Saturday, March 17, 2007



The original Gospel (good news) of Jesus was simple - it proclaimed unconditional acceptance before a loving God for all humans - period.

That truly was good news in a world divided by ethnic cultures and social systems; namely that there were no requirements to know the Father in Heaven, as Jesus called Him. One had only to 'get it' - there were no barriers to God - none - period. The kingdom of God was open to all just as they were - especially the ignorant and irreligious! Jesus emphasized that status, exclusive identity and learning actually hindered entrance into the kingdom.


Jesus was a human being before he was a Jew. That's why he called himself 'the son of man'. Theologians and ministers have complicated the oft repeated New Testament phrase 'son of man', making it out to be some puzzling and profound title with secretive implications. A 'son of man' was simply a human being. Jesus did not emphasize or identify with being a 'son of Abraham', a 'son of Moses', a 'son of David' or the 'son of Jewish lineage'. He was first and foremost a human. His good news was for humans, all humans. He set up no Jewish, Roman, Black or White ethnic or religious requirements. He was like the Chinese Taoist who said that a great teacher does not stress his religious training or lineage - he identifies with the people.

Jesus' message was innovative, unique and very offensive because of this borderless inclusivity. People love identify. Humans thrive on being unqiue, as individuals and as groups. There have always been sects, parties, guilds, societies, clubs, teams, unions, denominations, grades, stages, levels, tribes, nations and myriad identity markers. People want custom homes and custom clothes; teens have always donned a distinctive garb symbolizing their own unique culture that sets them apart from their adult parents. Jesus made God available to all other 'sons of men' (children of humanity).


A number of ancient Christian writings which did not make the New Testament reveal this emphasis on human equality. For example, in the ancient Gospel of Thomas, Mary said to Jesus, "What are your disciples like?" He said, They are like little children living in a field that is not theirs. when the owners of the field come, they will say, "Give us back our field." They take off their clothes in front of them in order to give it back to them, and they return their field to them."

The field is this world, and Thomas teaches that all of the status and identity coverings we acquire in this worldly field do not matter to God or effect entrance into the kingdom of Heaven. Clothing is often used in the Bible as a symbol of gaining or losing status; recall Joseph gaining and then losing two coats, one to his brothers and another to the woman who falsely accused him of rape.

We find many stories in the various mythologies having to do with clothing being shed or donned. There is Cinderella losing her slipper and the Big Bad Wolf dressing in Grandma's clothing. When soldiers lose their status before their peers, they are 'stripped' of their rank. Every group, guild or sect has it's special garb and badges. Clothing is a symbol of covering the human self, making it unqiue and separate. Nudity is the great equalizer - one cannot tell the Doctor from the whore or the Jewish Pharisee from the Jewish commoner. It might be noted that this is reason many sects, guilds and tribes cut, tattoo or mark their bodies - so they will be unique even when naked! We humans love our identities.

When Jesus was crucified, he was stripped and nailed naked to a cross between two nude criminals. Is this not the ultimate lesson of Jesus' gospel? The 'son of humanity' naked, raised on a cross into the heavens and dying on a dusky horizon with two other non-extraordinary humans. Is it not a travesty and the supreme irony that this gospel message of bare naked inclusion would morph into Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christianity with their special custom gowns, architectures, theological systems and countless associations and clubs of identity?


Jesus used children to illustrate this gospel of universal inclusivity:

"You must become as a little child to enter into the kingdom of Heaven."

Jesus said, "The person old in days won't hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and that person will live." Gospel of Thomas, saying 4

Children generally are pretty oblivious to rank and class distinction. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights is an example, with the gypsy Heathcliffe and aristocratic Catherine playing together as children, growing apart only as adults aware of status and wealth. Children don't generally require their playmates to assent to complicated philosophical or religious cosmologies.


