Revelation 2:8-17

Reading: Revelation 2:8-17

Today we read the messages to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum. There is a common theme and a common history between these two churches — the theme is suffering persecution, and the common history is that both are known for suffering persecution.

I will start with Pergamum — Antipas of Pergamum is the first known Martyr in Asia Minor. Antipas died in 92 AD in a Brazen Bull. I don’t know if you know what a Brazen bull is — but, I’ll tell you. A brazen bull is a statue of a bull with a door in the side, and tubing that transmits sound from the inside to the mouth — sound that is distorted by the tubing is supposed to sound like bellows. The victim is locked inside of the bull, and a fire is lit under it; and as the person is roasted, his screams become the bull’s bellows.

The note in Revelation mentions a person who was executed in this creative way. The cruelty and the inventiveness that is displayed here makes it clear that this is a place where Satan’s throne is — if Satan had no throne there, how could such inhuman cruelty be openly part of society.

Smyrna is described as a place where Christians were slandered, and the local Jews were pointed out as enemies. Smyrna is different from Pergamum in that it is a prediction: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… for ten days you will have affliction.”

In Smyrna, Jews were tolerated, and their monotheism was tolerated. One question that this brings up is whether or not Christians share in the toleration. The Jews distanced themselves from Christians, and the Christians were accused of Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and other libel. I’m not sure how long 10 days is — but I do know the most famous martyr of Smyrna was Polycarp — and he ordered to be burned at a stake about 50 years after Revelation was written — and he was brought to the stake jointly by the Jewish elite and the pagans of Smyrna. Whatever the situation that would last 10 days was, it was still very much in effect 50 years later.

Personally, I like the idea that the 10 days are the 10 persecutions of the Early church; if they are, than at the time Revelation is written, they would be in the second day of affliction — and the ten days would be over at the start of the 4th century — so 10 days would be about 250 years — the persecutions end with the Church becoming the Imperial religion.

The promise I see in Revelation is that if Christianity endures, it will survive the persecution, and even the persecutors. There is a promise that the power of those who kill only have the power to touch the body — and because of Resurrection, they are powerless against the Church.

I’m done talking about history. There is much more that could be said, there is much I could say about idol worship, I could read from Numbers, and summarize Numbers 22-24, telling the story of Balaam in detail. I would try to connect what is written in Revelation to the experience of the ancient Hebrews. — In a normal weekend, that is what I would do, but this isn’t a normal weekend, so, I have already finished my commentary.

Today, I wonder how a letter to an American church might read. Would we read something like: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is?” Would the letter addressed to us praise us for standing firm against the evil that is in our world? Would it speak of how much we suffer or will suffer?

At this time, I seriously doubt that our letter would read like that. We live in a nation where persecution is so unimaginable that a simple intellectual challenge to Christian morality or belief is as close as we come to persecution — and there are many who seem to believe that such a challenge is persecution. Christian thought is considered in the highest level of government, in a respectful way, even by those who disagree with it; this is so true that those rare times when we don’t hear a common Christian belief being treated respectfully by a government official, we feel that it is wrong, and frighteningly abnormal.

What would a letter be like to a church who faces no persecution, who is not punished nor separated from society for their beliefs, who’s members have control of significant wealth, who has influence in every level of the government, and who’s members hold many positions of high leadership? How does the letter change when in an environment where the president reminds us that we worship God, not government? It seems like we, just like Christian Rome, would get a letter to a church that conquered by enduring hardship.

You see, many American churches have a history of persecution. The American idea of religious freedom was created by and for persecuted Christians. We overcame, we created a place for ourselves where we didn’t face that any more, and part of the goal was to protect the freedoms of those who have no power. With our history, what would Christ say to us?

I think that the letter would be less than kind. I think that we would be called out on our lack of faith in God, and how we really believe in ourselves, our wealth and our power and our personal knowledge.

I think that we would be condemned for the relationship formed with political parties. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly based on Christian morality; both are essentially secular. Now, there is both a Christian Right and Left that have one this one thing in common — both compromise things they believe to be part of the party. Sometimes compromise comes in the form of deemphasizing a traditional belief, or a teaching of Jesus — sometimes it goes further, and it is literally calling something good that scripture calls evil, or condemning something that Christ commands.

I think that we would be condemned for the idolatry of nationalism. The first Christians dealt with the question whether or not Caesar is Lord — they made it clear that Jesus is Lord, and nobody else really is. We live in a nation where Caesar makes no claim to be lord — yet, we are willing to compromise the gospel for political power. We are not asked to worship Caesar, but we are willing to bow down and worship Satan for the promise that he will give us the world to rule.

Today, I think the biggest thing that would be spoken against us is that we say we love God, but we openly hate our neighbor. We think nothing about speaking of those created in God’s image as if they had no value, and if their lives were worthless. It is as if we’ve decided that God’s image is a select group of people — not every human, but just one ethnicity.

