Archive for February, 2011

Israel, Day 1… O.K., mostly we were on a plane today

February 17, 2011

Our group of recently ordained clergy and a few of their spouses left Atlanta around midnight last night and touched down in Tel Aviv at 6:30 p.m. It was a grueling flight for people in coach!

When we arrived in Israel, the tour group took us by bus to our hotel in Tiberias, a couple of hours away. It’s located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias, I just learned, was a city founded by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Antipas is responsible for beheading John the Baptist in the gospels.

In the video, you’ll see “Jimmy.” He’s our tour guide for the trip. He is an Israeli Arab Christian. Tomorrow’s tour will include Nazareth and other places around the Sea of Galilee.

This short video will give you a sense of the past 18 hours or so. Very uneventful. Mostly I wanted to test the hotel’s wi-fi. It’s slow but it works.

Sermon for 02-13-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 6: Do Not Kill”

February 16, 2011

Sermon Texts: Genesis 4:1-10; Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21-26

[Please note: After pressing play, the video takes several seconds to buffer, during which time the screen is distressingly blank.]

The following is my original manuscript.

I told a few of you that I was devoting a sermon to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and you all said, in one way or another, “That’s going to be a short sermon. Is there anything more obvious than that?”

But in a way it’s terribly difficult… It’s difficult in part because we can’t even agree on how to translate the Hebrew word that’s used in this commandment. The King James Version translates the verb as “kill,” which feels too broad, and more modern translations translate it as “murder,” which feels too narrow. The Hebrew word sort of falls in between those meanings: it does include killing in the sense of murder—premeditated killing. But the word is also used in the Old Testament to mean involuntary manslaughter. In the Old Testament, the word translated as kill or murder here always refers to voluntary or involuntary killing by individuals. Read the rest of this entry »

Newsweek’s biblically illiterate article

February 16, 2011

Newsweek's graphic for article on Bible and sex. Not nearly as exciting as you think.

A friend asked me to look at the provocatively titled article, “What the Bible Really Says About Sex,” in the latest issue of Newsweek. The article included an illustration of a Bible with the the letters “XXX” emblazoned below the words “Holy Bible.” Since I’ve read the Bible, I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing in the article was news to me. But I am surprised at how badly written and reported the article is.

It begins: “The poem describes two young lovers aching with desire. The obsessions is mutual, carnal, complete.” The reporter imagines, I suppose, that the average Newsweek reader will be shocked to discover that this erotic love poem, Song of Solomon, is found in the Bible—the Bible! Given the tone of the article, however, the average Newsweek reader may be surprised to learn that modern Bible scholars didn’t recently discover that Song of Solomon was about sex. Read the rest of this entry »

“It really changes you…”

February 13, 2011

In this morning’s Vinebranch video, Tim Newton talks about his recent experience as part of the AFUMC mission team to Honduras. Enjoy!

Blogging in Israel

February 13, 2011

This is me getting ordained last June.

Next week, I’m leaving with the bishop of our North Georgia Conference and several of my fellow recent ordinands for a ten-day tour of Israel. I’ve never had a burning desire to travel to Israel. But I’ve heard from other pastors who felt like me—and went anyway—and found that it was a deeply rewarding experience, and a great benefit to their ministry.

Furthermore, over the past seven or eight years of the ordination process, I bonded with several friends who are going with me. I hope it will also be a celebration of the end of our pain and suffering journey.

I’m bringing my Flip camcorder and a camera with me. I hope to post short videos of my trip each day. (This will, of course, depend on having access to wi-fi or internet, which I don’t think will be a problem.) I want my blog to be a permanent journal of my trip, to which I can refer for years to come as I prepare sermons and Bible studies.

I leave on Wednesday, so stay tuned!

Hauerwas and Willimon, stepping on our toes again!

