Thursday, November 19, 2009

Discipleship and Budgets

By John Page

On Saturday morning (November 14, 2009), I and about 300 other people gathered for a special assembly[1] of the New Jersey Synod. [2]  According to the “rules”, the sole item on our agenda was the Synod’s 2010 spending plan – what most people know as a budget.  But, whatever the “rules” stated, the real item on the agenda was “discipleship”.

Jim Wallis and the good people at Sojourners stress that budgets are moral documents.  In effect, our budgets are statements of our moral convictions – of our moral choices and values.  What we do with our resources speaks to our concerns, including our ultimate concern.  Our budgets reveal something of ourselves – our fears, our desires, and our priorities.  Our budgets also reveal something of our perceptions of others – what they will think of us and how they will react.  And our budgets reveal which “others” are most important to us – those whom we desire to please and serve.

In my experience, budget discussions – or perhaps “debates” is more descriptive – tend to focus on the allocation of limited resources.  A shadow of scarcity typically lurks nearby, and occasionally darkens the room entirely.  Most people dread the annual “stewardship campaign” – or whatever it may be called – because it stirs up underlying fears of scarcity and of having to commit to sharing limited resources.  People “don’t like to talk about money”, not because there is anything inherently distasteful about discussing our commitments to share our resources with others, but because we have to deal with fear-in-your-face.

Of course, fear can be useful to some people – it can serve their interests and their agenda.  It’s standard fare in secular politics – and in ecclesiastical politics as well.  Some will exploit the fear of limited resources to advance a particular interest, in effect trying to hold the needs of others hostage to their agenda.  Fear suits some people.

Since the ELCA Assembly acted this summer to approve the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust and to change ministry policies to allow people in committed same-gender relationships to serve the church as the Holy Spirit calls them, some have sought to exploit the fear of scarce resources to either punish the church or to thwart the Assembly’s actions.  Fear suits them – but it also consumes them.  (In response to a question I asked, Bishop Riley informed the special assembly that based on his conversations with members and congregations of the New Jersey Synod, discontent with the ELCA Assembly’s actions had no significant impact on current or anticipated mission support here; declines in support are attributed to general economic conditions in this state and throughout the nation.)

Fear isn’t just a handy tool in the toolbox of our ambitions.  Fear is a “power” with a life – or death – of its own.  Whatever our own ambitions, Fear has an agenda of its own.  Fear is no person’s slave; it disingenuously serves whom it desires to consume.

The antithesis of scarcity is abundance, and the antithesis of fear is faith and hope.  To an objective observer, many of us fretting over the scarcity of our resources appear to be out of touch with reality; we have more than all our fretting implies.  The shadow of scarcity conceals the abundance of what we have, and who isn’t afraid of dark places?  And while fear discourages us from exploring dark places, faith and hope encourage us to light a lamp and push the shadows back.  Jesus tells whoever would follow him, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[3]  Jesus’ own light illumines our dark places, and invites us to fearlessly and faithfully venture forward.  Without diminishing the brightness of Jesus’ own light, he shares that light with us, so that others may see – and benefit from – the good works we do for one another and for our neighbors for the sake of glorifying our Father.  Because we have faith in God’s promises of abundant blessings, and hope in the perfection of God’s reign, the interloper Fear has no proper place among Jesus’ disciples.

And so I was pleased to observe Jesus’ disciples in New Jersey act with faith and hope, trusting in God’s abundant blessings.  Setting aside fears of economic uncertainties, the Synod Assembly overwhelmingly endorsed a spending plan that affirms our continued mission and service to the people of New Jersey, to our nation, and to the whole world.  The spending plan commits us to growing our financial support for the work of the church, reducing administrative costs, and increasing our efforts in outreach (specifically Latino outreach and urban mission development), in peace and justice advocacy, in ecumenical and interfaith cooperation, in public communication, in leadership support and development, and in mission support to the ELCA.  While some line items saw reductions in financial support – or even elimination – presenters of the spending plan pointed to some innovative and promising ideas for still continuing the ministries and services funded by those lines.

Our 2010 Spending Plan aspires to be both a faithful moral document and a hope-filled mission statement for Jesus’ disciples in New Jersey.  God grant us the Spirit to rise to the call of discipleship and to bear its costs faithfully.

[1] The special assembly fell short of a quorum by only 6 people.  Consequently, the assembly acted as a “quasi-committee of the whole”, which gave non-binding advice to the Synod Council concerning the 2010 Spending Plan.
[2] For those not that familiar with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), “synods” are roughly analogous to dioceses.  They are typically geographical groupings of congregations which support the mission of the church in their territories, including evangelism, advocacy, preparation and endorsement of candidates for public ministries of the church, mutual support of congregations, oversight and discipline, and coordination of resources.
[3] Matthew 5:16

Friday, November 13, 2009

Anticipating Christ the King

By John Page

A child is raped, and witnesses either ignore it or cheer.[1]  People are beaten and murdered because of their race or perceived immigration status, and the victims are too afraid to seek help.[2]  A disgruntled man opens fire on former colleagues at their workplace.[3]  A mentally ill physician murders 13 people before he is stopped[4] and Muslims across the country are fearful of the consequences to innocent people.[5]  Poor and dispossessed residents of Cleveland mourn the serial murders of their daughters and neighbors, and accuse the local authorities of indifference to their plight.[6]  A broad measure of unemployment in the U.S. shows that 17.5% of the nation’s workers are either unemployed or underemployed.[7]  Perceptions of injustice rooted in economic disparities plague efforts to address the availability of necessary healthcare[8], and even the distribution of H1N1 vaccine.[9]

This is just a sampling from news headlines during the past week or so.  Of course, not all news is bad news, but a listing of all the happy stories I might find among the headlines can only briefly distract us from a realistic appreciation of the seriousness and persistence of what ails us.  Don’t misunderstand; I’m no Gloomy Gus jaded by reality or resigned to a violent, unjust, and uncaring world.  Neither am I prone to a “happy-clappy” optimism that simply ignores reality.

