Posted in book reviews, reflections

Scott Daniels on exile and the stories we live by

scott-daniels
Scott Daniels

How are Christ followers to live when society seems increasingly hostile to the church? T. Scott Daniels in Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Beacon Hill, 2017, Kindle edition) takes up this question, mining the biblical metaphor of “exile” for insights that can serve the People of God at a moment when – in the United States – our cultural influence is waning.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Christian clergy were paid deference, and the church was closer to the center of civic life. For Daniels, the word “exile” – evoking the 70 years that the Jewish people were in captivity in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 A.D. – is appropriate to describe the sense of disorientation Christians feel in 2020 America. Daniels observes: “People who live in exile feel displaced. They feel like resident aliens. They feel like a people who have to live counterculturally” (location 56).

One of the key fears of Christian parents – according to Daniels – is that they will lose their children to the surrounding culture. To pre-empt this outcome, he emphasizes that we must formulate a story and the practices to sustain that story (location 111).

Daniels cites the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche who famously concluded that “God is dead.” If this is true, then meaning must be made by each individual. But is this enough? Daniels thinks not:

Without God there is no more certainty or hope about the future. When the only meaning life has is the meaning an individual creates, it ceases to have any real or lasting significance. When the story that gave people meaning and purpose – the story of God – is gone, all that remains is a kind of hopeless despair (location 605).

In subsequent sections, Daniels outlines what alternative stories people live by. These include the “success” story, the “nation” story, the “humanist” story, or a fragmented story that weaves together elements of each (See Chapter 3, “This is My Story.”) Daniels summarizes well the non-God stories that thrive.

embracing exile

Overall, Daniels has written a helpful book that resonates with our cultural moment. Each chapter includes engaging discussion questions that let readers expand on the ideas presented. But where Embracing Exile comes up short is its failure to examine what version of the God story large segments of the American church have been communicating in recent decades. Is it possible that the messages we’ve been communicating have been more reactionary than Spirit-led? As the broader culture changes rapidly, has our response come from a place of fear rather than a heart of love?

In the church where I grew up in the 1970s, we often sang the hymn “I love to tell the story.” The lyrics by Ian Eskelin have stayed with me:

I love to tell the story,

‘Twill be my theme in glory.

To tell the old, old story

Of Jesus and his love.

Love is at the center of the Gospel message (Romans 5:8, John 3:16), but is love what we’re still all about?

A store in a mall became concerned about the number of teenagers who were loitering. Some suggested they were shoplifting or keeping older shoppers from entering. The manager did some research and learned that the highest frequencies can only be heard by those younger than 18.  So he installed a machine that would broadcast painful high frequencies near the store entrance. When younger teens came close, their ears hurt, so they hurried away. On the other hand, those 18 or older kept coming in. Their ears weren’t hurt; they couldn’t hear the painful high tones.

At the center of the Good News is love, but is love what we’re now broadcasting? Is it possible that what used to be a story of love with an attractive melody has mutated into a discordant and shrill refrain? Has what we believe to be Good News instead become Bad News in their ears, driving them away?

It’s possible that many youth turn to other meaning-making stories – what Daniels calls “metanarratives” (location 501) – not because they have rejected the historic, winsome Jesus story of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30-31) but because that’s not what we’re broadcasting anymore.

Here are three areas where our story – rather than attracting youth – may have repulsed them:

  1. Caring for the Earth – A strong stewardship ethic is apparent in Genesis and the Psalms, yet how often have we heard Christians mocking “tree huggers” or ridiculing those who advocate for phasing out the energy sources driving climate change? How might Lisa, an 11-year-old girl forced to flee with her family from a forest fire engulfing their Colorado home, respond if she overheard such comments?
  2. Gun violence –  Tonya, a 13-year-old girl near Pittsburgh, practices an active shooter drill with her classmates at middle school. After school, she steps off the bus and spots her churchgoing neighbor’s political yard sign touting “God, guns, and country.” If you were Tonya, what reaction might this produce?
  3. Two moms – In Chicago, Antonio, a 15-year-old boy long passed-over in the foster system, is finally adopted by a lesbian couple. At home one night, taking a break from his homework, he picks up his phone and begins scrolling through social media. He clicks on a viral YouTube video of a preacher who insists that “homosexuals are going to hell.” How would you feel if you were Antonio?

