Sunday, May 22, 2011

Be Not Ashamed of Your Faith

Today's Gospel reading was from the famous (or, depending on how you interpret it, infamous) fourteenth chapter of John, verses 1 through 14:
Jesus’ Parting Words to His Disciples

14:1 “Do not let your hearts be distressed. You believe in God; believe also in me. 14:2 There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house. Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you. 14:3 And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too. 14:4 And you know the way where I am going.”

14:5 Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 14:6 Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 14:7 If you have known me, you will know my Father too. And from now on you do know him and have seen him.”

14:8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be content.” 14:9 Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 14:10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves.14:12 I tell you the solemn truth, the person who believes in me will perform the miraculous deeds that I am doing, and will perform greater deeds than these, because I am going to the Father. 14:13And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14:14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

Why is this passage famous (or infamous)? Consider this interchange between a reporter for Time magazine and the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA):
Q Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?

A We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.
(And this was not an isolated instance. She elaborated on her answer later with an NPR interviewer -- and in doing so hastened the departure of certain parishes in Virginia from the Church.)

Do you see the mistake here? Simply put, Bishop Schori's answer separates the Father from the Son -- it ignores the Holy Trinity. Jesus and God act independently of each other; Jesus, far from being One with the triune God, is a mere "vehicle" with which to approach God's presence.

It is evident from the context of his words (re-read the whole passage!) that what Jesus was saying (to paraphrase it clumsily) was this: "The Father and I are one -- I am in Him, and He is in me. You cannot approach the Father without approaching me." (Paraphrases -- that is, departures from what the Greek is saying, in an attempt to explain it better to English speakers, are dangerous. That is why translations such as The Contemporary English Version, God's Word and The Good News Translation must always be checked against a literal translation, such as the Net Bible I have quoted here. For example, the former three all translate the Greek phrase erkhetai pros in this passage as "goes to" rather than "comes to": "No one goes to the Father except through me." That unfortunate choice adds to the sense of separation from the speaker, who is Jesus, while "comes" strengthens the context that the speaker and the destination -- God -- are one and the same.)

Those, like the Presiding Bishop, who treat his words as saying: "Unless you believe in me, you cannot get into heaven" are perpetuating the false dichotomy of exclusivity versus inclusivity that has so broken up the Episcopal Church -- and the Anglican Communion, for that matter. Jesus is neither exclusive nor inclusive. Those are the wrong words to describe what he offers us, because they imply that he does all the choosing. (Those who believe in predestination, I realize, will not have any problem with that implication.) The choice is the believer's, to believe or not to believe, to go on sinning, or to strive to sin no more -- and Jesus is simply stating a truism: if you believe in the Father, you believe in him, and vice versa, because he and the Father are one.

Jesus emphasizes again and again in the passage quoted above that he and the Father are one and indivisible. As human beings alive on earth, the only form in which Jesus' disciples could encounter God was in the person of Jesus himself -- that is why he throws Philip's question back at him: "Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip?". To know "me" -- i.e., Jesus -- was to know the Father, whom Philip foolishly asked Jesus to show to them.

All of us, however, who were born after Jesus died on the cross, can no longer encounter God in the flesh here on earth -- at least not until the Second Coming (as of this writing, alas, not yet under way). Our encounters with God, or the risen Jesus, are spiritual ones. But make no mistake: they two, along with the Holy Spirit, are one and the same God. Jesus himself told us so.

To encounter God spiritually is to encounter Jesus, whether one recognizes the latter as such or not. If what Jesus told us was true (and we can be certain that it was), then there is no God without Jesus, and no Jesus without God. God without Jesus is an intellectual abstraction, a god without love, and of no practical consequence to humans, while Jesus without God is a pointless sacrifice of a good and holy man.

Have no concern, therefore, for the ultimate fate of those who claim to find their paths to God other than through Jesus -- it's not up to you. While men may separate Jesus from God in their own minds, rejecting the former while claiming to accept the latter, if it is truly God whom they encounter, then they are also encountering Jesus at one and the same time. Whether they are aware of that truth or not does not make it any less the truth. We who have been given the gospel message are thus doubly blessed, because we have been given also the key to understanding the true meaning of such encounters: since God and Jesus are one (with the Holy Spirit), we reach the one through the other, and at the same time. For that same reason, we do not have to worry about being called "exclusive" or "inclusive" -- one who truly believes in God the Holy Trinity cannot be described by those words, because other people's choices are not up to the believer.

