Romans 03 – You Are Holy

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Read the rest of today’s chapter here!)

Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law

I heard an interesting theory yesterday on the podcast Almost Heretical that I want to present to you here.  I’ll paraphrase as best I can: Jesus, as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, was not a penal substitution for our sins.  Or at least, that’s not the whole story.  He did die to atone for us, but it was more of a preparatory rite than a righting of wrongs.  In that way, he became the ultimate fulfillment of Levitical law.

You should really listen to Episodes 82 and 84 as Nate and Tim spend almost two hours talking about the details of this, but again, I’ll paraphrase: Blood was viewed as the ultimate spiritual cleanser and buffer agent.  In Levitical law, it wasn’t so much that an animal had to die to appease an angry God, but that the sacrifice of the animal’s life was worth it to obtain the blood necessary for temple rituals.  Without the blood, God was dangerous to his chosen people in a very real and physical way: coming into contact with the divine whilst unprepared could actually kill you.  We see lots of examples of this in the Old Testament: seventy men are struck down for looking at the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Samuel 6:19; poor Uzzah is killed for reaching out to steady the Ark in 2 Samuel 6:7, and I wrote a whole blog post about Nadab and Abihu being killed when performing a ceremony with the wrong sort of fire.

Blood, then, was one of the most important chemical compounds, if you will, that allowed humans to safely come into contact with the divine.  By anointing the whole world with his blood, Jesus made the whole world holy. By making the whole world holy, Jesus fulfilled all the preparatory rights of Levitical law, essentially giving us all priestly capabilities. God was not angry with us to the point of needing a human sacrifice, God yearned for us to be with Xyr so strongly that Xe sent Jesus to pave the way for all humanity to reach Xyr without an intercessory protocol.

Faith in Jesus Christ vs. Faith of Jesus Christ

In light of this, I want to point out the phrase in v. 22 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”  As I learned in Karen Armstrong’s excellent book, St Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ,” was, until the twentieth century, more often translated as the “faith of Jesus Christ.”  This is an important distinction: It transfers the responsibility of our salvation from a personal faith in Jesus to Jesus’ faith in God that God would make his death the start of a new order.  And yet, it does not change Jesus claim in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For indeed, his blood anointed the world, and made us all holy.

Logically, the next step could be to say that we live in a world where faith isn’t necessary.  Think about it: if the whole world is holy and original sin no longer exists (if it ever existed at all), and our salvation has been achieved through Jesus’ faith rather than our own, then what do we need to being reading the Bible for? Going to church for?  Following the ten commandments for?  Couldn’t we literally do anything and it have no effect on our salvation?

This is the problematic thinking that Paul addresses in the first half of the chapter, particularly in vv. 5-8.  There were those, such as the “spirituals,” pneumatikoi, or Gnostics (depending upon which source you read) around the time of Paul’s teaching that came almost exactly to the conclusion above: that anything goes.  Some would eat food sacrificed at pagan temples.  Many participated in prostitution.  Most distressing to Paul, they lost the spirit of egalitarianism of the early Christian movement: lording spiritual supremacy over other believers and even suing other Christians in Roman court for personal gain.

The problem with this “anything goes” sort of thinking is that it causes us to quickly devolve into greedy, mean, base animals.  That doesn’t mean anyone without faith is automatically a greedy, mean, base animal – many kind, wonderful people are agnostic or atheist.  They may even be more spiritually evolved than me: Perhaps God actually wants a post-faith world for us where we automatically follow the Golden Rule and don’t need Xyr constant supervision, I truly don’t know.  My analogy to justify Christianity, which I go into more fully in this blog post, is that this life is kind of like a semester of a college course. If you do well for the entire semester, you’re more likely to get an A. But if you’re struggling, you still have a chance to redeem yourself on the final exam.  Christianity, for me, is like having a study guide.  You can still pass the class without said study guide, but it may be harder to do so.  Since that study guide is freely available for all of us, why not use it?

You Are Holy

What I want you to remember today is this:  You are holy.  God anointed you through the blood of Jesus.  You literally have a direct connection to God now.  Historically, the church has done a good job of obscuring this.  Purity culture, misogyny, exclusion and suppression have taken the place of recognizing the divine spark in all of us.  So, the next time someone tries to shame you for your weight, sexual orientation, beliefs, appearance, or status, try to remember that you are holy, and now that the faith of Jesus has given that to the world, no one can take it away from you.