This weekend, a group of White Nationalists extremists held a rally in Virginia. This rally included a Nazi terrorist using a car to harm and murder people who disagreed with the Nazi message. I look at the American church, and I see a group that does not have the courage to say that this hate is sin; and that if you hate your neighbor, who is made in God’s image, you cannot love God. If the American church said this clearly, we would not have seen the ugly display that formed at Charlottesville; but we have not said it — instead, too many of us have defended the rhetoric of hate. In fact, we have a Christian culture where church members recruit other church members for the Klan. Your grandparents likely were aware of the days in the 1920’s when one of the local pastors was a leader of the Indiana KKK; and nobody seemed to have a problem with this. We long ago compromised to the point of blasphemy. If there were a letter to the American church, the letter would tell us to repent of this blasphemy.

Every generation has its own difficulties. The difficulties we read about in scripture are very often the difficulties of living in a hostile culture under a hostile government. Our situation is different, our greatest difficulty is that we are caving without any pressure to those things that early Christians would resist to their death. Our greatest enemy is not Caesar, but compromised Christian leaders telling us that evil is good.

The letters all have this in common: “Whoever conquers” has a promise such as never tasting the second death, or a white stone with a new name. Overcoming a disease in the community is harder than overcoming what is external community. It is very hard because it is our problem; it is our sin. May we overcome though, because a church that hates who it should love is no Christian church at all.

Revelation 2:1-7

Reading: Revelation 2:1-7
Ephesus was an important church — tradition tells us that John settled in Ephesus, and that he brought Mary with him. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is one that focused on the gospel of Christ rather than any specific problems with the church. Scripture tells us that Paul spent about 3 years in Ephesus — that he was nearly run out of town because the Christians were not buying things dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Scripture also tells us that Paul’s student Timothy became a leader in the church at Ephesus.

The message given to the Ephesians is given to a church that looks to me like it was the center of Christianity, following the destruction of Jerusalem. The last of the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus settled there, all of the big names preached there, and it was enough of a center theological knowledge that John writes to them that they tested those who falsely claimed to be apostles and found them false.

The Church at Ephesus is a church that is theologically correct. The Ephesians cannot be fooled; they were taught by the best and they know who and what Jesus is; they know the True gospel, and when they see a false gospel, they are able to name it as a counterfeit.

This passage speaks of a specific false teaching — that of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in scripture, the second time is later in this chapter in the letter to Pergamum:

You have some there who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so they would eat food scarified to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (Revelation 2:14-15 NRSV)

These short lines, and a few sentences from early Christian writers is all we have to tell us about this group. Ireanius called them antinomians, and associated them with one of the Gnostic sects of his time. Justin Martyr said that they ate food sacrificed to idols; which I also got from reading Revelation. What I was able to find left me guessing who the Nicolaitans were; but, one thing stood out: The early Christian writers were clear that they took the name from the Greek deacon Nicolaus of Antioch, who was appointed a leader with other Gentile Christians in order to correct a problem that was forming due to having a multi-cultural church.

Just making the leadership multicultural didn’t fix the problems. The conflict between the different cultures in the church would continue. When Paul wrote his epistles, the chief false teaching he opposed was that of the Judizers. Paul spoke against those who demanded that Gentile Christians first give up their own culture, and become culturally Jewish. Judiziers were not able to separate their faith from their culture.

When I was at FUM triennials, I went to a workshop led by Eden Grace where we learned about cross cultural ministry. While we were in the workshop, she spoke of the mistakes made by well meaning missionaries over 100 years ago — specifically in the context of Kenya.

The original missions in Kenya were large compounds, and the people who joined the church were taken into these compounds to live like Christians. They built western-style Christian houses, planted Christian gardens the way Englishmen planted gardens, dressed in Christian clothes like Englishmen wore, and learned English culture as the culture of Christianity. Many 19th century missions did not separate English culture from Christian faith; and they taught English culture as Christianity.

Growing up American, but having an interest in cross cultural ministry, I’ve become aware that I must recognize that faith and culture are not the same thing. When I experience cultural differences, my culture is the one that feels right. I even want to look for proof that what I am used to is better — but when I’m honest, I realize that scripture does not really endorse European culture either, there are things in there that challenge us too. We all can make the same mistake the Jewdizers made.

One thing that I learned when studying Church history is that Heretical teachings come in pairs; there is the false teaching, and then there is another false teaching that forms while trying to refute the first false teaching. When people focus on correcting errors, instead of the truth — that focus reliably leads to another error.

Now, what error would come from Greeks rejecting the call to turn into Jews; the most obvious error would be to create a Greek Christianity that cared more about being Greek than Christian. The error would be to avoid questioning anything that was part of Greek culture — leading to people who claimed Christianity, yet would go to the pagan temple to buy meat scarified to idols, and perhaps even offer a pinch of incense to Caesar. I really think this is the most likely error of the Nicoliatan; that they Hellenized Christianity just as the Jewdizers Jewdized Christianity.

