Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

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sunrise through grass

Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

Herb Montgomery | July 16, 2021


Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories.”


Our reading this week is again from the gospel of Mark:

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things . . . When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

This passage takes place in Mark’s narrative after John’s arrest and execution. It transports us all the way back to the words the gospel of Mark began with:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. The time has come,” he said. The reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)

In Chapter 6, the author of Mark takes that first passage and enlarges it so that readers can understand what Jesus’ gospel looked like in practice. In short, Jesus is characterized as a miracle-working, folk healer announcing liberation for those who are oppressed, whether they’re oppressed by sickness or a sick system of injustice. Ched Myers reminds us that even the stories of individual healings were “symbolic action” of systemic confrontation. In his book Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, Myers correctly states, “[The acts of Jesus’] ‘divine power’ lay not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities.” (p.146)

The itinerant liberator image of Jesus that we encounter in Mark raises a question of contrast between many preachers today and the Jesus they claim to be worshiping. As I’ve often said in the past, the gospels don’t show Jesus going from place to place trying to get people to say a special “sinners’ prayer” so they can have the assurance of going to some post mortem heaven when they die. Not at all. What we see instead is a Jesus who announces that the reign of heaven has come to earth, here, now, and it manifests not in future, afterlife assurance, but in concrete, material liberation from that which diminishes and oppresses human thriving in our lives today, right now, on earth. This is the picture we get from each of the synoptic gospels.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

As you go, proclaim this message: The reign of heaven has come near.Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:7-8)

But he said, I must proclaim the good news of the reign of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, The reign of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:6)

The section of Mark we read this week includes the stories of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and having twelve basketfuls left over. This story draws our attention to Jesus’ concern for people’s concrete, material needs. Many scholars also believe that this story may point to an early form of eucharist among early Jesus followers: a shared meal, a shared resource, of bread and fish that was later subsumed by what today’s eucharist of bread and wine.

Regardless, the scene is not about heaven or later, but about what people are experiencing here on earth right now. It speaks to the earthly, liberation-centered gospel taught by Jesus, not the heaven-centered gospel about Jesus that many within Christianity teach today. There is a difference between the two gospels and these differences are well worth our time to explore and understand. (See James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News, p. 1-2)

Two statements that have kept me centered in Jesus’ gospel of making a difference here on earth rather than in a gospel about Jesus focused primarily on getting to heaven come from the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in his classic work, God of the Oppressed.

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

“There can be no Christian theology that is not social and political. If theology is to speak about the God of Jesus who is revealed in the struggle of the oppressed for freedom, then theology must also become political, speaking for the God of the poor and the oppressed.” (p. 75)

For Cone, following Jesus was political, not in the partisan sense but in the sense that politics is about how power and property are distributed among the people. When we define politics like this, Jesus’ teachings were deeply political and all about a social peace that comes from justly distributing what humans need in their daily lives to thrive. This was God’s will as taught within Jesus’ gospel: humanity’s collective thriving.

In this focus, Jesus is standing squarely in his own Hebrew prophetic tradition:

“Everyone will sit under their own vine

and under their own fig tree,

and no one will make them afraid,

for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:4)

What might it mean for us today, with our post-enlightenment, naturalistic, material worldview, to follow Jesus, proclaim “the reign of God,” and “heal the sick”?

As we consider our social context, there is much sickness that we Jesus followers can address. With so many U.S. churches having hosted July 4 celebrations recently, we can address the sickness of Christian nationalism. What about the sicknesses of White supremacy and its offspring, American exceptionalism? What about the sicknesses of racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and cisgender-heterosexism? What about the sickness of ableism? Even if we hold a worldview where “healing the sick” or “casting out demons” no longer resonates, we can focus on the substance of our work and whether or not that substance looks like the Jesus of the story or like a 2,000-year-old religion about Jesus that has evolved in his name.

Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories. Our work may have a different focus than the work we see Jesus doing in the stories, and still be considered Christian by certain sectors within Christianity. Nonetheless, the contradiction between our stories and the Jesus story remains.

Can the themes of our work be found in Jesus’ work in the gospels? Is that Jesus passionate about the things we’re passionate about? In my journey, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that the Christian elements I was most passionate about were elements that the Jesus of the story never spoke about, and the things the Jesus of the story was passionate about were things I didn’t care about. It’s not been easy to admit, and making corrections and aligning my story with the Jesus story isn’t always easy either. That work for me is still ongoing today. But, even with the hard times, I can look back and say the journey has so far been worth it.

That the journey is worth it is my prayer for you too. I pray that as we allow our stories to look more like the Jesus story, and as we work together on making our world here and now a better place, we will look back one day, even at the hard times, and say, “It was a journey worth taking.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does a focus on “concrete, earthly liberation” mean to you? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Humanizing the Monsters 

by Herb Montgomery

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

Tomorrow is Halloween so let’s talk about that first. Halloween has roots in the Western Christian tradition of All Saints’ Day or All Hallows. In the Eastern Orthodox community, Christians celebrate All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost during the spring, not the fall. But the West has observed it on November 1 since the 8th Century CE, which makes October 31 its eve and thus All Saints’ Day Eve, All Hallows Eve, or “Halloween” as pronounced by the Scots. Over time, Halloween became influenced by Gaelic and Welsh harvest festival traditions and folklore. It is important to keep Celtic Fall Festivals and the Christian roots of Halloween separate in our thinking. They are related; they are not the same.

In these festivals, humanity’s fascination with and fear of death is invoked. Whether we are memorializing the lives of “saints” who have died (in the spring or the fall), or Celtic fall festivals marking the transition from summer to winter, we’re tracing the transitions from light to darkness, plenty to paucity, life to death.

Humanity and Death

Death is at the heart of all our discussions about morality and ethics. That which leads to life is seen as good and right, and that which leads to death is seen as evil or wrong. Our entire moral compass as a race is dictated by how certain behaviors relate to life and death, the continuance of humanity or its end.

Historically, religion has held out hope for some type of existence beyond death (e.g. Egyptian religion, Christianity, Islam) or a more mystical resignation with death (e.g. Buddhism and Ancient Judaism).

The Jesus Story and the Resurrection

The resurrection is the most potent force in the early Jesus movement. The original followers believed they had witnessed Jesus, whom the status quo had executed, alive again, and it was his resurrection event that liberated them from the fear of death. Because of that event, they could stand up to domination systems and threats of execution if they stepped out of line, because death had become a conquered enemy.

Notice how the letter to the Hebrews, in true apocalyptic fashion, states this:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15, emphasis added.)

These early Jesus followers could stand against the violence, injustice and oppression of earthly principalities and powers whom they viewed as conduits of cosmic evil Powers, because they no longer feared death and no longer feared what these earthly powers could do to them.

Through Jesus, death had been overthrown and so if his followers were executed by the domination systems as their Jesus had been, they believed they would also follow him in being resurrected at the time of universal restoration (see Acts 3.21; 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, 1 Corinthians 15.22-23)

As a side note, I find it fascinating when humanists and secularists who do not believe in life after death but are resigned about death are still willing to lay down their lives unselfishly for those who may come after them. The gift of their life is genuinely selfless but is given purely for betterment of others. (Some researchers think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been such a humanist in his later years.)

Humanizing Monsters

Regardless of how we arrive at that point, from my own experience, being liberated from one’s fear of dying is a breathtakingly beautiful thing, especially when it has the potential to change how we relate to each other.

Morality rooted in our fear of dying influences the way in which we view one another: those who threaten our lives are viewed, too often, as evil. And those who significantly threaten our lives in ways that terrify us the most—those people we deem monsters.

