Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Love the Lower Law

As Christians, and especially as Latter-day Saints, we have a tendency to get carried away in our rejoicing in the gospel to the point that we disparage all other faith traditions. One common target of our scorn is Judaism, especially the Jews of Christ’s day. We insult them for their failure to recognize Christ as the Messiah. We accuse them of spitefully deleting Messianic passages from the Bible (passages we can rarely prove were ever part of the Bible). We revile them for creating a “fence around the law,” forgetting that the Sermon on the Mount did exactly the same thing and that our prophets today engage in similar behavior.

We also have the tendency to be simultaneously too deep and too shallow in our reading of the scriptures. In our desire to see all of scripture through the lens of our theology, we look for “Bible bullets” to prove our doctrines in sacred writ that others see as simple stories. We look too deeply and read too much into the texts. In stretching scriptures to fit our mold we do the stories, their authors, and ourselves a disservice, because in doing so, we fail to allow the scriptures to speak for themselves, to say what they want to say; we denigrate the authors and other believers in the same sacred texts because they don’t find the same meaning; and we fail to appreciate other themes of the scriptures because we’re so busy squishing them into a particular mold that we miss their stand-alone richness and depth.

We can sometimes be too shallow when we dismiss the Old Testament and especially the Law of Moses as an outdated, cruel relic of the Stone Age. In the Church especially, sometimes we are so eager to congratulate ourselves on belonging to the “only true church” and having the “fullness of the restored gospel” that we forget that we are not the only ones who have been taught the gospel, in whatever degree of fullness. In our zeal to speak well of the restoration, we make sharp contrasts between our own commandments and the law of Moses, speaking of the law of Moses as a cumbersome, overwrought law code that over-stepped its bounds, whereas our own “higher law” teaches us correct principles and lets us govern ourselves (with all the self-righteous smugness that entails).

We forget that the law of Moses was not a bad law—it was a good law, and it was given by Jehovah, the premortal Jesus Christ, to bring His chosen people—people He loved—closer to Him. It was so detailed because it was intended to bring the people to remember Christ daily in conjunction with ordinary events. The law of Moses infused the mundane with holiness.

It is also important to realize that the “higher law” of the gospel did not come into existence in a vacuum. It was based on the teachings of Apostles and Prophets who followed, and encouraged their people to follow, the Law of Moses. Even our beloved Book of Mormon speaks well of the law, “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God...And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled” (2 Nephi 25:23-24). The Book of Mormon prophets found Christ in the law of Moses, and kept the law because it brought them closer to Christ.

Likewise, Jesus Christ, in His earthly ministry, encouraged the people of His day to keep the law of Moses, and to keep it with more zeal than the Pharisees did: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot [the smallest letter in the alphabet] or one tittle [a scribal decoration on a letter] shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. ” (Matthew 5:17-18). When asked the conditions to inherit eternal life, Christ told a lawyer that he need look no further than the law for his answer: "What is written in the law? how readest thou?" (Luke 10:26), and when the lawyer quoted the law, the Lord agreed with his conclusion, "Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live" (v. 28). The Lord never went on the record as an opponent of any legitimate part of the law--on the contrary, He defended the law against the Pharisees, saying, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matthew 23:23).

Since Christ gave the law of Moses, supported the law of Moses in His public teachings, and fulfilled the law of Moses, which had been given to point to Him, it seems foolhardy to insult the law. In fact, Christ said, "Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:19-20).

Instead of focusing on stretching Biblical stories to provide Christ-types (though I don't dispute that legitimate Christ-types exist in the lives of prophets), perhaps we should look for Him most earnestly in the very law He gave. Phillip and Nathaniel found Him there, and said, "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45).

The Law of Moses gives us the most potent symbols of our religion. Christ tied His mission to symbols found in the Law—symbols that our culture would have lacked had it not been for that much-maligned “lesser” Law of Moses. Without the Law of Moses, we would not have the concept of Christ as the “lamb slain from before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). We would not think of Christ as the “Great High Priest” (Heb. 4:14). We would not have the symbolic foundation to say, as Paul did, “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ out Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The most beautiful symbols that Christ applied to Himself are those found in the Law. Had Israel accepted the higher law at Sinai, our religious discourse would have been bereft of the most beautiful symbols of our faith.

The Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His laws are the same. His purposes are the same. He is to be found in the symbols and even the finer points of His law. I believe that the Old Testament contains the fullness of the gospel because it brings people unto Christ. It allowed Saul the necessary foundation to be converted. It prepared the way for Christ to come to His people. It created the climate into which He was born.

