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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Ethics and Ethnic

This is a brief follow up on my sermon of March 25.  I want to summarize.  The life of Christian faith is not about faithful people, but a faithful God.  Do we as Mennonites have something to say about God?  About who God is?  About what God does?  Or do we only offer word and deed that point to us?

In a tradition known for rigorous ethical practices, the temptation to idolatry is great.  It is possible for us to imagine a Christian walk that leaves God out altogether.  This is especially true for a tradition with a discreet ethnic identity or identities.

The Harrowing of Hell

I write on Holy Saturday.  This is the day Christians remember, according to the Apostle's Creed, that Jesus descended to hell, defeating the powers of evil.  The meaning of this day varies, depending on who is defining it.  But defeating the powers of evil seems like a pretty good thing to celebrate.

Resurrection of the Dead

This time of year, my mind turns to the ongoing theological debate within the church about the language Christians ought to use when speaking about death, resurrection, and life beyond the grave.  The debate arises out of concerns that many Christians, at a popular level, hold beliefs about these matters that deviate profoundly from biblical understandings, and traditional Christian teaching.  Some Christians who think of themselves as conservative and traditional hold views on this subject that at the very least border on heresy, if not embrace it wholesale.

Statements like, "this world is not my home, I'm just passing through"; "this body is not really me, the real me will go to be with Jesus in heaven when I die"; and "the soul is immortal, it will not die like the body, but is eternal, and when the body dies, the soul will be free, and go to heaven."

Many of us have heard such things said in our churches, and so have come to take them as traditional Christian teaching.  They are not, and in fact represent ideas that early Christians worked hard to discredit.  The idea of the immortality of the soul comes from Platonic philosophy.  The distaste for the body is also found in forms of the ancient gnostic heresy.  Christian faith strongly affirms the goodness of the body, and the resurrection of the body (as in "I believe in the resurrection of the dead" from the creeds).  Central to this belief is Easter faith.  We believe in the resurrection of the body, in part, because we believe a body has already been raised from the dead.

Pastorally, this has lead to the question of what happens to Christians between death and the resurrection of the dead on the last day (John 6).  Christian faith has not been particularly clear about this, and opens the door to confusion.  Three authors have been helpful to me in working through these pastoral questions, remaining faithful to Christian teaching on the matter, but responding honestly and compassionately to pastoral concerns.

Carol Zaleski is a Catholic theologian teaching at Smith College, and a columnist for the mainline Protestant periodical the Christian Century.  Zaleski has done extensive study with what are called near death experiences from a theological, rather than medical, perspective.  She affirms traditional Christian teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead, but recognizes the need for language that is open to the ambiguity of Christian understanding.  She is critical of those who she believes overstate the problem of "go to heaven when I die language."

N.T. Wright is an Anglican New Testament scholar and priest, who has made restoring belief in the resurrection of the dead among Christians as something of a life mission.  His most concise and helpful work on this subject is Surprised by Hope.  Wright is the most polemical of these three, arguing passionately that Christians have strayed dangerously from the gospel, and that this matters, because if our bodies and this earth are simply passing, then work for peace and justice, environmental concerns, care for the sick, and other essential Christian ethical practices, are irrelevant.  If our bodies are just shells, and the world is doomed for destruction, what's the point.  At stake for Wright is reclaiming a traditional Christian understanding salvation.

Thomas G. Long is an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister who teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary in Atlanta.  Long's book Accompanying them with singing, is addressed not just to preachers, but to all involved in planning and speaking at funerals.  This book is between Zaleski and Wright on the polemical scale, in that, like Zaleski, it attempts to be more pastoral than Wright, but Long also has strong opinions and he does not shy from sharing them.  He addresses the shape of Christians funerals, and the language used in them with as much passion as Wright, but suggests that the convergence of traditional Christian language of the timelessness of God, and recent thought in the field of quantum mechanics, might offer ways for Christians to be both traditional and fresh.

That gives us plenty to ponder!