Monday, August 24, 2015

You Can't Handle the Truth

The scriptures referred to are John 6:56-69.

On January 20, 1961, the same day John Kennedy was inaugurated as president, The Twilight Zone presented an episode in which a used car salesman buys an old Model A Ford with a curse: whoever owns it is compelled to tell the truth. The salesman tries to unload the thing but he cannot tell people it is anything but a beat up outdated piece of junk. Worse he can't sell any of his clunkers. And he can't keep stringing along his assistant with promises of a raise that will never materialize. In a move of brilliance borne out of desperation, he calls the Soviet embassy and talks them into coming by his lot. He convinces them that they should buy the Model A to use as anti-American propaganda because it is an example of shoddy American goods. He makes the sale. The twist is that the name they tell him to put on the document as the owner, the person now stuck telling the truth, is Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1997 Jim Carrey made a movie called Liar, Liar with a similar premise. In that film, the truth curse is a birthday wish by his disappointed son. Now Carrey must always tell the truth. And the problem is that he is a lawyer.

I was really surprised that the website doesn't have a page on truthtelling as a curse. The closest they have is a page on The Cassandra, the person who accurately predicts the future but is cursed never to be believed. But that's not exactly like telling things as they are currently and finding that people would rather not know. But that is often the position in which people in the Bible find themselves. One of the more infamous examples is when Jeremiah writes down his scathing prophesies of what God promises to do to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah if they do not repent. The king's secretary takes the scroll to King Jehoiakim and reads it to him. And as he finishes each paragraph, the king cuts off that piece of the scroll and throws it into the fire. And Jeremiah 36:24 says, “Yet neither the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words was afraid, nor did they tear their garments.” The king didn't want to hear what God was saying through Jeremiah.

Last week we talked about how Jesus saying his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood was received by the 5000 whom he had fed with loaves and fishes. This week we see the aftermath. In John 6:60 it says, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'” And in verse 66, we read, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Last week I talked about why these people rejected this teaching. This week I want to consider the major reasons that people have trouble with the truth.

It is of course possible that they really doubt it is the truth. It is possible that it hasn't been explained well enough. I think this is one of the problems that Christians have in communicating the gospel sometimes. Whenever a news story that has any religious or moral dimension to it is posted to the internet, you can count on two kinds of people commenting: religious people and anti-religious people. And rarely to the posts of either group say anything enlightening. Often the religious people will quote verses and give stock answers and the anti-theists will troll them. I rarely comment, especially if people are merely expressing opinions. But I occasionally will correct a misconception on either side. You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts. But what really saddens me are how poorly the Christians answer their debaters' assertions. We don't help our cause if we can't adequately explain our faith and deal with what are usually very common objections. Like: most historians believe Jesus was a real person, even if they don't believe he is God and Christ. No, the events in the gospels were not plagiarized from pagan religions; rather it was the other way around. You can believe in both science and God. Christians are not bound to Old Testaments laws because we live under the new covenant instituted by Jesus. And just because some person claiming to be Christian said something, it doesn't mean that all Christians or even most of them agree. The sad thing is most of this is readily found on the internet. I cannot for the life of me understand why people post controversial statements on the web without first googling them to make sure they have their facts straight. Just open another tab.

It is possible that people reject the truth because it goes against what they've been taught, especially if it is radically different. Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor who noticed that more new mothers died when doctors attended their births than when they gave birth in the street! Though the germ theory had not yet been developed, Semmelweis studied the problem enough to work out that the doctors were transporting some kind of contagion to their patients. He had them wash their hands and maternal morality fell. But the medical establishment could not see the value in handwashing and fought Semmelweis. Whenever he prevailed at a hospital or clinic, less women died. Whenever he was removed from his position, more women died. Eventually he fell into depression, drank more, and had a breakdown. A colleague lured him to an asylum. When he realized what was happening, he tried to escape. The guards beat him, wrestled him into a straightjacket and threw him into a cell. 14 days later he died of an infection of one of his wounds. Years later Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister demonstrated how antiseptic technique saved patients' lives.

Without the germ theory Semmelweis could not explain why handwashing worked. Yet the man showed that it did work. Despite the proof, the medical establishment dismissed him and can be said to have contributed to his death at the age of 47. And this brings up the biggest reasons for which people reject the truth: not logic or fact but emotions.

People usually reject the truth about something because it is contrary to what they want to believe. And they may not want to believe it out of fear or hatred or personal interest.

Fear is a strong motivator, one of the strongest we have. Anti-vaccination activists fear that the contents of vaccines can cause harm to their children, despite the fact that the evidence goes entirely the other way. The reason that half of all children do not die by the age of 5 is due in large part to vaccines against measles and rubella and whooping cough. One British physician wrote a paper full of bad data showing a link between vaccines and autism and convinced a lot of fearful people that what was good for their children was bad. Now do some children have bad reactions to vaccines? Of course, the way some people can have an allergic reaction and in some cases even die from eating a peanut or getting a bee string or from a million other things that are harmless for most people. In 1958, there were 763,094 cases of measles in the US. 552 of those died. In 2008, there were only 64 cases of suspected measles. 63 of those people had either never been or didn't know if they had been vaccinated. The fear of vaccines is misplaced.

As is fear of flying. The odds of you dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. The odds of you dying in a car accident are 1 in 5000. Yet few of us get as nervous about a trip in a car as some do when taking a trip by plane. We often fear unlikely things over more common dangers. And yet telling phobic people the truth rarely convinces them.

Conspiracy theorists are largely motivated by fear. Most of them fear the fact that some things happen for seemingly random or irrational reasons. You can't fight happenstance or a freak convergence of factors. It is more comforting to believe that, say, it took a huge conspiracy to kill Jack Kennedy rather than admit that the most powerful man in the world could be killed and history changed in a big way by a lone nut with a gun. It is more comforting for some to think that our government engineered 9/11 than that a couple of dozen foreigners with box cutters and half a pilot's training could create so much havoc and death. Others find it more comforting to think that all our problems come from outside our borders than that we might at times be our own worst enemies.

Another big reason for disbelieving what is demonstrably true is hatred. The fact that African Americans are every bit as human as whites is resisted by racists because they really don't want to admit kinship with those they hate. Likewise, the humanity of Jews was denied by the Nazis. There has been no end of pseudo-sciences seeking to prove that the differences between dominant and minority peoples are more than superficial. Even racists realize that saying they don't like someone merely because they look different is stupid. So they try to argue that the differences signal some deeper defect, usually inferiority in intelligence or morals or essential hygiene.

This hatred goes back to our extreme tribalism when we were nomads. The only people you were sure you could trust were family, which meant people who looked, spoke and shared the same culture as you. People who differed in these were not to be trusted. However, if you got to know these strangers you might find that you had a lot in common. And for safety sake, those in charge felt it was safer for everybody if you hated them. That would keep the tribe pure and secure.

And this leads to the fact that people can reject the truth because it goes against their personal interests. We have already seen it in racism. In the US we used to have both slaves and indentured servants, the latter group mostly white. Because their situations were similar indentured servants would often side with slaves in revolts against their masters. So racism was taught and promoted to keep the two groups at odds. It also helped the indentured servants feel they were not at the very bottom of society because they were superior to slaves. No matter how bad off you are, having someone to look down on can make you feel better about yourself.

People do cynically reject the truth when it inconveniences them. I have seen patients deny that their medical problems could be related to their lifestyle because that would mean they would have to change. Yes, they drink a little; no, they do not have a drinking problem. The tobacco industry denied the link between smoking and lung cancer for decades, even lying to Congress. Now we know the industry's own research proved they were killing their customers and they knew it. During the Cold War, the Pentagon vastly overstated the military capabilities of the Soviet Union to get more money appropriated. People value money, power and their own personal comfort over truth if it threatens any of those things.