The first step in ridding someone from society is to villainize them. If we can cease to see someone or a group as human and begin to see them as monsters, then we are well on our way to imagining an existence without them. These people must be seen to threaten the “good” —the life—of a society. And if they are, then fear drives out compassion, just as perfect love drives out all fear.

Tomorrow, millions of children will don masks and costumes, and go from door to door asking for cheap chocolate and industrially produced sweets. But underneath each mask is a child. I wonder if there is a deeper lesson in this.

Could the masks we see over the faces of those we fear simply hide children of a divine being, children just like you and I? Whether it’s fear of someone of a different culture or race than you, fear of someone from a different economic status than you, fear of a person with a different gender than you, or fear of someone whose orientation and sexuality is different than yours, our challenge is to pull back the mask that we have fixed upon them in our own hearts, and see that person as the genuine human being that they are. They are a child, just like you, of God, a sibling of yours within the divine/human family. It takes effort to humanize our monsters. Yet it’s only by doing so that we can fully to embody the value of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Our choices are fear or compassion, death or life.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to take inventory of the people on this planet that you are afraid of. They can be specific people or simply types of people. I want you actually write down a list. I want you to name your fear this week.

2. Secondly I want you to do some research on your similarities with those you fear. This may be difficult for some, but it will be well worth it. Write down ten ways that those you are afraid of are like you: where do you not differ from them?

3. Journal the insights you gain from this exercise and share your results with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

We are all children of divinity. We are all siblings of the same divine/human family. Our hope lies in learning how to sit beside one another at the same family table once again. There are no monsters! There are only people, who feel, who love, who hurt, who, like us, are scared. Everyone has a story, and it’s time we give those we are afraid of an opportunity to share theirs.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love each of you dearly, and I’ll see you next week.

Jesus and Naturalism

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

science“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life . . . instruct them in the practice of all I have [taught] you” (Matthew 28:17, 18-19, The Message, emphasis added).

Last week, we talked about one of the worldviews that informed the writers of the gospels. We learned about the traits of the ancient apocalyptic worldview and how it differs from the modern Christian focus on the end-times. This week, let’s talk about another worldview that influences how we read the gospels: naturalism. It is important to understand how the beliefs that we take for granted in our time mirror and differ from the worldview of the Jesus of the gospels and the disciples who wrote about him.

What is Naturalism?

Naturalism seeks to explain what happens in this world by natural causes (natural laws) rather than appealing to supernatural explanations. In its purest form, it assumes that this world is a closed system, which means that nothing that isn’t already a part of this world can be looked to as a cause to explain why something in this world is happening.

Not all naturalists are pure naturalists, however. Many people in the West would much rather look for a natural cause and cure for conditions like lupus than assume a person’s lupus is caused by a supernatural demon and they should see the exorcist. They’re not going to the doctor for prayer. They’re going to the doctor for medicine. Yet many of these same naturalists are also theists and still accept the possibility of supernatural intervention. They still believe in the healing Jesus.

Naturalism in its purest form leaves a person with three options when it comes to a Divine being.

  1. No God exists. (Atheism)
  2. God exists but is disconnected from and uninvolved in this world. (Deism)
  3. Nature is God (Pantheism)

The atheist, deist, and pantheist naturalists can also be referred to as metaphysical naturalists: they agree that the supernatural does not exist. But there are other naturalists, like the theists who seek natural medical explanations for illness, who are merely methodological naturalists: they prioritize natural causes, effects, and explanations for things that happen on this planet. Scientific research and discovery is possible whether one is a metaphysical naturalist or a methodological one. Many of my theist friends who are naturalists still maintain a belief in a personal God from whom these natural laws of cause and effect originated. And recent surveys of professional scientists have shown that more than half conduct their research and also believe in a higher power.

Strengths of Naturalism

Discovery of Actual Causation

Naturalism began with the ancient Greek philosophers’ attempts to explain this world without appealing to “the gods.” Naturalism as we know it today made its first significant inroads into Christianity during the 12th Century Renaissance thanks to Christian natural philosophers. It then picked up steam in the 16th Century where Christian scientists referred to the study of nature as the study of God’s secondary causes. Galileo promoted naturalism during this time, and the approach allowed early scientists to discover some of the basic laws of nature.

