Really? The Devil Made Me Do It?

There’s a lot of demonizing these days?  Some paint President Obama as the devil incarnate; others say Romney.  Iran (formerly Persia) used to call the USA The Great Satan.  Fundamentalists of every stripe love to talk this way. Oh, and in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, Jesus calls Peter (yes, St. Peter) Satan.  What’s up with that?  Horns, pitchfork, and a tail?

First off, the word “devil” is not in the Bible.  “Devil” is an English word.  In the Old Testament the word was satan.  In the New Testament the word was “diabolos” as in diabolic.

In the Old Testament the word satan appears three times; and in all three cases satan is not the embodiment of evil and has nothing to do with hell.  It’s not even a proper name.  The satan was a job title, like butcher, baker or candlestick maker.  The most famous example is in the Book of Job.  The scene is a courtroom.  God is the judge.  Satan is the “adversary,” which is what the word satan meant.  A satan was a prosecuting attorney.  A satan was a lawyer!  And he/she worked for God.  He accuses Job of pretending to love God so God will give him the things he wants. See? The satan’s job was to expose hypocrites and bring them to trial.  So, in the Bible Jesus taught from, the satan was an adversary.  Think maybe that’s why Jesus called Peter satan, for being so adversarial?  Makes me wonder. If satan was really such a big deal don’t you think God would’ve mentioned it more than three times in Jesus’ Bible?

In the New Testament, written a generation after Jesus died, satan appears 33 times.  In many cases Satan has now become a supernatural enemy of God, the embodiment of evil, the Prince of Darkness.  What happened?  Where did this radically different idea of satan come from?

Biblical scholars point to the 500 years between the Old Testament and the New. In 539 B.C.E. the Persians conquered Babylon and let the Jews go home.  For the next 200 years they lived under the influence of the Persian Empire, Persian culture, and Persian religion.  In the ancient religion of Persia people believed in a good god above and an evil god below, caught in a cosmic battle to win human souls.  The bad god was responsible for all the sin and evil in the world.  Love it!  Now we have a way to avoid responsibility. “Gee, God, it wasn’t my fault; the devil made me do it.”

Over the next 2000 years devil mania grew and evolved, a witch’s brew of popular myths, legends and folklore.  In the Middle Ages the devil grew horns and a pointed tail.  In Southern Europe the devil was red; in the north he wore black.  In Eastern Europe he looked a lot like Dracula.  In the American colonies devil mania fueled the infamous witch-hunts in New England.  In 20th century America a revival of devil mania rode the wave of the new fundamentalist movement that spread like wildfire across the U.S.A.

And all along, for thousands of years, the rabbis have said people must not pass the buck.  Ditto, Jesus.  Ditto,Paul.  The devil didn’t bring sin into the world; we thought that up all by ourselves.

You and I know that sin and evil are very real.  We’ve all known a snake in the grass who wanted to lead us astray.  But we don’t believe everything we see on TV, radio, movies, tabloids, or the Internet, do we?  But whether it’s the end of the day or the day of days, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and the letters of Paul, all attest that in the cross of Christ we already know the verdict.  Our attorney for the defense is Jesus Christ who took upon himself the sins of the whole world.  God’s perfect love, God’s amazing grace, God’s mercy, God’s power, and God’s victory, these, my friends, you will find all through the Bible and in every one of the Christian creeds.  It’s like what Paul said in Romans, “If God is for us, who is against us?”  What a great question.

In the name of our good God, and for the sake of not fanning flames,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.


When God Blesses America

I love my country and I’m proud to join my fellow Americans in honoring her this Independence Day.  But I do think  some aspects of America today are not quite what the Founders had in mind.  They believed the kind of democracy we have would depend upon the kind of people we are.  While the Founders were not all Christians, they were all godly people who understood that a good society is only possible when its citizens band together and help each other.  The critical word here is interdependence.  The Declaration of Independence established a political separation from England.  But when they set out to frame our constitution they cast our national vision in terms of interdependence.  Just look at the language of the Preamble: we the people (not just me and mine)…in order to form a more perfect union (us)…establish justice (for all)…insure domestic tranquility (between us)…promote the general (all) welfare…secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and all who come after us.