The Apostle Paul initially preached this innovative spirituality of Jesus with the added dimension of the death and resurrection. Paul called it the 'foolishness of the cross', which meant that something cosmically perplexing occurred when people heard that God's love was revealed by His taking on flesh and dying on a Roman cross. To this day there is still something archetypally, inexplicably, powerful in that message (see gospel blog).

Paul (Saul) the Hebrew Pharisee originally hated this message of Jesus. It was an affront to Jewish Orthodoxy. As a result, Paul was shocked by his own unexpected 'conversion' to Jesus as recounted in the Book of Acts. We can only imagine what took place. He was a bitter Pharisee, an opponent of Christ, offended by the notion of a dying God that could be called Abba, or daddy. He was determined to stamp out a movement that was threateneing his heritage. We're not sure what his thoughts, conscious or unconscious, were as he worked to destroy the new Jewish Messianic sect that recognized Jesus as Messiah. But he suddenly found himself on his knees, as millions of men and women from all walks of life have for the past 2,000 years, a broken man in a new relationship to the God of the Cosmos.

Let me repeat, the original gospel of Jesus and Paul was a mystery. The word mystery means that it defies explanation, categorization or theological interpretation. It was an uncomplicated proclamation of God's involvement in human suffering, which for some mysterious reason, creates psychic seizures in the souls of thousands when they hear it. In our own generation, well known unbelievers have been affected by this mysterious archetypal symbol - Chuck Colson, Jimmy Carter, Dion Sanders, M.C. Hammer, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda and many others.

I have attempted to give my understanding of the meaning of this mystery in another place. But it is only an interpretation and not a belief system for inclusion or exclusion. True theology is simply reflection on the inexplicable mystery of the 'foolishness of the cross'. The Gospel originally was an unadorned, uncomplicated proclamation of God's unconditional love for all humans.


I challenge you to read the four synoptic gospels and find in Jesus anything remotely similar to what was eventually formulated in Paul's letters, and in later developed in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and myriad Protestant theological systems. Jesus' message was simple. He moved around Palestine among unsophisticated, illiterate, ordinary folks - healing, feeding, teaching and unconditionally loving everyone without regard for gender, ethnicity, social standing or religious persuasion. Over and over he recognized Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Samaritans and other non-Jews as being accepted by God without any doctrinal allegiance, religious ritualism or belief in a theological system. He took in men, women and children - slaves and slave owners. Jesus said that his Father-God embraced whores, adulterers, drunks, lepers, terrorists (zealots) and extortionists (tax collectors) into the kingdom without doctrinal beliefs.

Jesus certainly never required any of the convoluted and confounding doctrines Catholics and evangelicals would eventually place in their episcopal creeds, exclusive confessions and church by-laws. Jesus never required belief in an inspired or inerrant Bible, the Trinity, the virgin birth, a physical resurrection or the second coming. The only people Jesus really challenged were those demanding religious tests for admittance into the kingdom of God. Paul the Pharisee initially despised this wishy-washy subjectivism, but later saw the simple logic of the One God's love for all humans. Then Paul preached as Jesus did – unconditional entrance into the kingdom for all humans.


As I mentioned, Paul originally proclaimed a simple gospel of acceptance which was available to all men and women, Jews and non-Jews. Hundreds accepted this message of union with God through the crucified and resurrected Christ as Paul went from town to town, synagogue to synagogue. New groups were springing up in Syria, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Rome. However, when Paul left the towns, and sometimes even before he left, Jewish teachers were entering these groups, teaching that the growing number of Gentiles had to practice Jewish rituals. These 'Judaizers' were telling the non-Jewish converts that they had to eat Kosher foods, keep the Sabbath, not eat meat offered to idols and that the men had to be circumcised. They had a whole list of moral requirements. Soon, Paul was receiving messages weekly about his new spiritual communities in serious conflict over the ethnic and religious issues raised by these teachers.