It is ironic, therefore, in light of Jesus' clear message to his disciples, that today's lectionary also included this passage from 1 Peter 2:4-10:
A Living Stone, a Chosen People

2:4 So as you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but chosen and priceless in God’s sight, 2:5 you yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 2:6 For it says in scripture, “Look, I lay in Zion a stone, a chosen and priceless cornerstone, and whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.2:7 So you who believe see his value, but for those who do not believe, the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, 2:8 and a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over.They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 2:10 You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

As Peter carefully explains (and who should know this better than Peter?), Jesus is at one and the same time "a chosen and priceless cornerstone", but also "a stumbling-stone and a rock to trip over." Those who stumble on the rock of Jesus are precisely those who would claim that making belief in Him the criterion for admission to heaven is "to put God in an awfully small box." So to speak, I say, is to separate that which cannot be separated, and also to commit the Arian heresy of thinking that Jesus is "smaller" than God.

But it is not just the Presiding Bishop who stumbles over the correct interpretation of Jesus' words in John 14:6. Those who came to the defense of her reading included many of her ilk (including Episcopal Cafe and the usual blogs), as well as even some atheists. And in the attractiveness of such a misreading to so many lies the truth of Peter's description of Jesus as a "stumbling-stone."

Only those, you see, who feel defensive about their faith are the ones who can be made susceptible to guilty feelings about its so-called "exclusivity." The apologia run in this vein: "Well, I know I have my faith in Jesus to get me into heaven, but that doesn't mean you have to think as I do to get there is well. God is very big, and wonderful are His ways -- I am sure He can find other paths for you to get to Him, as well. Now, isn't that inclusive of me?" And if you are defensive about Jesus, then he is a stumbling-stone for you.

The answer, therefore, which I wish our Presiding Bishop had given to Time's interviewer would run something like this:
“‘Belief in Jesus’ is the same as belief in God. So your question really asks if belief in God is the only way to get to heaven. Now, maybe you could think that there is a heaven without God, but that's not very likely. If you don't believe in God, you won't believe in heaven. So the answer to your question is ‘Yes’ -- belief in God is the only way ‘to get to heaven,’ as you put it.”
That is being neither defensive, nor offensive -- it is simply stating a truism. And that the reporter's question could have been answered so simply shows why the question itself is a loaded one: it tries to put Christians on the defensive. "Be not ashamed of your faith."

Christ is the cornerstone -- he does not have to be a stumbling-block, unless you let it happen. Again, "be not ashamed of your faith."





11 comments:

  1. I feel we have another C.S. Lewis on our hands. Good job, Mr. Haley!

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  2. Thank you for this exposition of +KJS's words.

    It is of great importance that we in the Communion reflect on what is happening to our Christology. It seems to me that in the endless discussions of sexuality and ecclesiology, we are allowing awful Christology ... which I believe is much worse than any possible teaching on sex or ethics, or any possible sex act.

    This is a very difficult task. There is no joy in exposing bad teaching, or unraveling what it implies about us.

    A little more than a year ago I wrote an essay unpacking two quotes of +KJS - arguing that she denies the doctrines of the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. This was an awful thing to write; very painful and ugly, on many levels. Not only was it a confession that I was corporately responsible for denying Christ by belonging to the Communion - and for the awful consequences of such teachings upon vulnerable laypeople, in stunting their faith. It was also terribly tiresome because of the lack of coherent thinking and intellecutal challenge. It was like unravelling a huge, knotted ball of twine with many threads tied together which do not belong together ... and then trying to explain the various curves and bends of each piece of string in each knot. No beautiful cohesion, no great thoughts to digest. It is so sad that things have come to this, and that we are denying Christ, with the substitute being so intellectually tiresome, uncompelling, and sometimes even fraught with all sorts of unseemly sentiments (though this last is not generally true of +KJS's teachings; I am thinking of Spong and others).

    I believe that at the present moment, there are few tasks more urgent than alerting the Communion and other Trinitarian churches of what is happening within our walls, and that we, in practice, may no longer be Trinitarian Christians - and that we must repent. It is very well possible that we will not begin corporately repenting of what we have done and this situation until other churches begin calling upon us to do so, and exposing us for what we are. But they are unlikely to do the research, ask the difficult questions, and disseminate the information. This is our job.

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  3. Hi AC, I am a great fan of yours but I disagree strongly with this post.

