When I look at this, I feel good about what I’m writing and preaching.
When I look at this, I feel good about what I’m writing and preaching.
There are a lot of different ways we can talk about how one follows the Way of Jesus, but my favorite is this one.
Jesus says that there are two Great Commandments: Love God, and love our neighbors. But we love not only as individuals (showing devotion and serving others), but also as a church as a whole (worshiping in a community and doing justice in society).
So, small groups have often talked about making a covenant to pursue these four areas, often called “works of piety” and “works of mercy,” loving God and loving neighbors.
But there is a fifth area that often gets neglected among mainline Protestant churches: witness. Evangelism, which literally means “spreading the Good News,” touches all four of those areas.
The word “witness” means both observing and telling. In worship, we both observe what God is doing among us and tell about it. In devotion, we draw our attention to what God is teaching us and how God is growing us; we look for answers to prayer. In service and justice, we both tell the story of God’s liberating love and live it out by helping others. All of that stuff is “witness.” Adding this fifth area reminds us of the importance of learning to talk about the grace we see active in our lives and the world around us. We are not just telling the Good News—we’re being the Good News.
Adding “witness” also reminds us that both observing and telling are part of what we do as followers of the Way of Jesus. We name grace when we see it. We connect current events and our modern life stories to the stories of the Bible and our faith history. Witness is how we live our public and private life, the way we embody the gospel and speak it with our mouths. Witness is our existential relationship, our “way of being in the world.”
This is also why followers of Jesus need a church. Witness is part of how you live an authentic life in community. Most of us tend to favor one expression of faith: I can go off on a mountain and pray and feel spiritual in nature (devotion). I can serve others and feel good about the good work I’m doing (compassion). I can be an advocate or activist and hold right opinions (justice). I can raise my hands in worship and try to glide through life on a spiritual high (worship). I can even tell others about Jesus without knowing intimately what that grace looks like in my own life. Any of these areas isolated from the others can become toxic. But a church helps us balance them and bring them into focus. Witnessing means all of us, together, making worship, devotion, compassion, and justice an integral part of our identity.
There’s an odd verse in the resurrection story in John. After Mary Mags comes running back to the disciples with news that the corpse of Jesus is missing, Peter and the B.D. (Beloved Disciple) sprint to the tomb. They both look at the grave clothes lying there.
Here’s the verse that’s crazy: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:8-9)
Now, if you’re religious, and you’ve heard this story before, you probably didn’t notice anything unusual in the sentence. But here’s the crazy thing:
What did the other disciple, the B.D., actually believe?
Most people respond, “the resurrection,” but nobody has told them that Jesus has been raised. The author tells us in the very next sentence they didn’t understand the scriptures or that Jesus must be raised. There is no content, no X that the B.D. can believe in. All they know is that someone has taken the body. There is no gospel, no angelic announcement, no one telling them that Jesus is alive. But the B.D. believes.
We so often assume that “believing” means “agreeing that such-and-such must be true,” but what we get here is something that precedes even knowing what it is you’re supposed to believe. The B.D. just looks at some folded laundry and believes. Something in him clicks, and he can’t even put his finger on what it is yet.
We use “believe” in this way when we talk about believing in yourself, believing in someone else, believing in a vision. Faith. “Believe” in this context doesn’t mean accepting a statement as a fact—it means this desperate, hopeful something at the core of our existence.
We do not yet know where God is taking us, but we are embarked on the journey, following where God leads.The invitation to believe is not about blind faith, but about trusting the one who leads us.
Most modern Christians do not get their norms for ethics from the Bible, and this is a good thing.
For example, as many critics of Christianity point out, nowhere do biblical authors explicitly condemn slavery. There is, of course, the whole Exodus story, and we can read it and retell it in such a way that we hear God’s sympathy with oppressed people. We can say that even ancient authors looked forward to a day of equality and freedom, when “everyone will sit under the shade of their own fig tree.” But Christian slaveowners pointed out that some scriptures told slaves to be obedient to their masters. To be obedient to God, they argued, you were supposed to accept the status quo.
The same is true for sexual ethics. Even though I really like Margaret Farley’s 7 norms for Christian sexual ethics (which are necessary for “minimal” justice), I have to admit that they are not found in the Bible: doing no harm, mutuality, commitment, none are explicitly named. Even consent is questionable. The social rules governing sexual behavior in the Hebrew Bible are all geared toward fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham: produce lots of descendents and possess the land. Even if you take “love your neighbor as yourself” as an important principle, it’s not specific enough to tell you what kind of behaviors are good or bad. (Even hate groups claim that they are motivated by love).
