Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Book of Acts - A Reflection

N.T. Wright wrote, “For too long we have read scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with 1st-century eyes and 21st-century questions.” (Wright, Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision, page 37)

We tend to be creatures of habit in so many ways. Individually, within a lifespan we see this as one generation’s tastes and values don’t seem to all make it to the next generation, yet in some things we are the exact opposite, we hold on to that which came before us without ever questioning it, without ever inspecting it for its validity or invalidity. Music tends to fall into the first category. We like different music than our parents did, and the music they listened to was disliked by their parents. When we have children of our own, their music tastes will often rub us the wrong way. But when it comes to “doing church” we get stuck in ruts that last centuries, with very little change over long periods of time. And then when changes in thought or interpretation are considered they are shot down, challenged, torn apart, considered heretical so fast that we as often fear considering something our parents, or grandparents didn’t teach us.

Many in the church today believe and practice our faith much like those who lived 200 or even 300 years ago did. We have in many ways been looking at life through perspectives that have been handed down for generations. What N.T. Wright is saying is that it is time we start challenging some of those interpretations, not to declare them invalid, but to look at them differently than our forefathers did. To look at them as they were written, and understand them as they were written, not so that we can emulate them in practice, but so that we can apply the concepts taught in a truly modern way without violating those concepts.

One of my favorite music groups when I was young was “2nd Chapter of Acts”. They were a group whose songs were modern, they had a beat that one could move to and tap a foot to, and their message was different than the message I was hearing at church. Their idea of the way church was supposed to “be done”, was that it should be done the same way it was in the 1st Century, and “doing church” the same way my Grandparents did was, well, frankly, boring. But going back to doing things the way they were done in the 1st Century wasn’t the right answer either. We need to study the scriptures through the eyes, the mindset, the understanding of the 1st Century believers, not to learn how to emulate them, but to grasp an understanding of the meaning behind what they were doing so that we can apply those principles to our lives today.

The book of Acts gives us a very good historical record of the birth of Christianity. We see many stories that bring many lessons, but only if we look for the lessons, and then look for ways to apply those lessons in today’s reality. To try to recreate the stories of what happened during the birth of the church isn’t a very realistic goal, nor a very useful way of applying the lessons God was teaching.

The bible is full of stories of reconciliation of God to mankind. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to the early church, stories of God reaching out to establish a relationship with mankind and to reconcile that which was broken, true unfettered communion with Him. One of the themes we see in the book of Acts is God’s desire to do this very thing, reconcile, not only with the Jews, but also with the Gentiles. God being a God not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles was radical new ideology that stirred great controversy in the early church.

But this was God’s plan from the beginning, to reconcile Himself to all mankind, just as He covenanted with Abraham. Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin outlined this perfectly, and we can read that sermon in Chapter 7 of Acts and we should see it not through our eyes, not with the knowledge we have today, but we should read this as if we were there. We should read this passage and learn from it, not learn it, but learn from it. There is certainly an historical story there, we can learn the history, but we would be so much better served to learn the lesson that Stephen was sharing, not as it applied to the Sanhedrin to whom he was speaking but as to how it applies to us today. We should read this passage and understand not that Stephen knew his Torah well, which he did, but we should see that the connections he was drawing from Abraham to Moses to King David to Jesus to himself also apply to us today. We should read that speech, that sermon, and see much more than Stephen the Martyr delivering his last sermon. We should see God’s provision for reconciliation to all of those and even to ourselves.

Far too often we study the bible and we read the bible not to find God speaking to us, but to learn about how God spoke to and through other people. For example, in the story of Stephen’s death we see that immediately after that persecution broke out and the Christians scattered. Why? Jesus told them to “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Stephen was martyred in approximately 34 AD. So, in 34 years the church had still not done as Jesus had commanded them. Did God condemn Stephen to death so He would have an excuse to force His people to do as He wanted? I don’t think so, but He used Stephen’s death to accomplish what He had commanded years before.

How can we apply that lesson today? That is a question we should be seeking to answer. That is a question we as Pastors should be asking of our congregations. We should be bringing the scriptures to our congregations not as a lesson in Christianity, but rather we should be encouraging them to ask themselves, “What is God saying to me about this passage today?” How can we look at the book of Acts from the perspective of those living in the First Century and find ways to apply those lessons, those perspectives to our lives today?

