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The New Docetism

Sermon - 6/17/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 146

The text for this morning comes from the 146th Psalm, which is the first of five Psalms, the last 5 Psalms, all of which begin and end with one word:  Hallelujah!

And Hallelujah is a legitimate Hebrew word that actually means something -- it literally means "praise the Lord".  And so all of these last five Psalms are about praising God, and the reasons why we should praise God.  Only the reasons given in this particular Psalm are not probably the reasons we would expect.  So listen:

1Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
   I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

3Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish.

5Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
9The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10The Lord will reign for ever,
   your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

We received word a couple of weeks ago and put it out to the congregation that Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ, was appearing on national TV as part of the presidential debates.  One of the folks that was going to put questions to some of the Democratic challengers.  This particular event was being broadcast on CNN.  

Through the wonders of the Internet, you can watch that entire program online.  We're not going to watch all of that today, as it's over an hour long, but I did want to share with you just the question that Sharon put to the candidates, in this case to Senator John Edwards:

"Senator Edwards, I'd like to ask you about prayer.  Admittedly, a personal matter.  How, if at all, has prayer been a source of strength and wisdom for you in your life?  How would prayer influence the decisions that you make as President?  And most importantly, when you pray, how do you know if the voice that you are hearing is the voice of God, or your own voice in disguise?"

[Senator Edwards laughed and struggled a bit with how to respond, and said "Some would argue that we have a hard time telling the difference"]

I'm not going to play his entire response, because I don't want to give the impression that we're endorsing Senator John Edwards, but I love the way that it kind of caught him off guard.  Gosh, how do I tell the difference?

And, you see, that's a great question for all of us, isn't it?  To think of the importance of that question when you have the power of the Presidency of the United States, to be able to discern the difference between those two.

Well, scripture in general and this Psalm in particular provide some important clues and guidelines for how we can discern that difference between our own desires and the voice of God.

Hebrew scholar Clinton McCann, who wrote a 600-page commentary on the Psalms for the New Interpreter's Bible Series, calls this Psalm a "policy statement for the Kingdom of God".  A policy statement for the Kingdom of God.  And he says that the Psalm makes clear that the sovereign God stands for, and works for, justice.  Not simply as an abstract principle, but as an embodied reality.  Provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed.  

And that is why, the Psalm says, that we are to praise God.  A God who cares about very real human hurts and hopes.  A God who, according to the introduction of the Exodus story makes very clear, hears the cries of the oppressed and the suffering.  A God who knows our pain and agony.

And to give true praise, then, to such a God is not about the language we use, it's not about what we say or sing in worship, rather it's about what we do.

Obery Hendricks, professor of Biblical Interpretation at New York Theological Seminary, says that ". . the only true evidence of real spirituality lies not in retreating to a private prayer closet [as important as prayer is in our lives], but rather the only authentic evidence of spirituality is that we have personally sought and struggled for the health, the wholeness, and the freedom of others".

The Reverend James Forbes from the Riverside Church in New York City said it even better when he came here as part of the "Let Justice Roll" campaign in 2004, he told us:  "Nobody gets to heaven without a reference letter from the poor".

Think about that.  Of course we know that, if we think about it, in terms of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:  'I was hungry, you fed me, I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink'.  Or in Luke 4:  'The spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the captives free'.  

But I didn't know, until I started working on my sermon for this week, that such is also a major theme in the Psalms.  For instance, in Psalm 10 we read:

2In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
   let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

10They stoop, they crouch,
   and the helpless fall by their might.
11They think in their heart, ‘God has forgotten,
   he has hidden his face, he will never see it.’

14But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
   that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
   you have been the helper of the orphan.

O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
   you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
18to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
   so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

How appropriate for today.  In Psalm 72 we read:

Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor.
 

Or in Psalm 82:

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4Rescue the weak and the needy;
   deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’

And so, then, in this Psalm for this morning, we are told:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
7who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.
 

 

Psalm 99, I think, summarizes it most succinctly and says simply "God is a lover of justice".

As I noted last Sunday, the Psalms were the ancient churches, and ancient Israel's, hymnbook.  These are the texts that they sung, and recited in worship every week.  And these texts, along with very clear instructions in the Torah on the communities' responsibility to the poor (the orphans and the widows), together with specific condemnations by the prophets of the abuse of wealth and position by those in power, were among the most cited passages by Jewish sources in the first century.  It was part of that religious milieu in which Jesus grew up.

When you overlay those texts on what we know about the first century in Palestine:  Roman occupation, the harsh rule of Herod, the heavy burdens of taxation and debt (much greater than anything we know today, and hence that story about the debts forgiven -- you have to understand that those debts literally meant the loss of livelihood for thousands of people in the first century who then lost their land, lost their means of support), the enormous gap of wealth with very few [people] between the rich and the poor, the collaboration of the religious elite with the political rulers to maintain that system of oppression.  

You see all of that, you see the scriptures, you see there is a very serious disconnect between the biblical vision for what God intends for our world and what actually was.

Then we have to ask ourselves:  is it really different today?

In that CNN debate, Jim Wallis from Sojourners asked the candidates what they would do about the issue of poverty if they became President.  Like Sharon Watkins, it was the only question he got to ask, which is unfortunate because he had some other great questions that he sent out in an E-mail after the debate.  These are the questions he didn't get to ask:

"In the New Testament, the beatitudes offers a vision for the world with statements like 'blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom', 'blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill', 'blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God'.  How would this biblical vision of the world shape your leadership in politics?"