Finally, people reject the truth out of arrogance. They don't want to hear the truth about themselves and what they do or plan to do. They don't need to hear it because they know it already. They don't want to hear that they are wrong in their assessment of the situation or that they need help. I have seen this in patients who either don't want to accept their diagnosis or don't want to hear that their personal plan of treatment is all wrong. They know better than the doctors, the nurses, the accumulated experience and wisdom of medical science. Steve Jobs might have been able to beat his cancer had he not resisted doctors' advice for 9 months, refused surgery and tried various alternative pseudo-scientific ways of treating himself instead. A lot of successful people have made disastrous personal, business and political decisions because they wouldn't listen to others. After all, who was as smart or skilled as they? They don't realize that past success does not make you infallible. Nobody is successful at everything. You have to be humble to be open to learning.

The Bible has a lot to say about truth. Deuteronomy 32:4 says that our Lord is “a God of truth and without injustice.” Joshua 24:14 says we are to serve him “in sincerity and in truth.” John tells us that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life...” (John 14:1) Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth. (John 16:13)

Since God is all about truth so should we who follow Jesus. We need to be committed to learning and telling the truth. And that means that no matter what the temptation, we should not try to defend God with lies. God tells one of Job's “comforters”: “I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7) Because if God is the creator of everything then all truth is God's truth. That means scientifically established truth is God's truth and spiritual truth is God's truth. We need to be truthful with ourselves and about ourselves.

We need to be truthful with others as well. Now obviously if one were, say. hiding Jews from the Nazis, then, rather than allow them to be killed, the lesser evil would be to lie to them. But that is an exceptional case and 99 and 44/100% of the time Christians are to tell the truth. Because, as Shakespeare said, “truth will out.” Or as Jesus put it, “...Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed and nothing is secret that will not be made known.” (Matthew 10:26) It almost sounds as if he is predicting the internet! As followers of Jesus we must be transparent.

And we must be willing to do our homework. Don't tell people things or post them unless we have checked that they are true. We must not fear the truth or hate it. We mustn't ignore it for personal reasons or because it inconveniences us. We mustn't deny or distort it for power or greed or out of arrogance. And we mustn't misrepresent it in misguided service to God. God likes honesty.

Our chief mission is to spread the word of the moral and spiritual truth of the gospel, the good news. There is a whole world out there filled with people who are being fed lies: that they are hopeless or irredeemable or without the need for God. They are told that God has been disproved or that he relishes punishing people or that he doesn't care what we do so long as we are happy. They are told that God loves successful people the most and that those who don't succeed must be lazy or stupid or not faithful enough or else God would bless them. They are told that there are no spiritual consequences to looking out for themselves above others or that God is okay with them judging others.

And we must never forget that the ultimate truth is Jesus himself. He is the lens through which we must view the world and the model of what true life and true forgiveness and true love are. In our gospel Jesus asks the twelve if they will leave, too. Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter recognized the truth. He was standing before him—the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Flesh and Blood

The scriptures referred to are John 6:51-58.

While I have been mining Ephesians for its treasures I have been keeping my eye on our gospel, which has been painfully inching its way through John chapter 6. I wanted to preach on it but whoever came up with our lectionary decided to draw the whole thing out and not get to the point of the passage for 4 Sundays! As you remember this is the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000. All the gospels record this miracle but only John gives us the fallout of that event. After Jesus feeds the multitude, they decided that he would make a great king. Jesus, sensing this, withdraws from them, going up the mountainside. Come evening, he sends the disciples ahead by boat. He later joins them by walking on the water. The crowd, realizing that Jesus has given them the slip, sail to Capernaum, Jesus' base of operations. The people confront Jesus, who knows that they are not interested in anything spiritual but his ability to feed them physically. So he begins this extended metaphor of him being the true bread of life.

John's gospel is known for skipping over important events that the other gospels report and filling in what they don't mention. His account of the last supper doesn't have the actual moment where Jesus says, “This is my body...This is my blood.” But this meditation in chapter 6 is obviously about the Eucharist. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life....” Unfortunately the crowd takes what Jesus says literally and turn away from him. It's doubtful that even his disciples understood what Jesus was saying until after his death and resurrection.

What Jesus says sounds as weird to us as it did his original audience but he is using the traditional Jewish teaching method of midrash. Midrash was the way rabbis would “search” (the literal meaning of the word) the scriptures to find a meaning not obvious on the surface. They would often compare 2 scriptures to do so. Here the verses appear to be Exodus 16:4, 15 and Psalm 78. In Exodus the Lord tells Moses he will rain down bread on the Israelites and the people call it manna; literally, “what is it?” In Psalm 78:24, the manna is called “the bread of heaven.” Jesus also uses the traditional method of contrasting the old and the new. In this case he is comparing the old manna from heaven with the new living bread from heaven, himself. Those who ate the manna died; those who eat the bread from heaven that Jesus is offering will have eternal life. But the people just don't get it.

Was it impossible for them to grasp? Not necessarily. Rabbis often used manna as a symbol of spiritual food. It often was used to mean the Torah or the wisdom or the word of God. And indeed it was the people who brought up manna, not Jesus. He seized upon it to make his point about the difference between the physical bread with which he had fed them and the spiritual bread he now offered. They should have anticipated some such contrast. But Jesus, in saying he is the bread of heaven, is also telling us that he is the wisdom and word of God Incarnate. As Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The person who trusts God lives by what Jesus did and said, for he is the living Word of God. And he is our spiritual sustenance.

Also, at the beginning of this chapter, in verse 4, John mentions that the Passover was near. What did the Jews eat at Passover? The lamb. It was sacrificed and its blood was smeared on the doorposts during the original Exodus, as a signal for death to “pass over” them. The body of the lamb was roasted and eaten at the Passover meal. Those who had followed Jesus from the beginning would have known that John the Baptizer call Jesus the Lamb of God. His death saves us from death and his life is given so that we might have life.

What did the Jews drink at the Passover? Not the lamb's blood. Drinking any blood was forbidden by the Torah. Instead, they drank wine, which they poetically called “the blood of the grape.” Jesus may have had that in mind when he tells the disciples at the last supper, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The point is that the symbolism was right there in the holy feast they celebrated every year. And in a midrash any and all details in scripture are looked at for their potential deeper meanings.

As I said, after Jesus' resurrection the disciples would put together the connection between the Passover, the Lord's supper and his sacrificial death. The meaning of the elements in the communion meal would become clear. But at this point neither the meal nor his death have happened. So why is Jesus saying this now?

We know that after he fed the 5000 they wanted to make him king. The most popular concept of the Messiah at this time was that of a second David, a holy warrior who would expel the Gentiles from their land, as David had the Philistines. They wanted a king to establish a physical kingdom of God. That would inaugurate the Messianic age and bring to an end the present evil age. The Messiah was a religio-political leader who would save the Jews from their pagan oppressors.

And Jesus was trying to nip that in the bud. The ironic thing is that though David was a good king in many ways, he was not as holy as people tended to remember. His womanizing sowed the seeds of instability in his regime. He was a warrior but one whose hands were too bloody to build God a temple. It was his son Solomon who built the temple and reigned over a golden age for Israel. And right after Solomon's death, the whole kingdom split. In a little over 300 years, the Babylonian Empire would breach the walls of Jerusalem, plunder and burn the temple, take the Jews into exile and effectively end the reign of Davidic kings.

Human nations are established through the violence of the conqueror or the rebel. They maintain themselves largely through violence and war. Jesus was not going to be that kind of king. Ironically, the violence that would establish the kingdom of God was the death of God's king at the hands of an earthly kingdom. What Jesus would conquer would not be people but death. And becoming a citizen of his kingdom was a matter of answering his call, not of physical coercion.

So at least part of what Jesus is doing here is discouraging those who saw him only as a potential king of a physical and temporal kingdom. And he is doing it by saying something that is repugnant to those who can only think in physical terms. But Jesus is not simply trying to drive people away. What he says will resonate with some. Jesus' mission and kingdom are spiritual; he is appealing to those who can perceive the spiritual dimension of what he is saying, even if they don't get it entirely at this point.

