Sunday, December 5, 2010

Justification for the 2nd Sunday in Advent

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
Isaiah 11:6-8

But when [John the Baptizer] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Matthew 3:7-9

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy...
Romans 15:7-9a

Neither my assumptions by themselves nor the text by itself shapes what ought to happen in a good reading, but rather the interaction of the two.
William Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (1989)

Some words, phrases and concepts that we come across in our Bible readings seem so obvious that they need no introduction. “Gospel” is one of those words, especially when we come to so popular a text like Romans. Gospel is the “good news” that God’s grace extends to humanity through the death of Jesus Christ in such a way that a gift is offered to all who readily accept it. Right? Another classic Romans concept is “justification.” I learned two decades ago, that to be “justified” meant “just-if-I’d never sinned”: God’s eternal act of whiting out all my dirty sins so that I can have a relationship with God and go to heaven when I die. Truly, is this not what every Christian believes?

"Gospel" (euangelion) and "justification" (dikaiosune) are two of many theological concepts that many Christians take for granted as being self-evident. And the more we learn about 1st century Palestinian Judaism, the more we learn about what those Greek words meant in their original context and the more we learn about what it means to follow Jesus in our world today.

As it turns out, gospel is a word that the subversive rabbi-messiah Jesus borrowed from both his Jewish prophetic heritage and the Roman political lexicon of his day. In Isaiah (52:7; 61:1), the gospel was the "good news" that Yahweh, the God who created the world and chose Israel to participate with God's redemption of the world, would one-day rescue Israel from Babylonian exile and extend membership in their blessed community of equality, stewardship, peace and freedom to the rest of the world (Gentiles). In Rome, the gospel was the "good news" that Caesar was the "lord" and "savior" of the world and that his omniscient and omnipotent actions strengthened the almighty empire...and the rest of the world.

Jesus was proclaiming the shocking inauguration of Yahweh's deliverance from exile/oppression and therefore the invitation for anyone and everyone (Jews and Gentiles) to join the Movement to heal the world. And, of course, the Movement would redeem by what John the Baptizer called bearing "fruit worthy of repentance": nonviolence, forgiveness, generosity, simplicity, authentic conversation, humble service and a fierce confrontation with powerful forces (like Caesar's legions) that dehumanized and demonized "the rest of the world."

Justification (or "righteousness"--same Greek word), to Paul and the rest of the New Testament authors, refered to what was required to be members in God's Movement to heal the world. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, "justification" signaled God's covenant faithfulness to Israel, a willingness to never give up on these rather stubborn, inconsistent and bipolar people (not any different than any other human population). Paul, a faithful Jew until his death penalty in Rome, was convinced that Jesus was the real Caesar who gave citizenship all Jews and Gentiles who signed on to God's Dream to heal the world. It was Paul's mission to preach this "gospel" throughout the Roman World and to compel Jew and Gentile alike that "the rest of the world" were justified to be a part of this group without going through the painfully awkward-and-outward rituals of circumcision & kosher diet. Paul was introducing the radical notion that Jews and Gentiles could be brothers and sisters "in Christ," forming churches that were committed to the politics of Jesus right in the middle of Caesar's empire.

We Western Christians have been far more influenced by assumptions handed down to us from Augustine (5th century) and Luther (16th century) in their respective cultural contexts, than anything that Jesus and Paul actually believed. After all, as N.T. Wright consistently says, "We have learned more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism in the last 50 years than we knew in the first 1950 years combined." Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran pastor and Harvard professor, wrote a legendary aricle in the 1960s entitled "Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West" that proposed that every time Paul uses "justification" in Romans and Galatians he is referring to how it is that Gentiles can become part of God's People (as opposed to how an individual can be made righteous before an angry and/or perfect God). Stendahl, who had the original Greek text of Romans memorized, courageously offered a reading of Paul that embarrassed Luther, the founder of the Christian denomination that he belonged to and led.

Stendahl's work (in addition to other Pauline scholarship) led John Howard Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus (1972), to describe justification "as a social phenomenon centering in the reconciliation of different kinds of people." The life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus the Jewish Messiah led Jews and Gentiles to do the unthinkable: they joined together under the banner of love and peace, in mutuality and solidarity, to pledge their lives to the reordering of the world. To catch a hint of this think about the cultural barriers that would serve as obstacles for white suburbanites in gated communities to commit their lives to living intimately with (as equals) undocumented brown barrio dwellers. As Yoder explains, Paul was not struggling against the heresy of the Jewish Christians continuing to be committed to keeping the law and that by keeping the law they would be saved, BUT INSTEAD "the failure of those Jewish Christians to recognize that since the Messiah had come the covenant of God had been broken open to include the Gentiles."

This reading has massive socio-political ramifications for those with ears to hear with a courageous understanding of the role that assumptions play in ALL biblical readings. If these scholars from diverse Christian traditions (Wright = Anglican...Stendahl = Lutheran...Yoder = Anabaptist) are correct, then we must process through our dichotomized faith assumptions. Too many Evangelicals speak fearfully of a "works righteousness" creeping into their grace-filled faith (just as I did 5 years ago). If this "new perspective on Paul" is right, then there is no such thing as "works righteousness" because that is not what Paul was arguing against. Sure, plenty of well-meaning folks talk about being accepted by God because of their good deeds, but Paul's problem with them would not have anything to do with how "they are trying to work their way to heaven." Paul, I think, would mostly question what exactly they meant by good deeds and if they were really working to heal the world or they were just doing them to feel better about themselves.

Paul was a Jew who believed in a People who lived out the sign and foretaste of a soon-to-be-resurrected-and-redeemed world, not a disembodied heaven for those who invited a savior into their hearts. Paul's messianic Judaism continued to be committed to the awe-inspiring God of the Hebrew Bible, a God of free-flowing grace and One who demanded works of social justice, confessional spirituality & inter-personal love and respect from God's world-redeeming People. He just happened to believe, in Romans 15 and elsewhere (just as John the Baptist did in Matthew 3), that the long-awaited Day of Isaiah 11 had dawned in a crucified Jew from Nazareth.

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