In I Corinthians 8, Paul seems to be writing to exactly this type of Christian. They rationalize their behavior by pointing out that they know that the Greek gods are nothing. There is the idea that openly participating in Greek pagan culture is ok, because they don’t believe in the gods that received the sacrifice. This is a convenient faith, it is one that does not challenge a person’s place in society — but, as Paul writes: “not everyone has this knowledge.” Paul urges these Christians to behave different from their Greek culture, so they will not cause others without their knowledge to stumble.

What is ironic is that if I am right about who the Nicolaitans were, then they and the Ephesians church had something in common; both were correct in knowledge, but somehow in error. Those who did not separate themselves from idolatry simply because idols are nothing knew the right thing, yet did the wrong thing, and they were able to justify it by their knowledge. The Ephesians are condemned because they “abandoned the love they had at first”.

When Jesus spoke to the disciples at the last supper, he told commanded them to love one another. It is said that people looked at the Christians, and said of them “see how they love one another.” Even when Jesus spoke of how we will be judged, Jesus didn’t say there was a theological entry exam for heaven, but instead spoke of the way we treat others. Loving one another, and acting according to love is a big part of what it means to be Christian.

One group was smug, and acted wrongly with the knowledge that because there is but one true God, none of the Greek paganism even mattered, the other group was able to tell which teachings were right and which ones were wrong, but ended up failing to continue to live in love. One might say their faith moved from their hearts to their heads.

Of course, I’d recommend Biblical knowledge, good Theology, and a good enough understanding of the gospel to recognize when somebody is preaching a false one. The knowledge and discernment the Ephesian church had was a good thing to have. I think the point here is that we cannot put knowledge over the love we are commanded to have. A smug superior knowledge can even become a justification for bad behavior; and right knowledge can be applied wrongly. Knowledge is good, but knowledge alone is not enough.

We must remember the love that we had at first. We might make mistakes, we may even be mistaken about something that we think we know — but, as Peter wrote in I Peter 4: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Remember, no mater how much we know, no matter how good we are at discernment, if we forget to love, we have strayed from the way Christ taught us to live.

 

The end of all things: I Peter 4:7-19

Reading: I Peter 4:7-19

“The end of all things is near.” These words spark the imagination; these are words that we all hear from time to time — and they are words that are easy to dismiss because we see that the world didn’t end every time that we hear those words. It is easy to argue how the world will end, and miss how much of the world really did end.

I believe that I Peter was written between the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, and the death of Nero in 68 AD; perhaps not surprisingly, this range of dates is also when Peter and Paul died under the persecution of Nero. Lets consider the Roman world in the middle of the first century.

At this point, Pax Romana had made it so that the entire shoreline of the Mediterranean sea was well connected. The winds were such that travel by sea was fast enough that one could travel from Rome to the ends of the empire in about a week — if you had to travel quickly, you could, though you paid for it by the discomfort of sailing.

While this letter was written in Rome, Peter and others in the community certainly had connections to Jerusalem and the temple. The Roman empire made it so that massive pilgrimages to the temple were possible. The temple was built to its current spender under a Judean king who was basically a client king to the Romans. It might not be pleasant to be occupied, but being under Rome had many advantages.

Caesar Augustus’s descendants were not nearly as great as he was; this is one problem with dynasties, eventually you get kings who are incompetent, crazy, or malicious. Caligula was, doubtless, all of these things. Caligula was assassinated by his bodyguards before he could destroy the empire.

Caligula had most of the adult male members of his family killed, because he saw other potential emperors as a threat to his power. For some reason he missed his uncle Claudius — most likely the reason was that Claudius was mocked by his family and kept out of the public view; uncle Claudius was not a threat.

Under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, things started getting better. Claudius was a hard worker, getting up long before dawn to focus on the needs of the Empire. He focused on improving transportation, building roads and canals throughout the empire; unfortunately, he married a relative, Nero’s mother. The historian Tacitus tells us that Claudius was poisoned by his wife, his food taster, and his physician when Nero was old enough to rule.

When Nero came to power in 54 AD, 10 years before the great fire, he started off as a good emperor. Nero was a student of the philosopher Seneca, and he had the great moral philosopher as his adviser. Seneca taught him to treat people humanely, whether they were slaves or free. Nero’s early reign was marked by reversing the harsher actions of his step-father. His first public speech promised to end secret trials, to eliminate court corruption, and to respect the Senate; and the first half of his rule greatly increased the rights of the poor and former slaves.

It did not take long for the hope people put in Nero to break down; in 58 AD, he had his mother murdered — and by 62, he started executing any nobleman he disagreed with. Not surprisingly, 62 is also when his adviser Seneca fell out of favor. As Seneca was Nero’s speech and policy writer, Nero’s tone and policies changed drastically. One might say that early-Nero’s rule was really Seneca’s rule.

