Thursday, December 10, 2009

Religious Conflicts

Thursday, December 10, 2009 -- Week of 2 Advent, Year Two
Karl Barth, Pastor and Theologian, 1968

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 937)
Psalms 37:1-18 (morning) 37:19-42 (evening)
Amos 9:1-10
Revelation 2:8-17
Matthew 23:13-26

First, a word about the new observance for Karl Barth:
Barth, Karl [1886-Dec. 10, 1968] Swiss Protestant theologian instrumental in theological foundation of the Confessing Church in opposition to Hitler. Barth tried to lead 20th century Protestantism back to its reliance on God's redeeming grace, and away from pride in scientific and artistic achievements and a faith based on feeling and mysticism. (Dec. 10)

As we come to the conclusion of Amos' visions, we hear his harshest judgments. He speaks complete doom to a wealthy and religious culture that fails to respond to the poverty and needs in its midst. Amos asserts God's authority over every nation, not just Israel. God guides and God judges every people, Amos says. If they will not be just toward all, especially the poor, God will act with decisive judgment.

We hear words of judgment also from John's vision in the Revelation today. He writes to Smyrna, a wealthy community where there is conflict within the Jewish community. Apparently the synagogue is refusing to recognize John's community of Jews who proclaim Jesus as Messiah. If they expel the Christians from the synagogue, the group will be under Roman suspicion as a new religion, and risk reprisal. John encourages them in the midst of this dispute within their religious community.

John also writes the church in Pergamum. I've seen Pergamum. It is a dramatic hill town that overlooks its surroundings. The temple to Zeus built in the 2nd century BCE is sometimes listed among the Wonders of the World. That temple may be what John meant by "Satan's Throne." John commends the congregation for its faithfulness when an unknown martyr Antipas was killed for his witness.

But John criticizes the Pergamum congregation because they tolerated eating food sacrificed to idols. He calls this the "teaching of Balaam," who was an ancient prophet who some traditions condemned for counseling cultural accommodation. Since nearly all meat sold in public markets was dedicated to Zeus (or the city's god), it was a widespread dilemma for Christians whether their eating meat would be tantamount to some form of idolatry. John's answer, "It is idolatry. Do not eat such meat."

We have an inter-apostolic disagreement here. Paul came down decisively on the side of allowing Christians to eat such meat, unless their conscience is offended. After all, Paul argued, we know there is no such thing as these other gods, they don't exist and they are meaningless -- so eat, if you wish. But don't offend the weaker, more sensitive conscience of others if you happen to be at table with them. Another dispute within the religious community.

Finally we have a list of woes from Matthew's gospel. Although these are woes in Jesus' voice, declared against Pharisees and scribes, they have much to say as Matthew's warnings to the early church. Jesus through Matthew complains of those who erect barriers to God's kingdom, and those who bind their religious converts with elaborate rules and laws. He criticizes those who enforce technicalities of interpretation and yet lose sight of the larger context, the weightier matters of "justice and mercy and faith." He condemns those who act self-righteous while they are "full of greed and self-indulgence." "First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean."

There have always been conflicts within the religious community, and I imagine there always will be. How different might life be if relgious, political and economic systems regarded the needs of the poor as more important than the priorities of the powerful? How different might history have been had the synagogues allowed Christians to remain within their community as an accepted Jewish movement following Jesus as Messiah? What if John's judgment forbidding meat sacrificed to idols had predominated? The movement of the early church within the Roman culture would have been seriously impacted; it would have been much more difficult to attract Gentile converts, and Paul's mission would have been more challenged.

Recently I spoke with a young man who is coming to St. Paul's from a Pentecostal tradition that rejects the doctrine of the Trinity. He will face family and community pressure when he tells them he is attending an Episcopal Church.

The Diocese of Los Angeles has just elected a wonderfully qualified priest as one of their suffragan bishops. Because she has been in a faithful, loving, committed gay relationship with her life-partner of 21 years, some are calling for her rejection as the Episcopal Church goes through our consent process. The Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to cast aspersions within hours of her election, yet he has been silent in recent weeks as the Ugandan legislature, a nation with strong Anglican presence, considers legislation that would make homosexuality a crime punishable by death and threaten prison upon those who don't inform on their gay neighbors. Sometimes we do "tithe mint, dill, and cummin" and neglect the weightier matters of "justice and mercy and faith."

It will take a lot of love for us to move through the religious conflicts of our day without damaging one another. Jesus reminded us that all of the law is summarized in the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. My friend going home to his Pentecostal family will have to love them through the pain of their reaction to his path of faith. And the whole Communion is going to have to love one another through our disagreements about how we love in much the same way the early church had to learn to love one another through disagreements about how we eat. There have always been church disagreements; there always will be. But love eternally transcends division, and perfect love casts out fear.


Audio podcast: Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week. Click the following link: Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117

An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location --

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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