Posts Tagged ‘doctrine’

1 JOHN 3:16-24

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

Now we can see that believing in the name of Jesus Christ and loving one another are really two ways of saying the same thing. In other words, Christians believe that “Jesus” names the gracious outreach of God in the form of a love that brings us to the heart of the divine Mystery itself. In naming the core we name the center around which all the other qualities and facets of God are coordinated and unified.

For that reason, Peter had been bold (but not narrow-minded!) enough to claim that there is “no other name” by which we are saved. “Jesus,” then, names not only the unique revelation of unconditional love profoundly demonstrated on the cross, but by association every form of grace, even grace itself. Importantly, such belief is not so much dogmatic as it is practical: we show we “believe in Jesus” by loving as he loved. It’s not a question of which religion is true, but how love was and is made real.

That’s why, despite the tendency in so many churches and traditions toward some type of gnosticism where correct doctrine is necessary to salvation, the authentic New Testament view is that, not the purity of our doctrine (“word and speech”) but the integrity of our love (“truth and action”) is the determining factor. And the Spirit that indwells the one who truly loves is, according to the core Christian experience (resurrection), none other than the spirit of Jesus. Our acts of love thus become present-day appearances of the risen Christ and fresh incarnations of divine grace.

ACTS 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Who was Jesus? Definitions abound and creeds have been written, to be confessed by the faithful and defended against heresy and corruption. Again, the Church has spilled much blood and divided its own community over this matter of defining Jesus. Certainly there is something worthy in this pursuit of clarity; even our definitions of God – as long as we acknowledge them as only provisional and finally inadequate – should be as clear and concise as we can possibly make them. But sadly there are often darker forces at work as well, seeking to reduce the mysteries of faith to simplistic and literal formulas. One thing is for certain: if murderous defense is being made on behalf of some religious doctrine or definition of God, you can be sure it is about as far from the truth as it can be!

Peter’s “definition” of Jesus, delivered in a sermon to the Jews in the second chapter of Acts and here to the Gentiles in the tenth, is given in the simple report of what Jesus did and where he got his power. In both instances, the emphasis falls on the fact that Jesus “went about doing good” and that it was the indwelling Spirit of God that gave him authority over demons and disease. Notice the absence of reference to the virgin birth or to his being “of one substance with the Father” (as a later creed would state). The clearest and most accurate – as well as the most convincing – definition of Jesus that Peter or any church theologian could offer consists in the observation that he was a good person who did right by God and others. Underneath all the dogma, here is a portrait worthy of our admiration and loyalty. To believe in Jesus is to unite your own heart and life to his visionary example and living presence.

ACTS 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Many evangelical explanations begin with the premise that all of humanity outside the small circle of believers who hold to the pure doctrine of Christian salvation are rejected by God and without hope of redemption. Jesus did what needed to be done, what no one before or after him could do, which means that God’s acceptance is made possible only through a personal and doctrinally sound belief in Jesus. This place Jesus not only  at the devotional center of the Christian religion, but at the exclusive center of the world’s religions as well.

A religion becomes dangerous when it presumes to capture and represent the mysteries of God, the soul, and salvation in propositions that are absolute and beyond question. Christianity itself has repeatedly fallen to the temptation of idolatry – of elevating some doctrine, symbol, office or individual to the place of final authority. In Peter’s sermon to the Gentiles he confesses his belief that God looks first upon the heart, and upon the life that bears it forth in word and act, without apparent regard for the purity of doctrine that occupies the mind. In every nation this is so; a wide field indeed!

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.

 

PSALM 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

Faith is nothing supernatural, and even though it was named  a “spiritual gift” by the apostle Paul, it’s not something that God gives to some and not others. In its word origins, “faith” is not about knowledge or doctrines, or even your willingness to believe what the doctrines say. It is much more existential than that.

You can believe that God exists and still not have faith. You can even believe “in” God – meaning that you have a strong emotional allegiance to what (your) God stands for – and have no faith at all. In fact, as impossible as it may sound, it is frequently the case that individuals who lack faith are the most outspoken, “evangelical,” and aggressive about what they believe.

If it’s not believing that God exists or in what God represents, then what really is faith? Very simply, it is trust. But isn’t trust your willingness to believe what can’t be proven or doesn’t make logical sense? Yes, trust can mean that. Faith, however, is a different kind of trust.

You might trust another person’s word, the conclusions of scientific research, or even the testimony of scripture. In such cases you are choosing to accept a proposition (a statement or claim) as an instance of truth-telling. If the Bible says that God exists – or that heaven and hell exist, or that miracles happened, Jesus rose from the dead, and the apocalypse is coming – your willingness to believe it is based on your interpretation of what those claims mean and your determination of how trustworthy the source is.

But it still isn’t faith.

Faith is not a function of religion, and it really has nothing to do with religious claims. It involves what can be called spiritual intelligence, but you don’t have to be “spiritually smart” to have faith.

Faith is the act of releasing yourself in trust to the supportive and provident nature of reality. The alternative is not disbelief or atheism, but anxiety and the separation from reality caused by gripping up inside yourself and forgetting that you’re not alone.

Once upon a time, you knew this connection intuitively (if unconsciously) which allowed you to spontaneously and effortlessly relax into being. As the months and years passed, however, you learned how dangerous the world can be, how hurtful people can be, and how staying intact necessitates that you pull away and curl up inside a shell of safety and control.

At a certain point, what had once been effortless became effortful and risky, making the prospect of leaving this shell of identity and fully surrendering to reality seem like death itself.

This must be the “darkest valley” the psalmist writes about. When you’ve reached the limits of your control, when the bright path of purpose drops into darkness ahead of you and it feels like all security is gone, that’s when faith matters.

You die to the old certainties and let yourself fall into the gracious presence of “Thou.”