In 64, there was a great fire that destroyed most of Rome. Rumors said that Nero started it so that he could rebuild Rome and expand his palace complex. Between the fire, and Nero’s killing of anybody who criticized him or opposed him politically, he lost the support of the Senate. Nero blames the Christians for the fire, and begins crucifying and burning them. Starting in 65, Senators were planning Nero’s assassination, and they even had members of Nero’s body-guard involved in the plot; and there is a problem, Nero has no heir, the family of Caesar has murdered each other until it was nearly extinct.

In 66 AD, there was a revolt in Judea. Nero sent Vespasian to restore order — this turned into a full out war that in 70AD completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem. While the Jewish-Roman war was going on, back at Rome Nero was assassinated in 68 AD. Nero’s assassination and lack of an heir plunged the empire into a civil war. 69 AD was known as the year of the 4 emperors, the first three dying in quick succession. Vespasian, who warred against Judea left his son Titus in charge and marched on Rome, conquering and looted Rome, and established his house as the next dynasty.

All things are coming to an end. If you were Roman, you were about to see the reign of the Caesars coming to an end. Before Nero, the emperor was from Julius Cesar’s family — but, the Senate was allowed to choose which member; now, the emperor was chosen by the military and served as a military dictator making Rome less democratic. Vespasian’s son Domitian would completely end the illusion that Rome was a republic, and the senate had any power. Domitian would also become one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian faith.

If you had any connection to the Jewish people and faith, the end of Jerusalem as a city and the complete destruction of the temple, followed by making the man responsible for this destruction emperor at Rome would have signaled an end of the world. If you were a Roman, who loved Roman institutions, and the stability Rome enjoyed, even when there were ineffective emperors; you would have lost something. If you were a supporter of the Caesars, you would have mourned their line coming to an end. If you supported the Republic and the senate, you would have mourned that they no longer had any power — that after the civil war all power was held by the emperor and the military.

Peter did not need great prophetic insight to see that change was coming; he only needed the ability to hear rumors, and guess truth from them. The Christian community was a scapegoat for the emperor’s problems; a fiery ordeal is a big eye-opener to the problems faced by the emperor. Perhaps the biggest sign that an institution has problems is the need to direct focus on an unlikely scapegoat. Peter couldn’t have been the only person who saw the writing on the wall.

Peter wrote some advice for the church as it was facing its members being publicly set on fire and burned alive — it might be good to listen to the advice given to a church facing a fiery ordeal even in this time and place where we enjoy comfort, and where Christian thought is discussed and considered at every level of public discourse.

The first thing Peter advises is how to act to other Christians. He advised that we keep loving each other, we keep being hospitable to each other, and that we keep serving each other. When the rest of the world is uncertain, and everything that once seemed safe is unsafe, Peter called the Christian community to be a refuge, and to look out for each other. After the great fire of Rome, many people were made homeless — what is more practical than love, service, and hospitality when people are displaced? Between the fire, a hostile government, and the disasters that were to come, this isn’t just about being nice to each other; this is about survival.

Peter also gave some advice about how to relate to the Roman Empire; in this case he advised that the community honor those who are punished by the government for their Christianity — basically, martyrs are to be honored. If somebody is punished for Christian beliefs or behavior, the person suffered just as Christ suffered — the person is a hero.

On the other hand, Peter told the community not to murder, or steal, or commit other crimes or even to meddle. Peter told this community of scapegoats to be on good behavior — make sure that when Nero sets you on fire, nobody can find any cause for him to have done so — not even meddling; which was reason enough for Nero’s family members and trusted advisers to be put to death.

The end of all things was near, and it came and went; but Peter gave advice that helped Christians survive persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the looting of Rome. The more people saw Christians suffering without any cause; the more people saw Christians loving one another, and being generous and hospitable, serving those who were in need — the more people joined the church. Without fighting back, Christianity would defeat all the power of the empire and would survive it.

Christ has given us the strength to endure all that the world can throw against us. We hope for the resurrection of the dead, and that hope is greater than any power that can be used against us. I don’t anticipate any fiery ordeal any time soon — but, I do anticipate opportunities to love, to be hospitable, and to serve one another.

I Peter 2:4-12 Building a house

Reading:  I Peter 2:4-12

Some parts of the Bible are more difficult for me to understand because of my cultural background. In the United States, we focus on the individual. When a group of people accomplishes something, we choose somebody to give credit to. Of course, there are places where individualism causes problems, and we are reminded things such as “there is no “I” in team — but, at the end of the day, if the team is successful, there is an effort to give credit to an individual.

As an example of our culture, a couple years ago National Geographic put out a documentary series called American Genius. I love documentaries, so I had to watch — and, the series started with “Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates;” which, not surprisingly was about the development of micro-computers between 1977 and the mid 1980’s.

I can say the show was fun, but I can also say that the line that they showed on the screen described the show perfectly: “This program included dramatizations inspired by history. Some events have been altered for dramatic purposes.” In the case of the first episode, I could see exactly where they changed history — but, instead of listing the details they changed, I’ll give the big picture. Every one of the shows was one personality vs another personality — every industry was reduced to two people — and in the case of Jobs vs Gates, they chose two people who were not directly competing with each other.

