Archive: Progressive Christianity

A Modern Report of the Resurrection

How would a modern day reporter have written about the resurrection of Jesus the Christ?  All of the gospels were written at least a generation after the resurrection and none of the gospel writers claim to have been eyewitnesses of the resurrection.  The earliest writings in the New Testament are the letters of Paul and he does claim to have witnessed a post resurrection appearance of the Christ. Unfortunately he does not describe that experience.  Paul does say Jesus Christ appeared to him and commissioned him to be the apostle to the gentiles.  Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  It is clear Paul understood his experience of the risen Christ to be on a par with those reported in the gospels.  He wrote to the church in Corinth, “He (Jesus Christ) appeared to Cephus, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters most of whom are still alive. . . Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”     Paul repeatedly says Christ crucified is at the center of his message.  It is also interesting that Paul nowhere speaks of the empty tomb.

The only place we have a detailed description of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is in the book of Acts said to have been written by Luke who was probably a contemporary of Paul and his some time companion on his missionary journeys.  In fact there are three accounts of Paul’s conversion experience in the book of Acts.  The one in chapter 22 reads: “While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me.  I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’  I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’  Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.  I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’  The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned for you to do.’”

The gospel accounts of course emphasize the empty tomb.  They also seem to emphasize a corporeal nature of the risen Christ.  That is, he was not a ghost or apparition. At one point he is said to have invited Thomas to put his finger into the holes left by the nails in his hands.   On the other hand, he is said to have appeared in a room with locked doors and to have suddenly appeared, apparently out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappeared.

How would I, or any modern reporter, have written of the resurrection?  Frankly I do not know.  I do think on the whole the biblical accounts portray more of a spiritual than physical experience.  The one thing of which I am sure is that the resurrection was real.  The disciples experienced the real continuing presence of Jesus the Christ with them after that first Easter.  That experience of the continuing presence of the Christ with them transformed them from frightened men hiding fearfully behind locked doors, to courageous apostles witnessing boldly in the presence of the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman civil authorities, to their faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ.  To me, the best evidence of the resurrection is the Christian Church.  The Christian Church, that conquered the Roman Empire, and has influenced western civilization for over two millennia, is not based on a lie or a fabrication.  It is based solidly on the fact that through the resurrection, however one would describe it, God vindicated all that Jesus taught and was, and calls us to live by the way, the truth, and the life he taught and lived.

 

The Ascension, Levitation or Theology? Or “Why do you stand looking up to Heaven?

Two weeks ago our pastor suffered a mild heart attack.   He is home and doing well after having two stents inserted.  Because of this incident I was asked to fill in as worship leader last Sunday.  It being Ascension Sunday the primary scripture reading was from the book of Acts telling of Jesus’ disciples last experience of the risen Christ.  We read. “They asked him (the risen Christ) ‘Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Obviously they were still thinking of the Kingdom of God in political, military terms instead of the relational terms Jesus intended. They were looking for a time when God would throw out the hated Roman occupiers and restore Israel to the glory of king David’s time. .”   In contrast to that idea, the Kingdom of God was Jesus’ way of speaking of the submission of individuals to the rule of God in their lives.   It is interesting to see this proclivity of people to want God to set all things right is still with us.  It was just a few weeks ago some right wing Christians were predicting the “rapture” when God would take all the righteous to Heaven and shortly thereafter God would destroy this “evil” world. To this the risen Christ’s response was, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Sameria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The risen Christ is saying to his disciples and to us, “Don’t worry about the future.  You have work to do here and now.  You are to share the good news you have heard from me about God’s love and forgiveness.  Tell everyone you meet, God loves you, God forgives you.  Accept God’s forgiveness and love and God will empower you to live the way, the truth, the life I have shown you – the life of servant hood, the way of spending one’s life for others.”

Then we come to a puzzling part of this scripture as we read, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Is Luke describing a magical act of levitation?  I think not.  I believe Luke intended his story of the ascension to be poetic and symbolic.  When Greeks wanted to explain things they philosophized, but Hebrews told stories as explanations.  Luke is trying to convey the theological truth that the Christ is “up there” at the right hand of God, pulling on our heart strings, seeking to raise us above the standards of this world and its preoccupation with acquiring material things and power, to live the life of servant hood.

The story ends like this. “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, two men in white robes stood before them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”  In other words, get over your preoccupation with heaven.  Jesus Christ is more concerned about the way you live here on earth.  And just as he has risen above the world so you are called to live above the standards of this world.  We are called to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, that in losing we may find our true life in Christ.

