From one perspective, today’s Supreme Court decisions in the DOMA and California Prop 8 cases move the U.S.A. much further down the road to full equality for same-sex couples and their civil liberties to freely live family life and enjoy the same benefits afforded different-sex couples under federal law. Delivering the majority opinion of the Court today, Justice Kennedy wrote, “[Same-sex marriage in New York] reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.” From another perspective, today’s decisions greatly erode the “traditional” definition of marriage between a “man” and a “woman” and thus erode the social institution of marriage as the “bedrock” social institution of civilization. Beginning his dissent from the majority in the DOMA decision, Justice Alito wrote: “Our Nation is engaged in a heated debate about same-sex marriage. That debate is, at bottom, about the nature of the institution of marriage.” Later, on page 8 of Alito’s dissent, he wrote, “The family is an ancient and universal human institution. Family structure reflects the characteristics of a civilization, and changes in family structure and in the popular understanding of marriage and the family can have profound effects.” From yet another perspective, today’s decisions are about “power,” namely, who has legitimate power to decide these complicated issues. Beginning his dissent, Justice Scalia wrote, “This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case … The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution [SCOTUS] in America.” [Read more…]
Recently when I was driving our son Tim to school, he started a conversation with me about something from last year’s school experience when he was in first grade. It reminded me of something from the year before when he was in kindergarten at Clissold Elementary in Chicago. I brought up the kindergarten experience and asked him if he remembered it. “No,” he said. “Do you remember your kindergarten teacher’s name?” “Um, lemme see … um … no, I don’t remember.” What? I thought to myself. You don’t remember her name! That awesome teacher?! I tried to help him remember, but he could not. When I recalled her name for him, then Tim exclaimed, “Oh, now I remember!”
At the age of seven, Tim lives his life just beyond the event horizon of the black hole of his young childhood memories. As with all of us, those memories will exert unconscious power and presence on his life throughout the years and decades to come. Those of you who currently have children five and younger presently know how to savor sweet and tender moments with them as they marvel at snowfall and the twinkling of stars and how to see the bright side of their silliness in singing the same songs over and over again, even though their endless repetition may annoy you time-to-time … or even most of the time! Time with children is so precious, and it goes by all too quickly.
There is no one “perfect” way to raise children as there are numerous challenges, developmental differences, and diverse needs for each unique child. There is no one experience we can manufacture for our children to help them develop into mature, responsible, nurturing adults. But there is one critical early life experience we all have in common that does shape and even determine how we will grow up: our birth. All factors and circumstances surrounding our birth are completely beyond our control. And in our birth the stage is set for our lives: our financial status, our place in racialized schemes of dominance and hierarchy, our political views, and even our religious identity. According to the 2007 Pew Forum “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” of more than 36,000 Americans, only 16% of adult Protestants changed from a childhood religious affiliation outside of Protestantism, namely Roman Catholicism. Changing from childhood affiliation with one major world religion to a different one in adulthood is extremely rare, and a majority of those who do change major religious affiliation from childhood do so through marriage.
Considered collectively, the circumstances of our birth is the number one factor determining our place in society. And here is a confounding truth about our birth: we don’t remember our birth. We may have later learned about the circumstances of our birth, but we do not remember our birth. Even if we could remember our birth, memory is a process so constantly in flux and under re-construction that our memory of our birth would bear little to no resemblance to the reality of that day.
We universally share the birth experience; we enter the world of blinding light and noise from a world of relative darkness and calm; we have no control over and no memory of our birth. Could it be that such an experience as birth is universal not solely because of its biological realities but also because of its theological realities? Could it be that the helpless and transitory nature of the birth experience make it a great blessing of God?
Because of birth’s determinative power on one’s life, perhaps it is truly a blessing beyond comprehension that we don’t have control over it or memory of it. Don’t we have enough in our lives over which we feel guilt, shame, and helplessness? We should not worry: If only I was born to so-and-so, with such-and-such wealth, in a different, better time, in a different, better place, then I would be happy, then things would be perfect.
