Monday, April 14, 2014

To Die For

I was listening to the Diane Rehm Show Thursday and the subject of the first hour was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. One of the guests brought up the fact that President Johnson knew that passing this law would lose the solid South that the Democrats had controlled since the Civil War. He was in effect committing political suicide as was his party. And for what? For a moral principle. The same was true of the Speaker of the House, a Republican from the same district as today's Speaker, John Boehner. He wanted the passing of the law to be bipartisan and having achieved it, he lost his speakership the next year. And the guest said, “Call you imagine a politician today doing the same?”

Sacrifice is one of those things we like when it is done by someone else. We like others making sacrifices that benefit us. But when it is our time to make a sacrifice, we often balk, at least if the sacrifice is more than a few minutes of our time or a few extra cents per product or a minimal amount of effort. And certainly we would object to anything that makes a permanent negative change in our lifestyle or income or position or power.

Now if there is a threat to someone we really love, we might be willing to make a sacrifice. Parents may sacrifice themselves for their children. True parenthood is a form of sacrifice: you give up sleep, you give up a lot of your time and your money for your children. Not every parent does, however. In fact, there are people who give up their children in deference to their spouse or lover. My wife and I briefly took in a teenage girl whose mother chose her boyfriend over her daughter when the 2 came into conflict. And men often sacrifice their time with their children for the sake of their job or for a new relationship. In my work at the jail I have seen parents burn out on bailing out their offspring repeatedly and just give up on them. We expect parents to make sacrifices for their kids but in the real world that is not always a given.

A person may sacrifice him or herself for a spouse or lover. A woman may give up her dreams, her preferred career, her friends, her family, her hopes of having children for a man. It can work the other way as well. Some sacrifice in the form of compromise is necessary in a relationship. But it can be one-sided. Again as a chaplain I have seen people go to jail for a lover.

Would you be willing to give up your life, though? For your children? For your lover? Would you die for them? Would you take a bullet? Would you give up a limb? Soldiers sacrifice themselves for their country though most hope, as Patton said, to make enemy soldiers die for their country.

Outside of war, giving up your life voluntarily and rationally to save another is rare. So much so that when someone like Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson dies using his body to wedge a door shut against the shooter at Ft. Hood, thereby saving a room full of his colleagues, everyone takes notice. That is not ordinary behavior. It is normal to run and hide. Most people in a crisis are either victims or victimizers. Unlike the movies, the cops and EMTs usually don't arrive in time to stop the disaster or even mitigate it but later, to help the survivors, clean up the aftermath, and figure out what happened.

9 times out of 10 when a person sacrifices himself in order to save others it is a split second decision. It's not like they knew what was coming and deliberately put themselves in harm's way. But Jesus did. Whether he foresaw it because he knew that anyone upsetting the status quo was likely to end up on a cross, or because the Spirit let him know in no uncertain terms, Jesus saw what was coming. And he could have stopped it. He could have had the other disciples seize Judas before he slipped out of the upper room. He could have hightailed it to Bethany, 2 miles away from Jerusalem, where Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived. They would have hidden him or gotten him out of Judea. Jesus could have disarmed the accusations leveled against him, denied who he was and toed the party line. Heck, he told Peter that he could have called legions of angels to save him. But he didn't do any of those things. Something more important was at stake.

In a movie, if a character sacrifices himself, it is for someone he loves. Usually just one person. Movie people rarely die merely to save millions or for a principle. Too abstract. We like to keep it simple and relatable. If Hollywood were writing the story of Jesus, he would die primarily for one person, his true love. And he wouldn't be crucified, he'd go down fighting. Actually Hollywood did make that Jesus film; it's called The Matrix.

Hollywood understands that dying for the whole world is hard to make immediate and emotional. And they're right. In the 3rd movie, when Neo, the Christ figure, dies to reconcile humans and robots, there is no emotional catharsis as there was in the first. Neo has no relationship with all of humanity and all the robots. How could he? He's just one human being. Instead of the big emotional ending, we get dialogue between 2 sentient programs on a bench, explaining what just happened.

In straightforward Jesus movies, the emphasis is on the physical suffering, not his atonement for the sins of the world. Because they can show the physical stuff. But how do you show Jesus dying for everyone in the world, past, present and future? You really can't.