 

Science and Religion

The Christian church and science have often come into conflict. Galileo was condemned for pointing out that the sun, not the earth is the center of the solar system. That is, the earth circles the sun rather than the sun moving across the sky. Interestingly the pope has recently apologized for that condemnation of Galileo. Even today there are Christian churches that contend the world and all plants, animals, and human beings were created in six days and that the world is only some 4000 years old. They believe Biblical creationism, rather than evolutionary science should be taught in our schools. They insist on reading the first chapter of Genesis as a science text book instead of a teaching story to convey the truth that this world, in fact this universe and all that is in it is God’s creation and further it is appropriate for abundant human life that one day in every seven be set aside for rest, renewal, consideration of the deep questions about life, that is, for worship.

 

One of the things I cherish most about belonging to a liberal Christian church is I do not have to leave my rational, thinking brain at the door as I enter. Liberal Christianity believes God created us with the ability to think rationally and to learn about this amazing universe in which we live. I believe God is pleased as we learn more and more about the incredible vastness and complexity of God’s creation. To me it is a source of wonder and awe to learn about our universe’s some thirteen billion year evolution to the point now that there are billions of galaxies, some billions of light years away from our earth, each containing billions of stars. If one looks instead of at the vastness of the cosmos, at the structure of the atom one finds even more cause for awe and wonder. As I studied physics in school I learned about protons, neutrons, and electrons. But when I served as pastor of our church in Batavia, Illinois, Gene Fisk, a physicist at near by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory helped me know those infinitesimally small particles, that make up atoms, are themselves made up of even smaller entities called quarks, gluons, and such.

 

I see no conflict between science and religion. Through science we learn to understand God’s creation so we can do wonderful things. It has made it possible for us to create wonderful machines that plant, harvest, and process all kinds of crops so that we have been able to feed the growing world population. Our scientific knowledge of genetics has made it possible to grow improved crops that produce much more abundantly. Scientific knowledge has led to unbelievable advances in communication. When I was growing up in South Africa it took four weeks for letters to get to or from the United States by ship. Now it takes days by jet planes. But I can communicate in seconds by e-mail. Or I can pick up the phone and talk to my sister in Durban, South Africa. We marvel at reports in the Bible of persons being raised from the dead. The other day I was talking to a man who one could say died because his heart stopped functioning. Then he was given new life as doctors gave him a new heart. All this and much more has been made possible by science. We thank God for the gift of our wondrous minds that have made it possible for us to discover and do all these wonderful things.

 

On the other hand, religion teaches us that the universe, the solar system, this earth, all plants and animals, and all humanity are God’s good creation. It is a marvelously interrelated and balanced creation within which each part, each creature needs to play its part. Most creatures live primarily by instinct. They do not need to choose how to live. They just do what comes naturally. We are different.   Our ability to understand and use resources makes us very powerful.   We can choose to use that power for good or for evil. To help us make the right choices our religion teaches us to live humbly, knowing we are created to be good stewards of God’s creation, caring for it and living with one another in peace, always promoting caring, loving relationships.

 

How Does Jesus Save Us and for what?

Our Fundamentalist Christian brethren tell us Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty we owe to God because of our sin so that we may go to Heaven when we die. Their argument is a legal one. They argue that God is God of justice. Sin is breaking the law and that requires a penalty. No human being is capable of paying that penalty. Therefore God sent his only begotten son who lived a sinless life but took on the burden of the sin of us all and paid the penalty for that sin by dying a sacrificial death on the cross. This frees God to forgive our sin, if only we have faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross; thus forgiven we are fit for eternity in heaven with God. This concept goes by the theological term of substitutionary atonement.

The logic of this is impeccable but the metaphor, I believe, is wrong. It is true some of Jesus teachings, such as the parable of the king separating the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25 seem to portray God as a righteous judge, but his most consistent metaphor for God is Heavenly Father. Thinking in these terms it is unthinkable to me that any good father, most of all a loving heavenly Father would require his son to die simply to satisfy his sense of justice. I believe you and I would roundly condemn such a father.

