"This is what Jesus did time and time again: he looked deeply and lovingly at individuals. Numbers, statistics, did not interest him – but each precious and unique child of God did. He saw the isolation, the pain, the profound need for healing and salvation." This quote came to me in the mail from Brother Geoffrey Tristram of Brother, Give Us a Word
One thing that it seems that Jesus was not trying to do was split up his contemporary Jewish community into factions. I think that it helps us to understand him when we look at some of the difficult things he said, rather than dwelling on the warm and fuzzy.
You can find some pretty sharp-tongued passages in St. Paul's letters, as he tries to keep the congregations that he was planting focused on things above and resist splitting into factions. That takes us back to some of Jesus' references to the Pharisees--of whom Paul was one--as being obsessed with the letter of the Law as opposed to its spirit.
The spirit of the Law was Jesus' strong point, we have to say. And yet, as he expanded the boundaries of God's love and redefined the nature of the being that the Jews were worshiping, we find one of his most unwelcome sayings right in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth passaway, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 5:16-20]
We don't like this saying. It makes us feel that we cannot attain to worthiness on Jesus' terms. I believe that it was because of this hard-line attitude that Paul came to the realization that no one can actually attain to the kingdom of heaven, or that is to say, no one can earn their place.
Paul, who was steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, knew what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the Law and the Prophets. He meant the rules and regulations governing the Jewish people: keeping Kosher, ritual cleanliness, attendance and practice of rituals in home and synagogue. And Paul also knew his shortcomings, which were the shortcomings of all human beings who are presented with an example of perfection. He writes:
"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin."
But then he made a remarkable leap into another consciousness in the same Letter to the Romans when he wrote:
"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
"God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. He did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
I think the importance of this quantum leap in understanding can hardly be understated, and it is all the more remarkable in that the early Church arrived at this concept at separate times and places. St. John said the same thing:
"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world." [1 John 2:2]
This is the root of all the problems of those who try to be Old-Testament Christians. The ideas that God is angry and punishing, the idea that he punishes children for their parents' sins, the desire of God to wipe out his creation, or that part of it doesn't count--all these ideas are obsolete to Christians. We liberate our theology from this kind of thought when we start with the question of the nature of God--who God is and what he is like. Beginning with God, we can decide what is godly and what is not. It works.
Beginning with the "given" of Scripture, especially the Old Testament, does not work. It drives people out of the Church, as I can prove to myself when I answer comments sent to me about what I write to the Huffington Post. The Church is castigated for bigotry and preaching hate, and after a bit those who are put off by it simply abandon the Church. We have to understand that this is happening in such numbers that it can be seen to have an effect on the numbers of those who still go to church. The Barna Group keeps telling evangelicals that their horrid preaching is emptying their churches, but so many of them are only doubling down on it in the mistaken belief that it will keep their congregation coming.
It won't. We have to begin with God. Who is God and what is God like? And then, what is godlike, and what is not?