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Tuesday, November 8, 2005

How Jesus approached the imperfect.

Among the many magazines I get at home and at work, the thoughtful lay Catholic magazine Commonweal is near the top of my must-read list. Columnist John Garvey recently responded to a First Things essay by Philip Turner that identified a "theological chasm" in the Episcopal church between "those who hold a theology of divine acceptance" (those dastardly liberals) and "those who hold a theology of divine redemption." Garvey urged readers to go deeper than the easy judgments each side makes about the other — especially around the hot-button sexuality issues that divide Christians today. (His column was a great way to launch into a special issue on the Eucharist.)

Halfway through the essay, Garvey offered this wonderful interpretation of Jesus' acceptance of his faltering disciples:

[T]he Gospels show us how Jesus approached the imperfect, the unready.

In Mark's account (9:14-29) of the healing of the demon-possessed boy, the boy's father begs, "If you can, have compassion on us and help us." Jesus' answer, "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes," calls forth the father's anguished response: "I believe; help my unbelief!"

This is not the faith that moves mountains; it is the divided faith most of us know very well. But it is enough for Jesus, and the boy is healed. Perhaps more to the point is the post-Resurrection exchange of Jesus with Peter in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" and Peter answers, three times, that he does. Most commentary focuses on this passage as a reflection of Peter's threefold denial of Jesus, and this is, of course, a crucial part of the exchange. But a good sermon I heard, preached by a Pentecostal minister, brought up something found in the original Greek that matters deeply to understanding Jesus' relationship with Peter — and with all of us — at its heartbreaking depth.

When Jesus asks Peter "Do you love me?" he uses the words agapas me, that is, do you love me as God loves you, with the love that comes down from heaven. Agape is the word for love that Paul uses in speaking of the most important virtue in 1 Corinthians 13, and the word he uses in Romans when he says that nothing will be able to separate us from "the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:39). But Peter, answering, "You know I love you," uses the words philos se . . . that is, I love you like a brother. It is a good kind of love, quite commendable, but not the same thing. Simon uses this word in all three responses. But when Jesus asks Peter the third time, he no longer asks do you love me with God's self-emptying love — he no longer asks, "Agapas me?" Instead, he comes down to Peter's level, asking him, "Phileis me?" Do you at least love me like a brother? At this moment, knowing that Peter is capable only of this level of love, it is enough; he knows that it is the best Peter can currently do. But then Jesus goes on to say that Peter will be led where he does not want to go; in his final suffering and martyrdom, Peter will have to learn that deeper love. For now, Jesus meets him where he is, capable of love, though not the love Jesus will ultimately ask of him, and of us.

While insisting that we must take the cross and transformation seriously, the church should also be a place where those who are weak, who are not ready for the whole of what is demanded, can feel welcomed and loved. In one way or another, we all fall into this category. The church is often seen as smug, doubt-free, and self-righteous, and Christians of all confessions are often guilty as charged. When one kind of sinning is seen as more important — more really sinful — than other kinds, we miss the point of the struggle, whether the sins involved are sexual, or have to do with greed or compassion or selfishness. We are called to empty ourselves, as Christ did, called to a radical humility, and morality is only part of this process.

Although I haven't written much here about my experience at the Taize Community in France this summer, I have been brooding ever since on the extraordinary Christian hospitality I encountered there. More than 4,000 people, perhaps 3,500 of them younger than 30, were at Taize the week Mrs Philocrites and I stayed there. They came from all parts of Europe, with smaller contingents from Africa, Latin America, and North America. The diversity of cultures and languages and denominational backgrounds and life experiences was part of the draw for pretty much everyone; it was like going on vacation to Pentecost.

The 100 brothers in the Taize community are on to something important in the way they emphasize friendship — and especially in the way they emphasize worship over doctrine. (They're not hostile to doctrine, and might strike many American liberal Protestants as overly cautious especially around women's equality, but I don't think they fit at all in the left-right template we're getting so maddeningly used to using here in the U.S. ) But Brother Roger's liturgical insight — his emphasis on simplicity and silence, chant, and scripture that doesn't demand sermonic explication — is central. And it creates a space in which an astonishing range of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians can pray together.

