The New Testament Canon, the Jews, the Romans, Accommodation and Revolutionary Faith

Transcribed from the sermon preached May 4, 2014

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings: I Peter 2: 16-24, Luke 11:42-47, John 5:1-16

Last week we had quite a few people in the adult forum to hear Bob Coote speak about the formation of the New Testament. I thought it might be a good idea to reflect and respond to his idea that the New Testament as we have it is an accommodation to Rome.

Paul broke from tradition in interpretation and importance of the Mosaic Law. He claimed that Grace through faith, confession of sin, receiving the Holy Spirit, and moral living were enough, and that Christians didn’t need to follow every aspect of the law, and didn’t even need to be Jewish. This was a minority position within the Church before the war with Rome in 70. The law and the temple were still very important for many of the early Christians. Paul’s minority position gained with respect to other points of view within the Church after the War.

Why did the war change things? First and foremost, it was hard for the temple to remain central if it didn’t exist anymore. Second, within the Roman Empire, Jews were the new bad guys. After the suicide of Nero, Vespasian used his victory over Jerusalem as political leverage to take the throne. After he died in 79, his son Titus who had taken over as military commander of Egypt and Palestine succeeded him as Emperor. So on the one hand, Christian Jews were marginalized and persecuted as heretical by other, more centralized Jews. Paul himself persecuted Christians before he met the risen Christ and changed his mind and side. On the other hand, after the war, Jews were ostracized as enemies of Rome, and this gave incentive to Christians, who had been marginalized by other Jewish groups anyway, to further grow apart in identity. At the same time, it was important for Christians not to be seen as a threat to the peace and order of the empire. What this means for the scripture as we receive it is that regardless of the resistance or revolutionary ideas and actions of Jesus and his followers with respect to Rome, explicit reference with respect to Rome is mostly left out, and resistance against Jewish groups in power is amplified. There is still radical resistance of Rome in Mark, but it is covert, embedded in miracle stories, etc… By the time Luke writes, the teachings of justice use scribes and Pharisees as the bad guys. Still, early Christians would have known that Jesus was himself a Pharisee, and what made Jesus angry at the particular scribes and Pharisees who were in power was their taking political and economic advantage of their religious position and selling out to Herod, Rome’s puppet. It is the behavior, not the racial identity that Jesus is concerned about. But by the time the Gospel of John in written around 90, a significant separation between Jews and Christians had developed, and rather than particular groups of the elite in Jerusalem who had sold out to Rome being named, John just calls them “the Jews.” In this morning’s passage it almost appears as if Jesus and the man he heals are not Jews. It is from John that we get this blanket derogatory label, “the Jews’, which is then picked up by later Christians in power as justification for scapegoating, discrimination and murder. Followers of Jesus become like those who crucified Jesus, so not all those who proclaim Lord, Lord are going to enter the kingdom of heaven. Some Christian theology views Christians as superseding Jews, like the Exodus story shows God blessing the Israelites to supersede the Canaanites in Palestine. While I still think the grace of God the most important truth in the history of humankind, this Christian idea that salvation is by God’s grace through Christ is enough by itself, independent of culture, language or a particular land would later be used by empire to justify conquering and pacification of peoples and lands across the world. Any idea can be used by the devil. As progressive Christians, we tend to view modern Zionist hope of establishing a Jewish political homeland in Palestine, free of non-Jewish polluting cultural influence, through this universalizing moral vision embodied by Jesus and preached by Paul. But as we hope that Jews might not apply the ancient mythical hope of scripture literally to a modern political state, we ought to understand if they are suspicious that those who preach the universal values of Christ, may soon enough twist into a hard literal interpretation of the New Testament and use it as justification of violence against those who don’t share this view, or even into economic and political domination and pacification of Christians by other Christians.

It is a sad twist, that the most powerful liberation movement stories the world has ever known, have been used as justification for discrimination, and oppression. Because the Bible and the Gospel story have brought us the God who has given us hope and salvation, and literally saved so many of our lives, we are hesitant and fearful, indeed it feels blasphemous, to admit to danger in the text. We hear it in the text, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” 2 Tim 3:16. Timothy is speaking of Hebrew scripture here, since there is no solidified collection of the New Testament yet, but that doesn’t stop modern fundamentalist Christians from using this to lock in their point of view and be threatened by anyone from a different perspective.

But Jesus and God will bust out of the tomb of our smothering arrogance and roll away the stone of our ideology. William Sloan Coffin said, “Some people use scripture like a drunk uses a lamp post, for support rather than for illumination.”