Paul solved the problem the way any good Jewish Rabbi would, through appeal to the Scriptures. In other words, Paul was forced to answer these Jewish religionists by proving that their own sacred Torah allowed non-Jews to enter the kingdom of heaven. Paul developed what has come to be called the doctrine of Justification by Faith. He did not cook up this doctrine for the Gentiles or church in general, but for the trouble-making Jewish religionists. This was not a doctrine for later generations of Catholics or evangelicals to believe in order to be saved. This doctrine was an attempt to create union in the churches; in fact, if you read Paul's letters, you can see his main theme is union between the Jews and the non-Jews. Paul's original message before the religious conflicts, like Jesus, was that there was no religious test or barrier for any human that wanted to know God.

Paul was in a pickle. He was preaching God's love and unconditional acceptance through Jesus' demonstration of love in the death and resurrection, and then the Jewish religious teachers came in behind him and told the converts that Paul was right, except that they had to keep the Jewish laws and rituals.

This is where the books of Galatians and Romans come in. Both were written as scholarly essays to the legalistic, scripture-bound Jewish scholars. Paul knew that scriptural proof was the best way to get them to shut up. Paul's concept of Justification by Faith was developed to show how Jewish and Gentile believers could overcome their differences and get right with one another. Paul was not motivated to expound on Justification because people needed relief from a guilty conscience, but because there was no peace in the new Christian churches. Paul was looking for a way to help the Jews and Gentiles get along. So he took his vast rabbinic background, combed through the Hebrew Bible, and found texts that proved a non-Jew named Abraham believed God and was counted righteous. Paul was not proving Justification as much as he was proving a non-Jew could be accepted by God. If Paul could convince them that even their Holy Book or Law allowed non-Jews into God's heaven, then perhaps they would be quiet and leave the Gentiles alone. Ironically, Paul's attempt to reconcile Jews and Gentiles became a new barrier to the original gospel of unconditional access to God. Subsequent generations, especially Martin Luther and the Protestant movement, took Paul's secondary message and made it primary. Paul’s provisionary tactic gradually became a new methodology. As a result, Christianity has become exactly what Paul was trying to avoid – a religion bound to a book of doctrinal, ethical and ritual requirements.

In other words, Justification by Faith was not part of Paul's, and clearly not Jesus', original message. It would have never developed had the Jews not required a 'biblical' justification for the Gentiles coming into the kingdom of God. This is a critical point. It is critical because it shifts the emphasis away from Paul and Christ's good news of God's unrestricted availability to all humans and onto the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone.
For Paul, Justification by faith apart from the law really meant justification apart from ones religious and doctrinal differences, specifically, the differences between Jewish ritualism and the absence of such rituals in Gentile converts to Christ.


Ironically, Paul's efforts to chop down the thorny thistles of doctrinal exclusivism planted the seeds of a new doctrinaire religion that came to be called Orthodox Christianity. The early Christ movement included Jewish Ebionites, Nazarenes, Paulites, Apolloites, Cephasites, Gnostics and many other groups. They had all responded to the mystery of the gospel, to the foolishness of the cross, but had different interpretations of what had happened to them. Who doesn't? In some ways, the spiritual awakening of each human being is as unique as a snow flake or fingerprint. Truly, we all have our own individual theologies. What we have in common is the good news that there is no barrier to the transcendent experience. But that good news has been lost.

Seminaries and churches today have reduced the good news of the mystery of the cross to a set of propositional statements. The 'foolishness of the cross' has become a set of rationalistic doctrines, intellecutalized fundamentals one must believe. The Christian movement has replaced the good news of a borderless eternity with exclusive moralizing, sectarian infighting and theological combat - and they all appeal to the same book!! These keepers of the good news have lost the mystery of the Gospel and the dynamic Presence of what they called the inexplicable Holy Spirit. Christians have even turned the infinitely incomprehensible Presence of the uncontainable God into a Doctrine' they call it the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit!

For another perspective on this, see Robert Brinsmead's article.

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