Just released on Kindle: “Excommunicating the Faithful”

How, in just a few hundred years, did the body of Christ evolve from an a-political, non-violent, trans-religious Jesus movement, populated predominantly by Jewish Christ-followers but rapidly opening to Gentiles who also wanted to follow Christ into an organized, hierarchical religion, which embedded itself with the State, embraced “Just War,” and excommunicated its last surviving Jewish remnant?  Howard answers this question with groundbreaking historical research and persuasive argument in Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church, and makes clear the implications for today’s churches.

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“More pertinent and helpful than I could have ever foreseen, much less hoped for.”
 Phyllis Tickle

Note:  Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church is based the groundbreaking research by the author for an honors thesis in Church History (the first honors thesis published by Virginia Theological Seminary). The current re-release expands on and updates Howard’s earlier work.

Joe, we need to talk…

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Advent 4A: Matthew 1:18-25

5611837645_e962c7dc4aMatthew has been busy on Ancestry.com, but you wouldn’t know that from the lectionary because we skipped over the first seventeen verses of Matthew. All you really need to know is that Abraham had Isaac, and Isaac Jacob, they had kids who had kids who had kids…on and on…to David, who became king and had Solomon who had kids who had kids…on and on…to Joseph, who goes down in history as the one who often get confused with one of the shepherds in Nativity sets.

So Joseph finds out that the young girl he is about to marry has become pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. He thinks about exposing her to save his reputation as a righteous man, but an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him, “It’s cool, she’s fulfilling a prophecy from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son. She will name him Immanuel.”

Joseph is cool with that, so he marries Mary, they don’t have sex until she gives birth at home in Bethlehem, and they name her son “Jesus.”

(If you were looking for magi and an escape to Egypt, those come later. If you were hoping for shepherds and a census, that happens in Luke’s version of the story.)

This passage raises a few questions:

  1. Why is it important that Joseph be part of Abraham’s family tree if Jesus isn’t really his son?
  2. Why do Mary and Joseph name their son “Jesus” when the prophecy says they will name him “Immanuel?”
  3. What’s up with the prophecy anyway? Continue reading

Non-Proselytizing Evangelism: Returning To The Roots Of Anglican-Episcopal Tradition and the Incarnational Heart Of Christianity

This article was recently published in the e-magazie Witness6.7 — click here for more.

Non-Proselytizing Evangelism…. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but in reality it is a highly effective, authentically Anglican, way to bring all sorts and conditions of people into the embrace of the love of Jesus Christ.

525 - Ashes to Go 2The idea that evangelism could take place without proselytizing began to take root in the minds of our church planting team as we prepared to launch a new mission congregation from the ashes of a previous mission, a somewhat conservative congregation that had disintegrated in conflict over ostensibly theological differences over human sexuality two years earlier, after demonstrating initial rapid growth. Because our core congregation contained some former members – though none of the founders – of the disbanded mission, we decided that we would learn from the failure of that previous effort rather than ignore it, as is so often the case.

We began a several month process of Biblical study and prayer about the basis of Christian unity and community. Unanimously, we reached the conclusion that Jesus had never intended to start a new religion. We also concluded that the Apostle Paul considered religion irrelevant (“neither Jew nor Gentile” – Gal 3:22) to relationship with Christ. Rather, he believed that being in the love of Christ was the key to re-creating humanity and the world. Paul never used the word “convert” to describe new Christ-followers, but instead used terms which, while we mistranslate them as convert, literally mean “new planting” (1 Tim 3:6) or “first fruit” (Rom 16:5).

We came to understand that the early Church was more a movement than an organized religion, and that its approach to evangelism was not proselytizing (convincing people to change religions) but planting the seeds of Christ’s love through radical hospitality. In fact, it would take several centuries and the merger of Church and State (in the form of the Roman Empire) for Paul’s vision of a fellowship founded in faith, hope, and the love of Christ to be displaced by an institutional church which substituted certainty for faith, security for hope, and the power to control its people for the love of Christ. With few exceptions, “convert or die” (or at least “convert or go to hell”) became the predominant evangelistic credo of the Church. One of the exceptions was the Celtic Christian forebears of the Anglican Church, who planted the seeds of radical Christian hospitality and harvested a robust Christian faith in most of Celtic Britain.

