Richard's Food for Thought

Knowledge Is Food For the Soul-Plato

Food for Thought-Jesus Is Not on Trial (John 18:33-37) — November 21, 2015

Food for Thought-Jesus Is Not on Trial (John 18:33-37)


Some of the most compelling dramas on television are based in courtrooms. Legal fantasies which walk viewers through the world of jury selection, evidence gathering, and cross examination dominate the broadcast schedule of networks and cable television alike. However, most lawyers say, “It’s never like it’s depicted on television.” Nothing ever is, really.
For centuries, people who claim to be in the know have referred to this encounter between Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate as a “trial”. It’s really not a trial, even in the 1st century, Greco-Roman sense of the word. If it’s anything, it’s a trial the way William Shakespeare might have imagined two rivals meeting to discuss a moment of moral profundity in Act III of a tragedy. Others will say, “Pilate is the one who is really on trial here.” Yeah, ok. I see the point. But it’s not a trial.

The word trial leaves open the possibility that the outcome might not be set in stone. Trials, in our minds, are the result of a fair assessment of facts by a jury or judge. The decisions, in theory, are never foregone conclusions. Jesus is guilty as charged. He doesn’t need a trial. Jesus is guilty of being himself. He will die. We know this to be true. Jesus knows who he is and that his death is imminent. To call Jesus’ meeting with Pilate a trial, leads one to believe he might have the opportunity to be found not guilty and released to continue his ministry.  We know this isn’t true and is never going to happen.  No, this is not a trial.  This is a conversation between two men. At times it is awkward, uncomfortable, and one-sided. Yet in this conversation we learn who the early church understood Jesus to be. Our challenge, within this brief encounter, is not to miss the most important things said and left unsaid by both Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

Food for Thought-Awkward Discussion Topics for A Thanksgiving Meal in Rural North Carolina —

Food for Thought-Awkward Discussion Topics for A Thanksgiving Meal in Rural North Carolina


I live in rural North Carolina. I was born and raised here.  I know Thanksgiving is a time for family discussions and catching up on the world around you.  If you’re in the rural south (or anywhere really) let me offer these awkward topics for discussion at your Thanksgiving table. These are guaranteed to enliven any celebration.  Use them at your own risk.

1. So Mom, is the upstairs bedroom ready for the refugees?

2. Have you read those Biblical verses about welcoming widows and orphans?

3. I’ve just enrolled in a new class in Sharia law. They make some super points.

4. You know, there are parts of the Bible which are just as brutal as the Quran.

5. What Would Jesus Do?

6. Are you going to eat the drumstick?

7. So I hear you’re supporting this podiatrist Ben Carson?

8. Allah is the basic Arabic word for God. We could substitute God with Allah when we bless our food.

9. Why did you make so few deviled eggs? You know I like deviled eggs. Someone ate more eggs than they were allotted by the Thanksgiving High Council.

10. Praying five times a day, formally, as mandated by some holy book. Who could get any work done? You spend all day long in prayer? Am I right?

Food for Thought-Should We Let Refugees In Who Believe In a Man Who Committed Suicide By Execution? — November 19, 2015

Food for Thought-Should We Let Refugees In Who Believe In a Man Who Committed Suicide By Execution?


There are underlying reasons (not justifications) for everything, especially when it comes to religious belief and faith in God. If you realize you’re dealing with religious people in a religious situation, believe it or not, you can start to see why people take certain actions and do certain things. Devout people are predictable. For instance, I can tell you where many of the people I know are going to be on any Sunday morning at 11:00 am. It’s a better than average chance they’ll be in church. This is because they’re usually going by a sacred book or books and accepted faith traditions which determine their religious conduct.

If one reads these holy texts in some of the many ways they might be interpreted, one may form a good idea of what motivates them to do what they do. In my case, it’s possible to understand what drives them to make audacious claims about eating the body and drinking the blood of a dead Galilean carpenter. Far from an archaic practice which recalls an instance Greco-Roman cannibalism, we symbolically retell the story of how an innocent man died. And through this death, we’ve come to understand a fuller understanding of life in the present through something called the kingdom or community of God. This is because religious belief, faith in a God, has a habit of bringing out the best and worst in people. This type of behavior has occurred long enough and in enough religious traditions (especially the Abrahamic faiths), it becomes easier to predict and understand why people make both good and bad decisions in relation to their religious faith.  Placed in one context, we think we understand how our sacred stories can help us be better people.  However, these same stories can be can not be separated from the images of death and suffering where they found their origin.  The idea of a righteous death makes good people, especially religious people, open to the idea of dying for God.

