Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Can We Trust The Gospels?

I have argued quite often that we can trust the gospels. I was convinced by the notion of apostolic succession. The notion that even in the early church the handing down of the faith from one generation of leaders to another was taken very seriously. That young potential bishops would spend a lot of time with older bishops and learn every aspect of the faith. A life to life passing on very much like what Jesus did with the disciples over 3 years. 

Now I have always known that many scholars have come to a different conclusion. I hate disagreeing with scholars. It feels to much like believing in a conspiracy theory. Yet two things made it less disagreeable. First of all, they all shared a strong aversion to the supernatural. That is an assumption they all get from modern culture. So they are not really independently arriving at wrong conclusions. They all get their bad starting point from the same place and all make the same mistakes and all affirm each other in their flawed way of thinking. 

Secondly, I found the theory they came out with to be quite unimpressive. They rejected traditional Christian teaching for sure but they didn't come up with any plausible way the story could have been created and become accepted by the church. This is especially true because the church did believe in apostolic succession and was geographically spread out. Both these features would cause any big changes to be noticed and talked about as they grew to become accepted. We don't see any of that.

Now I have read Brant Pitre's book The Case For Jesus. It is odd because it is almost too good. My biggest problem is discussing this with sceptics is getting people to accept that the scholars might be quite far wrong. Yet Dr. Pitre actually convinces me that the scholars have been much less worthy of respect then I have said. I had assumed that there was at least some evidence for many of the assertions they have been making. That the ideas they arrive at and defend make sense from a scholarly perspective given the philosophical assumptions they make. The trouble is that is not true. 

For example, the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John almost certainly didn't write the gospels and their names were added later to what might have been put together at some other time by someone else. Now you hear this so much that you think there must be some evidence for it. That some early manuscripts must be missing the name of the author. That maybe one or two early church fathers might have suggested they were written at least in part by someone else. Something that could launch them into this great speculation about anonymous authors. 

Dr Pitre makes very clear that nothing of the sort exists. Every early manuscript clearly identifies the traditional author. None of them are nameless. None of them name anyone else. Moreover, the people who talk about the gospels, both Christians and opponents of Christianity never suggest the gospels were late additions or forgeries. They do say that about some gospels but those are the gospels the church rejected. So they dared to question allegedly apostolic writings like gospels attributed to Peter, Thomas and Judas. Yet they didn't question Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Go figure.
The trouble is these scholars have prestigious positions at ivy league schools and many of them claim to be Christian. How can you convince people they have gotten it so wrong? That they did not just added two and two and got 437 but actually added zero and zero. That is they didn't just overstate their case but they actually have no case. Not one data point pointing the the theory that they keep asserting is obviously true. How can anyone talk about such a fiasco without having people baulk and assume they must be the one off base?

Dr Pitre just calmly presents the evidence and lets people arrive at their own conclusions. By the time he quotes Bart Ehrman for the tenth time you wonder why he is still taking him seriously because he has been so far off base each time. Still he is very charitable and never questions motives or competence. 

Yet he is dealing with people who are interested enough in what he has to say to read a whole book. It is still quite a challenge to get people to even open their mind to the possibility. Thinking about many of the people I have discussed this with the stronger case becomes a harder sell because you need to believe something worse about guys like Ehrman.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Barabbas and the Thieves

Today we get the long gospel. Passion Sunday is when the church has us read the story of the triumphal entry before mass and then the 2 long chapters of the crucifixion account as the gospel. It makes it very hard to reflect on anything. You get information overload. Reflection is much easier with small sections of scripture.  

Still 3 characters stood out to me in today's reading. The character of Barabbas along with the 2 thieves that are crucified with Jesus. All 3 deserve to be crucified. OK, nobody really deserves crucified. It is an inhumane way to execute someone. Inhumane groups like ISIS still do it but no modern nation has death penalties close to this cruel. Still these 3 people committed crimes which they knew carried the penalty of crucifixion so in that sense the deserved to be crucified. 

Barabbas gets a reprieve from his death sentence. Jesus suffers the penalty that should have been his. In some way we are all Barabbas. In fact, his name means son of the father. Bar is son and abba is father. We are all sons of our father so we are all Barabbas. OK, some of us are daughters of the father but the point is the name really includes us all. We all deserved the punishment Jesus got. 

The 2 thieves don't get a reprieve. They suffer and they die along with Jesus. One repents in the midst of His suffering and has the famous dialogue with Jesus in Luke 23:42,43:
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
As comforting as these words are emotionally and spiritually they don't relieve his physical pain and eventual death.  He profits from his suffering but he still suffers. The other thief profits nothing from his suffering. There is no indication of repentance from him. He does ask Jesus for help but in a mocking and faithless way.

It occurs to me that these are 3 ways we encounter suffering. We can be spared suffering by God. We can actually suffer and have that suffering lead to repentance and bring us closer to God. Or we can actually suffer and mock God for letting us suffer. 

With Barabbas, we are not told what happens to him. He goes free and Jesus dies in his place. Then what? We don't know. Yet that makes all the difference. Barabbas has a chance to change his life. Yet there is also a chance he doesn't. He might not even realize that it was God granting him this grace. Often it goes that way with me. I see God's hand in sparing me from suffering only much later. In the moment you just feel like you caught a break. You don't see it as a moment of grace that calls for a change in behaviour. 

People wonder why God allows suffering. The truth is that God rescuing us from our suffering rarely brings us closer to Him. It is when He walks with us through our suffering that we really embrace Him or we rebel against Him. Jesus literally walked with these two thieves in their suffering. He is every bit as close to us when we suffer. He is every bit as willing to open the doors of paradise for us. 