What was the function of the original bread from heaven, the manna? It was to keep the people of Israel alive as they journeyed to the promised land. What was the function of the living bread from heaven? To give eternal life to those who are entering the kingdom of God which has no physical boundaries.

What does Jesus say about the kingdom of God? That it is among or within us. (Luke 17:21) That it starts small and grows like a seed. (Matthew 13:31-32). And that means that growing the kingdom within and among us needs nourishment. We are nourished by Christ, by what he did for us on the cross and by feeding on him day by day.

Why did Jesus use such a revolting analogy? As I said, partly to discourage those who thought he was just going to keep producing physical bread and would therefore make a good physical king. But he was also getting real about how dependent we are upon him. Without him giving his life we would not have eternal life. And his giving his life was a messy thing.

Life is always messy. From the moment we are conceived we live not only in but off of our mother's body. For instance, the skeleton of the fetus needs calcium as does that of the nursing infant. A lot of that comes from the mother's own bones.

You may say, “Well, that's not exactly cannibalism.” How about the fact that there are literally millions of people alive today because they have the blood of others in them? I'm not talking vampires; I'm referring to the recipients of blood donations. And what about organ donation? How many people are alive because someone donated their heart or liver or kidneys? These things weren't around in Jesus' day so he picked a metaphor that was nevertheless appropriate. Just like the donor must die to give someone a new heart, so Jesus had to die to give us new life.

You want to know one of the weird things many heart recipients notice? That they often start to take on some of the characteristics of the donor. Some report changes in their preferences in food, music, art, recreation and careers, While this is still being studied, several scientists and physicians believe that cells can carry memories which are transferred in organ transplants. So the physical change of heart can lead to a metaphorical change of heart. And by giving his life for us, all who accept Jesus receive a spiritual change of heart.

And because we are physical beings, it makes sense that Jesus would use physical means both to remind us of his sacrifice and imbue us with its benefits. In the Eucharist the body of Christ comes together to share the body of Christ, communing with our Lord and with each other. This sacrament comes in the form of a meal, which in the Middle East symbolizes peace and reconciliation of enemies. You become companions, literally, those you break bread with. What better way to express our new relationship of friendship with God.

But most of the crowd didn't get it and they weren't willing to stick around and figure it out. And I find that interesting. Did they think that because it was hard to understand it couldn't possibly be true? Somewhere along the line we humans have gotten the idea that we are the measure not only of the universe but of God. God, we feel, should be completely comprehensible to us. Mind you, we don't understand much about his creation. For all that science has discovered and explained, there is a lot more that it hasn't. Scientists are even discussing the possibility that we may get to the point where we can't explain certain things any more; that we will encounter phenomena that our finite brains will simply not be able to take in. But the infinite mind that created it? Oh, yeah, we've got that all sussed out! That's rather like the lab monkey who figured out that if he pushes the button he gets a banana going on to assume that he understands the electrical engineer who designed the machine behind the button.

Actually if you could totally understand God, that would be sufficient proof that he wasn't God. One persistent feature of reality is stuff that exists whether or not you understand it. It is fiction that simplifies life and and its issues and ties everything up with an easy-to-follow explanation. Fiction writers know that reality can get away with things they can't. You will never read an Agatha Christie where someone asks, “But how did the killer get into and out of the locked room?” only to have Poirot reply, “I have no earthly idea.”

So it may seem odd to us that the salvation of humanity requires the sacrifice of God- made-man. Is it that much more counterintuitive than that we stand on a ball that is spinning at 25,000 miles per hour and yet are not flung off nor do we feel that we are moving at all? And that's gravity, probably the longest known of the four fundamental forces of the universe. On the quantum level just about everything is counterintuitive.

That laws that govern the physical universe are not always obvious. Why do we expect the laws that govern spiritual reality to be self-evident? C. S. Lewis said that one of the things that helped convince him of the truth of Christianity was that it had rough edges and sharp corners just like reality. One of which is that nothing in this life comes without a cost to someone. To the mother, birth costs calcium from her bones, 9 months of her life and pains both large and small. To the heart donor, it costs his life. The crowd wanted Jesus to tell them that he could give them eternal life as easily as he gave bread to the 5000. They didn't know, and didn't want to know, what eternal life cost him. They didn't want to feel dependent upon his body and blood.

When we come together to share the body and blood of Christ, we are enacting part of the gospel, the good news of how much God loves us. But it's the good news, not the pretty news. There is nothing pretty about what Jesus had to do to deal with the spiritual and moral consequences of our sins. That's why Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 says that we should examine ourselves before partaking. We need to acknowledge what we have done that led to Jesus' flesh being torn and his blood being spilled.

But there is a reason we call it the Eucharist, literally, the thanksgiving. We not only remember our sins but Jesus' love for us. We are in awe of his sacrifice and grateful for his selfless act. It is a celebration of God's grace, of his unreserved, undeserved goodness toward us. In it we proclaim Jesus' death until he comes again.

It is also about life. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day....” Jesus not only gave his life for us; he gives his life to us. After all, it is eternal life. Only God is eternal and so he is the source of the eternal life offered by the Son of God. All he asks is that we turn over our sinful life to him.

So when you come forward in a few minutes, and cup one hand in the other, it is not an empty gesture. You are bringing to the altar your old life and in return you are receiving new life, his life, eternal life.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Not So Simply Love

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 4:25-5:2.

The NPR show “On Point” this week examined the current slogan being touted in business circles: “Fail fast; fail often.” It sounds absurd but it encapsulates some of the lessons that Silicon Valley and innovative companies have learned. The idea is that if you are afraid to fail, you will be afraid to come up with new and radically different ideas and enterprises. What I liked about the radio discussion is that they were talking to a Psychology Today writer, a leadership and management professor from Harvard Business School and the author of a book on winning and losing. And they gave a very nuanced discussion of the topic. They talked about the importance of persistence, of learning the right lessons about your failure, and in what contexts quitting makes sense. Sometimes your idea was so bad its failure was inevitable. Then the smart thing to do is to quit—or at least, to give up on the idea or approach that failed and try a different one. One of the guests gave a great breakdown of how to analyze your failure so that it is not in vain. Another guest pointed out that people often learn more from their failures than from their successes. All in all, it was a very thoughtful and helpful discussion of the latest mantra on success.

In using the Bible, too many people tend to oversimplify the theology and take things out of context. They ignore or miss nuance and so everything comes out very black and white. And people like that. They want the rules of life to be simple. And in a way they can be. But like “Fail fast; fail often” those simple rules have to be unpacked and explored.

Jesus summarized all the laws in 2 simple rules: Love God with all you are and have; and love your neighbor as yourself. But what exactly does that mean in various contexts? In our passage from Ephesians today, Paul is basically telling us what the second greatest commandment means in very specific ways.

First off, loving one another means being honest. Sometimes, out of love, we want to spare somebody's feelings rather than tell them the truth. The problem is that down the line they will probably learn the truth the hard way, either by bitter experience or by hearing the truth from someone else who will not break it to them in a loving way. And they may feel betrayed by your not telling them first. They may wish that they had learned earlier so that they would not have been living their life based on false premises. Wouldn't it have been kinder if the laughably awful American Idol wannabees had been told by family and friends that they were terrible singers than for them to have blithely gone off to be humiliated in front of the world on TV?

I have seen patients calmly accept very bad news because at least now they knew what was going on with their bodies and what to expect. I have see the same thing with inmates receiving a prison sentence when they were hoping for jail time or parole. They could prepare themselves for what was coming. The truth, if told the right way and taken the right way, is immensely helpful. And that's the reason we should be honest with one another: we are members of one another, says Paul. If one member realizes that the truth runs contrary to what everyone else thinks, he is duty-bound to correct misconceptions so that everyone is dealing with the real situation.

