Greetings Friends and Peers[i],
I have been called to write this to you as a way to convey how I, in community with you, can trust in the message of the Christian Scriptures. Indeed, I feel a call to walk alongside you as a companion, a participant, and a gentle guide on your various and blessed spiritual journeys. The reason and validity I feel for this call is rooted in my Christian faith and traditions. However, this faith does not come from me alone, nor do my traditions simply get passed down through the institution of the church, but I am called by the Love of G-d through the Christian scriptures to be who and where I am. I hope to share with you in this letter how that can be, and what I believe the core of the Christian scriptures is for me, and potentially for you. There are large religious communities surrounding us that spend a significant amount of time proof texting scripture to say what they want it to. But I believe that, when one is aware of the context of the message, the community being specifically addressed, and can adequately separate culture from gospel, there is an underlying message of loving relationships that can be gleaned from the entirety of the text. The true core of the Bible is identity – the whole book is full of cultural stories of who we are in relationship to the Divine, and how we are able to relate to and claim what it means to love and be truly loved!
A valuable and interesting thing to note when reading the Christian canonical Gospels is that the chronology of them changes the image or portrayal of Jesus as time goes on without Christ’s return. Additionally, important to note is that these Gospels are not the literal truths of Jesus’ living, rather they are the stories of Jesus retold by people with a specific audience and agenda (similar to how I am writing you this letter!). Mark, the oldest of the four Gospels, paints a picture of a very human Jesus, who felt pity, anger, wonder, love, compassion, and a limit to knowledge [ii]. This detailed emotional expression of Jesus is Mark’s way of portraying that the Divine uses the ordinary for extraordinary things. The human Jesus is baptized into his ministry to do miracles and challenge the status quo of the church. And these miracles are all ways in which humanity is brought back into relationship with one another. Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus as fulfillment of Hebraic prophesy[iii]. Jesus becomes less human, and more a vessel for God’s validation of Jewish tradition, as well as a chance to reform it. To Matthew, there was a very definitive split between the ways of God and the ways of the Pharisees. Jesus was sent to be a mediator and a liberator of the Jewish traditions and faith.
Luke wrote a more historically directed account of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as directly relating Christ to validating the oppressed and marginalized of his society. Tax collectors[iv], Samaritans[v], and the relationships between rich and poor[vi] were vital to what Luke states as the Jesus’ mission: “The Spirit of our God is upon me; because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of our God’s favor[vii].” John portrays Jesus’ as the Christ – filled with the Divine, and teaching God’s Love and truth. His Christ is the image of God made flesh and continually present to us in the give of the Spirit[viii]. John is an important gospel because he relays the importance of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that the nature of John’s message is that we are being called into relationship with one another, guided by the teaching of Jesus, and maintained by the gift of the Spirit, who relates truth to us even now[ix].
Chronologically, Paul wrote 7-8 letters before any of the Biblical Gospels were penned. Paul had an urgency in what he felt was the core of Christianity in his time. His truth was that Christ died, Christ was resurrected, and Christ was coming back soon[x]. To this core were Pauls instructions to the early Christians directed. Because Jesus would be returning so quickly, it was important for people to be ready[xi], and for the message of Christ to be shared as widely as possible before that happened[xii]. Not much else mattered at first to Paul, other than relating this message to as many Gentiles as he possibly could. He also greatly emphasized to his various communities the need to live lives that were uplifting to others, to live in peace with non-believers[xiii], to treat others with respect[xiv] bestowing kindness on one another[xv], and to be united in both conviction, love, and purpose as a community[xvi].
His messages became more theological over time, since Christ did not, in fact, come back within the weeks or months Paul assumed at first. Paul’s messages became more directed at how these communities were to relate to one another, to their contextual cultures, and still live in unity with the message of the gospel of Jesus. He began developing a lived theology for the early Christians. He addressed some of the realities associated with marriage[xvii], early body theology[xviii], and the humanity/divinity of Jesus[xix].
However, here is where I believe Paul’s writings will become interesting to you (if they haven’t already!). Paul writes of inclusivity, community, a largeness of salvation, the relationship of faith, hope, and love, and grace. When we are able to recognize that culture plays a large role in the whys and hows of Paul’s letters, we are able to see that Paul’s Christianity is highly inclusive. Now, everyone and anyone can enter the kingdom of God, people groups and genders[xx]! Salvation was now communal[xxi]. And this inclusivity created a newly diverse community that needed to learn how to be in relationship with one another. Paul taught about spiritual gifts and how they help a community function as a whole[xxii]. He later wrote, “but be careful in how you live out your freedom in Christ, serve one another in works of love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in a single command : love your neighbor as yourself[xxiii].”
