From #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas!

Although many people think of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” as the days leading up to Christmas, in fact they are the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany. So, this year I started a #12DaysOfAdvent thread on Twitter and Facebook, marking the days leading up to Christmas with twelve Scripture texts traditionally associated with Advent, anticipating Israel’s Messiah and God’s coming reign on earth bringing justice and peace and joy for all peoples.

Here they are, from #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas! Links take you to the full Scripture texts.

Dec. 13: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established… 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.” –Isa 2:1-5 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 14: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” –Isa 9:1-7 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 15: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him… with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” –Isa 11:1-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 16: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.” –Isa 35:1-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 17: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…’ Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” –Isa 40:1-11 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 18: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” –Isa 52:7-10 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 19: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me… he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” –Isa 61:1-4 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 20: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah…from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and he shall be the one of peace.” –Mic 5:2-5a #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 21: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” –Jer 33:14-16 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 22: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! …I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” –Zeph 3:14-20 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 23: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” –Luke 1:46-55 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 24: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” –Luke 1:67-79 #12DaysOfAdvent

Dec. 25: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” –Luke 2:1-20 From #12DaysOfAdvent to #MerryChristmas!

Navigating the Waters around Supersessionism

There has been a good deal of online chatter recently about “supersessionism.”

Supersessionism is the idea that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity (as “the true religion”), or that Israel has been superseded by the Church (as “the people of God”). In this way of thinking, Christianity is superior to Judaism and the Church has replaced Israel.

It’s no surprise that supersessionism has been part of the mix in a lot of Christian anti-Semitism through history. Christians and Jews both, then, are right to condemn supersessionism.

However, it turns out it’s not all that easy to spot this anti-Semitic supersessionism in the wild. A Rabbi might condemn something they think reflects an aberrant, “supersessionist” version of Christianity only to find out it’s an essential part of historically orthodox Christianity. A Christian pastor might criticize other Christians for the latent “supersessionism” of their Christ-centred interpretation of the Old Testament, only to find themselves labeled “supersessionist” because of their Trinitarian reading of the Old Testament.

Contrary to some online exhortations (“C’mon Christians, it’s not so hard! Just don’t be supersessionist!”) this really is a rather knotty problem for Christians. And it won’t go away any time soon, because the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself.

Here are a few historical realities that need to be considered by anyone—Christian or Jew—who wants to talk about Christianity and supersessionism. While there is debate about many of the details of these things among historians of Christian origins and early Judaism (a.k.a. late Second Temple Judaism), the basic points are not all that controversial.

1) Jesus of Nazareth was a devout Jew. As far as we can tell historically, he remained so to the end (Jesus was executed under Roman jurisdiction in or around 30 CE). Keep in mind, though, Jews (or perhaps better, “Judeans”) in the first century disputed vigorously among themselves as to what God-approved, Torah-faithful religious devotion should look like.

2) Paul of Tarsus was a devout Jew. His revelatory Jesus-experience near Damascus (within a few years of Jesus’ death) was not a “conversion” from one religion to another; he describes it rather as a prophetic “call” by the God of his ancestors to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord among the Gentiles (non-Jews, “the nations”; e.g. Gal 1). As far as we know, Paul considered himself to be a devout Jew to the end of his life. This claim was sharply disputed by other Jews of his day.

3) The earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews, and most of the authors of the writings that make up the New Testament were Jews. The scriptures of early Judaism were their scriptures, because they were Jews. They claimed Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel, their Messiah. They viewed what had happened to Jesus and what was happening among them as the beginning of the fulfillment of Jewish expectations for God’s “last days” salvation.