Note: Each of these scenarios ends with a question mark because I’m raising questions, not drawing definitive conclusions. Here’s another question: Rather than “Blessing Babylon” – as Daniels titles Chapter 5 – have we (with every good intention) unwittingly been “Cursing Babylon”?

The “exile” metaphor (while certainly present in Scripture) presupposes that a hostile culture has in some way marginalized a faithful church. (The Babylonians forcibly marched the Jewish mobility into exile, after all). This metaphor seems to imply that the church is the “good guys” and everyone else the “bad guys.” Yet as Wesleyans, we believe that God’s prevenient grace is active in every corner of God’s creation (John 1:9; Romans 2:14-15).

An emphasis upon “exile”- while well-intended for all the reasons Daniels outlines – may foster a back-door self-righteousness, a “batten down the hatches” approach that sequesters itself at just the moment when a world drowning in hate needs the engagement of a church turbo-charged by love. We are a missional people. Does talk of “exile” fuel that mission or impede it?

This short essay passes over other themes that Scott Daniels covers, themes that deserve their own consideration. Daniels, to his credit, gently invites us to think together about how we engage the world in faithful ways, without being “squeezed into the world’s mold” (Romans 12:2, Philips). We should thank Pastor Daniels for a well-written and thought-provoking book.

Posted in Christian ethics, Christlike justice, pastoral care, reflections

A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion

Environmental_day_specialAbortion legislation is coming fast-and-furious in the U.S. setting.  Multiple state legislatures  have been emboldened to pass restrictions, since the compositon of the U.S. Supreme seems to have recently shifted in a conservative direction, calling into question whether the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, will be overturned. At such a time, it’s helpful to review what our Nazarene Manual (2017-2021) has to say about abortion.

[Note: For those not part of the denomination, a bit of context is in order. Every four years, the Church of the Nazarene around the world sends delegates to a General Assembly. At the GA, decisions are made that govern the church. These decisions are codified in the Manual, the current version being for 2017-2021. The Manual also contains statements on social issues.]

Here’s the relevant section, from Manual 30.1, under the larger heading of “The Sanctity of Human Life”:

30.1. Induced Abortion. The Church of the Nazarene affirms the sanctity of human life as established by God the Creator and believes that such sanctity extends to the child not yet born. Life is a gift from God. All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in His image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported, and protected. From the moment of conception, a child is a human being with all of the developing characteristics of human life, and this life is dependent on the mother for its continued development. Therefore, we believe that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. We oppose induced abortion by any means, when used for either personal convenience or population control. We oppose laws that allow abortion. Realizing that there are rare, but real medical conditions wherein the mother or the unborn child, or both, could not survive the pregnancy, termination of the pregnancy should only be made after sound medical and Christian counseling.

Responsible opposition to abortion requires our commitment to the initiation and support of programs designed to provide care for mothers and children. The crisis of an unwanted pregnancy calls for the community of believers (represented only by those for whom knowledge of the crisis is appropriate) to provide a context of love, prayer, and counsel. In such instances, support can take the form of counseling centers, homes for expectant mothers, and the creation or utilization of Christian adoption services.

The Church of the Nazarene recognizes that consideration of abortion as a means of ending an unwanted pregnancy often occurs because Christian standards of sexual responsibility have been ignored. Therefore the church calls for persons to practice the ethic of the New Testament as it bears upon human sexuality and to deal with the issue of abortion by placing it within the larger framework of biblical principles that provide guidance for moral decision making.

