What is Righteousness?

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Yesterday one of Wildwind‘s small group leaders texted me asking if I wouldn’t mind explaining the Biblical understanding of righteousness. He said the word had, for him and his group members, a bit of a negative connotation. I’m not sure why this is, other than possibly its legalistic undertone and associations (conscious or not) with self-righteousness. He said the best they were understanding it, it was God’s standard of what is right and wrong. I emailed him an answer that, of course, was more like a personalized sermon so, rather than let it go to waste, I thought I’d post it here for anyone who is interested. If you view God as someone who is ready to punish you, or who demands behavioral perfection from you, I encourage you to read this.

Okay, big theological question here. You’ve pretty much got it, but let me nuance it a little bit. Check out this verse in these two translations:

Matthew 5:20 (NIV)
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (MSG)
20 Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.

I would encourage you to read the verse in context. Jesus is talking, really, about the impossibility of meeting God’s standard of righteousness. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were impeccable in matters of right living. NO ONE could surpass them, and everyone knew it. So what’s the catch? What is righteousness, then?  

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The Best Things About Christianity

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In my last post I was critical of Christianity. Well, really more about the church. In this one, I want to point out what I believe are Christianity’s finest contributions to the understanding of God.

1. Jesus

Christianity’s greatest (and in my opinion matchless) contribution to our understanding of God is, without question, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. I have heard people argue that Jesus was not divine, that he was merely a good man and a great teacher, but I have never heard anyone argue that Jesus was not, at the very least, a man among men.

Christians, of course, believe Jesus was very much more than that. We believe that Jesus was God, that he was, and is, “the image of the invisible God”, that when we watch Jesus, we are watching God. We believe that if you want to know what God is and is not, you can see God in Jesus, but not in the same way you can see God in, say, me. While I hope you can often, even usually, see God in me, there are unfortunately times when if you look at me you will see see little God, and a huge, ugly, stinking pile of me. Christians believe that at any and every moment, Jesus’ life was the life of God. If you want to know how God loves, watch Jesus. If you want to know what God values, watch Jesus. If you want to know whether a Christian is living the Christian life well, watch Jesus. Don’t just follow, or rebel against, authority. Watch Jesus.

Now I’m a fan of Buddhism. I admit it. I admire a lot of its teachings (a ton of them are shockingly similar to those of Jesus), and I believe its contributions to spiritual knowledge are incredibly significant (the centrality of the irreplaceable art of meditation, its eight-fold path, its four noble truths, etc.). I believe there is a lot we can, and should, learn from it. Still, I am not a Buddhist for a hugely important reason. That reason is Jesus. While Buddhism teaches about Nirvana, a final blending into an impersonal energy, the incarnation of God in Jesus tells us that God is personal.

This matters because if you have ever had a friend or loved one pass away, Buddhism says that particular person is gone forever — they have either reincarnated as another person/creature, or they have reached Nirvana and blended into the impersonal energy of the universe. Many branches of Buddhism do not even believe in anything they call “god.” Christianity, on the other hand, says that person continues to exist, although not in a way you or I can currently understand (1 Jn. 3:2; Col. 3:3-4). For more information on this, see one of my posts about the false self.

2. Trinity

Christianity understands God as one, yet existing in three aspects, or “persons”. The magnificence and beauty of this is hard to overstate. Stated simply as possible, God the Father is the power source, God the Son is the one who, like you, has been embodied and therefore “gets you”, and God the Holy Spirit is the one who can “live in you” moment by moment and show you what is true. That, of course, is a hugely oversimplified summary, but it’ll have to do. Perhaps the best picture of this in the gospels is when Jesus prayed. There you have God the Son, praying through God the Spirit, to God the Father.

3. Crucifixion

Jesus’ horrific death, nailed to a cross as a still vibrant young man, stands in marked contrast to the death of Buddha at eighty years old, dying peacefully between two trees. The violence is Jesus’ death should tell Christians something about violence, but most Christians miss it. Instead, Christians speaking of the Crucifixion are usually referencing the death of Jesus as sacrifice for sin, which is unfortunate. There are at least nine different understandings of the meaning of the death of Jesus, and what it actually meant is a mystery. All we can do is contemplate it and be grateful. But if Christians would instead focus on learning to respond to violence, suffering, and opposition in the way of Jesus, the world would be overcome by loving, gracious, forgiving people. “What kind of life would make it possible for me to die that way?” The keys of transformation lie in the answer to that question.

