ƒ Christianity for Thinking People: February 2008

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Vicariously Representing Christ in Our Actions

In thinking of discipleship in action, I was drawn to an interesting quote in Alitalia’s inflight magazine.

“Traveling is part of the pope’s “job”. You are only a “missionary of the word” if you preach it to the four corners of the Earth. It is a condicio sine qua non, a necessity. … Planes are essential and when you travel with popes you realize how small the world is. I remember being struck by the words of St. Francesca Calbrini, the patron saint of emigrants, who said, “the world is too small for me.” She did not just say it, she proved it was true by crossing the Atlantic Ocean twenty-two times on steamships in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “God’s Gypsy”, or the “nun in perpetual motion” crossed the Andes on the back of a mule. Wasn’t America a long way away? Certainly not, for her it was a like a “path to the garden”. Nowadays, we are accustomed to an itinerant Vatican that travels and flies. It is part of the modern-day papacy’s DNA – the other side of his Holiness, who crosses the heavens while waiting to be measured by them. “

And, it occurred to me that it takes more than action. The actions must project God’s character. It takes more than preaching to the four corners of the Earth. What we preach is of more importance than where. As a person not of the Roman Catholic faith, I was positively drawn to the description of the Pope’s personal interactions while traveling.

“… serene, joyful and happy person, because he has accepted this task as an appointment he did not seek; … Nevertheless, he lives naturally and unaffected. His relationship with others is direct and not studied … he does not descend from on high, so people do not feel uncomfortable in his presence, but accepted.”

That is something that would ideally describe every disciple who vicariously presents Christ to the world.

As I wandered around Bologna earlier this week, I marveled at San Petroni, one of the world’s largest churches. In fact it would perhaps have been the largest, if the Vatican had not intervened to ensure it didn’t rival St Peter’s basilica. Lining each side of the church were ornate chapels that were anything but “natural and unaffected”. Interestingly, one chapel contains Modena’s painting that depicts Mohamed being thrown into hell, an artwork recently described as “more offensive than Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses.” In front of each chapel were ornate fences with metal spikes along the top that made it clear which side of the fence I was to remain. By putting a coin in the slot I could turn the lights on in these little chapels or light an electric candle in a rack just outside the railing. Clergy stood by to take my confessions and intercede between God and me. As I watched mass – the chanting, the pageantry of the priests’ entry with the ‘host’, I got the sense that God was “on high” and that he was not “descending” any time soon. God was a long way off, and there was certainly nothing too personal about the relationship between God and man.

Now, I probably don’t have standing to opine on what the actions of another Christian denomination say about God, but I can pose for us the question of what our corporate and individual actions demonstrate about the Master. How do we take the roof off our church and let those in need of healing in? (Luke 5) In our churches, what are the equivalents of fences and spikes separating people from a depiction of God?

Do we accept the “catholic” universality of our commissioning as disciples (Acts 10, esp. v 36; Eph 1:15-23; Matt 28:18-20), or place that responsibility on an organization or other human beings?
© Alister L Hunt PhD

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Experiencing Discipleship – Seeing Jesus as He is

“Ronald Jorgensen! He must be the Bassett Rd machine-gun murderer”, said my father as he reviewed my order book for the day. As part of a school fundraising activity, I had just returned from selling nameplates door-to-door, and, as usual, my father would collect my orders, and the students’ orders, and have Formica engraved nameplates made accordingly. I doubt that Dad had time to review each name, but Jorgensen’s name jumped out at him. “What did he look like?”, Dad asked. I described a quiet, serious man, dressed well in a mid-length dress leather jacket. He was polite to me, and he bought a nameplate without any further questions or discussion.

Dad then went on to tell me the story of how Jorgensen and John Gillies had used a Reising sub-machine gun to kill two men who were also part of New Zealand’s relatively unsophisticated underworld. That happened in the early ‘60s, just before I was born, and caused something of a sensation, apparently, due in part to Jorgensen and Gillies’ admission that they had smoked a joint before ‘doing the deed’, and perhaps in greater part because the crime deeply shocked sleepy 1960’s New Zealand and challenged its self-image.

I remember going back to drop off the nameplate, hoping to get a better look at the Bassett Rd machine-gun murderer. Sadly, I never did meet Mr. Jorgensen again. But I am sure I would have seen him in a different light. I followed with interest his subsequent life – his painting, and his mysterious disappearance in 1983. I like to think he is still alive, although if he is alive he would be several years older than Elvis.