(Genesis 2:7, 9:6; Exodus 20:13; 21:12-16, 22-25; Leviticus 18:21; Job 31:15; Psalms 22:9; 139:3-16; Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15, 23-25, 36-45; Acts 17:25; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:16; 7:1ff.; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)

The Church of the Nazarene also recognizes that many have been affected by the tragedy of abortion. Each local congregation and individual believer is urged to offer the message of forgiveness by God for each person who has experienced abortion. Our local congregations are to be communities of redemption and hope to all who suffer physical, emotional, and spiritual pain as a result of the willful termination of a pregnancy.

(Romans 3:22-24; Galatians 6:1)

Continue reading “A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion”

Posted in discipleship, reflections

Loving the world, forsaking the world

worldBurt Bacharach crooned: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

Jesus would have agreed. At the last supper before his arrest and crucifixion, he taught his disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, NIV).

The Lord was only asking them to do what his Father had already done. It was because God “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus (John 3:16). And Jesus in turn showed his love for the world, laying down his life for the world (John 1:29). It follows that what the Father and Son have done, we are called to do, loving the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet there’s an interesting tension in the New Testament books attributed to John. While there is a positive love of the world that fuels our service to God and others, there’s a negative kind of “loving the world,” one that chokes off our zeal for God and withers our concern for others. John warns:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them (1 John 2:15, NIV).

So which is it: Should we love the world or not? The answer is: BOTH.

Make no mistake: Our call is to love the world – all that God has made – wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in order that the world may be reconciled to God. We long for the day when heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21:1-5). God has a loving concern for creation, the cosmos. What God has created, God longs to salvage and to renew. To this task God calls us, to partner with heaven to redeem the earth, including humans who have rebelled against God. If we do not love what God loves, how can we cooperate for its restoration?

Continue reading “Loving the world, forsaking the world”

Posted in Christology

The counterintuitive God

clockCounterintuitive: different from what you would expect (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). Like a clock that runs backwards, there’s little doubt: God is counterintuitive.

Take the incarnation, the eternal Christ clothing himself in human flesh. If the choice had been up to us, we might have chosen huge and flashy. Instead, to bear Emmanuel – “God with us” – the LORD chose someone humble and unknown.

Luke 1:28 (NIV) tells the story:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Who was this “highly favored” person? Mary was a young Jewish girl. There was nothing noteworthy about her. She had no powerful connections, no high birth to commend her. Yet God – who has a habit of doing the unexpected – chose her to bear the Christ child.

Besides using the unknown Mary as Christotokos – the mother of Christ –  another counterintuitive element of Christmas is tactics. Christ’s coming to earth was hardly the Powell Doctrine. The former American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that – as a last resort – if the military must be used, then go big. Amass huge quantities of soldiers and equipment, then overwhelm the enemy. But on Christmas, God didn’t get the memo. He didn’t dispatch an army of angels (though an angel choir did sing for a handful of shepherds). Instead, God parachuted an infant Jesus quietly behind enemy lines, like a single SEAL in camouflage. In a world under the destructive thumb of the devil and his sinister band of brothers (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12 ), this underwhelming response seemed counterintuitive.

Besides choice of people and tactics, a final counterintuitive aspect of the incarnation is love. For a creation that had hatefully snubbed its Creator, one might expect in return well-derserved wrath, God paying back hate with greater hate. Yet to our utter amazement, this “SEAL” sent by God came armed with only one “weapon.” Hate could never overcome hate; only love could do that:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

Paul in the cross discerned heaven’s jujitsu, writing to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). The cross is a counterintuitive demonstration of God’s love for us sinners who despised him (Romans 5:8). While God’s self-denying modus operandi makes little sense to human calculus, love is the powerful magnet that for twenty centuries has drawn people to their knees at manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Humble Mary, baby Jesus, love – These are three indications that we worship a counterintuitive God. The LORD acts differently than what you would expect. For the sake of our world, may we as Christ’s followers recommit ourselves to doing likewise.