Paul's next pronouncement about loving one another seems to fly in the face of that commandment. “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin.” Now how is that loving? If something angers you and you don't let anyone know, how are they, out of love, going to stop angering you. There's nothing worse than finding out that something you've been doing for a while has been ticking off your mate or friend the whole time. This goes back to being honest with each other.

Notice that Paul says, “...but do not sin.” Anger by itself is not necessarily a sin. It is how you express it that leads to sin. A man once told me that in an argument with his wife he threw a can of peaches. But it hadn't hit her, nor had he intended to hit her with it. “But she didn't know that, did she?” I said. He sheepishly admitted I was probably right. We tend to judge ourselves by the slacker standard of what we intended and others by the tighter standard of what they actually did. Not only violence but tones of voice, the use of belittlement and humiliation, and the dismissal of the other person's legitimate points, objections and grievances are all ways we can sin when we express our anger. What we could do instead is regard anger, either ours or that of someone else, as a warning signal that something is out of whack and then try to fix the problem. Many reformers, like Martin Luther or Martin Luther King Jr, channeled their anger into changing the world.

Of course, what is out of whack could be our warning signal itself. We could be over-reacting to something that should not make us that mad. Irrational fears work the same way. Lucille Ball didn't really remember the day that her father died when she was three but remembered that a bird got trapped in the house. Thereafter she suffered from ornithophobia, a fear of birds. Just so when people get angry all out of proportion to the offending behavior, it could hark back to some past outrage or perceived injury they suffered. The thing that sets them off now triggers feelings of anger or powerlessness from long ago. The sin then is not in the anger itself. But once made aware that they are reacting in rage to things relatively trivial, if they do not seek help for dealing with it, that would be sinful. To put it another way, if you have an accident because your brakes failed, you are not liable (morally, not necessarily legally; I'm no lawyer). But if you knew your brakes were bad, and never got them fixed, then, yes, you would be liable for the accident. So it is possible to be angry without sin. But you should take care how you express anger and look into the causes.

Whether your anger is justified or not, you should not stoke it or prolong it by going over and over what people did to provoke it. “Don't let the sun set on your anger,” says Paul. Take care of the matter today. Don't let things fester. That's what he means by “ not make room for the devil.” Don't let destructive forces, from within you or from without, use your anger as an opportunity to make things worse. Martin Luther got angry at the way the church of his time was distorting the gospel of God's grace. When he couldn't get the matter debated and discussed, he decided, among other things, to translate the Bible into his native tongue so that the people could read it for themselves. He initiated much needed reforms in a church he had to set up after being excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church. His efforts got the attention of like-minded folks who also started looking at what the scriptures actually said and made their own reforms. He could have just written a bunch of angry tracts but he used his anger to do many constructive things.

Paul's next way in which Christians show love might be a no-brainer: Thieves should turn to honest work. Loving someone means respecting their property. That means if you need something belonging to someone else, you must ask and receive permission. As I said, a no-brainer. It makes you wonder why Paul had to say it. But it must have been an issue the church in Ephesus was dealing with. And theft not only feels like a personal assault, it destroys trust. Since trust underlies all relationships, no one can follow Jesus and do something so destructive to community.

What's interesting is that Paul says thieves must do honest labor so that they have something to share with the needy. A thief usually thinks only of himself and his desires. Paul says a Christian has to look outside himself and think of the needs of others. Altruism is an appropriate spiritual prescription for the person who used to steal.

Another way to show love for others is to control what you say. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” The Greek word translated “evil” literally means “rotten, putrefying.” The thing about putrefaction is that it spreads. If you see one bad strawberry in the package, you worry that it's already affected the other ones. And the Bible says a lot more about sins of the tongue than it does about more heavily discussed sins. Gossip is condemned more than 50 times, more times than fornication; lying is condemned 80 times, twice as often as adultery; and slander is condemned 100 times, more than prostitution. Why do we focus on the sexual sins and neglect those mentioned more often? Gossip, lying and slander can be just as destructive to relationships and to the community. And today with the 24/7 news cycle and the internet, gossip, lying and slander can follow a person anywhere in the world and not only destroy his or her current life but also any attempt to start a new life.

Rather than talk that pollutes the atmosphere and leads to destruction of people and the deterioration of relationships, Paul wants us to say “only what is useful for building up.” Think of how much human communication is used to tear people down. Paul wants us to use words that build up people and the community. “ there is need...” When we see an occasion where someone's spiritual progress needs a boost, we are to give them the words they need at that moment “so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” We are to be channels of God's grace through what we say as well as what we do.

Paul adds one sentence that seems to be all about loving God: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.” How does one grieve the Spirit? The same way you grieve anyone who loves you—by doing things that go totally against what they stand for. In the case of the Spirit, according to The New Bible Commentary, it is by opposing “the very of direction of his reconciling, unifying, new-creation work in the believer.” And reconciling and unifying are actions that also have to do with loving our neighbor. You cannot really separate loving God from loving those created in his image.

So Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice...” He is summarizing what he said before about all the things that have us going after one another and destroying our unity. Then he turns to the positive: “...and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Following Jesus isn't like following your favorite athletes in the sports news. You follow Jesus the way you follow a guide through tricky terrain where going your own way is hazardous to you health. Whenever you hear of hikers getting lost in the wilderness, it is always because they strayed from the path. The path of Jesus is the path of kindness, compassion and forgiveness. We are to follow in his footsteps, acting towards each other the way he acted towards those seeking him.

To emphasize that point Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children...” My granddaughter has started picking up various mannerisms of my daughter-in-law, my son and myself. Like my little ex-patient, she is taking Kleenex, holding them to her nose and blowing a raspberry to simulate the noise I make when blowing my nose. Children imitate their caretakers which can both delight and horrify their parents. Say “please” and “thank you” and they will pick it up. Say a bad word and they will repeat it.

We are to imitate our heavenly Father as he is revealed in Jesus Christ. We are to “live in love, as Christ loved us...” And this is not sentimental love or a vague fondness; it is self-sacrificial love. I would put myself in danger to save my granddaughter. I sacrificed sleep to take care of her. I sacrificed days off, using them to finish sermons that would have been done earlier had I not been interrupted by the task of keeping a toddler from dismantling the church. I sacrificed all my vacation time last year to visit my father multiple times during his last illness and to do his funeral. You have all done the same, I'm sure.

There are a lot of silly and just plain wrong definitions of love floating about. “Love means never having to say you're sorry.” Yeah, that relationship is going to last—until after the first argument! Here's another one: “You'll know when a relationship is right for you. It will enhance your life, not complicate it.” It's been my experience that it will do both. Love is about putting another's welfare above your own. If it doesn't pinch, if it doesn't inconvenience you at times, if it doesn't demand more of you than you would normally give, it isn't really love.

We live in a selfish world, in a world where it seems that everyone is asking, “What's in it for me?” and “Why should I put myself out for that person?” Everything is about “me and mine.” “You shouldn't talk about certain things because they offend me and mine.” “You shouldn't do certain things because they affect me and mine.” Guess what? Unless you live in a cave by yourself, you will affect others and vice versa.

If you watch any of the forensic shows out there you will have heard of epithelials. They're skin cells and they come off whenever you are in contact with someone or something else. You can't help it. There was a real life forensic case in which a man was put at a crime scene that he couldn't have possibly been at. The court saw it as pure black and white: the DNA found in the samples taken from the corpse came from the man and therefore he must have been there. And he must have killed the other man. It was as simple as that. It wasn't until someone was able to think more subtly and investigate how the accused could have left traces off himself on a victim he never met that the truth came out. It turns out that the EMT who treated the first man and took him to the hospital was later called to the scene of the crime and transferred the first man's DNA onto the dying man. They discovered it because someone realized that life is not lived under lab conditions; it is too messy to be treated as if everything was sterile and separate and contained. The idea that we can be isolated from each other is nonsense.

When you touch people, some of them rubs off on you and some of you rubs off on them. And you can transfer some of them to others. That's true not only physically but emotionally and spiritually. That's also one way you can spread the gospel. Be in such an intimate loving relationship with Jesus that a lot of him rubs off on you, so that when you touch the lives of others, some of Jesus rubs off on them as well.