Using the heavenly Father, family metaphor to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross how does one explain it? First of all let us keep in mind Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. You know this wonderful story of the younger son who demands his share of the inheritance and with it goes off to a far country and loses it all in riotous living to the point that he is reduced to caring for pigs that were considered unclean animals by Jews. He finally realizes how wrong and unloving his behavior has been and decides to go home. He comes home repentant and humbly asks that he might be received as one of his father’s hired servants. But the father will have none of it. He dresses his son in new clothes, puts a ring on his finger, and prepares a feast in honor of his return. He does not ask his son to pay any penalty! That he comes in humility and penitence is quite enough. Add to this the report that Jesus on the cross says, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” and you see Jesus’ understanding that God does not require the payment of a penalty but only humility and repentance for forgiveness.

With this in mind most liberal Christians do not accept the concept of substitutionary atonement but rather accept the concept of participatory atonement. According to this concept Jesus did not die because of God’s requirement but rather as the result of human sinfulness. Further, one must never think of Jesus’ dying on the cross apart from his resurrection. In that resurrection God was saying God’s love is stronger than human hate. In so doing God has freed us from fear of God and freed us to be able to love God and all God’s children. So God in Jesus Christ has saved us from always living on tenterhooks and in fear, to be able to live and work for justice and loving relationships. Of course we know we continue to do wrong but we know if we recognize and repent of our sin and have faith in Jesus’ revelation of God’s loving forgiveness we can pick ourselves up and try again, working in all ways we can for justice and loving relations, and trusting that whether we live or die we are held in the loving care of our heavenly Father.

 

Extravagant Welcome

One of the intriguing things about Jesus was how he associated with and welcomed all kinds of people including those who were considered sinners, outcasts, and untouchables. He invited himself to have dinner at the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector and thus a collaborator with the hated occupying Romans, considered a gross sinner by the Jews. He accepted graciously the ministrations of a known prostitute who washed his feet with her tears and anointed them with costly ointment. Interestingly this event happened while he was having dinner in the home of a Pharisee. The Pharisees were the “good guys” of Jewish religious culture. They were the ones who were most meticulous in their observance of Jewish law but whom Jesus criticized for their hypocrisy. But Jesus gladly accepted the invitation to eat at the home of a Pharisee. Quite contrary to Jewish cultural tradition, Jesus spoke directly to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus responded positively when lepers, considered outcasts by his society, appealed to him and he even touched one as he healed the leper.

In response to Jesus’ extravagant welcome, our church seeks to extend an equally extravagant welcome. Our church bulletin contains this statement. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, WELCOME . . . to new visitor and old friends . . . to people of all colors, cultures, classes, ages, abilities, gender, family type, and sexual orientation . . to all who have no church home, need strength, want to follow Christ, have doubts, or do not believe . . to believers, questioners and questioning believers. . welcome to all!” Ours is not a creedal church. While we have a statement of faith that we cherish, we see it as a guide to faith not a straight jacket. We welcome questioning. We believe all statements of faith are in a sense tentative as they seek to express the inexpressible. We believe living by faith is a journey. Each of us is at a different place on that journey but none has arrived. Worship, study, discussion, and mutual caring for each other assist us as we continue on our faith journey.

 

The Liberal Christian Voice Needs to be Heard

To whom does the public media turn when it wants to convey the Christian viewpoint on an issue? In all likelihood it will be to a Roman Catholic bishop or a leading “Evangelical” protestant. Rarely does one see on television or hear on radio or see in print the point of view of a liberal protestant leader. This is unfortunate for I believe many people, who are repelled by authoritarian and fundamentalist forms of Christianity, would find liberal Christianity attractive and helpful in guiding their lives. For this reason I have given myself the task of writing a series of columns seeking to outline a liberal Christian viewpoint on a number of issues. If you are reading this in the News Republic you know they have accepted my series for publication and for that I am most thankful.

In order to establish my credibility I need to introduce myself. I was born and raised in South Africa where my parents were missionaries under the Congregational Mission Board for forty-six years. My father, an ordained minister, was a supervisor of churches. His position was much like that of a Methodist district superintendent or a Lutheran bishop. Working across the cultural divide with black African pastors reinforced his liberal Christian theological views. I was educated in the liberal tradition of Oberlin College, the first coeducational college in the United States, and in the equally liberal tradition of the Chicago Theological Seminary.

I started my professional career serving three years as Christian education and youth work minister of a church in Detroit, MI. During the other thirty-four years of my active ministry I served three Congregational United Churches of Christ in northern Illinois. In retirement my wife and I moved to the Baraboo area and we are both active in First Congregational United Church of Christ, Baraboo. I feel I continue in ministry as I engage in many volunteer activities such as being president of the board of Interfaith Volunteers and driving some 2000 miles a year for that organization transporting people to various medical and other appointments, and helping to build Habitat for Humanity houses in Sauk and Columbia counties.