Posted in ecclesiology & sacraments, sermons & addresses

Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth

These rice harvesters outside Antananarivo model good teamwork.
These rice harvesters outside Antananarivo (Madagascar) model good teamwork.

In two weeks, members of the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene will vote on a new pastor. Here is the sermon I was honored to preach there this morning, in slightly modified form.
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SCRIPTURE READING: Ephesians 4:1-16 (Common English Bible)

I.  INTRODUCTION

There’s something about the word “secret” that draws attention. Marketers know this. Take KFC for example. They draw us in with talk of the Colonel’s “secret recipe” made from 11 tasty herbs and spices. Or what about the website, WebMD? A recent article spoke about “10 Diet secrets for lasting weight loss success.”

If a marketer had been assigned to the Apostle Paul, what might she have labelled Ephesians 4:1-16? Perhaps she would have spoken of “Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth.” And here they are:

1) Keep the focus on Christ.

2) Find your niche and fill it.

3) Above all, let us love one another.

II. KEEP THE FOCUS ON CHRIST

When you read Ephesians 4:1-16, there’s no question about who the star of the show is. It’s Christ!

v. 1 – Paul was a prisoner for whom? The Lord Jesus Christ

v. 7 – our gifting is from Christ

vv. 9-10 – It is Christ who descended to earth and who ascended to Heaven

v. 12 – We are the body of Christ.

v. 13 – As his body, we are striving for the standard of the fullness of Christ.

v. 15 – We are to “grow in every way into Christ.”

Theologians like fancy words. They would say that our faith must be Christocentric. In other words, Jesus must be at the center.

By no means do I agree with all that the Roman Catholic Church teaches. However, one of things that I really like is the sanctuary. When I go into a Catholic church, very often there is a cross at the front, in the center, a cross depicting the crucified Christ. The old hymn says it well:

Since my eyes were fixed on Jesus

I’ve lost sight of all besides.

So enchained my spirit’s vision

Looking at the crucified.

It is far too easy for us as the church to be distracted by minor things and turn our gaze from Christ. We are tempted to put our eyes on minor things:

Why did our pastor not do that? Isn’t that her job?

Why would sister so-and-so say such a thing?

Why was the music too loud this morning? Why was it too soft?

And when we start down that negative path, our eyes are diverted from the One who brings us together and the One in whom we find our unity! I’m glad that I’m part of a denomination that has chosen to put Jesus in our name. We are the Church of the Nazarene. Who is the Nazarene? The Nazarene is Jesus Christ.

Yet what kind of a Christ do we preach? We preach a Christ who reaches out to the marginalized, the forgotten of our society. Because Jesus loves people, he is never content to leave us where we are. Rather, Jesus is all about setting us on a new path. We serve Christus Victor, the Christ who is victorious over the unholy Trinity of sin, death, and the devil. Because Jesus loves us so much, he can never be satisfied to leave us mired in our sin.

As the Church of the Nazarene, we’ve understood that historically. For example, in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early decades of the 20th century, we started a rescue mission for alcoholics, and to this day the churches of the Kansas City area support that rescue mission, loving the poor and homeless, many of whom are caught in the trap of substance abuse.

But who are the other marginalized people of our day, right here in South Africa? If someone stood up among us and admitted that he’s addicted to drugs, asking for God’s help and ours, would we not help him? Yet I wonder what our reaction would be if someone stood up in church and admitted being attracted to the same sex, then asked for God’s help and ours? Would we distance ourselves and reply: “No, there’s nothing to be done for that one”? Would we not welcome them with outstretched arms?

And so we keep Christ the Saviour, the one victorious over sin, death, and the devil, at the center of all we do. It is this Jesus that will draw people to himself and to his church.

