Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Bread of Life: Communion and the Christian Journey

This is the third post in a series of theological excursions in the Gospel According to St. John. You can find the first post here and the second post here

Depending on your background, the words Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and Eucharist may conjure up different images for you. If you grew up in a non-denominational church like I did, my first thought might be something like a golden plate being passed around the congregation of the church with little crackers of bread and little cups of grape juice. If you were raised Catholic, you may think of a priest in robes standing at an altar distributing Eucharistic Host and wine in a chalice.
No matter what Christian tradition you hail from, hopefully we can all agree that Communion is vital for the life of the church. In John 6:43-51, Jesus lays a foundation for the significance of the Lord’s Supper.
Now, many commentators from Protestant backgrounds see Jesus’ reference to his “body” in these verses as symbolic and some even reject that this is a reference to Communion at all.
There are some reasons to think otherwise. Jesus’ audience takes him literally and Jesus never corrects them. When Jesus speaks metaphorically in other places in John, this misunderstanding does not occur. Plus, at the end of the account, after many people have left, Jesus turns to the Disciples and asks (6:67; NRSV), “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus does not correct any misunderstanding on this topic.
Interestingly, John’s Gospel does not contain an Institution Narrative (see Matt. 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:19-20). Perhaps, this passage and Jesus’ monologue about being the True Vine (John 15:1-17) are meant to “fill in the gaps” for the missing account.
But who cares if this passage is somehow anticipating the Christian ritual of the Lord’s Supper? Does it really matter?
I think it does. In 6:49, Jesus makes a profound contrast: in the Old Testament, the Jews were fed mana to gain physical sustenance. Jesus points to himself as a fulfillment of this event and thus the ultimate provider of spiritual sustenance. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think Jesus is “spiritualizing” here. In fact, he sees the physical (i.e. his flesh) very much integrated with the spiritual.
Communion is a time when we, as the Church, remember Christ’s death (1 Cor. 11:23-26) and present ourselves as living sacrifices at the altar (Rom. 12:1-2). It’s also a place of sustenance where we receive food for our journey.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sam and Frodo are two unlikely heroes tasked
with destroying the evil ring. As they trudge across Middle Earth to accomplish their task, they are given an Elvish bread called Lembas. In the book, it is noted that this type of bread gives more sustinence than any other food.
As they progress on their journey, and their food supply begins to dwindle, Lembas becomes their primary food, the only way for them to move forward.
Christians are also given a special food: the Body of Christ. Like Frodo and Sam needed Lembas on their quest, Christians must feed on Christ to gain strength for their pilgrimage through this life.
Too often, Communion is de-emphasized in the Church. Some congregations do it once a month. Others, once a quarter. In some places, it is even done as little as once or twice a year. This creates spiritual anemia.
The longest known period of time a human has ever gone without food was Irish political prisoner Terence MacSwiney whose hunger strike ended up lasting 74 days before dying in 1920. As humans, it is difficult for us to function without physical sustenance. Why would we try to go that long without being sustained spiritually?

Monday, November 6, 2017

“Worship in Spirit and Truth”: Lessons from Jesus’ Encounter with the Samaritan Woman

Ruins of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim.
Photo by Carino Casas
This is the second post in a series of theological excursions in the Gospel According to St. John. You can find the first post here

My last post was about the danger of commodifying worship in which I used the story of Jesus clearing the Temple as a way to critique innovative forms of worship which seem to bring the market into the sacred space of the Church. Today, I want to spend some time looking at an example of what worship should look like using the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4 where he emphasizes the importance of worshipping “in spirit and truth.”

The fact that Jesus is willing to engage the Samaritan woman is significant. The Samaritans were descendants of the peoples who were imported by the Assyrians into Central Palestine after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (721 BCE). Over time, they intermarried with Jews, which caused tension between the two groups. While they worshiped the God of Israel, Samaritans only viewed the Torah as Scripture and believed worship should take place at the Temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. And it’s this underlying conflict which sets the stage for Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman.

