Saturday, July 21, 2012


He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)

He is our peace; in His flesh He has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2.14)

A “Lusty” Bunch

Of late, I’ve been tearing through Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s chronicle of our faith’s origins and evolution. To call it epic is to undersell it. Nearly all of its 1000-plus pages serve up at least one startling detail that sets off far-reaching implications for what the Church will become and our faith will come to mean. The history is so vast the author can’t escape getting lost in the weeds. Still, a picture of our ancestors emerges to startle us with how real and personal their passions are. In another context, we would call them a “lusty” bunch—given their obsession with flesh. Paul isn’t straining for metaphor when he describes the Church as “the Body of Christ.” It isn’t poetic reach that inspires John (writing after Paul’s death) to preface his gospel by framing Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” It is no accident that early Christians choose the table—rather than the cross—as the centerpiece of their liturgies, or why they model their houses of worship on banquet halls instead of temples. They revere the table as the place where they physically encounter Christ’s flesh and blood in communal bread and wine.

So great is the Early Church’s flesh obsession that it’s immediately plunged into crisis over whether Gentile males should physicalize their confession of Christ via circumcision. Shake your head in disbelief if you like. Yet the controversy nearly rends the Church in two and had the Apostles not intervened, Christianity very well might have amounted to no more than a footnote in human history. From there, the first few centuries are consumed with increasingly subtle divisions over the “nature” of Jesus’s flesh and how faith plays out in our flesh. Some believe Jesus wasn’t made of flesh at all; others teach He was fully human and then made divine when God declared Him “My Son” at baptism. Meanwhile, some Christians believe Paul’s insistence that faith frees us from religious law grants us permission to indulge our flesh however we please. In other circles, believers fixate on another of Paul’s tenets—the mastery of one’s flesh—to the point they climb atop poles to subject themselves to hunger and harsh weather and some even integrate self-flagellation into their worship. And most ironic of all: while various groups rip at one another’s flesh, they erect massive cathedrals and monasteries as testaments of their devotion to Christ. By the late sixth-century CE, the entire known world—from Europe to China—is dotted with elaborate structures whose external similarity conceals rabidly divergent dogmas and practices.

Doctrines and rites we accept as fundamental—the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, Lord’s Supper, and Trinity—were hot topics in the Church’s formative years. They were every bit as volatile as current debates about gay inclusion, the ordination of women, birth control, marital equality, and human sexuality in general. And with those comparisons, everything comes full circle. Contrary to what we’d like to imagine, we’ve not outgrown our infantile obsessions with flesh nor our fondness for infighting. We may have found new things to argue. What we’ve yet to discover, however, is the antidote to hostilities sprung from our varying persuasions and fetishes. This is the Church’s great tragedy and, if not reversed, may very well be its undoing.


So it is not for nothing that unity plays the decisive role in Sunday’s readings. In 2 Samuel 7, we read of God’s call for David to “build Me a house to live in” (v5), a house of worship “for My people Israel… so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more.” (v10) This calling comes with a covenant attached, one of the Hebrew Bible’s greatest promises, often celebrated in songs like Psalm 89 that venerate David as the channel by whom God establishes Israel’s perpetuity. “My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him: and in My name his horn shall be exalted,” verse 21 says (giving Freudians among us pause). “Once and for all I have sworn by My holiness; I will not lie to David. His line shall continue for ever, and his throne endure before me like the sun. It shall be established for ever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies,” verses 35-37 sing. In exchange for David’s obedience in building God’s house, God promises Israel will always have a home where its people will dwell in unity.

When we turn to the Christian texts, however, we crash into the fragile nature of unified faith, realizing magnificent houses of worship amount to nothing if those dwelling inside them aren’t united. Of course, Jesus has no church; the great outdoors is His cathedral and He turns hillsides, lakeshores, and boat decks into pulpits. This presents a constant problem for Him and His disciples, as crowds engulf Jesus wherever He goes. Mark 6.31 tells us the multitudes become so overwhelming that “they had no leisure even to eat.” They try to break away, sailing across the lake. But word that Jesus is on the move spreads quickly and by the time He and the disciples reach the other side, people have rushed to get there ahead of them. “As He went ashore,” verse 34 tells us, “He saw a great crowd; and He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.” Seeing Jesus in the flesh—and watching Him work wonders in the flesh of others—draws the crowd to Him. But it is His teaching that binds them together.

