Beyond Tolerance

abolished law

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Matthew 7:28-8:4


Paul’s letter to the Ephesians addressed the concerns of a church whose members were divided over the issue of circumcision. Jews practiced circumcision as a sign of the sacred covenant between God and their people. Greeks did not practice it. The church had members of both cultures, but many Jews felt circumcision was a requirement to enter into the faith of a Jewish Jesus. Paul taught them both ways were acceptable, because through Christ they had been made into one humanity.

More than a lesson in tolerance, this is a lesson in the artificiality of boundaries.

One modern parallel is the current division between self-identified liberal and conservative Christians. Another is the structure of denominations. If Paul is right, being one body doesn’t mean “conservative and liberal Christians have equally valid viewpoints” or “Presbyterians are just as Christian as Catholics.” It means those divisions … simply … don’t … exist.

We want them to exist though. We like to be able to point to our “tribe” of like-minded individuals for support and affirmation. While we should certainly stand firm on our principles and beliefs, those principles and beliefs can’t be about creating division within the Body. Nor can they be about bending people to our will. When we let that happen, it’s not long until we think we’re qualified to decide who is “in” and who is “out” of the Body based on tribal affiliations rather than personal commitment to Christ.

Labels exist to divide us. They say, “I am this and you are not,” or “you are that and I am not.” What starts as an objective naming of qualities inevitably devolves into a dangerous, tribalistic mindset that declares: “We are worthy and you are not.” When our allegiance to a label takes priority over our allegiance to the Body (and just look at American politics to see how that plays out), we suffer from a kind of spiritual auto-immunity, attacking parts of our own Body and destroying its health.

Tolerating each other is not the same as loving each other. The first reinforces division, and the second helps to erase it.

Comfort: The existence of other people’s beliefs does not threaten yours.

Challenge: Be sure to recognize the difference between being persecuted for your beliefs, and not being allowed to persecute others for your beliefs.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to love my neighbor as your child, and to remember we are both equally beloved by you. Amen.

Discussion: What social boundaries have decreased or increased in importance for you?

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Body of Work

PrayWithYourFeet

Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Genesis 16:15-17:14, Hebrews 10:1-10, John 5:30-47


Circumcision can be a divisive topic. Parents don’t always agree on whether it’s right for their sons. In some circles its medical benefits and risks are hotly debated. Many men –circumcised and not – find it a barbaric and abusive practice and actively work to abolish it. Others, such as those who incorporate it into tribal rites of passage, defend it just as vigorously.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, he required that all males of Abraham’s family and household – even slaves – be circumcised as a sign of that covenant. The practice was so important to the Jewish people that many early Christians thought Gentile men could call themselves followers of the Jewish Christ only if they were willing to be circumcised. Paul eventually declared Gentile fidelity to Christ a “circumcision of the heart” – that is, being bound to Christ through the Spirit, not the law.

Among Christians today decisions about circumcision are more about cultural and personal preferences than religious significance. Losing this requirement has expanded the idea of who belongs to God – Gentiles, women, and other groups can all be “marked” in their hearts without altering their bodies. It is symbolic of movement away from legalism toward grace. But in making the practice irrelevant to faith, have we also lost something else?

Circumcision was a constant, intimate reminder that a person had been dedicated to God. Does anything serve this purpose for Christians today? Physical sensations reinforce our experience of the world. From the immersion of baptism, to the bread of communion, to ashes on the forehead, to wedding rings on our fingers, we use physical means to express spiritual truths.

There is ancient wisdom in the spirituality of the body. Modern Christians dwell in a lot of mental space, often downplaying or even degrading the body. Each body is a work of art: God can sign it in many ways. Let’s be aware of how our bodies can help us connect to God through breath, music, dance, prayer, and even pain. Your body houses the spark of life God has granted you; furnish it with sacred intent.

Comfort: God loves you, body and soul. Always.

Challenge: If you are able to, try different body positions when you pray – kneeling, sitting, arms raised up, palms pressed together, head thrown back, face down on the floor – and notice how each affects your attitude of prayer.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the gift of life. 

Discussion: How would you describe your relationship with your body?

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