The Danger of Turning Jesus into a Religion

star of david cross1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

Friends, you became understudies of God’s churches in Judea – the ones that are part of the Jesus movement. You take it on the chin from your own people, the same way they suffer at the hands of the Jews – who killed Jesus and the truth-tellers, and who sent us into exile. Not only could they care less what God wants, but they’re setting everyone else back by trying to stop us from talking to anyone outside their own sect. So, they keep adding insult to injury, until at last they’ll get what’s coming to them.

This is one of those unfortunate passages that gets co-opted for the justification of Christian antisemitism. Never mind that (1) Paul was talking about a specific subset of Jews in a specific context that can’t be generalized, and (2) he has completely misunderstood the dynamics of the crucifixion.

  1. Paul was talking about a specific subset of Jews in a specific context that can’t be generalized. Paul is talking about those particular Jews in 1st century Asia minor and Greece who objected to his trying to take over their synagogues with all this Jesus Messiah stuff. Instead of doing what Jesus told his disciples to do, “shake the dust off your feet and move on,” Paul kept insisting on provoking them. I’ve never known any Jewish person who objected to people having other religions. But I’ve known a lot of people, of many religions, who objected to people insisting that you have to be their religion. Which is what Paul was doing. Neither do I know any Jews who object to people spreading the word about non-Jewish religions. What I suppose they might object to is the way Paul represented his new religion as being the pinnacle of Judaism.
  2. Paul has completely misunderstood the dynamics of the crucifixion. Paul projects his own difficulties with people who object to his ministry back into events surrounding the crucifixion, and assumes that the same people were persecuting Jesus, and for the same reasons. As a former Pharisee, Paul knew that what he was preaching was something he had vehemently opposed only a few years before. Paul was a religious zealot, both before and after his conversion. And he cast Jesus, as he casts his enemies, in his own image, making Jesus into a religious figure. But in any case, Jesus was not killed by the Jews but by the Romans, and more specifically, by a collaboration of political and economic powers, both secular and religious. Jesus, unlike Paul, was not persecuted and crucified for starting a new religion, but for inciting a popular non-violent protest against the abuse of both religious and secular power.

Jesus talked a lot about God (as anyone would in the religiously permeated social context of his time and place). But Jesus, unlike Paul, wasn’t about religion. Jesus was about what we might now call restorative social justice. Instead of being against his enemies, Jesus constantly reminded his followers to love them. Something Paul and many after him, in their religious zeal, seem to have forgotten.

Be True

"to thine own self be true" tattoo1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

As you yourselves know, friends, our visit was no exercise in futility. In spite of having already suffered and of having endured the Philippians’ mistreatment, and in the face of stiff opposition, you know we were still brave enough to tell you the story of Jesus. So it’s clear that we’re not being deceptive, or underhanded, or trying to trick you.

But, upon examination, we have God’s seal of approval to share this message, and we do it regardless of whether people approve; we do it to be true to what God has put in our hearts. You know, and God knows, that we never used flattery, we never used the message to our own advantage, and we never asked for your praise or anyone else’s. We could have used our apostolic titles to demand special treatment, but we treated you like a nursing mother with her baby: tenderly. We cherish you so much that we’re determined to share not just the message but everything we’ve got with you.

You can agree or disagree with Paul, but the conviction with which he carried out his mission is out of the question. Paul will tell the story of Jesus:

  • No matter what anyone else thinks
  • No matter if he’s accused of doing it for his own advantage
  • No matter if people insult him for it
  • No matter if he is mistreated for it
  • No matter whether people receive it or not

You can disagree with his theology. You can take exception to his eschatology. You can berate him for his words that will someday be used to subjugate women, defend slavery, and condemn homosexuals.

But he does what he does “to be true to what God has put in our hearts.” And his example in that is worth repeating.

Consider: What is in your heart. What is it about you, that without that you wouldn’t be you. What is it that is yours alone in the world to do. And do that.

Be true to that:

  • No matter what anyone else thinks
  • No matter if you’re accused of doing it for your own advantage
  • No matter if people insult you for it
  • No matter if you are mistreated for it
  • No matter whether people receive it or not

In the end, you are responsible to God alone for being that expression of God in the world – for being the piece of the world that would be lacking without your being true.

You’ve Been Chosen

You've been chosen1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

A Letter from Paul (and Silas and Tim) to the church of the Thessalonians, who worship God and follow Jesus.

I wish you all grace and peace. We always thank God for you. And we constantly pray for you. We remind God of your faithful work, your loving effort, and your untrammeled hope – all of it for Jesus’ sake. We know that God has chosen you, brothers and sisters, because the story of Jesus affected you, not just superficially, but so powerfully that you committed to it with everything you’ve got. And you remember how we proved ourselves among you.

You, like us and like Jesus, happily committed your whole selves to the mission, in spite of people’s turning against you. So you are now examples to the faithful in Macedonia and Achaia. You’ve spread the Jesus story, not just in Macedonia and Achaia, but all over the place. Everywhere we go, they know about your faith. We don’t need to tell them, because they tell us the whole story of how warmly you welcomed us and how you turned from meaningless pursuits to serve a real God, and to wait for Jesus who was raised from the dead, who is going to rescue us from impending doom.

How do you know that you’ve been chosen?

Paul suggests that you might know you’re chosen when something grabs onto you in such a compelling way that you commit to it with everything you’ve got. You don’t choose it. It chooses you.

Music, literature, sports, science, politics, sculpture, mathematics, painting, spelunking…. the list of things to do in the world is endless. You may wish you could do one thing or another. You may admire people who do them well. But if you ask the people who do it as virtuosos they will probably tell you that they can’t not do it. “That’s a funny story,” they’ll say when you ask them how they got into it. But it’s not a funny story at all. It’s as serious as it gets. This is the meaning of their life they’re talking about. For them not to do it is to be lost to certain doom.

So, what (or who) has chosen you?

What are you going to do about it?
Are you ready to be affected by it, “not just superficially, but so powerfully that you commit to it with everything you’ve got”?

Hint: If you don’t know and you’re not already doing it, you might ask yourself, what’s the thing you’re most afraid of. More than likely the thing that you are most powerfully called to and the thing you are most afraid of giving yourself over to are one and the same thing.