Sunday, September 21, 2014

Do Nothing Out of Selfishness

I would like to focus on the second reading for this Sunday's mass. This is a famous passage from Philippians 2:
Brothers and sisters:If there is any encouragement in Christ,any solace in love,any participation in the Spirit,any compassion and mercy,complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,united in heart, thinking one thing.Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,each looking out not for his own interests,but also for those of others.
Have in you the same attitudethat is also in Christ Jesus,Who, though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with Godsomething to be grasped.Rather, he emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,coming in human likeness;and found human in appearance,he humbled himself,becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.Because of this, God greatly exalted himand bestowed on him the namewhich is above every name,that at the name of Jesusevery knee should bend,of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess thatJesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.
Paul talks about the first response to Christ's love and mercy is unity. Even if you have a little encouragement in Christ is a little participation in the Spirit. If you have experienced Jesus in any meaningful way then your desire should be to connect with others who have done so. That is a very human thing. If we like a football team we want to talk with other who like the same team. People who read books often join a book club so they can talk about the books they like. People who experience God should be like that to.

We often don't get that in a typical parish. We should be talking about our experience of God. What happens? Often we go to mass and ignore each other. When we do talk we often talk about the weather or politics or anything other than faith. Our experience of Jesus is supposed to be what unites us and binds us as a community. Why are we afraid to talk about it?

The second key to unity is humility. Once you have something that brings you together then you want to avoid the things that pull you apart. Most of them are rooted in pride. We are all different. That is a great thing. Yet if we are all trying show we are a bit bit better than the next man then we are going to be in trouble. So Paul says go the other way. Humbly regard others as more important than yourself. So simply yet so hard to do. 

Then Paul looks at the humility of Jesus.  It is interesting that when Paul talks about Jesus' humility what results is one of the strongest statements of the glory of Christ. Jesus' willingness to humble Himself and even die does not make people think less of Him. Quite the opposite. His humility causes Him to be lifted up and glorified even more than before.

That is often the case. People who blow their own horn tend not to be the ones who are highly thought of. People who quietly make sacrifices do get noticed. Yet that should not be the reason we do it. That would just be an indirect way of blowing our own horn. We can go there so easily. You do something and nobody seems to notice so you just mention it once or twice. Find somebody else who is laboring behind the scenes and mention them once or twice. That builds up the parish community. 

An interesting side note is that this passage is one of the earliest and strongest displays of a high Christology in the early church. Not necessarily saying Jesus is God but talking about Jesus in a way that nobody talked about mere human beings. Philippians was likely written in the 50's ( not the 1950's, the 50's). So we are talking about 20-25 years after the crucifixion.

It is important because many modern scholars say the early church made up the story of the resurrection. Yet if you have a crucifixion and no resurrection then how do you get Jesus being talked about in such a glorified way? What makes it more difficult to explain is that Paul seems to be quoting an early hymn. That means it is not a new teaching. 

So when did this idea develop? Every knee bending before Jesus and every tongue confessing Him as Lord. Secular people need Jesus to be someone who taught some interesting stuff and was crucified and that is it. No resurrection, no miracles and no divinity claims. So how does anyone get from a nice teacher who was unjustly killed to such and exalted status in the space of a few decades? This is a question Pope Benedict raised in his first Jesus of Nazareth book. If you dismiss the supernatural from the Jesus story then there is no reason this should happen. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

God And Fair Wages

Jesus told his disciples this parable:“The kingdom of heaven is like a landownerwho went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o’clock,the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard,and I will give you what is just.’So they went off. And he went out again around noon,and around three o’clock, and did likewise. Going out about five o’clock,the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay,beginning with the last and ending with the first.’When those who had started about five o’clock came,each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,but each of them also got the usual wage. And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,‘These last ones worked only one hour,and you have made them equal to us,who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’He said to one of them in reply,‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This week's reading is a rather strange parable. Jesus is trying to tell us that normal rules of work and reward don't really apply in the Kingdom of God. We all receive the reward of heaven. Is that fair? No. It is far better than we deserve. We need to focus on that. What we should not focus on is what other people get. They will seem to get a better deal than you. So what? 

Now some commentators point out that those who didn't get work until later in the day would have been under a lot of stress. People lived on what they made. If they didn't get a days pay they would not be able to buy a day's food. Many would have expected their families to go hungry right up until the time they opened their pay packet. 

That correlates well with many of our little jealousies. We assume those who have lived outside the rules of Christian morality have had it easy. That they must have a better life than we have obeying the church and serving the church. Quite the opposite. They can pursue pleasure but without purpose. Does that lead to true joy? No. We can serve God and help God change this world for the better. That is deeply satisfying even if we give up a lot. Sometimes precisely because we gave up a lot. 