Sharing one’s faith in Jesus wasn’t easy in the first century. Why were the majority of the Christians still in the area when Stephen was stoned 34 years after being told to “Go”? Because it was dangerous to “Go”. There is safety in numbers. It is much easier to believe something that is “controversial” when there are others nearby who believe the same thing. Most of us today socialize with people who are likeminded. It’s simply much easier to sit down and eat dinner with someone who believes the same things, holds the same opinions, and generally won’t tease us, or worse, for our differences. But is that what Jesus called us to do?

Jesus didn’t say, “Go find people, share my Good news with them and then bring them here to be with you, and all of you stay right here in a nice comfortable community where you will all get along all the time and share each other’s belongings, etc. while you worship me in one big community.” Jesus said, “GO! Go unto the entire world.” That’s uncomfortable. That means going and talking to people who don’t agree with me. That’s hard to hear, let alone execute.

In a country where an advertisement for a refreshment, played during a football game, that celebrates our differences in a unique way can cause visceral attacks from people who disagreed with the advertisement toward anyone and everyone else, I’d say the message of Jesus to “Go and Share” can be just as challenging today as it was in the first century church.

Jesus’ desire for us, was not that we suffer, but it wasn’t that we not suffer. It was that we love Him, as He first loved us. It has been since the day Adam was created. It is the message of the entire Bible, and when we step back and look at the stories of the Bible in context this becomes ever so clear. Sometimes we need to stop analyzing and interpreting, and start listening to the message.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Love Wins" - A Book Review

Let me start by saying that this book by Rob Bell came to me with so much baggage that I literally started reading and within the first page I was arguing with him.  By the time I got to the second page I realized I wasn’t reading the book fairly, I was reading with some very negative glasses.

I stopped reading after two pages and set the book down and prayed that God would allow me to dispense with all the “stuff” I had heard about this book, about this author, and read it for what it is.  It is one man’s opinion on a rather personal subject (except this “personal subject” affects every single person who has or ever will live on this planet) and his attempt to share that opinion with me, his reader.

I had to convince myself to read this book with my eyes and mind open; not to be convinced of what it says, but to not be swayed by the opinions of others who had read this book.  Before ever ordering the book, I had heard much about it.  A lot of what I heard was VERY negative, the kind of negative that generally would cause me to just not bother reading it.  One of my friends made the comment that it was “One I read as a minister because I felt like I had to.”  That is why I chose to read it.  God has called me to ministry.  I can’t take that calling seriously if I shield myself from all things controversial.  There will always be controversial opinions out there and I should be at least intelligently aware of them, especially when many people I know are aware of them, so I can speak to questions surrounding them personally, and not based on the interpretation or opinion of someone else.

And here is what I learned… Rob Bell is a good author.  His writing is captivating.  It draws the reader in and keeps the reader, well, reading.  While this isn’t a story, I found myself reading it like it was, anticipating what was coming next, being surprised by some conclusions, offended by some, and surprisingly, agreeing with many.

This book masterfully conveys one aspect of Yahweh’s character, His Love.  But exploring only one aspect of anything can be very deceiving.  The tale of the four blind men coming upon an Elephant and each of them determining what this thing was by only grasping or touching one part of the creature leading them to all come away with a completely wrong impression of an elephant is a great way to sum up in a few words my impression of this book.  Talking about God’s Love without talking about any of God’s other attributes, like Judge, is misleading at best.

I think the single most disturbing 3 paragraphs in the entire book are these:
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it . . . forever.
Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.
Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.” (Bell, 110)

While the first paragraph might be true (and I believe it is) the fact that people don’t like the story, that they don’t like what it  says, doesn’t make it acceptable for them to just ignore the parts that they don’t like.  And it definitely doesn’t make it acceptable to change the story so that we like it.  We can’t say, I believe in God’s Love, but I’m going to cover my ears, close my eyes and chant “Nanananananananana” when I get to parts I don’t like.

As a Father, I LOVE my children.  Period.  There is NOTHING they can do to make me stop loving them, but they are not perfect.  They are held accountable for their own actions.  When they break a family rule or a school rule, they are punished in some way.  This is not an unloving act, it is the exact opposite.  It is because of Love that there are guidelines.

So, allow me to try to sum up this book in one paragraph. 

Bell focuses on God’s Love, and God’s desire for ALL to come to know Him and to be with Him.  God is all powerful and nothing is beyond His ability, and if God wants every person to be with Him for eternity, He could do that.  He can because after all He is all powerful and if God wants it, He can insure He gets it.  Therefore, if God wants everyone to be with Him for eternity, He can make that happen.