Paul’s later letter to the Romans in brilliantly inclusive, as well as formative for a living faith. His message is that God’s promises are forever – God’s promises to the Jewish community do not die in Christ, but are forever, and that they are marked on our hearts as a blessing. When we take the chance to follow the spirit (our spirits), and not worry about the letter of the Law, we are freed to seek the praises of God and not humankind[xxiv]. There is a freedom and flexibility in this theology that appeals to all humanity. For me, I see it as an opportunity to trust my God given/God inspired gut intuition to be that which can call and motivate me to community and love and relationship with God, self, and others. This existed before, but was able to be received in a more tangible way in the gift of Christ. We are reminded by Paul that everyone falls short of that which we are capable of reaching, but it is through the grace of God in the gift of Christ that we are able to do anything valuable for our communities without our own desires clouding the whole exchange[xxv]. He gives us an insightful list of values to use in the midst of community living that remind us to love, be respectful, bless others, be hospitable with your resources, meet people in their emotions, be at peace, and overcome evil[xxvi]. And he calls us to allow the happiness of others to make us happy, and the pain of others to bring us grief[xxvii].
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, I challenge you to look at the Christian Scriptures in their context and take them and their cultural significance with the grain of salt so many of our religious traditions refuse to do. When so much of the writings seem to be in conflict, now we might be able to recognize that it is not the scripture that is paradoxical, it is the cultural context. Therefore, we may attempt to live into the spirituality that comes from our God-imaged selves, and take heed of what the Christian scriptures have to say to us now about relationships with one another and with the Divine. One message I hear loud and clearly from Paul’s letters is that our spirituality that we claim as individual and personal is not necessarily something that comes from us, but is truly something that comes from and grows out of the nature of community and our relationships. For God is present to us in and through all of our interactions with one another and the created world, connecting us to one another. This, to me, implies that there is a resonance to the stories our ancestors share with us in the Scriptures, and we can bond to their experience without owning the condemnation or cultural teachings explicit to that context.
I believe that the core message of the Christian scriptures to us today is that relationships are more than the people we know or the families we come from, but are also the efforts we use to cultivate a connectivity to our greater world, communities, and selves. If we truly believe that our spirituality is that which binds us to the people around us, then the experience of participation in a religious institution can give us both the language to own that, and a place to challenge potential stagnation of our corporate spirituality. The identity we are able to discover for ourselves through these somewhat coded yet living pages of the scriptures is that we are loved beyond belief, beyond imagination, beyond understanding, and beyond boarders imaginary and drawn in the sand. Whatever the Divine is for you, if you can believe that Jesus was a model of love for neighbor, an example of a champion of equal liberation, and a person who can tie you into the greater community of people striving for a more just humanity, then the core message of the Christian scriptures is valid and living for you. May you never stop seeking, and trusting the intuition that draws you into loving relationships and challenging questions.
Your sister in Spirit and Truth,
[i] The demographic I have chosen to address is the Pacific Northwest community that claims they are spiritual but not religious. I feel a strong sense of call to work in the long term with this community, and I am already quite involved in specifically young adult dialogue around spirituality.
[ii] Mark 1:41; Mk 3:5; Mk 6:6; Mk 6:34; Mk 13:32(The Inclusive Bible: the First Egalitarian Version – all references from this translation)
[iii]11 prophetic fulfillments are mentioned throughout Matthew’s gospel: Mt 1:22-23; 2:5-6; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23;4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:14-15; 21:4-5; 27:9-10
[iv] Lk. 19:2-6
[v] Lk. 10:29-37; 17:11-19
[vi] Lk. 12:16-21
[vii] Lk. 4:18-19
[viii] Jn. 20:22
[ix] Jn. 14:25-26; 16:13
[x] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16
[xi] 1 Thess. 5:1-3
[xii] 1 Thess. 5:14-15
[xiii] 1 Corinthians 7:15
[xiv] Colossians 3:18-4:1
[xv] Philemon 13
[xvi] Philippians 2:2
[xvii] 1 Corinthians 7
[xviii] 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
[xix] Philippians 2:6-11
[xx] Galatians 3:28
[xxi] Galatians 2:16
[xxii] 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 27-31
[xxiii] Gal 5:13-14
[xxiv] Romans 2:29
[xxv] Romans 3:22-23
[xxvi] Romans 12:9-21
[xxvii] 2 Corinthians 2:2