Archive for the ‘Twenty-Sixth Bundle’ Category

MATTHEW 7:21-29

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

If you were to poll a large number of true believers in the world today and ask them what, really, is the point of their religion, they will no doubt answer with a variety of responses. Freedom from guilt, membership in a community, positive values, an enlarged sense of belonging, weekly inspiration, and everlasting security would certainly make the list. Answers to metaphysical questions, participation in sacred rituals, and the cultivation of religious disciplines (prayer, meditation, fasting, study) would probably be somewhere, though not as high as the first set.

Many put their religion on for show, quoting Bible verses, spouting prophecies, calling out the Antichrist, and performing “miracles” before spellbound crowds. For them, religion is a public performance. Popular “evangeltainers” lead personality cults for their own attention, glory, and luxury. A large segment of society is happy to watch (and donate) as they manage the stage and promote their empires.

What about Jesus? How would he have answered the question about the real point of his religion? Going to church? Feeling relieved of guilt? Having a platform from which he could accuse others and grab glory for himself? Getting his soul safely to heaven in the next life? Actually, none of these. For Jesus, religion wasn’t about what the ego needs or believes it deserves. Instead religion is about action – doing the will of God.

But what is that, the will of God? It is about making a difference for others: lifting up the poor, reaching out to the sick, encouraging those who have lost hope, emancipating the human spirit, and speaking up for those The System doesn’t count or care about. Go to church if you want. Ponder and debate the doctrines of orthodoxy if that’s your thing. At the end of the day, the real question is how authentic, fearless, and far-reaching your love is. True love changes things.

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ROMANS 1:16-17, 3:22b-31

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

22For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

The apostle Paul is credited with the “invention” of Christianity. He is the one who proclaimed Jesus as the long-awaited messiah of the Jews and introduced him to non-Jews (Gentiles) as the “Lord and Savior” of a new mystery religion. We need to remember that Paul’s letters to various church-starts and key leaders of the early movement were written 10-20 years before the first Gospel (Mark, c. 70 CE) told the story of Jesus. The canonical Gospels inherited Paul’s makeover of Jesus as Christ (of Jews) and Lord (of Gentiles), and their later elaborations incorporated an oral tradition of Jesus-sayings into this mythological framework.

Being a Jew himself and a member of the puritanical sect of the Pharisees, Paul would have been dead-set against the lifestyle reputed to the actual Jesus who had been indicted and executed under the Law a full generation earlier. Jesus had been an aggressive proponent of desegregation and equal rights under the inclusive and unconditional forgiveness of God. He reached out to “sinners” and kept company with outsiders, insisting that they and not the so-called righteous were closest to God. For his transgression, Jesus was found guilty and paid the penalty of death.

Somewhere on his way to prosecute the fugitive followers of Jesus, Paul underwent a conversion experience whereby he realized that the Law, which was the orthodox definition of righteousness, had condemned a truly perfect and righteous man (Jesus) and thereby nullified its own authority. Jesus had upheld the genuine spirit of the Law (love of God and neighbor) but its heavy net of quibbling rules was used to bring him down. As a consequence, the Law fell victim to its own fatal self-contradiction.

What had seemed a victory for the Law and and orthodoxy was really its terminal defeat, and the one who had been condemned under the Law came out vindicated in the end. (This is likely where the metaphor of resurrection occurred to Paul.) Before he became Christ and Lord, Jesus was the man whose relentless faith and boundless love had saved the world from religion. As Paul saw it, “the faith of Jesus” in his followers upholds, reveals, fulfills and transcends the true intent of the Law. They are free at last.

DEUTERONOMY 11:18-21, 26-28

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27 the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28 and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

In ancient Israel, two traditions ran side by side and had different things to say about the nature of God, our human condition, the meaning of salvation, and the responsibility each of us carries.

One tradition was centered on Mt. Sinai and the other on Mt. Zion; one featured Moses as the ideal while the other venerated David; one represented the relationship between God and humans as a bilateral covenant whereas the other saw it as based on a unilateral and unconditional divine promise; one held special affection for the poor and downtrodden, as the other tended to favor persons of clout and privilege; finally, one was dedicated to the Torah (ethical teachings) and produced the prophets while the other was chiefly concerned with the Temple and its political ties to the Throne, promoting the vocation of priests.

All of the terms in bold text above represent the web of values that makes the Old Testament such a complicated collection of writings. Through the centuries, and in response to major events such as the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE and the Babylonian captivity of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BCE, these two traditions and their different voices were gradually stitched together in one “grand narrative.” Even so, the stitching seams are rough and still obvious in places, and occasional contradictions can trip up the attentive reader.

Deuteronomy is the principal document of the tradition featuring Mt. Sinai, Moses, the bilateral covenant (more on that in a moment), concern for the oppressed, the Law code of the Ten Commandments, and prophets as agitators of the status quo. The status quo – then and now – refers to a tendency of the political and religious establishment to suck resources away from those who desperately need them, making their situation more desperate still, as insiders enjoy comfort and ease. It often happens as well that an established religion can grow morally complacent and actually work to keep out those who don’t fit in the group.

This so-called Deuteronomic tradition understood God’s protection and provision as conditional upon the people’s faith and obedience to the teachings of Torah. God would do his part, but in return he expected them to keep a sharp ethical edge on their faith. Their diligence in following the way of God as explained in the Law, and teaching their children to do the same, would bring them long life and prosperity. For this reason the agreement is technically a conditional covenant, holding together around the “if/then” clause: If you do this, then I will do that. If you don’t, then the deal is off.

The Old Testament contrast of these two traditions showed up later in Christianity as the tension between “faith alone” and “works righteousness,” belief versus action. Is it enough to have faith, or is salvation dependent on our living out what we believe? If we practice compassion and benevolent outreach, is it still necessary to believe the “right” things?

This voice of the Bible answers: It’s not what’s in your head or even in your heart that ultimately counts; salvation is something you need to work out in daily action. God loves the poor more than he cares for priests and politicians!

PSALM 46

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Religion is often criticized as so much whistling in the dark. Under the harsh and unforgiving conditions of mortality, human beings have a desperate need to believe they are supported by providence and that their existence doesn’t just end in oblivion. The plain fact of the matter is that we’re thrown into existence and fall out of it without so much as a sigh of indifference from the universe.

Now it may be true that religion frequently ascribes to its god more supremacy and control over what’s going on than he or she genuinely deserves. To an outsider it can sometimes sound as if God is nothing more than a personification of what the ancient Greeks named Fate – the universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed: a.k.a. “God’s sovereign plan.” Such belief in an absolute necessity behind everything is at least more comforting than the idea of it all as random and utterly pointless.

But maybe it’s not human insecurity that best explains the phenomenon of religion. Could it be that a mystical insight rather than neurotic anxiety underlies our many concepts of God? Perhaps it’s not primarily our fear of death that compelled the first thought and stories of God. More likely it was the intuition that our existence is grounded in a present mystery we cannot explain, but which supports us, inhabits us, confronts us, and transcends us in the marvelous adventure of being alive.

What’s more, this present mystery is provident – for here you are! The breath in your lungs, the beat of your heart, your living body and the countless life-lines connecting you to the earth and its moon, to our Sun and the spinning planets, into the galaxy and out to that One Song (uni-verse) that’s been topping the charts now for the past 15 billion years – all of it is conspiring to open a window of awareness on this very moment.

You blink, and it opens again.