There's a story from the book of Numbers (21:4-9) that serves as a good example. The Israelites are in the midst of the wilderness wanderings when they start running short on food and water and what they have left is in rough shape. They get worried about their diminishing rations and so they complain about it to both Moses and God. At about this same time, they travel into an area thick with venomous snakes. Many people are bitten and die. Understandably, the people move very quickly from worried to terrified. So they fall back on their theology which allows them to conveniently control God. At that time, most everyone believed if good things happen to you, it only followed you were being blessed by God. Therefore if bad things happened, you must have done something to bring on God's wrath. It's unfortunate this theology is still only too alive and well today.
Anyway, these snakes are a bad thing and so the automatic assumption is that God is angry with them. They sift back through their last several days and/or weeks trying to figure out what they had done wrong. Their complaints from days ago are the only thing they can come up with, so they confess their sin to Moses and ask him to see if he might be able to make things right with God again. Moses prays and lands upon a snake replica wrapped around a pole (can we say idol??) as the divinely inspired solution. He explains that if snake-bit people look at the snake pole, they will be healed. In the meantime, the Israelites keep on moving, and soon leave the snake infested area behind. Because this is a good thing, they interpret it as a gift from God.
Now I don't for a second think the real sin here was the complaining. And I certainly don't think God punishes us for complaining. If that were the case, there wouldn't be too many of us left standing! It also wasn't sinful for the Israelites to be scared. There are times when fear makes good sense! No, the real sin in this story was the way in which the Israelites allowed their fear to shape their response. Acting in fear, the Israelites worked to manipulate God. Of course no one can actually manipulate God, thank goodness. But that doesn't stop us from trying all the time. And that is sinful, no matter how subtle you are about it. As this story is written, we find a puppet God controlled by a puppet leader named Moses. But it's the Israelites who really seem to be running the show. Something bad happens, so they do a quick confession, promise never to do it again and thus, fairly easily, win back their good grace. They have God in their back pocket, or at least they choose to believe they do. Why? Because life is hard for these people. They never know when the next catastrophe will strike and rob them of some or a lot of their members. Thus they try to gain some semblance of control over life by subconsciously pretending they can control God.
Most often I seein myself and others one of two really poor responses to fear. A lot of people do everything they can to push it away without ever acknowledging it's presence. When this happens, the tendency is to get caught up in the really trivial and stupid shallowness on display at every turn around the world. A really extreme example is revealed in alleged emails from the President of Syria and his wife. They show President Assad emailing his wife songs from iTunes and downloading "America's Got Talent" videos while his wife does online shopping for luxury shoes as their country's citizens continue to be brutalized by Assad's government.
The second type of response jumps the spectrum to the polar opposite end. Rather than denying fear, too often people feed on it. I read last week about a man who spent one hundred thousand dollars on "end of day" preparations. Following 911, our political administration very deliberately fed this nation's fears and now, two wars later, the world is much worse of because of it.
The gospel of John (chapter 3) introduces a fearful Pharisee named, Nicodemus, creeping out to meet Jesus under the cover of darkness to learn more about this man he feels drawn to. Nicodemus represents a religious institution beside itself with fear.
Some background on the book of John might be helpful. I just finished reading Bishop John Shelby Spong's latest book called, Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. Spong goes through the entire Bible in these pages outlining the historical context which shaped these texts. Much of this I learned in seminary, though a refresher course was needed. Much was also new, for me anyway. The following information I present forms in large part the majority consensus of Biblical scholarship, but I owe Spong the debt of neatly consolidating and offering up this more factual data.
Here's a real quick New Testament timeline. Jesus was born in 6 CE and died in 32 CE, give or take a few years. This can't be exactly dated, but that's close. The first New Testament books to be written were Paul's epistles somewhere between 51 and 64 CE, so some 20 years after the death of Christ. Rome ruled this area of the world beginning in 65 BC. Close to 100 years later, in 66 CE, the Zealots kicked off a 7 year war against the Roman authories. Needless to say, the Romans won and in the process, Jerusalem, along with the temple, was destroyed. The war ended in 73 CE, right around the time Mark's gospel was written. Matthew's gospel followed around 10 years later and a few years after that, sometime in the 80's, we got Luke. The gospel of John wasn't composed until sometime in the 90's. We call Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Synoptic gospels because the three have so many similarities. And then there's John. Well, something pretty major happened between the time Luke and John were written.