But he did. He died for all of us which means he died for each of us. But how is that possible?

A human being really can't have any kind of meaningful relationship with more than 150 individuals. That goes back to when we lived in tribes and extended families. It is still a psychological limit. You may have a larger group of people in your school or company or town with whom you occasionally interact but they are neither family nor friends nor acquaintances you could recognize on sight or with whom you would ever chat. There's a reason for this. Where would you find the time to get to know hundreds or thousands of folks?

But God lives outside of time. He inhabits eternity and has, so to speak, all the time in the world to devote to each person. He can study each person, listen to each thought, hear each word, observe each action. He can hear every prayer and communicate with each individual, if that person is receptive. So in his pre-existent state Christ made and knew and loved every person who ever existed. To him, his mission to save the whole world was personal, done to save his beloved but in a way it could never be for someone who is only human.

Every slice of the whip, every blow from the mocking soldiers, every prick from the thorny crown, every stumbling step made under the weight of the crossbar, every scraped knee from a fall, every blow from the hammer driving home the nail, every shooting pain as he was raised into place, every shudder as the cross fell into its slot, every agonized gasp for air he endured for you. Each and every one of you. And, yes, me as well.

Jesus suffered for every cruel thought we ever had, every cutting or untruthful word we ever uttered, every selfish or harmful act we ever made, every time when we said or did nothing when someone needed to speak up or step up and help or protect someone. Every awful thing we did to others we did to him. Every supportive and comforting thing we withheld from others we withheld from him. It should have been each of us who was made to carry our cross through the jeering crowds to Golgotha. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole and by his bruises are we healed.

You may say, “I have never done anything that merits crucifixion.” Not knowingly perhaps. You may not know the damage your childhood insults about the fat kid in class did to his or her fragile psyche later in life. You may not know what further terrible thing happened to the young woman whose black eye and bruises you chose to ignore. You may not know how your not contributing to that church disaster fund affected people in that devastated country. You may not know how your indifference to a politician's badly thought-out policies hurt real people. You may not know that the food you eat or the electronics you buy are supporting virtual or actual slavery in the third world country that produces them. We know we are responsible for the evil we do. But are we automatically absolved from the evil done on our behalf or the good we do not do? Isn't that rather too close to the excuse of the low-level Nazis who said, “I was just a small cog in the system?”

Small things can have a very big impact. The eating of a monkey in the Congo in the early part of the 20th century led to the AIDS epidemic 60 years later. If a tiny virus can initiate a cascade of biological events that sickens millions, might not the cumulative effects of all the tiny evils we do or decline to stop contribute to the moral disease affecting our world? Didn't we see in 2008 how interdependent the whole world is, so that the financial sins of a few destroyed the jobs and pensions and home-ownership of millions? The human race is one family, all sharing the mitochondrial DNA of one African woman and the Y chromosomes of one African man, both of whom lived more than 100,000 years ago. If we share a common biology, why not a common morality? If our shared physical makeup allows us to pass on physical contagion, why can't our shared spiritual nature allow us to pass on spiritual corruption?

In Jesus' day half of all children died before their fifth birthday. Vaccines have drastically reduced and even eliminated some diseases that used to kill great numbers of people. Sadly some of these childhood diseases are reemerging because of misinformed people not vaccinating their kids and those children are spreading these germs to others.

Can it work the other way? C.S. Lewis spoke of Christianity being a good infection, spiritual healing spread by getting and maintaining close contact with Jesus. He is patient zero and the good infection of his Spirit first spreads to the twelve and spills out of Jerusalem at Pentecost to pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire. Everywhere they go there is a breakout of the good news. The apostles spread faith in Jesus as far as they can. In 300 years Christianity takes over the Empire. The pagan Germanic tribes conquer Rome but faith in Jesus conquers them. It spreads to the New World, to the East and the global South. And while some mutations arise, the original code of the Incarnate, Crucified and Risen God teaching love and forgiveness reasserts itself whenever we get too far from the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

And it all starts on the cross. Which seems unnecessarily messy. But so is physical birth. So is life-saving surgery. The body is penetrated; blood is spilled; there are scars. And the paradox is that out of this messy painful process comes miraculous new life. We feel it shouldn't but it does. The God of love comes to earth and we do the unforgivable: we kill him. That should be our damnation as a species but God turns it into our salvation. He forgives us. He nullifies the evil done to him and then that nullification gets spread to us and the evils we do to others and ourselves. All it requires is embracing Jesus and letting the good infection inside. Let him rewrite your spiritual code. Let it manifest itself in how you think, how you speak, and how you act. And then carry this good infection to others. It means you will have to get close to others. It may get emotionally messy. There may be pain. It will take sacrifices. But that gives way to real health, a mending of body, mind and spirit. 