I look for a fuller understanding of reality – reality that encompasses what is, what was, and what will be.  Reality includes our understanding of what ought to be, our vision of what is possible, our confidence that working toward our vision is not in vain, and our anticipation of that vision’s perfection.  “Change” is very much a part of reality, and all change is guided either by purposeful effort or effortless entropy.

To what purpose, then, should we live in this world and direct our efforts?

Very soon, the church will celebrate Christ the King.  With this festival, we conclude a full year of remembering and retelling the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through Sunday readings and seasonal commemorations.  For an entire year we have traced the story of Jesus of Nazareth and the Way of Jesus:

-          the prophetic promises of Advent;
-          the joyful celebration of Jesus’ nativity;
-          Jesus’ public ministry of bringing God’s kingdom near to the sick, poor, and oppressed;
-          Jesus’ calling of disciples to learn, walk in, and spread the Way of Jesus;
-          Jesus’ contention with those opposed to his Way;
-          Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture, and murder;
-          Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, that both vanquished the power that death can have over us, and encourages us to have hope and faith in Jesus and his Way;
-          Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to the church – the Spirit of Christ that dwells with us;
-          and the disciples’ continued mission of love and service in the Way of Jesus, who despite their own frailties – and the sometimes deadly opposition of others – stayed the Way, and invited others to go with them and with Jesus.

The story of Jesus of Nazareth and of Jesus’ disciples offers us a vision of humankind and all of creation that issues directly from the Creator.  The story tells of the creation as God intended from the beginning – all things created good, and humankind created in God’s image to care for one another and for all of creation.  The story repudiates what has gone awry from God’s intentions – injustice, violence, poverty, famine – and invites humankind to turn back to God and God’s original vision.  The story tells of a re-creation inaugurated by God – a re-creation of humankind in the image of God-with-us, Jesus of Nazareth.  And at the story’s conclusion, what God has inaugurated comes to its perfection with the full restoration of humankind and all of creation to its original purpose and goodness.  To this purpose, God calls us to live and direct our efforts.

On the day we commemorate Christ the King, we hold up and celebrate the end of the story – the perfection of what God inaugurated at the birth of Jesus.  The end is what we look forward to, the vision we pursue by means that anticipate and embody the end of our pursuit.  The end gives hope and inspiration to continue when events and circumstances conspire to threaten and overwhelm us, because we already know how the story will end.

On the day we commemorate Christ the King, the prophet Daniel[10] will remind us that God has not abandoned us to the way things were or the way things are.  Whatever threatens us, all of creation belongs to God and to God’s chosen one, and the end of the story is certain.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, for people of faith, “the belief and hope in a Savior that enters exactly where the forces of chaos seem to be most rampant is what allows one to get up and face the day.”[11]  Our labor in Christ is not in vain.[12]

On the day we commemorate Christ the King, the prophet John of Patmos[13] will remind us to whom all creation and all time belongs: “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”  John addressed his prophecy to churches struggling with complacency, assimilation, temptation, and even violent persecution – which is to say, John addressed all churches in every place and time.  And in the fullness of his prophecy, John encourages and admonishes the faithful to never forget the end of the story, and to live in the Spirit of Christ with the certainty of our hope and faith that God’s intentions for creation will come to perfection.  Our labor in Christ is not in vain.

On the day we commemorate Christ the King, the evangelist John[14] will remind us that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s chosen Savior of creation, and that God’s purposes will not go unopposed.  Those who profit or benefit from injustice, violence, poverty, and famine will conspire against God; murder and subterfuge are not beneath their scruples.  Nevertheless, the end of the story is certain.  Death will not be the final verdict on God’s purposes.  Our labor in Christ is not in vain.

We have a fuller understanding of reality precisely because we know the end of the story and anticipate Christ the King.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where’s Jesus?

By John Page

In 2007, the Barna Group published a study of perceptions of Christianity among 16- to 29-year-old Americans.[1]  They found that among young non-Christians, 87% perceive Christianity as judgmental, and 85% as hypocritical.  Even among young Christians, about half agreed that Christianity is judgmental and hypocritical.[2]  The researchers found that one of the most frequent unprompted observations by both Christians and non-Christians was that "Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus."[3]  Little wonder, if nearly 9 out of 10 non-Christians describe Christianity with the same terms Jesus himself used to characterize his antagonists. 

Do these perceptions matter to us?  They ought to, precisely because the church’s commission[4] is to make disciples of all peoples by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If proclamation is our task, clarity of proclamation is no trivial consideration.  And what we “do” is every bit as important as what we “say”, because our conduct will proclaim as loudly as – if not louder than – our words.

If the church is the body of Christ, shouldn’t Jesus be more visible among us?  Shouldn’t Jesus’ antagonists be less visible among us?  If so, we might start by examining what makes Jesus recognizable. 

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

According to the Gospels, Jesus inaugurated his public ministry by proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near – which we are told is good news – and inviting people to turn their lives around and believe the good news.[5]  His proclamation included teachings about the nature of God’s kingdom, tangible signs of the kingdom’s presence, and its consequences for people’s lives.  But why would the nearness of God’s kingdom be “good news”?

