Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Love ain't love

Peter's return to Jesus on the shore of Galilee is famous (Jn 21:15-17).
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?'
'Yes, Master,' was his answer; 'you know that you are dear to me.'
'Then feed my lambs,' replied Jesus.
Again a second time He asked him, 'Simon, son of John, do you love me?'
'Yes, Master,' he said, 'you know that you are dear to me.'
'Then be a shepherd to my sheep,' He said.
A third time Jesus put the question: 'Simon, son of John, am I dear to you?' It grieved Peter that Jesus asked him the third time, 'Am I dear to you?'
'Master,' he replied, 'you know everything, you can see that you are dear to me.'
'Then feed my much-loved sheep,' said Jesus.

Sadly, most common English translations miss the distinctions between the various kinds of love here. It's usually translated as "Do you love me?" followed by "Yes, I love you."

The first two times, Jesus is asking whether Peter loves with agape, the love of charity and giving and service. For both of those, Peter responds that he loves with filo, the love of a family member or close friend. Jesus' third question, and Peter's final response, are also both about filo.

Jesus is chasing agape, more than filo. It's what he wants from his disciples, especially what he wants from the shepherd of the sheep. It's what he wants from people today, too. His closest disciples are marked by agape for Jesus and for other people.

But does he reject filo? No. It seems that all Peter will commit to is filo, but Jesus doesn't reject Peter for it. Instead, Jesus meets Peter where Peter is and gives him a vocation. If filo is all that Peter can give, then filo will have to do.

In a way, this shows Jesus has high expectations. He wants us to live in agape, a strong love that acts despite feelings. It's a choice, an act of the will. We can do the same thing with filo, but filo is fickle. It's affected by how we feel about a person. You could have a great relationship with someone in your family and do great things for them, but if it turns sour your actions will be soured too. Agape surpasses that.

Jesus' disciples should aspire to act out of agape, but remembering that Jesus won't reject filo. If they result in kindness, goodness, faithfulness, etc, then they'll do. But we should always seek the highest way, the more excellent way of agape (1 Cor 12:31).

Monday, 23 December 2013

Making questions dangerous

I'm in a church of fundamentalist evangelicals. That's not meant to be pejorative, just accurate1. Fundamentalism is a kind of orthodoxy and it doesn't like dissent, but that makes it the perfect space to ask dangerous questions. Questions like:

What if God isn't omnipotent? That's not an attribute of God from the Bible, it's from Greek thought and part of the backdrop of most Western theology. So let's dig it out of our mental picture of God and see how things change.

What if pneuma isn't Spirit but spirit? The Biblical texts didn't use spaces, punctuation, paragraphs, and capitalisation as we do in English. Every time a translator has to deal with pneuma, they have to make a decision about whether to capitalise it. And if you think that doesn't matter, find a New Testament passage with pneuma, force the lower case s, and think about how we use phrases like "the spirit of the sentence" or "the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law." What does it mean to "live by the spirit" rather than "live by the Spirit?" What does it mean to "pray in the spirit," not "pray in the Spirit?"

Of course, very little of this has a bearing on the most important part of Christianity: Christ's command to love. In global Christianity, the heterodoxy of all believers still retains the common statement of faith that Jesus is the Christ and because of this we are united in obedience to the command to love.

What I like about the environment, though, is that the questions take on more power because they challenge the orthodoxy. In a liberal church, or a process church, these questions are good but have a different flavour. In the midst of fundamentalism, questions like these command our attention.

1. They adhere reasonably closely to The Fundamentals from 1910-15, so I call them fundamentalists2.
2. I wonder if you can have such a thing as a non-fundamentalist evangelical.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Real Saint Nick

Santa Claus? He's got nothing on Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real person on whom several Santa stories are based. This guy didn't hand out gifts to nice people and coal to naughty ones, he handed out cash to the poor to save them from slavery. He sold all his possessions for that cause, even though he was raised in a wealthy family.

He also argued, successfully, with Emperor Constantine about excessive taxation and had it lowered. And he intervened in an execution at the last minute by wrestling the sword out of the executioner's hand.

This isn't your jolly fat guy in a red suit.

This year, no matter what you're doing for Christmas, spare a thought for the legacy of Saint Nicholas of Myra. He served others without regard for his own comfort or safety. Give me a Saint Nick over Santa Claus any old day.