To add to the difficulty of our relationship with scripture, insistence that scripture is nothing but the truth and word of God, and that we dare not think otherwise, feels like the fear of God, or humility before God. And wrestling with scripture does indeed take a little arrogance and risk. We don’t depart from a part of scripture with ease, for it has been around a lot longer than we have, and there is no assurance that our apparently great new idea is not that great or in fact a new version of an old mistake. We don’t want to be immature and naïve, as Paul says, to be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” (Eph 4:14)

History is written by the winners, and scripture is no exception. It has parts that are intended to pacify the poor to accept the status quo. And so Marx can say, Religion is the sigh of the oppressed people…the opiate of the masses. And there is truth in that, but not the whole truth. Opium and alcohol and sex and violence, and nationalism and scapegoating are opiates of the masses. Marx proposes a Godless version of the early Church, which Stalin turns into the most oppressive and bloody regime the world has ever known. Clearly it is not just Christianity, not just religion that is susceptible to the manipulation of the powerful. The brilliant Nietzsche hates the weakness of Christ and Christianity, and promotes the “will to power” as the bringer of good. But he remains an angry, cynical man, whose bitter selfishness hurts those around him and severs relationship, finally leaving him to die crazy and lonely. But Hitler likes his idea of the “will to power” and the “superman,” nationalizes and sets up the Church to be subservient to him and deify the race and state, attempt to strip Jesus of his Jewishness, and emphasizes the triumphant, superman, warrior Jesus. There is danger in going your own way too. The powerful and marvelous thing about scripture is that it provides precedence for critiquing itself, and for critiquing those who would manipulate it for abuse of power.

The prophets and Jesus rise up from within, so that the seeds of revolution and reform remain within the text whose writing or sanctioning is done by those in power. In this sense we have the critique of power built into the establishment of power. The powerful are not equal to God, and the powerful do not necessarily speak for God. Scripture is not a pure or perfect attempt, but in both Hebrew and Christian scripture, at the bottom, at the core, we have the Word, the living, healing, justice and peace seeking Spirit of Creation. Scripture is sacred because it brings us the story of the people of God as they try to discern the will of God for their lives in history. It is sacred because it brings us the story of Jesus who judges, heals and saves, even though he is of a peasant people, without worldly power. For Christians, the Word of God is Jesus Christ, which is found in scripture. The word of God is Scripture. Scripture does not hold God captive.

There is good indication that followers of Jesus formed communities that lived and promoted equality and freedom. There was neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Greek, for all were one in Christ Jesus. Class, gender or race did not determine who could serve and lead in the Church. The Spirit was poured out on all people: young women had visions, old men had dreams, male and female servants prophesied. Christians frequently sold what they had and joined resources, distributing to all, as they had need.

As you might imagine, this incredible display of the Holy Spirit, moving across boundaries of race, nation, gender, class, culture and language, forgivng sins, giving freedom and power even to slaves, became extremely popular with the lower classes and females. No doubt it wasn’t long before some decided that if they were free in the eyes of God, and freely given the power of the Holy Spirit, and broke bread and shared resources with benevolent and just wealthy, that they started getting a vision for a whole new society where they didn’t have to be subservient at all. Christ embodied this vision in his living.

The author of Peter wouldn’t have needed to tell people to honor the emperor, and be submissive to their masters if some people hadn’t gotten the idea that freedom in Christ meant they should be fully free in all respects. But the historical and cultural context made a full blown, long term, across the board freedom and equality unfeasible for the Church as it organized and grew. Old systems of hierarchy crept back in, crippling forward movement toward Christ’s vision. It was a long time coming, but it was no coincidence that democracy and an end to slavery were driven by the church.

We find ourselves free in Christ, yet living in an imperfect and sinful world. Not everything can be done all at once. We may have a bad job with a bad boss, live in a country with a bad government. And we may not have the power to change things or overthrow things right now. We may have mouths to feed which take priority over our own comfort. But watch out because the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And God assures us the time is coming when the poor in spirit will rise up to the justice and equality of heaven, when each will sit under his own vine and own fig tree, and nobody shall make them afraid. Keep watch, be ready, don’t go to sleep. And remember that the imperfection and sin of the world exists in us and the Church too. Humility is always important. We are not God. We do not have God on lock down. Thus we can keep busy, as Jesus says, by taking “the log out of our own eye, before we take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.” If we are saved by grace, we need not insist that we hold the whole truth, as if we have all knowledge, all prophesy and all faith. In John 16 Jesus says, “[12] “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. [13] Our ignorance, our social and historical context prevents us from having ears that hear and eyes that see. We are handicapped and stuck in one place. But Jesus the healer says, take up your mat and walk. If we keep open and awake, Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” We do not hold the whole truth, Jesus didn’t tell us everything; scripture isn’t the end of God’s Word for the world. Jesus isn’t stuck inside scripture. He is alive in the Spirit of truth, and brings new truth, more light to the world.

1Cor.13

[1] If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
[2] And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
[3] If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
[4] Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;
[5] it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
[6] it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
[7] Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
[8] Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.
[9] For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;
[10] but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.
[11] When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.
[12] For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.
[13] So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.