At the most basic level, Christianity is a faith built around the sacrificial death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus allowed himself to die. He permitted himself to be arrested, taken, beaten, tortured, and killed by the Roman authorities. The words “allow” and “plan” are part and parcel of our Christian vocabulary. Except for a few sermons in Holy Week, when a pastor may refer to Jesus’ desire to have the “cup pass from him”, there’s never any indication given that Jesus didn’t want to die. We love to talk about how Jesus wanted to die for our sins. Jesus committed suicide by allowing himself to be executed by the Roman army.

Modern Christians take this idea for granted. It makes us squeamish. Jesus, on the cross, becomes the first Christian martyr. He is martyred for the ideas, beliefs, and religious vision. Towards the end of the 23rd chapter of Luke, awaiting his death by martyrdom, Jesus tells one of the two thieves who is dying with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” As a willing martyr, Luke says he awaits a place in paradise. We compose hymns about his desire to die. Palestinian mothers (perhaps from Nazareth or Bethlehem) sing songs today about their own sons who choose the path of martyrdom and death:

The martyr give us stone from his blood,
From his red blood thee rose becomes red
His mother trills for him in joy,
He has given his blood to the nation.

A camp meeting hymn by another name? It sounds almost Pentecostal, doesn’t it?

Are others killed when Jesus chooses to die on the cross? On that day, no. Will other early Christians eventually choose death, suicide, and martyrdom? Yes. Embedded within the creation our own Abrahamic faith tradition is the violent suicide by execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The glorification of choosing death would seem to be at the heart of what we believe and do. We appear to be more than at peace with this notion.  We revel in our bloody past.  We tell the stories.  We read the books and now we show the videos.

Who would want to let anyone into the United States (or any other country) who held such strange beliefs? Surely, anyone who believed in symbolic cannibalism or suicidal death cult leader would be a threat to the good order of rural communities all over the United States. He believes in dying and going to paradise? Are there 72 virgins involved? That’s awful suspicious. Could Jesus be a “terrorist”? What if Jesus’ followers infiltrated the country and started encouraging others to commit suicide as a means of civil disobedience to unjust laws? He did it once before. We don’t know what he really believes because none of us have read the religious texts relevant his teachings. Who reads Greek or Aramaic? Certainly not the government. Perhaps, we should ban all Christians from entering the United States of America. We might need to get rid of the ones we have.

Food for Thought-Surely This is About More Than Praying for Paris — November 17, 2015

Food for Thought-Surely This is About More Than Praying for Paris

Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr

So what do we do? What does a country do when it has bombed everyone it can bomb? Osama bin Laden is dead.  We’ve killed the number two in every militant group twice over.  What do we do when there is no nation state with an army to fight? Will the special forces of any given nation be able to complete what thousands of regular soldiers were unable to do in 15 years? What do we do when all we know how to do is mourn and mourn defiantly? What do we do when everything we’re doing seems to be playing out like a well-worn script entitled, “What to do in the first week and arguments to have in the first days following a major terrorist attack.” What do we do?

I think platitudes are unhelpful. I believe vague requests to pray for cities and countries have little impact; unless they are followed with specific ideas about which to pray. Prayer is confusing for Christians on a good day. In the wake of the attacks on Saturday morning, I needed to write down tangible people and places to remember in prayer. I might pray to go on vacation in “Paris”. I may remember visiting the Louvre. When I first saw these “hashtags” and memes, something didn’t quite connect. These prayers were about more than clichéd landmarks and ideas of Paris in my memory and mind. They didn’t seem to be about the reality of the event unfolding on the streets.

In truth, Praying for Paris means praying for people I’ve never met, will never meet, and who died in places I’ve never been. It also means praying for the Russians who died over the Sinai and the Lebanese who died 24 hours before the attack in Paris. Praying for Paris must mean praying for victims of violence everywhere. We have to pray in a contextual way that makes sense of our beliefs, remembers the dead, and doesn’t turn the symbols of grief into idols being worshiped.

