s faith to future generations is never a sure thing. Even the spiritual stature of Moses could not guarantee that his descendants would continue to walk in the pathway of his faith.

This can be a consoling thought to all parents and grandparents who have watched their children or grandchildren abandon the faith in which they were raised or choose to walk a religious path far different from that they were taught. History offers many examples of when the process of faith transmission fails.

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* We get the sense that the author recounts this fact because the shrine at Dan later became a shrine/temple that rivaled the temple in Jerusalem. As a result the Danite shrine has a reputation in the Old Testament as a site of illegitimate worship.

** That a member of Moses’ family should have been connected with this deviant worship center at Dan may have caused something of a scandal for those who wrote and compiled the Old Testament. Maybe that is why in the ancient manuscripts, Jonathan is sometimes said to be a grandson of Moses and sometimes a grandson of Manasseh. Also when we read the mention of Gershom and his sons in 1 Chronicles 23:15-16, we do not find Jonathan listed. Was Jonathan omitted from the genealogical reference deliberately?

 

Blessed Rules

Rules can guard the sacredness of ordinary life.

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Reading the Acts of the Apostles can be exhilarating. We get an inspiring picture of life in the infant church. Christians gathered for joyful times of prayer, instruction, and fellowship. Financial resources were pooled into a common fund. The apostles went about healing, with some dramatic results.

We admire this picture of early church life. Since then many Christians have aspired to recreate it. Back in the early 1970s, I once visited a charismatic Catholic community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was trying to replicate life in a Christian community modeled on the infant church of Acts. Among other things, when they corresponded with other like-minded communities, they modeled their letters on the style of Pauline epistles.

The shock of the Pastoral Epistles

With this Acts model of church life in our minds, it can feel like a real downer to read the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), as I have been doing recently. We don’t find here the kind of spiritual sky-diving we find in Acts.

We find instead churches that feel so commonplace. The author (whether Paul or one of his disciples) seems consumed not with spiritual fireworks, but with ordinary, day-to-day issues like:

  • praying for those in civic authority, even if they are pagans,
  • choosing right leaders for the congregation,
  • caring for the churches’ widows and dependents,
  • ensuring the teaching of correct doctrine,
  • avoiding the allure of money,
  • being diligent in the public reading of Scripture, teaching, and exhorting.
  • living a godly life.

At one point the author even advises Timothy to drink some wine rather than water. It seems that Timothy has a somewhat temperamental stomach. We don’t expect such a commonplace concern to be on the mind of an apostle.

As we read these letters, we can feel like we are in the world of our own churches. Life in a local congregation can often feel less than spiritually elevating. We live with the imperfect task of finding right pastoral leadership. Churches struggle with raising the funds that finance their operations. Disputes arise among church members. Sometimes they are so severe that a church splits. Members can burn out after too much volunteer service. And we can be very critical when sermons don’t rise to our high standards.

Maybe this is why many Protestant Biblical scholars have detected in the Pastoral Epistles the beginning stage of the catholicization of the church. In the Pastorals we seem to be on the road to church life governed by rules, policies, and regulations. All this will ultimately be codified in the massive corpus of canon law. Where has the spontaneity and spiritual vitality of Acts gone?

Taking a positive view on the Pastorals

I do not hold to such a negative view of the Pastorals. As many young people in the 1960s who flocked into hippie communes learned, it is not easy to maintain a community in perpetual, ungoverned spontaneity.

The demands of everyday life begin to intrude. People acting spontaneously find that their spontaneous actions start to come into conflict with the spontaneous actions of others in the community. If the wellbeing of the community as well as the sanity of individuals are to be preserved, some rules governing behavior must be adopted.

This is just as true of congregations as it was of the ‘60s communes. I think it was inevitable that the infant churches would come to need the Pastoral Epistles. They needed their emerging rules, structure, and regulations if the spiritual wellbeing of the community as well as of all its individual members was to be respected, honored, and nurtured. The sacredness of their ordinary life needed to be protected.

The best motivation for these rules was to nurture the kind of love and service to which Christ calls his church. Within the boundaries of those rules, policies, and regulations, the life of love might be given a chance to flourish.*

Learning to respect the goodness of rules

This was brought home to me a few years ago by an incident in the presbytery where I serve. I chaired a presbytery committee that had the task of nominating candidates for various offices in the presbytery’s structure. In one case we had two candidates for one office that we were considering. One was white; the other African American.

We decided to nominate the white man because we thought him the best qualified. The African American challenged our decision, wondering aloud if we had let racial bias affect our decision. I decided to have lunch with him and talk over his concern.

He asked if we had followed all our rules in making the decision. Why, I asked, was it so important to him that we follow the rules punctiliously? I will never forget his answer. He said, “For African Americans, abiding by the rules strictly is the only way we can assure there is a level playing field for us.”

His comment has forever changed how I look at the place of rules, policies, and regulations in the life of the communities in which I participate, including churches. At their best, they are needed to ensure that community life is fair and nurturing to all who form a part of it. They are the servants of Christ’s call to love one another. I now dodge the rules with a lot less alacrity.

When rules need to be broken

This is not to deny that many rules and regulations are not servants of love, but agents of oppression. Every community, including churches, can go overboard with structure and law to the point that we stifle the demands of love and compassion as well as the energies of spontaneity and initiative.

There is Biblical warrant for this viewpoint. The gospels tell the storyof a time when Jesus and his disciples are walking beside a wheat field on a Sabbath. Because they are hungry, some of the disciples pick and eat some of the ripe wheat grains.

The Pharisees charged Jesus and his disciples with breaking the rules for keeping the sabbath. Jesus responds to their criticism by saying,The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.(Mark 2:27) For Jesus, there are times when the rules can be and may need to be broken for the sake of love and compassion in meeting human needs.

This is why the life of faith is full of risk. It is sometimes not clear cut when we need to abide by the rules for the sake of love, respect, and compassion, when order takes precedence over violation, and when the demands of love call for breaking the rules, for violations of the law. For the breaking of the rules can have serious consequences for the rule-breaker regardless of his or her benevolent motives.

But it is certainly not wise or spiritually mature to simply regard rules, policies, and regulations as impediments as we live out our Christian calling to love and compassion. That I think is one of the contributions the Pastoral Epistles make to the New Testament’s picture of life in the church. Let us have ardor but let us also have order in a healthy balance.

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* In my opinion one of the best exemplars of this point is the Rule of St. Benedict, which has governed much of Western monastic life for 1,500. Benedict writes with the heart of a pastor caring lovingly for the wellbeing of the whole flock. We should not limit the wisdom of Benedict to just monastic communities. I recently attended a presbytery meeting where a candidate for ordination talked about how she drew inspiration and guidance from Benedict for her upcoming pastoral ministry.