Actually, it wasn’t good news to everyone.  But, for those living with hunger and abject poverty, for those tormented by chronic sicknesses or demons, for those grieving untimely deaths, for those treated as disposable human commodities, for those who longed for justice in a despotic society – for those people, the nearness of God’s kingdom was welcome good news.  In Jesus’ teachings which we know as the Beatitudes, we are told:

-          Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20; Matthew 5:3 reads “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”)
-          Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. (Luke 6:21a; Matthew 5:6 reads “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”)
-          Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. (Luke 6:21b; Matthew 5:4 reads “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”)
-          Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22; Matthew 5:11-12 reads “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”)
-          Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
-          Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
-          Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)
-          Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
-          Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

According to Jesus, people should expect a radically different and abundant life in the kingdom of God.  The differences will lie precisely in the reversal or abolition of abusive and unjust conditions, in relief from grief and suffering, and in a new understanding of what it means to be blessed.  We sometimes refer to popular, powerful, wealthy, or otherwise fortunate people – as defined by the conventional standards of our world – as “blessed”, but according to Jesus, in the kingdom of God, blessedness and God’s favor belong to others: the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the persecuted, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

And the kingdom of God is near.  Jesus did not proclaim some distant “new society” far off into the future or in another life.  Jesus accompanied his proclamation with tangible signs of God’s reign breaking into the world here and now, including healings, casting out demons[6], feeding the hungry, and raising the dead.  Jesus relieved people’s afflictions and restored them to community[7].  And Jesus sent his disciples to do the same thing:

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9:1-2)

After this, the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.  He said to them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!'  And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.  Do not move about from house to house.  Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, "The kingdom of God has come near to you.' (Luke 10:1-9)[8] 

With words and tangible evidence, both Jesus and his disciples proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom here and now.

As noted before, not everyone greeted this proclamation as good news.  For those who only see life in categories of “winners” and “losers”, where “blessings” are in short supply and have to be rationed and hoarded, the nearness of God’s kingdom poses a serious threat.  The Beatitudes suggest a reversal of fortunes, and the wealthy fear for their wealth; the powerful for their power; the influential for their influence; and the privileged for their privilege.  Fear of becoming one of the “losers” leads to desperate actions, and in the case of Jesus and many of his disciples, that fear could only be placated with the decisive end of the so-called “good news” and those who proclaimed it.  Jesus was not the first Jewish “messiah” – nor the last – and experience taught the fearful that an appropriately gruesome and humiliating death[9] for messianic leaders effectively buried their messages with their corpses.

But Jesus’ resurrection frustrated the purposes of the fearful.  By raising Jesus from the dead, God effectively vindicated Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ proclamation that God’s kingdom has come near, and Jesus’ teachings about the consequences of God’s kingdom for humankind and for all of creation.[10]  The new community that Jesus created with his disciples was called to embody the risen Jesus and to continue his mission to all people.[11]

The Disciples

Before his crucifixion, Jesus gave his disciples a “new commandment”:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

By mutual love, Jesus’ disciples make Jesus’ presence known.  What’s more, the disciples are to love one another as Jesus loved them.  Often misunderstood and much abused, “love” as Jesus loved is no sentimental indulgence.  Jesus’ love was intentional under the most revolting – and risky – circumstances[12].  For Jesus and his disciples, it wasn’t just about feeling love; it was about doing love.

But Jesus’ love is not constrained exclusively within the community of believers; disciples are to love their neighbors – all neighbors – as well.  Love manifest is the sine qua non of the kingdom of God and of the kingdom’s proclamation.  Love lies at the heart of the Beatitudes, and it is the foundation upon which the entire law of God is established.

When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:34-40)

Jesus’ disciples are to love one another and all people as Jesus loves them.  By this, the kingdom of God is proclaimed with words and actions.  By this, everyone will know them to be Jesus’ disciples.  By this, everyone will see Jesus among his disciples.

St. Paul referred to the community of believers – the church – as the body of Christ.[13]   Paul’s frequent allusions to the body of Christ were addressed to churches struggling to embody the risen Jesus in their communities.  The first century believers were known to divide into factions, to treat each other inhospitably and carelessly, to intellectualize the gospel, and to question each other’s relative righteousness before God.[14]  Proclaiming the “words” of the “good news” is easy enough, but proclaiming the “good news” in both words and tangible signs of love in community proved to be a challenge to Jesus’ disciples.  And without tangible signs, the words ring hollow or disingenuous, and the community breaks.

So Paul reminds believers that they are a body – the body of Christ.  Each member of the body participates in the whole, and the whole serves the head – who is Christ.  Diverse as the body may be, each member is essentially joined to the others in Jesus’ love – for the purpose of manifesting that love with words and actions – and thereby make Jesus known and visible for all to see.

Making Jesus Visible

Why do so many today say that Christianity no longer looks like Jesus?  We know that Jesus proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom with words and tangible signs.  We know that God’s kingdom is welcome good news to the poor, the hungry, the abused, the sick and grieving, and those who yearn for peace and justice.  We know that God’s love pervades God’s kingdom, and that intentional self-sacrificing love is the clearest evidence that God’s kingdom is near.  We know that Jesus’ disciples are called to manifest Jesus’ own love for one another and for all people – to embody the risen Christ, and thereby make Jesus known. 