Then there is the last thief. He know who Jesus is and you would think at this point he has nothing to lose by asking for salvation. Yet he does not. Pain can do that. We can get angry at God and not be in any space for conversion. One of the many reasons not to leave conversion until your deathbed. We really need to know what we believe before we face death and then we can meet our moment. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Church and Hockey

Think of a hockey game. If you are one of those not bless to live in Canada think of basketball or soccer. You have a few players in the centre who could really use a break. Then you have the many in the stands who could really use some exercise. Pastors often use this analogy to complain about what is happening in their church. There are a few volunteers that are doing so much they worry about burnout. Then there is the majority who are doing very little and nobody can figure out how to motivate them. The many who could use some spiritual exercise are often watching the few who could really use a break.

I was thinking this analogy could be stretched a bit further. Why don't sports teams get somebody else to play who is less tired? Sure they are not going to invite the middle-aged, out-of-shape fan to come play but all sports teams have players who don't play much. Why don't they play? They are just not as good. A tired star is better than the guy on the bench who is fresh. The idea is to give the team the best chance to win. That means the best play and even the second best sits.

So why does the same logic not apply in church. Why is it not right to have a few superstars do the work? Won't you get better results if you have your A team in there all the time? The trouble is the goal is love. It is not winning or doing the best job in terms of communication or organizational skills. It is knowing God intimately and making Him known by loving in way only His grace enables us to do. This is not something we can leave to the professionals and a few key volunteers. It is the very centre of the faith.

The nature of love means we can't just scale things up. We have the technology to talk to more people and do music or drama at a larger scale. Technology does not allow us to love more people. It can lead to a very cold type of church leader. Not that they don't care but they want to budget their time for maximum impact. Yet love and efficient use of time don't go together easily. Often pastors who experience burn-out will talk about being in situations where they should care deeply and they just do not because they are so busy. 

Now when you talk about love people get confused. Sometimes it is a code word for a spirituality that never explicitly talks about God or at least avoids discussing the harder commandments. That is not the kind of love God calls us to. Jesus gives us a love that the world cannot give. The kind of love that is just being nice and never exhorting anyone to stop sinning and follow Jesus, that is the love the world gives. True love is wanting to be what God created you to be and wanting that for others to. Always respecting their right to say No but still making it clear you feel they are called to something better.

At least for Catholics the discomfort with God talk is one of the real inhibitors to them becoming more active in their faith. It needs to start in the family. We need to be very comfortable with talking about God in our homes. Then extending that to the wider church community, the family of God. When we get comfortable doing that then we are less likely to freeze up when the topic of faith comes up with the secular people in our lives. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pope Francis and Emmaus

I know this weeks gospel is on the Prodigal Son. The thing is I just ordered a book on that parable. So I don't want to blog on it now because I have before and will likely again fairly soon. So I thought I would give you some thoughts from a conference I went to yesterday. The most interesting talk was on Luke 24:13-35, the story of Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus. This one of Pope Francis's favourite passages. 

The story starts on Easter Sunday with two disciples leaving Jerusalem and waling to Emmaus about 7 miles away. The Pope sees these as falling away Catholics. Jerusalem stands for the church. Leaving it is a bad thing. It is where the risen Lord is. It is where the apostles are. It is the centre of the faith and these believers want to leave it at a time of crisis. Not a good sign. Plus, the name of the town of Emmaus is a bit of a pun. It sounds like the joining of two Greek words meaning dejected one. So they are disillusioned and hurt. 

Then Jesus comes up and walks beside them. He engages them in conversation. He asks them to explain their frustrations. They are kept from recognizing Him. 

The Pope sees in this a model for what we are to do. Always begin the conversation by listening. You don't do this primarily to get information although that might be a side benefit. Jesus listened quietly as they accused Him of being completely ignorant of what happened on Good Friday. They needed to talk. He needed to listen as an act of love. We need to do that to. Spend more time loving and listening before we say anything. In fact, it is sometimes better if they don't recognize us as orthodox Catholics. Jesus approached them just as a fellow traveller rather than right away as a teacher.

Then when He does speak He speaks bluntly. His first line is, "How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken." So He is not just about affirmation. There is a point where lack of faith and lack of obedience need to be identified. How else can anyone realize they need forgiveness? We often do need to be blunt because the human mind tends to get defensive and subtle criticisms don't penetrate. We need to very plainly say a significant part of the issue lies with them. This requires courage especially in our society where it is considered impolite to contradict anyone on religion.

Yet Jesus does not stay there. He goes on to explain at length the ways the Old Testament is about Him and about the crucifixion and resurrection. He does a bible study with them. The greatest bible study ever! That is He starts with a part of the faith they do accept and draws them into parts they are having trouble accepting. This requires patience and a good understanding of the faith. 

Then he looks like He is going further. They invite Him in. This is important. Once you have opened the topic of religion and made your case for the faith then it is still up to them whether or not to continue that conversation. Always be prepared to give people time and to even give people the right to say No. 

The speaker here suggested that maybe these two disciples might have been a married couple. An interesting thought. He suggests it from the fact that they lived in the same house and that Cleopas might be the Greek version of Clopas who is mentioned in John 19:25 as the husband of one of the women at the cross.

Once they invite Jesus in based on the word then they are ready for the sacraments. Their hearts might burn when we share the scriptures with them but they will really know Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That is very important. Sometimes we feel if we warn them off some of the bigger sins in life that is enough. We need to lead them all the way back to hunger for the mass.