A Gospel Conspiracy Theory (Sort of)

I recently watched the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder again. It is a masterful performance by Wilder, despite some of the other quirks of the plot. An interesting plot element is the shadowy character of Mr. Wilkinson. Most of us remember him as “Arthur Slugworth.”

Slugworth

He appears as each golden ticket is found and explains that he wants the child to steal an Everlasting Gobstopper for him. The presence of the conspiracy plays into the demise of both Violet and Mike. It also lays hold of Grandpa Joe, but Charlie, the hero of the story, resists the siren song to sell out, and is declared the winner.

The Slugworth conspiracy served to help separate the sheep from the goats in this iconic film. The lure of lucrative betrayal is an element that lingers throughout the film–especially when the characters met challenge or rebuke.

Without the presence of Slugworth, the film would have lost one of it’s darker undertones, and also some of it’s moral punch when Charlie lays the Gobstopper on Mr. Wonka’s desk when he thinks, he too, has been disqualified and must leave without his lifetime supply of chocolate.

In the Gospel narratives, it is clear that during Holy Week Jesus makes explicit that one of the disciples would betray him. A conspiracy is afoot, and Christ makes it known to all, though he does not name Judas immediately. I found it interesting reading John 6 recently, that we have a hint that perhaps the disciples knew something was up much sooner.

But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6:64 ESV)

Even the “There are some of you who do not believe” signifies that there is a potential agent provocateur in their midst. This, it seems, would incite a question–if unspoken, at least thought–by all 12 disciples.

“Is it me?”

This led me to ponder, was the presence of a betrayer necessary to the development of the Apostles? Was it part of their divinely ordered formation to “have a Judas”? Did the dark undercurrent of the possibility of betrayal play, perhaps, a similar effect in the development of the disciples as the presence of Slugworth played for Charlie?

A case can be made that we can only really grown in Christ-likeness if we are willing to face hard questions. Some of the hardest were faced by the disciples. “Do you want to go away as well?” and “Do you truly love me?” come to mind.

In the early church, one of the hardest questions faced by believers was whether or not they could be faithful even unto martyrdom. Some were not, and this generated some controversy in the early church. Could someone who had denied Christ under duress really be a believer? Could they be restored to fellowship?

Interestingly, it was those who had stood up under near-death torture and suffering who were most sympathetic to those who had caved. It seems they had empathy for their brothers and sisters because they too, had felt the strong temptation to give in.

We may never have a knife held to our neck and be challenged to recant our faith or die. But, all of us face decisions on a regular basis where we know one choice to be Christ-affirming and another to be Christ-denying. We all, on occasion, fall short of the glory of God, either through commission or omission.

Ultimately, we only truly rest in God’s grace, and not our own merit when we, in honesty, can answer Jesus and say, “Yes, sometimes I do want to bail. I know the sin and vice that lurk in my heart and the evil that I am capable of. Too often I chose the path of destruction and not the path of life” Only when we echo the words of Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” (Luke 5:8 ESV) do we truly grasp the position we are in.

But in God’s grace, he does not depart from us. He calls us to lay ourselves on his altar, broken, blemished and unworthy. He takes us, and he breathes his Spirit into us, that we might become what he created us to be–loved by him and lovers of him. Like Peter walking away from the beach in the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus persistently, insistently, and lovingly chides, “Follow me.”

We may be tempted to utter, “But….”

“But nothing, you are still standing.”

“Only by the grace of God!”

“Exactly. Now follow me.”

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There are Two Ways to Stray

“Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left. ” (Joshua 23:6)

This is far from the only place we see the metaphor of a path being used in scripture. However,  it did give rise to a bit of insight as I read it on Saturday.  There are two ways to stray off of a path.  We can go right or left. Obvious, right?

It would be disingenuous and anachronistic to read into this passage current usage of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in terms of theology or politics. However, the biblical record does reveal two ways to wander.

First, and most obvious, is to not do what God has instructed. This is certainly the immediate threat to the fledgling Israel. Indeed, much of the rest of the Old Testament narrative showcases this struggle.

But the second threat is more subtle. In some ways it is an over-correction of the first. Historically,  there is some ground for this theory. We see the rise of the Scribes and the Pharisees coming out of the Babylonian captivity and the reasonable desire to not have to go through that again.

The Scribes and the Pharisees–the legalist–attempt to define the path. They attempt to anticipate the leading in each and every conceivable situation. The devise rules to cover everything. It’s not that they set out to slam the door of heaven in men’s faces. (Matthew 23:13) But that is what rules do. We start with a simple injunction and someone keeps asking, “well, what does that mean?” and each and every conceivable situation must be addressed.

Jesus, you may note, was not a big fan of this approach. He had some harsh words for the Pharisees. He called them blind guides. (Matthew 23:16, 24) They were blind because they thought they were on the path, but they were actually leading others astray.

Jesus was not so hard on those who had veered off the other side of the path. The tax collectors, prostitutes and other “sinners” did not try to justify themselves before him. They knew they weren’t on the straight and narrow. Jesus accepts us when we admit our true condition to him.