Yet despite the connection it does not seem Jesus really makes this point. Jesus is more emphasizing that God gives generously and you should never complain when God is generous with someone else. He rewards one person's efforts with great results and the next person who seems to try even harder end up frustrated. This is going to happen. 

The trouble is we don't grasp the difference between living by grace and living by works. We still think that our success is going to be tied to our effort. We know we get more than we deserve yet we think comparisons should still hold. That God will somehow bless us more if we do more. That is not the way it works. We don't serve God more because God will make it worth our while. We serve God with everything we have because God has already blessed us beyond all measure. If God raises someone else up then we thank Him for that rather than being envious. 

We are always going to be hugely in God's debt. No work we could ever do can change that. Yet we just can't give it up. We can't stop imagining that we are earning God's favor. We can't stop looking at other people and comparing. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Fighting Evil vs Living Love

Thinking a bit about the difference between fighting evil and doing good. Doing good is the goal. We need to live a life of love and help others to do so as well. Fighting evil is a means toward that end. Sometime we can get focused on the fight and lose track of the reason for the fight. It is like a political revolution that has a good and just cause but morphs into a terrorist group anyway. The fight becomes what defines them rather than what they are fighting for. 

Christians can live like that. We become so focused on fighting evil in our personal life and/or fighting evil in society that we can forget what is supposed to define us. We can like the fight. We can obey the rules and feel pretty good about it. We can argue about politics or about morality and get wrapped up in that. These are good things to do but there should not be what defines us. 

John 13:34-35 says:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
How are Christians defined in today's society? By going to church. When people talk about Christians they typically use that as a definition. If you go to church at least once a month you are considered Christian. Again, it is a good thing to do. Christians should go to church. Yet that is not what we are supposed to be known for. 

This kind of talk is often used by liberal Christians to argue that we should not talk about social issues and instead just affirm people and maybe help the poor. The trouble is that would not lead anyone to think you are a Christian. Lots of secular people are very affirming and have compassion for the poor. Some atheists argue that you can do this better if you don't connect yourself with any religious teachings. So this can't be the love that will let people know you are a disciple of Jesus. There must be something more.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Not Enough Suffering

This Sunday is the feast of the exultation of the cross. The first reading is a rather interesting story from Numbers 21 that Jesus actually references just prior to him saying those famous words that are recorded in John 3:16
With their patience worn out by the journey,the people complained against God and Moses,“Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert,where there is no food or water?We are disgusted with this wretched food!”
In punishment the LORD sent among the people saraph serpents,which bit the people so that many of them died.Then the people came to Moses and said,“We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you.Pray the LORD to take the serpents from us.”So Moses prayed for the people, and the LORD said to Moses,“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole,and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
What happens is quite interesting. The people are in the dessert. They are hungry and thirsty. They are complaining. What does God do? He makes their suffering worse. He sends snakes that bite the people and many die. 

It seems strange yet when I think about it it rings true with me. Little sufferings can damage my spiritual life. I can complain. I can get impatient. I can lose my joy. I can really start to resent God. Big sufferings have a different effect. I tend to cry to God in my pain and embrace Him. I find peace in prayer. It ends up making me spiritually stronger.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Scholars And The Historical Jesus

I watched this video on the historical Jesus at the suggestion of an atheist commenter on Strange Notions. It is very good.  He explains well how scholars think when they approach the question of what in the gospels is historical. He says they use the same method with other historical writing. He is sort of right. I think the basic method is the same but the level it is being used at is different.

The Method

The two main methods he lists are:
  1.  Multiple Attestation. This just means other sources give the same information and there is reason to believe they were not all copied from the same source. Essentially it lines up with other documents we trust. 
  2. Dissimilarity. This asks whether the document is agenda driven. Will the author accurately relate facts that don't fit his agenda? Often historical documents sing the praises of a political or military leader and overstate his greatness. Claiming his good deeds were better than they actually were and ignoring or even denying his less noble deeds. Documents like that have little historical value. What historians look for is authors who are honest about the facts. If the author was not honest would this be the sort of fiction he would write?
He gives the example of Socrates. We don't have any direct evidence he existed. We know what we know about him because his followers wrote about him. The most famous of those followers is Plato. Plato is an author they trust. What he says often lines up with other sources when it can be checked. You don't expect 100% agreement but large agreement. Then you look at how Plato handles things about Socrates he does not agree with. Does he play it straight or does he sugar coat things?

These same tests are applied to the New Testament but it seems they are applied at a much lower level. He gives the example of the sign above Jesus when He was crucified. It said "King of the Jews." He sees multiple attestations because John mentions it as well as the synoptic gospels. He sees dissimilarity because King of the Jews was not a title Christians typically applied to Jesus. So it passes his tests.