Go; infect someone with God's love.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

One For All

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 4:1-16.

An inmate who hadn't previously approached me came over to say he was about to be released and he wanted to know what church he should go to. A lot of inmates ask where my churches are and I tell them. But when they find out that they are 30 miles from Key West, you can see from their expressions that they are probably not and indeed often can't travel that far. So I tell them to find a church where the gospel of what God has done for us in Christ is preached and where the community shows them love and support in their Christian walk. To the specific inmate I told you about, I summarized the right church as a place where they speak the truth in love. This was Monday. And what should pop up when I first looked at this week's lectionary on Tuesday but the very passage I quoted. 

Like all of our readings in Ephesians this is chock-full of big truths. Paul starts off by begging the church at Ephesus to lead a life worthy of the high calling they have received. He is begging because he is in prison and cannot be there to model it for them. Nevertheless, the fact that he has been imprisoned for his faith speaks of his commitment to God's calling. And notice that he is begging rather than commanding, which they might have expected because Paul is an apostle. But the first thing he says about living a life that is worthy is to do it with humility. This is difficult. We all have had experiences and we learn lessons from those experiences and we think what we have learned is correct. And so we are tempted to tell others, “This is what I have seen/heard/ experienced and that means we must do this.” 

The problem is that you may have learned the wrong lesson. I had a violin teacher who in an accident was thrown from his car which then exploded into flames. This is a fluke on several levels. Most people who are thrown from a car are usually shredded by the glass and break several bones, if they're not killed outright. And unlike what you see on TV, cars rarely burst into flames upon collision. But this man took his highly atypical experience, overgeneralized it and refused to wear seatbelts ever. It would be as if someone who fell from a plane and survived (this has happened a few times) thereafter thought that parachutes were unnecessary.

This is the problem with anecdotal evidence which I have seen too many times as a nurse. A patient or their family member knows someone—a friend or cousin or the cousin of a friend—who went against prudent medical advice and lived. Like people deplaning without a parachute who miraculously survive, this can happen. But I often suspect there may be significant details about the case that the person doesn't know or divulge or has gotten wrong. But because it happened once to someone they know, they make it the template for a wide variety of medical circumstances. And they are not only sure but are arrogant about it.

Arrogance is the inability to admit you could be wrong or might need help. C.S. Lewis called it “the complete anti-God state of mind.” For instance, anti-theists, who insist that the existence of God is impossible and that there is no evidence whatsoever in his favor, nevertheless believe in a superior intelligence in the universe. The problem is it tends to be theirs. They will dismiss millennia of well-reasoned thinking by top-flight minds, including many of the great scientists, on the basis of their personal experience and reasoning. Needless to say, dismissal of such a large body of data is unscientific.

Sadly just as there are moral people who do not believe, there are arrogant people who count themselves as believers. And they have done a lot of damage to the church. They don't even have to be cult leaders who believe they are God or Christ. They can be people who believe that they are the infallible interpreters of God's Word or that they have some special hotline to God and know his mind perfectly and, behold, God always agrees with them! They set themselves up as experts on God. Some are pastors and some just make the lives of pastors miserable. In either case, they tend to disrupt the body of Christ, because they forget that there is one head of the body and it is not them. Rather than being disciples or students of Christ, they act as usurpers of his authority.

There are also Lone Ranger Christians who do not feel that they need to meet and worship with and study with and work with other Christians. They do not need the church. They tend not to consider the fact that Christianity is about love which is impossible to put into practice apart from other people. They act as if Christianity is primarily about self-improvement. They never consider that learning to love and get along with sinful, irritating people other than themselves is in fact self-improvement. I remember visiting a monastery clinging to the side of a ravine on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem. It had been there more than 1000 years. At the time there were just a handful of wizened monks rattling around the place. We met them all—all but one. He had quarreled with his brothers and had exiled himself to living in one of the many hermit holes dotting the side of the rock wall into which the monastery had been built. We did see his tethered bucket, in which his brothers put his food everyday, for him to haul up to his niche. I doubt he realized that he could only maintain his self-imposed exile because of the loving actions of his brothers in Christ. As the poet John Donne wrote, “no man is an island”--least of all in the body of Christ.

So Paul urges humility, which is not thinking you are a worm, but rather knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are and realizing that you need others to make up what you lack. It is not arrogant to say “I am a good speaker” or “a good singer” or “a good teacher” or “a good organizer,” if that is one of the gifts the Spirit has given you. If you say, however, that you are the best in your category, or in every major category, that you need not listen to or learn from others, that you cannot make a mistake, that is arrogance. We need more humble people, people who know what they do best and do it but who ask for help when they need it and who value the contributions of others.

Paul adds that Christians need gentleness and patience, two more aspects of the fruit of the Spirit. They need to bear with one another in love, “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Once again Paul gets back to the need for unity among Christians. Unity, as I pointed out last week, is our superpower. It allows us to do God's work to an extent that exceeds what Jesus did during his earthly life. It is one way we can fulfill his words that we will do greater works than he did. It is the way that Jesus through us, the body of Christ on earth, can minister to the world.

Paul gets poetic here, as he often does when contemplating the cosmic scope of God's loving actions. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Seven times this passage of scripture uses the word “one.” I suspect Paul had in mind the fact that in the Bible 7 is the number of perfection.

Perfect oneness is our goal. Jesus prayed that his followers be one even as he and the Father are one. Which makes sense. God is love and we were created in the image of God. The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love one another. Love makes people one. Oneness means peace. And peace in the Bible is not merely the absence of conflict but wholeness and well-being.

It is ironic that here in America we idolize the individual, who doesn't go along with the herd but follows his own dreams and pursues his own personal happiness. Our heroes are loners who meet out justice according to their own personal code. And yet we are horrified when someone actually does that in real life. Not all of the recent shooters were diagnosed as mentally ill but they were all loners, usually coming out of fragmented families, with few or no friends. They are rarely sociable. Dylan and Klebold of Columbine were an anomaly. And the trigger is often the loss of a relationship or a job, which takes them out of a group of people they interact with daily. One of the signs of drug addiction is withdrawal from family and friends. On the other hand one element of happiness and also a factor in longevity is involvement in a group. As God said, it is not good for man to be alone.

Now of course you could derive the benefits of group involvement through joining any group, including a hate group. Christian Picciolini, former white supremacist, says part of the problem of leaving a hate group is that they become a surrogate family. So he co-founded Life After Hate, a non-profit that helps right wing extremists transition out of that lifestyle. One of the things that binds hate groups, according to Jennifer Ray, who studies the social psychology of hate, is a moral code that views their target not merely with a strong dislike but with contempt, anger and disgust. What's interesting is that according to brain imaging, both hate and love affect the same structures in the brain. But love deactivates the regions associated with criticism and judgment. How much better it is to be part of those who follow Jesus who encourages us to love others!

The next problem is how do we become one with each other and not get swallowed up by the whole. Do we abandon our individuality? No. Paul says, “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.” And then Paul lists some of the more prominent gifts: “...some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers....” In Romans 12:6-8, Paul mentions the gifts of service, of leadership and of showing mercy. In 1 Corinthians 12, he mentions, among others, the gifts of faith and healing. And there's no reason to think that this covers all of the gifts which the Spirit gives to individual Christians.

But they all have one purpose: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ....” They are not for self-aggrandizement or showing off. They are not for designating who is more important than whom. They are for equipping Christians to minister, that is, to serve Jesus by serving others. And ultimately they are for building up the body of Christ. We can do that in two ways—by maintaining, nurturing and repairing the people and relationships in the church and by bringing new people into the church.

Maintaining, nurturing and repairing the people and relationships in a church is vital. For instance, each person need a recognized role in the church, even if it doesn't come with a title. Some people become the unofficial mother or grandmother of the church. Some people can organize anything. Some just throw themselves into whatever task is needed. Some have the gift of encouraging others and just making everything more cheerful. All these people and more are needed to build up the body of Christ.

