Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
I have heard people talk about the ancients as if they were gullible and naïve. Maybe they believed in the resurrection because they were not as sophisticated and scientific as we are? This type of snobbery against anyone who happened to live in a time other than ours is unjustified. They knew that people didn’t just “rise from the dead” and would not believe wild stories about it anymore than we would. They would be skeptical. In fact, St. Thomas refused to believe when the other disciples were describing Jesus’ resurrection unless he saw him and touched his wounds. Yet, the disciples did all come to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Why is that? The simple answer is that it was and is more reasonable to believe in the resurrection than not. This is not an exhaustive list of reasons, but I hope it will give you something to think about.
1. Jesus Really Died
I have read some books and opinions such as “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and “The DaVinci Code”. They propose that Jesus didn’t really die. Instead, Jesus faked death but was revived afterwards by his disciples. There are so many problems with this theory. First and foremost, the Romans knew how to crucify people and they were good at it. People died during crucifixion. Also, how would a half dead Jesus inspire confidence in his disciples who revived him? They might run and escape, but they wouldn’t boldly preach and go to their death for him. Jesus needed to truly die in order for the resurrection to matter and inspire the disciples to boldly proclaim Jesus as Messiah – and that’s what happened.
2. Jewish Burial Customs
The Gospels describe various Jewish burial customs that were accurate historically. After someone died, their friends and family members would wash the body, wrap the body in linens, and anoint with a good quantity of myrrh, aloes, and other perfumes (Nicodemus gave 75 pounds to be used). Then they would place the body in a small tomb for a year. After a year, they would gather the bones and bury them in a sarcophagus permanently. The women who went to the tomb were following these burial customs and they all knew he had died. Since Jesus died just before the Sabbath, the women waited until afterwards before bringing the oils for anointing. This was not only to give honor to the person, but a way of honoring the sacredness of the holy land that God gave to Israel.
3. The Empty Tomb
Soldiers were posted in front of Jesus’ tomb. By ancient law, if a soldier fell asleep at their post, that would be considered a capital offense and they could be executed. Afterwards, when Jesus’ body was gone, the soldiers and the authorities claimed that the body was stolen after the soldiers fell asleep. There are a few issues with their theory. First of all, since falling asleep at a post was a capital offense, they had a good incentive to perform their duties as required. Secondly, how would the soldiers know the body was stolen if they were asleep? Thirdly, going to the tomb and rolling back a huge stone was not something that could be done stealthily. The tomb was empty, but not because the body was stolen.
4. The Condition of the Disciples:
The disciples just witnessed their Lord and Master crucified. They were defeated and in hiding. They were hardly in a position to steal bodies from trained soldiers, make up stories about a resurrection, and go to their death defending a story they didn’t believe. Something must have happened that emboldened them to proclaim the resurrection and die for Jesus and his Gospel. The best answer to why the disciples responded as they did is that they experienced the resurrection of Jesus and afterwards boldly proclaimed that reality.
5. The Details:
The details do not follow what you would expect from a made-up story. Women in that day would not be considered credible witnesses, yet the Gospels claim that they were the primary witnesses of the resurrection. The fact that many didn’t recognize Jesus in his resurrected body is not something that would have been included if the story were made-up. A “folded” headpiece not only demonstrates that a robbery didn’t take place, but it is also a detail that shows that the resurrection was not rushed. The descriptions of Jesus “not being a ghost,” eating, and having his wounds are details that are different enough to sound credible. Someone making up a story would have done it differently.
6. Conversions and Testimony:
Roman and Jewish historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and other later traditions seem to repeat the practices of Christians and the reality of Jesus. Even though extrabiblical history is not abundant, it is interesting that what does exist doesn’t claim to deny the resurrection. What is known is that the history of the New Testament matches up with what came to be later. Many works were written around and after the time of the New Testament writings. Much of this was based on the testimony of the witnesses of the resurrection. The women and the disciples were primary but not exclusively the only ones who saw the risen Jesus. St. Paul alone in 1 Corinthians 15:6 states that Jesus appeared to more than 500 disciples at one time, and they could still be contacted to verify his statement. Christianity took off as a movement and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire within three hundred years and spread outside of the empire. The number of conversions were huge considering it was illegal to even be Christian during that time. It’s also remarkable that the conversions were not imposed from political or military leaders but through grass root testimony.