If one new life only comes through painful labor, what did the new lives of a whole world cost God? A world of pain. But he thinks it was worth it. To save you. Each and every one of you. And even me. 

Thank God.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: When?

When I was a kid I fell for one of those “make money in your spare time” schemes. An entire page of one of my comic books told me how easy it was to make money selling greetings cards. So I sent for my boxes of cards to sell. The deal was you had to send so much money back to the company before you got to keep any for yourself, which meant you had to sell an awful lot of boxes of cards. I dutifully went door to door but really couldn't sell many boxes. People may be charmed by a child but that's not always enough to make a sale. Truth be told, most of the cards were bought by my parents and relatives. Even then I sold just enough to pay off the company. I did not reorder.

Salesmen are supposed to close the deal. They are hired not only to persuade people that what they are selling is good and that it is what the consumer needs and desires but they should also get them to place an order, sign on the dotted line and hand over a check or their credit card. It is a talent that not everybody has. It requires the ability to push people to do things even when they are reluctant. So closers can be insensitive to the feelings which make others hesitant to commit themselves. I worked with one salesperson who was very successful at selling radio ads. Then I would write them and call the client to read the copy to them and get their approval. In doing so I found that a lot of clients signed her contracts not because they wanted the ads but just to get her to leave their stores!

Some closers might really be convinced that what they are doing is for the client's good. There were times when, as a nurse, I could get a patient to agree that following the doctor's orders were a good thing in theory but was unable to get them to actually comply with treatment. That was frustrating because no one can cure you if you don't work with them. I wished I could have closed them.

But most of the time closing is done for the profit of the seller, and for the survival of the salesman's job, and not necessarily for the benefit of the buyer. One of things I liked about being a copywriter for radio was that you don't have to close the sale. You present what the sponsor has to offer, show its benefits, and give an address or phone number. We just made the audience aware of the product or service and tried to fan their desire for it. The rest was up to the listener.

There are methods of evangelism that emphasize closing. Usually they try to get the person to say the so-called Sinner's Prayer, in which one acknowledges one's sin, asks for God's forgiveness on the basis of Christ's sacrifice on the cross and asks Jesus to come into one's heart. At the Billy Graham Crusades, they would have an altar call, asking those who wish to commit their lives to Christ to come forward.

Sometimes it works. Barbara Brown Taylor became a Christian in college through a girl in her dorm who knocked on her door and used Campus Crusade's Four Spiritual Laws tract. The girl got Taylor to say the Sinner's Prayer and then left. Fortunately, Taylor did the follow up herself, wanting to learn more about this faith she had just adopted. She went on to became one of the best preachers of the second half of the 20th century. I would encourage anyone to get her books. So, yeah, sometimes closing works.

But often it leads to a superficial and possibly spurious “conversion” where the person thinks they are a Christian simply because they said a magic prayer. But did they truly repent, that is, turn their lives around, change their way of thinking and behaving? And by inviting Jesus into their heart did they understand that to mean he is in charge of their lives from then on and they are to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Jesus? I do like the fact that, at the Billy Graham crusades at least, people from local churches were recruited to meet with and disciple the new converts. Because Jesus said we were not merely to tell people the good news and baptize them but also to make disciples. And the best way to do that is by joining a group of others who are learning about and following Jesus.

