Jon’s Provocative Analysis On How To Get Saved

1 02 2008

Step 1) Jesus died for you.

Step 2) See Step #1.

Grace is Awesome.



That They Might Be One

26 11 2007

After Paul’s escorts had taken him to Athens, they came away with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. While he was waiting for them in Athens, his spirt grieved at the sight of so much idolatry. So he began to engage in discussion with the Jews and converts to Judaism in the synaggue, and also daily in the town square with whoever happened to be there. Even philosophers among the Epicureans and Stoics engaged him in discussion. Some asked, ‘What is this scavenger trying to say?’ Others said, ‘He sounds like a promoter of foreign gods,’ because he was preaching about ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’

They took him and led him to the Areopagus on the Hill of Ares and said, ‘We would like to hear more of your ideas. For you bring some strange notions to us; we would like to know what they mean.’ Now all the Athenias as well as foreigners residing there used their time for nothing else but telling or hearing some new philosophy or idea.

Then Paul stood up among them at the Areopagus and said: ‘It is very clear to me that you Athenians are in every way a very devout and religious people, for as I walked around examining your shrines, I even discovered an altar dedicated to ‘An Unknown God.’ This, whom you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that’s in it, the Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor is He served by human hands as though He were in need of anything. Rather it is He who gives life to all and breath to everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and He fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their influence, so that people might seek God, even perhaps groping for Him to find Him, though He is, indeed, not very far from any one of us. For “In Him we live and move and have our being,” as even some of your poets have said, “For we too are His offspring.” Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now calls all people everywhere into repentance because He has established a day on which He will “judge the world with justice” through the man which He has appointed, and He has provided confirmation for all of this by raising that same man from the dead.’

When the philosophers heard about the ‘resurrection of the dead’ some began to mock Paul, but others said, ‘We would like to hear more from you about this at another time.’ So Paul left them. Some did however join him and became Christians, among these was Dionysius, a mamber of the Areopagus, and also a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” – Acts 17:15-34

This is perhaps one of my favorite sections of the Acts, partly because I find philosophy fascinating (Socrates and I are homies), partly because I find Paul’s ability to so readily integrate himself into a group of thinkers very different than his own, partly because I think this is perhaps one of the best sermons given in the Acts, and lastly (and most relevant here I think) in part because it shows the disparity within the clash of metaphysical ideas.

One the one hand you have the Greeks who have their own long and ancient tradition, and on the other you have the Jews who likewise have a long and ancient tradition.

Here Paul is mediating between two very different worlds, the Hellenic and Hebraic. These two worlds have very different metaphysical conceptions of reality.

It demonstrates the unique world-stage in which Christianity was born, and the tug-of-war between Athens and Jerusalem which has forever shaped the course and core of Christianity down to this very day.

On the one hand there is Jerusalem, center of the Jewish world, center of the Hebrew way of life, home of the Temple. This is the home of the Prophets, this is Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon and Elijah. Home of prophecy and revelation.

On the other hand there is Athens, center of the Greek world, center of the Hellenistic way of life, home of the Areogapus. This is the home of the Philosophers, this is Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. Home of philosophy and pursuit of knowledge.

In typical Pauline style he seeks to mediate between the two. He is amongst philsophers here, the top thinkers in Athens, specifically here are students of Epicurus (Epicureans) and Zeno (Stoics).

I think that what amazes me about Pauline thought, what makes me love the Apostle Paul as a theologian is his vision. Paul’s Christianity is not radically different than what the Apostles had been teaching up to that point, but it does have a scope of vision that is unbelievably broad.

Prior to Simon Peter’s (quite literal) vision while meditating on a rooftop, the followers of “The Way” were quite content conceiving of their religion as little more than a new way to be Jewish. Theirs was very much a Jewish religion, and was exclusively for members of the Jewish religion. There was some idea of reconciling disparate groups, however. For example no one particular sect of Judaism was plucked from the consortium of Jewish sects of the period, whether Pharisees, Saducees, or Hellenic Jews it was all the same: The message of Jesus as Messiah. Indeed there may have even been this idea that, per Jesus’ peaceful interactions with Samaritans (the woman at the well in John ch. 4) and His use of the “Good Samaritan” in the parable that is so-named, that these early followers of “The Way” were to help mediate between Jews and Samaritans and bring them together in unity of faith under the Messiahship of Jesus.

Peter’s vision, and Paul’s subsequent work changes the scope. It’s a radical change in emphasis and vision of what Jesus came to do and who Jesus is in relationship to all humanity.

In truth Paul’s visionary conception of Christianity is nothing more than taking Jesus’ own teachings to their inevitable conclusion. That if Samaritan and Jew are, in fact, neighbors; if a Roman Centurian can have faith, if there is–indeed–no reason for any barriers to exist between people; then God has indeed done something truly magnificent and tremendously gigantic in the sending of Jesus.