7. The Most Reasonable Answer
Today we are asking a question that has been asked for 2,000 years. Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Did he rise from the dead? I have given a purposely brief explanation to show you why it is more believable to say he rose from the dead than to say he did not. There is much more that could be written. I think a better question could be: How could everything that happened be possible otherwise? If Jesus had not risen from the dead, his body would be in a tomb, the disciples would have left defeated, and Christianity would have died with Jesus. But his body was not in the tomb nor found, the disciples believed and proclaimed the risen Christ, and the witnesses and testimony helped Christianity spread in an unprecedented way. The most reasonable explanation for all of this is that Jesus rose from the dead.
March 27, 2023
A brief history of the Passover:
I have people ask me about the Passover and how it developed. A full explanation would take too many pages but what people mostly want to know is how was it celebrated and how did it develop over time. People also want it brief and readable, so here it is:
You will see variations on the history of Passover because of the sketchy historical documentation. The accounts given in the Old Testament include many details but they can be idealized and reflect later practices. In this brief outline, I realize there is room for alternative dates, theories, and practices but this is a generally accepted outline by historians and Biblical scholars.
Pre Moses (2000 – 1200BC): For herders, lambs were born in the spring. For farmers, the first crops would have been the barley harvest. Feasts developed to celebrate the new food and life sources that the new lambs and barley brought. First born lambs were sacrificed and eaten. Barley was unleavened because old stored grains were often exhausted and old leavening practices (similar to present day rye and sourdough) depended on living leaven. Besides, it took longer to leaven grain and barley didn’t rise much anyway.
Moses (1250 – 1150BC): There are various theories about the date of the Exodus and how exactly it happened, but the first Exodus Passover took place while the Hebrews were leaving Egypt. It celebrates the “passing over” of the Angel of Death, from slavery to freedom, and from Egypt to the Promised Land. Former feasts of lambs and unleavened bread are now combined with the themes of divine intervention and liberation.
Post Moses (1100s – 1000BC): The combination of the lamb and barley feasts and sacrifices with the telling of the Exodus story by household or clan takes place but varies to some degree depending on region and clan.
Monarchy (1000 – 587BC): The practices and celebrations became more unified among families from David to Josiah (1,000 – 622BC) because of stability and communication during the Monarchic Period. With the reforms of Josiah (622 BC), the Passover was moved from family celebrations to exclusively being done in the Temple. Pilgrimages took place to Jerusalem and the families would bring their pascal lambs to be sacrificed and roasted at the Temple. Unleavened bread was eaten for seven days following.
Babylonian Exile (587BC): Some remembrance of the Exodus happened but probably not celebrated with lambs and unleavened bread because they are outside of Jerusalem.
After edict of Cyrus the Persian and Jewish return to Jerusalem (538BC): After the second Temple was rebuilt, Passover resumed. Priests sacrificed lambs and the people would eat at the Temple grounds after roasting. People would eat unleavened bread for 7 days afterwards. It was possible to have everyone eat at the Temple because of the small Jewish population at that time.
After Hasmonean Reform (165BC): Head of households sacrificed their lambs at the Temple. Drinking wine and singing the Hallel praise songs were introduced. Eating still took place at Temple grounds followed by 7 days of unleavened bread.
After Herod the Great (37BC): Because there were too many people to have everyone eat in the Temple area, the laws were relaxed so they could sacrifice at the Temple but eat the meal anywhere in Jerusalem. This would have been the era where Jesus celebrated his Passovers and also the Last Supper. Christian transformation of Passover comes with the Last Supper which celebrates the Eucharist as the New Passover commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection and beginning the New Creation. This is celebrated weekly on Sundays and commemorates freedom from sin and death while bringing his people to the Father and the Kingdom through him.
After destruction of Temple (70AD): When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Passover needed to be revised according to the post Temple reality and the newer rabbinical reformulation of the faith. The Passover Seder meal is reformulated under Rabbis Gameliel II and Johanan as it is mostly celebrated by Jews today.
