Monday, March 5, 2018

Church Write-Up: Yielding, Christology, Faith, Nicodemus

For church Sunday morning, I attended the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday School class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Word of Faith” church.

Here is my description of each, based on what stands out in my mind right now.  Occasionally, I will include personal commentary and reflection.

A.  The church has been using road and street signs to convey themes of Lent.  It used the “Stop” sign a week or so ago in discussing repentance.  This Sunday, it used a “Yield” sign.  The pastor was complaining about his struggles with traffic, and how drivers, including himself, are not too interested in yielding to other drivers when they are on the road.  The pastor referred to Philippians 2:3, which states, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves” (KJV).  The pastor criticized Facebook memes and posts that denigrate other people, for political reasons or to lambaste other people’s parenting.  The pastor inquired if we are treating others as equal to ourselves when we do that, let alone as better than ourselves.

Yielding to others is a basic Christian principle, one that was in the forefront of my mind when I first became a Christian, but one of which I frequently lose sight.  I think that it is a valuable principle, albeit one that can be misused.  I recall Steven Covey’s principle, “Think Win-Win,” which is about both parties arriving at a solution that is beneficial and satisfactory to both of them, as opposed to one party voluntarily losing and allowing the other to win.  “Think Win-Win” sounds reasonable to me.  Moreover, if I am competing with somebody for a job, as will probably often be the case in this day and age, of course I will take the job if it is offered to me, rather than selflessly giving it up for the benefit of another competitor.  I will need the money, like anyone else.  Still, at times, there is a place for stepping aside for the benefit of others.  While this can take the form of being a passive doormat, it can also be an exemplification of inner strength: a person is strong enough not to get his or her own way, for the person receives strength and identity, not from consistently winning, but from Christ’s love.

B.  The Sunday School class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John got into a variety of issues, but I will highlight two.

First, once again, there is the issue of Jesus’ divine and human nature.  In John 11, Jesus weeps and his soul is troubled after his friend Lazarus has died.  Church fathers had issues with this, for did not Jesus have a divine nature, and is not the divine nature free of troubles and passions?  Augustine essentially said that Jesus was able to control when he was sad and wept, as opposed to being dominated by his passions.  Augustine also said that Jesus could control when he was sleepy and hungry.  I thought of the City of God, in which Augustine stated that, prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve had sex, but Adam was able to control when he had sexual desire, as opposed to being a slave to concupiscence, which he was after the Fall.

Someone in the class said that such a view depicted Jesus’ human nature as if it is an automaton, as Jesus chooses to turn the “sad” lever when he decides to become sad.  He expressed doubt that this would be consistent with Jesus being truly human.  We, after all, do not decide when we become sad, or hungry, or sleepy: these things happen to us.  (This is not an absolute statement: if we fast, we will become hungry; if we deprive ourselves of sleep; we will become sleepy.  But these things inevitably happen to us at some point, apart from our choice.)

Some of the Fathers, incidentally, seemed to depict Jesus’ flesh as rather vulnerable, and yet Jesus’ divine nature was able to discipline it.

Second, the teacher was discussing the patronage system in the ancient Roman empire.  People had patrons, and people had clients.  Even a slave could have clients: a slave could do a favor for someone, and that other person would be in the slave’s debt.  The teacher said that the favor bestowed by the patron was called grace, whereas the reception of the favor, and the accompanying loyalty, allegiance, and obligation to the patron, was called faith.  The teacher suggested that this was the way to understand Paul’s view of grace and faith: faith is not mere intellectual assent to Christianity but is allegiance, loyalty, and faithfulness to Christ.

Someone in the class raised a question.  He said that he has struggled with Jesus’ statements in the synoptic Gospels that people’s faith has made them well.  Was not Jesus’ power what made them well, as opposed to their faith?  The teacher tried to tie this with the patron-client relationship: Jesus as patron was doing favors for people, and people, in allegiance to Jesus, received them.  There may be something to this.  I had long assumed that the faith that Jesus praises in the synoptic Gospels is belief that Jesus, or God through Jesus, would or could perform a miracle or an act of healing.  I do not see where allegiance or loyalty would fit into that, though, perhaps, another definition of faith would: trust in God.  But could allegiance or loyalty fit into the equation, somehow: people, by accepting Jesus’ miracle, were not simply being healed, but they were declaring their allegiance towards the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing, which included healing?

C.  At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor contrasted Nicodemus in John 3 with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

The pastor had an interesting interpretation of John 3, which I will neither endorse nor criticize, only present.  According to the pastor, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and the occurrence of the meeting by night indicated that Nicodemus had a sinister political purpose, as “night” usually accompanies something bad in the Gospel of John (i.e., John 9:4; 11:10; 13:30; 21:3).  Nicodemus, speaking for the Sanhedrin, wanted to bring Jesus under the Sanhedrin’s control; the Sanhedrin did not care for John the Baptist, who was acting outside of its control.  Nicodemus was a rabbi, and he knew that Jesus was a rabbi.  Nicodemus wanted to speak to Jesus, rabbi to rabbi.

But Jesus would have nothing of it.  Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again.  When Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5 that he must be born of water and of Spirit, he was essentially telling Nicodemus to go to the Jordan river, be baptized by John the Baptist (whom Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin scorned), and repent.  And, according to the pastor, Nicodemus was familiar, on some level, with what Jesus was talking about: Nicodemus was aware of such passages as Ezekiel 36:25-27, which includes the eschatological promises that God will sprinkle clean water on the Israelites and put God’s Spirit within them.  But Nicodemus was not willing to play ball: he liked his power and thought he was righteous already.  He was resistant to Jesus’ Kingdom and what God wanted to do with him and with Israel.

Jesus had two responses to Nicodemus.  First, to Nicodemus’ desire to speak with Jesus rabbi to rabbi, Jesus retorted that the two of them were on different planes: Jesus’ plane was spiritual, whereas Nicodemus’ plane was limited.  They could not speak to each other rabbi to rabbi, as if they were on the same plane.  Second, in John 3:14, Jesus referred to the story of the uplifted bronze serpent in Numbers 21.  The Israelites are complaining, so God sends poisonous serpents to bite them.  Moses creates a bronze serpent, and the Israelites are to look to that and be healed.  Jesus compared himself to that bronze serpent.

The pastor said that complaining and grumbling bring curses upon us.  According to the pastor, Nicodemus was doing so by resisting God’s Kingdom through Jesus, and what God wanted to do in his life.  But Jesus was offering a solution: look to Jesus and be healed.

In terms of the contrast between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, the pastor suggested that there was a difference in Jesus’ approach to the two.  Nicodemus wanted to negotiate with Jesus and bring Jesus down to his level, and Jesus said no.  But Jesus was willing to meet the Samaritan woman, who was sinful and knew she was sinful, where she was.  Nicodemus, at least in John 3, was self-righteous, whereas the Samaritan woman knew she was a sinner.  (By the way, the book, Vindicating the Vixens, contains an essay that disputes the idea that the Samaritan woman was promiscuous.)

I’ll stop here.

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