Friday, October 25, 2013

The Eucharist Stumbling Block

Here is another chapter from my book written around two years ago, probably my favorite chapter. I decided to post it after seeing Rick Santorum's speech from CPAC St. Louis. Mr. Santorum is calling for Christian conservatives to change the way they communicate, something which I wrote directly against in this piece. But I'm posting this not to show disagreement with Santorum, but rather agreement. Specifically, I believe we can win. Both Santorum and I agree that the Truth retains utmost importance. Both Santorum and I agree that we need to learn how to tell stories. I think there is a subtle difference between what I'm saying here and what Santorum is after though, but I'm not sure I stated it explicitly in this piece. I believe that God intentionally made the Truth a stumbling block preventing people from coming to it. He intentionally presented it baldly, without apology, equivocation or sugar-coating. But Santorum is right when he says 83% of the Bible is stories. The Truth can be presented baldly in story form. In fact, the story Jesus tells here (seemingly about cannibalism!) is even more ribald, even more offensive, even more shocking than the actual literal truth. So shocking that a major branch of Christianity, Catholicism, still believes the exaggeration of the story to be true itself and of utmost doctrinal importance.

If you look at how progressives have used story-telling, they often use shock and awe. In fact they seem to prefer it.  I think conservatives have grown wary of the method not because the method itself is wrong but because it has only been employed, in recent times, by our enemies. In short, I see two different Santorum's emerging in his new film adventure: the old Santorum who spurns R-rated movies and laments the sin and vice readily available on screens, and the new Santorum who is a fighter, recognizes we need to tell stories and that shock and awe is the best offense. You can see glimpses of this new Santorum when he exclaims "Why are we playing defense?" and observes that progressives are winning in the world of corporate policy because they are the ones willing to be the "skunk at the dinner party". Really, this is the old and new conservatism, not just the old and new Santorum. Like Jesus, we must be willing to be reviled, hated and maligned for never compromising what we know to be true. We must be willing to offend and to shock. That is what Jesus did, and that is what made the crucifixion and resurrection so emotionally powerful that it resonated throughout all history. For when those who hate us see that not only did we stick to our principles in spite of being unpopular, but also realize in the end that we were right, that is emotionally powerful enough to effect a conversion.

We must resist the urge to change the way we communicate by making it less offensive. On the contrary, we need to be more offensive. Yes, tell stories, but tell stories that give offensive truths. We need to exaggerate the offensive and emphasize it. That is the lesson from Jesus' evangelism we need to learn. We need the Truth, and we need to communicate it early, often and in ways that force people to confront their deepest prejudices. We need shock, offense and we need to incite emotional responses in any way we can, even if the response is hatred. If Ted Cruz's Tea Party reception is any indication, the new conservatives are finally ready to do this. We need to shout down the voices of supposed wisdom and push ahead. If the Truth really is on our side, we will win.

The Eucharist Stumbling Block

College was for me a time to meet new people with different perspectives, as it is for many young adults. It was the first time I had a Catholic friend, and we once had one of those famous dorm-room arguments about the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and something called “typology” of which I have little recollection. The episode is important to me because it made me look a lot harder at John 6, the primary passage Catholics use to support transubstantiation. The doctrine of transubstantiation says that when Catholics take the Eucharist at mass, a Christian ritual the evangelicals among us would call “communion,” the bread and the wine are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ Himself. They are no longer bread and wine. They are in actuality the body and blood of Christ when the Eucharist ceremony is performed. This requires an extraordinarily literal interpretation of the famous communion passages in the Gospels like John 6, as well as a suspension of disbelief of which I am not capable.

The question remains how to properly interpret the passage. Although my interpretation of it is not in any way groundbreaking, for it is the obvious Protestant one, it led me to a whole host of other Scriptures and in fact to a common theme running through the entire Bible. When a Christian sees a concept which is present in both the Old and New Testaments, he ought to take notice. As I did so, I saw what I regard more and more to be a disparity between this theme in Scripture and modern evangelical Christianity. It is the theme of the Stumbling Block and the Remnant. I capitalize both because I have come to view the Stumbling Block as another name for Jesus Christ, and the Remnant as another name for true believers.

John 6 begins with the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus miraculously fed the crowd who had come out to listen to Him preach. The lesson of this chapter begins here. Jesus did not feed them because they were hungry and poor. The purpose of the miracle was not some sort of “war on hunger” campaign. In fact Jesus goes out of His way to emphasize that His purpose is not to satisfy physical hunger but spiritual hunger. Jesus fed them because He did not want them to have to leave His presence (Matt 14:16). Like the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38–42), the crowd had chosen what was better, and Jesus wanted to validate that choice. This is why John 6 is so interesting to me. If feeding the hungry was Jesus’ mission, He could have spent His entire ministry turning stones into bread (Matt 4:3). He didn’t, so what was His mission?

The next day after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus moves to the other side of the lake and the crowd follows Him. The previous day Jesus validated their correct choice to come out and be near Him. But this time Jesus rejected their choice. What changed? Obviously, the attitude of the crowd changed. Their reasons for following Jesus were no longer the right ones. As He explains: “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26–27). But the crowd does not listen to Jesus. They begin cleverly arguing that Jesus ought to show them a sign, like manna from heaven, to prove who He is. They begin angling for a free lunch, and Jesus refuses to give it to them. Jesus launches into a long and somewhat tortured argument trying to bring their attention from food back to Him. But they have become fixated on food and as a result many of them misinterpret what He is saying. They begin to believe He is asking them to literally eat his body and blood. They say: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). In fact: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed Him” (John 6:66). Today many Christians would call that unsuccessful evangelism. Jesus, however, pointed to a higher standard than evangelism.