Christ gave the law of Moses. He kept the law of Moses. He loved the law of Moses. And He fulfilled the law of Moses. And one day He will return to His people who still keep the law of Moses, and will renew His covenant with them, “And kings shall be [their] nursing fathers, and their queens [their] nursing mothers: they shall bow down to [them] with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me” (Isaiah 49:23). Those that wait for Christ and keep His law will not be ashamed, even those who wait for a Messiah who has already come.

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Feast of the Victory of Our God

I was asked to speak on the Resurrection in sacrament meeting this week. The following is the talk I gave:

Good morning, brothers and sisters. I wish to speak to you this morning about the wonderful doctrine of the resurrection. In doing so, I will rely on the words of scripture, and I invite you to follow along with me if you so desire as I read the words of prophets of God. We all know the story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and empty tomb, and most of us have visited a tomb or two in this city that purports to be the place where Christ was buried and rose again the third day. I wonder, though, if we have taken time to ponder the weighty significance of the resurrection for the plan of salvation and for each of us.

We know that because Christ rose from the dead, each of us will also be restored from death to life, and, as Alma put it, "even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. " (Alma 40:23) This part of the Atonement is a free gift that will come upon all men regardless of their actions, and because of its universal nature, sometimes we tend to take this gift for granted. But the early Apostles were obsessed with talking about it. The Resurrection was not just part of their theology--it was at the center! Every sermon they gave centered on the Resurrection. Every page in the book of Acts has some reference to this event. I can understand their excitement. Nothing like this had ever happened before. It was so important that, as the first chapter of Acts tells us, the apostles were ordained not just to be special witnesses of Christ, but specifically to be special witnesses of the resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:21-22).

Joseph Smith emphasized the importance of the resurrection when he said, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (History of the Church, 3:30). In other words, everything else having to do with our religion--tithing, food storage, eternal families, missionary work, the word of wisdom--all these things are of secondary importance when we consider the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The question we must ask ourselves is: Why is the resurrection of Jesus Christ so important? Where would we be without the resurrection?

Jacob answered this question in 2 Nephi 9. Beginning in verse 8, he taught, speaking specifically of the resurrection,

8 O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
9 And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; …

Why would we become devils, and angels to a devil if it were not for the resurrection? Why would we not live in heaven eternally as spirits? Why is it that we cannot return to our Heavenly Father without our resurrected bodies? One reason, certainly, is that our Father in Heaven has a body and Satan does not, and in order to become like Him we too must have a body, and without a body we are like Satan in that respect. But I think this answer does not fully capture the hopelessness expressed by Jacob at the prospect of being eternally without a body, devils, and angels to a devil. Why, then, is the resurrection so important?

The answer that I find most convincing is the one set forth by Paul in his monumental discourse on the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul discusses faith in Christ, which in his mind hinges on one crucial question--Was Christ resurrected or not? He declares the foundational importance of the resurrection, saying,

12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is
no resurrection of the dead?
13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he
raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:

Peter just said the same thing four different ways--essentially, that there is no resurrection of the dead, that means that Christ wasn’t resurrected. This seems very self-explanatory. Why is it so important that Paul repeated it? Well, one reason he gives is that if the doctrine of resurrection isn’t true, then he and his fellow preachers are teaching a false doctrine. This is a problem, of course, but not an insurmountable problem. The real problem is, as Paul explains in verse 17,

17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

In other words, if Christ was not resurrected, we are still under the burden of sin, not just the burden of death. How could that be? Let me suggest that perhaps it has something to do with whether or not the Lord has kept his end of the covenant that Moroni calls “the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins” (Moroni 10:33). That is, the resurrection is proof of the power of Christ and therefore proof of the atonement, and the lack of a resurrection is so disastrous because if Christ was not resurrected, as He said He would be, then He did not suffer for our sins, as He said He would, and therefore, we all remain under the curse of a broken law.* As Paul puts it,

19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

And indeed, if Christ was not resurrected and did not atone for us, then we will be eternally most miserable.

But Christ’s triumphant emergence from the tomb that Easter morning was proof positive that He was who He said He was, that He had overcome both death and hell, that He could give His disciples the power to overcome both mortality and evil, that is, both the blood and the sin of this wicked generation.

With this foundation, Paul then joyfully proclaims,

20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
…[and then, quoting Psalms,]
55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
57 …thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This concept of victory through Jesus Christ is one I found illustrated particularly well when I attended church services at another Christian church in the Old City. At the beginning of the service, the congregation sang a beautiful hymn that read, “This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia!” The song identified a key principle that we sometimes forget--the purpose of sacrament meeting is to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death. Truly it is the feast of the victory of our God.