Another and equally vital way to build up the body is to bring new people into the church. Jesus' last command before ascending to the Father was for us to go and make disciples, baptize and teach them. We do a fair job of this if they come through the door but we fall down on the “go” part. Nor is this command directed exclusively at clergy. As 1 Peter 3:5 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is within you....” Actually the word translated “answer” would be better rendered “defense.” We should all be able to defend our faith, if only by telling people what God has done for you. And if you can't you that, you need to spend time thinking about how different your life is and how much better it is with Jesus in it. But we don't need to shove it down people's throats. Peter goes on to say, “But do it with gentleness and respect.” Paul talks of speaking the truth in love. So we needn't stand on corners and shout. Nor should we awkwardly introduce Jesus into every conversation.

But we need to share the gospel with others. Not just because Jesus commanded it, not just because it is how we grow, but because people need it. They need to hear the good news about who Jesus is, what he has done for us and is doing in us. They need to hear about love and forgiveness and healing and restoration and sacrifice and death and resurrection and new creation. They need it and it is selfish not to share it with them.

And we need to grow up. We need to stop squabbling about trivial things and splitting hairs and basing orthodoxy on the little things. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “ neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” (Matt. 23:23) As Paul puts it, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, in Christ...”

Jesus stayed on message. When people tried to get him involved in controversies, he moved the conversation back to what was essential: God's love, justice and mercy and what our response should be. When they brought up taxes, he brought it back to giving to God what was his. When they brought up ceremonial uncleanness, he brought it back to the evil in person's hearts that need cleansing by God. When they brought up the problem of who was responsible for a man's affliction, he brought it back to the man's need to be healed and then did so. Jesus didn't let himself get sidetracked. He had priorities.

Paul speaks of us coming to maturity and that entails learning to give things their proper weight. It means focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is important and especially from what is neither essential nor important. And yet you look at the issues Christians are most concerned with and they are not beliefs mentioned in the creeds or behaviors mentioned in the 10 commandments or things mentioned by Jesus. And are these issues building up the body of Christ or are they dividing it? Are they making us stronger or making us weaker? Are they communicating the good news of God's love and forgiveness or are they upstaging it and making our proclamation of the gospel sound hollow and false?

We need to shift to focusing on those things that build up the body of Christ. In terms of behavior, we need to focus on maintaining, nurturing and restoring the people who make up the body of Christ. We need to make sure everyone finds their gifts, is recognized for them, and is empowered to develop and exercise them. We also need to focus on bringing others into the body. It is what Jesus commanded; it is what others need; and it is what we need to keep growing. Belief-wise, we need to focus on those 7 ones: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Oneness is not just important but essential. The world is rife with divisions. The news, our politics and our communities are roiling with issues that divide us. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation. And we need to model it. The world needs us to model it. We need to show that people from different classes, cultures, races and political viewpoints can come together in love and make the world a better place. And to do that we must be one, as the Son and Father are one, as Jesus prayed for us to be, as only God can make us, if we just say “Yes.”

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rooted and Grounded

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 3:14-21.

The inmates at the jail really keep me on my toes. I hand out a lot of Bibles and they get read cover to cover often within a matter of weeks because the inmates have little else to do. So I have had to deal with questions about the nephilim, angels, Ezekiel, Revelation, reincarnation, and the problem of people not recognizing the resurrected Christ at first. And they zero in on not only the things they don't understand but the parts of the Bible that seem to contradict other parts of the Bible. In many cases I can explain things and other times I confess ignorance and promise that I'll look for an answer in my books.

Tuesday nights on my visits to the dorms I have been encountering 2 people who pepper me with questions that severely test my knowledge of the Bible. One has theories he is looking to support. In his case I listen politely, correct some misconceptions but basically try to get him to look at the larger message of the Bible. Just as comic book and sci-fi geeks can get so wrapped up in the details and trivia of their favorite heroes that they forget that their stories are merely meant to be entertainment, some believers can get so enamored with mining the minutiae of the scriptures that they can forget their purpose: to proclaim the gospel of the love of God in Christ.

The other inmate is very sensitive to the portions of the Old Testament where God seems to be less than loving. And while sometimes I can offer a different perspective on an incident, I will admit that some parts of the Old Testament bother me too. This is not new. Going back to the heretic Marcion in the second century people have been trying to come up with an answer to the problem of why God seems so wrathful in the Old Testament and so loving in the New.

The key word here is “seems.” In fact God's love is a major topic in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 7:7 it says, “It was not because you were more numerous that all other nations that the Lord set his delight on you or chose you—for you were the smallest of all the nations—but because of the Lord's love for you and because he kept the oath sworn to your fathers, the Lord brought you out and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.” God loves his people as a nursing mother loves her child, according to Isaiah 49:15-16. His love for his people, for the widow and the fatherless, for the immigrant, for the righteous and for the wicked one who forsakes his way and turns to God is found throughout the Old Testament.

Because of his love for his people and for the innocent, God is protective, fiercely so. Think of a mother and its cubs. That explains a lot of the parts of the Hebrew Bible where God seems merciless towards their foes. Israel was never a very big nation. Its land sat astride the crossroads between Europe, Asia, Arabia and Africa. It was wedged between powerful empires: Egypt to their west and a succession of empires (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, etc) to their east. When their larger neighbors were weak or in turmoil, Israel knew peace. When those neighbors were powerful, they generally sought to conquer Israel and control the crossroads. Small wonder that Israel, and later the southern kingdom of Judea, revered the Lord of Hosts, literally, Lord of the Armies. There was no UN or human rights commission to watch over them should their enemies come over the mountains to subdue them. So God's ferocious protectiveness of his people was a sign of love. And his strict discipline, like the military's, was meant to keep them obedient and united.

Today's passage in Ephesians is a massive prayer by Paul that the church try to grasp the immensity of God's love. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

First note that Paul is on his knees. That wasn't the usual posture Jews or indeed Gentiles took when praying. They normally stood and raised their hands to heaven. One would prostrate oneself before a king. So Paul is on his knees praying to the heavenly king for the church.

He is also praying to his heavenly Father. It was not odd to hear pagans speak of Zeus or Jupiter as father, though they just meant that their god created people. But Jesus made it a term of implied intimacy. Sometimes Jesus called his Father “Abba,” the equivalent of "Dada." Paul says that every family takes its name from God the Father. Weirdly, though, he says “every family in heaven and on earth.” So some translate this “the whole family in heaven and on earth,” in other words, God's family, both those who have left this life to be with him and those still living on earth. Paul is emphasizing how far the fatherhood of God extends.

Paul next prays that his readers “may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” The Christian life is impossible to live using one's own power alone. We need the Spirit of God within us to give us the ability to live as Jesus wants us to. And we need to let him get as deep within us as possible.

Paul then prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...” Some people want Jesus in their heart but only as a guest, not as a permanent resident. They want to be able to put a sock on the door and have him take a walk while they indulge in things that aren't Christlike. But Jesus doesn't want our hearts to be like an Airbnb. He wants to move in, set up his home and live in us eternally. And he can only do that if we in faith let him. We must trust that what he wants to do with the place is the right thing to do. We need to give him the key to every room in our heart and what's more, let him do any renovations he wants to. One sign that Christ is in our hearts is that they become larger rather than smaller. They should have room for all the people Jesus wants us to love.

These additions Jesus is building on to our hearts leave us “being rooted and grounded in love.” Actually the last word should be “founded.” Paul is mixing metaphors. We are being rooted in love, like a tree drawing its sustenance from God's love. But love is also our foundation, which gives stability to the whole structure of our life. Everything we think, say and do should be rooted and grounded in love.

