Those Who Live By Faith Are Just

“The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, circa 1886-69

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

In the last essay, I discussed how Christians are meant to live as humble rebels in a hostile world, serving as ambassadors for Christ. The first and most obvious way we do this is by proclaiming the gospel message and making disciples, which is the only true hope for reconciliation. That is the end to which everything else is a means. However, there is another aspect of our mission that I have previously hinted at and would like to dive into now: a humble rebel is committed to social justice.

Oddly, the concept of social justice makes some Christians uncomfortable. I believe this is because they are typically associating it with what is known as the “Social Gospel”, a theological movement that rose to prominence in the early days of the 20th century and was associated not only with a desire to help the poor and vulnerable, but also with theological liberalism and a de-emphasis on doctrine. I can understand why people would have serious reservations about that.

Social justice, on the other hand, is a very biblical concept. Indeed, it is one of the main themes of scripture, and it is inextricably linked with doctrine. The Bible actually has far more to say about social justice than any number of issues to which we devote more attention. It is part and parcel of reconciliation, for if you are not pursuing social justice, you are not only making reconciliation more difficult, but you are actively increasing discord.

Martin Luther is often said to have had his theological breakthrough when he read the Apostle Paul’s quotation of a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, KJV) Luther’s story is a bit more complicated than that, but the importance of this verse is clearly evident. What I am about to suggest to you is that this phrase can also be reversed: not only do the just live by faith, but those who live by faith are just.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not challenging the traditional view of justification by grace alone through faith alone.)

Continue reading

Humble Rebellion: Living as Ambassadors of Christ

“The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer” by Jean Léon Gérôme, circa 1863-83

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

How can we expect to reconcile with a world that hates us, or what are we in relation to that great mass of humanity? Should we simply abandon the world to its fate? We are fools if we think we can do so, for the world will always find us in the end. More to the point, we would be rather poor disciples of Jesus Christ, who commanded us to go out into the world making disciples (Matthew 28:19), serving as witnesses to the gospel (Acts 1:8), and living as salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).

Sometimes we labor under the mistaken assumption that God is only seeking to reconcile with the Church. On the contrary, God is looking to restore all of creation. (Romans 8:18-25) This entire universe was His good work, and though it has been tainted by sin, it still belongs to Him. When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, it was in effect a massive restoration project. However, it was also a rebellion, because in the present age, the earth is under the reign of evil. Therefore, to side with the kingdom of God is to stand against the kingdom of Satan. To live for righteousness is to live in opposition to sin.

When I say God is not looking to reconcile merely with the Church, I am not suggesting that there is some path to lasting reconciliation and salvation outside of the Church or the work of Jesus Christ. I am not advocating something akin to universalism, where every person will have their sins forgiven whether they believe in Christ or not. Rather, I refer to the Church’s role as a witness to the nations. Continue reading

Another Path to Reconciliation?

“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix, circa 1830

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I am about to transition from speaking about reconciliation within the Christian Church to speaking about reconciliation in the world as a whole. In doing so, I am taking not a small step but a massive philosophical leap. Up to this point, I have been arguing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true path to lasting reconciliation. More than that, it places upon us an imperative of reconciliation. Such an argument is easy to make when the majority of people in question agree that the gospel message is both true and important (at least in principle). Once you move into the wider world, where there is no agreement as to the truth of the gospel and few common beliefs of any kind, appealing to Christian principles does not have the same effect.

The world is never going to want to solve problems the gospel way. Why? Because it is really, really hard. Now, when I say “really, really hard”, I don’t mean it in the sense that solving a Rubik’s Cube is hard, or staying upright on skis is hard, or even completing a PhD is hard. I am referring not to complexity, but to gut wrenching sacrifice. The gospel is hard because it requires everything we are. To follow Jesus Christ is to die to self that we might be raised with Him, and when that happens, we cease to be the same person we were previously. The life of a Christian, lived according to the gospel message, is one of continual dying to self. This is the grace of God, but it is costly grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote. Continue reading

Awaken!