It’s precisely from this radical vision of seeing all people as part of a single people, rather than dividing them up into tribes and various other affiliations. Rather than seeing ‘Jews’ and ‘Greeks’ and ‘Barbarians’, rather than seeing ‘Circumcised’ and ‘Uncircumcised’; rather than seeing ‘slave’ and ‘freeman’–all these categories cease to function with any meaning in Paul’s vision. In Christ God has done away with all these lines of demarcation, that is why Paul, in Galatians, says, “There is therefore no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) It’s why in Colossians he writes, “Here there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, Barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:11). In Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have become near by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, He who has made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through His flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that He might create in Himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.” (Ephesians 2:13-16).

There is, in Jesus, a new way of being human, a new kind of existance. The former way is full of division and bitterness, war and hatred, enmity and tribes trying to exterminate each other. Paul sees in Jesus a call from God toward something new, something which had always been predetermined by God for the world, but which was a mystery hidden in the past and only in the present coming to light. This mystery is the Church (Ephesians ch. 3), which hidden in God from time immemorial, has now come to light through Jesus Christ.

That Christ, who being a New Adam has set forth to establish a new humanity bound and interconnected with His Person. Through His death and resurrection Christ has overcome and destroyed the “powers and authorities” (i.e. sin, death and hell). Being now released from all bondage through the victory of Christ mankind is now free to enter into new life in and with God through Christ who is the Mediator between the two–being the very embodiment of God in human flesh–and this new life is unconditionally given to all as an act of God’s unwavering generosity. Entering into the Life of God through Baptism, by which we are bound to the same Christ who was crucified and resurrected, we become participants in that same mystery of victory as Jesus and become inexplicably interwoven into the tapestry of His own bodily life. Therefore the Church–that community of baptized Christians–is properly called the body of Christ. If, thus, we are inexplicably bound, bodily, to Jesus we are therefore participant sharers in all that properly belongs to Jesus. All which is the unique property of Jesus is therefore the unique property of all who are, in mystery, bound to Jesus: Thus it is the Son of God who gives right for all others to be called children of God; if Jesus suffered we too shall share in His sufferings, since Jesus rose from the dead we too shall rise from the dead. If Eternal Life is His, it is ours too. The “evidence”, or rather the pledge of God to us that this is true is that we have the same Spirit in us that was in Christ Jesus, namely the Holy Spirit–“If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)

This Church, this community of baptized, is the very organic–if not very mystical–body of Jesus Himself; and it is a new way to be human in the world. A way of being human that is organically and inexplically connected to Jesus Himself in all respects, and in which all people of all walks of life are brought together in the peace of God. This Church is destined toward a purposed future, where death will no longer have any power, for at the end of the age there will be a resurrection, and all who ever died will be brought back to life, vindicated by God and experience, in full, the victory of God in Christ who is the “firstfruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

The purpose and mission of this Church is to live out into the world the same mode of life which Christ lived, and to–through loving words and actions–invite all people to come in and dwell and to sit and be gathered at the same table of peace as we ourselves sit.

Thus whether by feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, taking care of the sick, widow and the orphan we are doing the work of God in the world; the will of God to be peacemakers and ministers of reconciliation. These actions have within them the very character of Christ, and thus in them God is, Himself, at work in the hands that feed, clothe, give, and help.

In contradistinction from an exclusive club with highly mystical and religious overtones, the Church understands itself as a mystical union of people of all walks of life, that is inclusive to all. It is, in this respect, a reunion and re-formation of human community, a re-bringing-back of people who have been dispersed all over the world back together into a unity of hope and community, bound together in the grace and graciousness of God through the Crucified and Risen Jesus. If through Adam all men have become many and divided, through Christ the New Adam all men are being brought back together into the unity of love. Through the old there was war and strife and corruption of power; through the new there is peace and grace and the eradication of corrupt power.

Therein lay the Christian conviction that death is dead and life has sprung up bodily immortal in Christ Jesus, who “in [us] is the hope of glory.” (Collosians 1:27).


Christianity in a Japanese World

25 07 2007

People who know me pretty well know that I have a few quirky obsessions: Theology, Church History, linguistics, paleozoology and (what comes to a surprise to a lot of people) a love affair with all things Japanese.

Perhaps it was the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles“, or the anime series, “Ranma ½” that did me in. In my sophomore year in high school I took Japanese as my chosen language course, I had intended to go a second year, but it didn’t work out. A few years ago I was introduced further into the wide world of anime. I found myself in love with that cultural delicacy known as sushi, and drawn toward craving Japanese dishes I have never tasted. I have for years had my heart set on visiting Japan at some point while I’m still young enough to enjoy traveling, a traveling experience as intense as my desire to visit Ireland (if not greater) and to visit the Holy Land (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher specifically). And the list goes on.

But there is an entire field of obsession that brings my love of Christianity and my love of Japan together, the topic of Japanese Christianity, or perhaps, Christianity in Japan.

It is well known that Assyrian Christians were the first to take the Gospel to China, we have archeological evidence from around the 8th century to prove this. These “Nestorian” Christians planted churches and Christianity was generally well received, though within a couple centuries seems to have receded into the mists of history. This Assyrian-Chinese Christianity adapted to the Chinese culture, churches were constructed in typical Chinese fashion, as pagodas. There is also, perhaps, some evidence of Buddhist-Christian syncretism having taken place.