Prevention and Cure

If one can discover and predict the causes of things that promote human suffering, then one can discover ways to prevent and/or cure human suffering as well. Over the last several centuries, scientific naturalism has significantly lessened human suffering and increased quality of life for the beneficiaries of its discoveries.

Deliverance from Superstition

Using a scientific basis, Christian naturalist scientists like Galileo began noticing the observable and measurable forces that have repeatable results on things in the world. They found causes for the things that were happening around them rather than appealing to the existence of devils or angels behind every bush and event.

This is significant on a religious level. As people began to discover natural reasons for their suffering through science, they lost fear of provoking the anger of the church’s God and fear of varying from the teachings and explanations of church officials. The Black Death, for example, was not the result of God’s wrath; it was the result of germs. Lightning strikes were not the sign of an angry God; they were the product of observable changes in the atmosphere.

Connectedness

Naturalists believe that all of the natural world is connected in a network of causes and effects. This connectedness we share with one another can lead to concern and care for others besides just ourselves or those like us. Ultimately naturalism has empowered human compassion with tangible methods and means to make a difference in the lives of those hurting.

Responsibility and Accountability

Naturalism may have more benefits than what I’ve listed here, but another that is meaningful to me is the emphasis on human responsibility for the things that happen on this planet: the worldview encourages people to embrace accountability toward each another and not excuse themselves by blaming supernatural forces. A pastor friend of mine who is deeply concerned with climate change also lives in the fundamentalist Bible-belt. Each time a natural disaster occurs, he is fond of saying, “When bad things happen, God gets blamed for things God didn’t do. A devil gets blamed for things a devil didn’t do. And people continue to not take responsibility for the things we are setting in motion.”

Weakness of Naturalism

The naturalist worldview has some beautiful strengths and a few weaknesses as well.

Dependence on Rationalism

Science has no explanation for many of the things that happen on this planet. Although my metaphysical naturalist friends would be quick to say, “Science has no explanation, YET…”, time will tell whether everything on this planet can truly be explained by only appealing to nature without accounting for the supernatural. We can’t yet know.

Addiction to Explanations

While we can explain most things, we sometimes have a tendency to have to explain everything. Naturalism can produce an intolerance of mystery. I do agree that many mysteries need solving and some things that become more beautiful as they are explained. I also believe some things become less beautiful once their mystery is removed and they become explainable. Life must not only be explainable, it must also possess enough beauty and mystery that it’s still worth living.

Meaninglessness, Absence of Compassion, Lack of Ethics

There are a number of popular Christian critiques of the naturalistic world view. First, some Christians say that naturalism produces a meaningless existence. I have found this to be untrue: instead life takes on new and different meanings. Second, some Christians say the naturalistic world view robs humanity of any compassion because it doesn’t root service to humans in service to God. I have also found this to be untrue.  Human compassion results from our discovery of our connectedness. Naturalists and supernaturalists differ in the explanation of why we are connected.  Yet they agree with each other that we are all connected.  In many naturalists, that discovery has deepened their compassion and empowered them with the tools to make a difference in others’ lives. Finally, some Christians warn that if the naturalistic world view is embraced it will produce a world devoid of ethics. I have yet to meet an amoral naturalist. Their ethics may have a different basis than an apocalypticist’s, but it is unfair to say naturalism ultimately removes our ethics.

 

Jesus Followers and Naturalism

Although the writers of the early Jesus story were not naturalists, the Jesus we find in the story offered a wisdom teaching that I believe can be relevant even for contemporary naturalists today.

