Friday, July 22, 2011


Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (Heb 10:19-22 NIV)

The writer of Hebrews tells us something very important in this passage. In the cross, we are invited to enter a “new” way of faith in God. The context of Hebrews views the Old Testament as a “shadow” of the realities to come in the cross and the future. While there are symbolic similarities, there is a discontinuity between the Old and New ways of living in relationship to God. We no longer live in faith the way we used to live in faith. We no longer view God the way we used to view God. We no longer see religion and tradition the way we once did. Our old clothes and old wineskins don’t fit anymore. We have entered something new.

The fulcrum of this shift in faith was Jesus Christ, the cross and the resurrection. Writers of what we call the New Testament faced a frightening and dangerous prospect. They were invited, called, commissioned to record and lead people into a faith transition. The long preserved and cherished approach to relationship with God and with each other had been turned on its head by Jesus. The former chapter of Judaism, out of which Christianity had itself been born, was coming to a close.

I have perceived a tendency on the part of some contemporary Old Testament scholars and preachers to downplay this shift. Whether their views emerge from an absorption and appreciation of the Old Testament texts or the fear that we will somehow divorce Christianity from its Jewish heritage, I am not sure. However, though these are genuine concerns, they don’t change the fact that there is a radical departure in faith from Judaism to Christianity. Both the gospels and epistles describe the conflict which ensued because of this departure. The gospels show the religious Pharisees and Sadducees seeking to destroy Jesus himself and the letters of Paul tell us of the persistent threat of Jewish legalism. People don't get that riled up when you tell them a version of what they already believe.

Of course, those who subscribe to the academically popular “New Perspective” (see E.P. Sanders, James Dunn and N.T. Wright) suggest that the Jewish leaders weren’t really that legalistic after all. Instead, their views are better described by the term covenantal nomism. This view emphasizes that the Jewish people (a broad and disparate demographic for such a subtle theological category) did not believe they were made righteous by works. Good works were not a prerequisite for entry into a covenant relationship with God, they sustained it. In other words, faithfulness to Torah law (and tradition) doesn’t “get you in,” it “keeps you in.”

Aside from sounding suspiciously similar to much popular Christian soteriology (doctrine about salvation), this theory proposes a subtlety that is practically irrelevant. Paul still argues that righteousness has nothing to do with works (Romans 4:1-5). Then there are those, like Dunn, who suggest that when Paul speaks of the “law” he is really referring to the ethnic identity markers (observance of feasts and special days, circumcision, dietary laws and cleanliness rules). But this is just not congruent with Paul’s description of the law in terms of ethics as found pervasively throughout Romans 2 (specifically, Rom 2:25-26). The best efforts to create artificial continuity between the New way and the Old way may reconcile Christianity with its Jewish family roots, but only by minimizing the radical and scandalous nature of the gospel and virtually ignoring all that hubbub Jesus causes in the gospels.

Alas, I digress. Then again, it's my blog and I am allowed to take liberties!

Transitions don’t sit well with us. They stick out like sore thumbs and stuck-out feet. They trip us up and make our lives difficult. They get in the way of our cleverly devised plans and ideas. They piss us off. And we don’t mind shooting the messengers. First-century believers were received (by both Jews and Romans) like jury duty notifications: discarded, shredded and burnt.

In Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, the character Neo makes the point, “the dangers of transition are real. But are the dangers of the status quo less real?” It seems to many, myself included, that modern Christianity has also entered a transition. It has divided itself relentlessly to the point that it has no center of unity. The “empire” mindset it has developed for itself since the conversion of Constantine can no longer be sustained. The world has polished the mirror of the past for us and we can no longer avoid the scars, blemishes and flat-out ugliness marring the face of our faith. Jesus isn’t the problem. Faith isn’t the problem. The problem lies in the religious accretions of human arrogance and ignorance, the unwillingness to let go of our toys and our security blankets and embrace God in his mystery and allow others to do the same.

If Christianity really has reached a transitional point, then those of us who recognize the need for adaptation and change have a choice: maintain silence in the face of the status quo or speak with love and respect as transition advocates. There may be gladiatorial arenas, lions and no shortage of stonings if we open our mouths, and there is always the chance that we may be wrong. But is that less dangerous than living a faith that is an illusion? Will we live our own faith, or someone else’s? Are we called to seek the "Faith of our Fathers" or are we invited simply to find our own faith in the Father? The transition will not be pleasant. It may not be fully congruent with the old way we did faith. But if we trust the Spirit of God and let Jesus be the center, we may discover something beautiful as we move from here to there.

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