So far this sounds like Christianity should be simply a sect of Judaism. In fact, that’s essentially what it was, to start with: a branch of early Judaism on the “apocalyptic” side of the family tree. So what happened? A few more historical realities to keep in mind:

4) Early in the development of this Jesus movement these Jesus-followers began to understand Jesus in rather exalted, even exclusive, terms. Jesus was viewed not only as Davidic Messiah bringing about God’s promised reign on earth, but as Lord over all powers of this age, even as the fullest revelation of God to humanity—even as God-in-human-flesh. Exactly how early this “high Christology” developed and how widespread it was are matters of debate among historians, but these ideas are evident in one form or another throughout the New Testament writings, even in the earliest of them (Paul’s letters, written 15-30 years after Jesus, ca. 45-60 CE).

5) Within a decade or so after Jesus, Gentiles had begun to join this Jewish Jesus movement. This created a contentious problem for the movement: do we accept Gentiles as Gentiles, or do we expect Gentiles to become Jews? Within another decade, a formal decision was made accepting Gentiles as “righteous Gentiles,” no conversion necessary (Acts 15; ca. 49 CE); however, the controversy continued for many years after. That decision, though, along with the active evangelization of Gentiles by people like Paul, meant that it wasn’t long before Gentiles outnumbered Jews within the Jesus movement (e.g. this seems to have been the case in the Roman churches Paul wrote to in the late 50s CE).

6) By the end of the first century, “the parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism was well on its way; by the middle of the second century this parting was effectively complete. The “Gentilization” of the Jesus movement, along with the desire of these Christians to distinguish themselves from Jews in the aftermath of two failed Jewish revolts against Rome (66-73 and 132-136 CE), paved the way for this parting (which was not often as amicable as the word “parting” implies). Christianity emerged as a predominantly Gentile religion, and Judaism evolved into its current form (Pharisaic-Rabbinic).

These historical realities are part of the DNA of Christianity. They can’t simply be brushed aside. Nor does it work to blame supersessionism on a later Hellenization/Romanization of an early Jewish Jesus-movement (no “Thanks, Constantine!” allowed here). An exalted, even exclusive view of Jesus in relation to all other powers of this age and all other claims of divine revelation was already present in the earliest, “most Jewish” versions of Christianity.

In other words, again, the tensions inherent to the problem of supersessionism grow out of the very nature of Christianity itself. We might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s organic connection to early Judaism, as if Christianity and Judaism are completely distinct religions. Or, we might try to resolve these tensions by denying Christianity’s strong claims about Jesus even related to the Torah and key aspects of Jewish belief and practice, as if there is nothing distinctive about Christianity related to Judaism. Either way, we end up with something that is not Christianity.

So, what should we do?

Well, we need to be honest about the origins of Christianity and the nature of Christianity’s claims about Jesus. This should be part of any religious instruction about Christianity and Judaism, and part of any Jewish-Christian dialogue. It doesn’t help to gloss over these realities in order to resolve any problems that might arise from them.

We also need to be honest about the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and the ways in which Christian teachings about “Christianity as the true religion” and “the Church as God’s true people” have helped to fuel that anti-Semitism (not to mention European colonization and similar evils). This, too, should be part of religious instruction for Christians about Christianity and Judaism, and confessed by Christians in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

We Christians must also do the hard work of thinking carefully about Christianity’s origins and claims related to Judaism.

What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does it mean for Christianity and our relationship to Judaism—and any other religion, for that matter—that Jesus did not found Christianity as a religion, let alone a religion distinct from Judaism?

What does it mean for Gentile Christians and our religious practices that Jesus was and remained a devout Jew? What does this mean for our relationship to the scriptures, symbols, and practices of Judaism, including reading Torah, keeping Sabbath, performing ritual washings, and eating sacred meals?

What is the significance of the fact that the Jewish scriptures (the Tanakh) say nothing directly about Jesus, yet they make up most of the Christian scriptures (as the Old Testament)? What does it mean to claim that the Jewish scriptures bear witness to Jesus? What does it mean to claim that Jesus (not any scripture) provides us with the fullest revelation of God and God’s will?

What does it mean for “Israel” to be the people of God, yet for “the Church” also to be the people of God? What exactly is the relationship between the two? What, in fact, does it mean for any specific group of people to claim they are “the people of God,” or “the children/family of God”? How does this relate to biblical ideas that all people are created “in God’s image” and are “God’s children”?