If Christianity no longer looks like Jesus, we Christians have no one to blame but ourselves.  We obscure Jesus’ presence in the body of believers when we fail to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom with both words and tangible actions that the poor, the hungry, the abused, the sick, the grieving, and those who yearn for peace and justice can recognize and welcome as good news.  We obscure Jesus’ presence in the body of believers when we avoid intentional self-sacrificing love for one another and for our neighbors, and instead sacrifice one another and our neighbors on the altars of our own righteousness.  We obscure Jesus’ presence in the body of believers when we hijack – or passively allow others to hijack – the name of Jesus to proclaim the bad news – the anti-gospel – that poverty, hunger, abuse, sickness, grief, violence, and injustice are perfectly acceptable if working toward their abolition isn’t profitable or doesn’t otherwise serve our own self-indulgent agenda.  We obscure Jesus’ presence in the body of believers when by words and actions we deservedly earn a reputation of arrogant pretentiousness that revels in the show of “righteousness” – as if we are somehow better than “those” people – while forgetting entirely that we are debtors ourselves whose gratitude to God can only be expressed by self-sacrificing acts of love toward our neighbors – including “those” people.  And we obscure Jesus’ presence in the body of believers when we manipulate the instruments of secular power to serve the anti-gospel – in the name of God, of all things!

Healing...  How do we make Jesus visible in the church in the midst of our current national debate about healthcare?  Jesus made healing one of the most obvious signs of the nearness of God’s kingdom, revealing God’s compassion for the sick and afflicted who were otherwise without hope or recourse.  Christians might reasonably and faithfully disagree about the “particulars” of what healthcare reform should look like, but can we plausibly dispute the claims that God desires the health and wellbeing of all people, and that profitability is an unconscionable excuse for allowing sickness and affliction to continue when remedies are available?  When fear, greed, and secular partisan ambitions conspire against efforts to make healing and relief available to all people, the body of Christ is called to act with hope, with the intentional love of Christ, and with a partisan commitment to making the nearness of God’s kingdom a tangible reality for everyone who suffers disease and affliction.[15] 

Making peace…  One of the longest running conflicts of sustained violence in this and the previous century has been the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.  How do Christians make Jesus visible in the midst of pervasive distrust, anger, and violence?  We might reasonably and faithfully disagree about the “particulars” of what a just and enduring peace agreement should look like, but can we plausibly dispute the claim that God desires that all people live in peace with one another and be treated justly?  When hate, lust for power, and extremist religious convictions – even grotesque distortions of Christianity[16] – conspire to make violence and injustice acceptable, the body of Christ is called to act with hope, with the intentional love of Christ, and with a Jesus-like commitment to making the nearness of God’s kingdom of peace a tangible reality.[17]

Thirsting for righteousness…  Far too often throughout the centuries, Christians have abandoned mutual love for one another for the pretense of righteousness.  We have a long history of supplanting the apostles’ teachings that the righteousness of God is disclosed through faith in Jesus Christ[18] with false teachings about the righteousness of being bound to the law.  Loving one another as Christ loves us has been of secondary importance to being right about our righteousness.  “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” – and God forbid that the Holy Spirit should act beyond the constraints of established law, dogma, tradition, and ministry policies!  How do we make Jesus visible in the midst of our family squabbles?  Surely, Jesus’ commandment “… love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” would go far in making Jesus visible for all to see, for “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”.[19]  When righteous indignation, hidden agendas, and pious contempt for others[20] conspire to rend us, the body of Christ is called to act with hope, with the intentional love of Christ, and with Jesus’ own commitment to making the nearness of God’s kingdom a tangible reality in our communities of faith, as places where Christ-like love abounds.

Following the Way of Jesus…  The Way of Jesus stands in contrast to the way of the world, precisely because hope in God’s kingdom and the work of making the Beatitudes a tangible reality for people can often seem ludicrous to the faithless; self-sacrificing love for strangers is pointless; and a single-minded commitment to the kingdom of God, and making the nearness of God’s kingdom known by words and deeds, can pose a serious challenge to the demands and expectations of human kingdoms.  The Way of Jesus is a challenging way to follow, and we Christians have often found ways to mitigate the challenges: we’ve found novel and convoluted ways to confuse the kingdom of God with the kingdom of human ambitions – to transform Christianity into Christendom; we’ve become so adept at “spiritualizing” the Beatitudes and the kingdom of God, that we are content to push out to some future undetermined date any tangible evidence of the nearness of God’s kingdom, making Christianity little more than a cognitive and largely self-centered exercise in self-justification and personal salvation – Caesar need not worry himself about the Jesus who’s just lord of my life, and who otherwise makes no inconvenient demands on the whole world, where greed, self-interest, and fear are beatified.

We make Jesus visible among us, for all the world to see, when we follow the Way of Jesus; when we embrace the kingdom of God for all that it stands for: relief and blessings for the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the persecuted, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers; when we proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is near, by words and tangible signs; when we love one another in the body with the intentional self-sacrificing love of Christ; and when we love all people in the same way that all people are loved by Jesus.[21]