Flags, towers, short video clips, and monuments all have the potential to become idols. The first commandment Moses gave the Israelites as they left Egypt addressed a prohibition against worshiping images and ideas he believed might be greater than the God who had delivered them from slavery. The first commandment hasn’t been far from my mind since Friday as I’ve watched the French tricolor pop up everywhere. Here’s my question: Are we worshiping symbols (yes, a polite way to say “idols”) or remembering the dead? Are we becoming slaves to the coverage of the carnage, worshiping the fear, riding the “How dare they attack city of lights again bandwagon?” rather than genuinely remembering the lives of those who died?  I fear we are.

We pray and we mourn. What else do we do? How do we find meaning in the midst of the meaningless? I’ve done a great deal of reading this weekend both in and out of scripture. I want to read the words of people who went through traumatic, anxious times and lived to tell the tale. On a cold Saturday night, after officiating at a candlelit wedding, I went to see Paul Tillich.

In his 1957 book, Dynamics of Faith, Tillich describes a “crisis of faith” in western civilization. The old German was right then, when France was fighting a colonial war in Algeria which set the stage for much of the immigration to France from Morocco and Algeria in the late 20th century. Paul Tillich is also correct today. We have a crisis of faith. There are people who take their faith too seriously; seriously enough kill others and there are those who remain completely befuddled by anyone still attending church in Western Europe.

Tillich goes on to say:

There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith.” It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men. Today the term “faith” is more productive of disease than of health. It confuses, misleads, creates alternately skepticism and fanaticism, intellectual resistance and emotional surrender, rejection of genuine religion and subjection to substitutes. Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that the word “faith” should be dropped completely; but desirable as that may be it is hardly possible. A powerful tradition protects it. And there is as yet no substitute expressing the reality to which the term “faith” points. So, for the time being, the only way of dealing with the problem is to try to reinterpret the word and remove the confusing and dis¬torting connotations, some of which are the heritage of centuries.”

Yes, we have faith in all the wrong things. There is a faith which says suicide vests will change our status in eternity. There is faith which believes that signs of solidarity, displays of lights, and singing “Imagine” will send messages of cultural strength to terrorists who could care less about how others grieve. There is a faith which believes our governments will do the right things when it comes to welcoming refugees. There is a faith in humanity’s goodness always deteriorating into name calling on Facebook. There is faith in the deity I call God and others call Allah, a God who felt absent on Friday night in Paris and was nowhere to be seen among the Russian wreckage in the Egyptian desert.

Yes, it is time to find a new word; a new way to remove the distorting connotations hanging over our heads at this moment. What next? What is the new word? I don’t know.  In the last sentence of “The Courage to Be” there is an indication of what one might do in times like this:

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

That is a good place to start.

Food for Thought-Hashtag Pray for Paris — November 14, 2015

Food for Thought-Hashtag Pray for Paris


I need to be told more than to “Pray for Paris”. Spiritually, it’s not doing it for me this morning. In light of what happened, the words sound vapid and vague. The phrase is already becoming commercialized, popping up on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and all over EBay.  Don’t get me wrong; the thought, idea, concept, and sentiments are good. My question is this: in the wake of such abject horror and terror, for what and whom do we pray. Where does one begin to pray? How do you do it right without making it cheesy, money-grubbing, and gross?

In such an overwhelming tragedy, I had to make a list. I can’t simply send good vibes to France behind a hashtag. I must write this out. I am praying for:

1. The survivors
2. Those who are coming to terms with the reality their loved ones aren’t coming home
3. Those trying to protect others from further harm
4. Those caring for the wounded
5. Those trying to connect the dead with the living
6. Those who believe faith in any deity means you have the right to kill another human being.

Food for Thought-Devoid of IKEA — November 13, 2015
Food for Thought-I Am Against Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes — November 10, 2015

Food for Thought-I Am Against Operation Christmas Child Shoeboxes


About a week ago, I was sitting in our yearly charge conference. It’s the meeting where several United Methodist churches in the area get together to vote on a couple of key matters for the coming year. Each church decides on a new slate of committee members and how much the pastor will be paid. In addition, a representative from each congregation gives a brief report about the previous year’s ministry. It’s always fun to hear about everyone’s covered dish dinners, Bible studies, mission trips, youth groups, and choirs. Let’s face it; we all do basically the same stuff. We operate from the same United Methodist playbook. We like to pretend we’ve reinvented the wheel from year to year and our version of fried chicken is unlike any seen in the universe, but it’s all pretty similar.

