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.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Giver

John Zmirak thinks The Giver is the best pro-life film ever made. i would not go that far. In many ways I wish the movie was better. They have some action scenes that really don't create that much excitement. They have a romance that begs for a reunion scene that never comes. I can think of a few more holes but I don't want it to sound like it was a disaster. It is a movie that says something but it could have said it more powerfully.

The actors are top of the line. Jeff Bridges plays the title role and apparently has been trying to get this movie made for a while. Meryl Streep and Katie Homes both play minor roles. 
Spoilers follow

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dismissing Atheism Too Quickly

Chris Stefanick has an article about the emptiness of atheism.
One atheist I debated during a question and answer session after a talk I gave at MIT informed me that, “Life is very meaningful without God. It’s about wonder and discovery. And the fact that we get to experience it in this vast universe is a miracle.” (He retracted his use of the word “miracle” after I pointed out the irony.)
I agree with Chris, of course, and I generally like his stuff. Yet I thought he was a little quick to jump to some conclusions in this article. Atheists do have a problem with the emptiness people see in it. That is why you get statements like the one above. When Christians wax eloquent about the wonder and discovery of the spiritual life atheists will scoff. In fact, they take great delight in mocking such statements. So I find it ironic not just that he would use the word "miracle" but that he would go to any sort of touchy-feely argument at all. Atheists want to be the cold rationalists. Why is he departing from that script? Because he knows the accusation of nihilism is very damaging. 
If an atheist were to take his claim that there’s no God to its logical conclusion, he’d have to admit that human existence is meaningless. Something that’s unintended, or an “accident,” is always meaningless.
The trouble is this is false. An accident can be meaningful. Think of a football bouncing in a football game. It is a random event. Yet it has meaning. Why? Because the game has meaning and the accidental bounce impacts the game. So a random event is not automatically meaningless. An external context can give a chance event meaning.

So what about human existence? Could there be an external context that gives even accidental life meaning? There could. It does not have to be God either. You could imagine a world where God does not exists yet love and beauty and truth are real things that give context and meaning to human life. It would be meaning we just fluked into but now that we are here and have the chance to do something truly good or beautiful that could matter. 

Now this option has its problems for an atheist. Where did beauty and truth and goodness come from? Why do we seem ordered towards these things? Can their existence be proven scientifically? If not, then why is believing they exist less of a problem then believing God exists?

All these are good questions yet the possibility of a world with meaning and still no god is real and cannot be dismissed quickly. I think most atheists will want to believe in some of these things. For example, most believe knowledge is better than ignorance. The love science and will work very hard to learn everything about everything. Why? One can easily imagine that they might have more pleasure in life if they didn't bother. What if they knew that for sure? What if you were guaranteed that by remaining ignorant of science and history and whatever else you could have significantly more pleasure? Would it be worth it? 

I think this kind of reasoning can lead you to question your atheism. You are rejecting nihilism and really examining the other options. After examining them they either fall apart or they lead you to God. Either beauty means nothing or it means God is real. Yet that is not obvious. It requires a lot of reflection.

Stefanick does quote some materialist atheists. That is good. It shows he is not fighting a complete straw man. Yet examples of atheist materialists does not prove all atheists are materialists or materialism is the only form of atheism worth responding to. His conclusion:
How utterly empty it is to follow the premises of atheism to their logical conclusions. Thank God atheists are wrong. And because they're wrong, most people, even most atheists, would read Singer, Wald, Crick, and Russell and find their statements both repulsive and utterly inconsistent with their experience of reality. 
So what is consistent with the atheists’s experience of reality? In a word: God. If atheists experience love, joy, the attraction to goodness, and if they act altruistically, it’s not because of their philosophy that life is an accident and man is no more than a collection of molecules. It’s because they were created with a purpose, they have a soul that is drawn to goodness, they experience the inherent value of their fellow man, and ultimately, because they’re created in the image and likeness of God, just like you and me.
Again the logical jump won't be accepted and has not been really argued for. Either you are like Singer, Wald, Crick and Russell or you are being irrational to deny God. It is going to feel like a false choice to atheists. If you examine the alleged middle ground and try and show why it does not stand up to scrutiny then you have a chance. Just asserting it is not going to convince anyone except those already on your side.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rock And The Keys

This weeks gospel is at the root of much disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. It has been much debated yet not really. I have yet to see a protestant really engage some of the most powerful reasons why their interpretation is untenable and the Catholic interpretation is correct. Most protestants ignore it or parrot arguments that have long been discredited. It makes the argument so on-sided it gets boring after a while. 
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi andhe asked his disciples,“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply,“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply,“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter,and upon this rock I will build my church,and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciplesto tell no one that he was the Christ.  
It starts out with the most basic of theological questions: Who is Jesus? That question dominated so many church councils for centuries. Jesus does not tell us here how to answer that question. Rather He focused on who should answer that question. 

First Jesus asks what people are saying. What opinions of Jesus are out there? Everyone has a theory. Some make more sense than other. Yet they are all wrong. 