[1] Kinnaman, David, and Lyons, Gabe. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007
[2] Ibid., p.34.
[3] “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity”. Barna Group. September 24, 2007.
[4] See Matthew 28:16-20
[5] See Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43
[6] Whatever you may make of demon possession, the relevant point is that people suffered.
[7] Certain afflictions could make a person “unclean”, which could require that they restrict their contact with others or be removed from communities.  Examples include leprosy (Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-16), menstrual bleeding (Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-34; Luke 8:40-56), and demon possession (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:22-39).
[8] See also Matthew 10:1-15
[9] According to Deuteronomy 21:22-23, a person executed by hanging on a “tree” was cursed by God, making crucifixion an especially effective way of ending messianic careers.
[10] Debates about the “historicity” of Jesus’ resurrection tend to miss the theological point that his resurrection validates his mission and proclamation.  When Christians affirm the resurrection of Christ, we profess our conviction that Jesus faithfully and authoritatively represented God’s kingdom in his life and teachings.  We further profess, that in baptism we are united to Christ in his continuing life and mission, with the hope of the resurrection assuring us that Christ’s mission is valid and our participation in his mission is not in vain. 
[11] See Mark 16:14-20; Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:19-23; Acts 1:4-8
[12] Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die for the sake of his mission and proclamation to the world is the most obvious and dramatic example and model of how Jesus loves.  But Jesus’ ministry abounded with acts of risky and intentional love.  Examples include healing people in defiance of the law (Luke 5:17-26; Luke 14:1-6; John 5:1-16) and risking ostracism and retribution by associating with the wrong – unclean – people (Matthew 9:9-13; Matthew 9:20-22; Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 5:25-34; Mark 7:24-30; Luke 5:27-32; Luke 7:1-10; Luke 8:43-48).
[13] See Romans 7:4; Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27; 1 Corinthians 12:12; Ephesians 3:6; Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 3:15
[14] Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians provides a substantial litany of some of the problems.  See 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 1 Corinthians 1:17-31; 1 Corinthians 3:16-20; 1 Corinthians 8; 1 Corinthians 11:18-22.
[15] See the ELCA social statement Health and Healthcare – Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor.  Also, Jim Wallis at Sojourners offers some thoughts about faith-based principles to guide efforts to reform American healthcare: A Faith Declaration for Health-Care Reform
[16] Christian Zionism of the 20th and early 21st centuries, coupled to “dispensationalist” theology, actually justifies and encourages ongoing violence and injustice toward Palestinian people – including Palestinian Christians – because Christian Zionists are convinced that it is God’s will that the Biblical land of Israel must be “cleansed” of what they consider interlopers, in anticipation of “end-time” events.  For more information, see Toward a Lutheran Response to Christian Zionism by the Rev. Robert O. Smith of ELCA Global Mission.
[17] Ann Hafften provides frequent updates and information about peace and advocacy efforts toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at her blog A Texas Lutheran's Voice for Middle East Peace.
[18] See Romans 1:16-17; Romans 3:21-24
[19] See John 13:34-35
[20] Lutheran CORE’s website provides a number of examples: A Vision for Lutheran CORE, RECONFIGURATION, and What After Minneapolis?
[21] The ELCA tagline “God’s work, our hands.” represents something of our Church’s understanding of our mission and purpose, and encourages all of the members of the Church, individually and together, to make Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom a present reality for all people, and to invite others to join that mission.  Read the theological foundation for this tagline here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Surprised by Grace

By Luann Albanese

When I first started discovering who God was, as a child, I was terrified because I was taught that I had to behave a certain way or do certain things in order for God to love me and allow me into heaven with Him when my time came.  Whenever I would not go to bed when I should, did not finish my homework, did not eat my vegetables, or did not do whatever it was my parents were asking me to do – no matter what it was – I was told that God would punish me and I would be sent to live in hell with Satan and all the bad people.  So, growing up, I felt that I could never make any mistakes, I always had to be perfect, and I had to always do “good” things, otherwise, God would not love me and when I died God would never let me live with Him in heaven.

When I was a youth, something happened to me that was very bad.  It was not my fault, but I thought it was.  I blamed myself so much that I began to hate myself and thought that God must hate me too.  This experience made me feel separated from God’s love.  I used to believe that there were some things that were just so unforgivable and too awful for even God to forgive.  I would hide from my friends and frequently do things to physically hurt myself, like binging and purging.   Doing this kind of thing is not always about being thin as most people might think.  For me, it was strictly about punishing myself because I thought I was a bad person.

After doing this to myself, I would spend some time alone, hating myself and quietly thinking that this was the punishment I deserved.  I thought if I punished myself, then God would not punish me.  But in reality, what I did to myself only made me feel better for a short period of time.  After a while, I would just feel bad all over again because I never felt that the punishment was enough and no matter what I did, I still did not feel it was enough to earn God’s love so that he would save me. 

I know now that only God can save us from ourselves and no matter what we do or how hard we try, there is no way we can save ourselves on our own.  But, for a long time, I felt no comfort in God because I was not taught about God’s love for me or God’s grace and mercy.  I was only taught about the law and knew nothing about the good news of the Gospel, as I know it today.  When you feel that you are unable to take refuge in God’s love, it can be a very scary and isolating experience.

I spent much of my life depending on people to validate my self-worth.  I would rely on their words and opinions to make me feel good about myself rather than relying on the Word of God and God’s love.  I learned the hard way that looking to, and depending solely on, the opinions of people, rather than trusting in God’s love for me and who I am in God’s heart, is an exhausting and unfulfilling experience.  I have found that most human love is not always unconditional and may not always be as genuine as it might seem.  But, God’s love is.

I still struggle with this sometimes, but reading my Bible and listening to God’s word when it is taught or preached to me, has helped me to know that God loves me.  It does not matter what other people’s opinions or criticisms of me are, or even what their beliefs are, as long as I know who I am in God’s heart.

Over the past several years, I discovered that it is not a question of whether one deserves God’s love or not, because it is a gift freely given, unconditionally, to everyone.  I am still learning that no matter what we have done in our past, or the mistakes that we continue to make, God never stops loving us.  We are not perfect, we are just human, and no one is immune to mistakes, bad decisions or bad behavior.  God knows we are not perfect.  God made us.  And even though God is not happy when we behave badly, or when we fail, God still loves us.

It is a relief for me to hear that there is nothing I have to do to earn God’s love or my salvation.  I spent many years putting so much pressure on myself trying to be perfect, worrying about everything I did and said, because I thought I had to earn my ticket into heaven. This was a complete waste of time because Jesus already bought my ticket into heaven. 