We all tell stories in a way that “alters events for dramatic purposes”, even when we don’t intend to do so; and one way we do this is that we exaggerate the role of a single individual — we give one person credit for everybody’s work, or we cast blame on one person for the community’s failure. We really don’t know how to think about a community. Do we know what it means to be living bricks?

When we look at a building, we don’t think of the individual bricks, but instead, we think of the whole that it represents. If we really think about what it means to be living stones, making up a great temple, we have to remember that if people are seeing stones instead of the building, something is wrong. For this metaphor to work, we have to see community clearly.

When I was a child in Sunday school, we were taught a little song written by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh:  (Song copyright by Hope Publishing.  The copyright holders graciously provide words and music on their website.)

I’m glad that I had this little bit of theological training as a child; the song is quite simple, but it gives a great overview of ecclesiology:

  • The church is not a building, but people
  • The church is not localized but worldwide
  • The church is not limited to people like me
  • The church transcends time
  • The church remains the church, even when its not at its best
  • The church is about praying in community
  • The church brings the good news of Christ to the whole world

We are living stones; we are part of the great structure that is the church; You and I share this role with Peter and Paul, with names that everybody remembers such as C.S. Lewis, or Augustine; and we share this role with billions of names that only God remembers; but if we focus too much on one brick, we fail to see the structure!

The church is the community that Jesus gathered — and it is much greater than we are able to see. Every one of us is very limited; we can only be one place at at time. We are also limited in that we can only travel one direction in time, and we can only go a little ways. Even people who travel for a living do not have the opportunity to obverse all people; and no matter how long our memory, our memory neither stretches back to the first generation of Christians, nor can we remember what will happen in the future. We are bricks, and as bricks we are far too small to see the whole building, the most we can see is those bricks that are closest to us.

Sometimes people talk as if there was the early church, and there is the church now — as if there is nothing in between. Usually, when people do that, it is because these two moments of time are easier to deal with than all of history. I recall at Barclay college, we did learn a competing view of the church that taught that he church became apostate, and thus was no longer the church, and at some point, God raised somebody up to re-establish the church — our professor Mark Kelly referred to this as the blink off, blink on theory.

This theory has a couple of problems, the first of which is that I am in no place to judge when the church was no longer the church. There are parts of the world where the church is aware of its history all the way until the days of the apostles. I learned that in the middle east, there are families who have been Christian since the 1st century. It is rather impressive to realize that there are Syrian Christians who’s families claim that their ancestors were in the church that Peter served. These families cannot remember a time when the church was not — it is the same as if they were asked to remember when their family was not.

Another problem is that if we want to set a time when the church became “apostate” the best time I can think of was when the apostles were still alive. When I read the New Testament, I can see that the early church was full of terrible problems, and that the apostles dealt with issues that I would not imagine in our churches today. I also can see that the early church dealt with putting faith in humans instead of God, and it dealt with personality conflicts and with cults of personality. Was the church already apostate when Paul was writing his epistles? If it was, how can we trust an apostate church to have preserved Holy scripture?

The truth is that I cannot really point to a time when the church truly lived up to its ideal. Us living stones are not always content to take our place in the structure. Sometimes we want to stand out — sometimes we want to be something much more than a stone; and sometimes we really rebel against the whole idea of holiness and community. The more I read Church History, the more I realize there is no golden age; but, the more I read, the more I realize that there are bright lights in even the darkest of ages. It seems like the church is always in need of repair, and there is always somebody there doing repairs.

To paraphrase the Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, people go to church to pray together; they don’t go to hear a lecture. Peterson wrote about receiving this epiphany in The Contemplative Pastor, along with several other things that he learned in during his lengthy ministry. Now, the American church model often seems to act as if people are gathering together to hear a lecture — and Peterson, being a Presbyterian, belongs to a faith tradition where preaching is a sacrament; perhaps even the primary means of grace — yet, even in the tradition that has the highest view of preaching, one of the most famously skilled preachers observes people come to pray together, not to hear a sermon.

Ultimately, I believe that the church is a community of the Kingdom of heaven on the Earth — and that it is more than a community, it is a colony. Jesus tells us that we are to be salt and light. The church might not be of the world, but it is very much in the world — and one reason the church is here is to improve the world.

We are a community that eats and prays together. We are a community with a shared belief in God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We are a community with a long tradition of helping each other and caring for those who have needs. We are the church; that is the identity Christ gave us — and with God’s help, we can live up to the high calling that we be the Church.

James 3 — Blessings and blasphemy

Reading: James 3

Last month I started talking about James, and if you recall, one of the things that I brought up was that James really is talking about the practical implications of our belief that humanity is created in God’s image. On April 30, I talked about that images still have, and I gave the example of how people respond to our national image, the flag. When I review what I said on the 30th, I realize that I could many of the same things all over again; but, this is not surprising. The practical implications of humanity as God’s image is a theme throughout James so as we read James 3 we come to the part where James is really taking his congregation to task over the way they speak about human beings.

