Saturday Night Theologian
24 June 2007

Isaiah 65:1-9

Who are the true Christians? I know some people who make a distinction between "Christians" (i.e., themselves) and "Catholics," the implication being, of course, that Roman Catholics aren't really Christians, presumably because they have some different beliefs, especially concerning what it means to "become a Christian." I've also met Catholics who believe that all Protestants--and probably the Orthodox as well--are not really Christians. There are still others who believe that only their particular denomination, or those who believe like they do on eschatological matters, or those who have had the same experiences with God are true Christians? The prophet has apparently encountered similar people who think that they are somehow holier than the rest of their compatriots. "Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you." It's been my experience that people who think they and their ilk are the chosen ones are detrimental to cause of Christianity, because they turn people away from the good news. Sometimes the "holier than thou" crowd is downright dangerous, particularly when they preach doctrines that are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus, for example, by supporting wars and other policies that are harmful to both the cause of Christ and to humanity as a whole. Instead of pushing people away, instead of setting ourselves apart from society, Christians should be a part of society, so that we can transform it into what God wants it to be, in cooperation with other people of faith. Instead of having church-related neighborhood socials whose sole or primary purpose is to get the names of "the lost" so that we can visit and convert them at our leisure, how much better would it be to be part of the neighborhood, sometimes holding our own events, sometimes joining with our other neighbors, showing real concern for all the needs and interests of our neighbors. True holiness will transform us into people who want to get to know other people so that we can share their triumphs and sorrows as we walk together with God.

Psalms 42-43

(first published 20 June 2004)

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.
One day when I was sitting in a seminary class, the topic of hymns came up. "I'll tell you the hymn I really don't like," one student said, "'In the Garden.' You know, 'He walks with me and he talks with me.' It's nothing but shallow sentimentality." I've always liked that hymn, because for some reason it struck a special chord in me when I was younger, so I spoke up in dissent. "It's no more sentimental than Psalm 42, which says, 'As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.'" Is Christianity a religion of reason, or is it a religion of emotion? I think both are necessary to appreciate the depths of the divine-human encounter. Christianity is a religion of the mind, fully compatible with the Enlightenment. It is based on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus, and it offers the intelligent believer an unlimited challenge as he or she seeks to understand God fully. It is also a religion of the soul, taking in the spirit of the Romantic period. It portrays a God who is enshrouded in mystery and beauty, and it offers the sensitive believer a personal encounter with the creator of the universe. The psalmist understood the absolute necessity for a personal encounter with God. "Why are you cast down, O my soul?" Because God seems to have abandoned him. What will restore joy to him? God's guiding presence in his life. Fundamentalism, like Deism, runs the risk of creating a version of Christianity that is so focused on intellectual analysis of God that it is devoid of a true, emotional relationship with God. May our souls truly long for God as we pursue an intellectually honest, spiritually meaningful, and emotionally fulfilling life.

Galatians 3:23-29

(first published 20 June 2004)

Legalism is a problem that has plagued Christianity from the very beginning, from the Judaizers who insisted that Gentile believers follow the rigors of the Jewish law (as they understood it), to many contemporary Christians who claim that true Christians must hold a certain set of beliefs and reject others in order to really be a Christian. Yes, there are doctrines that are central to Christianity, but even such bedrock notions as the Resurrection or the Trinity can be--and are--understood in a variety of ways. Paul portrays the Law as something that is good, but also as something that should be transcended in a mature faith. This understanding applies as well to modern versions of legalism as it did to the Law reflected in the understanding of certain Jewish leaders of Paul's day. The Law may dictate a hierarchical structure, in which men are superior to women, or in which one ethnic group or social class is better than another. This Law must be overcome, because in Christ all people are equal. We can learn from the Law both positive and negative lessons, but in the end, the Law doesn't dictate what we are to believe or how we are to live. Only through an authentic, ongoing encounter with the living God can we become the people God wants us to be. Many of us reject certain forms of legalism, yet we hang on to our own form. Maybe we reject fundamentalist strictures regarding the necessity of believing in biblical inerrancy, yet at the same time we insist that others agree with our understanding of salvation through Jesus Christ. We need to replace our legalism with love. Legalism separates believers from one another, but love binds us together. We will never show the world God's love by demanding that people follow our understanding of faith, but we might just be successful if we respect their beliefs, while demonstrating our love through concrete actions.

Luke 8:26-39

(first published 20 June 2004)

In the biblical story of Balaam, Balaam is riding his donkey down the road, after being invited by King Balak to come curse the Israelites. On three separate occasions the donkey sees the angel of the Lord blocking their way and turns aside, only to be beaten by Balaam. Finally, after the third beating, the donkey turns to Balaam and berates him for striking him, when all he was doing was trying to save Balaam's life. The story begs the question, "Who is the real jackass?" Humans, for all their intellectual ability, sometimes don't behave very intelligently. In today's Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man, and the demons beg to be cast into a herd of pigs rather than just "cast out." Jesus acquiesces to their request, but the pigs immediately run down the hill and drown themselves in the Sea of Galilee. It seems that the pigs were smarter than the man, preferring death to life under the control of Satan. Many people today are just as pig-headed--or rather, in the light of this story, where the pigs were smarter--human-headed. Unlike the demoniac in the story, they live their lives without any recognition that they are under the control of demonic forces (whether taken literally or figuratively). They support the demonic policy of virtually unlimited war. They oppress women and minorities. They disrespect and even blaspheme other religions. They vote for candidates who promise to kick back money in the form of tax rebates to them and their friends, while ignoring the plight of the poor, inadequate schools, and nonexistence health care. When we engage in evil, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, we are like the demoniac in the story, and we need Jesus to cleanse us from our errors. Another lesson from this story is that evil kills, but not necessarily the one who is evil. The demoniac freed from his oppressors unharmed, but both the pigs and their owners suffered, either physically or economically. Like the demoniac, the first thing we need to do is to identify the evil that is in our lives and cast it away from us. Then we will be in a position to follow Jesus, free of our moral encumbrances.