Continue reading “Paul’s 3 secrets for church unity and growth”

Posted in reflections

Where did Bresee get his catchy phrase? And does it help?

Phineas F. Bresee
Phineas F. Bresee

Last week, a Preacher’s Conference convened at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Though I was unable to attend, I caught my mind wandering back through the halls of NTS. Hanging on a wall in one of those hallways is a pencil sketch of Phineas F. Bresse, next to a framed quotation. Bresee, a key force behind the union of holiness groups in 1908 to form the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, cautioned:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; but in all things, love.”

I’m not sure why the administration chose to hang those wise words where everyone could see them. Maybe it was to prevent lively theological discussions from morphing into something toxic? Whatever the motivation, there is something I’ve since discovered: The words aren’t original with Bresee. In fact, a quick internet search shows lots of people past and present quoting them.

The original quotation was from Peter Meiderlin (1582-1651 CE), also known as Rupertus Meldenius, an obscure Germain theologian. Discussing whether the late divine Johann Arndt had been orthodox in his thinking, Meiderlin cautioned:

“In a word, were we to observe unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity, our affairs would be certainly in a most happy situation.”

Apart from the origin of the phrase, it may be asked: Does it help?

As some have noted, it depends what parties to a conversation consider “essential” vs. “non-essential.” For example, some seem willing to fight to the death over whether God created the universe in 6 twenty-four hour days. Others are more flexible, allowing God whatever time frame necessary, even billions of years, as long as we affirm that God is the Creator. So, group 1 sees so-called “youth earth creationism” as essential to the whole structure of Christian faith, while group 2 decidedly does not.

Some light can be had when we look back through history to see what a group has judged to be “essential” vs. “non-essential.” In the Church of the Nazarene, we have never had a statement committing us one way or another on the timing of the return of Christ. Instead, we have always merely insisted that he will one day return. We’ve left the particulars up to individual conscience. On that issue, we have always embraced “wiggle room.” The onus then is on the group that wants to jettison history and change direction.

Though it makes the phrase less catchy, we might amend it to say:

“In what we’ve always thought essential, unity; in what we’ve always believed non-essential, liberty…”

When all is said and done, the best way to read Meiderlin’s phrase may be in reverse and with some modification: “In all things remember love, even as we discuss things some consider essential but others think are non-essential.” Our starting point is always love. Otherwise, tempers may flare and we may forget our first duty, to love our neighbor as ourselves. May love always be our watchword and song!

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Photo credit: Nazarene.org

Posted in sermons & addresses

Hate sin and love God by loving others – 1 John 3:7-18

The chapel of NTCCA was full as Greg addressed graduates, their families, and friends
The chapel of NTCCA was full as Dr. Crofford addressed graduates, their families, and friends

Note: This is the graduation address I presented at the commencement exercises of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on 4 May 2013.

Scripture reading: 1 John 3:7-18

Text: 1 John 3:8b – “God Son appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (Common English Bible).

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“Hate sin and love God (by loving others)”

I.  INTRODUCTION

(salutation and all protocols observed)

We are gathered together today to honor the achievement of the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa, both campus and extension students. You have persisted through many hours, days, and months of study, and all for one reason: To better equip yourself for the ministry to which our Lord Jesus Christ has called you in his church. Today, we pause on this auspicious occasion to say two words: Well done!

Many of you have already been involved in ministry in the local church. Some of you will be taking the role of pastor for the first time. At such a moment, what words of wisdom does the Bible have for you?

We have heard the Scripture reading from 1 John 3:7-18. In the passage, two commands repeat themselves:

1) hate sin;

2) love God, by loving others.

Continue reading “Hate sin and love God by loving others – 1 John 3:7-18”

Posted in Bible, reflections

Jesus 1, Satan 0: Christ’s triumph in Colossians 2:15

gen31501It was a stunning victory, a serpent-smashing triumph. Paul explains:

When you were spiritually dead because of your sins and because you were not free from the power of your sinful self, God made you alive with Christ, and he forgave all our sins. He canceled the debt, which listed all the rules we failed to follow. He took away that record with its rules and nailed it to the cross. God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless (Colossians 2:13-15, NCV, bolding added).

