Sinners, Saints, and Skeptics

The vision of Saint Junia UMC is to become a diverse community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who join God in the renewal of all things. Here are some reflections on the middle part of that statement.

Sinners

Few of us live up to our own ideals and expectations, much less the expectations of an all-powerful, all-good Supreme Being. It’s no wonder that so many people feel negatively about religion when their primary experience of it is disapproval. It’s also no wonder that so many of us claim that identity and wink about being bad boys and girls.

But Jesus reveals a different way of thinking about God. Jesus spent much more time with sinners than with religious leaders, and he was quick to remind religious experts that they were merely sinners, like everyone else. The fastest way to get on Jesus’ wrong side was to pretend to be something other than a sinner.

Saints

It has often been said that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. We are made into saints, holy people, not because of good things we’ve done, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus invites us to participate in God’s activity—this is what makes us “saints.”

John Wesley enjoyed talking about how God was at work “perfecting” us in love. Being a saint doesn’t mean being perfect—it means being aware that God is at work in us, making us into something new, “perfecting” us the way a master craftsman would create a beautiful work of art from imperfect material.

Skeptics

Some people have a hard time with the virgin birth, or with miracles and resurrection, or with the idea of life in eternity. Some people have questions about stories in the Bible, or about their own spiritual experience. Doubt is not a sin. What would be a mistake is to be skeptical without having the guts to try it out—to put Jesus’s own words to the test and see what happens when we pray, or give, or live the kind of God-inspired life he invites us to live, putting our trust in grace instead of violence, love instead of contempt, forgiveness instead of revenge.

Jesus’s invitation to us is to join God in what God is already doing: renewing all things. Whether we are sinners, saints, skeptics, or all three, the invitation stands: “Follow me.”

Reclaiming a Forgotten Saint

Paul, Andronicus, and Junia

Junia is a relatively new name to Christian scholarship. Her name appears in Romans 16:7 alongside several other women church leaders, but she is listed as an apostle, one of the original disciples of Jesus and an eyewitness to the resurrection. It shouldn’t be surprising, since the gospels are all pretty explicit that women played an important role in Jesus’ ministry and were the first ones to witness and proclaim the resurrection, but centuries of male prejudice led translators to assume that she was a man, “Junias,” a name so unusual that it doesn’t appear in any other manuscripts of the time (while “Junia” appears over 250 times).

The recent scholarship on Junia implies some interesting things about 1) the early church, 2) Christian history, and 3) how we read the Bible today, all of which have been important themes in my own ministry.

First, Biblical scholarship and the early church has been important for my own theology. In contrast to many Christians who believe the Bible must be consistent to be true, I revel in the fact that the Bible has many authors, many points of view, and many theological inconsistencies. Like the modern church, it was made up of liberals and conservatives, authoritarians and revolutionaries, mystics as well as logicians. When we read the Bible, we are thrown into a community of believers who do not always agree with each other, much less our own notions of who God is and what God is up to in the world. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the monarchy, two creation stories, and multiple letters. I think it’s pretty clear that the early church was an egalitarian community that believed Jesus had opened the Kingdom of God to all, and that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were all welcome at the table. But there were also early editors who were not comfortable with women in leadership, or (gasp!) uppity slaves.

Second, Christian history has likewise been a story of reformation and counter-reformation, of new movements of people reaching back to earlier traditions and reclaiming forgotten parts of the Bible. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, all created movements and changed their world because they reached back around their traditions to older Christian examples and the Bible itself. You can look at this as a big mess of conflicted history, or you can choose to see the power of the Holy Spirit leading people to deeper understanding of what Jesus’ Good News means to their generation or culture.

Lastly, when I preach, one of my main goals is to help people hear the Bible with fresh ears. Many of us—believers as well as skeptics—have been trained to miss important ideas in the Bible. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I learned that he had a sense of humor which sometimes tended toward the gutter. People have managed to argue about homosexuality and religious exclusivism without ever recognizing the early church’s belief that God shows no partiality. I don’t want to ever claim that my interpretations of scripture are the only right ones, but I do think I offer people fresh theological options for engaging the Bible and understanding their world in light of it.

So for me, Junia speaks to all of those things—she is a link to the early church, a correction for the abuses of Christian history, and an interpretive lens for how we do theology today. She stands for all the forgotten saints at the margins who we reclaim from the past, and she symbolizes hope for a more just future for those who follow Jesus.

As I’ve been toying with church names for a church plant in the Birmingham area, Junia has come to mind. There are plenty of Methodist and other churches named after male saints, and there are even a few named for Saint Mary or Saint Elizabeth. But there aren’t any named for Junia.

Just a thought.

The Geometry of Love

Dorotheus of Gaza

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. …Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. …Let us assume for the sake of the analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.

(Dorotheus of Gaza, from Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves, p. 25).