After she dialogues with Jesus about the living water, he tells her things about her tumultuous personal life a normal stranger couldn’t possibly have known. These things make her acknowledge Jesus as a prophet but she also admits there is a problem: she is a Samaritan who believes in worshipping on Mt. Gerizim and Jesus is a Jew who worships in Jerusalem.

Instead of trying to convert her to the Jewish position on the question of Temple worship, Jesus looks forward by telling her (4:21, 23; NRSV):
Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.
God can’t be contained in human structures (1 Kgs 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; 6:18; Acts 7:48; 1 Cor 3:16-17). The point is not where one worships but that they worship the Father through the Son. Instead of attempting to resolve the theological debate, Jesus tells her to worship in spirit and truth.

According to commentators Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV:
As the incarnate Word, Jesus himself is “the truth” (14:6), the revelation of God (18:37; see 8:40). To worship in Spirit and truth means to worship God as revealed in Jesus, who is the Truth, and animated by the Holy Spirit, who imparts new heavenly life and understanding of Jesus’ revelation.[1]
Jesus is not demeaning the importance of form and intentionality in worship. Rather, he is emphasizing that he, as the Messiah (see verses 25-26), should be the object of worship and that the Spirit must be an integral part.

Personally, there are some Sundays where I would rather sleep in or watch football instead of going to church. Even though I go every week, there are rare occasions where I’m not all there when I walk in the door.

Fortunately, through the hearing of God’s Word and participating in the liturgy, the Holy Spirit rouses me from my spiritual slumber and brings me back into focus so that I can worship in spirit and truth.

In this unexpected encounter between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan woman, we are all taught a valuable lesson about worship. Are you worshipping in spirit in truth? Is Jesus the object of your worship? Does the Holy Spirit animate your worship? Or are you just going through the motions?
1. Francis Martin and William F. Wright IV, The Gospel of John, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 88.

Monday, October 23, 2017

“Stop Making My Father’s House a Marketplace”: The Dangers of Commodifying Worship

This is the first in a series of theological reflections based on the Gospel according to St. John.
In modern society, the market is everywhere. In past generations, people took on the role of consumer when they physically went to the marketplace. Now, the market is almost omnipresent. We act as consumers on our cell phones, televisions, and computers from the comfort of our own homes.
Unfortunately, the market is seeping into sacred space as well. Megachurches are being built to look like big box stores or warehouses. Some of them may even have a Starbucks. If there’s a bookstore, you can purchase a Joel Osteen book or a tacky Christian shirt that plays on contemporary brands (my personal favorite is the red and yellow shirt with a golden “n” that says “Noah: I’m floodin’ it”).
Even in the services, too many modern churches are shifting away from any sort of traditional liturgy. Parishioners sit in theater-style seats in drab, neutral colored auditoriums devoid of significant religious symbolism. The time of worship is really more of a concert, complete with a light show that would make many bands jealous. The sermon looks more like a stand-up comedy special or a motivational speech.
I realize I am painting with a rather broad brush. Not every contemporary church has a Starbucks and they may have really genuine times of worship. However, this is the current trajectory many mainstream Evangelical churches seem to be on. The point is not to say these features are inherently sinful. Rather, it is to say they are unwise because they are commodifying worship.
Jesus encountered a similar problem in his own day. John 2:13-25 recounts his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem where he saw merchants inside selling animals to be sacrificed to the crowds who were visiting to worship. Jesus’ reaction might seem extreme to us (vv. 15-16; NRSV), “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!’”
Jesus is not just angry that the traders are being exploitative in their practice, a problem the Israelites had as far back as the Old Testament (see Amos). Jesus’ problem with the merchants in the Temple is that they were there at all.
In fact, he may be alluding to Deuterocanonical Wisdom literature. Sirach 26:29 states, “A merchant can hardly keep from wrongdoing, nor is a tradesman innocent of sin.” Or maybe he has Sirach 27:2 in mind, “As a stake is driven firmly into a fissure between stones, so sin is wedged in between selling and buying.” Either way, Jesus’ point is clear: commodification does not belong in sacred space.
Robert Webber, former professor of worship at Wheaton, sees this problem in the modern Church, “Evangelicals face a crisis in worship and theology. Evangelicals, who have a high regard for a theology that is biblical, need to be particularly concerned about their worship. If worship shapes believing, then evangelicals, of all people, should be committed to a worship that is biblical.”
Instead of viewing our worship as a commodity, we should view it as a means to be in relationship with our Creator who took on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). How are you viewing your worship? Is it a commodity that only serves to entertain you? Or is it a way of being in intimate relationship with the same Lord who strongly seeks to be in relationship with you?