4. Resurrection

This event is the bookend to the incarnation of God in Jesus, and both events say much the same thing, which is that there is actually no separation between physical and spiritual. Spiritual is physical, and physical is spiritual. In taking on human flesh to begin with, Jesus blesses human embodiment. It is good to cry and feel and hunger and thirst and have sex. We don’t have to (and shouldn’t) split life up into sacred and secular. All of life is good. God declared it that way in creation, and again at the birth of Jesus, and again in his resurrection. The human body is the temple of God. But what we also see in resurrection is that the bodies we will have after death will not be the same as our physical bodies before death. Jesus was not initially recognized by those he appeared to after resurrection. We don’t know what the change was (back to our scriptures again in 1 Jn. and Colossians), but it was substantial. Of course the resurrection of Jesus is a precursor to yours and mine (1 Cor. 15:16-20).

For these reasons and more, I am a Christian, and a Christian pastor. Though we have much to learn from other religions (and most Christians ignore this only from fear), I believe Jesus offers us the sweetest, fullest, finest vision of human life, and Trinity the most beautiful, and appropriately complex, understanding of God.

Christianity is my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.

The Best Way to Live

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When looking for examples of the best way to live and move the world forward, is it generally best to look to people above us or below us? Smarter or stupider? Braver or more cowardly? Happier or less happy? More or less content? More virtuous or less so?

Nearly every universally respected person — MLK Jr., Gandhi, Jesus, Buddha, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Solzhenitsyn, Elie Wiesel, Dalai Lama, etc. — ends up not getting more disapproving and militant as they get older, but embracing love and compassion as lenses for living and stances for being better in the world, and helping to inspire, empower, and release others into better lives.

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Personal Pan Pizza Jesus

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It’s evening.

You’re hanging around at Pizza Hut with your friends. After some discussion and a bit of debate (and a brief filibuster from Zac, who’s allergic to everything), you place your order.

The pizza comes and everyone digs in.

When the evening is finished and everyone goes home, there are one or two slices of pizza still on the tray. Every time you get together.

Why is this? It’s because pizza, when ordered as a group, is community property. No individual feels entitled enough to it to take the last slice. In fact, as soon as the pizza arrives, some people even start doing, in Kevin James’s words “the pizza math,” figuring out how many slices there are and dividing by the number of eaters, to arrive at the maximum number of available slices per eater.

Imagine now that this same group of friends, on the same evening, decides to not haggle over toppings. Instead, every person just orders a personal pan pizza.

The pizzas come to the table, and everyone digs in. When Jeff is done with his pizza, he reaches over to take some of Alan’s. Alan slaps his hand and says, “This is mine. You already ate yours.”

Forget about sharing. Forget about community property. It’s every man for himself. Not only will no pizza be left on the table, but each person will take home any pizza they did not eat. It belongs to them.

American evangelicals have a personal pan pizza kind of Jesus. He’s my personal Savior.

Hear that? He’s MINE! You may also have one, but you better have placed your own order for it (the sinner’s prayer, anybody?), because you can’t have mine. Even if I do give you some, I’m being generous. I’m not obligated to give you any. After all, Jesus is mine. He’s my personal Savior.

To evangelicals, then, evangelism is not sharing with people the God who is already theirs, but telling them about the God who is “mine” and telling them how they, too, can have their own personal pan pizza Jesus.

“If I was the only person on the face of the earth, Jesus would still have died for me.”
“When Jesus was on the cross, I was on his mind.”

Beautiful sentiments, but what if that’s not how God works? What if God actually belongs to everybody (and therefore nobody!), like the pizza shared by the entire community? What if Jeff has a right to Alan’s pizza? That is, what if God remains “community property” even when someone has what they think is their own personal Jesus?

That would mean that, as much as someone might think “He’s my God and he belongs to me and my group,” the truth would be that others get some too. Others who didn’t come to the table soon enough, others who don’t have the right information, or pedigree, or reputation. If God belongs to everybody, then he’s doing something worldwide, something the whole creation is going to get in on, something a lot of people are going to find outrageous. Something deeply, fantastically good.

This is not only the God I believe in, but the God I am positively counting on.

 

Question: How did this strike you? How do you think it is or isn’t fair? Let me know in the comments!

O’Reilly attacks ‘wimpy Christians’ for not freaking out about ‘war on Christmas’

This is the problem in our country. Wimpy Christians. Maybe that’s our problem — not enough outrage. Forget about Jesus the Suffering Servant. We should only emulate Jesus in that one incident where he turned over the tables in the temple. That’s the favorite passage for people who think Christians aren’t angry enough. Because it’s the only one where Jesus is portrayed as angry.

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Standing for truth. You mean the truth of the love, grace, mercy, and sacrifice of God, right? Oh, you mean a different “truth.” Sorry, I don’t get it.