Saturday Night Theologian
1 June 2008

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28

What does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean claiming the name of Christ, wearing a cross around your neck, putting a fish magnet on your car, attending church regularly, or self-identifying as a Christian? Or does it mean following the teachings and example of Jesus? In his new book Grand Theft Jesus, history professor Robert McElvaine says that many people who think of themselves as Christians are really not Christians at all, at least in the sense of following Jesus' teachings. Led by flamboyant preachers who have hijacked the name of Jesus, they lash out against gays, evolution, alcohol, and separation of church and state (things that Jesus never spoke about), but they support war, care little for the poor, and often discriminate against women in their churches (things Jesus was concerned about). Today's reading from Deuteronomy says that God's followers should keep God's words ever before them, teach them to their children, and obey them. As Christians, despite what some fundamentalist preachers say, it is the words of Jesus that are the most important part of scripture. In fact, we must read the entirety of scripture through the lens of the words and deeds of Jesus. Thus, the immediate context of the passage from Deuteronomy speaks of God driving out the inhabitants of the land before the children of Israel, but Jesus instructed his followers to love even the most hated of their neighbors, the Samaritans, like brothers and sisters. Too many contemporary people who claim the name of Jesus are more Constantinian than Christian, McElvaine says, and I agree. The religion that became dominant under Constantine allowed the use of force to "convert" the heterodox and confront enemies, but Jesus taught his followers to be peacemakers. The religion of Constantine's day discriminated against women, but Jesus had close followers who were women, and he had social contacts with women that were considered scandalous (the contacts, and sometimes also the women). The religion of Constantine's day put more emphasis on doctrine than praxis; Jesus' emphasis was just the opposite. So yes, it is important for followers of God to keep the words of scripture in mind, but Christians should commit themselves to reading and living those words in light of the life and work of Jesus.

Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24

The U.S. has recently been struck by a number of tornados, which have destroyed homes and businesses and killed several people. Inevitably after a serious storm, many who have been saved will express their thanks to God for delivering them from danger. It is entirely appropriate to do so, but what can we say about those who did not survive, who apparently did not benefit from God's protection? Most people--with the exception of a few prominent televangelists--know better than to equate death in a storm with God's punishment or to see God's deliverance from harm as a reflection on the piety of the people preserved or the power of their prayers. People with common sense and a little bit of familiarity with the ways of God know that sometimes the good are taken young, and sometimes those who don't seem to deserve it live to a ripe old age. Psalm 31 is classified as a psalm of complaint, because the psalmist sees himself as being in danger and asks God for deliverance. Like many complaint psalms, this one ends on a positive note, thanking God for delivering the psalmist from desperate circumstances. God very often delivers the faithful from the predicaments in which they find themselves, whether caused by the vagaries of weather, disease, or human oppression, and for that reason people of faith can live their lives confident in God's protection. Sometimes, however, for reasons unknown to mortals, God's protection is not there, and people suffer and die. People of faith know, however, that even if God's deliverance isn't present, God's presence always is, and they can walk the final journey of their lives with their redeemer.

Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28, (29-31) (first published 29 May 2005)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship, warns his readers against adopting the notion of "cheap grace." As others have said, the grace of God may be free, but it's not cheap. Grace is the path that we all must take to God, and we first step onto the path through faith. The first two verses in today's reading from Romans comprise Paul's thesis statement for the book. "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God resulting in salvation to everyone who has faith, for the Jew first and also for the Greek." Paul recognized something that many of his contemporaries, and many of our contemporaries, don't: that salvation, or deliverance, is available to everyone, not just those of a certain ethnic group, nationality, or social class. Everyone who has faith has access to God's deliverance. But what is faith? We will discuss in the next commentary on Matthew more about what faith is, but what it is not is mental acceptance of a set of doctrines. Paul continues, "For in it (the gospel) the righteousness (or justice) of God is revealed from faith to faith, for those who are justified by faith shall live." Although the traditional translation of the end of this verse is "the just shall live by faith," it is clear from Paul's argument throughout the rest of the book of Romans that "the just" are those who have been justified "by faith" in Jesus Christ: these are the ones who will live. God's salvation is totally encompassed by faith (from faith to faith). Paul rejects the notion that people can achieve salvation through works. Faith isn't just as easier way to salvation, it is the only way. But, in fact, faith is not really an easy way at all, as Bonhoeffer points out. Faith involves a commitment of one's whole life and a rejection of one's past. It is necessary for salvation because "all have sinned and continue to fall short of the glory of God." It is sufficient for salvation because God has justified them through grace. Just as faith is not simply assent to a set of doctrines, and just as grace is not cheap, so salvation is not a fire insurance policy. The biblical concept of salvation involves deliverance from slavery of all sorts, both literal (as in the exodus) and figurative (e.g., deliverance from illness or from the bondage of sin). This rich passage is full of theological gold with many wide-ranging applications for Christians in today's world, so I will content myself with one other observation. The phrase "faith in Jesus Christ" that appears in 3:22 and 26 is probably better translated "faith of Jesus Christ." In other words, Paul says that God justifies those who have the faith of Jesus, that is, those who have the kind of faith in God that Jesus had. What kind of faith was that? Among other things, it was a total trust in God to guide him through thick and thin. It was confidence that God would stand by him during the toughest times of life. It was assurance that God rewards those who do what is right.

Matthew 7:21-29 (first published 29 May 2005)

A new movie called "Kingdom of Heaven" is in the theaters now. It is set during the Crusades, and it follows the fortunes of a Christian soldier during the twelfth century. Though I haven't seen the movie yet, I understand that the soldier in question comes to understand that the Crusade in which he is involved is a perversion of the gospel of God's love for all nations. Unfortunately, most of those involved in the wars never came to that understanding. Soldiers volunteered to fight in the Crusades because they were promised entrance into the kingdom of heaven should they die in combat, and Christian leaders praised the war as God's will. If the Crusades had had a slogan, it might have been "Kill a Muslim for Jesus (or a Jew, if you can't find a Muslim)." How can such a perversion of the gospel ever have been condoned by the church? Somehow, somewhere, someone seriously misunderstood or misrepresented the gospel message. Jesus knew that people would one day distort his message yet claim to be his faithful followers. In today's reading from Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that actions speak louder than words. Jesus' followers are not those who claim his name the loudest but those who imitate his example the most faithfully. Jesus then tells a parable about one man who built his house on a rock and another who built his house on the sand. The house on the sand washed away when the storm came, but the house on the rock stood firm. I've usually heard this parable explained by saying that the man who built his house on the rock represents those who put their trust in Christ. That's true, but only if "trust in Christ" is defined properly. Trust in Christ does not entail adherence to a certain set of beliefs, nor does it involve exhibitions of spirituality. Trust in Christ involves simple obedience to the teachings of Christ, and that is the true essence and the proper outcome of faith. I don't think this parable should be understood as absolute in the sense that it refers to some people who are completely faithful and others who are completely unfaithful. On the contrary, we all build houses on the sand sometimes, and those houses will be washed away. When we forget to show mercy to the poor, we build our house on the sand. When we put the flag above the cross, or equate the flag with the cross, we build our house on the sand. When we pray for the safety of our countrymen and for the destruction of our enemies, we build our house on the sand. When we get complaisant about millions who are infected with AIDS or other infectious diseases, we build our house on the sand. When we spend every last dime we have on ourselves and neglect those in need, we build our house on the sand. In the previous commentary on Romans, I asked the question, what is faith? According to this passage in Matthew, faith is really faithfulness: doing the will of God, as revealed through Jesus, to the best of our ability.