How quickly we grow up and how easily we forget the miracle of Jesus’s birth … and the miracles of our own births. Recently I heard on the radio a medical researcher of the human microbiome share with the public astonishing scientific knowledge about our bodies. The current medical paradigm is that we are sterile in the womb but through birth we are introduced to billions of organisms that colonize us, and several such organisms provide us life-giving benefits, such as enabling us to digest milk. These non-human colonies of organisms–for good or for ill–become part of “us.” In fact, by cell count, these non-human organisms outnumber our human cells ten-to-one; there are tens of trillions of them on us and in us, and they make up about two-to-three pounds of our adult weight. I imagine many people are be freaked out by these bizarre biological realities … but they–the non-human organisms– are beyond our control. In my opinion, knowledge of the human microbiome only reinforces what the psalmist says in Psalm 139, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.
The God of all creation entered this world through humble circumstances. God choose way less than perfect circumstances to enter history in the baby Jesus. And yet, in the stories of Jesus, in the Bible, we encounter storytellers re-fashioning the way less than perfect realities of Jesus’s arrival on the world’s stage by fitting him into the grand expectations of the people of Israel for a messiah. Enter the references to empire and the leaders of empire. Enter the prophetic pronouncements about the “messenger” coming before the messiah to prepare the “way of the Lord.” Enter the crowds, the miracles and the healings, the political intrigue and the zealotry for overthrowing empire’s domination of the homeland. So many high human expectations for all sorts of problems to be solved and salvation to be dispensed by Jesus. So much yearning for divine perfection from the ministry of Jesus. So much consternation with his teaching about the happiness of the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek. So much arguing about who is the greatest. So much denial and betrayal. So much for one person to fulfill. So much much noise in a short life bookended by a humble birth and a humiliating execution as a common rebel. Where is the Good News among all the noise?
The Christian New Testament re-fashions Old Testament texts to describe the circumstances of Jesus’s birth and ministry. The early Jewish followers of Jesus re-fashioned Jewish scriptures to tell the story of Jesus as the messiah because prophets and sages for centuries re-told the theological stories of their people and their struggles and successes in obeying Torah instruction from their God. In those stories the main character was God, Israel collectively, or possibly a future messiah, which for Jesus’s followers was Jesus.
In today’s scriptures we heard about prophetic messengers calling out to prepare the way of the Lord at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. We hear of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire” and the “refiner and purifier of silver” and via Luke of Isaiah’s making “paths straight,” raising “valleys,” and lowering “mountains.” We may hear these scriptures summarized as this: “Make the way of the Lord perfect!” For Christians this kind of talk is about the preparation of the circumstances for the birth of God into human history as one of us. God is at work preparing the circumstances of Jesus’s birth into the world. This is the one exception to my earlier dogmatic claim that we don’t control the circumstances of our own birth. God is at work preparing the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, and since Jesus is God-with-us, Immanuel, God is in control of God’s own birth into the world. And how did God choose to be born into this world? As the son of a king, with vast wealth and armies? As the son of a great prophet with masterful oratory and the attention of the ears of royalty? As the son of a mighty military leader, strong and victorious in battle? No, instead God violated common selfish human desires to have been born to a higher station in life by choosing to be born to an unwed teenage commoner and placed in a feeding trough because there was no private room made available for the birth.
In our culture full of noise and distraction, full of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on ourselves for Christmas, we should stop in the midst of it all, quiet our minds, and ask some difficult questions. Does our culture attune its desires for prestige, power, and wealth to classical notions of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present God?
Or is it the other way around? Do we attune our conceptions of God to the lives of people with immense prestige, power, and wealth over/against the lives of common people?
Are we trying through all of the trappings of Christmas to perfect the birth narrative of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, Immanuel, God-with-us to a narrative of material blessing and popularity?
Through all the hoopla, hustle, and bustle of Christmas, with all of its decorating, party-going, and gift-giving, are we trying to perfect our own personal narratives, which started in helpless transit at birth, to narratives of material blessing and popularity?
This Advent season let us give up on “perfect.” Let us give up on perfect personal narratives. So much of who we are came from our birth, in which we had no control. Let us give up on perfect conceptions of God. God came to be human with us in the vulnerable baby Jesus. Let us give up on perfect conceptions of human bodies. We have now learned to be human is also to be part non-human. Let us give up on pursuing perfect Christmas gifts to give. Some of the best gifts are simply time together, a reassuring word, a warm hug. Let us give up on the world’s understanding of “perfect.”