Whenever I hear people talk about freedom and what they believe it means to be an American, in many cases what I hear them describe is individualism.  I’m free to do whatever I want.  I take care of me and mine and the government should get out of my life.  But if all 300 million plus Americans are mainly interested in individual freedoms how in the world can we have a good society?

In the worldview of the Bible we are both individuals and members of community; real freedom grows in relation to both.  Here’s what the apostle Paul had to say on the matter:

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.  If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?  (Galatians 5.13-15; The Message)

I believe Christians have an important role to play in rebuilding the social fabric of our society.  Sadly, at least as I see it, some Christians today are tearing us apart.  So little love; so much judgment and blame and condemnation.  O, that we could all hear and understand Paul’s wisdom: that God’s Word is fulfilled in one thing—love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s how God will bless America, when we the people learn and practice love of neighbor.  That’s what will bring a more perfect union, justice, tranquility, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for all.  Christian people can and should be a blessing to America.  To do that we must stand beside her and guide her with the light from above.

All good things to you,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.

Who Is Against Us?

In his letter to those first Christians in Rome the Apostle Paul said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  God who didn’t spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will God not…graciously give us all things?  It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns?  No one.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”  Paul goes on to list things some might think can or should separate us from the love of God.  Finally Paul answers: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  There is no power in all creation that can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Excerpts, Romans 8.31-39)  Please, read the whole passage in the Christian scripture.  I’m not making this up.

At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans there was no Christian Church, nothing like the institution we have today.  They were small bands of people, Jews and Greeks, men and women, sinners and heathens, whose lives were being transformed by the love of God as they came to know it in the good news of Jesus Christ.  But if the Church had existed in Paul’s day I think he would have included Church in his list of worldly powers that lack the power to separate us from the love of God.

If you followed the General Conference of the United Methodist Church these past weeks, you know why I mention this now.  The “powers” that gathered in Tampa to debate and adopt church law actually had a debate about whether or not God loves everybody.  This text from Romans 8 was actually debated.  Gad zooks!  Some 47% of our delegates voted NO, we can’t affirm that.  I’m told many African delegates said, no, we can’t go home and tell people that God loves sinners, those bad people, those heathens, those non-Christians; those people are indeed separated from the love of God, according to loads of delegates, including many from the old American South.

Friend, let us leap for a moment.  Who was responsible for Jesus’ execution?  Jews?  Hardly.  Jesus was a Jew.  Most of his first disciples were Jews.  Was it the Romans?  Yes, in the sense that Pontius Pilate gave the order to execute him; but under Roman law at that time there was no basis for that death sentence.  Pilate said as much in John’s Gospel; but then he caved to pressure brought to bear by a Super PAC.  Who were they?  The Chief Priests and the scribes, the Sanhedrin, and the Pharisees.  Two things stand out here.  First, these were the power players in the religious institution of that day.  Second, and most importantly, they had their own interpretation of church law, mostly man-made law, BTW.  Jesus interpreted the law differently.  Jesus put grace first, rather than obeying the letter of someone’s interpretation of law.  I don’t care if your law says you can’t heal someone on the Sabbath; grace goes ahead and heals them.  God is love, people.

In our time the church is caught up in a global and epic struggle over the authority of Jewish and Christian Scriptures, challenging every interpretation of Church law as it has stood in the past.  For me, the Methodist tradition has always been at its best when we put grace first; Jesus did.  Jesus loved everybody before any church law existed.  I believe Jesus still loves everybody.  Before the gospels were written, before most of the New Testament was composed, Paul of Tarsus, himself a Jew trained in the law, a convert with his own experience of the living Christ, said, “there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  If God is for us, who is against us?”  The General Conference of the United Methodist Church?  Maybe.  But when we compare their conversation to Paul’s testimony in the New Testament, don’t we have to conclude that their debate on who is and who is not loved by God was largely irrelevant?  Go home, ye Methodists, and tell your people God is love.  If they leave your church, no worries; God will still love them.

All good things to you in Christ who loves you, no matter who you are,

david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.