Friday, April 8, 2016

Faith in Action is Always Contextual

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…” (John 1:14a)

In the second century, a dangerous heresy threatened the Church in a really big way. The Gnostics taught that the material world didn’t matter so much – that Christian faith ought to be focused solely on "spiritual" matters. 

It was rightly understood then by the theologians who argued and fought about these questions that if God really did love the world enough to send a fully human being, born of a woman, not to condemn the world but to save it by living among us, breaking bread with sinners and outcasts, dying on a cross, and being raised on the third day, that this false teaching was clearly wrong. This doesn't ever mean heretics should be burned. It means that the Church has a right to teach what it perceives as the truth.

And we believe that the Word really did become flesh. This has huge implications for what faith-in-action means. It has huge implications for how those of us who preach the gospel share it. Pious platitudes rarely, if every, further the Reign of God. But when we get specific, there will always be conflict.

Let me offer an example. Everyone is for peace on earth, right? Good will toward all? This is what Christian faith is about – peace and good will and love and unicorns. (Well, not that last one but I wanted to see if you are still reading!) 

But if the Word has become flesh, to live among us, and if we have seen his glory, then we who follow the person Jesus need to listen to him. Time and again he moved from preaching to meddling. 

So let me follow suit. Jesus didn’t say “all lives matter.” Or maybe more accurately, when he did everyone smiled knowingly and agreed with him. Of course all lives matter. But Jesus found the crux of the matter by talking with a Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4) and making a Samaritan the hero of one of his parables (see Luke 11.) And then he said, essentially, “Samaritan lives matter.” And when he did that, the shit hit the fan.

Everyone is for peace on earth, yes? And good will toward all? But when Jesus looked at the economic systems in place at the outer edges of first-century imperial Roman power, he looked to the prophets for insight. In his very first sermon in his hometown he walks up and unrolls the scroll to the place where the prophet Isaiah had written: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (See Luke 4)

He makes it clear that he is no Gnostic when it comes to the economic realities of life. He does not come to speak platitudes to souls that will some day make it to heaven. He engages in what some might call "class warfare" by proclaiming good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight, letting the oppressed go free. Why? Because it’s the Jubilee! (See Leviticus 25.)

Faith-in-action is always contextual. To say this another way, because the Word has become flesh and because we follow Jesus of Nazareth and because we believe the Word of God to be contained in both the Old and New Testaments, then when Christians speak about gun violence or take a stand against war, we do so because we are part of the Jesus Movement that remembers the words of the prophets. We are not just generically for peace on earth. We proclaim that: 

He shall judge between many peoples,
    and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. (Micah 4:3)

Christians do and will probably always disagree on political matters. But the solution is not for us to avoid political questions, but to wade in more deeply. This is so important in this election year, but it's always been important. Our work is not to respond with knee-jerk ideological responses, but to engage each other and our neighbors who see things differently. We don’t have some direct line to God, so we cannot claim to have it all right. Always we see through a glass darkly. But these “worldly” concerns matter a great deal to people of faith and to suggest that believers can compartmentalize their lives into "spiritual" and "real world" matters is simply wrong. 

If you don’t know yet of the excellent work of the Social Justice Commission in the Diocese in which I serve, I commend it to you. It's a group effort called Not Only With Our Lips, a document which I played a very small role in helping to produce as a member of that Commission. The entire document is worth reading and it's not terribly long. But I offer these words here:

The Church can be a sign to the world of unity in the midst of difference. Although Christians share a commitment to justice, we may disagree regarding the best way to implement it and may hold quite different political views. Nevertheless, we seek to explore the common values that we share and to create a space in which to understand our differences. We know that all of us are equally welcome at God’s Table and equally beloved by God.

We don’t witness to our unity by avoiding the very real challenges of our day. Christians and other people of faith do care and should care very deeply about caring for the earth, healthcare, immigration, gun violence, racial inequality, and a whole bunch of others. All of these are rooted in our commitment to the dignity of every human being. We witness to our unity by speaking out, in love, as followers of Jesus. When we disagree about how best to implement these values, we need to go deeper, and listen to one another more intently. But we must never be silent. 

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