As I listened, each church reported their participation in a single common project. No matter the size or location of the church, the speaker inevitably came to this topic, “And of course, we’re about to start collecting for the Samaritan’s Purse (Operation Christmas Child) shoeboxes this year.” They would go on to tell how many years they had collected American toys for African or Nepalese children and move on to the next item on their list of good works. (I should note here, whenever Methodists gather, we are big on ticking off lists of the good things we’ve done, especially in front of other Methodists. This applies to charge, annual, and general conferences. We like to remind people how awesome we are. I think we subconsciously believe we’re reminding Jesus how Christian we are.  Methodists are not as Christian as we envision ourselves to be.  In reality, we could work on being less awesome and more Christian. However, at such meetings, Wesleyan humility goes straight out the window.)

Collecting toys in shoe boxes for Samaritan’s Purse/Operation Christmas Child (next week being the nationally designated collection week) has become a reflexive activity for most United Methodist Churches. We just do it. We don’t think about what we’re doing. What could be wrong or theologically unsound about sending good toys to poor kids on the other side of the world?

Samaritan’s Purse is headed by Franklin Graham. Anything Franklin Graham touches is toxic. The man is a religious extremist, whose ideas run antithetical to our own United Methodist Social Principles and Jesus’ own teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. We do not need to bless him with any degree of religious legitimacy.

The shoeboxes are often full of inappropriate and unusable items.  This is because Americans (or western Europeans) are choosing gifts they believe might “go well” for cultures and countries they know nothing about. As one missionary in Cambodia reported on receiving Samaritan’s Purse shoe boxes, “I’ve seen items like socks that are inappropriate for Cambodian weather and frequent flooding of the slum areas or worthless toys and trinkets.” Socks and toys seem like Christmas gifts, right? No. Couldn’t they have also received food? I can hear it now, “Honey, go down to the dollar store and get some cheap toys for those shoe boxes, you know those poor kids in Asia will love anything we send them. And we don’t want their feet to get cold.”

Shoeboxes do little to actually improve the quality of life of anyone who receives them. It makes us feel great. Methodists are hooked on dopamine and endorphins. We really feel like we’ve done something. But after it’s opened and the stuff inside has been shared, have you ever asked yourself about the long term impact of your gift?  After the high fades and you’ve done your mission moment; have you made more trash for an African dump? What about those clothes you sent to Africa? Maybe there was a local clothes factory or merchant in Africa who needed to sell clothes locally in order to stay in business? With the cheap, third hand rags we’re shipping over, how’s that local merchant going to stay in business? It might be next to impossible. It sure felt great packing that shoe box, didn’t it.

We’re sending the message that in order to realize Christmas, you’ve got to experience Franklin Graham’s (and what we’re enabling Graham to export) vision of a middle-class evangelical Protestant American Christmas. This is wrong. This idea rests on the notion that Christmas isn’t Christmas unless there are gifts, tangible presents, and we can’t explain the gift of Jesus unless we do it through the giving of gifts. Jesus brings joy and love in ways that don’t involve shoeboxes or gifts or any kind. This is what we need to be talking about in our pulpits. We don’t need to be sending this same materialistic, prosperity-driven theological garbage to the developing world.

Are these shoeboxes really about bringing a bit of the Christmas spirit to the water laden sock children of Cambodia, the earthquake trinket wearing kids who freeze to death in earthquake rocked Nepal, or is it about evangelism? In order to appreciate the curriculum and material which arrives with the shoe boxes (the Greatest Journey), you have to learn the larger Christian narrative. Kids have enough going on in their lives to intermingle witnessing outside their own faith tradition with the receipt of a simple gift. Imagine the pressure the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim children who receive the shoeboxes will be under when they go home and become unwitting evangelists? When their Muslim parents discover the Christian themed materials, will Franklin swoop in and fly them to safety at his home in Boone, North Carolina? Nope. Will the well-intention United Methodists who packed the boxes ever hear of their charity gone awry? No. Will we keep bragging about all the good we’re doing? You know it.

Food for Thought-Jesus Is Against Foreclosing on Widows (Mark 12:38-44) — November 7, 2015

Food for Thought-Jesus Is Against Foreclosing on Widows (Mark 12:38-44)


When did homeownership become a religious issue in the New Testament? The moment Jesus brought it up. No washed it the blood of the lamb here. No dying for one’s sins. Jesus is talking economics, housing, and the exploitation of the poor. Before we go any further, it’s important to acknowledge, these practices were as real to Jesus as they are to ourselves. This is why we take what Jesus says seriously. We don’t ignore these passages for the overly spiritualized sections that focus on personal salvation and ignore how we interact with the rest of humanity.