    I think you have reversed the biblical logic. While it is true that any worshiper of the true God is also necessarily a worshiper of the Son, the thrust of the NT is manifestly NOT that all who worship a diety they call God are necessarily worshiping the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    In fact the consistent point of the NT is that apart from conscious knowledge and faith in God "as he is revealed in Christ", the "god" others worship is not the true God but an idol, an image.

    The NT logic is: saving knowledge of Christ alone leads to a true knowledge of God

    But you have reversed that logic so that it has become: any kind of knowledge of God = saving knowledge of Christ.

    If that were true the 1st century Christian mission to the Jews would be senseless and counter productive.

    There is no hope for salvation apart from a conscious knowledge of him the context of John 14 and Romans 10 makes that clear...not to mention the mission of the church in Acts both to Jews and Gentiles.

    And, in fact, I hate to say it but your position seems to go beyond even that of Lewis and Rome.

    They would say that following whatever light that has been given suffices in cultural contexts in which the gospel has not been heard--so that any faith in truth becomes faith in Christ. This is, I believe incorrect.

    But you take it further.

    You seem to indicate that even those who hear the gospel and reject it remain believers in Christ in so far as they remain believers in God. Lewis and Rome do not teach that.

    In any case, I really appreciate you and all the work you do and write this with great affection for you personally. May God continue to bless you.

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  4. Fr Matt, we don't disagree about how we as Christians experience God through Jesus Christ. But I am saying only that we, as mere mortals, cannot presume to say how the Trinity must manifest itself to us or to others. While I am personally quite dubious that the "god" worshipped by many religions has anything to do with the Trinity, I am most troubled by the idea that the God of the OT and the God of the NT are not one and the same God, because that is the direct and only conclusion we can draw from Jesus' words in John 14.

    And Jesus was a Jew, speaking to other Jews -- so he cannot have been saying that the Father with whom he is one was not the same Father of the Tanakh. But from the accounts given in the OT, we must also conclude that the Trinity manifested itself differently in the centuries before God came down to earth in the form of a man, Jesus Christ.

    I am not saying that the Jews knowingly experience Jesus through the God whom they worship -- they obviously can come to realize that they do so by accepting Jesus, which is why the 1st century mission to the Jews did have a purpose. The logic, however, is inescapable to me: it is not "reversed", but it is undeniable that the Trinity has been one and the same Trinity, always and forever. It revealed itself in one form in the OT, and in the form we as Christians know in the NT.

    Thank you for taking the time to come here -- I really appreciate your comments, as well as all the things you post at SF.

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  5. As an added thought: it is the undeniable logic of the NT that the Trinity now is fully manifested to humans through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. That is why those who worship only the Father of the OT are denying to themselves the full revelation of God the Father through God the Son and God the Holy Spirit -- and that is why Christians could never become Jews, but Jews can always become Christians. It is not that Christianity has superseded Judaism, but that it has completed Judaism. ("I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law.") We cannot be fully Christian without appreciating our Jewish heritage in which Christianity is grounded.

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  6. thanks for your response. I've written on this topic extensively here:

    http://www.standfirminfaith.com/index.php/sf/page/27307/

    But in brief...

    you write:

    "But I am saying only that we, as mere mortals, cannot presume to say how the Trinity must manifest itself to us or to others."

    You are correct.

    The problem is that as mere mortals we must trust in rely on God's revelation not our desires or imaginations. And since God has in in scripture revealed to us exactly how he does and does not manifest himself, it is presumption, unintended I am sure, to imagine, as you do, some other possibility.

    The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is not "for us" but for the world. The word of God written is not "for us" but for the world. That revelation we are told over and over again in scripture IS the way he manifests himself to the world...and there is no other way.

    To deny or reject that is to deny God's own explicit revelation and, again falls into presumption.

    "While I am personally quite dubious that the "god" worshipped by many religions has anything to do with the Trinity..."

    It is good to be "dubious" about such an idea because it is declared to be a false one. Here is what Paul says about the origin of other faiths:

    "what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.(1 Corinthians 10:20)"

    "I am most troubled by the idea that the God of the OT and the God of the NT are not one and the same God, because that is the direct and only conclusion we can draw from Jesus' words in John 14."

    Only if you are Marcion...and I know you are not. But Christian exegetes have dealt with this passage quite easily for years. When Abraham placed his trust in the Promise of God he was placing his promise in Jesus Christ. That is not my own speculation. That is what Paul and Peter and the author of Hebrews say explicitly.