Hosea 02 – Does God Need Us?

16 “In that day,” declares the Lord,

    “you will call me ‘my husband’;
    you will no longer call me ‘my master.’

(Read the rest of the chapter here!)

 

Does God need us?  As in, need us for Xyr very existence?  It certainly seems so at times, and not in a very healthy way.  God has very specific requirements about how Xe should be worshipped, especially in the Old Testament, gets pissed to the point of execution (remember Nadab and Abihu a few weeks ago?) when we don’t follow those directions, but then requires more worship.  In this chapter, God is once again complaining of Israel’s infidelity, and going into lascivious detail about her punishment.  And punish Israel God most certainly shall, but let Israel go? Definitely not.  Israel is boxed in by thornbushes – God literally blocks her path away.  One might even argue God is like an abusive or controlling husband: using Israel’s children (I will not show love to her children, v. 4) and controlling her social life (I will stop her celebrations, v. 11) to make her stay.

Why not just let us leave if we’re so bad?  Why does God not just turn Xyr back on Israel, on humanity? Doesn’t this inability to break ties indicate an unhealthy co-dependency? It sometimes seems like God is waiting on us to grow up a bit so we can be more equal partners.  This chapter holds a perfect example in v. 16, talking about Israel’s reconciliation with God: ““In that day,” declares the Lord,“you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’”  Clearly Israel is being raised up here – if she can change her ways.  In that same post about Nadab and Abihu I mentioned above I talked about how it seems God is waiting on some more spiritual maturity on our part, and how that might change our future relationship with God.  Maybe even into one that is more equal.

I have not painted God in a very favorable light here, and I’m sure I’ve already turned off some readers in just two paragraphs. Even if you are hanging in there – it’s a bit of scary thought, isn’t it? To think that God might need us, even if it isn’t to the point of toxic relationship like it seems here.  If God needs us, that means that God has a need, and is not all-powerful in and of Xyrself.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not ready to come to the conclusion that the rock of my faith is that unstable – and I hope I never am!  Like before, some may see it as rationalization, but I’ll share my conclusions with you as to how God may or may not need us:

Do I need my children in order to survive?  I can eat, breathe, find work and shelter and tend to my daily needs without their help, find joy in things that do not involve them, and have relationships and hobbies outside of my role as mom.  Do I want to live in a world without my children?  I have trouble even imagining what that world would look like, and shudder at the thought.  Time and time again in the Bible God is called our Holy Father (the masculine language reflecting the culture at the time).  I have to imagine that God’s feelings towards us are, in some way, like my feelings towards my own children. Xe may not need us existentially, but even when angry at us, there is still a divine love.

Also, it’s kind of silly to think of us existing so separately from God that we’re even an external force to be needed.  If you view God as the ultimate creator, then everything is from God.  We are a part of God already.  I think God is just waiting on us to fully realize that, and act accordingly.  Perhaps that is what is going on when I talk about God waiting for us to grow up a little bit, and assume more of an equal role in our divine relationship. If we are already of God, we have the ability to act more Godly.  No, not miracles and moving mountains (though according to Jesus that is possible, too, through faith), but to love better.  To be more sensitive, inclusive, and caring.  It’s a long road, and a topic for another blog post, which I promise I’ll get to, probably more than once.

But for today, let’s rejoice in the fact that this chapter does not end at v. 13, with God punishing us.  Let’s rejoice in the fact that God is not like an abusive or controlling husband, and that this is simply the metaphor through which Hosea could best express his divine message from God.  The God that prevails in this chapter, indeed, the whole Bible is the one that abolishes bow and sword and battle, so that all may lay down in safety (v. 18), the one that looks to have the whole earth celebrate with us (vv. 21-22), the one that chooses – does not need to, but chooses anyway – to be with us.  We are better than needed, we are adored.  That’s some pretty heady shit. We are adored by God.  Every single one of us – every color, creed, ability, and station in life – we are adored by God.