The Problem 

Plato and Socrates
The interesting thing he does not comment on is the smallness of the detail. This is one verse. When analyzing Plato they decide on a much higher level whether to trust him. They apply the same tests but to a much larger block of writing. Not every single line of Plato's writing has multiple attestations. Not every single line contains dissimilarity. The ones that do lend credibility to the ones that don't. If Plato is honest and accurate then we tend to trust him even when he is the only source of some information. Why can't we do that for John?

The effect that this method has on historians is that they can't conclude anything about the New Testament that is favorable to Christianity. One of their tests is dissimilarity. When applied at a very detailed level we can see that if the fact under consideration is not in contradiction with Christian tradition in some way it will fail this test. So their method boils down to accepting as fact anything that is embarrassing or hard to explain for Christians and rejecting as fiction anything that affirms or supports Christianity.

So when someone says, "No serious historian believes this actually happened" you need to understand that they can't believe it. It is a meaningless statement. Their method does not allow them to believe anything that puts Christianity in a good light. So their conclusion is predetermined. They are begging the question.

The method of dissimilarity is a good one when used properly. Christians use it. They point out that the gospel authors included facts about Jesus that don't seem to fit their story. There are many hard sayings of Jesus that the gospel writers could have left out. The only reason to include them is because He actually said it. Yet they go beyond that and argue that if the gospel writers can be trusted on the hard sayings they can be trusted on everything. If you don't take this step then dissimilarity can only arrive at a negative answer.

Trusting The Gospels As A Whole

One response I expect scholars would make is that the gospels can't be trusted as a whole. They disagree with each other. He give a couple of examples of this disagreement in the video. He talks about the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and he talks about the trial of Jesus in Mark and John. In both cases he does not really demonstrate a contradiction. What he shows is that one account includes many details that another account does not.  That is not the same thing. Different gospels include or exclude different details for many reasons. One writer might have access to information another did not.

He dismisses attempts to harmonize the infancy narratives but it is just not that hard. It could be that Matthew went to Bethlehem to get information about the birth of Jesus. Luke interviewed Mary and went to the home town of Elizabeth and Zachariah. Joseph was obviously from Bethlehem because he was sent back there to be counted. Luke tells us Mary was from Nazareth. Joseph was there to and might have had plans to stay if it was not for the census. People tend to remember why someone left their town but not so much why they came back. That is natural. Of course they came back, we are such nice folks who would not come back here!

It all reads quite naturally. Bethlehem remembers the angel visitation of Joseph because he lived there. They obviously remembered the killing of the children and the arrival of the Magi. Mary remembered her angel visitation and the birth of John the Baptist. She would remember the shepherds and the presentation at the temple. It is hard to see any great contradictions.

The trial of Jesus is even easier. He asks how anyone would know what was said. John wrote later. More data might have been available later. It is interesting that he does not think of the most obvious eye witness. That is Jesus Himself. If He did rise from the dead He could have told John the story. That possibility seems so far removed from his mind that it is not even brought up to be dismissed. The presupposition that the gospels are false is just so deeply ingrained in his subconscious that his mind cannot go there.

The Real Problem

It is interesting in that bringing up a couple of the allegedly most obvious contradictions he fails to show an actual contradiction. Is this really the reason he can't take the gospels seriously? I doubt it. The elephant in the room is the supernatural. Is it really that implausible that one writer misses a few details the other includes? If there were no supernatural claims in the gospels then there would be a lot less skepticism. There is a lot for a historian to like. Lots of names of people and places. Documents that were highly respected by the Christian community very early.

The miracle stories are the real show-stopper. If you don't want to accept that they might be true then you have to twist your whole analysis around to explain how they got in there. There is not just one or two. There are many. Including the climax of the gospels, the resurrection. How did they get there? How did the gospels get so widely accepted by early Christians if they contained so many false stories? We have writings from these church leaders vigorously fighting heresies like Gnosticism. Yet they accepted such a wide collection of incredible stories without controversy? Not just one Christian community but many in different parts of the empire. They could fight about what was the right day to celebrate Easter yet they were fed one bogus miracle story after another and nobody said a word.

The point is the historical analysis gets radically off track if you exclude the supernatural based on your own personal philosophy. That is what modern scholarship does. They immediately assume none of the source documents are even close to trustworthy. They all contain miracles. Yet you want to say something. So you trust one verse and ignore the next one.