Monday, September 4, 2017

Against Theological Minimalism

Modern Christians like to clearly distinguish between "nonessential" and "salvation" issues. Certainly this dichotomy does exist. Divisions in the Church grieve our Lord (John 17:11). Still, the tendency of minimizing the importance of some issues can be described as "theological minimalism." Maybe some issues aren't essential but they are important.

There are great Christians who are Calvinists and great Christians who are Arminians. There are great Christians who practice paedobaptism and great Christians who practice credobaptism. Yet these are mutually exclusive positions that cannot be simultaneously correct. Theological minimalism is the inclination to paper over these discussions as "nonessential" issues. The question then becomes which is our priority: unity or truth? The answer has to be truth because without it, we only risk "unifying" around falsity.

All truth flows out of God. As a result, one of the main goals for Christians is to pursue that truth with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Theological minimalism dilutes our theology by creating a hierarchy of "important issues" versus "non important issues," ignoring the fact that all theology is interconnected. For example, one would be hard pressed to divorce their ecclesiology and sacramentology. All these issues reflect fundamental convictions about the nature of reality.

So in the end, we shouldn't be so eager for unity that we downplay the vitality of truth. More than that even, we should oppose any sort of theological minimalism that tells us these are unimportant discussions.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Making Nothing Into Words": Perelandra's Anticipation of Progressive Theology and the Loss of Meaning

C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was recently used to defend Eugene Peterson's recent public discussion of openness to performing LGBT weddings (which has subsequently been retracted). As a giant of the faith, C.S. Lewis is claimed by both liberal and conservative Christians as a champion of their ideals, much like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope Francis.

This raises an interesting question: would Lewis' underlying philosophy and theology allow him to travel the same road as former conservatives who become leaders of Christian progressivism like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Peter Enns, etc.?

Anyone familiar with Lewis' grounded classical worldview would, in fact, see him as mutually exclusive with the progressive mentality in general though there are certainly some issues where he could most likely find some common ground. However, in Perelandra, the second installment of his Space Trilogy, he provides an explicit warning against progressive thinking in the character of Weston.

According to apologist Alisa Childers, there are five symptoms of progressivism in theology: a lowered view of the Bible, emphasizing feelings over facts, essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation, historic terms are redefined, and there is a paradigm shift from sin and repentance to social justice.
All of these markers appear in Weston's character in Perelandra which is the second installment of The Space Trilogy. In it, the main character, Ransom, is taken to the newly inhabited edenic world of Perelandra (what we call Venus). He is tasked with preventing Weston, the returning nemesis from the first book Out of the Silent Planet, from perverting this new world by causing a "fall."

In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston espouses a kind of vulgar and transparently bombastic modernity that is intent on exploiting Malacandra for the progress and preservation of humanity, ignoring its hnau, sentient and conscious lifeforms that, while not human are persons:  
"To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and bee-hive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization—with our science,     medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."
He exemplifies the utilitarian secular scientific progressivism so prevalent before the violence of the 20th century. 