Forget God needing us – you are already part of God, there is nothing to be needed.  You are loved.  I have not been my best self the past few days, and my family has borne the brunt of it.  I’m going to try hard to remember that I am dealing with someone adored by God any time I come up against someone difficult (like my kids, who are in a biting each other phase).  It’s easy to focus on the bad in life, in religion, in the Bible.  Just look at how this chapter starts out.  But I truly believe if we keep pushing through with kindness, we’ll get to the good part.  Recognizing that God loves us when we’re imperfect and others when they’re imperfect will help us get there.  Wish me luck with that, guys, I’m not joking about this biting phase testing the limits of my parenting.. And good luck to you, too!

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Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:

“‘Among those who approach me
    I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
    I will be honored.’”

Aaron remained silent.

Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered.

Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the Israelites, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.

Then the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, 10 so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”

12 Moses said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Take the grain offering left over from the food offerings prepared without yeast and presented to the Lord and eat it beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 Eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is your share and your sons’ share of the food offerings presented to the Lord; for so I have been commanded. 14 But you and your sons and your daughters may eat the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. Eat them in a ceremonially clean place; they have been given to you and your children as your share of the Israelites’ fellowship offerings. 15 The thigh that was presented and the breast that was waved must be brought with the fat portions of the food offerings, to be waved before the Lord as a wave offering. This will be the perpetual share for you and your children, as the Lord has commanded.”

16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and asked, 17 “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord. 18 Since its blood was not taken into the Holy Place, you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.”

19 Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” 20 When Moses heard this, he was satisfied.

It is October, the month of Halloween, so I thought we might read some scary Bible stories.  Why I thought this would be a light-hearted idea I’m not sure, because things get real extra-fast.  But I’m going to stick with it, because there are some really thought-provoking stories here.

A little background for this first story about Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron was Moses’ brother, and the first high priest of the New Covenant God made with Israel after delivering them out of Egypt.  He was consecrated as priest, along with his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu.  All three of them literally saw God during a special worship at the base of the mountain.  Now, the first seven chapters of Leviticus go into great detail about how the Lord is supposed to be worshiped in this New Covenant, specifically how offerings should be made.  And there’s a lot: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering – all topics for another day.  Then, chapters eight and nine specifically deal with the ordination of the priests and detail how they begin their ministry in running the offerings.  Everything goes swimmingly – Aaron does all the right things, says all the right words, and the Fire of the Lord comes down to consume the burnt offerings and all of Israel sees his presence and falls down and worships in joy.

Now, the above-mentioned fire from God is important, because it was an unauthorized fire, in other words fire made by man, the Nadab and Abihu brought to altar when it was their turn to make offerings.  As an aside – not only was it unauthorized fire, it was fire all tarted up, if you will, by added incense.  Long story short – actually, short story made longer via explanation, but whatever – by bringing this man-made fire to the altar, Nadab and Abihu were indicating one of two things: either that they held the power to consume the burnt offerings alongside God, or that they didn’t trust God to send holy fire to consume said burnt offerings.

Either way, God literally just established a new covenant with Israel, and can’t have these new priests going rogue so early in the game.  Nadab and Abihu’s deaths were a signal to Israel that God alone is almighty – only God has the power to consume the burnt offerings; and that God is always ready to act – holy fire will always be sent for the burnt offering, and sin can and will be punished when it happens.

That is one punitive God, and I hope not the same one that I’m counting on.  This story has, in fact, opened up some uncomfortable lines of questioning for me, which have lain dormant for some time.  In a nutshell, is God as omnipotent as loving as we would wish Xyr to be?

In college I first came across the idea of the evolution of God in Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God.  I’m paraphrasing like crazy here, but basically there is a line of thought that believes the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.  Either a lesser God was overthrown and replaced with a new God, or the old God turned into something new with the arrival of Jesus.  And there is plenty of evidence to support this idea:  The God of the Old Testament looks nothing like Jesus and the Holy Father.  The Old Testament God is vengeful and punitive – wiping entire villages or nations out because they have committed some offense or stand in the way of God’s chosen people.  Additionally, the Old Testament God “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh and others so that they won’t listen to the warnings of holy men, like Moses, which just seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone involved.