Hostile Barriers

This brings us to Ephesians 2.11-22, where Paul paints the lamentable picture of a burgeoning faith community that confesses Christ as its Shepherd, yet persists in behaving like unpastored sheep. We’re back in the flesh wars here, as Paul strives to neutralize the circumcision debate for what must feel like the nth time. And to get us as close as possible to the heat of this controversy, suppose we paraphrase his premise in its crudest terms. “This obsession with genitals is utter nonsense,” he says. “Your flesh means nothing now that you are in Christ. And if you make flesh your focus, your very skin becomes a barrier that destroys unity within the Body.” Now let’s return to the text, adding emphasis to drive home Paul’s message: “For He is our peace; in His flesh He has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (v14)

Answering Christ’s unparalleled call to a community of righteousness insists that we overcome our fascination with what’s below the waist and practice peace that only exists in Christ’s flesh. Male or female, straight or gay, celibate or partnered, circumcised or not—these issues create hostile barriers that Jesus suffered and died in the flesh to eradicate. It is through His death and resurrection that we, as Christ’s Body, are gathered. It is through the bread and wine that we are united in Christ’s flesh. Until we let go this centuries-old skin game we’re addicted to, we’ll be no different than the hordes that chase Jesus from coast to coast. We’ll be like sheep who've lost their Shepherd, and nothing like the magnificent cathedral Paul describes in Ephesians 2.20-22, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. In Him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”

Will we be gathered and shepherded in Christ? Or will we continue to clash over skin? Will we persist in building walls of flesh that tear us apart? Or will we find Christ’s peace and be built together into God’s dwelling-place? If we attend closely to Sunday’s texts, these questions should answer themselves.

As a result of our infantile flesh obsessions, we’ve become like sheep who’ve lost their Shepherd—like magnificent houses of worship fallen into ruin.

Post-Script: Before You Go…

I realize I’ve thrown a lot at you and impinged on your time with a longer-than-usual post. But before you go, I invite you to take two minutes and let today’s readings settle while watching this simple video I put together. Nothing dazzling here—just footage of sheep on an Irish hillside set to the worship song, “He Is Our Peace”. If you can spare the time, I believe it will help bring today’s reflection to a peaceful, reassuring conclusion.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What Makes Faith Miraculous

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14.31)

In her sermon “The Problem with Miracles”, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a canny observation about harms we inflict on ourselves by assuming God’s intervention directly corresponds to the quantity—or quality—of our faith. “If you are sick and getting sicker, it must be your own fault,” she writes. “Pump up your faith and ring the bell. Impress God with the power of your belief and claim your miracle as a reward.” To be sure, the miracle stories appear to support this notion. Time and again, Jesus tells people He heals, “Your faith has made you well.” Not My power. Your faith. And we see this dynamic in reverse in Peter’s famous water-walking experience. He and the other disciples are in a storm-tossed boat. They see someone walking across the waves. They think it’s a ghost until Jesus calls to them, telling them not to fear. But Peter’s not so sure. He says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” (Matthew 14.28) Jesus beckons and Peter obeys. He does fine until a big wind frightens him. When he loses his footing and starts to sink, he cries, “Lord, save me!” Jesus catches him. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” He says.

I wish Matthew described Jesus’s tone, because it would tell us how to read His question. Is it a scold? A flat-out rebuke? Or is it delivered gently, with compassion? Since we don’t know, we assume Jesus is somehow blaming Peter for his failure. We make the same leap that mars our reading of other miracle stories: no faith, no miracle, case closed. But we should be very cautious about trusting this presumption, as it exposes our lack of faith in God’s wisdom and judgment. If the working of miracles relies on how much faith we have, we reduce divine intervention into a bartering game—removing God’s mercy and grace from the equation. If healing and provision depend solely on our belief, what does that say about a God Who withholds them from us when we don’t meet “the faith standard”? Isn’t the time when faith runs low also when we need God most?

When we look past the miracle-winners to all of the miracle-losers (and they are legion, both in the Bible and daily life), we see this faith equation we’ve concocted for what it truly is: a twisted blame-game designed to let God off the hook. Surely God wants to heal everyone. Surely God wants to calm all of our storms. Surely God wants us all walking on water. If we’re not healed and at peace and trotting atop the surf, it’s must be our fault. And the danger in this cockeyed logic is revealed in our presumption that God’s decisions require explanation—which puts us exactly where Peter is, weighted down by what we see and feel, sinking fast in the soup of our misguided understanding of what faith is for and how it works.

Random interventions and spectacular turnarounds are not what make faith miraculous. Faith’s miracle is constantly displayed in its power to sustain us. The whole point of Peter’s venture isn’t that he doesn’t have enough faith to walk on water. It’s found in the hand that catches him when he starts to sink. “Lord, save me!” he cries, and Jesus reaches for him. I like to think the relieved and grateful expression on Peter’s face triggers Jesus’s question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”—as if to say, “You knew I was here all the time. Didn’t you realize I would never let you drown?” Faith that God is with us, that God reaches us in our time of need, that God never stands by when life’s storms threaten to pull us under is a miracle all its own.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Yet-Unanswered Prayer

You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness. (Ephesians 4.4-6; The Message)

According to John’s gospel, just before going to Gethsemane where He’ll be taken from the disciples, Jesus prays for us. “I ask not only on behalf of these,” He prays, perhaps glancing around the table at His closest friends, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one.” He repeats this request twice—three mentions of “oneness” in all—and then concludes, saying, “I made Your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” For several weeks, it appears that Jesus’s prayer is answered. The disciples prove amazingly resilient. In 50 days’ time, they somehow absorb Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. Pentecost finds them exactly as Jesus prays that they’ll be: together, in one place, with one purpose. The Holy Spirit—God’s great binding force—falls on them and fills them and the Church’s work begins. But the disciples quickly discover there’s a huge difference between sitting together and working together. In short order, they’re fragmented into various schools of thought about what it means to be a Christian, what that requires, and how it works. It’s been that way ever since.