February 10, 2011

As we look at the fifth commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” this Sunday, I’ll explore the following sentiment in more depth and with what I hope is a great deal of care and sensitivity, but sometimes it’s also good to get slapped upside the head with an obvious truth.

In saying that God’s people are not to take life, the commandments put us at odds with every government on earth. Governments put themselves in the place of God and kill to defend themselves and their vaunted claims of sovereignty. With God’s people, it is not to be so. Rather than ponder how we might skillfully reinterpret this command to suit present circumstances, our time might be better spent wondering how we might change the church to be the sort of place that produces and supports nonviolent people.

Jesus is no help in attempts to soften the force of this commandment. Indeed, in Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus expands the scope of the commandment to encompass even verbal abuse and angry outbursts against another… Perhaps we ought to take Jesus’ method of interpretation in Matthew 5:21-26 as a model for our interpretation—in Jesus the commandments are intensified, extended, expanded.

I haven’t done this in a while in Vinebranch, but I think I’ll have the congregation text questions on this topic. What questions do we have about this commandment?

Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 80.

“I am who I am in relation to the other”

February 9, 2011

A clergy friend strongly recommended that I read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace. He said that it would help me in my struggle to understand the meaning of the cross—especially in my effort to make sense of penal substitution. Volf is an evangelical Christian theologian from Croatia, who endured the war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s.

It just so happens that within days of my friend’s recommending it, I read this essay on penal substitution by my favorite contemporary theologian, N.T. Wright, in which he also sang the book’s praises. Needless to say, I’m now reading the book.

Although I’ve barely started, I want to stick a pin in this paragraph because it seems profoundly right. In it, Volf explains humanity’s tendency toward violence. It’s rooted, he argues, in the fact that other people are a necessary part of how we define ourselves. That being the case, our well-intentioned libertarian impulse to live and let live is naive.

I am who I am in relation to the other; to be Croat is, among other things, to have Serbs as neighbors; to be white in the U.S. is to enter a whole history of relations to African Americans… Hence the will to be oneself, if it is to be healthy, must entail the will to let the other inhabit the self; the other must be part of who I am as I will to be myself. As a result, a tension between the self and the other is built into the very desire for identity: the other over against whom I must assert myself is the same other who must remain part of myself if I am to be myself. But the other is often not the way I want her to be (say, she is aggressive or simply more gifted) and is pushing me to become the self that I do not want to be (suffering her incursions or my own inferiority). And yet I must integrate the other into my own will to be myself. Hence I slip into violence: instead of reconfiguring myself to make space for the other, I seek to reshape the other into who I want her to be in order that in relation to her I may be who I want to be.

† Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 91.

We get letters (part 2)

February 9, 2011

The following is an excerpt from my lengthy response to someone in the comment section of this post. It’s about the difference between the resurrection of Jesus and some other miracles in the Bible.

It’s not going to shatter my faith if I’m wrong about whether someone named Jonah lived inside a fish for three days. I really have nothing at stake in the question. The Book of Jonah is at least great literature, employing humor and irony, which makes a powerful point about God’s grace and mercy, and God’s love for the outsider and enemy—the main reason it was written.

By contrast, I have a great deal at stake in the question of Jesus’ resurrection, because if Christ conquered death that means, among other things, that I get to share in his victory over sin, evil, and death. If Christ didn’t, I’m with Paul: I’m still in my sins.

Jonah and Noah have nothing to do with that, so I don’t get worked up about it.

Sermon for 02-06-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 5: Honoring Parents”

February 8, 2011

Sermon Text: Exodus 20:12

[Please note: The video may take several seconds to load after you press the play button.]

The following is my original manuscript.

Today, as we continue our sermon series on the Ten Commandments, we are making a transition. You may recall that Moses brought these commandments down from Sinai on two stone tablets. It is commonly believed that the first four commandments—which speak to our relationship with God, or the vertical dimension of our life—were on the first tablet. And the next six—which speak to our relationship with our fellow human beings, or the horizontal dimension—were on the second tablet.

