Was Jesus a Progressive Rabbi?

Before I say anything, take a look at this  graphic.


I’ve seen a few people on Facebook share this image from theologian Benjamin Corey and I have to say that it bothers me.  Maybe Corey thinks he is sharing the gospel truth, but I don’t think he’s doing that.  He is peddaling a Jesus in his own image, one that surprisingly likes what Corey likes and hates what Corey hates.  Which means he isn’t doing anything that different than what conservative Christians do with Jesus.

When I made my journey from evangelicalism to mainline/progressive Christianity in the 90s, I was expecting to join a faith that wasn’t so captive to American politics.  I soon discovered that this wasn’t the case; the “Christian Left” was no better than the Religious Right.    My hopes were raised again a decade later with the rise of the Emergent Church.  It built itself as something apart from the left and right, but over time it was co-opted and became an organ of the political left.

This is why I have a hard time calling myself a progressive Christian.  What I’ve seen more often than not is a mirror version of conservative Christianity; a faith that reflects culture and ideology and not God.

The problem with Corey’s Jesus is that he rather safe.  What I mean is that he doesn’t challenge Corey’s political beliefs at all.  Jesus isn’t Lord but the handmaiden to progressive politics.

My right of center politics are always challenged by Christ’s call to care for the least of these as they should be.  If I don’t feel any tension between my ideology and my theology, I’m doing this faith thing wrong. My frustration here is that there seems to be no tension at all with Corey.  I guess Jesus  is just cool with that.

I left evangelicalism because I was tired of the using of God as some kind of  conservative cheerleader.  I was tired of God being considered a loyal Republican. But I am equally tired of progressive Christians who want to make Jesus a liberal democrat.  What it means is that we stop thinking about how the church should respond in society and instead spend time think how God would have us respond.  Odds are it will be something that will bother Corey and his conservative counterpart.


Mark 7:24-37 | Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost | September 5, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she said. “ Even if you don’t think much of us, Lord, we still want some healing from you and we believe you will do it. I matter. My daughter matters.”

Saving the Church

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

Every so often, I’ve heard someone at some point say something to the following: “We are not suppose to keep the (state the name) church going. We are suppose to be the church.”

Maybe the say they aren’t suppose to save the church,or that said denomination’s survival doesn’t matter.

For a long time, such statements bothered me, because they sounded good at first glance, but if you really thought about it, you discover the belief isn’t helpful for Christians, in fact it’s dangerous to the community called church.

When people say this, usually what they mean is that we shouldn’t invest our time in trying to save the institutional church.  Again, that makes some sense.  There are a lot of things in the institution called church that aren’t worth saving.

But this is where it can get crazy.  In some ways, this kind of thinking reflects our times, where we distrust institutions like the government or the church and place a lot of trust in ourselves.  But as imperfect as institutions are, they are needed in society- especially the one called church.

I just finished reading David Brook’s latest book, The Road to Character.  His main thrust in the book is that we have become a society focused more on accomplishments, the resume virtues instead of what he calls the Eulogy virtues- the things that you hear at a funeral.  Our society has moved from a eulogy virtue culture to one that is a resume virtue culture.  The thing about the old culture is that people knew they were flawed and that it was hard to be virtuous. Because of this, one needed others to help them become people of character.  In short, they needed institutions to help them be better people.  This is where the church came in.  Church was a place where with others we worked on becoming virtuous, or in Christian-ese, how we become sanctified.

And that’s what’s wrong with the whole “we aren’t suppose to save the church” phrasing.  The church is the place where we learn to be Christians and we do that by learning from each other.  But there is another thing that makes the institution of church important: it is the visible representation of God and God’s kingdom in the world.  People can’t learn about God if they can’t see the church.  If people want to know what it means to be a Christian, they can only see that when Christians gather and do the work of God together. Being the church matters.  But it’s hard to be the church if you don’t have a point of reference.  That and the whole being the church thing can sometimes be an excuse to just do good things on your own without ever indicating you are a follower of Jesus (similar to the misuse of the phrase supposed quote by St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary use words.”)

I worry at times that in mainline/progressive circles, the church itself is somehow secondary in the spiritual life.  But I think that we need the church, the actual place filled with flawed and hypocritical people. I don’t think we should never criticize the institutional church; but I don’t think we should just ditch it, either.  It’s valuable because it is the physical witness of God’s kingdom and because it is in this community where we learn about God and become better Christ followers. Allan Bevere said this best earlier this year:

We must never forget that Jesus told his original disciples and, therefore, all of us who are disciples, that the gates of hell would not overcome the church (Matthew 16:18). I have often pondered the image offered to us by the Apostle Paul that the church is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-30), that the church is Christ’s presence in a special redemptive way that cannot be seen anywhere else. In the church, God’s kingdom ushered into the world and established by Jesus continues even today. And such work can be found in no other institution. If Jesus is the very presence of God in this world, then in a very real sense the church is the very presence of Christ in the world. But we must remember that unlike Jesus, who was sinless, the church consists of disciples, who are sinners, but hopefully going on to perfection… the emphasis in this context is “going on.”