    Before the incarnation, faith in Christ who is the Promise was still the only way to be justified and after the incarnation the same faith in the same promise remains the only way.

    ...cont

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  7. cont...part 2

    "And Jesus was a Jew, speaking to other Jews -- so he cannot have been saying that the Father with whom he is one was not the same Father of the Tanakh."

    No one would say otherwise.

    "But from the accounts given in the OT, we must also conclude that the Trinity manifested itself differently in the centuries before God came down to earth in the form of a man, Jesus Christ."

    He manifested himself in preincarnate form and revealed the Promise in whom and through whom salvation is to be found. And Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the rest believed in Him...again this is not a mystery.

    "I am not saying that the Jews knowingly experience Jesus through the God whom they worship"

    Good, because the NT is clear that they do not.

    "they obviously can come to realize that they do so by accepting Jesus, which is why the 1st century mission to the Jews did have a purpose."

    Well, the purpose is best explained by Jesus himself when he was speaking to the Jew Nicodemus:

    "[18] Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. [19] And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. [20] For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. [21] But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”(John 3:18-21)


    The logic, however, is inescapable to me: it is not "reversed", but it is undeniable that the Trinity has been one and the same Trinity, always and forever."

    That, of course, is not something I disagreed with or objected too.

    "It revealed itself in one form in the OT, and in the form we as Christians know in the NT."

    No. God does not change. He revealed himself in the OT and the NT through the same Promise of Salvation who is Jesus Christ. Again, this is quite explicit in the NT writings themselves. You might want to re-read Hebrews, John, and Romans 4 and 10.

    "Thank you for taking the time to come here -- I really appreciate your comments, as well as all the things you post at SF."

    Thank you for your great work and for allowing me to comment on your blog.

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  8. Thank you again, Fr Matt - I shall do as you suggest, and I now understand fully what you are saying. No, I do not subscribe to Marcion's views, and I see it was my poor form of expressing my beliefs that may have led you to think so. You are absolutely correct that the triune God does not change, and I have written more on that point here.

    It is man that changes, not God. The descriptions we have of Him from the fourteenth century BC are not the same descriptions we would have if any of us, with our 21st-century minds and knowledge, had been able to be there to witness, say, the events of the Exodus. This realization accounts to me for the apparent difference in the revelations between the OT and the NT, but as you say, it is one and the same eternal revelation.

    Jews who deny Jesus is the Son of God have to deal with 1 John 2:23: "No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also."

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  9. It not uncommon, but always saddens the heart, when those who are obviously intelligent entertain an exchange on a symptom rather than entertain such minds in the causality which James, unintentionally I fear, properly calls "our Christology" which is foreign indeed to the religion of Christ presented in the holy writings.

    When TEC (and others) abandoned scripture as THE rule of faith and practice they substituted a clerical oligarchy, the doctrines of men, for the King of kings. (Mt.15:9)

    Luke 9:35 (YLT)
    35 and a voice came out of the cloud saying, `This is My Son--the Beloved; hear ye Him;'

    John 12:48-50 (NASB77)
    48 " He who rejects Me, and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day....

    John 14:6 (NASB77)
    6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.

    John 16:13-15 (NASB77)
    13 "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth;...

    1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (Darby)
    9 Do ye not know that unrighteous [persons] shall not inherit [the] kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who make women of themselves, nor who abuse themselves with men,
    10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor abusive persons, nor [the] rapacious, shall inherit [the] kingdom of God. 11 And these things WERE some of you; but ye have been washed, but ye have been sanctified, but ye have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus in virtue of the power of the Spirit of our God.

    As to your women bishops:

    1 Timothy 2:11-14 (NASB77)
    11 Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. 12 But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. 13 For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.
    14 And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression.

    Neighbors, it is the Kingdom of God not the Democratic Republic of Heaven. If there is no absolute authority then there is no authority at all.

    nono tou theou

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  10. I realize this is an older post, and apologize if post necromancy is ill mannered here, but I wanted you to know that this post really jogged my mind and got me thinking in a good way.

    A lot of the "meat" of your blog is deep into the worries of the Church Visible, and while I greatly thankful that there are those moved by His grace to shepard and protect it, most of my energy is towards the Church Invisible.

    I fear my musings are well below the stature and depth of education that many of your other guests display, but am grateful for the chance to let your work and theirs provoke ideas for me.

    Many thanks for making this post and others like it.

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