The God of the Old Testament kills his priests after one mistake.  Not a warning, not a demotion or removal from office, not even banishment: straight to an abrupt and painful death without warning.  And then, their father isn’t even allowed to fully mourn for them.  Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, makes it clear to Aaron that he and his remaining sons have to keep on fulfilling their duties in the Temple:  No ripping their clothes or letting their hair grow long (traditional signs of mourning), they must keep up their ceremonial dietary restrictions, and no drinking.  They aren’t even allowed to leave and bury the bodies of these two dead sons because that would make them ceremonially unclean. How poor Aaron must feel I can only imagine.  His marked silence in verse three speaks volumes. The words he must be holding back in grief, in fear, in anger are too much for any spoken language.  When he does finally speak, in verse nineteen, we can still hear his anguish.  “Such things as this have happened to me today,” he says, referring to his sons’ deaths. “Would the Lord be have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?”  Aaron is too deep in mourning to provide the grateful heart necessary for receiving the gifts from God’s altar.  He recognizes that in himself, and instead of bringing further wrath upon his own person, he abstains as respectfully as possible.  Additionally, fasting may have been the only way he could actively and outwardly mourn his sons given the circumstances.

What hard, vindictive God would wound a father so?  Specifically a man he called to be the first high priest of a New Covenant with a chosen people?  Clearly, this is a different God than the God of forgiveness, of pure love, that we come to know through Jesus Christ.

So what happened?  Did God change?  Because an evolution of God would imply that God was not perfect and whole at one point, and therefore may not be perfect now.  It also means it might be possible for our God of Love to change again, into something new and even better than a God of Love, or back into something more demanding and vengeful.  The idea of an imperfect, changeable God – or even worse, a God who can be challenged and even overthrown by another deity – is a terrifying prospect.  It would mean the rock upon which we have founded our faith as Christians is not as stable as we were lead to believe.

I’m not ready to believe the foundation of my faith is unstable.  Perhaps some people will call the explanation I’m about to give a textbook example of rationalizing – but really, isn’t any theological talk just rationalizing in some form or another?  There really is no way to know God, that is why faith is required of us instead.  But here’s the conclusion I came to:  God has not changed, but we have.

Let’s go back to parenting again, my favorite long-running analogy.  Your relationship with your parents changes as you get older.  You go from complete dependence to complete independence.  Their authority goes from total authority to varying degrees of influence, depending upon the relationship you have with them.  As hard as the God of the Old Testament seems, perhaps that was the God that Israel needed then.  The punishment of Nadab and Abihu was swift and severe, especially from today’s standpoint.  But remember: the covenant with Israel had just been established – this is a nation brand new in it’s faith.  Yes, the Israelites had been worshiping Yahweh for some time, but it was a completely new chapter with new rules (literally new rules, like the ten commandments) in a new country.  Boundaries had to be established, and quickly.  The extreme reaction to Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized offering helped establish those boundaries and demonstrate the God was very much in charge.  You know, the more I think about it the less it sounds like parenting (because what newborn is really going to challenge your authority?) and more like training a puppy: as an owner, you have to establish your alpha position early on.  But I think the underlying point is clear:  God was demonstrating Xyr power.

I also want to point out that nowhere are Nadab and Abihu condemned beyond death.  While their brothers and father are not allowed to participate in their funeral rites, they do, in fact, receive funeral rites, officiated by their cousins and uncle.  In this I take great comfort.  I like to think that their death was the only atonement needed for their sin of arrogance, and that on the other side of it God said something to them along the lines of,  “I had to make an example of you two, you understand.  Your presumptuousness could not be the leading example for the new covenant with Israel, and had to be dealt with harshly.  Your deaths have served a great purpose, all is now right and you are fully forgiven.  Come and be with me now, my children.”

I don’t think we’re fully spiritually mature yet, but it’s a phase I’m looking forward to.  I’m blessed with a good relationship with my parents. Getting to know them as adults has been really wonderful. When you think about it, it is an amazing thing to have someone who has known and loved me since before I’ve even known myself.  I’m mature enough now to hear family stories – both funny and sad – that perhaps I wasn’t privy to as a child and allow for a lot of family and personal insight.  They trust me in (most of my) decisions but can still offer sound advice when I need it.  I want that kind of relationship with God, too.  My ardent hope is that we are, collectively, older and wiser than the Israelites wandering around the desert, new in their faith.  I hope that we have grown, and that our relationship with God has grown into one where we are ready for more than just a God of strict discipline, but a God of love and forgiveness.  Like good children, even and maybe especially good adult children, let’s keep working to prove to God that this is true, and in turn I have a feeling that our relationship with God will just keep getting better.  Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to ask God directly about Nadab and Abihu, and fully understand all sides of the story.  Lord, let it be so.