We came to realize that faith and hope are essentially the present and future forms of a kind of trust. Faith is trusting that Christ’s love is all-sufficient to us now. Hope is trusting that Christ’s love will be all-sufficient for us forever. Hence, we adopted the following affirmation as part of our parish vision: “We believe that the only sufficient basis for Christian community is Christ’s love for us.” Continue reading

The Courage to Doubt Our Own Doubts

Sermon – December 15, 2013 – Advent 3 (Matt 11:2-11, James 5:7-10)

As John’s disciples went away Jesus began to speak to the crowds:
What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?
What then you go out to see? What then did you go out to see?

Zealot - AslanOkay, so I’m reading this book (this book). You’ve probably heard of it: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. I don’t think you could a better account of what it must have been like to live in the time of Jesus: the cultures, the politics, the religious traditions, everything.  His portrait of Jesus as Zealot is vivid and humanizing, comprehensible and very, very compelling.  Only one problem: his central premise is just wrong. Jesus was not a zealot.

The problem with Aslan’s assertion is not an error of fact but a fallacy of logic. His case for Jesus being a Zealot runs something like this: Jesus’ home town and the area in which he spent most of his life in Galilee. Galilee was a known stronghold of the Zealot party. Ergo, Jesus was a Zealot. This would be like saying: Frank Anderson (our former senior warden) grew up in Chicago; ergo Frank is a Democrat. Or it would be like saying that Mother Shivaun group up in Orange County; ergo Shivaun is a Republican.  This a kind of generalization error know as an “ecological fallacy” (generalizing from a characteristic of the whole to a single part) or – and I like this one better – the “True Scotsman” fallacy – as in “no true Scotsman supports England” (you can always find one).

So why do I mention this in the context of today’s Gospel?  Because it’s an answer to Jesus’ questions to the crowds, “What did you go out looking for?  What did you go out to see?”  In other words, “What were your expectations? What did you bring with you might have influenced what you were looking for and were willing to see?”

What Aslan brought with him was shaped by his entire spiritual journey. He began life as the son of lapsed Iranian Muslim refugees fleeing the Islāmic Fundamentalism of Iran. In his teens he converted to Evangelical Christianity.  In his twenties his faith became more liberal: he went to Harvard seminary and earned an Master of Theological Studies. Finally, in his twenties, he returned to Islam. Ultimately, he found the Jesus he went out to look for: a Jesus he could wrap his mind around: a Jesus that, in his own words, made sense to him, a Jesus he could understand.

And in that, he is no different from John, the people who came out to see John, or from us.  What we see is always influenced by what we are looking for. And what we are looking for is influenced in turn by were we are coming from: what our journey so far has prepared us to see.

So with that in mind, let’s hop in the Way-Back Machine, press the Instant Rewind Button, turn on the Universal Translator, and watch this interchange again.

John’s disciples have just come from visiting their rabbi in Herod’s prison. You remember John, right?  Crazy prophet dressed in the camel-hair suit out in the desert by the Jordan River. And, no, he didn’t eat grasshoppers – that would be un-kosher – locust was a local idiom for carob root – wearing that itchy, inside-out camel hide was crazy enough, thank you.  John was out there bringing down the hammer on everybody who was anybody.  Busting the religious authorities for their corruption and the Roman Occupiers for their brutality, and calling all the sinners to repent. Man, that guy could draw a crowd. Some folk he even convinced. Others got baptized anyway, just for fire insurance.  Speaking of fire, remember what John said to his disciples early on about Jesus. About all Jesus was going to do for the blind, the lame, the poor, and the prisoners. And how John would be baptizing with water, but Jesus would baptize with fire. Remember that? That “baptize with fire” stuff was what John’s baggage. His people, the Essenes, had abandoned the temple to protest religious corruption, and expected that God would soon overthrow the corrupt priesthood and Roman infidels and set everything on earth right… right now.  John was more like to be sympathetic to the Zealot cause than Jesus. (That’s another reason you can tell Jesus probably wasn’t a zealot. Because if he was, he would already be in prison like John, or dead like John soon would be.)  John sent his disciples because he wanted to know why Jesus hadn’t yet “opened up a can” on them like he thought the messiah would do.