"The command 'be not afraid' appears frequently in the Bible.  And yet, U.S. foreign policy seems to be driven by fear.  Our leaders seem to justify the most important decisions in foreign policy with dire warnings of impending attacks.  Have we let fear push out wisdom and prudence as the primary virtues of foreign policy?  Should the biblical command 'be not afraid' have a role in foreign policy decision-making?"

Those are the kinds of questions I would love to hear addressed in the upcoming campaign.  But they rarely get asked.  Questions that lift up the biblical vision for our world where the love for justice is evident in the well-being of the most vulnerable.  

Why won't those questions get asked?  Why don't we hear more candidates honestly and humbly struggling with that question of how they discern and differentiate between the voice of God and their own desires?  Why is not the biblical concern for 'the least of these', our brothers and sisters, a primary campaign issue?

Professor Hendricks, in his new book with a provocative title "The Politics of Jesus", reveals, I think, the answer (that's a hot topic today, Wallis has his book "God's Politics", Hendricks now the "Politics of Jesus", and others writing on that topic).  

Hendricks maintains that ever since Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, we have been guilty of a new kind of docetism.  Now I realize 'docetism' may not be on the lips of a lot of folks these days, so here's a definition:  docetism is the belief that Jesus only appeared to be human.  That Jesus in reality was a spirit who appeared to have a body and therefore did not really experience hunger and thirst, or suffer and die, because how could the divine ever experience such imperfection and weakness?

And so docetism taught that Jesus didn't, he didn't suffer that kind of weakness.  And it was officially declared heresy by the church councils in the 4th century.  But it's hung around in various forms ever since.  For instance, if Jesus was fully human, he faced human temptation.  That's the point of the temptation stories, that he faced real temptations.  So it would be very understandable to think, as Kazantzakis presents in his book "The Last Temptatation of Christ" (made into a movie by Martin Scorsese), that Jesus would have been tempted to come down off of the cross to lead a normal life, to find a good Jewish girl, settle down, get married, have kids, drink beer, and watch football, like any normal American male J.  Right, that would have been normal temptation?  That's what the movie essentially portrayed.

It got a lot of folks upset, there was a big dispute over it.  When we lived in Fresno there was this front-page article that talked about this religious dispute and how Martin Scorsese has defamed Jesus in portraying this temptation.  At the end of the article is says "But one pastor. . . . .".  Of course who would that be?  Yours truly can't keep his mouth shut, and I say something about human temptation that Jesus faced because he was fully human.  And I get this irate woman who then calls me up and says "I don't believe that!".  And I said "Believe what?".  And she said "That Jesus was fully human, because it says, after all, that Jesus was the son of God and therefore he could not have faced those kinds of temptations".  I informed her that ma'am, that's fine if you want to believe that, you just need to know that position was declared a heresy 1,600 years ago.  It's OK if you want to believe it, they said 1,600 years ago that those who believe it are going to hell, but that's OK if you want to believe it J.

You see, that's docetism -- the idea that Jesus only appeared to be human.  The new docetism described by professor Hendricks is the refusal of millions of Christians to recognize the importance of the political circumstances of Jesus' earthly life and their influence on his person and in his ministry.  

And in this new docetism, or political docetism as Hendricks calls it, Jesus only seems to notice the political and economic realities around him.  The problem of debit.  He only appears to address the systemic issues of oppression and injustice.

In reality, we all know, that he was only concerned about individual welfare and personal morality.  Though he prays for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, he really only wants us to know how to get from earth to heaven.  

That belief in a personal savior who shows no concern for our social, economic, or political well-being, says Hendricks, is just as heretical as the idea that Jesus was not fully human as well as fully divine.

And likewise, Jim Wallis, in his quote in God's Politics that we're reading in our Monday-morning group, he says:  "There is no spiritual transformation without a personal God.  However, that personal God is never private.  Restricting God to private space was the great heresy of the 20th century American church.  Denying the public God is a denial of biblical faith itself.  A rejection of the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself".

So let me just be clear and specific in case anyone doesn't get the point:  the denial of the public God in our culture, the lover of justice, has resulted in the abuse of basic human rights by our government, the rejection of the Geneva convention and habeas corpus, and the use of torture.  

The denial of the public God who calls us to turn swords into plowshares, has resulted in a pre-emptive war that was denounced by the Pope and the religious leaders of all the major mainline denominations and thousands of clergy.  

The denial of the public God who proclaims good news to the poor, resulted in the greatest rise in poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor that has occurred since the depression.  

The denial of the public God, the creator of this world, has resulted in the refusal of our government to recognize the significance of climate change for the welfare of future generations.

So do we think we can solve these problems by simply changing who is at the top of our government without addressing the issues of our perception of God?

Hear the wisdom of the Psalmist, who says to us:  

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.

True and lasting change in our culture will only occur when we get God right.  We have no hope otherwise.  And that is why that question of Sharon Watkins is so important.  Knowing the voice of God, apart from our own.  The God who executes justice for the oppressed.  The God who gives food to the hungry.  The God who sets the prisoner free.  The God who opens the eyes of the blind.  The personal and yet public God who calls us to do God's work here on earth for the common good of all.  

It matters not so much who is in the White House or the state houses as who it is that is in our hearts.

And believe me, you don't know how hard it is for me to admit that.

Do you think God cares which political party is in control?  It's not that I'm saying that's not important, but more important, most important, is our understanding of God.  And what God calls us to do and to be.  It is this God, not the private God of civil religion and of popular Christianity, who gives us hope.  Who offers us salvation.

The God who is the lover of justice.  That is the Lord who will reign forever, for all generations.  Praise the Lord.

 


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