To that end, I do think that telling people the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ should be followed up by an invitation to come to church. And you can invite them even if no closing or conversion was involved. Most people in fact need to know a lot more than the 4 Spiritual Laws or any other summary of the gospel before they become followers of Jesus. And one of the advantages of a liturgical church is that one will hear the basics of the gospel in the course of the worship service. Every service we read the Bible, often 4 selections from it; someone who has made a long and deep study of the scriptures then explains them and applies them to our lives; we recite a creed; we confess our sins and receive assurance of God's forgiveness; we recall the events of the first Lord's Supper and share Christ's Body and Blood as members of Christ's body on earth; and we commit ourselves to go out into the world proclaiming the gospel not only with our lips but with our lives. If one simply pays attention, it is all there. It may need further exploration and explanation but the essentials are all there.

So when is the best time to tell people the good news and/or invite them to church?

Any time can be good but certain times might get a better response. Special occasions are times when people might be open to discussing God's place in our lives and/or coming to church. Holidays, for instance. Christmas is when God makes the surprising move into our neighborhood, so to speak. He visits us; why not visit his church? Passion or Palm Sunday is God's more shocking move in letting evil do its worst to him in the person his Son Jesus. Maundy Thursday with its display of Jesus' humility and his offering of his Body and Blood is a moving service. Easter celebrates God's startling triumph over evil and death and the foundation our hope in the risen Christ.

Any time you or someone in the church celebrates one of the rites of passage in life is a good time to talk about the place of God in our lives and to invite people to come to church. People rarely refuse invitations to baptisms, and the explanation of the Sacrament and implications of entering God's kingdom are spelled out beautifully in the liturgy and, one hopes, the sermon. Along that line, confirmations are all about a person publicly declaring themselves a disciple or follower of Jesus. People will usually come to weddings and if they pay attention much is said about the parallel between the love of God for us and the love of husband and wife.

Funerals are another time when people are open to talk of God, life and death and coming to church. I just want to offer a few caveats, though. When talking with the bereaved, it is best to let them lead and direct the discussion. The person is vulnerable and emotionally raw. They may not want to talk about God. Or they may be confused about why God let this happen to their loved one. They may even be angry with God. DO NOT TRY TO DEFEND GOD! Do not say the person's death was God's will! Do not say God needed that person to be with him! Do not tell children that the angels came and took their daddy or mama or grandpa or grandma! It's not comforting. I know of a guy who developed a real hatred for angels because he was told that.

This is one of those times when the best way to proclaim God's love is to shut up and simply be there for the person. Let them vent. Be a sympathetic ear. Be a shoulder to cry on. Be a practical help to them, by cooking for them, babysitting for them, driving them, helping them with all those terribly important tasks that they must do at a time when they are barely capable of thinking or getting through the ordinary activities of the day.

But do not try to give the death of their loved one a meaning. That is one of the tasks of grieving they must accomplish. If and only if they say something about the person being in a better place or being free of their pain or the like, should you express similar sentiments. And then you may be able to sensitively share how God/prayer/the church helped you through some equally dire situation.

It's the same with any painful time in life or any loss, such as divorce, or unemployment or serious illness of the person or a close relative of theirs. Don't justify God to them. Be the embodiment of God's love for them. If they broach the subject of God, then you can sensitively share your experience.

While times of crisis are times when people might be more open to God, it is also a time when they are quite vulnerable. It is not a time for us to fall upon them like predators. Emotionally coercing someone or taking advantage of a person at a moment of fragility is not a loving action. What we can do is offer help. We can offer them hope. They are free to accept or reject it. We do not need to close the deal.

Jesus and Paul speak of spreading the gospel as sowing or planting seeds. Someone else may water them and another someone may reap the harvest. We needn't do it all. And that includes our family members and closest friends. In fact while we do influence those closest to us, often in ways we'd never imagine, they are the hardest people to bring all the way to Christ. We must pray that others will be used by God to bring them home.

We must never get discouraged or worry about the progress we are making in spreading the word. God doesn't depend on anyone accepting the gospel. He will not cease to exist like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan if we cease to believe in him. He is a fact, like the universe. He existed before we did and will after our mortal bodies are dust. It's our existence that depends on him.

And to return to the central metaphor of this series, he is the host of the banquet, the wedding supper of the Lamb. That will take place no matter how many accept the invitation. And it will be a joyful event. And that's what we have to remember when we are inviting people to Jesus. It is ultimately a good and joyful experience. It is good news. We have a loving God who is inviting everyone to come to a party that will never end. No one who really wants to come will be refused. The only way to miss out is to decline or to get so involved in other stuff that you let them divert you. So you have to prioritize it above everything else.