And Jesus response was not a criticism of John, but a reminder: “John,” he was saying, “Look! All that stuff we both know I’m supposed to do – all that healing and stuff. It’s happening, cousin, I’m doing it, just not with all the whoop-ass you and the people expect. I’m bringing a new way, cousin, a way that will bring about the reign of God without violence.”

So the Baptizer’s disciples went back to make their report to John, a little confused, maybe, though I don’t think John will be. And the onlookers start chuckling. You know how it is:  people loved him when he was bringing down the hammer on the high and mighty and getting so much attention – people always love a hero – but never forever. And for some reason they never seem to mind their heros getting knocked down a peg or two.

So Jesus whips around and challenges the crowd. “What are you looking at?” he asked, “and what are you laughing at?” You knew what you were coming out here looking for. “Reed swaying in the wind,” he scoffed, “You knew John was no populist politician like the Zealots, making a big deal about how WE are going to drive out the Romans by force. And all your talk about John in robes. If John were willing to suck up to kings, he wouldn’t be where he is now: rotting in Herod’s dungeon. No…you came out because John was a prophet: best there ever was…in this world.  And that’s when he makes that comment about John being the least in the kingdom of God, which sounds to us like he’s criticizing John, but was really a heads up to the onlookers: not to put too much into status in THIS world because in God’s realm – in the kingdom of heaven – status doesn’t matter: nobody’s better than anybody.

Now, we might look back on these folks and think we wouldn’t have made those mistakes. But we know that’s not true. We know that we are every bit as likely to let what we are looking for override what we have actually found; every bit as likely to let what we what God to be for us override what God wants to be for us. Like humans everywhere, we really have no patience and no humility.

Which is exactly what James, in today’s Epistle is telling us that we need to be asking God for: which we say we want, and maybe do want in some degree… on our terms:  “What do we want?” – “Patience and humility.” – “When do we want it?” – “Now.”  But James is saying that true patience and humility is a willingness to stop trying to control God’s response and to trust God’s knowledge and timing about what we are ready and willing to understand. And that we be well advised to realize these two strands of logic: That just because we believe something doesn’t make it true and that just because we can’t believe something doesn’t make it false. And to pray for the wisdom to question our own certainties and doubt our own doubts.


What Were You Expecting?

What Were You Expecting?

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Advent 3A: Matthew 11:2-11

There John is, rotting away in a prison cell—decapitation imminent. Not too long ago he was in the wilderness eating weird food and wearing weird clothing screaming about repentance and how Jesus is the Lord and the one who would cut down those not bearing good fruit and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire. His expectation for Jesus was astronomical. John thought that Jesus would burn those sinners and tax collectors; instead, Jesus sits and eats with them. He is not what John expected.

The popular and often raunchy and comically violent television show Family Guy imagines Jesus’ second coming, and as the scene opens, a crowd of average people are looking at a four-foot-tall Jesus. Jesus says,

“Okay everybody. I know you were expecting something else, but as science will tell you, people were a lot shorter two thousand years ago. So let’s try to be adult about this—no snickering. (someone snickers) Hey! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. So if we can all be mature—(someone pops chewing gum) give me the gum—we can get through this a lot faster.”

Although Family Guy’s purpose was not to make you think about Christ’s second coming, the comical scene disarms you and makes you think outside the box just a little bit about what that could actually look like.