This realization has been the beginning of a new world for me.  Sometimes, I still find myself trying to adjust my mind and my heart to this way of thinking and living in God’s love and grace.   It is not something that can happen overnight, it takes time to begin to feel a sense of peace.  I spent almost my entire life trying to find a way to God’s love so that I could secure my salvation.  Well, you could imagine my surprise and relief when I realized that God’s love was with me all along, my whole life, the entire time, and I didn’t know it.   I always had God’s love, and the gift of salvation was already mine.  The Holy Spirit was living inside of me the whole time.  I was searching for something that I already had.

When I finally came to terms with this reality, in a way I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.   She was always trying so hard to find her way home, when she already had the gift to get home all along.  It was with her the whole time in the Ruby Slippers, but she didn’t know it until someone told her.  Just like I had the gift of the Holy Spirit inside of me all along and I didn’t know it until God found a way to tell me.  Now I don’t have to search for it anymore.   I just have to keep reminding myself that it is right here.

As it says in Romans 8: 26-27,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints (saints, meaning us as forgiven sinners) according to the will of God.

There are times when I struggle with the knowledge that God’s love is unconditional and a gift freely given that has always been there for me and for all of us.   Opening my heart to understanding and accepting this is making a significant difference in the way I live my life and how I love and care for others.  The biggest challenge for me has always been accepting that God loves us no matter what, even when there are times we feel the least loveable, God will never abandon us.  So, why live with regret or guilt when there can be joy in accepting God’s love and mercy.  Accepting this is changing my life and is helping me find a deeper relationship with Jesus.  As long as I continue to keep my faith and trust in Christ, I know that I will be able to face any obstacle that comes my way.

We all know that life is not so easy at times, but it was not meant to be easy and Jesus himself never said it would be.   We just have to remember that Jesus is with us every step of the way, just like he promised.  And there is nothing that can separate us from Jesus’ love.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans,

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thoughts about Scriptural Authority: Paul, the Law, and the ELCA

By: John Page

Recent events in the ELCA[1] have piqued more interest than usual in what this Church actually teaches, revealing the latest manifestation of a contentious question as old as the Christian Church itself.  The question is largely asked in terms of the authority of canonical Scripture, and how it functions as “the authoritative source and norm of [the church’s] proclamation, faith, and life”[2], but it really centers on the role that law in Scripture ought to play in the life and practice of Christians.  Anyone who has read the Acts of the Apostles or Paul’s Letter to the Galatians knows that we Christians have been here before.  And in these two canonical books, the first century church provides us with an apostolic model for both understanding the current contention and for resolving it.  They also describe a model which is antithetical to the apostles’ teachings, and which effectively subverts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paul and the Christian Pharisees: Council of Jerusalem

In Acts 15, we are told that some individuals from the church in Jerusalem paid a visit to the church in Antioch in Syria, and insisted that the Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to the law of Moses in order to be saved.  This ignited dissension within the church, with Paul and Barnabas at odds with the Jerusalem visitors.  To resolve the matter, the Christians in Antioch dispatched Paul, Barnabas, and some others to Jerusalem to discuss it with the apostles and elders there.

On their way to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas visited churches in Phoenicia and Samaria, reporting the conversion of Gentiles and bringing “great joy to all the believers” (Acts 15:3).  Similarly, when they arrived in Jerusalem and had been welcomed by the church there, including the apostles and elders, Paul and Barnabas reported to them all that God had done with them concerning the Gentiles.  But, as occurred in Antioch, “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem met together to consider all this, and after some debate, Peter stood and declared,

"My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.  And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.  Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (Acts 15:6-11)

Then, the whole assembly listened to Paul and Barnabas tell of “the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.” (Acts 15:12)  When they had finished, James, the brother of Jesus and perhaps one of the most influential members of the church in Jerusalem, affirmed the witness of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, concerning the Gentiles, and acknowledged that the prophets themselves had anticipated the inclusion of Gentiles among God’s people.  To resolve the present dispute, James proposes something of a compromise, which would allow the Gentiles to forgo circumcision, but otherwise abide by a “lite” version of the law of Moses.  The leaders in Jerusalem composed a letter to Antioch which assured the Christians in Antioch that the Jerusalem leaders were not complicit with the earlier visitors who had initiated the dissension, and that the Jerusalem leaders only required that the Gentiles abstain from anything that had been sacrificed to idols and from fornication. (Acts 15:23-29)  The letter was well received in Antioch.

It seemed the crisis had been resolved, though Paul’s letter to the Galatians indicates the dissension between Christian Gentiles and Christian Pharisees[3] persisted after the Council of Jerusalem.  Before moving on to the epistles, though, consider how Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and the leaders in Jerusalem regard the authority of Scripture in their discernment.  The Scripture, in their case, refers to the Law and the Prophets, what we generally regard as the Old Testament.  The Christian Pharisees rightly observe that the law - that is Scripture - requires that God’s people be circumcised, and every Jew, including Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, would know this.  The Scripture is clear on this point.

Yet, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas insist that this point of Scripture – this clear command from God - may be set aside, so as not to burden Gentile converts.  Shall we assume that these three had little or no regard for the authority of Scripture?  That would be unlikely.

What I notice is the methodology these three employ to interpret and apply Scripture.  Specifically, they appeal to empirical evidence of the Holy Spirit active in the lives of Gentile converts, and they let the evidence of the Holy Spirit inform their understanding of Scripture.  The evidence is not just “private revelations” or personal interpretation; on their way to Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas make a point of inviting the churches of Phoenicia and Samaria to discern for themselves what God has done among the Gentiles, without the benefit of circumcision!  They invite the Jerusalem church to do the same.  Peter also appeals to the empirical evidence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of uncircumcised Gentiles in his speech before the Council of Jerusalem, referring to his earlier experience with Cornelius and the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10:44-48).  Their methodology stands in contrast to that of the Christian Pharisees, who require an uncritical interpretation and application of the law in Scripture, without regard to anything the Holy Spirit may be doing – and especially if the Holy Spirit is doing something new and unexpected when judged against the law.