A plaque with saints rising from the dead made in Limoges, France circa 1250. Photo by Marie Lan Nguyen

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

The year was 1971 and the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. was about to have its grand opening celebration. The late president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, commissioned the famed composer Leonard Bernstein to create a new work that would be performed as part of the dedication festivities. Bernstein had already established himself as one of the greatest American musicians of all time, heading up the New York Philharmonic and writing the music for West Side Story and On the Waterfront. However, for this particular occasion, he chose to do something rather unconventional: he wanted to create a Catholic Mass.

Masses intended for performance were nothing new. Both Mozart and Verdi had reached the pinnacles of their careers by writing a Requiem Mass, though Mozart was famously unable to complete his before dying young. Those who went for a more general Mass, as opposed to one for the dead, included Puccini, Liszt, Schubert, Haydn, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvořák. The reason for this is obvious: the Mass was always meant to be sung, and it serves as the focal point of Catholic life. Even some Protestants have gotten in on the fun, including a few of the names on that list.

But why should Bernstein wish to compose a Mass? He was, it must be noted, not a Catholic. If anything, he seems to have been a rather secular Jew. He was also homosexual (despite not revealing that publicly and being married for many years) and held some views that were not in complete harmony with Catholic teaching. Yet, the Kennedys were well-known for their Catholicism. Bernstein no doubt wanted to honor this aspect of his friends’ lives, and according to his daughter, Nina Bernstein, he “had always been intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it (in Latin) moving, mysterious, and eminently theatrical.”[1] Continue reading

Christ is All in All

Mosaic of Jesus Christ at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, photographed by Edal Lefterov

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles below.

As I noted in the previous essay, there are two major sources of discord between Christians. The first, doctrinal issues, we have already addressed and noted that in the case of a person who forsakes the gospel, there may be little we can do but to stand firm upon the Word of God, in all humility and with hearts full of love and compassion. The second major source of discord is what I will call political/personality issues, and here there may be more we can do. Yet, that does not imply that there is anything easy about it, for here we find not the nice black and white of some doctrinal debates, but the infinite grays of human emotion.

By “political” issues, I do not mean debates about secular politics, but rather the politics that exist within the Church. Essentially, this is all about who has the power, who is in charge, or who gets their own way. Personality issues are closely linked, and can usually be boiled down to phrases like, “I don’t like so and so because…”, “It really annoys me when they…”, “I just hate it when they do…”, “Why can they not see how selfish, ridiculous, etc…”, or “They really get on my nerves!”

Now, I have never conducted a scientific study on this topic, but from my own personal experience and the numerous anecdotes I have heard from others, I would have to say that it is political/personality issues and not doctrinal issues that cause more discord within the Church. In fact, many of the apparent doctrinal issues begin as political/personality issues or have such things at their heart. Therefore, it will not do to focus on doctrine alone. We must get down to the root of our malaise: the ugliness of our hearts. Continue reading

Truth with a Capital ‘T’

Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

When I finally had the chance to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the largest and arguably most important church in the world, there were three things in particular that I wanted to do: 1) I wanted to gaze in wonder at Michelangelo’s Pietà. 2) I wanted to stand on the same red porphyry tile on which my distant ancestor Charlemagne was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. 3) I wanted to pray for the reconciliation of the Church.

The basilica did not disappoint. We got there early enough in the morning that it was not yet packed with tourists, so the place was quite peaceful. I was unfortunately not able to get close to the Pietà as the chapel was blocked off, but I did see it from a distance. I confused my husband thoroughly by making him take my picture standing on the porphyry. I tried to explain in whispered tones the significance of this rare holdover from the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, but in the end I suppose it was just a reddish piece of stone.

