December 11: Thoughts in Response to Reading the New TestamentDecember 11, 2013
Matthew 5: 21-25: Concerning Anger
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[a] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[b] a brother or sister,[c] you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell[d] of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister[e] has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,[f]and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
This was a good passage for me to read. Sometimes in the last year as I have been frustrated or even feeling mild feelings of anger over the disparity in the world, I have the sense that a wee bit of those feelings are good and OK, but that as humans those feelings quickly become quite “fleshy” and self-centered, and not pleasing to God. This passage seems to similarly suggest that God is very put off by people being angry with one another. It seems as though our anger is perhaps the result of judgements that we have made, which we are often not in a position to make. In any event, this passage should hopefully come to mind the next time I get angry.
Matthew 5: 27-30: Concerning Adultery
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.[a]30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a commentary on this passage before, so it was interesting to do a couple of Google searches. Let’s be honest: The most striking phrase here to me is “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away”. Are you talking about what it sounds like you’re talking about Jesus? (nudge nudge, wink wink) Commentary on the Internet seems not to think so, in a specific sense. But in a general sense, this is probably quite well within the realm of things Jesus was talking about. We’re left with some uncomfortable mystery here, aren’t we?
Matthew 5: 31-32: Concerning Divorce
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
I think what strikes me here is that I can’t imagine a pastor at our church preaching a sermon on when it’s God’s will to divorce and when it’s not. As I understand, it’s something that our church painfully worked through a few decades ago. I think what’s uncomfortable for me here is that we read certain things that Jesus says, and we know that if a pastor preached those sayings, they’d have a riot on their hands. hmm.December 10: Thoughts in Response to Reading the New TestamentDecember 10, 2013
I’ve typically been pretty terrible at making time to read the Bible. (I presume I’m not the only one out there!) The first time I read the new testament from start to finish (university), I was struck by biblical passages that “stuck out”. Maybe they were teachings that I had never or rarely read before -- things that caused me to pause and think “now wait a minute, that doesn’t really fit with my understanding of things”! I’ve heard other people say this as well: We grow up hearing bits and pieces, but when you read it as one piece, and as an adult, you see things that you never saw before. I’m again thirsty to read through the new testament and journal about what sticks out, or simply what speaks to me, so I’m going to try and do that, however quickly or slowly it happens. I want to try and keep up on the journaling, because I think that’s a good way to process the things that feel new, and a good way to invite others into the conversation. I’ll be putting my journal on my website as I go along. Obviously feel free to join me in my re-reading of the new testament, and if anyone likewise would want to journal I would be very happy to read your thoughts too.
Matthew 5, 17-20: The Fulfillment of the Law
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks[b] one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This catches my attention, because on the surface level it sounds like Jesus is saying that all of the various Jewish traditions that make up the old testament are still to be followed. Obviously we’re not doing that. It also brings to mind some families in Woodstock when I was a teenager that started to observe Jewish traditions, and left the churches they had been attending. (I think) Perhaps this passage was central to their thinking. It also makes me think of the struggles that the early Christian community had around this topic, for example, whether followers of Jesus should be eating “unclean” foods or not. This passage really brings that struggle to life for me for early followers -- especially for the Jewish folks who understood Jesus saying that they should continue observing all of their scriptural traditions in great detail. Tricky. Other than this isolated group in Woodstock, I’m actually not very familiar with modern day Christians struggling to understand these words. I would suppose the later parts of the New Testament that face this issue head on are what we look to as a resolution of this challenging teaching of Jesus? This actually seems quite reminiscent of the current wrestling in some churches with homosexuality. You have clear words in the Bible that indicate that God forbids it, you have many people who struggle with that teaching, and you have people feeling in their spirits that within our culture it is acceptable to God. The similarity is that with the “should we follow the law” statements that Jesus makes in Matthew 5, early Christians must have had a similar struggle. You’d have people saying “But Jesus clearly said we should follow the law”. And you’d have others saying “But I’m feeling in my spirit that it is acceptable to God for Christians of other cultures to follow the spirit of the law but not the details”. And then comes this vision of the sheet coming down from heaven, etc.
Matthew 5, 11-12
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[a] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The other day I heard that someone had said something very disturbing about me that questioned my character. While I know that ultimately we don’t need to be overly fussy about what people think about us, I struggled with it, and I’m still trying to sort out whether I should go talk to that person and try and find some understanding. In any event, I found these words comforting!Thoughts on SinNovember 15, 2013
Any time a person starts attending a new church, and especially if it’s from another denomination, they’ll pick up on differences. Some are obvious and immediate, while others take time to uncover. If new or unfamiliar language is used, it sticks out right away. But what about words that get dropped from the vocabulary?
Back in 2004, after attending St. Jacobs Mennonite Church for a while, I started to realize that I hadn’t been hearing the word “sin”. Apparently, this word had fallen out of vogue. In terms of frequency of use in the New Testament, “sin” (used 173 times) is used more than “kingdom” (162), “grace” (155), “life” (135), “love” (116), “truth” (109). And so when it almost disappears from the vocabulary of a church, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s noticeable.
So what is sin? And why has it fallen out of fashion as a word?
The simplest definition of the word that people of all ages can grasp is probably “doing something bad”. A slightly different take is “not doing what you’re told”. Disobedience.
One of the most striking Biblical images is perhaps Adam and Eve in the garden, succumbing to the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit. It is the notion that certain things have been declared off limits, and yet humans are tempted into crossing those lines. Speaking of fruit, sin is the fruit of a disobedient and rebellious spirit.
Perhaps the next Biblical story that comes to mind is that of the 10 commandments: Commandments from God. Rules which are not to be broken.