March 19, 2023:
Tragedy That Is Bad and God Who Is Good
The earthquake in Haiti inevitably brings up the age old question, “Why would God allow something like this to happen?” Whether people are religious or not, there is something in all of us that searches for answers to questions like this. Why did this terrible thing happen to a people so poor and destitute to begin with? We know that things like this shouldn’t happen. The world should be good and peaceful. There are some conclusions that people make in response to questions like Haiti. I’ll list them below. The Christian response is the last one.
1. God, who should be good, should help all to be well. Since all is not good, God either doesn’t exist or He just doesn’t care.
This answer stops too soon. It doesn’t go deep enough. For example, the fact that we know deep down that it is not how things should be cries out that God does exist and He does care. Think about it. Why would we have an internal conviction that things should be different and God should care if the object of that desire did not exist. If God didn’t exist or didn’t care we would just accept it as normal and not think twice about it. If God didn’t exist there would be no “why”. Using another metaphor, an itch has an object to be scratched. The question points out what we know that in the depths of our souls: that God exists and is good. Therefore, when we see a tragedy or an injustice we naturally see the incongruity of the situation. So we need to go deeper to find the real answer to the question, “why does Haiti happen when God is good and bad things shouldn’t happen”.
2. God is punishing his people.
Rev. Pat Robertson made the news because he said Haiti happened because they made a pact with the devil 150 years ago during their revolution for independence. First of all, there is a problem with the historicity of this statement. Haiti’s slave revolt was against the French and many of the leaders reverted to their animist roots but this is much different than making a “pact with the devil.” But let’s leave that aside and deal with the question. Does God punish his people? In this case the answer is no but it is true that we can bring things on ourselves if we do not follow God’s ways. For example, God gave me free will and if I overeat, drink alcohol, and smoke I shouldn’t blame God when the doctor says that my health is terrible. When someone chooses to murder someone, God doesn’t murder but rather it is a consequence of the sin that someone made because of their free will. I guess that God could stop all sin from happening and thus the consequences of sin, but that would be contrary to the gift of free will that he gave us. It seems that God allows bad things to happen as a consequence of free will because his gift of free will is not worth taking away to prevent all evil from happening. In Haiti’s case, if the sin of corruption of their government were removed from the equation, maybe building codes would have been better and many people’s lives would have been saved. Even so, it doesn’t make sense to say that God did it to punish them. It also doesn’t fully explain why it happened because we know that God is good and he would not punish a generation 200 years later for the revolution’s lapse into animism. There needs to be an additional answer.
3. God is a loving God but tragedies do happen.
This is a tough concept because a loving God and tragedy seem to be in opposition. On the surface that is true but we should qualify a few things. First of all, we should remember the free will explanation from above. Since God respects our free will he does allow us to make bad and even evil decisions and those decisions affect others. It is not that God wills for rape, murder, and starvation to happen, but he allows it as a consequence of free will. The alternative is that we would not have the ability to choose good or evil or to do evil. That would also mean that we would not be free to choose him. The ability to choose God freely is a fundamental gift that we have. So one way to look at it is that God preserves the gift of freedom even though it might mean that evil happens. But that isn’t God’s fault, that is our fault. We have the ability to choose good and if we did that would be what God would want in the first place. But it is also true that not every bad event that happens occurs because of evil on our part. There are natural disasters as well. The difference here is between moral evils and physical evils. Moral evils are preventable by our making good decisions. Physical evils occur as the natural order of things: tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, many sicknesses, and the like are examples of these. It seems that Rev. Pat Robertson was making the mistake of combining both of these groups. It is a common mistake and Jesus himself corrected it in his own preaching. For example the tower that collapsed (Luke 13:4) and the man born blind (John 9:2) were two specific occasions where Jesus rejects the concept that all bad things that happen are a result of particular sins. He said that the tower didn’t collapse on those people because they were worse sinners and he said that the man was born blind not because he was a sinner, but to glorify God (through his healing). So sometimes bad things happen because of our free will and sometimes bad things happen in spite of our free will.
4. Conclusion: Then why do bad things happen that we do not have the power to change?
I need to mention that God can and often does intervene and prevent natural disasters. But for now, let’s look at a few reasons why he might allow them:
1. It gives us an opportunity to help and care for others. One positive side effect of Haiti is the outpouring of generous help by others. God gives us an opportunity to do ministry and respond in love.