We had made our way through much of the sanctuary (no small task, especially when you are stopping constantly to take pictures) and were about to head down to the grottoes when I chose my moment to pray. I had many altars to pick from, but all featured relics or icons of some saint or another to which Catholic pilgrims were praying, and I would have felt somewhat of a fraud kneeling there. Therefore, I picked an obliging spot near the Altar of the Transfiguration – roughly halfway between the bones of Saint Peter and Saint Gregory – and squatted down to say my prayer. Continue reading

A New (Old) Commandment

Depiction of Christ washing Peter's feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

Depiction of Christ washing Peter’s feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

This is the ninth in a series of article on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I sincerely hope by this point that the biblical imperative regarding reconciliation has been well established and that it has been made clear just how vital of an issue this is: the most vital, really, for within the concept of reconciliation all the things that pertain to salvation are encompassed along with our purpose on this earth. We have also taken a look at the underlying heart attitudes that can make or break reconciliation. The conversation has for the most part centered on relationships between two individuals, or between the individual and God. By focusing on big concepts rather than specific circumstances, it is possible that I have even made it this far without seriously offending you. Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

It is necessary that we move beyond this limited scope and begin to examine reconciliation on a corporate level. Here it is worth noting that every Christian has relationships with two kinds of people: those who are Christians and those who are not. Reconciliation is needed in both areas, but I am going to begin by examining reconciliation among Christians themselves, for if we cannot get our own house in order, we have little hope outside the walls, so to speak. Continue reading

True Love

Flickr photo by Sam Caplat

Flickr photo by Sam Caplat

This is the eighth in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

Here’s a situation we have all found ourselves in at some point: an acquaintance says or does something with which you disagree. I don’t mean they say that Starbucks coffee is great and you think it’s overpriced, over-roasted sludge. I mean something important – something that gets your moral compass spinning. You like this person, or at the very least, you want them to like you. Instinctively, you know that telling them that you disagree will cause tension in the relationship. So do you inform them of your disagreement, do you say nothing and hope the subject will go away, or do you agree with them in order to make them happy?

Variations on this situation are playing out every day. The most popular response is probably to avoid responding to a person who disagrees with you. If they don’t force you to come out and make a decisive statement, why cause an unnecessary fight? If the issue isn’t that big of a deal, why make a mountain out of a mole hill? Continue reading

Impossible Questions

"Job Confessing His Presumption to God Who Answers from the Whirlwind" by William Blake, circa 1803-05

“Job Confessing His Presumption to God Who Answers from the Whirlwind” by William Blake, circa 1803-05

This is the seventh in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

There are three questions in Scripture that, despite their apparent simplicity, strike at the very heart of who we are and reveal our position before the Creator. As each one is placed before us, we are forced to address the pride in our hearts and reconsider our notions of justice, for there are some questions that demand action simply by being asked. Most surprising of all is how these three seem, upon careful consideration, to actually be the same question. Continue reading

The First Step

The "Huntsman's Leap" chasm in Wales, as photographed by Colin Park.

The “Huntsman’s Leap” chasm in Wales, as photographed by Colin Park.

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

The study of international relations is often focused around intractable conflicts, and while there are any number of disagreements that could stake a claim to being the longest lasting or most deeply entrenched, the one that seems to take the cake in the minds of Americans is the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians. As feuds go, this one is actually a latecomer on the historical scene. Yes, there are some who link it back to the tension between the two sons of Abraham – Isaac and Ishmael – but from a political standpoint it started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Jewish immigrants began moving to the region of Palestine.

Despite the best intentions of a long line of political figures, things have been going downhill ever since that point. Animosities have grown to where they are now an intrinsic part of national and ethnic identity. Numerous wars have been fought, and even the periods of so-called peace have been quite violent. Attempts at a negotiated settlement have yielded little but failure. As I write, the dispute is at its worst level in some time, with the politicians refusing to even meet and talk about peace unless changes are made.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, the acclaimed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman compared the two peoples to a husband and wife who are unable to get pregnant. A fertility specialist finally concludes that the reason for their failure begins with the fact that neither of them actually wants to have a child. The meaning is that Israel and Palestine don’t really want a peace deal, because any such agreement would require them to make concessions that they are unwilling to risk, even forcing them to admit to wrongdoing. Protracted conflict is preferable to a deal that forces them to sacrifice pride and place themselves on the same level of moral “rightness” as their enemy. (It could also be argued that having a foreign enemy to oppose can be helpful to political leaders, but I digress…) Continue reading