When we read this, we are reading something that very much speaks to a failing in our own culture. With the tongue, we bless God and curse those made in God’s image, from the same mouth comes blessings and cursing. I don’t know how many of you use Facebook; but I know if you do, you likely have no shortage of friends who will post blessing and cursing almost continuously.

Honestly, I’m not sure if it was a good thing for me to form a Facebook account and reconnect with old friends. I’ve looked at so many people who I’ve respected and who can quote scripture better than I can; and I have seen posts recommending genocide against Native Americans, suggested that murdering people based on ethnicity is appropriate, and suggesting that a class of people are rats, or cockroaches, or even poison.

I see the same people posting praise Jesus, and posting Bible verses, calling for prayer and showing that they are people of deep faith. I’ve learned that American Christian culture sees nothing inconsistent about this behavior. Indeed, I’ve even seen examples of blessing God and cursing God’s image posted by church leaders and on rare occasions even on official church pages. Until I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve not been aware at how much cursing and blessing comes from the same mouth. A person literally blesses and blasphemes God in the same sentence. If I burned a flag, nobody would think me a patriot — why would anybody think a person who cursed God’s image a Christian?

One thing that scares me is that no matter how much people say that words are just words, I know what it looks like when words become actions. We know how powerful words were when spoken by a charismatic German leader in the first half of the 20th century. Words that dehumanized lead to one of the most famous of all genocides, the Holocaust.

I’ve always found propaganda interesting; I wonder how somebody can present an argument in a way that leads to such extreme actions. I’ve watched or read World War 2 propaganda produced by Disney, by Mel Blanc, Dr. Seuss and by others; I’ve also seen and read some Nazi propaganda. One of the books I read is a children’s volume titled, in translation, “The toadstool”. “The toadstool” compares a Jew to a poison mushroom that is accidental gathered and is chopped up and cooked in with the food and poisoned the whole family. The moral of the story was that it only took a single Jew, just as it only took a single poisoned mushroom, to kill an entire nation. The Nazis also had political cartoons that compared Jews to a terrible rat infestation, and compared the Jewish solution to getting rid of the rats. These were just words and images that suggested that one population was not human like the rest of us, and we all remember what that lead to.

Shockingly, I’ve seen people make exactly the same arguments that the Nazi’s once did. I’ve seen political cartoons suggesting that a class of people is a rat infestation. We at one point had an image comparing a class of people as poison that might destroy our nation. I’ve seen Nazi propaganda recycled as people who bless God freely curse those made in God’s image. I know from the Holocaust what it means that the tongue stains the body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire from hell.

This has been a rather unpleasant news week. As you might know there was a suicide bomber at a concert in Manchester England. After this happened somebody asked the question: “How do people get radicalized so that they would do these kinds of things?” I’ve been thinking about this question, about the passage that I read, and about the other news stories that have come by me these days. Words are powerful. People are radicalized by words. These words that suggest that a group of people are less than human, that they deserve extermination is really what leads to such extreme acts. We talk about radicalization of some other group — but we forget what it looks like when people in our own culture are radicalized.

This weekend, I saw examples of what happens when our own people are radicalized — not extremists, not crazy people, but normal good Americans. As you might know, Friday was the special election for congressman in Montana. On Thursday one of the candidates, according to a witness, put his hands around a journalist’s throat, threw him on the ground and punched him. The journalist described it as: “you just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”

Having heard this news, the election suddenly became interesting to me — I wondered if a person could openly commit assault, without any apparent reason and still be elected for public office. The Gianforte campaign first claimed that the reporter grabbed Congressman Gianforte, but the altercation was observed by a Fox News team who reported that the campaign lied about it, and that the attack came without provocation.

The last day of the campaign, Congressman Gianforte received $100,000 in online donations — most of these donations were after, and apparently because he punched a reporter. He was never arrested for committing assault; though he will have to appear before a judge, and answer for his actions. When the votes were counted, Gianforte won the election, and in the victory speech acknowledged that his actions were wrong, and said he would not do it again.

That apology is all well and good, but I notice two things: people donated money because he punched a journalist, and a number of people gave this as something that made them eager to vote for him. He apologized before his trial, but after the election was over. The election showed that the good people of Montana find it acceptable to elect a man who openly assaults people. How could a pillar of society such as Congressman Gianforte, and so many of the good people of Montana become radicalized and decide that violence against a person because of his constitutionally protected profession was a right and reasonable thing to do?

Again, this is something that comes from the power of words. In February, the President named the press as the enemy of the American people. Now, this is alarming, not only because the first amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, but because I’m perfectly aware that freedom isn’t what a nation gives to its enemies — no, a nation works to protect itself from its enemies. These words are alarming, because they lead to fighting the enemies.

