taking the words of Jesus seriously

I live in what is known as earthquake country. It’s a fairly common sight to see an exposed cliff-side with a diagonal line exposing an ancient earth fracture, where one surface has been split into two pieces and the result is a cliff face showing two surfaces clearly out of alignment with each other.

This geographic fracture is the perfect analogy for what we call The Fall.

God, in multiple aspects, reflecting his own oneness, created a single, unified truth, but we, thanks to The Fall, have split God’s truth, His unified reality, tore it out of alignment and, instead of turning to God to restore His original order, fight to the death (sometimes literally) over our differences.

Consider some of these “fractures” in faith that make us crazy; faith and works, justice and mercy, truth and grace. These are only a few of the divisions we have carved out of God’s unity.

From the Divine perspective, surely this is as preposterous as dividing breathing into inhaling and exhaling. Both are essential and complementary, but I am sure, somewhere in history, this too has been the source of theological dispute.

Every historic religious order recognizes that the line between prayer and action is arbitrary, if not preposterous. Each one informs, strengthens and supports, and perhaps makes possible – if not essential – the other.

The Bible is as clear as it can be, but the human tendency, if not attraction, to muddling, confusing and parsing out minute, pointless distinctions tends to dominate history – and most conversations.

When Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we imagine that there is a distinction between the two. Our fallen nature leans toward an interpretation that makes this distinction and allows us to congratulate ourselves while we neutralize and ignore both the power and the Word of God.

But isn’t it obvious that if our neighbor feels loved, safe, restored and respected, our individual lives will be safer, fuller and more joyful?

I have a friend who calls me every year or so with a desperate question; ‘Do you believe in once saved, always saved?”

I don’t like this question. Like most religious slogans, this one trivializes God’s character and seeks justification for the worst elements of human character. I always get the feeling that my friend is about to, or just did something he knows was wrong.

Could any of us imagine Jesus, or honorable person in the Bible, reciting these embarrassing clichés?

I’m sure we’ve all heard (or even used) many of these; how about GIGATT (God is good all the time). This sentiment would certainly be a surprise to Job, David, the Apostle Paul and many other Biblical people.

Or how about my personal favorite when it comes to vacuous theological obliviousness – “It’s all good”. The word of God should stir, strengthen, convict and equip us (II Timothy 3:16). These simplistic slogans stultify our faith, convince unbelievers that we are simpletons and dishonor God.

I love the concept of unmerited Grace; who of us could even imagine standing before ultimate Goodness and making our case for why we “deserve” eternity in Heaven? The idea is clearly ridiculous.  But I am familiar enough with human nature and the Word of God to know that there is more, far more, to authentic holiness.

A mature relationship with God is just that – a relationship. This could never be one-dimensional or one sided. We, as always, it seems, revert to simplistic formulas and slogans. God, as always, holds to a far more complete, unified image.

Grace is wonderful, but it is never isolated from who we are and how we live. Grace is wonderful but it never stands alone.

The book of Revelation begins with letters to the seven churches. Each one of these letters opens with the line “I know your works” (Revelation 2:2, 3:8, 3:15 and many others). Notice that it is “I know your works” not “I know your doctrine”, “I know your motivation” or even “I know your deepest, most spiritual thoughts”.

Of course we don’t “earn” salvation by our good works; any more than a child “earns” love from parents by good deeds. The whole idea is ridiculous – but an all too common red herring in theological discussions.

Even God is praised because of his “works” (see Psalm 145:10, Deuteronomy 32:4, among many others).

Paul in the book of Romans (chapter 3 in particular) emphasizes that it is faith, not works of the law that saves. But faith does not exist in isolation. This is what James expands on (James 2:14) “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” And in verse 17, James goes on to say “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”.   And verse 18, James continues “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds”. In other words, actions are what faith looks like.

Perhaps I am being naïve here, but this whole theological debate strikes me as bogus; isn’t it obvious that faith without works is not only dead, it is sterile and lifeless, and like any dead thing, stinks. Don’t we all know hateful, brutal, manipulative jerks who use religious jargon as their smokescreen? And don’t we all know OCD religious (or even non-religious) people who obsess about every real or imagined rule or ritual? Would any of us define them as holy or one with God?

I think we all know, in our deepest being that God is one, and our response to him should be just as unified and solid.

In fact, when Jesus is asked to name the single greatest commandment, most commentators say he gives two, or even three answers; but He gives us, in God’s eyes a single answer (Mark 12:28-34 and Matthew 22:36-40).

We, in our fragmented fallenness, cannot even recognize the divine unity right in front of us.

Jesus reminds us that God is One – and our worship and love of him must be an integrated wholeness of identity and purpose. And our oneness is not only with Him – it is with our unspecified – perhaps even undifferentiated “neighbor” who we are commanded to love as unconditionally and sacrificially as we love ourselves.

This is the Oneness God calls us to.

We love to make distinctions – and excuses – for not loving our neighbor and for our lukewarm faith. But it is our inability, or lack of interest in God’s unity that keeps us from seeing – and certainly living out – God’s fullest and most unified life that is waiting for us.

—-
Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.

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About The Author

mm

Faith is not a formula.
And I wouldn’t even use the word ‘relationship’ – and probably not the metaphor of ‘a journey’.
The older I get, the more it seems that faith is a process – a determined focus on listening to the eternal, sifting out the noise and distractions and becoming closer with each breath and each word, to the fullness – and emptiness – of the pulse, hand and purpose of our Creator, which, ultimately brings us where we belong.
I’m a teacher and writer, which really means that I am a listener and I share what I see and hear.

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