How do we understand the repeated New Testament claim that the new Messianic community forming around Jesus (“the Church”) is in some way an extension of the ancient people of “Israel” in fulfillment of Israel’s scriptures? That in Jesus the Messiah (“in Christ”) Gentiles have been “grafted in” to Israel, included in Israel’s promised inheritance?

What does it mean to claim that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by Rome and resurrected by God, is Israel’s Messiah? That this Messiah Jesus is Lord over all powers of this world, including religious powers? That this Messiah Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, even God incarnate? How do these claims relate to modern Judaism? to other religions? to other claims of divine revelation and authority?

These and similar questions are more complicated and difficult than they might appear on the surface. Yet we must grapple with these questions in order to navigate the waters around supersessionism. Let’s strive to do so with historical and theological integrity as Christians, with a deep sensitivity and love for our Jewish neighbours, and with grace for one another—because we will make mistakes along the way.

A brief guide for Christians on election day…

First, go vote! The “powers” (including governments and those who lead them) are fallen, yes, but God created them and they are reconciled in Christ. We participate in this reconciliation when we follow Jesus in nonviolent action for social change.

Second, don’t get fooled into putting “The Economy” first in determining your vote. We have made this into a god, but one cannot serve both God and Mammon. Turn from this idolatry and follow Jesus as Lord.

Third, in your voting do what you strive to do in all areas of your life: follow Jesus. Here are a few commands of Jesus, lived out by Jesus, that guide me as I think about voting:

“The Bible is Clear”: No, It’s Not—But That’s Okay

“The Bible clearly says…”

I’ve heard this many, many times over the years, always spoken with great fervour. I’ve even been known to say something like this myself a time or two.

So I get it, I really do.

You read a passage in the Bible, and it just makes sense. It fits with what you already know to be true. It might add to your knowledge, it might explain or expand your knowledge, but still it fits well with what you already know. It’s what anyone with an ounce of common sense would understand the passage to mean. It’s plain. It’s clear.

But there are at least two problems with this. And they’re rather large problems.

First, you’re likely reading the Bible in English. Or maybe German, or Korean, or some other reading language that’s comfortable for you. But the Bible wasn’t originally written in English or any other modern language. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, first written in ancient languages: the Old Testament in Hebrew and smatterings of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. These writings—or “books” of the Bible, as they are conventionally called—were written over many centuries and from within several ancient cultures. And they were each written—and then often edited, sometimes repeatedly—within very specific historical communities, for very specific historical purposes.

In other words, unless you’re reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, say, in Koine Greek, and you’re fluent in the language, and you’re familiar with the particular circumstances surrounding the letter, and you’ve got a good grasp of Paul’s and the Roman Christians’ specific cultural settings, you can’t really claim that anything in the book of Romans is “clear” to you. You’re reading someone else’s translation of an ancient text, with all of that depth of nuance flattened into a modern English version that makes some superficial “sense” to you in your setting today.

That’s one problem with claiming that “the Bible is clear” in this or that passage. Here’s another: someone else can read that very same passage with the same depth of devotion and the same careful, prayerful attention—the same ounce of common sense, even—and come to a very different reading of the passage that is just as obvious to them, just as plain, just as clear.

Exhibit A: the many churches and denominations that have been created out of divisions because what was so very clear to one group about this biblical passage or that biblical idea was not at all clear to another group (*cough* Mennonite history *cough*).

Exhibit B: the many times the vast majority of Christians have been convinced this or that was the clear teaching of the Bible, only to conveniently forget within a few generations that Christians had actually believed such foolishness (Gentile conversion to Judaism, a geocentric universe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, White superiority, Indigenous genocide, African slavery, women’s subordination…).

There have been, and still are, many competing claims of what “the Bible clearly says.” This is what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” and it is the death knell of any claim to possess “the clear teaching of the Bible.”

