Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Counter-Cultural Religion

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 -- Week of Proper 7, Year Two
Alban, First Martyr of Britain, c. 304

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 973)
Psalms 97, 99 [100] (morning)       94, [95] (evening)
Numbers 16:20-35
Romans 4:1-12
Matthew 19:23-30

There are a couple of things that are completely counter-cultural in today's New Testament readings. 

The first is Jesus' insistence that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."  In the cultural context of Jesus' age, wealth meant power.  People assumed that God had blessed the wealthy.  Words like "good," "beautiful," and "upright" were synonyms for "wealthy," "powerful," and "well-born."  The poor and weak were associated with the low-born, bad, ugly and base.  Jesus turns the cultural assumptions on their ear. 

The cultural assumptions of the Greco-Roman world were not that different from ours.  We give respect and honor to wealth, power and celebrity.  We tend to blame the poor for their condition.

Peter and the apostles were astonished by Jesus' words.  "Then who can be saved?"  Jesus continues to insist on the impossibility for a rich person, like a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."

The second cultural assumption that is turned over comes in Paul's letter to the Romans.  In the Hellenistic world belief was not an important component of religion.  Religion was centered on practice.  It was a poly-theistic world, with gods for everything.  The gods weren't particularly interested in human beings, but they expected respect.  As long as human beings made signs and offerings of respect to the various gods, all was well.  The gods stayed in their own world and didn't cause mischief in this one. 

So religion was about practice, not belief.  You made an offering to the rain god to placate the deity who controls rain.  The butcher went to the temple to slaughter and carve the meat, and to leave the inedible parts for Apollo so that the gods would bless the food.  What or whether people believed wasn't an issue.  It was more like paying taxes.  You don't have to believe in taxes.  You have to pay them.  If you don't pay, you'll wind up in mischief. 

For Paul, Judaism was also about practice rather than belief.  The whole of Judaism was the correct following of the law.  If you correctly observe all of the laws -- many of them involving ritual cleanliness and sabbath -- you are righteous.  If you fail in these practices, you are unclean, unrighteous.  It's not about what you believe; it's about what you do -- your religious practice.

The civil religion of Rome was based on patriotic observances.  A good citizen would participate in the civic observances that honor Caesar as Lord.  It was so much about believing that Caesar was divine, it was about doing your patriotic duty and giving honor to the state as personified in Caesar.  You didn't have to believe, you just had to show the respect.  Not to participate in the civic observances was unpatriotic and potentially treasonous. 

Paul turned religion on its ear when he insisted that religion is not about what you do, about practice.  Paul found he only became anxious and self-absorbed when he tried to achieve perfection through his observance of all of the law.  It brought him no peace; he felt no connection with God, only performance anxiety.  What Paul experienced in Jesus was liberation from practice and from religious/civic observance.  On the road to Damascus he became convinced that God's acceptance wasn't contingent upon correct practice, but rather, God's acceptance was God's free gift to us.  On the cross, Christ died to the whole offering, sacrifice, and practice system.  His resurrection is participation in a new life -- relationship with God as God's free gift.  All we need do is accept the gift.  That's what Paul means by "justification by grace through faith." 

Accept the fact that you are accepted.  That's all.  You don't need to be circumcised.  You don't need to follow the law.  Just believe that you are accepted by God, because you are. 

Today's argument in Romans says that Abraham is the model.  God accepted and blessed Abraham before Abraham was circumcised, before Abraham had done anything to earn his acceptance and blessing.  And Abraham accepted that God had accepted and blessed him, so Abraham was counted as righteous.

Then who can be saved?  It's not about wealth and power nor is it about practice and ritual.  It's all about God.  For God all things are possible.  God accepts and blesses us all, and invites us to accept that as our fundamental reality.  God loves us.  Period.  Believe that.  Accept it.  Love God.  All is well. 

Then, go and live in that spirit.  See your neighbor as being equally loved, blessed and accepted, and love your neighbor as yourself.  It is a completely revolutionary, counter-cultural religion.  



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 www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html

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 www.stpaulsfay.org

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


At 1:21 PM, Anonymous janet said...

Hi Lowell,

Sounds like fundamental reality might entail many free spirits and free spirited exchanges and maybe even a more open and inclusive society - Oh what a lovely thought!


At 2:59 PM, Blogger val said...

It is written: A woman shall compass a man and create a new thing in the earth (Jer 31:22), the man is Satan(Isa 14:16), the new thing is now delivered to the world. There is no hell fire for any child of God. God is not a murderer. Satan has deceived the whole world (Rev 12:7), until the heel of time(Gen 3:15). Check out the bruising of Satan by his lies being exposed at http://thegoodtale.blogspot.com.


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