What exactly is the nature of the feast? That is what we will explore in our last installment of this series next week on Maundy Thursday. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Total Resurrection

“To be or not to be—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep—perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pang of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”

In this soliloquy, Shakespeare's Hamlet is thinking of taking action against his uncle the new king. But that could prove fatal and Hamlet concludes that people do not take risks because of the fear of death. But it is not the fear of nonexistence but of an afterlife that bothers him. If death is merely sleep, that's OK. But what if that sleep has the equivalent of nightmares?

Though this is often cited as a very deep meditation on life and death, Hamlet's worry is not that of most people. Few people fret about an unpleasant afterlife. They are more troubled by the idea that there may be no afterlife. Hamlet sees death at best as sleep but for most people the snuffing out of the flame of life is not a good thing. We struggle to live and stay alive. We want to survive death. And indeed the earliest indication of the belief in an afterlife is in the burial of Neanderthals, 50,000 years ago, complete with flowers, tools and food left with the bodies. Is this merely a vain hope or an ancient spiritual insight?

The oldest recorded religion, that of the Egyptians, posited an elaborate afterlife for those who had sin-free hearts, were properly mummified and knew all the passwords in the Book of the Dead. In contrast, in the early parts of the Old Testament, there is little said about the fate of the dead. When the afterlife is referred to at all it is called Sheol, which literally means “pit” or “grave.” In the few pictures we get of it, it's depicted as a gray half-life where people are weak and do not praise God. Often leaders and kings are said to be “gathered to their people” or to “sleep with their fathers” but there is reason to believe these are just traditional euphemisms for the death of the great.

The exceptions to these gloomy glimpses of the afterlife are the unique fates of Enoch who walked with God and then is taken by him and Elijah who is taken to heaven by a fiery chariot and a whirlwind. We also have references in Psalms 16, 45 and 73 to some kind of continued communion with God. In addition there are a few references to resurrection. Most, like our passage from Ezekiel 37, use resurrection as a metaphor for the revival of the nation of Judah after their exile. But a few do seem to refer to individuals being resurrected. Isaiah 26:19 says, “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth shall give birth to those long dead.” Daniel 12:2 reads, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However these resurrection references are not developed further.

As God's revelation unfolds in the New Testament, we get a clearer and more detailed picture of the afterlife. For instance, without an afterlife, there is no justice in this world. People do not treat others as they wish to be treated. Good people do not get rewarded as they should; evil people too often get away with the damage they inflict on others. But in God's universe such things will not stand forever. The justice denied in this life is redressed in the next. The unrepentent wicked receive punishment. Jesus calls that “Gehenna,” literally the valley of Hinnom on the southern edge of Jerusalem. During the last dark days of the kingdom of Judah before the exile, this was the site of pagan worship, where parents and Jewish kings sacrificed their children to Molech by fire. In Jesus' day it was the city garbage dump where trash was burned day and night. That was Jesus' metaphor for hell.

For those who realize how far from God's glory they have fallen and who turn to Him, their fate is to be in the presence of God, immediately after death. It is difficult to say whether the individuals are conscious or not. 9 times Paul speaks of believers who died as having “fallen asleep.” Yet, as we see in our gospel, this may be a convention of speech like our “passed away” because when facing execution Paul says being in Christ's presence is better than this earthly life.

If this sounds rather vague for a description of our final state, you're right. If this were our final state. But it's not. Jesus' resurrection was not only a validation of who he was; it is also the pattern for the afterlife proper. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul speaks of the discomfort of being “unclothed” in the intermediate state right after death and desiring to be better clothed. He speaks of our present bodies being like a tent, a temporary habitat, as opposed to the permanent house made for us by God. Being incorporeal is unnatural and temporary. The reason this intermediate time is not better described is the same reason why travel brochures don't say much about waiting lounges. That's not the destination.

Contrary to popular belief, our final state is not to be disembodied spirits in heaven. We are created as body-spirit unities; our destiny is to be whole beings once again. God will not abandon his creation, nor give up on creatures created in his image. He intends to restore us to what we were intended to be. Unlike the angels who are spirits or animals who are physical, we were created to be amphibians, as C. S. Lewis put it, creatures who are at home both in the spiritual and the physical realms. So our restoration means we must be embodied.