No, the Bible is not “clear.” And if you’re one of those people who needs to have a prooftext, here’s a clip from 2 Peter 3:15-16:

…ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν, ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων, ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα…

So, what do we do?

Well, I suppose you could close your browser, turn off your computer, pretend you never read this post, and go back to your comfortable Christian life. Or, you could go all in and start splitting churches and burning heretics until you’re the only one left who believes The Truth about The Things. Or, you could chuck out your entire faith because it’s built on a “Bible” that doesn’t exist.

Needless to say (which means “I feel I must say”), these are not my recommended options. Here are a few things I would recommend.

First, read the Bible with humility. Recognize that you are reading the Bible without a full grasp of the linguistic nuances and historical details and cultural subtleties. Acknowledge that other people might be just as sincere as you in their desire to hear and obey God’s voice. Admit that you might even be wrong about this or that biblical passage.

Second, read the Bible in multiple translations. I’m assuming (perhaps naively) that most people are not going to become experts in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Find a good modern translation that you feel comfortable reading and use that for your regular Bible reading. God can use that reading to shape you in the way of Jesus.

But if you’re going to go beyond devotional reading into teaching or preaching, helping a community of faith to discern God’s will together, then at least read from multiple versions. This will give you some sense of the nuances (and difficulties in translation) of the ancient texts. If you really want to get serious, then do some work also in trying to understand the cultural setting and historical circumstances of the specific biblical writing you are reading. Good commentaries and Bible reference works are the tools you need here.

Third, read the Bible in community. This is really, really important. It exposes our own blind spots in reading the Bible. It opens up ways of reading the Bible that we would never have discovered on our own. It helps keep us humble. It helps us better discern truth.

This reading the Bible in community can—and probably should—be done in a few different ways. The most important is reading the Bible within a real, flesh-and-blood community of people. Read the Bible together, think about it together, talk about it together, wrestle with it together. But there are other ways of reading the Bible in community, other kinds of “community” that are important: authors who write on the Bible, speakers who speak on the Bible, from a variety of faith (or non-faith) traditions, from a diversity of social backgrounds, from around the globe and throughout history.

Finally, read the Bible charitably. I mean this in at least two ways. We should read the Bible with charity toward the biblical authors. They were writing for a different time, in a different world. Yet we hold much in common with them, not least the desire to know and be known by our common Creator. Be charitable toward the biblical authors, then, working hard to understand the spirit/Spirit that has motivated and animated their writing.

Even more importantly, though, we should read the Bible with charity toward others. The Bible has been used in a lot of harmful ways throughout Christian history. Splitting hairs over Bible verses has led to splitting churches. Self-righteously claiming The Truth about The Things in the Bible—and combining this with brute power—has led to burning heretics. Christians have a long history of excluding whole classes of people, enslaving whole groups of people, justifying the destruction of whole societies of people, based on the “clear teaching” of the Bible.

Instead, Jesus models for us a hermeneutic of love: reading the Scriptures to bring liberation, reconciliation, justice, and human flourishing. In our Bible reading we need to heed Jesus’ call to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” and this sometimes means saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.”

Then, if nothing else, we can at least become clear about this: that the entire message of the Bible is summed up in one word, “love.”

Preserving Faith for Future Generations

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 25, 2018, based on 1 Timothy 6:11-21.

First Timothy concludes with this exhortation: “Guard what has been entrusted to your care.” This is very similar to another exhortation in the Pastoral Epistles, 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” These echo Paul’s plea to “hold fast to the teachings” or “traditions” he had passed on (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rom 6:17; 1 Cor 11:2), and they are right in line with perhaps the best known of these New Testament appeals, Jude 3: “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Yet what precisely is this “deposit,” this “faith,” these “traditions”? And how exactly do we “hold fast to” these traditions, or “guard” this deposit, or “contend for” this faith?

