Friday, November 23, 2007


1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10[1]

The Apostle Paul was a man of contrasts. By his own confession, he had been a zealous Pharisee, devoted to obeying every rule in Judaism in every possible application. As a result, when confronted with the gospel, Paul’s initial response was violent hatred. He tells us in the book of Acts that he was relentless in his pursuit of Christians, dragging them before the Jewish authorities, compelling them to recant their faith, even taking part in their execution. Yes, Paul helped execute Christians.

What makes a person who professes such devotion to God turn into a hateful murderer? The “new Atheists” would say that it’s built into the nature of faith itself. At least that’s what Richard Dawkins, professor of Biology at Oxford University, claims in his TV show entitled “Religion is the Root of All Evil”! As Will Durant, the famed historian of civilization, puts it, “certainty is murderous.”[2] When we’re absolutely certain that we’re right and our enemies are wrong, we’re much more likely to kill in God’s name.

Though religion’s newly famous critics have touched on some grains of truth, I’m afraid they’re guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water! Another Oxford professor, Keith Ward, says that while religion can be turned to evil (like any other facet of human culture), the roots of this problem are in the capacity for hatred and self-deception within us![3] If you doubt that we all have the capacity for hatred, just take a look around the next time you’re trying to find a parking place in a busy parking lot!

There is a very real sense in which religion can turn into neurosis: what a person has repressed—self-hatred, excessive pride, unbridled desires—becomes what they see around them in others. Of course, however, this is all an elaborate if unconscious ploy to avoid having to face the ugly truth within themselves![4] This repression one’s own guilt inevitably leads to a rigid set of rules and authoritarian beliefs that are considered absolute precisely because they protect the guilty from having to face their own shame.[5] Anyone or anything that opposes, challenges, questions, or simply departs from their self-made “idol” becomes the target of vicious hatred and violent attacks, whether verbal or actual.

But the truth is that their “faith” is not motivated by the gospel, or by grace, or by love, but by hatred. It’s no wonder such a “faith” is toxic, violent, and vicious![6] When you start with that kind of hatred, it’s no wonder that people kill others in the name of God, just like Paul did.

Jesus proclaimed a gospel that turned the obsessive Phariseeism of a man like Paul upside down. Instead of calling for strict obedience to rules and promising rewards only to those who succeed while threatening punishment for those who don’t, Jesus offered grace and mercy to those who had failed to keep all the rules. Jesus’ whole life, from birth to death, from the manger to the cross, was one of a shepherd searching the hills for the lost sheep, bringing “liberating grace to those who were cursed” according to the religion of the day.[7] His gospel was that “the outcasts are accepted, the unrighteous are made righteous, and justice is secured for those without rights” who had been denied justice by repressive religion.[8]

What made Jesus’ gospel an outrageous blasphemy to someone like Paul was the fact that it implied a completely different view of God. Instead of the stern and impassive judge who doles out rewards and punishment in strict conformity to obedience and sin, Jesus’ gospel presents a God who loves everyone so much that he goes out searching for those who have lost their way![9] That was an intolerable upheaval in faith and in the image of God for Jewish zealots like Paul. It was outright blasphemy!

But something happened to Paul. He came face-to-face with the risen and exalted Christ, who loved Paul enough to die for him, who gave his life for Paul that Paul might have peace with God, freedom from the burden of guilt, and new life of grace and mercy and love. In First Timothy, Paul says that the reason he experienced such mercy was to show that there is no one who is beyond the grace and mercy and love of God. If he, one who blasphemed God and viciously attacked Christians, could receive mercy, there was no one in Paul’s mind who could not. This was such a revolution in Paul’s life that he came to the conclusion that it was not the Christians who were guilty of blasphemy, but it was his hate-filled attack in the name of his faith that was the real blasphemy!

What an ironical twist—to say that a “religious” person like Paul who obsessively follows a set of rigid rules and authoritative beliefs is actually lost in his own guilt and self-hatred (see Romans 7!). But more than that, when people project their self-hatred onto God and create a religion of condemnation, they actually blaspheme the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ just like Paul did! In the face of the gospel of grace and mercy and love and life, any religion that claims to represent God’s purposes through violence or hatred must be seen for what it is—an absolute contradiction of the truth that God is love.

The only appropriate response for those who have been found by the shepherd of grace and mercy is to give their lives to others out of that grace and mercy, instead of living out of guilt and hatred.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/16/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Will Durant, The Age of Faith, 784; cf. Sam Harris, The End of Faith, 85.

[3] Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous?, 25-41.

[4] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The Yoke of Religion,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 93-103; Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, 258-273; Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 236.

[5] Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 300-302.

[6] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 296-297.

[7] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 82, 87; cf. Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 131, 176.

[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 88.

[9] Moltmann, Crucified God, 142.

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