Paul and the Galatians

Even a casual reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians reveals how very frustrated – even exasperated – Paul was with those who continued to insist on an uncritical application of the law in the life of a believer as a condition for justification before God.  He begins with a brief greeting, followed immediately by an indictment against the Galatian Christians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).  Paul is of course the one who called them in the grace of Christ, and he reminds them of his bona fides by reciting his own abridged autobiography, with particular emphasis on his divine charge to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.[4]  But, what is the “different gospel” – which is no gospel at all – to which Paul refers?

It is abundantly clear throughout this letter, that obedience to the law as a requirement for justification before God is a “different gospel” [5] from the gospel Paul first proclaimed to the Galatians.  According to Paul, this is the true gospel:

“… we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.  And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Gal 2:16)

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.” (Gal 2:19b-21)

As in Acts, the Holy Spirit figures prominently in Paul’s understanding of what God is doing.  Notably, obedience to the law has nothing to do with receiving the Holy Spirit, which for both Peter and Paul, confirms God’s justification of the believer (Acts 10:44-47; Acts 15:8-9).  Paul is emphatic that the believers received the Holy Spirit by believing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and living “by faith in the Son of God” (Gal 3:2-5).  So significant is this point for Paul, that he writes:

“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” [6] (Gal 3:23-29)

Paul even goes so far as to state that those who rely on works of the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10).  If we depend on the law for our justification, we are bound to the entire law; we don’t get to be selective about it, choosing to do “this” while disregarding “that”.  And the futility of keeping the entire law dooms us (Gal 4:2-4).  Instead, Paul insists that it is through the Holy Spirit, by faith, that we are assured of justification before God (Gal 4:5).

If we have no law to bind us, what governs our conduct?  If Christ has freed us from the law by faith, what is the practical consequence of that freedom?  Paul argues that we have received Christ’s own freedom; believers have been made God’s children, and “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (Gal 4:6).  If this is true – if the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, dwells in us – then Christ possesses our lives.  As a duck will act like a duck, and a horse like a horse, so Christ will act as Christ – so those possessed by Christ will act as Christ.  And to act as Christ is to share God’s love with the whole world, and in so doing, perfectly accomplish the law’s purpose without its curse.  “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5:14)

Before concluding his letter, Paul contrasts the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16 – 6:10), listing specific examples of each.[7]  The examples are by no means exhaustive, and they are also not “new” laws; Paul is not replacing the Law of Moses with the Law of Paul.  His entire argument in this letter is adamantly opposed to Christian enslavement to doing works of law – any law! – as the basis for justification before God.  Christ will act as Christ, and so will Christians when the Spirit of Christ is in us.  Paul’s lists illustrate the point that we know what is – and is not – loving to our neighbor.  And we ought to know better than to mock the Spirit of Christ that dwells in us by indulging ourselves at our neighbors’ expense.

The Apostolic Model of St. Paul

In both Acts and Galatians, observable evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in believers’ lives is ample proof for Paul (as well as Peter and Barnabas) that believers are justified before God.  Examples of that observable evidence include “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23), as well as “extolling God” (Acts 10:46).  Absent from these examples is “obedience to the law”.  In fact, Paul could not be clearer that those who require obedience to the law – even one commandment of law – for one’s justification, are themselves under a curse (Gal. 3:10). 

Using words like “curse”, “slavery”, “turning to a different gospel”, and “false believers”, Paul refuses any compromise that concedes that obedience to the law has any salvific consequences for believers.  To do so would imply that Christ died for nothing (Gal. 2:21).  Paul even rejects a partial submission to the law as acceptable, putting him at odds not only with the Christian Pharisees, but with James and the leaders of the Jerusalem church, who proposed a kind of “lite” law for Gentile Christians.[8]  If believers maintain that they are bound by any part of the law, they are subject to the entire law – and are therefore doomed (Gal. 5:2-6).

Having been justified by faith, Paul admonishes believers to live by the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us.  This is extraordinary counsel – and terrifying to some.  The reassuring do’s and don’ts of the law are gone, leaving us in the perilous wilderness without a tried and true survival handbook.  Instead, we’ve been handed a compass called the Holy Spirit, and told to make our way with confidence.  What kind of insane God are we dealing with?  (Think of the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai.)

But Paul insists we know how to read this compass; the Spirit dwells in the believer, and by that Spirit our faith comes alive in our actions.  We will find a depth of understanding and courage that no survival handbook – the collected wisdom and witness of others who’ve gone before us – could ever provide by itself.  We will have come to understand what lies at the heart of the handbook – the truth which those who’ve gone before were always trying to reveal, however imperfect their witness or our comprehension may have been – by trusting the compass of the Holy Spirit to guide us.  Terrifying stuff!  But, it is the way of faith; the Way of Jesus.

And the Way of Jesus bears fruit – the fruit of the Spirit.  Paul believed that the fruit of the Spirit was as obvious to believers as was works of flesh (Gal. 5:19-26).  Paul was convinced that when we live by the Spirit, we will know how to love our neighbor as ourselves, and perfectly fulfill the law in a way that obedience to the law could never do (Gal. 5:13-15). 