For many Christians today, the “deposit” of “faith” is a fairly comprehensive set of beliefs and practices. It might include everything from specific convictions about the nature of the Bible and how to read it, to particular ideas about the timing of creation, what counts as “sin,” the meaning of Jesus’ death, the mode of baptism, worship style, and much, much more. It’s “the way we’ve always done things,” it’s the “faith of our fathers,” it’s that “old time religion”—even when, in reality, the generations before us went through significant adaptations to their way of faith and life.

However, Kathleen Kern is almost certainly correct in her suggestion that the entrusted gift in view here is the gospel (Adult Bible Study student guide, 78). The “deposit” we are to “guard,” the “faith” for which we are to “contend,” the “traditions” to which we are to “hold fast”—these are all describing some aspect of the good news story of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord, who brings about God’s saving kingdom on earth through his life, death, and resurrection.

How can we preserve this gospel for future generations? Our passage points to an answer: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness,” it says, and so “fight the good fight of the faith” (6:11-12). In other words, we preserve the gospel for future generations by living out the gospel in our own—in authentic faith and love, in genuine godliness and gracious gentleness, with patient perseverance, always seeking first God’s kingdom and justice.

What non-essential beliefs or practices have we added to the simple gospel of Jesus? Which of these might we be wrongly expecting that the next generation keep? Are we striving to live out the good news of Jesus with authenticity and integrity? Are we willing to allow the next generation to live out the gospel in their own way, for their own time?

Faithful Disciples

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 18, 2018, based on Acts 9:36-43.

“There was a disciple” who “was always doing good and helping the poor.”

If you only heard that description, you could be forgiven for assuming the biblical author was talking about a man. It is true, after all, that nearly all the New Testament descriptions of a “disciple” are referring to a man—nearly all, but not quite all. This is, in fact, the only clear reference to an individual woman as a “disciple,” the disciple Tabitha, or Dorcas.

This reflects Luke’s special emphasis on the universal impact of the gospel and the democratizing work of the Spirit. The gospel is for all people, the Spirit comes on all believers, regardless of their social status, their ethnic or religious background, their age, or their gender. For many of us today this might seem commonplace. In the first century world, this was radical.

Luke narrates the birth story of Jesus from Mary’s perspective, not Joseph’s (Luke 1-2). He tells not just of Simeon but also the prophetess Anna at Jesus’ purification in the temple (2:36-38). Luke, alone of all the Gospel authors, mentions by name the women who supported Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3). He alone tells of Mary of Bethany’s instruction at the feet of Jesus—the word “disciple” is not used of Mary, but Luke depicts her in the classic posture of a devoted disciple (10:38-42). Luke describes the women at the cross, at the empty tomb, and in the upper room. In Acts he mentions the four prophetess daughters of Philip (21:8-9), and he makes sure to highlight Priscilla’s role in instructing Apollos alongside her husband Aquila (18:24-26).

All this is right in line with Luke’s conviction that the Spirit of God has indeed been “poured out on all flesh,” both “sons and daughters,” both “men and women” (Acts 2:17-18).

I said above that for many of us today this egalitarianism might seem commonplace. But recent events in North American society have exposed how far we really are from seeing the full equality of women promised by Pentecost. Women are paid much less than men for the same work, even with the same expertise and experience. Women experience sexual harassment and violence at rates far higher than men. While there are encouraging steps forward in addressing these and other inequities, there are also discouraging steps back.

As Christians, proclaimers of the universal gospel, empowered by the democratizing Spirit, we should be leading the way in advocating for the full equality of women in every respect. And we can start by recognizing, listening to, and learning from Jesus’ women disciples—both past and present.

Danger! Danger! Tongue Ahead

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 11, 2018, based on James 3:1-12.

With evocative and memorable imagery, James 3 highlights the power of our words, both positively and negatively. Our words can create or destroy. They can build up or tear down. They can help or harm. The things we say, and how we say them, matter. This is especially true for anyone in a position of influence—including, but not limited to, the “teachers” James mentions.