However, there is a switch in Weston’s ideology between the first book of the Space Trilogy and the second. See how Weston explains his new-fangled philosophy to Ransom:
“all my life I had been making a wholly unscientific dichotomy or antithesis between And and Nature—had conceived myself fighting for Man against his non-human environment…I had been content to regard Life as a subject outside my scope. The conflicting views of those who drew a sharp line between the organic and the inorganic and those who held that what we call Life was inherent in matter from the very beginning had not interested me. Now it did. I saw almost at once that I could admit no break, no discontinuity in the unfolding of the cosmic process. I became a convinced believer in emergent evolution. All is one. The stuff of mind, the unconsciously purposive dynamism, is present from the very beginning…The majestic spectacle of this blind, inarticulate purposiveness thrusting its way upward and ever upward in an endless unity of differential achievements towards an ever-increasing complexity of organization, towards spontaneity and spirituality, swept away all my old conception of a duty to Man as such. Man in himself is nothing. The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything. I say to you quite freely, Ransom, that I should have been wrong in liquidating the Malacandrians. It was a mere prejudice that made me prefer our own race to theirs. To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission. This sets the coping-stone on my career. I worked first for myself, then for science; then for humanity; but now at last for Spirit itself—I might say, borrowing language which will be more familiar to you, the Holy Spirit…I mean that nothing now divides you and me except a few outworn theological technicalities with which organized religion has unhappily allowed itself to get incrusted. But I have penetrated that crust. The Meaning beneath it is as true and living as ever. If you will excuse me for putting it that way, the essential truth of the religious view of life finds a remarkable witness in the fact that it enabled you, on Malacandra, to grasp, in your own mythical and imaginative fashion, a truth which was hidden from me…I have no doubt that my phraseology will seem strange to you, and perhaps even shocking. Early and revered associations may have put it out of your power to recognize in this new form the very same truths which religion has so long preserved and which science is now at last re-discovering. But whether you can see it or not, believe me, we are talking about exactly the same thing.” 

Also, when Ransom brings up the difference between God and the Devil, Weston simultaneously decries and redefines dichotomous thinking: 

“Now your mentioning the Devil is very interesting. It is a most interesting thing in popular religion, this tendency to fissiparate, to breed pairs of opposites: heaven and hell, God and Devil. I need hardly say that in my view no real dualism in the universe is admissible; and on that ground I should have been disposed, even a few weeks ago ,to reject these paris of doublets as pure mythology. it would have been a profound error. The cause of this universal religious tendency is to be sought much deeper. The doublets are really portraits Spirit, of cosmic energy—self-portraits, indeed, for it is the Life-Force itself which has deposited them in our brains…Your Devil and your God are both pictures of the same Force. your heaven is a picture of the perfect spirituality ahead; your hell a picture of the urge which is driving us on to it from behind. Hence the static peace of the one and the fire and darkness of the other.  The next stage of emergent evolution, becoming us forward, is God; the transcended stage behind, ejecting us, is the Devil.”

So what parallels exist between Weston’s thinking and the definition of progressive theology? All five standards are present but some are more prevalent than others. One can certainly see a lowering of the Bible in Weston’s train of thought even though he never explicitly claims it. However, if you really read what it is he’s arguing for, there’s no way to reconcile it with the Scriptures unless you begin to play fast and loose with them. He doesn’t discuss feelings and facts though his argument is more contingent on a kind of sophistry that has to twist Reason to be effective. There’s no discussion of social justice per se either. The strongest parallels between Weston and progressives lies in the fact that essential Christian doctrines are open to renegotiation and historic terms are redefined. 

For example, take Weston’s definition of the Holy Spirit juxtaposed against an orthodox understanding of him. To Weston, the Spirit is, "The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything.” There’s no real creature/creator distinction. Everything is the Spirit and the Spirit is everything. It’s the forward movement of Life, the catalyst for progress and progress itself. Of course, this is just a misappropriation of the classical Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity who is, according to the Nicene Creed, “The Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeded from the Father [and the Son]; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.” There’s also a redefinition of heaven and hell. Heaven is a vision of progress. Hell is the driving force. God and Satan being to look scarily alike

The point is this: orthodox theology recognizes the objectivity of Truth. It sees Truth as engrained into the very fabric of reality. It comes from God and points us back to God. In Progressive theology, there is a redefinition of these truths. It becomes nominalist. Those words laden with meaning for the historic Church become placeholders for trendy fads and ideas. Theology is not a way to relate to God so much as a way to individually and culturally construct the world. When the very core of our beliefs become subject to constant revisionism, there is a serious loss of meaning. Ransom diagnoses the problem with Weston (and with progressive theology in general, one might add): “You had nothing to say about it and yet made the nothing up into words.”