I want to close by asking you to do one practical thing this Christmas season to give up on “perfect.” Consider the most expensive gift you may have already bought or are planning to buy for one person who likely already has everything they need. Return that gift and get a refund or don’t buy it in the first place, and instead craft a handmade card to that person telling them how much you love them and that you gave the amount you saved to a worthwhile charity in their honor. By doing so you will give up a little bit on the world’s perfection and gain more the perfection of Christ who gave everything so that you may have eternal life. Amen.
How deep do you want to go? Your questions lead into a quagmire of thousands of years of Western philosophy and religion … and I love you going there! Come, get stuck with me and all other mountain-top sitters who love to contemplate these things!
You can read plenty of my own theological opinions and research in my thesis (shameless plug), “Theology and Technology: Humanity in Process” (PDF), explanation page here. I am largely agnostic on an immaterial “soul,” a Platonic soul that is ontologically a separate substance from the physical body, specially created at conception, conjoined with the body. If I have to be nailed down I suggest scientifically-informed positions of dual-aspect monism or emergentism (leaning heavily toward the later). Mostly, what you see is what you get. When you die, on this side of the Resurrection, your current earthly body is dead, “you” are not “in the grave” or in the “ashes” or “out there” somewhere in limbo or in the clouds awaiting for Resurrection. You go directly to the general Resurrection. There are some Bible verses in the New Testament that imply “waiting,” but all of those theories imply reincarnation, a “soul” re-inhabiting a body, which is not resurrection. The Book of Revelation: NEW heaven and NEW earth, not re-enfleshed, re-incarnated soul. 1 Cor 15: resurrected self is soma pneumatikon (spiritual-body) verus soma psychikon (soulish-body), i.e. “soulish” implying earthiness, Hebrew nephesh, Greek psyche. See my thesis on this distinction.
Oh, one more clarification. I teach and preach in the midst of death, grief, and funerals that in the blink of an eye, from the perspective of the deceased, the person who has died goes directly to the Resurrection at the “Other End of Time.” It’s about Time as the fourth dimension of the Universe. The Big Bang is actually just a finite “point” on the “sphere” of Time-Space, and at the “Other Side” of the “sphere” of Time-Space is the culmination of reality, i.e. Alpha and Omega, straight from Jesus in Revelation. 🙂
Thus, for us on this side of life/death our dearly departed’s body is dead. From the “dead’s” perspective, they are not “dead,” they are aliver than alive!
So, my loved ones who have died and have been buried or cremated are still on Earth waiting to be resurrected?
Yes. My position reflects the hard-core reality that on our present-earthly-life “side” of the Resurrection death is real and is to be mourned. The person is dead. At the same “time” (uh-oh, actually two different “times”), the “dead” person is instantly translated to the Resurrection and from their perspective “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). It’s about the re-creation of the entire universe, which on this “side” of things begs us to re-consider a completely different perspective of the whole shebang.
Again, the theological opinion/position of a simple Christian believer. No, they are not “on Earth” as we know it or in some ethereal realm or alternate dimension. They are dead from our perspective. From their perspective they are in the Resurrection / “Omega” part of the Universe/Time-Space. Death is real and I personally find it troubling to teach that loved ones are living some kind of lesser-than-full-resurrection-life as angels-in-the-clouds, an immaterial existence, twiddling their ethereal thumbs waiting for the real deal for thousands, millions, or even billions of years. No, we are instantly “with the Lord,” as Paul implies in Philippians 1:20-24. “To die is to gain” and “to be with Christ.” Doesn’t sound like immaterial angels-in-the-clouds existence to me. Christ arose “physically” from the grave, more precisely “soma-pneumatikonly” from the grave. We share in the same resurrection with the Christ.
That takes away the comfort I feel/felt at funerals that they were somehow in a “better place.”