Paul’s treatment of the law reveals more broadly his approach to Scripture, and what the authority of Scripture meant to him in practice.  He insisted that the Holy Spirit must inform our understanding of Scripture, implicitly and explicitly rejecting the spiritless practices of the Christian Pharisees.  The Holy Spirit reveals God’s will in the lives of those in whom the Spirit dwells, and in ways that are broadly visible to believers – not just in personal or esoteric visions.  Believers know the Spirit is at work by the fruit of the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit always reveals God’s love for the world, and our love for our neighbor.

Paul and the ELCA

It seems to me that the current dissension in the ELCA – concerning changes to Ministry Policies and, to some extent, adoption of the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust – follows a pattern not at all unlike that of the dissension between the Christian Pharisees and Paul et al. in the first century.  One party insists that the ELCA is abandoning the ancient witness and authority of Scripture by altering long-held beliefs and practices vis-à-vis same-gender relationships and intimacy.  An opposing party insists we take into account the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gay and lesbian believers, and like Paul, let the Spirit of Christ inform our understanding of Scripture and our practice.  The ELCA’s 2009 Assembly attempted a solution similar to that of the Council of Jerusalem, by adopting changes that would fully accept gay and lesbian believers in the life and work of the church (and without putting God to the test by trying to constrain whom the Holy Spirit calls to faith and service), while simultaneously accommodating those whose bound consciences require obedience to the law (through a “local option” mechanism, details of which have yet to be developed and announced).

In the first century, the Christian Pharisees were not satisfied with the Jerusalem compromise, and continued their efforts to require Gentile believers to submit to the law.  We see the same development today, with organized efforts to actively attack the Assembly and the ELCA with rhetorical excess and financial retaliation, while aggressively working to force submission to the law throughout the Church. [9]  Evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of gay and lesbian believers has been dismissed as either irrelevant to the question of what the law requires, or as nothing more than evidence of this world’s evil infecting the Church – a risky suggestion, given Jesus’ warning to those who accuse the Holy Spirit of doing evil. (Matthew 12:24-32; Mark 3:22-30)

But, the apostle Paul’s gospel of Jesus Christ also resonates in the Church today.  Apostolic Christians believe in the Holy Spirit as more than a cognitive principle, but as the living Spirit of Christ dwelling in believers as much today as in any other century.  That Spirit sets us free from bondage to the law, and opens our eyes to perceive what lies at the heart of the law.  When we live by the Spirit of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will follow.  And we will know the fruit of the Spirit because it will reveal our love for all people, as God loves all people.  The Holy Spirit will inform our understanding of the law and the prophets – our understanding of the Scripture.

Key to Paul’s argument is examples of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.  He appealed to evidence available for all to see, and invited the Christians in Phoenicia, Samaria, Jerusalem, and Galatia to look and discern the evidence of Christ’s Spirit in their fellow believers and in themselves.  The fruit of the Spirit will be obvious to believers.  We are invited to do the same[10], and those of us who have experienced the ministries of pastors in same-gender relationships have seen in them ample evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in extolling God, in offering Christ’s love and peace to all people, and in demonstrating patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, despite the pain inflicted upon them by others’ contempt, false accusations, and outright persecution.

And where the Christian Pharisees saw – and see – doom and gloom, apostolic Christians saw – and see – the Holy Spirit and mission opportunities in abundance.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
[2] CONSTITUTIONS, BYLAWS, AND CONTINUING RESOLUTIONS of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, §2.03.
[3] In Acts, Paul’s adversaries are referred to as Pharisees; in Galatians, Paul refers to them as the “circumcision sect”.  It’s unclear whether they are the same “party”, but they clearly maintain identical positions with regard to obedience to the law.  Throughout my paper, “Christian Pharisees” refers generally to those who maintain the same position as those with whom Paul contended in Antioch and Jerusalem.
[4] Arguably, Paul’s recollection of events is not exactly identical to Luke’s recollection in Acts.  But, common experience suggests that it is not unusual for two people to remember events, and their significance, differently.
[5] In contemporary intra-Christian polemics, it’s not unusual for one party to accuse the other of “turning to a different gospel” as a cheap rhetorical maneuver.  But, it’s important to note that Paul is referring specifically to the false teaching that one is justified before God by works of law, as opposed to justification by faith.
[6] Being “Abraham’s offspring”, and therefore heirs to God’s promise to Abraham, was (and is) a significant concern to Christians, which is why obedience to the law was (and is) such a troubling issue in the church. 
[7] Beware the temptation to apply pagan Greek dualism (“form” vs. “substance”) to Paul’s contrast between “works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit”.  Paul is not speaking of an ontological dualism between flesh and spirit in the human person, which is a pagan idea.  Paul is contrasting behavior that is unloving or destructive of our relationships with one another in Christ (works of the flesh), with behavior that is loving toward others and embodies Jesus’ own presence (fruit of the Spirit).
[8] Personally, I sympathize with James’ predicament, and I appreciate his efforts to find a way for Jewish and Gentile Christians to live in harmony with one another in the church.  The Jerusalem Council’s compromise seems to have been a practical solution providing a kind of “local option”, but it failed under continued pressure from Christian Pharisees to require circumcision of Gentile believers, which in turn produced Paul’s rigorous theological argument against Christian “enslavement” to the law.
[9] These efforts have been largely coordinated by an organization called Lutheran Coalition for Renewal (Lutheran CORE).  Their homepage provides access to information regarding their purpose and efforts:
[10] In 2007 and 2009, the organization Goodsoil ( published devotional booklets which featured devotions by, and biographies about, gay and lesbian Christian leaders in, or associated with, the ELCA.  The booklets are titled A Place Within My Walls ( and One Table, Many Blessings (  The biographies in these booklets invite all believers to see and discern evidence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gay and lesbian Christians.