We celebrate this victory primarily by partaking of the sacrament, a symbol of the body and blood of Christ. In studying the sacrament, I have come to love this two-part symbol, and I believe that it is the perfect symbol of the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. If you examine the sacrament prayers carefully, you will notice that the water or wine represents “the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them.” The bread, as the sacrament prayer puts it, represents “the body of thy Son,” but the prayer contains no phrase to parallel the phrase “which was shed for them.” Growing up, I used to think that if the phrase was completed, it would read, “in remembrance of the body of thy Son, which was broken for them…or which died for them.”

However, upon further study, I learned that the bread of the sacrament represents something far more joyous. In 3 Nephi 18:6-7, the Lord teaches the Nephites about the ordinance of the sacrament, and then commands them to perform the ordinance in His absence, saying, “And this shall ye always observe to do, even as I have done, even as I have broken bread and blessed it and given it unto you. And this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you.” The Savior taught that the bread of the sacrament was taken in remembrance of His body, but not just ANY body--specifically the body “which I have shown unto you,” and the body He had shown them was His resurrected body--not the body that was torn and bleeding and broken, but the body that was alive, that appeared in glory, the body of a man who had conquered death, the body of a resurrected God.

Thus the sacrament becomes a symbol of both parts of the Atonement--the water a symbol of the death of Christ, the blood that poured from Him as He conquered sin, and the bread a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, of the glorified and resurrected body that He took with Him from the tomb as He conquered death. The two-part sacrament is the ultimate expression of the Atonement of Christ, who said without contradiction, “I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father” (D&C 110:4). The disciples on the road to Emmaus had Jesus walk with them all day but did not recognize him. It was not until that evening as he blessed and broke bread with them, that they recognized Him, and later testified “how he was known of them in breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35). Brothers and sisters, I testify that the Lord can also be known of us in the breaking of the bread of the sacrament, as we participate in this, the feast of the victory of our God over death and hell. I know that the testimony of the apostles and prophets is true--that Jesus Christ died, was buried, rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven. I know that because His Atonement gives Him victory over sin and death, I can one day return to live in the presence of my Savior and my Heavenly Parents.



* I first got this idea from a teacher whose name I have forgotten. He and the Spirit deserve the credit for it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Holy Envy, Part 2

For an introduction to Holy Envy, and Part 1 of this series, click here.

I love the Catholics. I used to not understand them very well, and growing up I thought they were nice people, but misled. I never really appreciated Catholicism the way I have to come to appreciate it in the past few years. Here are some of the things I envy about Catholicism:

* Catholics have been largely responsible for maintaining the Bible that the rest of the Christian world now uses. Monks have copied and illuminated sacred texts for centuries. Those of us who love the Bible owe the Roman Church a great debt of gratitude for preserving it.

* I love the Catholic veneration of Mary. I always used to disparage it as idolatry, but as I have begun my own search for the feminine divine, I have come to love their love of Mary. Women always have to put themselves between the lines as they read the scriptures, to dig really deep to find female role models who they can emulate, but Mary is one of those characters who stands in the foreground of the New Testament as an exemplary woman. And in my search for women who have been well treated throughout history, I can find no better example than the adoration the Catholic Church has maintained for the Virgin Mary.

* I love the architecture and monumental size of cathedrals. Such soaring beauty and towering heights inspire me, lift my spirits, and turn my thoughts heavenward.

* I love the 14 stations of the cross. Though some of the styles of paintings turn me off, and I realize that many of the 14 stations aren't canonically supported, I think it's awesome to have a chance to walk around a chapel and think of Christ's sacrifice for me--bit by bit, not in generalities, but in specific details.

* I love the rosary. I actually bought a few here in Jerusalem. I love the structure of prayer, the idea of meditation as we pray, and the Five Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. I love the attitude of praising God, of meditating on His Son's sacrifice and death, instead of turning a prayer into a brief "thanks for the stuff I got, please send more."

* I love the doctrine of transubstantiation. I don't believe that the host and wine of communion actually become the body and blood of Christ, but I can love the heartfelt desire to unite with the Divine by partaking of something that is holy, that imparts holiness. It's a powerful symbol and a beautiful belief.

* I love the liturgical periods of time that separate the sacred from the profane. I love the idea of Lent, Advent, and Holy Week--periods of time when there are changes in the service, in the hymns, even in the altar cloths and priest's robes--all to demonstrate a difference from ordinary time. I love the feeling of anticipation, of preparation, of renewal that marks these special times.

* I love the music. Some of the most beautiful and moving music ever written has been written in Latin, for mass, or for some other Church celebration. I have a CD with some beautiful high church music sung by an accomplished choir, and I sincerely believe that CD will be playing on constant repeat at the Pearly Gates.

OK, now it's your turn. Here's your challenge: Find something you love in the faith of another--something you can admire, something that you can admit you lack in your own faith, but that moves you.