Oh, boy, I hope it doesn’t take away the comfort! I’ve prayed this and preached this theology many times in my few years of experience as a pastor in the midst of death and grieving, sometimes literally as the people were dying or have just died. Many people have expressed heart-felt thanks for receiving this view of death and the after-life, and they find it deeply comforting. Personally, this is the absolute core of the Gospel and the one thing I believe most strongly in my theology and spirituality. I only say that I am “agnostic” on the issue of body/soul because it’s a terribly complex issue and the evidence is elusive. What do we know empirically about what happens after death? Not much, if anything, by definition. I am not not agnostic on the Gospel message of Resurrection! That’s what it’s all about, IMO.
Does Methodism have a one-two sentence answer to this question?
UMC’s official position? None that I know of. Sprinklings here and there, but when you look at the Service of Death and Resurrection in the Book of Worship you see what I’m preaching here all over that service. After all, we call it the service of “Death” AND “Resurrection” for Heaven’s/Alpha-Omega’s sake!
Today is Veterans Day, which has its origins in the November 11, 1918 armistice agreement to end WWI, 94 years ago today. WWI was known as the “Great War” and “the war to end all wars.” Within two decades after the end of the “war to end all wars,” Germany violated the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI and quickly occupied half of Europe. Europe plunged into continental-wide war again. Meanwhile, Japan invaded China and Manchuria–they had already occupied Korea for decades–and then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States, having been largely on the sidelines, entered full-force into WWII. By the end of the war in 1945, tens of millions of people were dead, millions were mercilessly exterminated in concentration camps, and tens of thousands of civilians were vaporized by Little Boy and Fat Man. In declaring the first anniversary of Armistice Day in 1919, President Woodrow WIlson said, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” How ironic it is that Congress declared “Armistice Day” a federal holiday on May 13, 1938, a day “dedicated to the cause of world peace” at the same time Germany took control of Austria and Japan reached the Yellow River in China.
In 1954 the name of the holiday was changed to “Veterans Day,” and in his proclamation on the occasion of the name change, President Eisenhower asked the United States to “let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”
PRESENTATION CEREMONY AT THE WHITE HOUSE, APRIL 21, 1966.
President Johnson’s Remarks Upon Awarding the Medal of Honor to Milton L. Olive III.
Mr. and Mrs. Olive, members of the Olive family, distinguished Mayor Daley, Secretary Resor, General Wheeler, Members of the Senate, Members of the House, ladies and gentlemen,
There are occasions on which we take great pride, but little pleasure. This is one such occasion. Words can never enlarge upon acts of heroism and duty, but this Nation will never forget Milton Lee Olive III.
The Medal of Honor is awarded for acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty. It is bestowed for courage demonstrated not in blindly overlooking danger, but in meeting it with eyes clearly open. He was compelled by something that’s more than duty, by something greater than a blind reaction to forces that are beyond his control.
And that is what Private Olive did. When the enemy’s grenade landed on that jungle trail, it was not merely duty which drove this young man to throw himself upon it, sacrificing his own life that his comrades might continue to live.
So in dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live.
In all of this there is irony, as there is when any young man dies. Who can say what words Private Olive might have chosen to explain what he did? Jimmy Stanford and John Foster, two of the men whose lives he saved that day on that lonely trail in that hostile jungle 10,000 miles from here are standing on the White House steps today because this man chose to die. I doubt that even they know what was on his mind as he jumped and fell across that grenade.
So Milton Olive died in the service of a country that he loved, and he died that the men who fought at his side might continue to live. For that sacrifice his Nation honors him today with its highest possible award.
He is the eighth Negro American to receive this Nation’s highest award.
So I can think of no more fitting tribute to him than to read from a letter that was written to me by this patriot’s father, dated March the 10th. And I quote:
“It is our dream and prayer that some day the Asiatics, and the Europeans, and the Israelites, and the Africans, and the Australians, and the Latins, and the Americans can all live in one world. It is our hope that in our own country the Klansmen and the Negroes, the Hebrews and the Catholics will sit down together in the common purpose of good will and dedication; that the moral and creative intelligence of our united people will pick up the chalice of wisdom and place it upon the mountain top of human integrity; that all mankind, from all the earth, shall resolve, ‘to study war no more.’ That, Mr. President, is how I feel and that is my eternal hope for our Great American Society.”
And ladies and gentlemen, I have no words to add to that.