2. It reminds us that this world is transitory and not how it should be. One of the points of the Genesis creation story is that after the original sin, the perfect harmony with God and his creation was changed and needs restoration. We have the promise that it will be fully restored one day in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Rev. 21). Jesus has begun the first stage of that restoration but it will only be fully realized in the fullness of time when he comes back. In the meantime natural tragedies remind us that we still await the total fulfillment of the promise.
3. It reminds us who remain that life is short and we are mortal. For example, sickness reminds us that we are mortal and that should inspire us to look to heaven as our final and real home.
4. It gives us the opportunity to participate in the suffering of Christ (Romans 8:17). If we are faithful even in suffering, we imitate Jesus’ example and participate in his redemptive process.
5. Let’s be honest, sometimes bad things happen and we will not know (on this side of heaven) why they do. Often there aren’t good reasons that we can come up with. But we can trust that in the end Jesus will make it right (Lk 16:19-31). Also, we won’t know the reasons why God allows what he does but we can trust that his ultimate plan is for good and when we are in heaven we will have all the reasons revealed to us. In the meantime we live by faith trusting in his ultimate goodness. I guess it all goes back to that – we do what we can and have faith that God will do what he can. even if we can’t have it all figured out, we can trust that God in his goodness does.
March 14, 2023
Religiosity and Religious Practice
The Lesson of the Sacred Heart:
This year I have been giving special attention to the first five books of the Bible often called the “Pentateuch” or “Torah”. Pentateuch means “five books” and Torah means “Instruction” or “Law”. I started noticing themes that repeat themselves in these books. For example, there is a strong teaching that following the Mosaic Law leads to blessing and life for the Jewish people, the moral law is a blessing for all people regardless of their religious belief, and following the entirety of the Law coincides with living within God’s own holiness. These themes carry over and are fulfilled the new law that Jesus brings in his Gospel, but for now I want to focus on one teaching that is easily overlooked. How did God expect the Jews to follow the Law of Moses and how are we as Christians supposed to follow the Law of the New Covenant in Christ?
When I was a kid growing up in Grants Pass, we would sometimes go to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Medford. A huge fresco of Jesus was painted in the apse of the church with the words: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.” This told me that Jesus and his teachings are not centered in a religiosity of neurosis, obsessiveness, and scrupulosity, but a life that is refreshing and blessing us in every moment. It is the fulfillment of the Torah’s insistence that following the commands of God gives us “blessing and long life in the land.”
This overall understanding of religiosity has historically not always been the case. The devotion of the Sacred Heart came about as a response against a rigid and scrupulous religiosity called “Jansenism”. Jansenism taught that almost nobody was saved, religious practice needed to be extreme, and God is a harsh judge who shows no mercy. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque received visions of Jesus appealing to her to promote the devotion of the Sacred Heart as a sign of his love and mercy to a people who were increasingly being caught up in the net of Jansenism. Why is the “Sacred Heart” model correct? Because God has continually called us back to a positive and life giving religiosity in the way we practice our faith.
The Lesson of God’s Law:
Genesis describes creation where the focus isn’t so much that God created the world, but that he created it for us in a way that enables us to live and thrive. In a similar way, God gave us his laws and religious practices to help us to thrive in this life and the next. Our faith is not a torture mechanism to beat us down and render us helpless but a framework to live within so that we can have blessing in this life and the next. God’s law is described as accessible and doable in a way that does not make outlandish demands that are overly burdensome or not possible (See Deut. 30:11-13). His Law is to be followed in a way that does not excuse them away or make them exceedingly stringent. We can hear this within the command to not add or subtract from God’s teachings or commands (See Deuteronomy 13:1 and Revelation 22:18-19). God gives us laws and teachings that require a certain moderation in our religious practice because left to our own devices, human beings have a tendency toward laziness or obsessive extremism.
What About Today?
As a pastor, one of my primary jobs is to assist people in their religious practices. For some it is to remind them that God does require more of us than merely believing in God and being a nice person. For others, it is helping them to not become scrupulous, obsessive, or worship a religious practice more than God himself. Over the last ten years I have noticed both extremes as a reflection of the greater culture, and it is something we should all be aware of and concerned about.