For me, the most remarkable statement in this passage comes toward the end of it: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9). This statement is significant for at least three reasons.

First, it affirms the truth that all humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Sin has not altered this fact, nor is this a special status only for Christians who are intentionally being conformed to the image of God in Christ (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). All humans, including those we consider “the least” or “our enemies,” have been made in God’s image.

Second, this statement affirms the truth that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with others. How we treat other people is the real litmus test of the authenticity and depth of our relationship with God. This is emphasized in various ways throughout the New Testament, most bluntly in 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” This truth goes back to Jesus, who linked “love of God” with “love of neighbors,” love of “strangers,” and even “love of enemies” (Matt 22:36-40; 25:34-40; 5:43-48).

Third, this statement affirms that this second truth extends not just to our actions but also to our speech, both how we talk to other people and how we talk about them. Gossiping about others, spreading unfounded rumors. Slandering others, sowing known lies. Harassing others, throwing cruel, demeaning words their way. Bullying others, verbally intimidating them. Anathematizing others, cursing them beyond the pale. How many times do we passive aggressively smile to people’s face but then cut them down behind their back?

James’ teaching here has particular relevance in our digital age, in the realm of social media. Safe behind our computers or smart phones, we say things to and about people that we would never say to their face, or never say off line at all. Yet behind that icon on the screen is an actual eikōn of God, a human person created in God’s very “image.” If we wouldn’t speak of God in that tone, with those words of “cursing,” how can we speak of another person in that way?

Faith and Works

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 4, 2018, based on James 2:14-26.

As the Adult Bible Study student guide notes, it’s possible that James was responding to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. In fact, given the similarities in wording between specific statements in Paul’s letters (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) and here (Jas 2:24), this is likely the case. Some had understood Paul to mean that our actions don’t matter with regard to salvation—all that matters is believing certain things to be true. Sadly, many Christians today also understand Paul’s teaching this way—and they either accept this teaching as gospel or reject Paul as having distorted Jesus’ teaching.

It’s a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that “faith” is simply “belief,” mentally assenting to certain truths—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, for example. However, the word for “faith (pistis) can have a wide range of meanings. It can include “belief,” but it can also mean “trust,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” Paul in fact draws on this whole semantic range of the word pistis: yes, believing certain things to be true is important, but so is trusting in God in a personal way, as well as showing faithfulness and demonstrating allegiance to God. This is underscored by the many ways Paul speaks about genuine faith as that which works itself out in loving actions (e.g. Gal 5:6).

James gives two examples of these “loving actions” that result from genuine faith: caring for the poor (2:1-9, 14-17), and protecting the foreigner (2:25-26). This is significant for at least two reasons.

First, these are prominent themes throughout the Scriptures. Concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan, and concern for the foreigner or stranger, is deeply embedded in the Law of Moses and repeatedly voiced by the Prophets (e.g. Lev 19:10, 34; Deut 15:7-11; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3). This concern for the poor and the stranger, representing the most vulnerable in society, continues through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Matt 25:34-40; Rom 12:13; Gal 2:10; 1 John 3:17).

Second, this is significant because these continue to be prominent needs—and controversial flashpoints—today. Somehow, in certain conservative Christian circles, caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, or calling on governments to attend to these needs, has become a sign of theological liberalism. But can we claim to have genuine, living, saving faith, yet refuse to stand with the poor and the foreigner, with all who are vulnerable and marginalized in society? Both James and Paul—following in the footsteps of Jesus, following the Law and the Prophets—are clear: the answer is a resounding “no.”

A Vision of the Last Days

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 28, 2018, based on Daniel 10-12.

“The last days.”

In popular Christian parlance, the phrase suggests the final strands of earthly, human history. The thread of history stretches back before us to the dawn of time, and ahead of us, at some future point, this thread ends with “the last days.” For many Christians this phrase also conjures up images of portents in the heavens and cataclysms on earth. “The last days” is the end of it all, before God wipes the slate clean and creates a new heaven and earth.