From the Congressional Medal of Honor citation: “Private Olive and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle together when a grenade was thrown into their midst. Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body. Through his bravery, unhesitating actions, and complete disregard for his own safety, he prevented additional loss of life or injury to the members of his platoon.”
Milton Olive was just two weeks shy of his 19th birthday when he gave up his life for others. What was going through the mind of this young kid from the South Side of Chicago when he sacrificed his life in the far off jungles of Vietnam? We will never know.
One thing is sure for us as Christian believers, as we heard in the Gospel of John this morning: Jesus “knows all people” and Jesus knows “what is in everyone.” In Milton Olive III was the power to raise up life in the midst of destruction. Contained in his brief life was the central contradiction of human history, that life and its highest ideal of self-sacrifice for the common good shine brightest in the midst of warfare and destruction. In that brief incomprehensible moment when Milton Olive threw himself on that grenade he lived a lifetime of generosity and he preached the greatest sermon in the tradition of the prophets, in the tradition of Isaiah chapter two, as alluded to by Milton’s father in his hopeful letter to President Johnson, praying that we humans will “study war no more.” Isaiah preached that the Lord “shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Strewn throughout the pages of the Bible are several examples of when even God has to be reminded that violence and destruction are not proper paths to go down but rather generosity and forgiveness are the righteous ways. For example, just before the story we heard this morning from Exodus chapter 32, just before Moses comes down the mountain with the first set of tablets, God says to Moses after seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” And how does Moses respond to God after God says he wants to destroy the people? Moses says to God, “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
God changed his mind. And what caused God to change his mind? Moses. One single person acted as the catalyst for God to remember his generous promises. How sad it is, yet how deliciously ironic, that just a few verses later in the passage we heard this morning Moses forgot he had just begged God to relent, which God did, but then Moses came down the mountain full of rage and bent on destruction: As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
Troubling in the Exodus passage is what concludes chapter 32, God says, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. [And then] the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf.” From the troubling to the beautiful is Exodus, chapter 33, a dialog between Moses and God about what to do with the people. After their conversation, God comes sweeping though in his full glory, and Moses hides himself in a cleft in the mountainside. The result is a new, second set of tablets of instruction to give to God’s people. This is when the Lord teaches Moses (and us) that he is a God of enduring love (to the thousandth generation), “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” I admit, this sounds difficult, “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon … the third and the fourth generation.” But think about what the scriptures are saying here. God’s generosity extends to 1000 generations versus only 3-4 generations for the negative effects of sin. Of course these numbers of generations are not to be taken literally but rather they illustrate that God’s love and generosity reach far beyond the human circumstances of sin.
Do you feel caught up in the destructive influence of those generations who have gone before you? Be they parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles, friends or co-workers, ex-spouses or current spouses? Are you drinking water made bitter by the powder of pulverized idols? Do the ruined idols of your life poison your ability to live generously? Have the idols of your life even been pulverized yet? Have you looked to the Bible over and over again for answers to your difficult questions and for healing to your pain only to find cryptic texts, hopelessly out of date and locked up tight by another time and culture? If so, then don’t be afraid to act like Moses, to smash the tablets, to smash the Bible, to smash your faith against the destructive things in your life. If the Bible breaks, even if your faith breaks, do not worry because God is “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” and God will give you a new understanding of the Bible, a new understanding of faith.
We are made in the image and likeness of God, and thus it is in our nature to be “merciful and gracious, slow to anger.” This is the essence of generosity, to be merciful and gracious. We worship God in the spirit of mercy and grace every Sunday morning in this sanctuary that dates back to the close of the Civil War. Our worship fans the flames of our generous spirits by reminding us that even though destruction may be all around us and throughout the world, we are a people who celebrate and worship the Risen Christ who promises to make all things new. We need not fear the destruction of anything or anyone in our lives because God will raise us all up in the fullness of time. We also need not fear giving away as much of ourselves as we can to the service of others because that is what Jesus did for us. He generously gave himself up for us so that we may become the Body of Christ for the world.