This militant tone is woven through Colossians 1 & 2. In 1:13, the Apostle rejoiced that “God has freed us from the power of darkness, and he brought us into the Kingdom of his dear son” (NCV). Having been liberated, we must avoid being recaptured through “philosophy and empty deception” (2:8, NASB).

Sometimes theologians are uncomfortable with the Christus Victor motif in the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to fit very well with “loving God and neighbor,” the watchword of relational theology. But the two needn’t be seen as contradictory. If someone is captive, only love is a strong enough motivation for daring raids behind enemy lines.

Yet Paul understood the importance of balance. In Colossians 3, he urges patience, compassion, and humility, then caps it off with a call to love:

 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful (vv. 14-15, NASB).

There is a place in Christian theology for both Mildred Wynkoop and her emphasis upon love and Gregory Boyd and his image of earth as a spiritual battlefield. There is room for both because the New Testament speaks of both. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

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Photo credit: The Trustworthy Word

Posted in book reviews, reflections, The Wesleys and Wesleyan theology

When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love

relational_theologyThe word “relationship” is part-and-parcel of evangelical jargon. A tract left on a public bench may ask in bold letters:

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

And it is through the prism of relationship that some Christian theologians are formulating their views. A recent example is Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow, eds., Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Point Loma Press, 2012), a collection of essays written by 31 authors contributing insights from the relational paradigm to a spectrum of theological and philosophical issues.

Structure and target audience

Relational Theology is structured around four categories:

1. Doctrines of theology in relational perspective;

2. Biblical witness in relational perspective;

3. The Christian life in relational perspective;

4. Ethics and justice in relational perspective.

Nested under these headings are intriguing subjects, including (among others) sin, free will and determinism, the means of grace, how humans relate to the creation, social justice, and feminist theology. True to its sub-title, “A Contemporary Introduction,” each of the essays is short, presenting a fly-over view at 30,000 feet of the ground beneath. Footnoting is very limited, which frees the text of heavy documentation, making the read more user friendly, especially for the novice. On the the other hand, since the book is geared toward the non-specialist, it is puzzling why the editors chose not to include questions for group discussion at the end of each chapter. This would have made for better learning as well as improved marketing of the book to small church groups, Sunday School classes or other venues.

Those who clicked on the Amazon.com link above will notice that the book is listed as “out of print.” Strangely, Point Loma Press (the publisher) also does not list the book on its website. It is hoped that these glitches can soon be corrected so that Relational Theology will be easily available to readers.

Continue reading “When is simple too simple? Relational theology and love”

Posted in Christian ethics, reflections

Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?

The essence of the Christian faith is love. Rarely, however, do we ask: And what does love require? Jesus answered this question not with a sermon but through his actions. He showed us what love requires during an instructive encounter with a woman unfaithful to her marriage vows (John 8:1-11).  The religious authorities brought her before the Lord. They demanded: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (v.5, ESV).

The reader hardly needs John’s explanation in v.6 to understand that this was a trap. Their target was not the hapless harlot but the teacher whose growing popularity they envied. They knew that if Jesus excused her action that de facto he would be setting aside the seventh commandment, a serious charge against any rabbi. On the other hand, if he concurred with the punishment that these scribes and Pharisees were only too willing to carry out, his popularity with the people would take a major hit. After all, hadn’t Jesus said that his “yoke” was “easy” and his “burden” was “light” (Matthew 11:29)? Yet agreeing with their decision would appear to undercut that claim, joining him to those who specialized in piling up laws and interpretations. In the eyes of the common person, Jesus might go from “one of us” to “one of them.”

Continue reading “Love? Absolutely, but what does love require?”