Notice that in our gospel passage (John 11) Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is the origin of the process, the source of resurrection, and the channel of new life. In John 1:3 it says, “All things were created through him...” His signature, so to speak, is on everything. And God plans that all things will be re-created through Jesus. 

Everything in creation ends or dies. It either stops working or something or someone else stops it from working. The troops that crucified Jesus stopped his body from working in the most painful, gruesome way possible. But then he rose from the dead. The source of life and resurrection re-entered the world, better than ever. He set the pattern for our resurrection.

Not only is Jesus' resurrection a pattern for our own but it is a pattern for the whole of creation. Some people, including some Christians, think that God just wants to end the world. But that's not what the Bible says. God created this world and pronounced its component parts good and the entirety very good. But in Genesis 6:11, it says, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence.” In 6 short chapters we turn God's earthly paradise into hell on earth. What is God's response? Start over, which means clearing away what's gone bad, what's been corrupted and infected and keeping what's good. That's the essence of the Noah story. God is giving creation a clean start. He reboots it and returns it to the manufacturer's original settings, as it were.

And that's what we see at the climax of the Book of Revelation. The earth is cleansed from all evil including death and pain and grief. And Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...” In other words God resurrects creation from the ashes of the old one, the way he raised the pierced, scourged and ravaged body of Jesus from the dead and transformed his body so that it no longer had the limitations our bodies do. In the same way he will raise us, giving us new bodies, while retaining the essence of who we are. Or to paraphrase physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, God will install our same software, debugged, into new hardware.

We see the opposite all the time. We see the loving bright child turn into the distant burnout thinking only of the next fix. We seen the hopeful young person turn into the bitter angry adult through the insults of a hard life. We see soldiers return from the hell of war and their families and friends slowly realize they are not the same person, but an angry, depressed and self-destructive version of what they were. We see how negative transformation works, how the stuff that people have seen and have done and what was done to them can make them shells of who they were. God wants to transform us too, but positively; and not into what we once were, but into what he always intended us to be.

Resurrection is, in essence, transformation, taking what no longer works and making it over, improving and perfecting it. When they starting remaking the longest running science fiction series Doctor Who, they retained what worked—the eccentric time traveler and his human companions fighting evil, human or alien, anywhere in time and space—and changed what didn't—25 minute episodes with storylines that ran for 4 to 6 weeks, main characters with no emotional depth or personal history, rubber monsters with visible zippers and special effects not much improved over that of the original Star Trek. And the show grew from a cult classic known chiefly to Brits and a few thousand fans outside the UK into an international hit. But it had to have worth originally, even in its less than ideal state.

God takes us, in our less than ideal state and transforms us into what he had in mind for us all along. But that doesn't mean frozen in some kind static perfection. Eastern Orthodox theology does not see humanity, even in its unfallen state, as everything God fully intended us to be. Even in paradise we were not to remain exactly as we were when first created but we were to grow spiritually and become more than what we started as. When we sinned, we arrested our upward progress and not only regressed but devolved into less than we were at the point of our creation. When we surrender to Jesus, we start to progress once more. In this life we are mostly just making up what we lost. But in our new life, we will be restored to what should have been our starting point—complete harmony and unity with God—and then go on from there. Never forget: we are intended to mirror an infinitely wise and loving God. As finite creatures that adventure will never end. We will always be going further up and further into the endless love that is our Triune God.

Resurrection is also a validation of us as God's creations. Our moral flaws we may regret but not the individual characteristics he gave us. Again since we are to mirror an incomprehensibly large and multi-faceted God, it will take each of us with our particular talents and quirks and insights and gifts and skills and perspectives and creativity and ability to make connections to do that. We are like pieces of a vast living mosaic portrait of the Mind that made all. Each of us must be of the proper shape and size and hue, perfectly polished, and in the right relationship to each other, to reflect the rainbow of his radiance. Our task is to let him use us how and where he wants us to be.