Is that love adequate to build a life on? Paul prays that all believers have the power to comprehend his love's “breadth and length and height and depth.” It is so extensive that it is difficult to take in unaided by God. William Barclay, the Scottish Bible scholar, pointed out that the directions given—breadth, length, height and depth—call to mind the ultimate symbol of God's love: the cross of Christ. That the God who created the universe was willing to become a human being and die that way in order to save us shows the immensity of his love for us. That is something to contemplate when we have occasion to doubt God's love.

Paul then paradoxically says that he wants us “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge...” How can we know what goes beyond knowledge? Ever get a good look at all the stars in the night sky? What you see only lets you know that it is much larger than what can be seen. Not only are there stars that at present you can't see because they are on the other side of the earth you are standing on but the star field extends away from you in all directions. There are stars right in front of your eyes that are so far away you can't see them. To see the heavens is to see how much more there is beyond your ability to perceive them.

God's love is like that if you just start thinking about it. God gives us life, a brain, eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, hands, the ability to learn, to remember, to will, to love. He gives us a world to live in, filled with what we need to sustain life. He gives us other people in our lives, animals, plants, mountains and rivers and plains and forests and deserts and jungles and oceans. He has given us sunshine and clouds and rain and wind and snow and ice. God has given us so much and if you think about it, his gifts never end. What we can know about his love is that it surpasses what we know and even what we can know.

Paul prays that we realize this “so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Another paradox. How can we, finite creatures, being filled with all the fullness of our infinite God? I think Paul is talking of our heads and hearts being filled to overflowing with all the goodness God graciously showers upon us. It is akin to saying your heart is full after experiencing the love of someone towards you. We should radiate God's love.

Paul wraps this prayer us by saying “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine...” The power at work within us is yet another reference to the Holy Spirit, God in us. And the Spirit in us is able to accomplish way more than anything we can ask or conceive of. Think about that. Scripture is saying that God can do truly amazing, hitherto unimaginable things through us! Jesus said we would do greater works than he did! (John 14:12)

How is that possible? For one thing, there are more of us. A expert on chimpanzees said you would never see 2 of them, say, carrying a log together to use as a tool the way you see human beings working in concert on a project. The way we have accomplished so much more than any other species is through the fact that we can cooperate with each other, even with people who are not relatives. This church, the electricity that powers the lights and fans and a/c and computers, the water we use, the waste we dispose of, the roads we travel to get here, the construction of the cars and trucks we drive—all of it is the result of lots of people coming together to create these things, work the systems that produce them and support these efforts through donations, payments, and taxes. My blog has readers in Russia, South Korea, France, Singapore, the United Kingdom, numerous other countries and various parts of the USA because of the internet, a staggering human achievement that allows just about everyone in the world to communicate with just about anyone else in the world.

Jesus fed 4 and 5 thousand people on a couple of occasions. The church feeds millions worldwide everyday through its feeding programs, food pantries, and community gardens. Jesus healed at most a few thousand during his 3 ½ year ministry. The church heals as well as prevents diseases for millions worldwide everyday through its hospitals, clinics and medical missionaries. Jesus preached the good news to 10s of thousands of people. The church has preached the gospel to billions. In addition the church builds schools, universities and seminaries and educates people around the globe. It works to free people from slavery and human trafficking. It provides emergency relief after disasters. It offers counseling and guidance to the perplexed and guilt-ridden. It sends visitors to the sick and those in prison. This is how Jesus through the Body of Christ ministers to the world today.

So, yes, God can, through the power at work within us, do more than we can possibly imagine. If we let him. If we work with other Christians. If we are rooted and grounded in love, like the inmate with all the questions about the OT. He said, “I just try to love others like Jesus does.” If we stick to that and stick together, we can change the world.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Breaking Down the Wall

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:11-22.

Warning: The introduction to the main topic of this sermon contains pop culture references. They are not intended to have the same weight as the theology that follows but are used for their insights into the prejudices and perceptions of our society, and so are sometimes commended and sometimes condemned. Complaints should be directed to the Apostle Paul who quoted Greek playwrights and used sports metaphors in his letters, that is, our scriptures.

While contemplating today's passage from Ephesians, I came across a surprising difference between my two favorite science fiction franchises. Doctor Who, in its original incarnation, was the longest running sci-fi series in the world. The show didn't become a hit though until the Doctor encountered the Daleks. They were the survivors of a nuclear war, so mutated by radiation that we never used to see them, just the non-humanoid battle armor in which each individual Dalek lived. In the first story the Daleks' enemies were the Thals, an idealized blond humanoid race. In contrast to the peaceful, non-technological Thals, the Daleks were dehumanized, mechanized, interchangeable and militaristic. Although originally seen as the cost of a culture always at war, the Daleks have come to represent xenophobia. They wish to wipe out or enslave every other race in the universe. The Daleks are monsters and while the Doctor generally is loathe to personally kill any species, he has the hardest time being a pacifist when facing the Daleks. He is not above maneuvering them into situations where they will be destroyed, usually through their own aggressive actions.

As even non-Trekkers know, the archenemies of the original Star Trek crew were the Klingons. And though the primary hero of each of these series has a personal reason to hate their foes—the Daleks were responsible for destroying the Doctor's home world; the Klingons killed Captain Kirk's son—they ultimately end up in very different relationships with their nemeses. More than 50 years later, the Doctor and the Daleks are still each other's greatest enemies; years ago, Kirk, albeit reluctantly, became responsible for the admission of the Klingons into the Federation, a kind of galactic United Nations. A prominent crew member of the second and third Star Trek series was Worf, a Klingon orphan raised by a human couple.

With the Klingons now allies, although not ones to be taken for granted, subsequent Star Trek series had to create new archenemies. But each has eventually become an ally, if only begrudgingly and out of necessity.

In the finale of Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans must join with their former oppressors, the Cardasians, to defeat a mutual enemy. That enemy is also a formidable threat to the Federation, which turns out to be not nearly as benign as it appears. A black ops division of the Federation engineers a biological weapon specific to this alien enemy and infects them. Then Odo, one of their race, who, like Worf, was raised on Federation ideals, goes to their planet to heal them. The Borg, a scary half-biological, half-mechanical race which the crew of The Next Generation fought, agree to a truce with Captain Janeway of Voyager. As part of the agreement the Borg drone Seven of Nine comes on board Janeway's starship and eventually becomes a valuable member of the crew. In the final analysis, the Doctor's enemies always remain enemies, whereas adversaries in the Star Trek universe eventually reconcile.

The theme of reconciliation is at the heart of many of Paul's letters, such as today's. The two adversaries he is writing about were the Gentiles and the Jews. Jesus was a Jew and was revealed by his life, death and resurrection to be the long-awaited Messiah. But he was quite different from the popular conception of the Messiah. Instead of a leader who would liberate the Jews from their oppression by Gentiles, Jesus set about liberating all people, Jews and Gentiles, from their slavery to evil and sin. While the known world was being evangelized in the first century, the majority of Jews did not respond well to this idea of the Messiah but many Gentiles did. Most of these were “Godfearers,” Gentiles who attended synagogue though they did not convert to Judaism. The Gospel message resonated with them and they readily converted to Christianity. Jewish Christians felt that they should become Jews first, getting circumcised and observing the ceremonial rituals. But Paul, though once a zealous Pharisee, saw this as a mistake. For one thing, the first Gentile converts, after hearing Peter preach, were given the gift of the Holy Spirit without first submitting to either baptism or circumcision. A more important problem was that requiring that Gentiles observe all 613 commandments of the Old Covenant diminished what Jesus did on the cross to establish the New Covenant. We all, Jews and Gentiles, are saved and become members of God's people through Christ's sacrifice. Making the Gentiles retroactively become Jews would be akin to making newly naturalized U.S. citizens also become British citizens since that was the national origin of the first U.S. citizens.

Remember that the Jews were a barely tolerated minority in the Roman empire. They wouldn't participate in sacrifices offered to the emperor as a god. When the Romans realized that monotheism was central to Judaism, and that they would die rather than worship any other gods, they gave them a pass on the emperor cult. But they never really understood why the Jews were so close-minded in this aspect and why they couldn't, like their pagan subjects, simply add another deity to their pantheon. This attitude, which goes back to the Greek successors of Alexander the Great, was the original source of anti-Semitism. So one can understand Jewish resentment towards Gentiles and why the first Christians, all Jews, felt that the Gentile converts were getting off too easily.