Ironically, this concept of “oneness” is the Early Church’s major bone of contention. Is the Jesus movement an exclusively Jewish sect? Or can everyone join? Even after God definitively reveals the answer to Peter (“Everyone”), it takes a while for the rest of the Church to get onboard. Once they get that worked out, a new question of “oneness” rears up. This issue isn’t so easy, as Church leaders try to understand what it means relative to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For centuries, the Church engages in battle over the Godhead, and much of its dissension arises from Jesus’s prayer. Are God and Jesus One? If so, how does Jesus’s dual role, as human and divine, fit into that? And what of the Holy Spirit? Early Church theologians can’t decide what they’re looking at: one God, two Gods as One (with the Spirit as a sort of amorphous helper), or Three in One. The debate gets so heated that Christians turn on one another—some going so far as to murder fellow-believers with differing opinions—and, to this day, the deepest schisms in Christ’s Body directly result from the “oneness” controversy.

Paul sees this coming and, in his letter to the Ephesians, attempts to thwart it. “You’re on the same road,” he reminds us. “You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.” One faith: it’s the glue that holds everything together. As Paul sees it, that we believe is more important than what we believe. Jesus prays two things for us: that we will believe in Him and be one with God, with Him, and each other. It is raw faith—not how we refine it—that holds us together. Names we slap on our church doors don’t matter. Varying baptism techniques are irrelevant. Most of all, debates that subvert Christian unity are useless. We are permeated with Oneness, Paul says, with power that joins us together through raw faith.

It’s estimated that there are over 30,000—30,000-plus!—distinct “brands” of Christianity in the world. So we must ask ourselves, “For what?” More than that, we must realize it is we—with our cravings for certainty and compulsions to be right to the exclusion of everyone else—who stand in the way of Jesus’s yet-unanswered prayer. When we make raw faith the common denominator, liturgical nuances and doctrinal disputes lose their grip. We’re traveling the same road in the same direction. Either we honor Christ’s desire and travel as one, or we end up with 30,000 nils. Either we see Christianity as an all-inclusive circle, or we grind it down to a giant zero.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through. (Genesis 32.28; The Message)

Christian tradition cites God’s promise to raise a chosen people from Abraham’s heirs as the birth of God’s redemptive plan. So crucial is this idea that both Matthew and Luke make a point of tracing Jesus’s lineage back to Abraham. Yet for two generations the nation born of this promise has no name. The first time we hear the word “Israel” occurs in Genesis 32, after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, wrestles with a mysterious Figure that turns out to be none other than God. And it’s vital that we recognize when this name-changing struggle occurs. Up to this point, Jacob’s spent his life devising various schemes to get ahead. Indeed, he’s the Bible’s great wheeler-dealer. He tricks his older brother into surrendering his birthright. When his plans go awry and he ends up married to a less desirable woman, he makes a deal with her father so he can marry her more attractive sister as well. Then he cons his father-in-law out of a fortune in prime livestock. By the time Jacob meets God, all of the trouble he’s caused is coming home to roost.

God doesn’t offer to help Jacob fix things. God doesn’t command Jacob to repent and mend his ways. God asks for no sacrificial offering. God shows up and wants to wrestle. As far as we can tell, the match ends in a draw. Genesis says the struggle lasts all night and when the Figure sees Jacob won’t be bested, he throws his hip out of joint. Still, Jacob won’t let go until the Figure blesses him. At dawn, the two sit side-by-side, panting and sweaty. God asks Jacob his name. Jacob tells him. God says, “From now on you’ll be called Israel”—which means, “he wrestles with God.” In so doing, God not only changes Jacob’s name and names the nation. God gives us a name. We too are God-Wrestlers. We too struggle with God through long nights of grappling with faith’s imponderable questions. We too wind up with parts of us out of joint. And as a rule, our bouts with God end in a draw. From Jacob we learn two things we should never forget: God is unafraid of our questions, and our faith is made real in struggle, not outcome. Before we get to the “holy” stuff—the repentance, reform, and rituals—we must own the name God gives us. We must accept that wrestling with God is who we are, that struggling with faith is our way of life. We are hardly passive players in redemption’s drama. We are wrestlers. That is God’s blessing to us.