Ever since we've returned to the U.S., I've been even more deeply concerned about the polarization of churches and Christians here. I heard again and again at Taize that young people go there because their spiritual yearning and their religious questions are taken seriously at Taize, that they love the prayer and the music and the spirituality of the place, that they love meeting people from so many places. I met one college student who had come several times, even though he doesn't believe in God; another young man, recently graduated from college, grew up in an entirely secular family, had recently discovered Buddhism, and knew that Taize was a place where his newly awakened spiritual curiosity would be respected.

There are congregations all across the theological-political spectrum that provide a genuine welcome for spiritual seekers and connect them to the true depths of their religious traditions. I can't help but wish, though, that one could go somewhere on this continent where Christians with profound cultural, political, and theological differences could meet without suspicion, without endless negotiation, and break bread together. As a Christian in the Unitarian Universalist family of churches, I can't tell you how moving and affirming it was for me to be at Taize, where the brothers have somehow found a way to celebrate the Eucharist in a way that manages to accommodate Protestants and Catholics simultaneously — a tremendous ecumenical gesture.

("Who's In and Who's Out?" John Garvey, Commonweal 10.7.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 8 November 2005 at 9:39 PM

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Bill Baar:

November 9, 2005 08:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Oh I don't like it when Christians talk like this. My experience with Christians was they've been way too accepting.

When I grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, there was a fundamentalist Bible College where a young woman felt her Christian faith compelled her to be accepting of drug addict who returned her acceptance and raped and murdered her. An Oak Park cop told me the Bible School had been a problem because the kids prone to accepting dangerous people.

About ten years ago, a mega-Church near me had a 25 year-old director of Religous Ed who dated a teen girl in the Church for over three years. When he was found out, and convicted, and sentenced to ten years, the Church members protested in front of the court claiming he had repented and shouldn't have to go to the penitentary. Sure he repented, but that's between him and God; he still owed ten years to the people of Illinois. I was disgusted these people couldn't figure that out.

And now we have the Rockford diocese in court claiming seperation of Church and State allows them to withhold their investigation of a priest who was also dating a teen girl for a number of years. They think the people of Illinois have no business here either.

So I worry with Christians because they are so accepting and so many of these Churches have a real poor track record of managing people. They accept people with big problems and don't have a clue how to manage them, or protect others from them.

Worse, they get caught tolerating horrible abuse in their midst, and they go on the attack which is what the Bishop of Rockford did with bizarre columns telling us that people critical of such gross mismanagemet were really radicals and protestants intent on promoting married priests, etc, etc....

...I wasn't accepting of that. Nor was my Catholic raised wife, and it was one of the reasons we quit.

I realize that's not your point her Chris, but this acceptance language really gets mistranslated in practice.

The UU Churches I've belonged to have always impressed me as being better run on this score as opposed to Christian Churches which we're a little naive about it. I think that's one of the strengths of Liberal Religion. The individual is responsible and there fore people more aware of their responsiblities.


November 9, 2005 08:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, you've stumbled onto the importance of liberalism and its critical attitude -- liberals' willingness to ask questions and challenge authority rather than accept what authorities say simply because they're in charge. In my view, liberalism combined with Christianity is an especially good thing. And that's why, on this blog, I champion liberals in whatever denomination I see them.

Bill Baar:

November 10, 2005 08:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

I know you champion people who challange authority in whatever denomination you see them I and I disagree with that.

Peole free to belong to any kinds of Churche. Part of joining is agreeing to submit to their authority. You should. If you change your mind, our Liberal culture allows you to quit and do most whatever you like.

My crippled, aged, invalid mother-in-law misses Church, she will not take communion until she confesses. The Priest told her that's the rules. She believes. She submits. I respect that.