There are some who even argue that these same missionaries made it to Japan, almost a thousand years before St. Francis Xavier came to the island empire.

In the 16th century a Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier, came to Japan to spread Christianity among the Japanese. The Jesuit mission was fairly well received, with many Japanese converting to Catholicism.

However within a century the Japanese Shogunate officially outlawed the Christian Faith, and those found to be Christians were treated harshly. The Portuguese and Spanish missionaries were deported, and while some remained behind, the native Japanese Christians were largely left to fend for themselves.

The Shogunate employed the tactic of the Fumie, a wooden image of Christ or the Virgin which suspected Christians were told to trample upon and break, those who refused to trample upon the Fumie were arrested for being Christians. All sorts of tortures were employed to get Christians to renounce their faith. The most famous of the Japanese martyrs are known as the Twenty-six Martyrs of Nagasaki, some were Jesuit priests, but most were Japanese, the youngest was a thirteen year old boy, Louis Ibaraki–all of them have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and are also remembered on the calendars of the Anglican Communion and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (their Feast Day is February 6th). All twenty-six of them were crucified together on a hill in Nagasaki, today there is a memorial which remembers them.

Due to the persecutions the Japanese Church went underground, and hid all evidence of their faith, presenting their Christianity in the guise of Buddhism and Shintoism. Over the next two hundred and fifty years they would largely forget the Latin and Portuguese they spoke liturgically, but continued to due to tradition.

Then in the 19th century, during the Meiji Restoration, Japan reopened its boarders to the West, and a period of cultural revolution ensued. Amongst the radical changes taking place within the Empire was an influx of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries.

Despite well over a century of missionary activity, the Japanese seem to be particularly resistant to Christianity, today only about 1% of the Japanese population is said to be Christian.

Missiologists have long struggled to understand why the Japanese seem so particularly resistant to missionary efforts. And there have been many who have taken to task to try and make Christianity more substantially Japanese, by removing Christianity of particular Western cultural trappings. Many Japanese Christians have likewise struggled with the conflict between Christianity and Japanese identity.

It is within this mesh and matrix that I find particularly interesting. In the late 19th century, during the latter part of the Meiji Era, a Japanese Christian, Kanzo Uchimura, along with several others started the “Non Church Movement” which essentially removed much of the “external” aspects of the Christian Religion–Sacraments, rituals, clergy, church buildings, etc.–and sought a non-institutional loosely affiliated network of home Bible study groups, using a traditional master-disciple method of operation. It is one of the more popular Christian movements in Japan.

But is that kind of thing actually healthy? When discussing what aspects of “Western” Christianity can be dropped for the sake of cultural adaptation, it becomes a pretty muddied area.

I like to believe, quite strongly, that a thoroughly Japanese Christianity can exist, one that doesn’t need to look like an American or a European Church, but one that when all is said and done looks like a Japanese Church. Where the Japanese are not only allowed to continue to be Japanese, but are encouraged to do so; but without sacrificing the fundamental essence of the Christian Tradition.

This goes deeper into the very function of Christianity, how do we do Christianity? What is the essence of the Christian Way? What does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be the Church?

Do we have to totally eradicate Liturgy all together? Or perhaps we can construct an authentically Japanese Liturgy.

Do we have to remove the Sacraments? If we do, aren’t we essentially denying our identity as Christians? After all the Sacraments aren’t merely ritual tokens, but fundamental channels and communicators of God’s Gracious Action in the world and in the Church-at-work-in-the-world.

Exactly how much do we have to change Christianity to adapt before it stops being Christianity altogether? Both pragmatically as well as theologically?

At the same time, I’m not arguing for a “take it or leave it” mentality, so much as for an honest pursuit of a Japanese Christianity that is both authentically Japanese as well as authentically Christian. Something that resonates both within the Japanese themselves, as well as being authentically linked to the broader Christian Tradition.

I think such an honest pursuit will help foster a deeper meditation of our own “Western” Christianity, as well as show us how Christianity can develop in other cultures.

In the end I have more questions than answers.

I think I should also offer, here at the end, that I am less concerned with “winning Japanese souls” (with the idea higher numbers) so much as I am with a serious interest in the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom, such that it truly resonates within the Japanese psyche and it remains true to what it is. Less concerned with building new churches, and more concerned with establishing genuine Ekklesia. It’s not about getting the Japanese to “play on our team”, but about sincere Kingdom-building with a evangelically faithful and resonantly meaningful call for the Japanese to participate in the Church’s Kingdom-mission in the world.

After all, we believe, that,

…He is our peace, He who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of hostility, through His flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that He might create in Himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one Body, through the cross…” – Ephesians 2:14-16

All the cultural boundaries that keep men from true Koinonia with God and each other have been torn down by Christ, we are no longer “Jew nor Gentile”; it follows that there is neither Westerner nor Easterner, European nor Japanese, etc. That, indeed, in Christ, there is now only one new humanity–His–and that He is establishing it within His Church, and all people, everywhere, are called to participate in His “Kosmic” Revolution.