With this as introduction I hope to share with you in coming weeks what I understand as the liberal Christian understanding on such issues as interpreting the Bible, the relationship of science and religion, welcoming all people into the church, the relationship between faith and reason, and the relationship of church and state. I trust you will find these interesting and enlightening.

Can one be Christian and accepting of gays and lesbians?

As a member of a church that publicly declares itself Open and Affirming of all people regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, or family type, I am sometimes asked how that can be as the Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality. But is it true that the Bible condemns all sexual activity between same sex individuals? Remember as I pointed out in an earlier column, our faith tradition takes the Bible too seriously to take it literally. So we need to examine the context of those passages in the Bible that appear to condemn homosexual activity. It seems such activity happened in two contexts in the Old Testament.   One was with male temple prostitutes of fertility cults that were often participated in by ancient Israelites despite their condemnation by the prophets. The other was the practice of making conquered soldiers submit to anal rape to demean their manhood by “treating them as women”. In the New Testament what is referred to seems to be the Greek practice of men having sex with young boys – in effect pedophilia. Certainly we condemn all these sexual activities. What never appears in the Bible is any discussion of, or the possibility of, a loving, committed, monogamous relationship between two men or two women. The Bible assumes all persons are heterosexual.

Our conservative Christian brothers and sisters insist that the “homosexual lifestyle” is a choice, but the preponderance of scientific evidence shows otherwise. If you are heterosexual, when did you choose to be so? If you can talk openly and sympathetically with a homosexual person he or she will tell you of being aware at a very young age of being somehow different from most of their friends. Most will also tell of trying hard not to accept this difference. That is quite understandable. Who would choose to be homosexual in a culture that generally discriminates against such persons? When I was in college I was taught in my abnormal psychology course that homosexuality was a mental aberration but since then it has been taken off the list of psychological abnormalities and accepted by the scientific community as a natural occurrence. What is the genesis of this variation is unclear. There may be a genetic component. There is also some evidence there may be a hormonal factor in utero. Whatever the cause it is certainly not a choice. Thus to use the quotation from Romans 1:27, “men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another”, to condemn homosexual relations is not apropos as such relations are “natural” for homosexual persons.

Thus our faith tradition believes the question is not whether you are heterosexual or homosexual. The question is, how do you express your sexuality. Do you reserve sexual activity to a loving partner to whom you are committed for the long term – hopefully for life? Or are you promiscuous? Do you use sex to express power over your partner? Is sex always truly consensual even with in a committed relationship? Is sex an expression of love or is it an expression of power and self-gratification? These are the important questions, not whether one is homosexual or heterosexual. Sex is sinful only when it is misused, whatever one’s sexual orientation

Yes, one can be Christian and affirming of persons who are homosexual. Yes, you can be homosexual and Christian.

 

We Take the Bible too Seriously to Take it Literally

There are some Christians who believe the Bible was, in effect, dictated by God to the biblical writers. They believe the Bible in its entirety is the words of God. Liberal Christians believe the biblical writers were inspired by God and that the Bible, taken as a whole and rightly interpreted, is the Word (the message) of God to the world. While the biblical writers were inspired by God, they were men of their own time and culture. This means, for example, they believed they lived in a geocentric universe. That is, they believed the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun circled around it. Theirs was a three-tired universe with Hades, the realm of the dead below, and Heaven, the realm of God and the angels, above.

The second important fact to keep in mind when reading and interpreting the Bible is that it is really not a single book. It is, in effect, a library. This should be clear as we speak of the “books of the Bible”: 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. As I taught young people in Confirmation classes I used a picture of those books on library shelves grouped in various categories such as Law. History, Poetry, Prophets, Visions, Gospels, Letters. While some of the books do not fit perfectly in any one category they obviously contain many different genera and not all should be read in the same way. For example one should certainly read poetry in a different way from history or science.

A third important fact to keep in mind as one studies the Bible is that it was written over a period of almost a thousand years and much of it is based on much older oral tradition. Furthermore many of the books as we have them represent compilations of various older traditions edited and re-edited. Thus we have in Genesis two creation accounts and two accounts of the flood. Interpreting these various accounts we need to understand the way Hebrew culture sought to convey truth. While our western culture is more apt to convey truth in philosophic terms, Hebrew culture did so by telling stories. Thus the two creation accounts are really teaching stories. As such they convey important truths but if we try to take them as scientific history they are truly irreconcilable. For example, the first story in Genesis chapter one says humankind, male and female, were the last creation on the sixth day. The second story in Genesis chapter two says Adam was created before all the animals, and lastly Eve was created out of Adam’s rib.