There are times when I am very discouraged with the church for various reasons. And on such occasions, it is helpful for me to remember that the church has struggled from the very beginning. In the Book of Acts after the wonderful event of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Birthday of the Church, God’s creation (Acts 2), it doesn’t take too long before there is disagreement and fighting in the ranks (Acts 6). In other words, the church in the twenty-first century is not facing any more difficulties, any further disagreements, any more intense strife than what our Christian sisters and brothers faced in the first century. God, who always works in the context of the human situation has created and called a people to be his presence in the world. God has been more than willing for that presence to be imperfect; for even, and especially, in the church’s imperfection, God can reveal God’s grace.

So yes, let’s be the church. But let’s be the church at church, at that physical place where we meet fellow sinners saved by grace. No individual church or denomination can last forever, but we should be about preserving what is best from the church and carrying it on to the next generation.

I want to save the church, not just to save it, but because it is the way people know about God and it helps us become better Christians.

PS: Doug Skinner has a great blog post on the St. Francis quote.

Broken for You

John 6:56-69 | Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost | August 23, 2015

First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“Whenever I’ve served communion, I usually say two phrases.  I hand out the bread and tell someone, “The bread of Christ broken for you.”  And then as the person dip the bread in the cup, I saw “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”  Whenever we have communion, we remember that Christ was tortured and brutalized for our sake. We remember that Jesus offered up his own body for the sake of the world. “

Cat’s In the Cradle

Ecclesiastes 2:18–3:8 | Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost | A Time to Be Wise Sermon Series | August 16, 2015 | Dennis Sanders, preaching


“Even though life can seem pointless, we are to find joy in this life.  Joy in our eating and drinking, joy in our work and joy in our downtime.  We are to find God in our life, to seek joy in relationships.  Instead of working to to work like the father in the song, our work gives glory to God, but it is not an idol the separates people from God and each other.”

The Curious Case of the Atheist Pastor

A controversy is brewing in the United Church of Canada over a minister who doesn’t believe in a God or in the Bible.  There are those in the denomination that believe she should be defrocked since she is an atheist.  She is demanding to stay ordained, believing that she is preaching a truer form of the faith, one centered on how we live instead of doctrine which she believes later corrupted the original intent of the faith.

“I don’t believe in…the god called God,” Vosper said. “Using the word gets in the way of sharing what I want to share.”

Vosper, 57, who was ordained in 1993 and joined her east-end church in 1997, said the idea of an interventionist, supernatural being on which so much church doctrine is based belongs to an outdated world view.

What’s important, she says, is that her views hearken to Christianity’s beginnings, before the focus shifted from how one lived to doctrinal belief in God, Jesus and the Bible.

“Is the Bible really the word of God? Was Jesus a person?” she said.

“It’s mythology. We build a faith tradition upon it which shifted to find belief more important than how we lived.”

Vosper made her views clear as far back as a Sunday sermon in 2001 but her congregation stood behind her until a decision to do away with the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 prompted about 100 of the 150 members to leave. The rest backed her.

Things came to a head this year after she wrote an open letter to the church’s spiritual leader pointing out that belief in God can motivate bad things — a reference to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

“That didn’t go over well,” Vosper said. “(But) if we are going to continue to use language that suggests we get our moral authority from a supernatural source, any group that says that can trump any humanistic endeavour.”

After I shared this on Facebook, some of my more progressive Christian friends wondered what the fuss was all about. After all, she was getting away from doctrine which can be soul-crushing.

Needless to say, I think Rev. Vosper is wrong. She has a big misunderstanding about what doctrine is all about and an even bigger misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about.

Let’s look at her main beef, that Christianity was based on how we live over doctrine. It’s an interesting supposition, but it goes against most of church history. If Christianity was only about living a good life, then huge chunks of the Bible are wrong (which I guess doesn’t matter since she doesn’t believe in it anyway). But if it was about living a good life, then why are there no records indicating this? If the push was supposed to be more of a philosophy like Stoicism, wouldn’t we have some record of it? It’s kind of hard to believe that there was a cover-up this big, ala the Davinci Code.

When it comes to doctrine, it is common among some Progressive Christians to look down on doctrine, seeing it as something that forces people to believe in things instead of living a good life. But I think such a viewpoint is in its own way anti-intellectual. It basically says faith is something that is not worth thinking about, but is something that you do.

Now, there has been a history of Christians that place emphasis on beliefs and living horrible lives. But that is not the whole of Christian doctrine. Doctrine and practice must go together. Doctrine is what fuels what Christians do in helping their neighbor and sharing their lives together in worship. Belief in the context of faith is adopting a certain worldview that drives all that we do, no matter if we are Christian, Jewish or Hindu.

Doctrine is also part of theology or faith seeking understanding. Christians want to understanding things like God, Jesus, the Church, the Cross, the Resurrection and the like. Doctrine is coming to grips with this nebulous thing called faith and putting into practice in our daily lives.

The United Church of Canada’s Statement of Faith is a way for people to understand humanity and its place in God’s world:

We are not alone, we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

This statement tries to understand all of the concepts I just stated and places fashions them in a document stating not what the church must believe, but what they place their trust in. They believe in a God who is a creator, Jesus who came in flesh to reconcile us to God and believe in a church- a body that celebrates God, proclaims Jesus and serves others. In this statement belief and action go together.

I can understand if Rev. Vosper doesn’t believe in all of this. That is her right. But does that mean that the church has to accept her as a teacher or leader in the church?

The good thing about Rev. Vosper is that she made me think again why I’m a Christian. I wish she would do some deep thinking about the church herself before trying to remake the church in her own image.