What Paul says about this division is interesting. He says that this was one of the things Jesus died for: to remove the barriers between people. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

But wait a minute! Didn't Jesus die for our sins? Yes, one of which is the hatred we have for those who are different. When Judge Sonia Sotomayor was up for confirmation to the Supreme Court, I heard a Latina say she was for her because “she looks like us.” That is the least important reason one should support or oppose a person, though at least that person was honest. And when we lived in tribes the fastest way to recognize friend or foe was by appearance, because everyone in a clan was related somehow. I never thought about the persistence of family resemblance until I went to a reunion some years ago and met many people for the first time who nevertheless looked oddly familiar. This would not strike me as strange had I grown up in a nomadic tribe or even a small village where I had familial connections to pretty much everyone. It would then be natural to see similar people as the norm and outsiders as odd folks not to be entirely trusted, or even to be hated if that were my group's viewpoint.

Once people started to live in towns and cities of hundreds or thousands of people we had to expand our ideas of who was a friend. But sharing appearance or language or culture or DNA still determined who was in our inner circle. Allegiance to larger groups can be tenuous. We have seen that in countries like Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Nazi Germany people can be incited to attack their ethnically distinct neighbors, even if they had previously lived together in peace, sometimes for centuries. Even here in the United States we have trouble remembering that being an American doesn't mean belonging to a certain race or religion or national origin.

The idea of a people of God made up of folks from different nations and ethnicities is in fact found in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. But it wasn't talked about much in Jesus' day. Still, during Jesus' ministry we see Gentiles coming to him for healing. And shortly after Pentecost, the deacon Philip is led by God to baptize an Ethiopian official who happens to be a eunuch. This puts him outside of the presumed target audience for inclusion in God's people on two counts. And we see that even the apostles are surprised by the kind of people God calls to come to Jesus.

Paul is considered the Apostle to the Gentiles and yet his method was to go to the synagogue of whatever city he was in and preach there. When he saw the phenomenal results among the Godfearers, and resistance from his fellow Jews, he realized that God had a different idea for the composition of the Body of Christ. But that caused a lot of friction and the church, headquartered in Jerusalem, met with Paul and figured out what elements of the law the Gentile converts had to observe. And in Acts 15 we are told that they wrote this: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual sins.”

Now this was probably hotly debated in the churches Paul founded. After all, Paul preached that “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works so that no one may boast.” But refraining from certain things is not what saves you. Rather they are the acts of someone who is saved and is now operating out for love of God and for his fellow Christians, Jewish or Gentile.

In any relationship, there is a trade-off. You have to think of the others in the relationship. Marrying means giving up dating other people. Having kids means you can't just go out partying on a whim and leave them to fend for themselves. Belonging to a group means you respect and don't contradict the mission or violate the ethics of the group. You do these things out of affection or love for the others in the relationship. If you don't do these, the relationship will suffer and probably break down.

To be sure, relationships change, but not in the essentials, not if you wish them to last. I was fascinated by an NPR story of an Iranian couple who came to the United States. The father was very old world and autocratically ruled his family and his wife. When the wife objected she was told to shut up. When the kids were grown and married, their mother divorced her husband. He was shocked. In the aftermath, as he lived a bachelor life, he discovered—don't laugh—Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And in reading this pop psych book, he began to change. In the end, the couple remarried, over the objections of their grown daughters! But the husband had picked up a skill that researchers say is essential for a marriage to survive: listening to his wife. That change of practice allowed them to save what was essential about their relationship—the love embodied in the marriage.

The early church was learning what was essential and what wasn't. Who you were, what you looked like, what race you came from, what gender you were, and what economic class you belonged to were not essential. Again Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What is essential is not who you are or were; what is essential is whom you trust and follow.

But there were still tensions. If you read Paul's letters you can boil down the primary flaws of each party. The Jews suffered from self-righteousness. They couldn't let go of the old regulations and rituals and their heritage. And the Gentiles didn't understand, much less respect the Jews' scruples. They thought that because they weren't saved by their own righteousness, they didn't need to try to be good. So Paul keeps telling them really obvious things about being a Christ follower, like don't get drunk at communion—or ever. Don't everybody talk all at once during worship. Don't dress immodestly. Control yourself sexually. Don't gossip or sue each other. If you believe in Jesus, behave like him.

244 of those 613 commandments in the Torah concern the tabernacle, the mobile structure that was considered the dwelling place of God on earth. David wanted to replace it with a big permanent temple. God wouldn't let him. Later David realized that this was because he was a man of war who had shed much blood. He wasn't fit to build the Lord's temple. That temple, built first by Solomon and then rebuilt by Herod, was superseded by Jesus, God Incarnate, his presence on earth. And now that Jesus has returned to the Father, Paul tells us that God wants to dwell in us. Speaking of Jesus Paul said, “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Note that the word “together” is used twice.

Jesus' prayer for the church the night before he was crucified was “Holy Father, protect them by your name that you have given me so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) But from the very beginning, that has been our biggest problem. First it was the Greek-speaking Jews in the church having friction with the Hebrew-speaking Jews. Then it was the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul confronts the fact that camps are forming in that church around different Christian teachers. Throughout church history divisions have arisen over the same things—culture, nationalities, teachings and teachers. Today we look back at many of these controversies and think “What was all the fuss about?” Yet people still put other things ahead of Christ and call themselves Christian.

Part of the reason that we resist reconciliation with other Christians is that we think that unity means uniformity. We are afraid that if we unite, all churches and all Christians will be the same. But, as Paul illustrates with a metaphor, one body is made up of many different parts and each has an important function. They are all controlled by the head, which is Christ. Do we not trust Christ to be in charge of his body?

We also fear change. But change is a constant. And yet the essentials don't change. Every cell of our bodies has died and been replaced approximately every seven years, skin cells more frequently. But we are the same people we always were: our passions, our strengths, our weaknesses, and our quirks are the same. The church, too, has changed over time, the outward and visible parts most of all. But the essentials remain.

Yet the idea of unity among Christians is still controversial. Just as Captain Kirk could not at first envision a Federation that embraced the Klingons, we cannot seem to envision a church that includes both conservatives and liberals, Baptists and Roman Catholics, Methodists and Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Lutherans and Episcopalians. And it's not like our so-called “adversaries” are genocidal monsters like the Daleks. They are people who trust in and follow the same Jesus Christ as Lord. The clergy all confess the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation. Are all the issues dividing Christians really things necessary to salvation? Or are they stuff we have added afterward, traditions and rituals and governing bodies that may be important and may have arisen for a good reason at one point in history but are not actually essential?

Sadly, the obstacles to unity among Christians are still the same as they were in Paul's day: pride, self-righteousness, lack of respect for others, not listening, and not appreciating the strengths of what different people have to offer the church. Jesus sacrificed his life to bring us together. But we can't be bothered to make sacrifices to be his one holy, catholic and apostolic church. And as long as we think our differences are more important than reconciliation, that who we are or how we do things are more important than being the body of Christ, that divisive speech and actions are more important than the continued incarnation of the love of God which Jesus said was how the world would recognize his disciples, we won't be fit to be God's temple either.

The answer, as always, is love. We need to emulate Jesus, who, when he heard that someone outside of his disciples was healing people in his name, said, “Do not stop him for whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40) It is Jesus who commands us to go outside the circle of those who love us and reach out to others. (Luke 6:32-36) Christianity is the religion of love. Love is the mark of being a follower of Jesus. But love always involves risk because love is not always reciprocated. Nevertheless we are commanded to love—our neighbors, our enemies, each other. “If I have not love,” said Paul, “I am nothing.” If we cannot love our fellow Christians, what does that make us?