In a heartbeat Milton Olive gave himself up for his comrades, not knowing if they would make it out alive. Betrayed by a kiss, Jesus gave himself up for us knowing full well what we would become. And now Jesus calls us to live as generously as we can to give life to others, full of manifold blessings and disasters. He calls you to be raised up with him in the midst of whatever decay and destruction you may happen to be in. “So in dying, Private Milton Olive taught those of us who remain how we ought to live,” said President Johnson. The Gospel of John: “His disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” Amen.
The following is the text I prepared for my sermon Sunday, October 21, 2012, at Plainfield UMC. This sermon focused on the second part of our mission statement: “Equipping people for a growing relationship with Jesus Christ to serve all.” The thesis is that we can be extremely well equipped, but if we’re not standing for Jesus and resisting the “ways of the world,” i.e. “sin,” then we’re not building strong “faith muscles.” A “growing relationship” with Jesus / faith in Jesus grows and strengthens from “resistance training.”
“Resistance is futile?” Can anyone identify how this catch phrase was popularized in culture?
Wikipedia: “The Borg are a collection of species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the collective or the hive. A pseudo-race, dwelling in the Star Trek universe, the Borg take other species by force into the collective and connect them to ‘the hive mind’; the act is called assimilation. The Borg’s ultimate goal is ‘achieving perfection’. The origin of the Borg is never made clear, though they are portrayed as having existed for hundreds or thousands of years. In the movie Star Trek: First Contact, the Borg Queen merely states that the Borg were once much like humanity, ‘flawed and weak’, but gradually developed into a partially synthetic species in an ongoing attempt to evolve and perfect themselves.”
Borg Queen: “Assimilation turns us all into friends. In fact, it brings us so close together we can hear each other’s thoughts.” Doesn’t that creep you out? Yet, we likely find the idea of “being friends” or at least “getting along” with everyone an appealing ideal. Remember Rodney King’s public appeal in the midst of the Los Angeles riots of 1992? “Can we all get along?” The Borg, however, want much more than just “getting along” with each other, and certainly much more than mere coexistence, they want “assimilation,” which has as its ultimate goal, “achieving perfection.”
“Achieving perfection” as a goal should sound familiar to us as Methodists. From the earliest days of the Methodist movement, under the leadership of John Wesley, our forebears taught the concept of “Christian perfection.” What is Christian perfection? They answered: “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love.” Wesley wrote of his early encounters with the concept of Christian perfection: “Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having ‘the mind which was in Christ’, and of ‘walking as Christ also walked’; even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in him; and of walking as he walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things. And this was the light, wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as an uniform following of Christ, an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.”
Last Sunday we heard Ephesians 4: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” We are “one body” in Christ. And consider these words from the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Do we pursue the goal of “Christian perfection” through “assimilation” into the “one body” or “one mind” of Christ? Does an individual, personal relationship with Jesus Christ actually require, as Wesley taught, “an entire inward and outward conformity to [Jesus as] our Master?” “Entire conformity?” Doesn’t that sound Borg-like? In our highly individualistic culture, doesn’t talk of “assimilation” and “conformity” make us squirm and even rebel? What about these Christian ideas of being “of one mind” with a bunch of other people? What about being “one body?”
We probably find disturbing placing side-by-side our cherished ideas of Christian “oneness” and the concept of “assimilation” by the Borg of Star Trek fame. Contemplating our human nature in this way may make us confused and uncomfortable and our human nature appears to be self-contradictory: we instinctually think and react as individuals, constantly on guard against outside forces that may harm us. We value strongly our individual liberties and freedoms, so much so that we have enshrined some of them as rights guaranteed by our Constitution. Yet to survive we must work interdependently within various social groups whose group survival depends on varying levels of selflessness, and in some groups even complete self-sacrifice to the point of death.
So, what is true about human nature? Are we mostly individualistic? Or groupish?