But both errors–legalism and license–have the same root. Control. Either we want to control how we don’t follow God or we want to control how we do follow God. If we are in control, then we are lord, not anyone else.

Jesus did not come to give us license or legalism. He leads. He is in control if we wish to learn from him.

And he said to them, “Follow me,” (Matthew 4:19)

And Jesus said to him, “Follow me” (Matthew 8:22)

he said to him, “Follow me.” (Matthew 9:9)

“take his cross and follow me” (Matthew 10:38)

“take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)

“come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Jesus said to them, “Follow me” (Mark 1:17)

he said to him, “Follow me.” (Mark 2:14)

“take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

“come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

Luke and John have 10 more instances, mostly drawn from the same scenes.

Following is surrendering control. I can’t map the way ahead and follow at the same time. If I attempt to, I will become discontent. Eventually, I will probably think I know better and depart from the path.  We don’t need to to know where we are going to follow.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:3-6a ESV)

“I am the way.” Jesus does not tell Thomas where he is going. He doesn’t answer Thomas’ question with a destination, but with a means to navigate. I am the way. Follow me. You know the way Thomas, because you’ve been living it.

We must seek the mind of Christ in order to follow him. We must trust his heart, listen to his voice, and follow. It’s hard, there is no map. It’s hard, we can’t stray off to explore on our own. And yet it is as easy as putting our foot into his footprint right ahead of us.

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Certainty is an Unobtainable Luxury

I find the debates between atheists and theists interesting. I’ve seen some recent posts from the atheist’s side that bring up issues of epistemology. Having been a philosophy major in college, epistemology is a subject I respect and enjoy. I do not assume that you are aware of what it is.

epistemology |iˌpistəˈmäləjē| Noun. the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.

In other words, epistemology seeks to answer the question, “How do we know that we know something?” It is a daunting philosophical question that most of us don’t consider in our day-to-day activities.

But, “How do you know?” is a valid question. Especially in our information-saturated, anybody-can-edit-Wikipedia world. Does our information come from a reliable source? How do we know it is reliable? For some questions, we are willing to chance it, trusting the “crowd-sourced” wisdom of the internet. “Urbanspoon says this restaurant is liked by 89% of reviewers….”

For other questions, it seems, we should have greater confidence in our information.

“Is this an accurate medical diagnosis?”

“Is this a sound retirement investment?”

“Why am I here?”

“Is there a God?”

Many of the atheist authors I’ve read recently hold up the standard of certainty. We should only accept knowledge that we are certain is true. That sounds reasonable on the surface. I certainly agree with the driving motive, that we should seek truth over falsehood. But there is a fatal flaw with epistemological certainty.

It is impossible to attain.

Doubt is always lurking. Counter-examples can be constructed for most any proposition we put forward. Many like to point to science, but history is littered with the crumpled remains of disproved theories and thesis. It is hubris to think our current batch is somehow impervious to the same fate.

Obviously, we have learned many things along the way. Electricity, gravity, antibiotics. We’ve figured out some very useful stuff. But if the history of science teaches us anything, it is that the next disruptive discovery is always lurking in the future.

Obviously, other disciplines have the same historical track record. Religion, philosophy, even history. They have all made mistakes.

But even on the personal level, certainty is not possible. Name one thing you know with certainty.

Could it be wrong? Can you construct a situation where you may be deceived? Of course we can. All we have to do is watch the Matrix (or read Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is really the same basic story). Walk into most any Philosophy 101 class and you will hear enough doubt cast about to last you for the rest of your life.

We can talk about what is reasonable doubt versus unreasonable doubt. It may seem mad for me to deny the existence of my coffee table. But that doesn’t mean I can’t. I have had dreams. I have had hallucinations, thanks to high fevers. How do I know the coffee table isn’t one of those?

We can spend the next several hours establishing the reasonableness of the existence of the coffee table. But, at the end of it all, can we prove it exists? Not just show strong statistical evidence significant to >0.00001. That still leaves room for doubt.

Now, consider everything else we encounter in any given day. Do we stop to reason it’s existence? Do we inspect everything? Of course not, we’d never make it out of bed in the morning. There is not enough time.

No matter how materialistic (in the philosophic sense) one may be, we cannot escape doubt. Doubt is the defining human characteristic. Rene Descartes, in pursuing truth arrived at his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am, by doubt. He doubted everything he could possibly doubt and was left with the activity of his doubting and the only thing he could not explain away.

The antidote for doubt, the way we escape this paralysis of thought and action is this:

Faith.

Even with no theism in sight. Even with no questions of ultimate purpose and meaning, every single human being exercises faith. You just did.

You tapped your computer to make it scroll down. You acted in faith that that physical action would result in some result. You didn’t stake your life on it. You, undoubtedly have experienced a time where pushing that key did not achieve the desired result. But you did it anyway, without 100% certainty. This is played out constantly throughout our days.