All the commandments are essential and necessary. But isn’t it interesting that the first commandment of the second tablet concerns family? It ranks ahead of even “you shall not murder”?

I think in part it’s because there is no human relationship that’s more important to our world than the relationship between parents and children. Even marriage, as important as that relationship is, only directly affects two people, or one generation. The relationship between parents and children, however, extends its reach far into the future, affecting countless lives and generations of people. Read the rest of this entry »

Letter to an inerrantist

February 7, 2011

This little post on atheism a while back inspired a lengthy and interesting discussion on a friend’s blog. In the course of that discussion, I offered this very brief defense of Jesus’ bodily resurrection (with the understanding that while Jesus’ resurrection was at least physical, it was more than we can explain or comprehend). Later, someone chimed in his support for my argument and wondered if I—like him—believed that the resurrection of Jesus proved that the Bible is “inerrant” (a loaded word if ever there was one).

Here’s what I wrote in reply:

Thanks for the kind words. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I can’t go with you down this path. As to what I believe, I think the Nicene Creed captures it nicely—and this is part of the problem. The Nicene Creed is a statement of Christian faith that predates your view of the authority of scripture by about 1,600 years. When it comes to Christian faith, I’m automatically biased towards things that are older. In other words, your view of the authority of scripture is way too modern. The Church fathers (and mothers) knew nothing of inerrancy.

In my view, scripture has authority inasmuch as it bears witness to the Word of God, who is (I hate this word, but I’ll use it anyway) literally Jesus. I believe that God’s perfect revelation of God’s self is not words on paper (even in their original “autographs”) but a person. God is absolute; everything else, including scripture, is relative. By all means, we understand the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in light of scripture—the overarching story of God’s plan to put the world to rights through Israel, of which Jesus’ passion/death/resurrection is the climax. The resurrection, contrary to what you argue, doesn’t vindicate the Bible, it vindicates God.

This might make our footing seem a bit slippery as we grope with the challenges of our lives and our world, but our faith is in God, not the Bible—which is not to say that the Bible isn’t inspired by God or isn’t essential for forming as Christians. I believe that we encounter God through scripture by the power of the Spirit. Isn’t that enough? Do I need scripture to do anything more?

Logically, your argument about how the resurrection “proves” the other miracles in scripture doesn’t hold up. For one thing, all of Jesus’ words about Adam, Noah, or Jonah are true whether or not these people were historical people. To say that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days is true: in the ironic and funny story of Jonah in the Old Testament. Jonah is, among other things, a great work of comic literature. In my view, you flatten the story if you insist on its being historical.

The good Samaritan or the father of the prodigal son aren’t historical people, yet who would argue that their stories are impoverished because of it?

Also, given my view of the Word of God, I don’t share your burden of believing that the historical Jesus corresponds in every detail to the Jesus that emerges in the words of the gospels. The gospel writers are themselves “reading” Jesus through the lens of resurrection, and that necessarily affects how they tell the story of Jesus. I don’t believe that Jesus was walking around with a self-understanding that he was God incarnate. I certainly don’t believe that Jesus shared God’s knowledge. I take the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 quite literally (ha!) when it talks about Christ’s emptying himself. To be human is necessarily to be limited in knowledge.

I believe Jesus understood himself in the context of a first century Jewish worldview. I believe that Jesus saw himself as Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Even words about “son of God” has a more nuanced meaning in the context of Israel and Davidic kingship than simply “son of God=Second Person of the Trinity.” One of the great benefits of Jewish-Christian dialogue over the past 50 years or so is that we are better able to read Jesus’ life in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish thought.

But I hope you see that how Jesus understood himself is less important than what God communicated about Jesus through the events of the cross and resurrection. The Church arrives at its christological formulations about Jesus Christ only after reflecting and elaborating on the implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection over time.

O.K., I’m now officially boring myself. Sorry. Anyway, thanks for your input.