John was expecting something else, and he sends his disciples (students/followers) to ask Jesus (in what sounds like a very passive/aggressive manner), “Are you the dude or not?” Jesus replies that they should tell John what their hear and see, namely that the blind see, “the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

What happened when John heard this?

How did the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel account hear this, given that this man who performed such miracles had lived only a few decades earlier? What hope did this give them?

How do we read this separated from the events of Jesus’ life by two thousand years, holy wars, schisms, political turnovers, natural disasters, disease, famine, plagues, and so on? Is it safe to say that the hope the earlier followers of Jesus experienced is somewhat more distant from where we sit?

What are you expecting from Jesus, or even from the coming couple of weeks? What are you expecting to happen to your anxieties and sufferings? How do you envision God will redeem all of these things for you and everyone else through Christ’s return?

And how do you speak with others about the ways in which God seems active or inactive in your life?

Let this be your meditation as we move into the third Sunday of Advent, a time in which many people seek to find or give encouragement that Christmas is almost hear, as is Christ’s glorious return when all shall be made whole and holy.

The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.

Jesse’s Root

By The Rev. Curtis Farr

Advent 2A: Isaiah 11:1-10

3611492444_5f89f61547The “root of Jesse” comes up a few times in Sunday’s readings. Isaiah prophecies that the messiah will be a descendent of Jesse Instead of doing midrash, this week we’ll look at this concept and see what it has to offer us.

Who is this Jesse?

Jesse is King David’s father…remember David? He has a bunch of psalms attributed to him. He is a pretty big deal, but that wasn’t until the prophet Samuel visited Jesse’s house looking for the next king of Israel. After going through seven of Jesse’s other sons (a la American Idol) Samuel found the youngest, David. David did a rousing version of Kelly Clarkson’s A Moment Like This, and God decided that David would be going to Los Angeles (God is Simon Cowell in this metaphor).

So David went straight to number one; he was a much-beloved king (who had plenty of faults too). Jews believe that son of David would be the messiah. Muslims believe that David was a prophet. Christians believe that the risen Jesus is the messiah who is descended from David.

If you check out the beginning of Matthew, the whole lineage from Abraham through David to Jesus is listed (we usually skip over those passages in the lectionary). And don’t even get me started on Luke, who traces back Jesus’ lineage to Adam (yes, that Adam) in chapter three.

Why is lineage important for Jesus?

Maybe it’s not. After all, Luke traces it through Joseph—who was only his stepfather. There is no blood relation there. Both Luke and Matthew traced Jesus back through historical figures in the Hebrew Scriptures (that’s the Old Testament) perhaps in order to solidify his legitimacy. Or maybe it’s all totally accurate. Either way, if you believe that Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation to us, then it makes sense to connect that revelation through other instances in scripture that describe the ways in which God has been present with humanity before.

Or maybe lineage is important…or at least valuable. Since Isaiah prophesied that a descendent of Jesse would be messiah who would bring about a new age of peace on earth, believers in the Way, the Truth, and the Light that is Jesus would naturally make that connection.

Paul quotes more of Isaiah in Romans regarding the Gentiles—non-Jews—who would be folded into the rule of this messiah. Paul was really into bringing Gentiles on board, so it makes sense that he would point to Jesus as the one who would unite the seemingly un-unitable. That uniting is what Isaiah prophesies (lion and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion and fatling, with a child to lead).

Thinking about the Jesse Tree can be a valuable thing to do during Advent, and a great way to increase one’s biblical literacy. Now that you know a little bit more about its background…

Are there some crafty ways to depict the Jesse Tree?

I’m so glad you asked. Loyola Press has a wonderful Advent Resources site with information about every day of Advent, as it relates to a homemade Jesse Tree. As a child, I used to Jesse tree symbols in shrinky dink form…my mother still has them all. It can be a nice way to review the significance of some major characters in the Bible—and a great way to make the Advent season more than just pre-Christmas. Here is another site that has an easy-to-read explanation for every day of Advent.

The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.

Photo Credit: A. D. White Architectural Photographs Cornell University Library, Flickr