My point? Atheism needs to find a new argument, because doubt leads down a rabbit hole to nothing. We must be intellectually honest enough to admit that we can do nothing other than live by faith. Once we do that, we can start a rational discussion of what are worthy objects of faith and what are not.

The definition at the top of this post reminds us, “Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.” We like to think we can somehow isolate facts. Derive truth. But we can’t. Certainty is a luxury we cannot obtain.

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Musings on Baptism, part 7

I thought maybe I was done with this series of posts, as it turns out, I’m not. I had the joy of baptising a young Soldier this morning during chapel. Then, at church a couple of hours later I witnessed the baptism of 2 infants.

The Spirit spoke through me this morning to this Soldier. I don’t say that lightly or out of some false holiness, but out of humility. I told him that, “Baptism isn’t a finish line, it’s a starting line.” It wasn’t something I had thought of to tell him beforehand. I give credit to God for that flash of insight. I reflected on those words as I watched the two children being baptized a little later in the morning.

One of the weaknesses of the evangelical approach has been, ironically, the emphasis on evangelism. We do need to evangelize. But that is only part of what we are called to do. We like to think we are “great commision churches” if we focus on evangelism. But, we neglect a vital part of the commission by only working on “conversion.”

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20 emphasis added.

Make disciples. We are to be fishers of men. But our calling isn’t to just pluck them out of the lake and stick them in the live well for Jesus. We are to guide them into the transforming life that Jesus modeled and promised. Discipleship, spiritual formation, catechism. Call it what you like, we shrivel and starve spiritually without it.

Too often, the recent church in America has looked to “get them in.” Getting them in and getting them wet is just the beginning. Now we have to raise them up in the faith, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. I feel more confident that the 2 infants this morning will get that from their parents and their church. The young Soldier graduates basic training in a few short days and chances are I may never see him again. I pray that he continues to seek after God, as he has come to these past 9 weeks. I pray that he continues to have friends like the one that stood next to him this morning during his baptism that can help him grow in the faith.

Evangelism is to the church what recruiting is to the military. Important, challenging work. But that is not all there is. Soldiers know that once you arrive at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) and swear your oath of enlistment the journey is not over. It is just the beginning. Much the same is true of baptism and conversion. The Soldier still has basic training and advanced individual training to look forward to. Then they will arrive at a unit where the will start the process of learning how to live out and apply what they have learned, and start learning many other important things for their time in uniform.

It is the same way in the life of faith. Once we are baptized, whether as an infant or much older, it is the beginning. We are in. We are on on way, but we aren’t there yet. The transformation has only just begun, it is far from complete.

May we all press on to the goal that we have been called to in Christ Jesus.

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Imagio Dei

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Genesis 1:26

What is the image of God? What makes man different than all the fish, birds, plants, rocks, trees, livestock, and bugs?

One answer, and not an insignificant one, is language. We speak.

Certainly, lots of other living things make noise. Birds sing, dogs bark, lions roar. Crickets chirp, frogs croak and snakes hiss. But only people speak. The use of language is unique to mankind. No other creature comes anywhere close to the breadth and depth of communication that we are capable of.

God, also speaks.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:1-3

In the beginning, God did not draw a picture, he did not form some matter with his hands, he spoke. All of the creation account in the beginning of Genesis consists of God speaking and his words resulting in what we know as reality–the world around us, to include us.

God has spoken to people throughout history, starting with Adam.

We are created in the image of God because we are able to speak. Our words, like God’s, can shape the world around us. We do not call worlds into being, but we can create and destroy, shape and guide through the words we use, because we are created after the pattern of God, and God is one who speaks.

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Musings on Baptism, part 6

The first covenant, with Abraham, had a sign and seal in the “sacrament” of circumcision. This was applied to males only, but to those who came into the covenant as adults, they had to submit, as well as those born into families which were part of the covenant on the 8th day. This mark, this symbol of having the foreskin removed was not withheld until the child could “choose” or “understand” what was going on. Instead, it was a teaching tool as the sons matured, I can imagine. “Dad, why do we look different than the gentiles?” (Or I at least suppose this is how it went. Now as to how everyone was so aware of everyone else’s foreskin status remains a bit of a mystery to me.)

Nevertheless, the sign of the covenant was given to infants. They were marked. “This one belongs to God.” Why not apply the sign of the new covenant to our children?

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Musings on Baptism, part 5

Of the two generally recognized canonical sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, it is worth noting that baptism is passive. We receive baptism. We cannot baptize ourselves. The Eucharist, on the other hand, is more active in that we “take and eat.”[1] A priest can commune himself after consecrating the elements himself. You can’t self-baptize.

If baptism is the action which “brings us into” the church, we can’t bring ourselves in. We have to be brought in. If we concede that baptism is a passive act—we submit to it, does that not strengthen the case for infant baptism? If we are to come like a child—in submission because forces bigger than us are compelling us—then is not the baptism of infants the legitimate sign of this submission?


[1] Matthew 26:26

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