It’s also vital to recognize who Jesus is describing, both in his world and our own. Who benefits from the practices he’s condemning, who does what Jesus condemns and who are the impoverished widows (both now and then)? If we read closely, we’ll realize we know exactly whom Jesus is describing. This is one of those passages where Mark’s famous subtlety is exchanged for a 2×4 upside the head. Once you read this, there should be no doubt in your mind, who Jesus is and whose side he’s on, when it comes to the religious establishment, the religious elites, the financial oligarchs who are in bed with the religious power brokers, and the poorest of the poor.

Jesus is in the Temple. He’s teaching. They must have caught his eye. Surely you’ve had something similar happen to you. You’re talking and someone in an outrageous outfit or colorful clothing distracts you from the point you’re trying to make. As a result, you say something new, maybe even slightly tangential. “Watch out for the scribes” or “Watch out for the legal experts”, says Jesus. Is this a onetime thing? What do I mean by that? He’s giving them an imperative command. Does he mean, “You’ve got your driver’s license and now that you’re on the road you’ll have to watch out for this one and only railroad crossing you’ll ever go over.” Or might he mean, “Watch out for this one and realize there will be others for which you’ll have to be equally careful.” It’s the second one. He wants them to be aware on a continual basis. This is important, imperative, and ongoing. Like a dangerous railroad crossing, there are certain things you need to look out for when approaching something so dangerous.

Here, specifically, are the things Jesus says to look out for. Jesus doesn’t want to make sweeping generalizations. These are the people who want to be greeted with honor in public places. They want the best seats in church and at parties. And now, here’s where the homeownership comes into the picture. “They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes and to show off they say long prayers.” What has Jesus just said? Watch out for people who foreclose on the homes of the poor then hide behind the veil of elaborate religiosity. So the high up religious people of the day were also entangled with the banking industry in 1st century Palestine. It should come as no surprise that religious power found its way into the financial services industry. Under the crippling weight of Roman and local taxes, these pious people forced widows and orphans into homelessness. This is the observation Jesus is making. Jesus talked about this a great deal. It bothered him greatly. The Hebrew Bible is full of prescriptions against harming the poor and taking advantage of the most vulnerable people in society. However, the people with the most political power and with the greatest investment in maintaining the religious status quo didn’t seem to care about these core aspects of Jewish teaching. The scribes were into the showy, niche laws, the “what can make me look good” aspects of being a believer. Jesus went from town to town, city to city, pointing out the disparity between what the Hebrew Bible says and what the powers at be thought mattered. When we find him teaching in the temple, he’s making the contrast between his vision of the kingdom and the religious reality that currently exists. His mere presence is a reminder of the stark reality between what God envisions for humanity and what we create for humanity in the name of failed religious idealism.

Jesus is doing three important things in the temple. Jesus is sitting across from the collection box. Jesus is observing the situation. Jesus is calling his disciples to see the contrast between how the poor exist and the rich live. Jesus’ physical presence provides a living, breathing contrast to the dominant reality existing in the Temple. His proximity to the place where the money is collected lets the corrupt know that He knows. His presence puts those in the corrupt system on notice. He makes them aware that he and his disciples are not afraid of their intimidation, tactics, or practices. Jesus knows what they are doing. By being in the temple, even without saying a word, he’s telling them they’re wrong and their practices have a diminishing shelf life. What does this teach us? Our presence, our witness as members of the body of Christ, says so much sometimes, even without saying a word. We provide a contrast to a violent world, a world that takes advantage of those whom everyone else would kick to the curb. Our presence is a witness.

The last step of Jesus’ temple witness in Mark 12 is Jesus’ “calling”. “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I assure you that this poor widow has put more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury.’” Jesus wants to call the contrast into focus. He wants to leave no doubt in the minds of his disciples and those who are listening to him, who ultimately a more faithful witness. There should be no shades of ambiguity, guesswork, or deflection. The more faithful witness isn’t the person who prays long, repetitious, formulaic, but seemingly eloquent prayers. The person right with God probably doesn’t wear the finest clothes or even tell the finest testimony. Nowadays, I believe we’ve turned our testimonies into our “spiritual clothing”. The fancier the testimony the more acclaim you’re given; the further you’ve come from sin, the holier you must be now. I believe this to be one modern equivalent of Jesus’ critique of “long robes”. People who witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ don’t support, engage in, or turn a blind eye to exploitative economic practices. That’s straight from Jesus’ mouth. Jesus never spoke about homosexuality or gay marriage. He did speak about religious people’s complicity in making poor people homeless. You would think we’d focus more on things Jesus actually said.