I have heard the standard of evangelism used to argue that Christians ought to be pacifists. Supporting war, they say, makes Christians and therefore Christ look bad and drives people away from the gospel. I have also heard the standard of evangelism used to argue that Christians should support wars designed to bring freedom to other nations. If these types of wars are successful, they say, and then those nations will be easier to evangelize. When I look at the world I see that both of these arguments have merit. Again, I could argue that evangelism drives me to go to bars and witness to people there, or that evangelism requires me not to go to bars and tarnish the image of Christ. I could go on to other issues, but suffice to say the standard of evangelism can be used to argue almost anything. When a premise can be used to argue both one thing and its opposite without any glaring logical errors, a red flag should go up in our thought process. This red flag reads “Wrong Premise.” Evangelism is the wrong premise for a Christian. We take a Person as our premise.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

See, I lay a stone in Zion,

a chosen and precious cornerstone,

and the one who trusts in him

will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone,


A stone that causes people to stumble

and a rock that makes them fall.
” (1 Pet 2:4–8)

Peter is quoting three Old Testament passages: Isaiah 28:16, Psalm 118:22, and Isaiah 8:14. Obviously Christ means something different to two different kinds of people. There are those who believe and those who do not. Paul quotes both of the Isaiah passages together as if they were one passage in Romans 9:33, just after quoting a passage about the remnant of Israel. Obviously these Old Testament quotations were very important to the theology of the early Christian church. Romans 1–8 is Paul’s main argument, which I discussed in chapter nineteen. Romans 9–11 was written to answer the question, “What about Israel?” Paul’s answer to this question is less complicated than some have tried to make it:

"God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. What then? “What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened. . . .” (Rom 11:2–7)

What’s that? Paul believes that there were actually two groups of people within Israel? Some of them were hardened and others were not? There was a remnant within Israel of true believers, while the rest were not true believers? But wasn’t Judaism a matter of following the law, of making the sacrifices and whatnot? Wasn’t Judaism an ethnic deal? Once born a Jew weren’t you in good with God for life? Apparently not. After all, Jesus said God could make sons of Abraham out of stones (Matt 3:9, Luke 3:8). Here we see the real source of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The question at issue was not trivial. What defines the true follower of God?

The Pharisees and teachers of the law claimed that the true follower is defined by following the Old Testament law. This made them the authorities over who was in and who was out. Naturally they would react strongly against anyone who directly challenged the source of their power. Jesus did so by saying that faith was the true defining line, not the law. Furthermore, Jesus claimed that anyone who had this true faith was enabled by the Father to see Him for who He really was: God’s Son. The obvious conclusion is that those with true faith would recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and those without would be blinded. This made Jesus the ultimate defining line between who was in and who was out, something the law could never do. Jesus never backed down from this teaching. In fact when given the chance, He always expanded and emphasized it instead of equivocating. It was the major reason the Pharisees conspired to kill Him.

As I survey the American evangelical community, I see what many people believe is the old and the new. The old mainline denominations are failing, dropping members like a leaky faucet. The newer generations see this failure and are trying to compensate for it. This process must first begin by pointing out the failures of the old in order to correct them. It is true that many of the old denominational points of view have become like the Pharisees, deciding who is in and who is out on the basis of doctrines other than belief in Christ. However, much of the criticism coming from the younger generations, at least much of what I have seen, is not healthy either. The problem is an overemphasis on evangelism as a standard. Much of the criticisms of the old by the new begin by elevating this standard even further when they ought to be subordinating it to a higher one. I do not want to pick on anyone individually, but a quote from Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins really caught my eye:

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a few select Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

In other words, Mr. Bell is embarking on a highly questionable interpretation of the gospel’s teaching on heaven and hell because he feels the traditional teaching inhibits evangelism. We are supposed to think this evangelistic standard is a criticism of the evangelical community. How absurd. In reality it is a vulgar but logical extension of it. Many of the emergent standard bearers, when they reason at all, reason in just this manner. The imminent failure of the American evangelical church, they say, is the result of poor evangelism. The way we share the gospel must be changed and updated in order to reach the new generations. That’s not what King Josiah said when he led the spiritual revival of a nation. That’s not what Jesus did when people started leaving Him.

In John 6, Jesus intentionally drives people away because He knows they are following Him for the wrong reasons. Think about it. Why didn’t Jesus just change what He was saying when the crowd began to misinterpret it? Jesus could easily have said: “Oh hey guys forget everything I said. You thought I meant literally eating my body and blood. What a giant misunderstanding! No, no, no. I just meant that you should listen to my teaching that’s all. Maybe I should stop using metaphors so much.” Instead, Jesus doubles down over and over again on the same offensive rhetoric. More and more people leave Him because of it. Jesus never apologizes and never backs down, even though He certainly could have and not compromised anything concrete in His message. He could have tailored His message more closely to what the people were willing and able to hear. Why didn’t He? Didn’t He care about all those people? Of course He did. He just cared about finding genuine faith a lot more.

What follows is one of the most touching scenes in all of the gospels. You can almost see Jesus standing there by the lake, sadly watching the crowd leave. Then He turns to his disciples and asks, quietly, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Simon Peter blurts out, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” This is the motto of the Remnant; those who remain when all others leave.

There are many today who say that Christianity in these United States is dying. We are following in the footsteps of Europe, just a generation or two behind. It is nothing to God whether the United States remains a Christian nation or not. God will always preserve the Church. There will always be a Remnant. Perhaps it is time for us to pass the torch to other nations. Perhaps it is time for us to fade away, cut our losses and take on the historical role of the minority Christian, traveling in a hostile and foreign land. Many young and old say that, but I do not believe it. When I look at this land that I love, I do not see what God saw in Sodom and Gomorrah. I see righteous people of genuine faith everywhere I look. And I cannot believe that God is done with us yet. Not while we remain.