The first three gospels emerged still within the context of Judaism. In fact, Spong makes a pretty compelling argument that these three gospels were framed in a way that allowed them to be used liturgically in the synagogues (see Part 5). So when Mark, Matthew and Luke were written, there's still no such thing as Christianity. But there are lots of Jews within the synagogue, such as Nicodemus, who feel drawn to Jesus, to his teachings and stories of his example, to the revelation of God they sense in his life. There are also many Gentile converts to Judaism not particularly enamored with things like food purity laws and circumcision, but who appreciate the moral and ethical grounding as well as the inclusivity preached by those Jews who insistently lift Jesus up as the example. Eventually, this movement gets too powerful within the ranks of Judaism and so sometime after Luke but before John, the Jesus followers become their own movement when they are expelled from the synagogue.
At the time of John, Judaism had lost its most holy institution in the form of the temple. In addition, it was still responding to an upstart and breakaway movement. Things were changing fast and change is almost always scary. In chapter 3, Nicodemus seems to embody this fear. He is holding on tight to what he has always known, to the traditions and law he has devoted his life to protecting. But Jesus is persistently at work, prying his fingers loose, encouraging him to let go and allow himself to be born into a truth bigger than he's ever imagined. Jesus is helping Nicodemus get around his fear to the other side.
Eighteen months ago we began a "future" conversation in my congregation. I pastor a small and ever-declining rural congregation. A year and a half ago, our shrinking body made it necessary to begin making plans for our future, fully aware this future would most likely entail closing our doors at some point very soon. I wanted to know why this was happening and so I began doing much reading and research and found myself on a journey I hadn't anticipated. Soon enough, I realized that in some form or another, this was happening in a majority of churches in every main-line denomination in the United States. It was also soon very clear this exodus from the church began generations ago. In other words, the church has been turning away from its fear, denying it, for an awfully long time.
Instead, we've focused on really trivial stuff, at least if you consider the whole scope of the issue. The church has had really divisive arguments about what kinds of music we should use in worship. We've spent lots of time trying to figure out how to make our churches more welcoming and user friendly. We've split ourselves, time and time again over things like divorce and remarriage, women in ministry and now, homosexuality.
But our denial hasn't and won't do anything to slow the pace of change. Change has and will continue to engulf the church. I've been anticipating some form of Reformation in anglo Christianity at some point in the near future. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in my children's lifetime, perhaps? After reading through Spong's book on Biblical history and learning all over again how Christianity was birthed from Judaism, a religion that prided itself on it's unchanging traditions and law, it made me wonder if instead, we're seeing a pregnant movement afoot that will in time give way to an entirely new understanding and relationship with God - a new religion birthed from Christianity.
The fear is palpable. It's hard to deny anymore and so much of Christianity is now feeding on it. There is angry religious rhetoric all over the place. Many Christian groups are building impermeable walls around their sacred shrines in order to keep their numbers pure and exclude those who don't fit their notions of righteousness. And like Nicodemus, most traditional Christian churches are holding on tight to old understandings that no longer serve us well. For example, we are seeing a new emphasis on evangelization dressed up in more contemporary language. We want to believe we can evangelize ourselves out of this perceived crisis.
I am one of those people within Christianity longing for the new I see and feel emerging and over the last few years I've been taken aback at how many people I've met who are right there with me - still within the traditional church, but peering over the side to try and catch a glimpse of the breathtaking scope of God beyond these precious walls. My prayer is that the church would turn to face its fear honestly and let go of the snake wrapped around the pole - that illusion of security - so it is able, so WE are able to open ourselves to a new creation, a more unknown realm of God, a deeper understanding of Christ that soars beyond our words and our understanding.
We sang a newer hymn on Sunday. It seems like an appropriate conclusion.
"Christ is Alive"
"This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember, and move on, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that's gone. (verse 1)
"Then let us, with the Spirit's daring, step from the past, and leave behind our disappointment, guilt, and grieving, seeking new paths, and sure to find. (verse 3)
"Christ is alive and goes before us to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new, our God is making all things new (chorus)."
"Christ is Alive" - words by Brian Wren (1983), music by Lori True (2003).
Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non Religious World by John Shelby Spong; HarperOne, 2011.