Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Merits

Matt. 16:18-19 "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

This part of Matthew's Gospel has carried a lot over the years. It is the only place in the gospels that the word "church" is used. It is the justification for Peter being considered the first Pope in Roman Catholic tradition and, since Jesus says that Peter will receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven, it ensures that Peter plays a prominent role in anything mentioning entry to heaven--art, pearly gates jokes, you name it.

This passage also re-names Peter. His name has been Simon before this, which is a Hebrew name meaning "to hear or be heard." But Jesus names him Peter (Cephas in the Greek), which means "rock." The whole passage is really a rather massive promotion. A rash fisherman becomes the rock on which the church is founded, is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and receives some significant spiritual power. Why? Because when Jesus' asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter responds that Jesus is the Messiah.

This story is just over midway through Matthew's Gospel. Peter is a lot of things at this point, but he is, frankly, nothing like a rock that anybody would build anything on. In fact, just five verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter with the words, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Apparently Peter is still stone-like, but his purpose has fallen from church foundation to stumbling block in a mere five verses. And of course it won't be long before Peter is famously denying that he even knows the guy who just promised him the keys to heaven.

This passage has been ringing in my ears lately because of all the "he doesn't deserve it" flap around President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I will grant the nay-sayers that no, he has not earned such a prestigious prize. But neither did Peter deserve his "rock" title, let alone the keys to the kingdom. I don't so much want to defend the decision of the Nobel committee as much as simply raise the question about why we Christians are so adamant that everyone earn everything.

There are certainly examples where Jesus responds to actual merit with reward. The whole final judgment scene in Matthew 25 is about rewarding those who have done actual good works. But there are also plenty of places where Jesus disregards merit completely--in fact, the entire theology of salvation in the Protestant tradition is grounded in the notion that we are receiving eternal life as an unmerited gift. We call that "grace." We sometimes work hard to try to make "having faith" into some kind of work that earns us that gift, but Protestants have gone to the mat for over a millennium now for the belief that we did not and cannot earn our salvation.

God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means the "father of a multitude," before he had even a single child. Simon became "the rock" and was promised the keys to the kingdom right before his most famous and utter failure. And Romans 5:8 spells out the most outrageous gift of all: "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us."

My entire book, God With Skin On, is based on the premise that we only come to understand the love of God by experiencing it first in the flesh. For that reason, in this world where we even make people prove they are worthy of charity, I am glad that the prestigious Nobel committee unanimously decided to bestow a new name on a promise and a hope, rather than a proven entity. It reminds me that I do not have to earn God's love, but rather live out my gratitude for it.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Undeserving Neighbors

Romans 5:8 “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

We live in pretty strange times. During the Bush years we heard a lot about the Christian influence on government and how we were a “Christian nation.” And there was a lot of emphasis on social values related to abortion and gay marriage. Christians differ about those things (although you never would have known it from the media) but you did have the sense that the religious community was thinking about policy and at least trying to apply it.

Now, in our new reality, we are really in trouble. We have major, major issues that affect not only all of America but the entire globe. What strikes me is that for at least six months now, the “secular” media has been devoting large chunks of airtime to what are, in essence, religious issues and questions. Even specifically Christian ones. The table is prepared for us, yet no one is coming to the feast.

As the collapse began, it was the issue of greed. Everybody talked about it. The Roman Catholics have named it a deadly sin. The Bible is so full of talk of greed that if you cut those passages out, you’d be left with tatters. Even now that first course of the meal remains largely untouched by people of faith, although it is an issue that we agree on across the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Next came depression and despair. I wrote here about TV anchors wondering aloud how to give people hope. We had a huge election that was all about hope. Some of that salad course might have been consumed in the privacy of local churches, but I didn’t see the religious figures on the news in the way the gay marriage and abortion folks had been. Hope is a uniter, not a divider in Christian faith. We could speak together, but largely we haven’t.

And now, the entrée has been served, and if we don’t get our butts into those dinner chairs, liberal and conservative alike, then we deserve every bit of criticism that has been heaped on the Church and organized religion. Since Congress began putting together the meat of a stimulus bill and now into the rich sauce of a housing proposal, almost half of every news program I watch is people arguing against any part of a proposal that will help people who don’t deserve it. More than that, this course is so rich that the mainstream, secular media is asking almost every single night, whether it is right and proper to help our neighbors, our honest-to-goodness-live-next-door neighbors, if they contributed to their own misfortune.

Neighbors. Get it? Love your neighbor?

The core of the Bible for mainliners is generally the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The core of the Bible for evangelicals is Jesus dying for our sins even though we didn’t deserve it. Grace is the church word for receiving what we don’t deserve. That’s why we sing that it is amazing.

It is completely understandable that those with different faith systems or no faith tradition at all would worry about helping out the guy across the street who doesn’t deserve help. But, literally for heaven’s sake, not a single Christian on either the right or the left, should be objecting on those grounds. You may not like it for other reasons, but if you profess anything at all like Christian faith, you should be able to recognize and support grace when you see it.

My new book, God with Skin On, is all about the concept that the job of Christians is to continue to do to others what Jesus did for us. By doing so…by giving others the experience of God in the flesh—God with skin on—we help others recognize and accept God’s love. If you have never received something you didn’t deserve on this earth, recognizing that God would do such a thing for you is too big a chasm to jump. There are proposals on the government table that would offer grace. Will Christians oppose it on that very point? Oppose it on other points if you will, but not that one. Has there been any climate since the Great Depression when it was more fitting for Christians to speak out on “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”

Where are the Christians at this meal? The main course is served!

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