How does one argue with that statement?  Simply put, one can’t.  That is, IF these are the only truths we know about God.  If the only thing we know about God is His Love for humanity, we can’t argue with this position.  But we know a lot more about God.  Most importantly, we know that God is a Relational God.  Unlike every other god there is, our God, Yahweh, is a relational God.  We see it over and over again throughout the bible.  From the first book to the last, God desires a relationship with us.  Having a relationship requires BOTH parties to participate.  Relationships require both parties to voluntarily love the other.

God’s desire IS that EVERY SINGLE PERSON who has lived, is living or will live in the future come to know and love Him.  Every parent I know desires to have a relationship with their children, but I know several parents whose kids have left home and have decided that they don’t want a relationship with their parent.  Every one of those parents would do almost anything to have a relationship with their prodigal child, but if the prodigal child wants nothing to do with the parent, all the desire in the world won’t change that child’s mind.  Could God force us to want a relationship with Him?  Yes, He could.  Will He?  I don’t think so.  It wouldn’t be much of a relationship if one party was only participating because the other held power over them and forced their participation.

There are several comments made that bothered me.  And I will study several of them further, but the one I looked into first was this:

“Next, then, the New Testament. The actual word “hell” is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself. The Greek word that gets translated as “hell” in English is the word “Gehenna.” Ge means “valley,” and henna means “Hinnom.” Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem.

Gehenna, in Jesus’s day, was the city dump.

People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out. Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar with. So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, “Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere . . .” (Bell, 67-68)

Is this what Hell looks like?
I will pretend that I don’t read this with an “in your face”, almost mocking tone, and I will address only the intellectual argument.  I am no Greek scholar, so I rely on commentaries written by men who are when it comes to understanding the Greek behind the scripture I read.  I usually don’t have to look very far.

Every reference I found to this word, mentions and ties it to a place where Children were sacrificed in ancient times.  This place is where dead bodies were often burned and yes, trash was burned there too, but every mention I read also stated that the term was known to be a reference to Hell, and not a statement of a geographical location.  WAS it a reference to a geographical location?  Yes, it was, but to those people, it was much more than that.  To present only a piece of the truth isn't to present the truth.

In Ohio, especially in Columbus, Ohio, if I reference "That State Up North", EVERYONE will know that I am talking about Michigan, and everyone will know that in those four words I am referencing much more than the state that geographically sits to our North.  Those four words convey a football rivalry that is so intense we don't mention the name of the state from where they come.  (Please forgive me if I just compared That State Up North to Hell... I do it for a good cause...)

It is this kind of argument that can be extremely misleading.  Unfortunately, while I think Bell is on to something, his aggressive application of his theory to include every person who ever lived has caused him to have to discredit hell as an actual place or state of being.  I do think Bell might be right on a few points he makes, but in trying to define and defend those points he is grasping for straws and has done more damage to his message than good.

Bell makes one argument that I have wrestled with many times.  “What about the guy who never hears about Jesus?”  “What about the 15 year old kid who has in his heart decided that he wants to learn more about Jesus but dies before he is able to ‘say a prayer’?”  “What about the person who has never had an example of love here on earth, like the young girl sold into the sexual trade market who becomes trapped and embittered by evil of no fault or choice of her own?”  “What about the people groups who live in the jungles of the world far away from the reach of any missionary bringing the good news?” “What about the people who lived before Jesus?”

What kind of God would condemn these people to hell for not uttering a prayer with their lips while here on earth?  How could a God, who claims to be the God of Love, be so cold and calculating to condemn these people on a ‘technicality’?  It seems to me that this is the real question that Bell is wrestling with as he writes this book.  And it’s a very good question.

If indeed this is the question Bell was seeking to answer, I agree with him.  I believe that God is just, and I am not able to determine or decide based on the words in the bible what that justice is for every person who has ever lived.  I can accept that I don’t know the answer to that question.  I have no trouble at all believing that God is Just and He will not eternally separate someone from Himself without just cause for doing so.  But I am not one who can define that.  The only thing I can define for certain is what I know from the Bible.  I have been presented the Gospel, I am without excuse.  And so, most likely, are you.

Don’t think based on Bell’s writing that you can shake your fist at Yahweh and say “Screw you” until the day you die and still expect to spend eternity with Him.  That’s what Bell implies in this book, and that goes against the very character of God.  You see, God is MORE than just Love, He is also Just.

I believe based on God’s word that He IS Love. 

And in the end,

“Love Wins”

On that.  We agree.