Then Jesus addresses the question to the disciples. Who do you say that I am? Peter is the only one who speaks. You are the Christ. The Son of the living God. He get is right. Yet how does he get it right? Jesus specifically said God gave Peter that knowledge supernaturally. Peter did not figure it out on his own or with the help of any other person. 

Why is that important? Jesus is teaching us how the new covenant is going to work. We can't trust what the crowds say but we can trust what Peter says. How do we know this? He says, "on this rock I will build my church." Note the future tense. He is not talking about the present question. He is talking about what will happen in the future. This is how the church is supposed to work.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

O Woman, Great Is You Faith

This weeks gospel is offensive. Jesus acts like a racist. What is going on?
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”He said in reply,“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply,“It is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scrapsthat fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply,“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
 Mat 15:21-28
Jesus is met by a woman who's daughter has a demon. You expect Jesus to just heal the daughter and move on. Yet He does not do that. First He does nothing. Then after the woman persists He points out that His mission is to the Jews and she is not a Jew. He even compares gentiles to dogs. 

So what happens? Does she get offended. If she does she does not show it. She accepts the analogy that she is a dog. Then she points out that even dogs get scraps from the table. 

That does it. Jesus totally changes his tone. He says her faith is great. He heals her daughter. Now He is being offensive to gentiles. Remember that Jesus has been commenting on how little faith people had. He did it last week after Peter walked on water and faltered. When dealing with Jews he never seems to have anything positive to say about their faith. Now this gentile gets such high praise? Matthew is writing to the Jews. They are going to notice this. 

Yet what is great about her faith? It is precisely her willingness to accept things from God that are offensive to her. She continued to pursue Jesus even when Jesus was less than responsive. She continued even when Jesus seemed to slap her in the face. She does not question the wisdom of God. She accepts her position and still begs for mercy. 

That is the key. She realizes that the offense Jesus might have given her does not change the fact that she is a sinner begging for mercy.  She does not have grounds to complain to God. God is still God. If something seems wrong to her then it must be her that is the problem and not God. Yet she does not give up either. She persists. She argues. She even grovels. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Peter Walks On Water

This weeks gospel is the famous story about Jesus and Peter walking on water. It starts with Jesus making the disciples get into the boat and leave without Him. Then He goes up into the hill by Himself to pray. Jesus sets it up. Then He prays until the 4th watch of the night. That is until 3 AM. He knows they are going to be in trouble. He prays for them. Yet He lets them experience the fear for a while. God does that. Even when He is going to save us He often does not do it right away. He wants us to face our fears. He wants us to make those desperate prayers. 

Eventually Jesus goes down to the Sea of Galilee and starts walking on the water. Now the disciples are afraid again. Not sure if they thought this was part of a death experience. If you are about to drown then why is a ghost scary? Anyway, Jesus calms them down and assures them it is just Him. 

Then something truly amazing happens. Peter asks Jesus to call him onto the water. Peter is a fisherman. He lived on that seas and had likely known people who died on that sea. He had been in danger of drowning that night. Yet he want to step out onto the stormy water. Why? Jesus is there. If it is really you then ask me to come. It can be a life transforming request. I remember praying this when investigating the charismatic movement. I remember praying it when investigating the Catholic church. If this is you Jesus then call me. 

There were 12 disciples. Only one asked to be called. Only one was called. The other often followed Peter after he had spoken. He was their leader. This time he is leading nobody. He is alone. Yet he walks on water. Somehow Peter does what only Jesus can do. By desiring to go to Jesus, in a way, He becomes Jesus. 

Then fear enters in. Peter starts to realize he can't do what he is doing. When he saw the wind he was afraid. Of course you can't see wind. Still he is no longer looking at Jesus and he begins to sink. People give Peter a hard time here. The truth is that anytime we try and do anything for the kingdom of God we are going to fail. It is not a matter of if but of when. We will get into a crisis. We will lose out faith. We will start to sink. We can say it won't happen to us but it will.

What happens next is most encouraging. Peter calls out to Jesus. Jesus immediately reaches out and grabs him. No letting him wait it out this time. Peter ends up where he wanted to be, with Jesus on the water. Isn't life often that way? Our worst fear happens and instead of disaster we end up closer to God then we ever were. We were not really afraid of falling. We were afraid of falling and not being caught by Jesus. That somehow Jesus would abandon us because we fell. That simple cannot happen. Not because our falls are not that bad. It is because Jesus is that good. 

Then Jesus asks the question He asks us all. O man of little faith, why did you doubt? He talks often about our faith being little. He does not address it personally to Peter but to anyone who happens to have little faith and has struggled with doubt. Why do we doubt? We don't believe it is really real. We doubt whether God is real. We doubt the church. We doubt His love for us. All the things we say we believe. When it really matters we can doubt them. 

Then Jesus simply gets into the boat and turns off the storm. Just to confirm for them that He was only using the storm to freak them out. They get it. They respond with worship. Worship is due God alone. Jews know that better than anyone. These Jews know that God just got in their boat.