Friday, March 14, 2008

Christianity is Incomprehensible

So it was my turn to lead a coffee-house discussion for The Journey's Midrash ministry last night. In the runup to our official start time, I chatted with one of our regulars who is an Orthodox Jew beginning with why he perceives that Christians don't follow the 10 Commandments and ending with the Christian worldview contrasting the Jewish worldview.

"Christians always say that it's important to follow the 10 Commandments! But you don't observe the Sabbath. Sabbath is from Friday night to Saturday night. You still think 'Do not murder' is nonnegotiable, don't you? Jesus never told anyone that they could change the day of Sabbath. He never did. Paul never did. Then why don't you follow the fourth commandment? Why don't you eat kosher?"

(He might as well have asked me if I'd stopped beating my kids yet or when I'm going to return the stolen money to the bank. Of course, if I even thought he was halfway serious about a reply, I would have gotten into more details as I will here.)

Believe it or not, the issue he is tapping on is as old as the time when Jesus walked the earth. Not that his questions aren't important; they are. But here I can either smooth out a wrinkle in understanding Christian ideas or I can make the wrinkle deeper. I only rest thankfully knowing that I do not determine that outcome.

Essentially, my discussion buddy wants me to explain the whole Christian paradigm and relationship between the Christian and the Law of God. Fine, if you have two years to devote to it, like the Apostle Paul did after literally getting knocked off his high horse and quit his job persecuting Christians. Otherwise, my brief explanation cannot do the subject enough justice, just to let the reader know. But you'll get the broad idea, hopefully.

Why don't Christians follow all the 10 Commandments as they are stated in scripture? This question bears much qualifying, so here I qualify away. This question really comes in two parts: the following of the 10 Commandments and as they are stated in scripture.

As to the first part, 'the following of the 10 Commandments,' I'll first reaffirm what I said to him last night. I don't think anyone on the planet ever follows the 10 Commandments--no Buddhist, no pagan, no agnostic, no monotheist of any variety (including Christian), no one. And that goes for everyone that has died as well. The correct response isn't "That's astounding! How can you pretend to speak for everyone on the planet?!" but "What the $%&@?" Because for 1), I'm not pretending. And 2), I didn't say it. This belief is one of the vertebrae in the backbone of the Gospel, the central theme of Christianity.

This stuff comes straight from Jesus Himself.
1) Take the bourgeois nobleman who approached Jesus asking what he must do to be saved: Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'" "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:16-26, NIV)

Jesus sized up this young buck who thought he had heaven all sewn up and with one arrow hit him in the heart, where he kept the glaring target of his affections and exposed that not only did he love his possessions more than even God Himself, young master had failed to follow even one commandment from the time he opened his mouth to speak.

2) Jesus, who spoke to multitudes of people, told them this bold statement about who is acceptable to God: For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20, NIV)

And the Apostle Paul, one compelled to believe in Jesus even as he was persecuting Him.
1) No one follows the Law of God perfectly or even imperfectly: For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:3-8 NIV)

2) He even draws from the Jewish scriptures the state of the human heart that makes it impossible to follow the Law: What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."
"Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit."
"The poison of vipers is on their lips."
"Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness."
"Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know."
"There is no fear of God before their eyes."
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
(Romans 3:9-19 NIV)

I could toss out several more examples, but this suffices for now. All people are God damn sinners, says the scriptures (check Romans 3:23), and I'm not being profane by saying that. The entire Christian paradigm is utterly unnatural. The idea that human beings are endemically, pervasively, and permanently sinful and unable to follow even one law, let alone ten, let alone 613 from five minutes after waking in the morning is an idea that is uniquely Christian and uniquely radical. It's outrageous. In fact, I believe the average Christian person probably doesn't even believe this on a day-to-day level. Yet Scripture says nothing else about the human condition except for this.

Second, Christians actually do follow the 10 Commandments even though it seems we don't technically appear to do so (or 'as stated in the scriptures'). Again, our first example comes from Jesus:
1) At His encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, the woman protests the supposed elitism of the Jews and of a correct place of worship of the Almighty, claiming that the mountain of the patriarch Jacob is the true historical place of worship. Jesus responds, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:21-24 NIV) Here, Jesus sets the precedent that ritual worship of correct time and place give way to worship in earnest, in spirit and truth.

2) Jesus even instructs the Pharisees, "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:13 NIV) Jesus calls up a Jewish verse, Hosea 6:6, to point out that God (note that Jesus here stands in the place of God to speak about what His purpose is on earth) desires the inner self in worship, not simply ritual observances.

And again, more by the Apostle Paul.
This is what it means to live under the law as a Christian: Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:23-25 NIV)

What does this all amount to? God wants his worshippers to worship in earnest, in spirit and truth. With the advent of Jesus, worship will not only take place collectively, but individually as well, not on just one day of the week, but constantly. Muslims make much ado about praying five times daily and worshipping at appointed times more often than Jews or Christians. They don't take into account that Paul commands Christians to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), and that "whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with [Jesus Christ]." (1 Thessalonians 5:10). Life itself is worship and prayer, not just the span between sunsets on Friday and Saturday.

Are the 10 Commandments ignored then? Again, Paul writes, Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! (Romans 6:15 NKJV)

Ah, grace. The one word at the plumb core of Christianity. Now, people who have not experienced the specific grace of God that leads them to believe in Jesus Christ will have difficulty understanding the exact concept of grace. In a nutshell, grace is the mercy and forgiveness of all our sin, from the innermost being to the most superficial carelessness, bought by God placing judgment onto Jesus Christ Himself instead of onto us. Grace is for the undeserving, and all of humanity is undeserving; that is the whole idea of grace. We need it, because nothing else will do.

For the person seeking to understand Christianity from the outside, this is incomprehensible: God gives us grace to worship Him with our hearts first and then with our hands and doesn't demand it the other way around. God even approaches the Hitlers of the world with grace, and accepts such unworthy souls into the kingdom of heaven. If you're tracking me at all at this point, you might well be thinking "God, that is heinous! There is no blinking way that a person like Adolf Hitler would ever be acceptable!" Like I said, grace is unnatural and evades our comprehension, because it is divine.

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:20-30 NIV)

Still looking for some "rule" for Christians to follow, perhaps to validate the 10 Commandments? Jesus condensed them into two: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:37-39 NIV)

And for those of us whom God has not (yet) knocked off our horses and met in a divine face-to-face throwdown, the grace of Christ is strange, even offensive to those who have thought of God differently and is foolish to the cynical world at large. Incomprehensible? Exactly.

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