I kept up with a friend I knew in college who married a man who tended to be drawn to extremes. If the Church had a fast day, he would want to fast for a week. If the Church asked for prayer and penance, he would look for the most difficult prayers and penances. She mentioned to me that she and his counsellors would work hard to keep him moderate and balanced in his religiosity. In the last few years I have seen something similar with parishioners. Why is this? My theory is that political polarization, social media, a lost culture, agenda driven ideologies, and internet celebrities have all added to this issue.
A Biblical and Catholic Response:
Going back to my original point, God calls us to a religious practice that is life giving. If you find yourself tempted to pull away from religious practice in a way that leaves you isolated, unaccountable, and outside of God’s instructions, resist that false teaching. God gave us clear instructions that he wants us to worship him within the context of the Church’s people and teaching. If you find yourself being drawn to ascetic practices that go beyond what the Church requires, be very cautious. It may start off as a genuine desire to grow in spirituality, but if we are not careful, it will lead to a cynical, scrupulous, judgmental, obsessive, and extreme form of spirituality that does God, his people, and ourselves a great disservice.
Going back to the mural at Sacred Heart in Medford, Jesus tells us today what he told his followers 2,000 years ago: “Come to me all you who labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you.” Embrace that spiritual model and apply it to your spiritual practices. Then you will find what you need to avoid the pitfalls of our current culture and to dwell within the life giving Gospel that Jesus intends us to have in our faith, worship, and spiritual practices.
December 20, 2022
The Process of Affirming Gospel Values
In the last few months I have noticed that I have spent a lot of time encouraging Christians to see that our morals and values are not based in politics or popular culture but in the consistent person and message of Jesus. It seems simple enough but there are difficulties with the assumption that this statement is easy to understand and apply. Is it meant for us only or also for others? Who’s version of “the Gospel” do we believe? Isn’t basing morals and values in religious belief arbitrary? What is the “Gospel” anyway? Aren’t all opinions valid? Do I even have the right to advocate beliefs that are based in Jesus’ moral teachings anyway? To many it seems overwhelming and difficult so it is avoided altogether. Instead, issues are examined through political positions, subjective opinions and polling data – even for the majority of Christians. Is there a better way to approach this?
This came to a head a while back because of a news story in 2017. A woman who was terminally ill publicized killing herself and CNN as well as other blogs, social networks, and news agencies reported it as if it were a heroic and positive act. I somewhat expect the news and social networks to push the sensational story but what I didn’t expect to hear was Christians justifying it, supporting it, and even promoting it. The real issue is deeper than whether or not someone supports assisted suicide. I am finding that the underlying issue is that people do not know how to apply Gospel principles to everyday moral events. This writing is not intended to address every issue or even fully address this one. Rather, it is intended to assist Christians in applying Gospel morals and values to issues and situations in a way that will be beneficial to them as well as others.
I firmly believe that Gospel morals and values are knowable and are beneficial to us and others. I also have noticed that much of what I have come to understand as “Gospel values and morals” are somewhat intuitive from years of thought, study, prayer, and spiritual practices. This commentary was also a good exercise for me because I had to articulate for myself how I come to moral decisions while at the same time being faithful to the Lord I know, love, and serve. So now, lets get started and we’ll start at the beginning.
What Is “The Gospel”?
Most people don’t understand what the Gospel is. They think it is the preachy opinions of preachers. When I refer to “the Gospel” I am being specific and it is more than just “preacher culture” or even “The Bible”. I know that for some this might seem questionable, but let me explain and I think you will agree that in order for the Word of God to be authentic it must be understood within a larger context. Let’s be honest, anyone can make the Bible say whatever they want it to say and people have used the Bible to justify every kind of evil. Therefore, when I say “Bible” I mean a consistent, historical, theological, scholarly, and culturally appropriate understanding of the Bible. When I say “Gospel” or “Word of God” I include the person of Jesus, the words and deeds of Jesus, and the consistent faith of the Church where the Bible was formed and nurtured.