As for the shape of the new creation and the description in Revelation of the new Jerusalem, with its crystal clear walls and its streets of gold and its bejeweled foundation and its gates of pearl—if it seems too hard to imagine, well, that's the point. It is a vision of the indescribable, overwhelming the power of words to capture anything so wonderful. Whatever the reality, it is more rather than less than how it was pictured.

The same can be said for our new post-resurrection state. As it says in 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is.” Like children our mature appearance is as yet unknown, except that we will be like our Father, and we will at the last see him as he is, a beatific vision beyond our current state of knowledge. As 2 Corinthians 2:9 says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” Through his word and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been given glimpses of what is to come. And if all of those reveal only a fraction of how wonderful it will be, we have a lot of growing to do before we will be able to take it all in.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Light and Sight

Remember those stereogram pictures that were so popular about 10 years ago? They were a colored pattern that if you looked at a certain point in the picture and unfocused your eyes, you could see images that appeared to be sticking out of the page. I could always see them. Other people squinted, crossed their eyes, moved the picture closer or farther from them and just couldn't see the 3-D effect.

Most people can see the incredibly realistic chalk drawings people do that make it appear that the sidewalk has opened up beneath the street, revealing chasms, monsters or underground rivers. However you do have to stand in a certain place for the forced perspective aspect of the picture to work.

There is a 3 dimensional optical illusion you can see on the internet. The sculpture looks like a dragon but as the camera moves from left to right and back the dragon's head appear to follow you. Only when the camera moves too far to the side do you see that the dragon is made in such a way that the head is concave rather than convex and that's what makes it seem to move.

But those are optical illusions, things created to fool you. Your eyes don't anticipate the trickery and see them in a way that makes sense to our brains. Surely you can see things in plain sight.

Not necessarily. In one notorious experiment, which you can see on the internet, people are asked to watch a basketball game and count how many times the ball is passed. Folks are so intent on counting that they don't see the man in the gorilla suit walk right up into the middle of the game, beat his chest and saunter off the other side. People in this experiment could not believe that they missed such an obvious thing until the tape was played back to them. It turned out that they only saw what they expected to see.

Our nose can detect up to a trillion different scents according to a recent study, yet despite optical illusions and our own selective ability to see what's right in front of us, despite the ability of computers to manipulate video and photos, we use our eyes as our primary sensory organs and we trust them to tell us the truth about the world around us.

Sherlock Holmes often told Dr. Watson and various Scotland Yard detectives, “You see but you do not observe.” With that in mind, Stephen King wrote a short story in which Holmes was fooled by an optical illusion while Watson figured the mystery out. The great detective blames his oversight on his allergy to a cat who has been all over the crime scene. Holmes did occasionally get things wrong even in the original stories, though it was not because he didn't see something but because he misinterpreted it.

Today's lectionary choices are all about sight and lack thereof. In 1 Samuel 16, the Lord calls upon Samuel, the last of the judges, to anoint a new king for Israel. Samuel is sent to Jesse from Bethlehem, one of whose sons will rule over God's people. Samuel is impressed by the looks of the first young man he sees. But God says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God passes over all 7 of the sons Jesse presents to Samuel. Only when the prophet inquires is he told of the youngest son, David, who is currently watching the sheep.

It is said that during the presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy that those who watched them on TV felt Kennedy had won the debate, whereas those who listened on radio felt Nixon had done a better job. Even Nixon later came to think that his refusal to let the makeup people tone down his 5 o'clock shadow, combined with Kennedy's good looks, caused that perception. Ironically Kennedy's own strong features and healthy tan were due to the steroids he was taking for his Addison's disease. Many pundits wonder if in today's media saturated world we will every again elect a jowly man like Nixon or a big-nosed big-eared man like LBJ or a bald man like Eisenhower even again. 

Studies show that people tend to assign good character to those who are handsome or beautiful even if they have no other data on them. Unusual looking actors are restricted to comedy or villainous roles. The latest rumor is that 71 year old Harrison Ford will be replaced as Indiana Jones by young and handsome Bradley Cooper. Steve Buscemi, an excellent actor who is 14 years younger than Ford, was never even a contender.

Studies show that better looking people are more likely to be hired even when their resume is no better than that of an average-looking person. We trust in appearances. God does not. He looks at the heart of people.

