Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hilary's Sunday School Teacher

Yesterday (December 18, 2007) Hillary Clinton’s old Sunday School teacher happened to be in a crowd where Hillary was speaking. The Sunday School teacher spoke up and asked Hillary if she was a Christian.

This morning TV pundits were wondering whether the question was another plant. I think a more important question is how Hillary defines “Christian.” My question is not an attack against Hillary but rather an acknowledgement that much of what has been called “Christian” down through the ages would be completely unrecognizable to Jesus, his apostles and the early church.

Many political and religious leaders have oppressed, enslaved and slaughtered others in the name of Christ, purely out of their own greed and lust for power. They were no more Christian than Muhammad.

On the other hand, there are today many religious people who call themselves Christian but who have denied virtually every historic tenet of the Christian faith. Take Marcus Borg, of the Jesus’ Seminar for example. Borg denies:

1) that there is a personal God
2) that Jesus was born of a virgin
3) that Jesus was the Christ or ever thought of himself that way
4) that Jesus was in any sense God or ever thought of himself that way
5) that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins or
6) that Jesus physically rose from the dead.

All of these are things that the Bible teaches and that Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, have affirmed since earliest times, and yet Borg denies all of them and still wants to call himself a Christian! That’s like someone denying that Muhammad was a prophet and still wanting to be called a Muslim! Unfortunately, Borg is not an isolated example. Many in mainline churches believe very much like Borg.

Borg would no doubt argue that Christianity has evolved in these enlightened times. What Borg and his religious-scholar colleagues would call “enlightened,” however, really just came from a relatively small group of white, Eurocentric, elitist academics pontificating about how “modern man” can no longer believe (all evidence to the contrary) in miracles or divine intervention.

So what does it really mean to be a Christian? The best explanation comes (not surprisingly) from Jesus and the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Romans Paul begins by saying that God has made himself known to everyone, but rather than worshiping and giving thanks to their Creator, people rejected what they knew of God and chose to worship created things instead.

In what Paul calls, "the wrath of God," Paul says that God, therefore, "gave them up" (Paul emphasizes this by repeating it three times)! God "gave them up" to go their own way and do their own thing. Paul says that people became filled with lust, envy, evil, deceit, strife, malice, and murder. He says they became faithless, heartless and ruthless.

One scholar characterized this as God giving humanity just what we wanted (to do our own thing--like the Frank Sanatra song, "I did it my way") and allowing us to reap the consequences —stewing in our own juices, so to speak. This scholar said that it was probably the worst thing God could have done to us. The history of man’s inhumanity to man would seem to support his interpretation.

Ah, but you may think, that’s not me! I’m not a heartless, ruthless murderer!

Maybe not, but Paul continues by insisting that we all do the same things. In other words, we are all guilty of envy, lust, strife, malice, deceit, gossip, lack of faith, etc. All of us have failed to give our Creator the worship and thanks He deserves. We have all rebelled against God’s law. We have all contributed to other people’s pain through our words or actions. In other words, we have all contributed in some way to this horrible “stew.”

Paul then goes on to address the religious teachers: Those who pride themselves in knowing God’s Word and think they are guides to those who are in spiritual darkness. Paul says that we fail to keep the very law of God that we proclaim! We don’t practice what we preach and we fall under God’s condemnation just as much as anyone else.

Maybe even more than anyone else. Jesus, for example, absolutely lambasted self-righteous religious leaders, calling them hypocrites, blind guides, fools, whitewashed tombs, vipers and even children of hell (Matthew 23)!

Anyway, Paul concludes the first section of this letter to the Romans by saying that there are really no truly righteous people at all—not one! He says that all people have turned away from God and the whole world will be held accountable to God. Then, as if to drive the nail in the coffin, Paul adds that there is absolutely nothing we can do to make it right! (Romans 1:18-3:20).

I was explaining the progression of Paul’s thought to someone one time when at this point he suddenly burst out exclaiming, “Well how can anyone be saved then?”

It was a great question. I suspect that was exactly the effect that Paul was going for because he answers the question in the very next verses. Paul says that although "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," we can be justified (declared “right” before God) by faith in Jesus Christ whom God gave as an atoning sacrifice for our sin. Paul says there is nothing we can do to earn this gift. It is God’s free gift of grace through faith in Jesus alone (Romans 3:21-28; 5:1; 6:23).

Paul originally wrote his letter to the Romans in the Greek language and in ancient Greek the words “believe” and “faith” are derived from the same root, and like all words, they have a range of meaning. Depending on the context, “believe” or “faith” could simply mean accepting something as true; like, “I believe that the Pyramids of Egypt exist.”

Although this intellectual aspect is part of what it means to have faith in Jesus, there is more to it than that. In the New Testament letter of James, the writer says that even the demons “believe,” but they tremble! James’ point seems to be that demons believe that God exists but that kind of faith doesn’t save them from judgment.

I think one of the best illustrations of true, biblical saving faith comes from a story in the life of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus had accepted an invitation to eat at the home of one of the religious leaders. While they were eating, a woman who was characterized as a “sinner” (probably a prostitute) came in weeping and began anointing Jesus’ feet with oil and wiping them with her hair.

The religious leaders at the table were disgusted that Jesus would even allow such a woman to touch him. Jesus reminded his host that when Jesus came to his house, the religious leader had not even extended the basic common courtesies to Jesus, like the middle-east custom of a kiss on the cheek. Jesus referred to the woman and said “her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” He then turned to the woman and said, “Your sins are forgiven…your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).

The moral of the story seems to be that genuine saving faith is NOT like that of the self-righteous, religious leaders but rather like that of this woman who comes to Jesus, broken in sorrow over her sins, and turns to him in sincere loving devotion. Jesus calls that heart of repentance & loving devotion “faith.”

Saving faith—the kind that makes someone a genuine Christian—is not about just believing certain facts about Jesus (but if the facts about Jesus are not true, all the faith in the world won’t save us from anything). Saving faith is a change of heart. It involves a sincere, sorrowful, repentance for one’s sin and a turning in sincere loving devotion to Jesus who forgives sin.

Of course, anyone who is sincerely and lovingly devoted to Jesus will also sincerely desire to obey his teachings. Paul makes this point forcefully in Romans 6:1-23. Of course, Christians may sometimes fail miserably (a point I believe Paul makes in Romans 7), but when we do fail, we repent and continue striving to obey our Lord, not in order to get saved, (nothing we do will earn a right standing before God) but because of our love for the One who died for us.

When asked if she was a Christian, Hillary answered yes. I sincerely hope she means that in the New Testament sense described above.