The Word of God is more than a book. It is a person. It is Jesus. And how does Jesus reveal himself to us? In words and deeds. We know of these words and deeds because they have been written down for us but we also know them because they were preserved within a context of faith that the disciples received from Jesus and then passed on in the Church. In other words, if you want to understand the Bible, you are doing a real disservice to yourself if you are reading it apart from the consistently held beliefs of the Church that received it and passed it on from the beginning. Also implied is that Word of God is understood within a context of relationship with Jesus. A scholar might know something about the Bible but they can never “know” the fullness of the Bible without knowing God because it is a book of faith, written within the context of faith, for people of faith, to be understood and applied through faith. This is why academics apart from faith can so easily make such obvious mistakes such as claiming that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, other “gospels” were lost, Paul made up a new form of Christianity, etc. Applying scholarly tools is beneficial but divorcing the Bible from the faith it was written within is dangerous.
To summarize, when I say “Gospel” I am including the Bible together with the received, passed down, and consistently understood faith that it came from and serves. I am also including the person of Jesus and what he did as well as what he said. These aspects serve each other and form a consistent and knowable deposit of teachings that we can draw from to know God’s ways and how they apply to us as people of faith as well as humanity as a whole. This Gospel is rooted, knowable, consistent, and pierces the biases and whims of cultures and individuals.
What Are Gospel Values?
The first point to consider is whether the Gospel is only for Christians or if it is also worthwhile for all people. Just to be clear, Jesus and the early Church always understood the Gospel as being “Good News” not only for believers but for everyone. Why is that? Isn’t that forcing religion on people to say that? What about those who don’t believe that Jesus is the Savior and Son of God? What of his message should be universally applied and what should be received as a matter of personal faith?
We need to make a distinction between revealed beliefs that can only be known by God’s revelation and beliefs that can also be known through an ingrained common sense, reason, and “natural law” (in the Thomist sense). Knowing Jesus is the Son of God comes only through supernatural revelation but knowing murder is wrong can be known through many avenues including reason, an internal sense of right and wrong, philosophy, the Bible, Church teaching, and societal norms. In other words there is a difference between a religious belief and values or morals that are known through many avenues – and are also confirmed and solidified by religious revelation.
When I speak of Gospel “values” or “morals”, therefore, I am speaking of those aspects of the Christian faith that are knowable outside of divine revelation even though they are also confirmed and taught explicitly in God’s Word. These values and morals are beneficial to all people and, therefore, should be promoted as a public good and not just as a subjective personal religious belief. This should not be a shocking revelation. Even if a non Christian, grounded in a different moral foundation, may not believe this, it is reasonable to expect a thoughtful Christian to do so. For a Christian, if God is the God of all and Jesus is God’s truth revealed for all, the Gospel values and morals also carry with it a universal application whether one is religious or not. It is also understood that the Gospel “Good News” is, when properly offered, truly a liberating and beneficial way of life. However, we should understand that not everyone will immediately embrace the universal application of the Gospel and we will need to base our promotion of Gospel Values on something more than “God says so.” For now I just want to make the point that much of the Gospel message has to do with values and morals and we, as Christians, do a great service to the common good by promoting them.
Why Don’t More People Promote Gospel Values?
I might be oversimplifying but I believe that the majority of Christians are afraid to promote Gospel values because they feel they don’t have a right to express their moral beliefs if they also happen to be based in religious belief. I hear this in many ways. For example I still hear statements such as, “I personally believe that abortion is wrong because I am a Christian but I also believe that people should be able to choose for themselves.” What is being said implicitly is, “My values and morals which are based in what I received from the Gospel message of Jesus has no universal validity or application for others or the betterment of humanity.” Sure, maybe they wouldn’t say it that way, but it is implied. If we, as Christians, believe that the Gospel is beneficial to all, let’s do ourselves and others a favor and stop implicitly pretending that it isn’t.
Another factor is the external societal pressure that Christians have to keep all aspects of their Christian belief and practice from being expressed in public. This is especially true in moral beliefs and politics. Granted, none of us wants laws mandating church attendance and belief in doctrinal formulas, but as we have seen above, values and morals are another matter. I also find it interesting that we are the only group that excuses and excludes itself from discussion because our belief is grounded in faith in addition to reason. Think about it, when was the last time a secular atheist said, “I personally believe in abortion because I am a secular atheist but I also believe that it shouldn’t be legal.” Of course they wouldn’t say that because they feel they should be free to promote their convictions even though they are based on their personal opinions and reasoning. So why are Christians so timid to promote their moral beliefs when it is based on their personal opinions, reasoning, plus thousands of years of a consistent Gospel teaching that validates it?