While the scriptures may contain all things necessary for salvation, they do not always spell out explicitly what “things” we are supposed to learn or how to apply those things to our lives. One of my favorite stories from Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) points out the hypocrisy of our sexual double standards, and highlights all kinds of issues that make for really good discussion of sexual ethics. But it doesn’t say, “go and do likewise.” I believe this is why we may use the Bible as a starting point for discussions of Christian ethics, but we can only find the end in the person of Jesus Christ.
This is also why when it comes to women’s rights, or children’s rights, or economic justice, or LGBTQ rights, or church management and polity, or payday loan sharks, or immigration reform, I have little patience for my clergy colleagues who either a) dismiss these things as divisive “issues” that are somehow less important than “preaching the gospel,” or b) say “the Bible clearly says,” as if they aren’t already engaged in the act of interpretation, reading things into the text that aren’t there. Again, it’s not bad to read things into the text—it’s just important to know what those things are.
When Christians deny the possibility of marital rape, or speculate that slavery wasn’t so bad, really, they are not violating norms of biblical ethics. They are living out exactly what they’ve been taught by pastors and Sunday school curricula throughout Christendom: the Bible is all they need. We mainline clergy enable this kind of thinking unless we are clearer about our sources for Christian ethics.
For Christian ethics, what the Bible doesn’t say is as important as what it does. This is why when people say, “Just stick to the scriptures,” I cringe inside. They either do not know the scriptures as well as they think they do, or they are operating on a false premise that all of our Christian ethics come from the Bible. The Bible gives us a form and a model for doing theology and ethics, but it does not do the work of theology and ethics for us.
I always find the movie versions of Bible stories fascinating, because everything—everything—depends on the interpretation. I like to ask people, “If you were the director, how would YOU tell this story?” Who would you cast in what roles? Does the race or ethnicity of the people you cast matter? Where do you set the story? In the story of Noah, which has virtually no dialogue, what words do you put into people’s mouths? Why? Every camera angle, every CGI bird or snake, every line of dialogue, every music choice for the soundtrack are interpretations of this ancient story.
I find the trailer for Noah fascinating because there is no mention of Noah’s neighbors at all in the text. (You can read the story here.) I grew up hearing the popular version of the story: Noah must have had tremendous faith, because he obeyed God. His neighbors laughed at him, because who builds a boat in the middle of a desert? Boy, I bet they were sorry when the rain started falling!
Yet there is no mention of Noah’s location. He could be on an island, for all we know. The story probably originated in a place we call the Fertile Crescent, so it’s unlikely the author is thinking of a desert. There is no mention of neighbors. Perhaps no one lives nearby. So why a desert? And why do we feel it necessary to add skeptical neighbors? Is it because many of us who have never been to the middle east imagine that it’s all desert, and that we imagine people walked around in it wearing bathrobes and head scarves? Is it because as religious people, we find it galling to have skeptics point out our irrational faith, so we have to make them the bad guys? I find it fascinating that this version of the story still holds such sway over people’s imaginations. We just assume this is part of the story, like we assume that Jesus had long hair and a beard. We no longer even recognize these as interpretive choices that we make about the text. For us, they are part of the story.
Several non-religious folks I know wonder, “What does it matter? It’s a made-up story anyway.” But regardless of whether you are a true believer or not, the way we tell stories matters. Does it matter that Noah’s neighbors, never mentioned in the text, are portrayed in the popular telling as skeptics who laugh at his faith? Yes. Does it matter how “the wickedness of humankind” which God seeks to destroy is portrayed? Yes.
And if it matters to non-religious folks how the story is told, how much more should it matter to believers! This is why we need to study rhetoric, and film, and theories of interpretation (hermeneutics). As believers, if we don’t study the stories critically, we just embed our own prejudices in them and pass them along to the next generation. As skeptics, if we just exchange old myths for new ones, we do the same.
The author(s) of this story had an agenda. In order to faithfully read the Bible, interpret it, and apply it to our lives, we need to figure out that agenda and what it means for us today.
Which is why you need to come to worship at Saint Junia on Sunday
I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.
I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.
……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?
One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.
Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?
In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.
I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.