If this is our understanding, it might be disconcerting to learn that this kind of language is used in Scripture to describe happenings within human history, including what is, for us, past history.

This is the case here in Daniel 10-12. Daniel’s vision describes “the last days,” even “days yet to come”—that’s more literally the wording of Daniel 10:14. This sort of language continues throughout the vision with the phrase “appointed time” or “time of completion” (11:35; 12:4, 9). Yet scholars are agreed that the visions describe historical persons and events in the second century B.C.E., now more than 2,000 years ago.

This is also the case throughout the New Testament. Peter’s Pentecost sermon applied Joel’s vision of “the last days,” with all its heavenly portents and earthly cataclysms, to Peter’s present day (Acts 2:16-21). Paul declared that Jesus’ birth occurred “at the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), and he described himself and his readers as those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11). The author of Hebrews declared that “in these last days” God has spoken to us through his Son, Jesus (Heb 1:2). And John the Seer stated that his apocalyptic visions described realities which were present in his own time, or were very soon to come about (Rev 1:1, 19).

It’s enough to make you think that perhaps we’ve gotten the whole “last days” thing quite badly wrong. But then, what is the point of all this “end times” language in Scripture?

Its main purpose is reassurance. This language is intended to reassure God’s people that, regardless of how bad things might seem in the present, God is in fact working within human history to bring about God’s good purposes. And its main focus is on Jesus. Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection have inaugurated the time of fulfillment. We are in “the last days” right now: God’s good purposes have already been accomplished through Jesus, and now God is working out those good purposes throughout the earth.

In a world filled with the bad news of nuclear threat, civil wars, economic injustice, racism, divisive politics, sexual abuse, and more, this reassurance is the good news we all need.

A Prayer of Confession, a Plea for Forgiveness

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 21, 2018, based on Daniel 9:1-19.

The study guide helpfully prompts us toward reflection on personal confession of individual sin. But there is another angle on this prayer of Daniel that has often struck me: this prayer is a personal confession of collective sin.

Daniel, according to all the stories in the book which bears his name, was a righteous man. It was not his fault his people were in exile. Yet he prays as if the guilt of his forebears is his own. He includes himself among previous, sinful generations, in order to make a clean break with the sins of the past and allow God to move him and his people toward a better future.

Is it appropriate for children to bear the guilt of their parents, or even their grandparents? Most of us would cringe at the idea. The Bible itself gives mixed messages on this (Exod 34:7; Ezek 18:20). Yet there are some helpful lessons for us that derive from the Bible’s personal confessions of collective sin.

One lesson is that sin is not merely an individual, private matter. Collective, even systemic, sin runs just as deep among us. If we think of “sin” as all the ways in which we harm one another and the rest of creation through our attitudes, words, and actions, then it’s not hard to see how sin has both individual and collective dimensions. Churches can develop settled attitudes that run counter to God’s life-bringing ways. Societies can nurture values that encourage abuse of power or the use of violence. Nations can enshrine injustice in the very laws that are supposed to ensure justice.

A second lesson is that sometimes what’s needed to break from the collective sins of the past is collective soul-searching and confession. This has nothing to do with whether or not we ourselves are personally guilty for the wrongdoing. Rather, it has everything to with naming the wrongs of our forebears, recognizing our inclination to continue in those wrongs if nothing is done, and committing ourselves to doing better, rectifying those wrongs if we are able, avoiding those wrongs as much as we can. This is why initiatives such as the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada are so important.

There’s a third lesson for us. Daniel’s prayer confesses, “We have not listened to your servants the prophets” (9:6). In every generation God sends prophets to speak truth, to call God’s people to faithfulness, to warn of the consequences of unfaithfulness, to promise the blessings of faithfulness—and yet, all too often, we crucify these prophets instead of heeding them (see Matt 23:29-39). Who are the prophets of our generation, calling us to renewed faithfulness to the way of Jesus? Are we willing to listen, to repent, and to obey?