In his fascinating recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt characterizes human nature as “90% chimpanzee and 10% bee,” a metaphor that attempts to explain the balance between our individualism and our groupishness. At the risk of gross oversimplification, Haidt locates ecstatic religious experience (including worship!) in our 10% bee-ish nature. We have an innate desire to, on occasion, turn on the “hive switch,” as he calls it, and become “one” with our surroundings and our fellow humans. Flipping the hive switch an attaining “at-one-ment” can happen when you’re totally alone, hiking in the middle of a beautiful landscape or while yelling at the replacement refs in a football stadium with tens of thousands of people. The loss of self and the feeling of absorption into the group or the “universe” is necessary to maintain health and happiness, so claims Haidt. Most, if not all, religions teach some kind of practice of seeking and entering into atonement. But let us not confuse our human feelings of and desires for atonement, as Haidt suggests with words like “groupishness” and “hive switch,” with the grand idea of atonement taught by the prophets and by the Lord Jesus Christ. We should not be afraid of our complex human nature and the different directions we are pushed and pulled in by complicated forces in society and by our own emotional states. On this side of life we are incomplete, at best, and unfinished works of God.
Our “growing relationship with Jesus Christ” is both individualistic and collectivistic. Consider the two readings from the Gospel of Luke this morning. The first reading from Luke 6 sounds very collectivistic, the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. [F]rom anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Yet the same writer puts these words in the mouth of Jesus in Luke 12: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” What do we do with these scriptures? Both claim to be the very words of Jesus! “Love your enemies” in one speech, and yet in another speech Jesus says he came to divide families! What on earth is going on here?!
A “growing relationship with Jesus Christ,” that’s what’s going on here! For anything to grow there has to be resistance, namely resistance to death. If two or three people in a family follow Christ, and the other two or three people do not follow Christ and live their lives in complete disregard to the lordship of Christ, then division is likely to happen. Resistance to abuse and neglect is essential for one’s survival. Resistance is not futile. But wait a second, you may think, didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 5, a parallel to Luke 6: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Jesus was saying do not flatout oppose and stand completely against another. Resistance is completely different. In Jesus’s example of striking the cheek, turning the other cheek is resistance to the ways of the world and our gut instincts that tell us to strike back in self-defense, to react with further and even increased violence. To strike back is not resistance; it is assimilation to violence and ultimately to death.
Resistance is absolutely not futile. Actually, resistance is absolutely essential to a “growing relationship with Jesus Christ” just as growing muscles comes from strengthening them through resistance training like lifting weights or working the machines at the Y. Similarly, relational resistance training for a “growing relationship with Jesus Christ” involves praying, studying the scriptures, worshipping, communing in small groups, giving, and witnessing. If you’re not doing these things because your faith is solely in your head or you are doing them, in various degrees, because they are your habits, then today is always a good day to reflect on just how and how much you are growing your faith by resisting the ways of the world, which would have us do them not at all or to do them without meaning, purpose, or self-understanding.
Last week Eun-Hye preached on “equipping” the saints for the work of ministry, and she used the metaphor of “head, heart, and hands/feet” with the head referring to being equipped, the heart to our relationships, and the hands/feet to serving. Some of the practices for relational training I have named, like praying and studying the scriptures, are also practices of equipping, but I want to express a crucial difference between being equipped and growing relationships through these spiritual practices. You can pray mightily to God every day and diligently study the Bible for years and thus be incredibly equipped to transform the world, but if you’re not resisting the world, that is, resisting sin at the same time, then you’re lifting one pound barbells and never moving to the heavier weights or to cardiovascular exercise to strengthen your heart, which will enable you to grow strong in your faith. And the stronger you grow in your faith–in your heart, the stronger your relationships will become with your family, with your friends, with your co-workers, and with Jesus. And then, yes, you can become “perfect.”
The early Methodists asked John Wesley: “But whom then do you mean by ‘one that is perfect’?” To which Wesley answered: “We mean one in whom is ‘the mind which was in Christ’, and who so ‘walketh as Christ also walked’; a man ‘that hath clean hands and a pure heart’, or that is ‘cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit’; one in whom is ‘no occasion of stumbling’, and who, accordingly, ‘does not commit sin’.” Wesley was clear later in life after his ideas of Christian perfection caused much controversy that “perfection” does not equate to “sinless.” He wrote: “And I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it. As to the manner [of Christian perfection]. I believe this perfection is always wrought in the soul by a simple act of faith; consequently, in an instant.”
May your growing faith with Jesus Christ always be open to glimpses of God’s grace in your imperfect relationships and in your private moments of atonement. And, to modify the words of the Borg Queen, may “our resistance to sin turn us all into friends and bring us so close together we can forgive each other’s sins.” Amen.