Finally, I think many people don’t promote Gospel values and morals because they don’t really know them. Many people promote what they believe to be a Gospel truth when in reality it is really more based on a shallow sound bite. It takes a lot of work, prayer, discernment, and practice to know and apply Gospel teachings. How well do we know the Bible? How well do we know Church teaching? How many times do we really pray and discern before coming to an opinion on a moral issue? How well do we reassess our convictions and weigh them against what the Gospel actually says? How often do we change our opinions in favor of the Gospel even if it means going against the cultural or political tide?
Let’s be honest, we could all do better. Because we don’t know the real Gospel we believe mischaracterizations of the Gospel, repeat popular substitutions for the Gospel, and rationalize our beliefs even though they run counter to Gospel principles.
How Do I Apply The Gospel?
I’m going to use the example that I mentioned earlier and one that you may have seen in social media and news sources. On November 1, 2017, a woman ended her own life. The story was used to advocate euthanasia and promote laws to make it more available. There are different arguments for and against someone doing this. On one side you have the argument that the brain tumor is slowly devastating and the potential pain is real. Why not allow someone to end it on their terms and not have to let loved ones suffer needlessly? On the other side you have the uneasiness people have with suicide, the eroding of the sacredness of life, suggestive pressures, and the implication that terminal people’s lives are somehow less valuable and the dying process is without significance.
You all can guess the arguments for assisted suicide: “You can’t judge until you are in the same situation!” “You should have the right to do what you want with your own life.” “Isn’t she courageous for sparing her family the misery.” First of all, our hearts go out to her for suffering this disease, but it is not judging her place before God by evaluating the actions that she is promoting with the fuller Gospel message. If she is advocating a moral judgment based on her belief, are we not able to make a moral judgment on the greater issue of assisted suicide based on our belief as well as the Gospel teaching? How do we do that?
Most of us have seen loved ones suffer in similar ways and we know it is real. But we have to be able to evaluate assisted suicide from a moral position and judge that within the context of the Gospel teachings. Then, we should be totally comfortable saying that we love the woman, feel for her plight and family, don’t condemn her personally, yet at the same time uphold and promote Gospel principles because they are not only good for her and her family, but they also are beneficial to humanity and society as a whole. So what are “Gospel principles” that apply to this situation?
The basic Gospel values and morals state that: Life is sacred. Suicide is wrong and destructive. Sick people should be cared for and loved. There is value in suffering even though you do what you can to manage and alleviate it. Human dignity continues to exist in its fullness among the sick, elderly, and disabled. If someone does kill themselves, it is not our place to condemn them but it is our place to point out that the action of suicide is wrong. Not only are these statements basic Gospel values and morals but we believe they are also universally beneficial. We also believe that people of good will can appreciate the morals and values of the Gospel teaching regardless of their religious (or lack of) persuasions.
In addition there are other other factors that are more purely religious in nature like God alone has the power to give and take life, eternal life should be considered in the decision, etc. We can also bring these aspects into our decision making process but you will notice that they are not the only reasons we believe in a particular moral point of view. In addition just because there is a direct religious component to our values and morals does not exclude us from promoting these Gospel ideals as a matter of public policy any more than others who promote their opinions based on other philosophies or perspectives.
The skeptic will say, “You are just saying those are Gospel values and morals, but how do I know that they aren’t just your opinion?” That is a good and fair question. How can I make those generalizations? Because they conform to the consistent message of scripture in context, they harmonize with the historical understanding of these issues during the faith of the Apostles, and they follow the consistent passed down teaching of those areas throughout the Church’s history. They can also be prayerfully, humbly and lovingly applied. Instead of cherry picking isolated scriptural texts or “proof-texting”, I am appealing to a comprehensive method. This is a multifaceted approach utilizing the words of the Scriptures, examining the context of the Scriptures, considering the historical understanding of these teachings during the time of the early Church in the Apostolic Age, and validating it with the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages. All of these in combination point to consistent Gospel values and morals that can easily be applied to this situation.
