See to Your Sympathies in this Matter!

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1853)
"She gave me the scissors and told me that I had to cut down the middle of the face [to harvest the brain]. I can’t even describe what that feels like." PP Video #7

In light of the horrific Planned Parenthood videos, consider the concluding remarks of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), a novel which vividly depicted the cruelties of slavery and galvanized the American abolition movement:
 It is said, “Very likely such cases [of extreme brutality] may now and then occur, but they are no sample of general practice.” If the laws of New England were so arranged that a master could now and then torture an apprentice to death, without a possibility of being brought to justice, would it be received with equal composure? Would it be said, “These cases are rare, and no samples of general practice?” 
But, what can any individual do? Of that every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do, – they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity , is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of world policy?
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Embracing the Shame of the Cross

This is the text of the homily I gave this week at the daily Eucharist celebration at Asbury Theological Seminary:
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." – Mark 8:31-33 
In today’s reading from Mark chapter 8, Jesus reveals to his disciples that he is indeed the Messiah, but he is not the Messiah they were expecting. He had not come to conquer, but to suffer.

This morning I want to draw our attention to one particular aspect of that suffering. Modern descriptions of the passion often emphasize the physical pain that Jesus endured. This is not, however, what the gospels primarily emphasize. For example, consider the scourging of Jesus. This event, depicted by Mel Gibson in such excruciating detail, is not even mentioned in Luke’s passion narrative. The other three gospels, while mentioning the scourging, give no description of it. Mark summarizes the entire event in one participle. In contrast, however, the gospel writers describe in great detail the mockery which Jesus endured. Jesus is mocked by the Jewish guards, he is mocked by Pilate’s soldiers, he is mocked by Herod’s soldiers, he is mocked by the two criminals beside him, and he is mocked by the spectators below him. He is slapped; he is spit on; he is insulted. He is blindfolded and asked to prophesy. He is crowned with thorns, draped in a purple robe, and handed a reed as a scepter. In short, while modern descriptions of the passion tend to emphasize the pain, the gospels emphasize the shame.

This is an important point for us to grasp, because the experience of Jesus on the cross is the same experience to which we are called. Immediately after rebuking Peter, Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (8:34). We are called to follow Jesus down a path of scorn, ridicule, and distain. We are called to be laughed at; we are called to be made fun of; we are called to be dismissed as a sad joke.

Today I want to encourage us to embrace that calling, and not, like Peter, to recoil from it. The temptation to run away from the shame involved in following Christ takes many forms, but this morning I want to consider two specific forms this temptation may take for us seminary students.

First, as students of theology, I believe we are often tempted to use the academy as a means of escaping the shame of the cross. We know that the world views Christians as close-minded simpletons clinging to fairy-tales, but if we can learn enough Greek and Hebrew, if we can cite enough theology and philosophy, we imagine that we can escape this stigma. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe rigorous Bible study and rigorous theological reflection are essential aspects of the spiritual life. I believe we should be able to articulate a faith that is both reasonable and winsome, but no amount of nuance or sophistication can erase the offense of the cross. If we are not careful, we will begin to view our education, not as a means of serving other Christians, but as a means of distancing ourselves from other Christians. In the end, we may reach the point where we take pride, not in identifying with the church, but in participating in the world’s ridicule of the church. We may reach the point where we find pleasure, not in guiding others to a deeper understanding of the Bible, but in mocking the ignorance and na├»vety of the brothers and sisters we were sent here to serve.

Secondly, as preachers and teachers, I believe we are often tempted to use the pulpit as a means of escaping the shame of the cross. In C. S. Lewis’ famous satire, the demon Screwtape explains that Hell seeks “to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is the least in danger.” As preachers and teachers, we face the temptation to merely echo this “fashionable outcry.” For example, it is easy to condemn bigotry when everyone we know already loathes bigotry, but it is much more difficult to speak out against those vices which our society cherishes and protects. Now of course I'm not saying that we shouldn't speak out against bigotry and other unpopular vices. We certainly should, but following in the footsteps of Jesus will also require speaking out against those vices which our society embraces.