The honest historians will say they have no idea about Jesus. They have no idea how the New Testament came to be written. They have no idea where the early church got its faith from. There simply is no natural explanation that makes sense and we are unwilling to consider supernatural explanations. That would be honest. They don't want to go there. So they chop up the documents and say we can believe a verse here or there.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Jesus Meant By Church

There are only 2 mentions of the word "church" in the gospels. One was in the gospel a couple of weeks ago. Matthew 16:18 and "On this rock I will build my church." That is a passage that quite frequently plays a big role in protestants becoming Catholic. It played a role for me to. Yet the other mention of "church" in the gospels that we get this week was huge for me to. That is less common. Here is the passage from Matthew 18:15-20:
Jesus said to his disciples:“If your brother sins against you,go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.If he does not listen,take one or two others along with you,so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.Amen, I say to you,whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.Again, amen, I say to you,if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray,it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,there am I in the midst of them.”
Here the church is presented as the final court of appeal when Christians disagree. From a protestant point of view there are two troubling questions here. First, what church is Jesus taking about? Typically biblical references to "the church" are interpreted by protestants to refer to the invisible church. That is just the set of all saved people regardless of what church they belong to. We don't know who exactly is saved but God uses those regenerate souls to bring about His Kingdom. Yet how can someone take a controversy to an unknown set of persons and get an answer? That made no sense. 

If the person you had your disagreement with was part of the same denomination as you then you might be able to go to the visible church organization and get an answer. Yet that was not that likely. I was part of a lot of ecumenical groups and I knew my denomination was a pretty small subset of the body of Christ. Most Christian I encountered were not part of it. Yet Jesus just assumed we could take our dispute to the church and that would make sense. It felt like Jesus had a very different concept of church than I did.

The second question was, what if the church gets it wrong? Jesus did not seem to have that case covered. He should say, "If the church gets the wrong answer then start a new church." He does not say that. He assumes you will listen to the church. If the other guy does not listen then treat him like he is excommunicated. That is serious. Jesus expects His followers to listen to the church. He just assumes the church is going to get the right answer and it is simply a matter of obedience. The more I thought about it the more it sounded like the Catholic notion of infallibility. 

The obvious objection is that doctrinal questions are not really in view here. When Jesus says, "If your brother sins against you..." that makes it sound like a personal or political battle. Maybe a moral question. Probably not a matter of doctrine. Yet are matters of doctrine excluded from this? Not really. At the time my church was dealing with women's ordination. The sentimental argument was made a lot. I feel hurt because you oppose female pastors. . 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Self Sacrifice

This week Jesus talks about the cross. Peter, who was the hero the last few weeks, gets to be the goat this week. He says No. No way should Jesus have to die on a cross. In a way he is right. Jesus does not deserve it. Yet Jesus responds very harshly. He calls Peter Satan. Then he says something almost the opposite of what he said last week. Last week he said, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven." This week He says, "You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do." 

So Peter has moved from a reliable teacher of God's word to a mere human who is capable of making some very serious errors. The church has always dealt with this. She is protected from teaching error, especially error about the central question of, "Who is Jesus?" Yet she has also had many failed leaders, especially leaders who ran away from the cross and used human wisdom rather than God's thinking. We should follow the pope's teaching on faith and morals but we should not blindly follow everything they say or do. They are still human. 

The second reading is helpful here. St Paul talks about us offering our bodies as living sacrifices very much the way Jesus offered His body. Why? The choice is between being conformed to the pattern of world or being transformed by grace. 

What is the pattern of the world? Making deals. I will give you something if you give me something. What is the goal? At a minimum it is to save your skin. You want to prosper but the first order of business is to survive. The only question is how to accomplish that and what else can I get extra? That is the way humans think.

Jesus thinks different. He does not try and save Himself. He sees death coming and walks right into it. Why? Is He suicidal? No. Suicidal people don't value their life. Jesus values His life. He just recognizes that giving up your life is the ultimate act of love. He sees that is what is needed. Mankind in the ultimate place of debt needs the ultimate act of love to open the door and show him the way. Jesus is determined to provide that for Peter and for all of us no matter what he says.

We have the same challenge as Peter. When Romans 12 challenges us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices we have the same reaction. Certainly not! That cross is just as hard as it has always been. Yet what do we get as a result? That we may be able to know the will of God.  What is good and pleasing and perfect. That is huge. Instead of being stuck in human thinking we get to know the mind of God. Our minds will be transformed and renewed so we can see what will lead us to be truly good and truly happy. 

God wants to do it. All He needs is our permission. That is what offering our bodies in worship amounts to. Do with me what you want without any limits. Yet we do it as worship. Not just to get something better although that will happen. We do it because God deserves everything we have and everything we are and everything we might become and more. 

Jesus talks about us losing our lives for His sake.  Again the benefit to us is mentioned but the primary motivation is the glory of God. The idea that there is nothing better to do with our lives regardless. Yet the fact that we are going to lose our lives anyway makes it a foolish offer to refuse. We give up what we cannot keep to get what we cannot lose. Yet the choice to give it must be made.