This phrase actually came up during Gianforte’s campaign — and when it did, the congressman pointed to a reporter and said: “We have someone right here, it seems there are more of us than there is of them.” The congressman said that this was a joke, but this joke was a public suggestion that a mob attack a reporter as the enemy of the American people. These words are alarming, because they are a call to violence that cannot help but lead to violence.

We must watch our language — the first reason is the theological one; that speaking of others in a way that does not recognize that they are God’s image is blasphemy against God. The second reason is a practical reason, words are a fire that spreads and brings more evil. Words lead to actions that will embarrass us and our communities.

James 1:19-27: Pure vs worthless religion

Reading:  James 1:19-27
Reading this, I have to admit that my religion is sometimes pretty worthless. Sometimes, no matter how righteous my cause is — I am able speak before I listen. I was angry just a few days ago, and I spoke out of that anger. This week I am reading and talking about the passage that says: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” and later “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

This is not an easy passage for me, and I have met few who would say that it is as easy passage for them either. When I speak in anger, without listening, I want to say that I spoke for the right reasons. I want to say that I am on the side of righteousness — or that God is on my side. I want to say that my anger is justified, because I am right. I even want to defend my anger by insisting that my anger is about the right things — but, James tells me that my anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

The words of Jesus really are not any easier. In the sermon on the mount Jesus speaks on anger saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court 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. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
(Matthew 5:21-26 NRSV)

Jesus’ advice is to place reconciliation even above religious practice. God tells us that we face judgment for our anger, and that if somebody has a grievance, make it right, make reconciliation, even if it means leaving the temple. Making our relationships right is more important than going to worship.

What is religion? Religion is something grounded in a faith in something or Someone much larger than ourselves — it is a faith that causes us to live differently. People who are religious do things to practice their religion; they take time out of their schedules to go to a place of worship, they read scriptures, they pray, they fast, they give to support their religious institutions. I hate it when people say they have a relationship and not a religion — I have a relationship with a lot of people who I would ignore if they told me how to live my life, or what my relationships with my family should look like. The relationship does not give these people permission to change the details of my life — but, religion does just that, religion asks me to change the way I approach life, and even habits of thought and attitude like what I do with anger. Yes — my religion is about a relationship with Christ, but it is more than just another relationship; it is something that permeates and changes my life.

What is hard here is the reminder that as important as those acts of piety that I am used to are, there are some much more basic things that are far more important. It is hard for me to imagine bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and when it is my turn to offer the sacrifice, I remember that I need to reconcile with my brother — so I run out and do it; fix relationships first.

The New Testament makes the importance of loving your fellow human beings very clear. The first thing that comes to my mind is the passage in 1 John 4:20 tells us that if we cannot love our brother, who we see, than we do not love God who we do not see. Jesus talks about loving others, including the other on multiple occasions — the story of the good Samaritan where that man is made an example stands out, as does his direct command to “Love your enemies.” Jesus gives the explanation that there is nothing noble about loving those who love us back.

If I am to give a theological explanation I would look back to the creation narrative, and how it tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image — both male and female. I would point out that images are important, and that almost every temple you walk into holds an image that represents the god of the temple — but, for the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making an image to represent God was forbidden. Now, I’m not going to go down the rabbit trail of Christian images, nor the argument about what is appropriate and what isn’t. I am going to say that Torah both rejected images made by human hands to represent God, and informed humanity that God personally crafted an image.

Now, think about what this means — think about how important images are to us. We might think that we are too modern to connect an image with the thing that it represents — but we do it constantly. For those of us who use a computer, we click on `icons’ all the time, with no thought of separating the action the computer does with the icon that has come to represent the action.

Think about how angry people get if somebody burns a flag in protest. There are all sorts of calls of criminalizing this extreme action. Does this not sound like an extreme reaction to what a person does with a small piece of patterned cloth? How is it different from any other piece of cloth? If the protester burned the flag where nobody could see it burn, nobody would get angry, and the fire would not harm anything — as long as it did not spread, so why is the flag more than a piece of cloth?

The flag is different because of the value we put on it. We take a very big concept — that of a nation of over 300 million people that is built on a philosophy of what it means to be a free people who are ruled justly, and a system of laws that tries to to be consistent with that philosophy; and we attach all our complex feelings to a piece of cloth with a specific pattern. When we see that cloth, we feel about the cloth the same way we feel about the nation — if we are angry with the nation, we are angry with the flag; and if we see violence done to the flag — even though the nation is unharmed, we feel anger as if our nation, and not a piece of cloth was burning. This is the power of an image.

God commanded that there be no image of God, but there were still images. The best known was the Ark of the Covenant, and to a lesser degree the Temple. These were images that declared God was present, but there was no Idol, no statue of the most high God.

There is also symbol that God’s law was the sovereign law of the land — and the sovereign law of a person’s home; Jewish custom was to put a few verses of scripture into a small box, and nail that box to the entryway. Nobody will open a mezuzah to read the scripture contained inside; but it sits there as a symbol that Torah is sovereign — including the commandment in Deuteronomy 6 to write the commandments you hear today on the doorposts of your houses.