Last week I watched a viral video which some of you may have viewed as well. In this video, an abortion doctor sifts through the remains of a dismembered fetus. She was trying to determine which organs could still be salvaged and sold. As she rummaged through the pieces, she casually joked, “It’s a baby,” and after finding the leg, exclaimed, “another boy.” These videos force us to make a decision. As ministers of the gospel of Jesus, will we take a stand against the real injustices in our society, or will we simply repeat fashionable chatter, such as “reproductive justice” and “marriage equality”? It is easy for us to imagine that if we had lived in the days of Wilberforce, Bonheoffer, or Martin Luther King Jr., we would have bravely stood up against evil. However, in today’s world, denouncing the slave trade, the Holocaust, or segregation will only win us enthusiastic applause. The true test of our commitment to the cross of Christ comes when we face those evils which are still popular. As preachers and teachers, will we speak out against injustice even if it means enduring the world’s scorn and mockery, or will we only denounce those evils which have already gone out of style?

In the book of Hebrews, the author states that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame.” He then exhorts his readers with these words:
 For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. – Heb 13:11-14 
As we come to this table, we remember the shame that our Lord endured on the cross. We remember the mockery and the insults. This table, however, is more than a remembrance of what Christ endured on Calvary. It is also a reminder of what we who follow Christ are called to endure. “Let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”

Answering Objections to Intelligent Design (ID)

1. There is good evidence that life has existed on Earth for billions of years.

The ID thesis does not dispute this. 

2. There is good evidence that animals evolved from a common ancestor.

The ID thesis does not dispute this. 

3. Any theory that invokes God is outside the realm of science.

The ID thesis does not invoke God. The thesis is simply that certain features of biological life are best explained as the result of intelligent design and not blind chance. ID makes no claim about the identity of the designer(s). Of course, such a thesis has obvious theistic implications, but so do other scientific theories. For example, the theory that the universe came into existence at a finite time in the past has obvious theistic implications, but it does not thereby cease to be a scientific theory. Furthermore, the theory that the physical laws governing the universe are finely tuned to permit life has obvious theistic implications, but once again, it does not thereby cease to be a scientific theory. 

4. From a theological standpoint, the notion of a universe which unfolds from one creative act is far more elegant than the notion of a universe which results from multiple creative acts interspersed over billions of years.

This assertion is questionable. (After all, an artist can hardly be faulted for using more than one stroke to create her masterpiece.) Nevertheless, ID does not involve a commitment to multiple acts of creation. Take for example the origin of life. Michael Behe, arguably the most prominent ID advocate, argues that the chain of natural causation which resulted in the formation of the first DNA might stretch all the way back to the Big Bang. In other words, the universe might have been finely tuned from the beginning to unfold in such a way that at just the right moment in time, just the right particles would come together on planet Earth to form life. This event is so highly improbable that it should not be attributed to blind chance, and yet one need not posit any miraculous intervention after the initial creative act. 

5. ID invokes a “God of the gaps,” that is, a God who functions merely to fill the gaps in current scientific knowledge (“I don’t know how it happened, so God must have done it”). As scientific knowledge grows more and more comprehensive, such a God becomes increasingly irrelevant. 

As Oxford mathematician John Lennox notes, there are gaps which science closes and there are gaps which science widens. Early evolutionists imagined that the origin of life posed no problem to a purely naturalistic description of reality only because they assumed that living cells were about as complex as Jell-O. We know today that these scientists were quite mistaken. ID advocates do not posit design as the most probable explanation for the origin of life because they lack scientific knowledge; rather, advances in scientific knowledge lead them to adopt this thesis. 

Consider further that mainstream science insists that life originated through chance processes, even though no description of these processes can be offered. In other words, chance is invoked to fill a gap in scientific knowledge (“I don’t know how it happened, so chance must have done it”). Perhaps the real “God of the gaps” is not Yahweh but Fortuna.