Professor Bart Ehrman recently had a similar experience – with God. As a lifelong, active Christian, a clergyman, a Princeton PhD in New Testament studies, and a distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina, he saw God as good. Then Ehrman began to see God as the celestial equivalent of a machine-gun murderer. Or worse. Machine guns kill quickly and efficiently, but God inflicts prolonged torture … very prolonged torture … like, forever. At least, that is what Ehrman had been taught to believe. As he states,

"I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it."

He saw God in an entirely different light, and it changed him. As a moral man, Ehrman saw God’s “rap sheet” and concluded that if God is like that, then he cannot be the deity that He purports to be. Thus, He either does not exist or does exist and He is not the Judeo/Christian God who is worthy of our worship. His brief NPR interview earlier this week is well worth listening to:

Like Ehrman, the disciples, Peter, James and John, also saw Jesus in an entirely different light. You have no doubt read the Transfiguration story in Matthew 17. I wonder what would happen to us if we saw Jesus as He truly is? Would we be repulsed as we realized that this Universe is presided over by a majestic machine-gun murderer, or would we have a Revelation 14 experience of worshiping Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of waters?

© Alister L Hunt PhD

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Preparation for Discipleship

Some years ago I participated in a Buddhist exorcism ceremony in Northern Thailand. Participants in the course I was leading -- senior government officials from the Mekong Delta countries -- became convinced that the residential institute where we lived and learned was infested with ghosts. It didn't help that it was the time in the Buddhist calendar when departed spirits were said to revisit the place of their departure. The Thai staff mentioned that 40 people had died in a building fire on this site, and the human remains had simply been buried with what remained of the building. So, it was apparently natural that the ghosts would return here. But things got really bad when a Laos official reported that a woman crashed through his room's ceiling and lay down in his bed beside him. When he tried to embrace her, she disappeared.
"That's strange", said a Cambodian official, "I had a similar experience." A woman walked through his room's locked, solid door. She continued to walk toward his bed, even though she had no legs. She sat on the end of his bed, conversed with him briefly, and then disappeared. After the initial reports of ghosts and these two authoritative, face-to-face experiences, the Institute was in uproar and classes were almost impossible. I had been out with the class the night before and considered the amount of alcohol consumed to be a reasonable explanation -- the students were 'legless', not just the ghost. And the other noises were probably wild cats. Nevertheless, something had to be done.

And done it was. A Buddhist priest and three monks were summoned to exorcise the ghosts, and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs advisor instructed me that my participation in this ceremony was imperative for demonstrating cultural sensitivity. What this involved was kneeling before a Buddhist altar and before the priests and monks for nearly two hours while they chanted and prayed and transferred energy up and down a string attached to the altar. Officials with cameras were reveling in a PR bonanza.

While kneeling I could think of only two things -- one, the concrete floor with linoleum square tiles, and, two, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego's witness (Daniel 3:16-18). They were willing to risk death in such circumstances, and I wasn't even willing to risk offending someone.

So, why am I telling you this story? It illustrates the "Salt Principle" in Jesus' instructions to His disciples (Matt 5:13-16). We are the salt of the earth, and salt permeates. As salt, we enter into the life and culture of the people we seek to reach. I had many interesting religious conversations with officials during the course, many of whom were among "the highest in the land". Perhaps I would not have had those opportunities if I had stayed aloof? Conjecture.

Now, compare Jesus' instruction to permeate with Paul's "Stumblingblock Principle" of 1 Corinthians 8. "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge."

It is clear to me that the "Salt Principle" of Matthew 5 and the "Stumblingblock Principle" of 1 Corinthians 8 are in tension. When should we permeate, and when should we set ourselves apart? The first principle relates to our obligations to those who do not know Christ, whereas the second principle relates to our obligations to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. When is one obligation more important than the other? Which is ultimately more important? Can we uphold both principles simultaneously?

Perhaps Jesus' prayer for His disciples, recorded in John 17, is relevant? Jesus speaks of sending his disciples into the world (v11), but states that they are "not of the world" (v14). Jesus notes that in this respect His disciples are just like Him.

BTW, what would you have done in this circumstance?
© Alister L Hunt PhD