It is beyond the scope of this project to supply the Scriptural quotes, footnotes, historical studies, patristic sources, and Church teachings that make up this assessment, but all of these are accessible to the curious. It does bring up my final point. How can we gain access to the information necessary to be able to form solid opinions on what are Gospel values and morals? The answer to this question is easier than you might think.
Getting the tools
So often it is implied that knowing the Gospel or knowing the Bible is too difficult for the average person to attempt. I totally disagree with this spiritual snobbery. God made it accessible to the vast majority of people. The “kerygma” or basic saving message of Jesus and his teaching is not on par with theoretical calculus. It is simple enough to be learned and known. What is really lacking is the initiative one needs to take to get in there and discover it. Today more than ever we have the tools and the time at our disposal yet laziness and apathy prevail. So where do we start if we want to take the Gospel message seriously?
First of all, familiarity with the Bible is critical. We don’t need to be Biblical scholars to be familiar with the overall message and teaching of the Bible. The life of Jesus and his words are a great start. Pour over the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and get to know Jesus through his words and deeds. Add to that the teaching of the early Church in the other New Testament letters. Finally, reading the Old Testament gives context to the New Testament.
Secondly, get to know the Church’s historical and ongoing teaching. In the Catholic Church we have the official Catechism of the Catholic Church and the doctrinal teaching of the Church. Spend some time with it. Look at it as helping to give you a point of reference or framework for belief. This practice will help ground you and keep you from basing your faith solely on personal speculation or ever changing cultural values. Look at it as you would a good friend who is sharing insights that bring stability and wisdom. If you are not Catholic, read the early Church fathers and come to know how the early church worshipped, believed, and practiced its faith. It will give you new insights and help keep you from getting stuck solely within a 21st century American mindset.
Thirdly, spend time in reflective and humble prayer. Prayer does many things. It connects us to our God and helps us to see things differently. It has a way of humbling us, peeling away our biases and stubbornness, and helping us to focus on the more important issues. When you have questions about some moral issue it is good to read the scriptures, know the Church teaching, and apply the Gospel morals and values, but prayer has a way of clarifying not just the issue but its application in a particular situation. It keeps us loving and charitable and gives us the insight that we need to communicate the Gospel so that it will be seen as humbly offered, loving, and helpful.
Fourthly, religious participation and practice is essential. Assuming that your church is grounded in in the Gospel, you will receive instruction and help to understand things that you would not come to on your own. There is value in community as well as the challenges that come to us at church. This happens not only in the preaching on Sundays but also through the various retreats, workshops, classes, and interactions with Gospel teaching. Think about it, where else will you hear real Gospel teaching and practice and where else will you be open to hear the Gospel challenge and form your personal beliefs? Also, where else will you humbly offer yourself to the Lord and his ways in worship according to his terms? Our churches keep us centered in something greater than ourselves. It is no accident that there is a serious difference in polls between practicing and non-practicing Christians. Non-practicing Christians are far more likely to reflect the morals and values of society in general. Practicing Christians are far more likely to affirm Gospel values and morals while at the same time affirming cultural beliefs that also conform to them.
Offering the Gospel as a Remedy:
So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that you have made a decision to ground your morals and values in the Gospel, you spend the time to know it and prayerfully reflect on it, and you are committed to promoting it publically as your participation in the public forum. How will this work? It will not be easy and it might mean speaking up when you are the only one doing so. I think it is helpful to keep the loving and prayerful approach in mind. Not everyone will get it and those that do it might take time. Don’t get frustrated, be consistent and persistent, and don’t take it personally when people don’t seem too interested in listening to you. People who need to hear it will hear it and what we do to affirm the Gospel message will have a positive effect with God’s help. It is his work, not ours. We are just called not to be afraid to offer the Gospel message and promote it as a public good.
This article is not an end of the discussion but hopefully a beginning. The process I propose is not the Gospel but a way to it. My hope is that it will help people to take it seriously and promote it for the good that Jesus intended it to be. It starts with all of us doing our part.