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Posts Tagged ‘Pharisees’

I have shared more than a few personal stories, and have tried to somehow relate them to a Gospel message that might be encouraging or insightful.  Sometimes I have tried to make them humorous, but others are simply just facts of life where I have failed or struggled with the God to whom all hearts are open. I guess you can consider the stories confessions of sorts.

Who knows? But what I do know is that one of the things that drives all of these stories – is my inaction. Places where I have failed God by my inability to act upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My most painful experiences as a Christian, are those times in which I did not put physical form to the love of Jesus Christ.

Sure, I have faith. Having faith for me is usually the easy part. I have experienced too many supernatural things for me to so easily discount the ability of God to exist. And logically, throughout all of my searching and wandering, I have yet to find a more compelling case than that of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only as evidenced in the Scriptures, but in my own life as well.

The problem with faith however, is that it is useless all alone. It can no more save a man’s soul, than raise the dead. Faith requires a body to enact it. Every time in the New Testament, when Jesus heals someone, he always says that it is their faith that has made them whole. The thing is, he always requires a physical action to prove that faith.

In James, it is written that we must be doers of the word, and not only hearers. Those who only hear the word, are like people who look in a mirror. They look at themselves, and turn away, only to forget what they are like. But those who study the perfect law, the law of Christ, and put it into practice, those people will be blessed. (James 1)

James continues this in chapter two, where he admonishes those who believe that faith alone will save them. For even the demons believe in God. But faith must be accompanied by action. Who are we to disagree? Time and time again, it is proven that a person of true faith will act out on his faith. They will abide by the Lord’s commands: love God, and love thy neighbor.

How can we love our neighbor if we do not show them our love? If I never speak to my neighbor, can I truly be loving him? How will I show my love if I never offer to mow his yard? Or the widow across the street, how will she know my love for her if I never offer to fix her mailbox that has been smashed by renegade kids?

The Scriptures say that they will know we are Christians by our actions. For a healthy tree bears forth good fruit. But inaction is the sign of a tree that is dying from within. It is the fig tree that the Lord curses and which withers away.

According to Ezekiel, the sin of Sodom was that she was full of pride, and had plenty of food. She was prosperous, but did not aid the poor and the needy. Because of this they were haughty, and did horrible deeds. Inaction is just as sinful as physically committing evil deeds.

The Book of Common Prayer portrays this beautifully in the Confession of Sin: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone…” it adds, “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves…” It recognizes that the two go hand in hand.

Faith without works is not only useless, it is dangerous. For it leads to arrogance and pride. Self-righteousness leads to Pharisaism. It wasn’t the faith that the Pharisees had that he opposed – it was the way they approached faith. Their faith did not care for the poor and the oppressed. It had no action behind it.

God does not wish sacrifices of blood and flesh, but sacrifices of justice and mercy. How can we offer those sacrifices if we do not choose to act on our faith? The faith that teaches us to not only love God, but to love our neighbors as ourselves?

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The Gospel of John opens with a declaration that in the beginning was the Word, and that all things were created through the Word, and nothing was made without the Word. In verse fourteen, John specifies that the Word took on flesh in the form of Jesus. This hearkens us back to the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures, where God speaks – and from his Word flows forth all of creation. John not only shows us from where Jesus gets his authority, but he also shows us that the Truth of God has always been made evident through Jesus.

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus sets about trying to teach his disciples a new way of looking at the Hebrew Scriptures. As a Jewish rabbi, it was his duty to teach his students his “midrash” or teaching, which the New Testament refers to as his “yoke” (Matthew 11:30). If Jesus were just a rabbi, then his interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures was up for debate – which happened quite often. Anytime Jesus is recorded as speaking with the elders and Pharisees, what is happening is a debate upon the midrash of Jesus. They are questioning his rabbinical credentials. However it becomes clear early on, that the Pharisees cannot match wits with the son of Joseph.

The reason that the midrash of Jesus was so questionable, was because from the very onset, it seemed as if he was contradicting everything that Moses had said. When Jesus spoke about the Law, he challenged the core beliefs of his Jewish brethren. According to the midrash of Jesus, revenge was no longer an option. His interpretation of the Law, was not based upon the text itself, but upon the spirit. And from our perspective today, who would know the spirit of the Law better than the Word that it was spoken through?

Jesus had funny ways about how he observed the Law. He didn’t find it sinful to gather food on the Sabbath, in spite of overwhelming disdain from other teachers who thought it should be a day of total rest. Neither did he allow for the stoning of sinners; for who was perfect according to the letter of the Law? Jesus even ate with tax collectors and sinners, the enemies of all religious Jews. The tax collectors because they had sided with the Roman Empire over their fellow Jews, and sinners because they did not live in accordance with the letter of the Law.

While in many ways the midrash of Jesus was more strict, in all, it was more free. The midrash of Jesus required discipline, but it was tempered with mercy. If someone offended you, you forgave them. According to Jesus, it didn’t matter how grievous the sin, nor how many times you had been sinned against. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15)

It was a completely radical way of re-interpreting the Law of Moses. But ultimately, it was about re-orienting the people of God back to Shalom. It was about bringing man back into full communion with God. This is the meaning of the Scriptures when Christ tells us that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no man comes unto the Father except through me”. (John 14:6). Paul reiterates this same point later in his Epistle to the Galatians when he says that we are no longer bound under the Law, for we have been set free from the letter of the Law through Christ Jesus. However, if one insists on following the letter of the Law, they must follow it perfectly, for by following the Law they have been severed from Christ. (Galatians 5)

The road we travel isn’t easy. In Matthew chapter seven, Jesus calls the road to reconciliation with God, narrow. It takes a lot of work, and daily prayer. We must re-orientate ourselves back on a consistent basis to the midrash of Jesus. Brushing away cultural normalities, and hearkening back to a voice which cried out long ago, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”(Matthew 3:2)

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I am a Christian.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the figure upon whom all should base their lives and hope.