These symbols however are not the image of God; Torah teaches that God made God’s own image in humanity. When we read that Jesus tells us to leave worship if we need reconciled with our brother, and do that right away — think about what the images mean. The person we need reconciled with is God’s image — how can we love God, and hate God’s image? This question should make as much sense to us as: “How can we love our country, yet hate its flag?”

One thing religion has always been about is images — and if we despise the image of the God we claim to worship; is it not obvious that our religion is worthless? The reason that this would be a priority — even a priority above pious acts such as participating in worship should seem clear. To quote a later part of James, about the need to control the tongue: “With our tongue, we bless God yet curse man who is made in God’s image — this should not be”. If we do not bridle our tongue — if we curse God’s image, we symbolically curse God.

The first chapter of James ends with telling us that pure and undefined religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress. This is a natural result of humanity being God’s image — the most religious thing to do is, if one sees an image defiled, to try and clean it up, perhaps even to repair minor damage. The society that the early Christians lived in did not treat the vulnerable people as God’s image; no, it treated God’s image as so much garbage. True religion sees God’s image for what it is — and works to honor it.

James 1:1-18

Reading:  James 1:1-18

My relationship with James is kind of odd — out of all the books in the Bible, I’m most familiar with it. It takes just over 10 minutes to recite, and as a teenager I think I was able to do so. I know the text of James very well, but I’m not always very sure what to do with it. James is hard; and if you don’t think it is hard then think of the last time that you had to go to a hospital, or your car broke down; or the money ran out before the month and you had a moment when you didn’t know that everything would be all right — did you experience this as joy? My teenage self redefined the word `joy’ to mean those things I didn’t want — I knew the words, but I’m quite sure that entirely missed the point.

James is also hard because we really don’t know much about the epistle. Tradition tells us that it was written by James the brother of Jesus — and, ancient tradition has three competing traditions on what this means, one is that James was one of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage; and there are ancient writers who believed that they were Joseph’s children by Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s theory is that James is the son of Cleopas, Joseph’s brother, who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (and thus Mary the mother of James, mentioned in Mark, is Cleopas’ wife, and Jesus’ aunt.)

What tradition agrees on is that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, James became the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he remained there until his death in either 62 AD or 69 AD depending on which source you use — James was killed by Jewish leaders by being thrown off the temple, then beaten to death with a club.

Tradition tells us very little about the book of James, other than who wrote it. I cannot look at the great ancient preachers and read their sermons on James; I cannot even say that James meets the description used for scripture that it was “accepted everywhere from the beginning”, because it is missing from several of the “local” canons, and according to the 4th century church historian Eusebius James was a disputed book.

This, and a few internal issues causes many scholars question the tradition that James wrote the epistle of James, and suggest that it might be the last book of the New Testament, written as late as the 2nd century. They have the idea that James is either an ancient sermon, or perhaps a piece of wisdom literature that somehow had “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” added to the beginning.

The scholars who accept the tradition that James was written by James the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church obviously date James before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. One of the proposed dates is before the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, which would explain why this letter is only addressed to Jewish Christians; the decision that a person could be Christian without becoming a Jew had not been made yet. This is my favorite theory.

If I go with this theory, then this epistle would come between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the council that decided to accept Gentile Christians in Acts 15, sometime before 50 AD. When the Jewish leaders persecuted the Jewish Christians; many left Jerusalem for safer places. The church didn’t spread when everybody was content to stay in Jerusalem, but it did spread under persecution — and, James would have had people under his spiritual care who had left Judah for safer places. I like to picture this as a letter to religious refugees, and as the oldest book in the New Testament.

One reason I like the early date is that it makes James very interesting because James quotes Jesus a lot, and when not quoting, there seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus. An early date for James is interesting because this would make James the earliest extant source of the teachings of Christ. I can read “Consider it pure Joy” and notice this is a lot like the sermon on the mount which begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

To put the first words of James into the formula of the sermon on the mount:  “Blessed are you when you face diverse trials, for the testing of your faith brings endurance and leads to maturity.”  This sounds a lot like Jesus.

James jumps from this to telling those of us who lack wisdom to pray for it, and to trust God to give it to us. Following this, James tells the poor to talk about how they are raised up, and the rich to talk about how they are brought down — Christ is an equalizer, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

James follows this by reminding everybody that when we are tempted, we are tempted by our own desires. I know it is an old joke, but I smile at the person who prays the Lord’s prayer, and when he gets to “Lead me not into temptation”, adds: “for I already know the way.”

Today’s section ends with the verse that tells us every perfect gift comes from the Father; I tend to see this as God is the source of generosity and the generous spirit — so, even if I give, it is God who gave and give the desire to be generous, so our generosity, as well as any wisdom we receive is ultimately a gift from God.