A fellow shows up at the same Mass wearing a Rainbow Sash and demands communion as a right even though the Bishop has asked folks remove them. Well, I don't respect that much. He knows the rules. The ones on sex are ancient. Almost all of the congregation is probably in defiance of of some of them. Yet for him communion is a right and he'll call in the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times to make a stink.

This isn't challanging authority. This is making yourself the authority and then telling the rest of the community to go along with your new rules or else.

And they play tough. Oak Park has an Evangelical Church that is probably somewhere to the left on Howard Dean almost everything --and more racially diverse than any of the mainstream Chruches-- yet this Chruch brings in some supposed gay who repented or converted or do whatever you do to become un-gay with their God and all gay activists come and picket the church as though they were hosting Hitler.

It gets old and tiresome and I don't think it serves UUism well when we participate in it.

Just leave the different authorities alone. People are free to submit or not as we chose.

Sorry if post to long. I don't mean to get over bearing here. But I think there is a problem when UUism doesn't promote the fact we offer things other religious authorities don't i.e. we'll bless a same sex marriage, allow gay clergy; and instead harp about some other churchs application of their authority to call their own shots.

Am I an extremists here? I think not. I think this most liberal and certainly respectful of diversity.


November 10, 2005 05:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, you and I are coming at this issue from very different assumptions. Two seem especially significant:

First, because I'm a Christian as well as a UU -- which is to say, because I believe in a universal church that encompasses all disciples of Jesus -- I believe I have a stake in how other churches practice the faith. That isn't to say that I believe they should do what I think they should do, but it does mean that I believe I have a legitimate right to interpret and learn from the tradition that I share with them, even as I also diverge with some of them in a variety of ways.

You prefer to see your Unitarian Universalism as cut off from Christianity. That's your choice, but I can't make such an assumption because it's foreign to my experience and personal commitments.

Second, you treat "liberalism" as foreign to Christianity itself -- making liberal theology something that can be practiced and affirmed only within a UU context and never within a Christian context. I reject this idea on historical, theological, philosophical, and experiential grounds. All doctrines change; all churches evolve; but it suits the political and ideological interests of some groups to deny this (just as it suits other interests to exaggerate it).

I believe that there's a legitimate and well-grounded place for liberal perspectives within every faith tradition. You don't. I think your perspective would leave the overwhelming majority of human beings in a state of servitude to religious and political leaders who wrap themselves in a mantle of traditionalism.

Democracy has religious implications, too, and I'm convinced that if there's a case to be made that democracy is better for human beings than other political arrangements, democracy -- and liberalism -- should have a place within religious traditions, too.

Bill Baar:

November 11, 2005 04:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

I don't believe in telling any Church I don't belong too how they should practice their faith.

Whether I share their tradition or not.

I don't tell the Hindus who bought the farm down the road from me they should allow Gay Clergy, or Female Clergy, or Divorced Clergy, or what they should do about same-sex marriage, or if the men and women should sit together.

I think that's the respectful, neigborly, and Liberal thing to do.

Liberalism in the sense of the importance of the individual's rights and autonomy in civil life, and the individual's right to mediate directly with God in sacred life; are modern ideas younger than all faith traditions.

And Liberal ideas are at odds with almost any kind of Traditionalism.

UU offers a way of reconciling the two and as Liberalism triumphs in civil life it should become a model for others on how to reconcile Faith Tradition with modern Liberal life.

We should live the model. Practice our model. Proclaim our model. And tell others we'll disagree with their practice but defend to the death their right to practice their traditional model.

I think that's the way Liberals used to do it.

World needs Liberal theology now more then ever because without the reconciliation of modern life with traditional life, things can take nasty turn.

But I'm not happy we Liberals up to the task of saving the world here. The world certainly needs us. We need to offer some vision. (sorry to use that vision word, but it's late, I couldn't sleep... and rambling now.. good night).

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