I am a fundamentalist.

I believe in the fundamentals of the faith – that God loves the world so much that He gave His only Son to die for it. God became man, so that men might be reconciled back unto God. And that this love is for everyone, regardless of race, creed, national origin, or sexual orientation. This love extends from east to west, and beyond the farthest star. It has no end.

I am a Biblical literalist.

I believe that the Bible should be taken exactly as it was written, for the people to whom it was written. It is not an instruction manual, nor a history textbook. It is a story that unfolds from the mythical proportions of the Genesis story of Creation to the glorious reconciliation of earth and heaven in Revelation. (And there are a few things Jesus instructed us to do between now and then, so I really think he meant it).

These are not definitions that most folks associate with those terms. But I figure it is about time to reclaim them.

I fundamentally believe that the love of God does not stop based upon whether you are divorced or married or single. The love of God extends past petty racial divisions. It extends past modern concepts of sexual orientation and gender roles. It extends past temporal political lines and all geopolitical boundaries. God loves you whether you are rich or poor, saint or sinner. He makes the sun to shine on both the righteous, and the wicked. Because His love for us is endless.

And it is through that love that the literal meanings of the Scriptures need to be read. Through the lens of Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son. He who is from the Beginning. This never failing love of those who are downtrodden and oppressed. Who was quick to turn on the religious elites for snubbing their noses at the “wicked sinners”. He who was without sin modelled a life of forgiveness and compassion. He partied with whores and drunkards, and on at least one occasion, was the reason the people were drunk to begin with. He who was more prone to make sure that the religious types didn’t think that their piety would save them, and point out that the simple yearning faith of the sinner would guarantee salvation.

See, my teachers as a child taught me that the Bible was the Word of God, and that it was to be taken literally. Not to change a single iota of the text. And they taught me that God loves me no matter what. The problem is, I think I learned the lesson a little too well. I learned that God doesn’t love you only when you do good. And that He isn’t a Republican (or a Democrat!). I learned that He probably isn’t a capitalist (or a communist!). That God exists so outside of our preconceived notions of religion, that when we encounter the true God of Israel – we cannot help but fall upon our knees, beat our chests, and plead our unworthiness.

Yet He picks us up, dries the tears from our cheeks, and says that He is with us always…even unto the ends of the earth.

So, yes I am a Christian fundamentalist who believes in Biblical literalism. But I also am a worthless sinner who beats upon his chest daily. For I am a Pharisee, and I am the chief of sinners.

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The life of a Christian is a cycle. Every day we must strive to live in accordance with the ways and teachings of Jesus, the Christ. This is something that I am sure we each find extremely trying and difficult. Yet we proceed ever onwards, trusting that the Lord would see us through each day.

In the Scriptures, Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God, that we may withstand the advances of the enemy. That when those dark spiritual forces come against us, we may fend them off. But there is more to being a Christian than fending off your heart and mind against evil thoughts and spirits. The Christian is called to be an active force in the world in which he or she lives. Though we be but travelers in it.

In the Greek Scriptures, we are taught that we are to advance the Kingdom of God. This is singularly the most frequent theme to be found in the New Testament. The idea of this spiritual utopia. It is not a place to be visited nor a goal to be reached. It is a frame of mind. The Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come, for they did not understand. The Kingdom of God is neither here nor there. The Kingdom of God, Christ taught, is within us. It is among us.

The Kingdom of God is how Christians ought to live their lives. When we live active lives that speak to our faith, we are advancing the Kingdom of God. For it is only advanced by involving others in it. We live the Kingdom of God by how we treat other people. It is advanced in how we care for the poor and the sick, the widowed and the orphaned, the imprisoned and the downcast. It is impossible to advance the Kingdom when living a solitary pious life, for you are cut off from community. As prominent Christian sociologist and author Tony Campolo puts it, ‘The Kingdom of God is a party’.

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We as Christians get mired down in the bog and the muck of rules and guidelines which we have set down for ourselves. Of course we do not mean these to be things that take over our lives instead of Scripture, yet inevitably this does occur. The more we preach out against certain things, the more we find ourselves bound to the rules we created to keep us free. And it causes us more harm than good. For we become known for what we are against, rather than what we are for. Or we forget the initial reason we quit doing certain things in the first place.

During the time of the ministry of Jesus, there were many out to trap him in his words. Once, he was asked what the greatest of the commandments was. Jesus replied that we should love God with all of hearts, with all of our souls, and with all of our minds. Second to that, we should love our neighbors as ourselves. That upon these two things, the entire Law, and all of the Prophets, rested.

That means that at the foundation of the entire Scripture – both Hebrew and Greek – is that we should love. Love God, and love each other. If we can understand this, and use this as the lens with which to read the Bible, we can greatly improve our journey as Christians. For these are the ultimate laws by which we should live our lives. We teach this to our children as babes, that they should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In a world filled with violence and revenge, we are in sore need of such a reminder.

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