Because the old testament is set in the context of “the law”, sin can be seen within the OT largely as behaviours which break the law, or more broadly, a summarizing term that describes the state of humanity and its broken relationship with God.
In the new testament, which advocates most strongly for the importance of heart and spirit, sin takes on a slightly different flavor. It is less concerned about rigid rules and more concerned about our deep inner substance and motivations. Sin describes the state of the human heart before it has turned around to walk in the light of Christ. It describes our broken relationship with God before we have received the forgiveness and salvation offered by Jesus.
One perspective on sin is that there are absolutes -- that certain things, such as those identified by the ten commandments, are not to be done. It doesn’t matter who you are, murder is murder. But we often also think of sin in a relative sense. We might say that what’s sin for you might not be sin for me. Said differently, one might claim that “if you think you’re sinning, then you are”. This take on sin argues that it’s not just what you’re doing, but the spirit that you’re doing it in. If you sense that it’s not God’s will for you to do something, and you ignore that and do it, then this view says that you have dishonored God.
These two perspectives on sin -- the more absolute perspective, and the more relative perspective, seem to line up somewhat with the old and new testaments, respectively. As mentioned, absolute sin fits with the ten commandments and the law. Relative sin focuses more on the heart and the spirit that motivates our actions. But both perspectives seem important to understand the breadth of sin as a concept.
One of the most profound causes of sin is our self centeredness. It is in our nature to think of ourselves first, to elevate ourselves above others. It is our animalistic impulse. Survival of the fittest. Dog eat dog. The flesh. Every day we turn down opportunities to treat others the way we’d want to be treated if the roles were reversed. God makes it clear that this is contrary to His will.
There is a tug of war going on inside of us: We are not simple minded animals looking for our next meal. We also have a conscience which is hard at work deep inside of us, and we have the ability to focus on that voice just like we have the ability to suppress it. That voice can be trained, by our family system, by society, and by the Word of God.
This highlights three root causes of sin: The first is that we sometimes suppress our conscience. We stop listening. We become closed. And without listening to that voice, our self centeredness expands to fill the void. Our impulses control us. Another cause of sin is similar: It is when we do hear the voice, but we ignore it. We’re disobedient. The results are similar, but we’re often left with a byproduct in that case: Guilt and shame. Yet another cause of sin is ignorance -- when our conscience hasn’t been developed well enough to give us the hint that our behavior needs changing. All three causes are often at play within us.
Another perspective on sin also relates to self centeredness: Our unwillingness to put God ahead of everything. Even though the new testatment focuses on heart and spirit, I find it helpful to keep in mind the two greatest commandments: To love God with our whole being, and to love others as self. I think these commandments can give us a much clearer understanding of how sin functionally works in our lives, and what it tells us about the human heart.
Putting God above everything else. This, I think, is what the gospel faces head on: Unless we are radically changed to the core of our being, we will constantly fail to put God ahead of everything in our lives. For human beings to live in a way that makes God #1 takes a miracle. Something supernatural happens when we offer ourselves to Jesus.
And this starts to get at one of the key statements the new testament makes about sin: Sin leads to death. Said differently, we are dead in our sin. There are two prongs to this pronouncement: First, that death is an analogy for sin’s natural consequences here on earth. Greed has a way of biting back at us. Sexual immorality can kill. Dishonesty destroys trust, and with it, our relationships. The second prong to this pronouncement that sin leads to death is that people are spiritual beings with an eternal fate. The teaching of the Bible is that without the salvation offered by Jesus Christ, our sinfulness condemns us to separation from God. There is clearly a lot at stake here.
Given its centrality to the teachings of the gospel, why has the use of the word sin declined so much? There are many possible reasons. Here are a few that come to mind:
|1.||The concept of sin is associated with the Bible’s teaching of eternity. Fire and brimstone teaching from past decades that preyed on people’s fears turned people off of this area of Biblical teaching, and with it, talk of sin.|
|2.||Sin is associated with guilt and shame, which are two extremely uncomfortable human emotions. With the move away from fear-based teaching, guilt and shame were two other likely candidates to distance ourselves from.|
|3.||The concepts of sin and salvation are easiest to understand in the context of dramatic conversion stories. They are more subtle in the lives of relatively good and honest folks who have grown up in the church and who have never wandered very far. If a church is oriented towards witnessing to non-believers, the concept of sin becomes an obvious concept. But if a church draws from people who are already of the faith, or if witnessing to non-believers isn’t at the forefront, the concept loses some of its urgency.|
|4.||Of the following major words of faith, it is the most “old fashioned” and culturally obscure: Faith, Love, Joy, Truth, Hope, Forgiveness, Heaven, Hell, Sin. As Christians have become more centered within their culture, ideas foreign to the larger culture become less natural to understand and use.|
I will circle around to the most important command that Jesus gives us in our personal walk: To love God with our whole being, and love others as self. For me, this leads me towards yet another perspective on sin to consider. What is striking about this commandment is that it sets the bar very high -- just about as high as it can be placed. Try as we will, we will probably never be fully successful at loving God with our whole selves, nor this ideal of loving others as self. That suggests that no matter what, we are falling short by various degrees. This has a different feel than simply keeping a list of rules.
While this is challenging, and possibly even depressing for some, there is an element of excitement there for me: Obviously we must rely on God’s grace and forgiveness. But within that, we will always be challenged and encouraged to a fuller and more radiant expression of love within our lives. We are beckoned to open ourselves and to allow God’s Spirit to live within us, and to expect that what God will do within us and through us will be nothing short of miraculous. For in Christ, sin is not death, but dead.older >>