Find a place to be a witness, stand as a contrast, and call the world into question. That’s about the most Christ-like thing you can do.

Food for Thought-If The Boat Doesn’t Sink, I Will Not Die —

Food for Thought-If The Boat Doesn’t Sink, I Will Not Die


If the boat doesn’t sink,
I will not die,
But I will not go home,
If my passport isn’t taken by the smuggler,
I will not become an unknown,
But I will not go home,
If I am not beaten by border guards,
I will not crawl to the next town,
But I will not go home,
If I am not robbed,
My children might eat,
But they will not go home,
If I am asked, does God care?
I will not answer,
Because I do not know,
In which God,
You will require me
to believe,
so that we may see,
a new place,
called home.

–Richard Bryant

Food for Thought-Anarchy in the United Methodist Church — November 3, 2015

Food for Thought-Anarchy in the United Methodist Church

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Jesus is not a thought; he is praxis-an action. If one reads the blogs, propaganda and plans coming forth in anticipation of the General Conference I do not see an active Jesus. The most common thoughts I encounter are the self-absorbed fantasies of a denominational zealots trying to save something that may not need to be saved. Peddling ideas, charts, and acronyms; they have solutions for every problem. These are the numerous “plans” to save our denomination. Within each of these plans, Jesus seems to be an abstract notion, a back burner issue. Rather than a front burner reality, calling into question the dehumanizing structures of power and oppression and urging United Methodists to serve the least and the lost, we have reduced Jesus to an inside baseball, doctrinal discourse on what serves our needs, our wishes, and financial realities best. The marginalized must wait until we figure out who we are and the self-righteous can return us to an 18th century Wesleyan idyll.

Are we “the United Methodist Church branch of Jesus movement”? Bishop Michael Curry introduced his tenure as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church by making a similar statement, “We are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement”. When it comes to contemporary United Methodism, in the run up to our General Conference, I’m not sure we could honestly make such a sweeping statement. We look more like the doctrinally fixated Methodist branch of some other doctrinally obsessed Methodist movement. There’s very little in any of these plans identifying Methodism with the defining element of the Jesus movement; serving the least and the lost, the marginalized in our society.

I prefer not to believe in the proposals I’ve seen. In fact, I reject everything. I’d like to believe we’re better than the solutions, compromises, and ideas floating through the electronic ether. In one sense, I’d like to see what magic God will work in spite of the best and brightest of the United Methodist Church. On another level, this is because I’m an anarchist. The first great Christian anarchist, Saint Paul, said there is no authority except God. What would the future look like if we got out of the way and allowed God to work? Perhaps it’s my Quaker ancestors or the basic anarchical desire to find order out of chaos.

It’s difficult to appreciate the total anarchy Paul brought to the traditional understanding of religious law when he introduced Christianity into Gentile communities. As the French philosopher Alain Baidou notes in his seminal work, “Saint Paul and Universalism”, it’s not that Paul opposes Jewish law he simply says its tenants no longer apply. The Christ-event changed the rules of application, universally speaking, for all of humanity. There weren’t plans of compromise, cohesion, or unity. It was a total religious revolution. He created anarchy in one community to find order in another.

Paul made agape love, openness, and unconditional socio-economic acceptance universal values within the early church by acting to undermine the tenets of established doctrine. Paul writes with the confidence of a revolutionary when he tells the Galatians, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.” Paul told his churches: the Christian communities and the societies you inhabit will come to be dominated by a universal sense of anarchic equality unheard of by the dominant power structures which rule our world. Sadly, the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline looks more like the power structures of the world than the universal sense of anarchic equality Paul proclaimed.

When we look beyond ourselves and our plans, to the radical other (living in our midst), people whose very presence calls our own self-aggrandizing definitions of agape into question, we will begin to see the distinctions between Jesus as thought and Jesus as action. We can also continue to talk to ourselves, convince each other that what we’re doing is more important than the hungry people dying on our doorsteps, or ignore the unloved people on our empty pews who could care less about the debates we’re so excited to have. We can do those things. Or we could do something different.

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