Finally we do well to remember the Bible is the library of a faith community and it is in many ways the creation of that community. It was the Jewish faith community that around 400 B.C. decided what writings, among the many available, would constitute the Hebrew scriptures or Old Testament. And it was the Christian faith community that decided around 200 A.D. what writings, again among many more available, would be included in the New Testament. In interpreting these scriptures we believe God intends us to use our God given reason, intelligence and knowledge of history, culture, languages, and science. Thus we take the Bible much too seriously to take it literally.

Does God Punish People with “Natural” Disasters?

There have been some notable news stories in recent years concerning conservative Christian leaders claiming that this or that natural disaster was God’s punishment for the sin of a city or a people. Thus there was the claim that hurricane Katrina was a punishment on the city of New Orleans for the licentious life style of many of its inhabitants and its tolerance of homosexuals. More recently, the earthquake and Tsunami that devastated areas in Japan, was blamed by some conservative Christian leaders on the sinfulness of the Japanese people. Is this an appropriate Christian attitude? I think not.

It is true that in a number of places in the Old Testament catastrophes that befell the Hebrew people were said to have been God’s punishment on the people for their worshiping other gods. But Jesus clearly presents another point of view. For example in the 9th chapter of the Gospel according to John we read that Jesus’ disciples asked whether it was because of his own sin or that of his parents that caused a man to be born blind. Jesus had a blunt answer, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” Jesus than proceeded to cure his blindness.

On another occasion, as recorded in the 13th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus was told of a group of people from the province of Galilee who, while they were making sacrifices in the temple, had been killed by Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. He made these comments about them. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you. . . Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you.”

For me this makes it clear Jesus did not believe God sends disasters on anyone as punishment for sin. Therefore it is inappropriate for Christians to claim other wise. How then do we explain why innocent people get hurt or killed by such things as earthquakes, Tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes? Some of it is clearly human foolishness. If we insist on building homes in river flood plains, or in areas that are below sea level, or mere yards from the shoreline, we need to expect to suffer problems from time to time.

This is of course part of the larger problem of why bad things happen to good people but that is the subject for another column.

Modern Day Miracles

Although I have been retired for nineteen years, I am still called upon occasionally to lead worship at a church where the pastor cannot be present. I had such a call recently when the lectionary gospel reading was from John 14:1-14 that includes Jesus saying, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” Really? Jesus is reported to have performed miracles. He fed five thousand when the food available seemed sufficient for about five. He healed the blind, the lame, and the desperately sick. He even brought a man back to life who was dead. Are we, in his name, to do greater works than these? It seems unlikely but let us look at some interesting facts.

I recently read of a man who died. Nothing remarkable about that except this man had really died thirteen years earlier except that he had been given another person’s heart. His own heart was so diseased it could no longer sustain his life. It stopped beating. He died, except he was given a new heart from a person who had also died but whose heart was perfectly healthy. What a miracle! This is not an isolated case. Just a few weeks ago I spoke with a man here in Baraboo who is experiencing a new lease on life with a transplanted heart.

Every day thousands who are blind or going blind have their sight restored with cataract surgery or corneal transplant surgery. Persons with leukemia, who would otherwise surely die, are irradiated to kill their malignant blood cells and then given healthy bone marrow from a donor and are cured.

But is this healing in Jesus’ name? In a real sense it is. It was Christian compassion that caused monks and nuns to establish hostels where they cared for sick people. The first hospitals were all Christian institutions.   Although much of modern medicine has been separated from specifically Christian motivation, I believe our culture has a deep concern for the sick because of its abiding Christian component.

Healing miracles are not the only miracles happening today in Jesus’ name. Jesus fed five thousand. Largely through Christian organizations like Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief, and Catholic World Relief, millions of people are fed in Haiti and other places around the world. Here in our own community the Baraboo Food Pantry is able to help feed many families mostly through donations made by Christian people through their churches.

I could give other examples but these should be enough. Yes, the church, the continuing living body of Jesus Christ in this world, is doing much greater works of compassion than Jesus was able to do in his earthly life. Jesus touched many lives, perhaps thousands, in that obscure little country of Palestine. The church, at work around the world, touches the lives of millions.