Notice what is said in our feature text this week, Matthew 28:17-19. Jesus invited his disciples to produce other Jesus followers. A Jesus follower is not someone who has embraced the worldview of the 1st Century people who first heard Jesus speak. What it meant to be a Jesus follower then was to be “trained” in a “way of life,” in the “practice” of the ethics and values of the 1st Century, Jewish, revolutionary Jesus.  Many in that era embraced a Jewish Apocalyptic world view, yet they were not followers of Jesus. That worldview and discipleship were not the same thing. The question we must wrestle with today is whether someone must embrace a 1st Century Jewish apocalyptic worldview to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. And I don’t believe they do.

The Jesus of the Jesus story offered alternative wisdom to the social norms of his own day. He valued every human being as a being of inestimable worth, and so he contrasted with the way the culture used purity codes to marginalize some of the people. He taught within his context, and his teachings had a political dimension. Jesus opposed arranging human society according to domination systems. He challenged the Roman domination system and its religious legitimization in the Jewish temple at that time, especially among the priesthood and some of the Jewish leaders. (We can gain much from paying attention to the religious legitimization of political domination in our own time and culture. For more on this aspect of Jesus’ teachings, please see Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem)

In addition, Jesus taught nonviolent noncooperation and nonviolent confrontation in response to unjust domination systems. This nonviolence can be tested, observed, and seen to have tangible and repeatable results in the lives of those such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jesus’ teachings had an economic dimension that called to account systems that produce poverty. He offered a preferential option for the poor in our societies, and his stories, like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, called his audience to look at themselves and others in a different way.

Jesus made original contributions for his own place and time within Jewish culture. He was offering a transformative and restorative justice for all based on a universal and non-discriminatory love for all.

As we said last week, since the 4th Century, Christianity has transitioned away from Earth and begun focusing on how people might enter a post-mortem heaven. This focus was not the focus of the early Jesus’ community. Jesus offered the people teachings on matters directly related to this world, not another. And although the Jesus in the story spoke of supernatural entities, his teachings primarily offer a set of values and ethics that we can test to discern whether they help us find The Way to a safer more compassionate world for us all. As he taught, we can “know by their fruit” whether they have value.

A naturalistic worldview is common in our time. It may remodel our cosmology, and it may adjust our understanding of history, yet I do not believe it requires us to remove our sense of a Heart at the center of the Universe or relegate the 1st Century Jesus to irrelevance.

Science and Jesus can be good neighbors to each other! Again, there is not one Jesus follower I know today who subscribes to a purely apocalyptic or a purely naturalist worldview. We subscribe to a hybrid of both, and I believe there is room in the human family for us all. As we learn to listen to each other, even with our differences, we will together find our way to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate world. (Those of you who are further down the naturalist spectrum than me and are curious to see ways that other naturalists embrace Jesus: check out these four articles—Christian naturalism is possible: Naturalistic Christianity 101, Christian Naturalism, A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman, and Christianity Without Religion.)

I’ll close this week with a statement by Arthur G Broadhurst, a Christian naturalist:

“Once we get beyond the mythological language [in the gospels], it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… [Being] a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”

HeartGroup Application

This week we are learning to listen to those who may see things differently than we do. HeartGroups are intended to help us experience what Jesus modeled at his own shared table.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote, “Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding.”

The beauty of Jesus’ shared table is that it enables us to begin integrating various and diverse perspectives into a meaningful and consistent whole, each of us discovering our own blind spots as we chose to listen to another. Jesus is calling us to choose love for one another over the fear of one another.

  1. This week, take Matthew chapters 5-7 and list the teachings of Jesus there that you find meaningful and maybe even challenging for you personally.
  2. List the teachings you have questions about or don’t readily understand.
  3. Present both lists to your HeartGroup and then invite anyone who is willing to share from their own perspectives what the teachings in your second list may mean.

I’ve witnessed some amazingly beautiful moments emerge from members of a diverse group following these three simple steps. The purpose is not for everyone to see everything the same. These are moments for us to practice listening: difference is inevitable but division is optional.

Till the only world that remains is Jesus’ safe and compassionate world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.