Picture from http://www.planetware.com

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Holy Envy, Part 1

The late Krister Stendahl, (Lutheran) Bishop of Stockholm, died almost a year ago. In 1985, he articulated Stendahl's three rules of religious understanding. They are as follows:
(1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
(2) Don't compare your best to their worst.
(3) Leave room for "holy envy."

Holy Envy. Those two words sum up my experience of many years. Holy Envy involves recognizing elements in others' religious traditions that one wishes were part of one's own religious tradition. It requires a great deal of humility to be able to say, "my tradition is deficient in this area, and his is superior. I wish I had that."

Until my teacher mentioned Stendahl this semester, I didn't know that this attitude had a name. But I guess holy envy has always been a part of my approach to religious understanding.

I have long admired Judaism. I began studying it in middle school, when a close friend, who was Jewish, piqued my interest. Of all the religions I now envy, Judaism was my first, and I think it will always be nearest to my heart. In the past few years, Judaism has been joined by Islam and various Christian denominations in my Hall of Envy.

In this and later essays, I'll discuss some of the things I envy about various religions. I invite you to consider my sampling and to create your own. Find things about the practices of those of other faiths that you can appreciate--things you find beautiful and meaningful. It is possible to do so without embracing doctrinal relativism or syncretic universalism. I invite you to experience the faith of others in a manner that will increase your own faith.

It is appropriate, I think, to begin this series with an explanation of my love affair with Judaism.

Since the world's three great Abrahamic religions spring from Judaism, it deserves a great deal of credit for being the bastion of monotheism and the faith from which the religions of most of the world's inhabitants derive. True, Judaism has done its share of change over its life, but it has also done a good job of remaining true to tradition. And it is that rootedness in tradition that I most love. As a member of a denomination with a very short history, I can appreciate the appeal of a faith held by one's ancestors for the past three thousand years. With that length of time to percolate, the Jewish culture has become so rich and vibrant, and I love the richness of this culture.

I love the reverence and love the Jewish people have for the Torah. Never have I seen a people so devoted to the word of God. In a synagogue, Torah scrolls, handwritten by a special scribe, are kept in an ornate cabinet and covered with velvet and precious metal. Congregants kiss the covering of the scroll as it is carried through the synagogue prior to reading. The entire service is structured around the reading of the Torah. There are prayers to be said before and after the reading, and libraries full of commentaries on its words. Boys become men in a bar mitzvah ceremony that involves reading from the Torah. Orthodox Jews maintain that every word of the Torah has a purpose--that not even a single letter is extraneous--that it all has great meaning. What a wonderful closeness we would have with God if we made scripture study such a central focus of our lives and our worship, if we had the same love for God's law that the Jews do.

I love Jewish blessings. In the Jewish faith, there is a blessing for everything--praising God upon eating bread, drinking wine, lighting candles, seeing a rainbow, or hearing good news. There are blessings to be said before reading scripture and after eating meals. As an observant Jew, one's whole life is infused with ritual prayer and praise of God for His goodness. In a tradition where prayer language often seems trite and meaningless, filled with vain repetitions like "than no harm or accidentmay befall us" and "bless the food that it may nourish and strengthen our bodies, and bless the hands which prepared it," where public prayer sometimes takes the form of a divine order form, I find the words of Jewish blessings refreshing and sincere, "Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu melech ha-olam," "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe."

I love the joy with which Jewish practice brings holiness to everyday occurrences, the way it sanctifies the mundane. I love the mezzuzah, the tzitzit, the laws of kashrut. I love the concept that God cares what His people wear and what they eat. I love the simplicity embodied in the Shema, the declaration of faith that states, simply, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

I love the dedication of Jews to their faith. Despite millenia of persecution, captivity, and massacres, the Jewish people remain rooted in and convinced of their Jewishness. Even when it has seemed that God has forgotten them, they have not forsaken their God. The Jewish people deserve--and receive--my utmost respect for their constancy and dedication.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my struggles to find my place in the world and in the plan of my Heavenly Father. As I was wrestling with these issues, I was also researching my latest topic of fascination--Judaism. I will always be indebted to the writings of one Orthodox Jewish woman, who struggled with many of the same issues in her own tradition's patriarchal culture. Instead of becoming bitter or giving up her faith, she found beauty between the lines, and carved out a place of joy for herself as a woman and as a Jew. She gave me some of the answers I sought, and the peace she exuded gave me hope that the rest of the answers existed. It was largely due to her understanding of her place in her own faith that I began to gain a sense of my place in my own.

I love the Jewish dedication to philanthropy. The world would be a wonderful place if we all paid as much attention to community-building as they do, if we made it a point to leave lasting legacies, if we gave back to our societies in gratitude.

How about you? What can you see in the faith of others that you envy and wish you had?

Picture from http://www.jewishroots.net/