Scripture: Luke 17: 1-10
Today, I want to muse on where we choose the most important ideas from Scripture. These ideas determine whether we see ourselves mainly as Doctrinal Christians or Gospel Christians. They affect what we believe and how we behave as Christians.
The heading of today’s Gospel in my Bible is Some Sayings of Jesus. I find this passage very difficult. “Occasions for stumbling (sin) are inevitable,” said Jesus. If you, however inadvertently, cause someone else to stumble, you deserve punishment. It’s as if someone should put a great millstone around your neck, and throw you in the sea to drown. No second chances! But if someone else sins against you, you must offer them unlimited forgiveness, provided that they repent.
Two faces of God
The Bible, and even the New Testament, offer two quite different faces of God. One is angry and judgemental. The other is loving and compassionate. In the Gospels, we find both “Our Father” and the God who will descend on the clouds to judge the earth. Today’s reading presents the second of these images.
In verses 7-10, Jesus talks about “your slave”. Perhaps we could modernize this a bit, and talk about “your servant” or “your employee”. Here’s what Jesus says. When this person comes in after working all day, why would you invite them to sit and eat with you? You tell them to make your supper. You don’t even have to thank them afterwards. This doesn’t sound like the loving Jesus. But here’s the point. Jesus told the disciples that you shouldn’t expect God to thank you for doing what you should have done all along. This approach emphasizes the duty of service to others, rather than the joy of being able to help.
Scriptural ideas affect what kinds of Christians we are
For a long time, I have been trying to make sense of the dichotomies that Scripture presents. In the last few months I’ve spoken to you about Original Sin and Atonement. I have written about Predestination in the new News and Thoughts blog on the website. These particular ideas have in common that they all originate with St. Paul’s writings. We do not find them in the Gospels. They are the work of people I’ll call the Church’s intellectuals – Paul, some of the early Church Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and the thinkers of the Reformation.
Deep questions draw deep thinkers
Like Jews and Muslims, Christians are often called, “People of the Book.” The study of Scriptures draws deep-thinking believers to deep questions. St. Paul’s later writings wrestled with why Jesus Christ, the perfect man, had to die. Paul’s explanation involved Atonement, Original Sin, and Predestination. They led to a particular understanding about the Christian faith.
Later thinkers elaborated Paul’s ideas and the Church authorities called them doctrines, things that must be believed. But when you stop and consider, all these ideas involve matters that we can never know. As an example, we can never know whether God chose certain people to be the Elect from before time began, or even whether there is such a group as the Elect.
In passing, I note that the Jewish tradition of midrash differs from the Christian tradition. Midrash seeks to unpack Scripture anew in each generation, and to reinterpret ancient stories in the light of new situations. It seems to me that Christians, or at least Christian authorities, try to find truths that are eternal, not plastic. I don’t know I don’t know whether this is a fair criticism or not.
The Gospels are less “doctrine heavy” than Paul
The Gospels do not discuss the sorts of doctrines I have mentioned. Jesus himself does not talk about them. In the famous John 3:16, Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believe in him … would have eternal life.” He told the disciples several times that he risked death by going to Jerusalem for Passover. But he did not say that God’s plan was that he must die for the sins of the whole world. John 1: 29 may offer a partial exception. There, Jesus said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Maybe the Gospel writer had read Paul.
The Gospel Jesus was a teacher who explained to the disciples how to live righteous lives. The disciples called him Teacher, or Rabbi. He was an extraordinary faith-healer, and also a prophet in the Hebrew Scripture sense. He warned his society what was wrong with it, and called for justice to the less fortunate. As I have said many times, he proclaimed that God’s Kingdom of justice, compassion, and love had already come near.
The Gospels reveal Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. He would usher in an era of God’s righteous rule on earth. That idea is where we get the judgemental side of today’s Gospel reading. How you behave on this earth will have consequences. This explains why Jesus said that if we treat other people well or badly, it is as if we had done the same to the Messiah himself.
Jesus brought new thinking to old doctrines
The Gospels show that Jesus was something of a maverick. He overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple, saying that such transactions had no place in a house of prayer. He healed and did other kinds of work on the Sabbath, noting that God had given the Sabbath for humanity, not created us to fit the mould of the Sabbath. In other words, he was truly Jewish. He brought new thinking to old doctrines, which was why the Pharisees disagreed with him.
The Christian Scriptures offer several possible themes to identify with. Most are hopeful. Christmas, Incarnation, offers the idea that God took on the role of humanity to show us how to live. At Easter, the Resurrection gives us hope that death is not the end of existence. Pentecost excited the Apostles with the sense of new beginning. They shared their newfound faith, and even their possessions, among themselves and with new believers.
But Paul, and those who followed him, focussed instead on the Crucifixion. Christ suffered on the Cross to pay the ransom for our salvation. For many Christians, this is the heart of Christianity. But it leaves us with an unshakable sense of unworthiness. The glimmer of hope is that God will graciously overlook our sinful nature.
Are we Doctrinal Christians or Gospel Christians?
So in my mind there are two kinds of Christians. I’ll call them doctrinal Christians and Gospel Christians. I’ve made these extreme categories for the sake of simplicity. But in reality we are all somewhere on a spectrum of belief. For Doctrinal Christians, salvation comes by having the right beliefs, which the Church authorities set. God will judge you as much by what you believe as by how you behave. It is probably not unfair to say that they are in the heritage of the Pharisees, of whom Paul was one before his conversion.
In contrast, Gospel Christians focus more of their attention on this world. Maybe I could even say that they seek salvation (or, “getting to heaven”) by trying to follow Jesus in their everyday lives. These Christians emphasize feeding the hungry, justice for the poor, and offering love to the unloved. They probably think rarely, or not at all, about the doctrinal questions that I began with. They agree with James, who wrote that, “faith without works is dead.” This is the kind of Christian that I aspire to be.