David was short, or at least shorter than Saul whose armor was too big for the shepherd. He was ruddy, which may mean he was redheaded and fair-skinned, a rarity in the Middle East. (Esau is the only other person in the Bible described as ruddy.) Redheads are in vogue today but throughout history, cultural attitudes toward redheads has been polarized. They were sometimes revered and sometimes feared. Egyptians associated redhaired people and animals with Set, the god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners. They considered the color red to be unlucky and frequently burned red-haired maidens. The Greeks thought redheads became vampires after they died. Aristotle said they were emotionally unhousebroken, whatever that means. Traditionally redheads have been considered volatile and quick tempered. So despite being handsome, David was not what Samuel had expected. Ironically, David, anointed as king over all Israel, becomes the archetype for the Messiah, God's anointed prophet, priest and king. When God sends Jesus to fulfill that role, he is also not what people expected.

In our gospel (John 6:1-41), Jesus encounters a man born blind. He is not what the disciples expected. His condition causes them some theological confusion. As was common at the time, they consider disease a punishment for sin. But if he was born blind, it couldn't be a punishment for any sin he committed, could it? Perhaps it was punishment for the sins of his parents?

Believe it or not, people still think this way. Things go bad and we think God is punishing us. I once had a patient at a nursing home, who, when she learned her husband, also a patient there, was diagnosed with a terminal disease, thought God was punishing her! I assured her that Jesus took all of our punishment; she could stop torturing herself.

We have had some TV evangelists opine that natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake that hit Haiti were punishments from God for the sins of the people. Jesus would disagree. In Luke 13:4, Jesus dismisses the idea that the tower of Siloam fell on and killed 18 people because they were bigger sinners than anyone else. And here Jesus refuses to accept the premise that sin caused the man's condition. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned...” he says. Jesus instead sees the man's blindness as an opportunity to reveal God's works. He will heal the man. Jesus doesn't care about fixing the blame; he is all about fixing the problem.

A lot of people blame the victims of misfortune for their problems. People blame rape victims for being too scantily dressed. Folks blame the unemployed for not having jobs and the poor for not having better paying jobs. But even when face with a woman taken in adultery, Jesus is more interested in saving the woman's life from a righteously indignant mob than in passing a verdict on her. At the end of the incident, Jesus asks about her accusers. They are gone. And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Jesus, like his Father, sees things differently than other human beings do. He sees people as those created in God's image whom his Father sent him to save. So he doesn't write them off. He is especially drawn to those who know they need to be saved, which is to say, people who are often despised by respectable people, like tax collectors and prostitutes, as well those who were powerless in his society, like women and children. Since they needed saving, he disregarded parts of the law that got in the way of his mission, like rules against doing work on the sabbath or about being rendered unclean by touching lepers or being touched by menstruating women. He talked with Samaritans, healed the slave of a Roman soldier, and cured the daughter of a Gentile woman.

The people Jesus did not respect where those who let things get in the way of saving people: religious leaders who put rules before alleviating suffering, men who put their wealth ahead of helping the poor, moneychangers who put profit ahead of providing for the needs of worshipers. In our gospel it is Pharisees, so opposed to Jesus that they cannot believe that God would heal folks through him on the Sabbath. And so in contrast to the man he cured, Jesus pronounces them sightless. Their inability to see and acknowledge the truth that is right before their eyes meant they were spiritually and morally blind.

“Once you were darkness,” writes Paul in our passage from Ephesians 5:8-14, “but now in the Lord you are light.” Note that he does not say “you are in light” but “you are light.” Like a candle lit from another candle, like a mirror reflecting a bright light, like an optical fiber, we are to convey and conduct Christ's light and illumine whatever part of the world we find ourselves in.

Bad conduct loves the darkness. As Chris Rock said, “Drugs are illegal but ATM machines are open 24 hours? Have you ever taken out $300 at 3 am in the morning for something good?” Paul says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” We are to expose the lies, the decay and corruption, the things people deny about their lives and activities, which are unfruitful, producing nothing good. We are to do this not out of maliciousness, but so that they can face the ugly truth of their conditions and hopefully turn to Jesus to be saved.

Nor need we be nasty about it. If someone uses the N-word, you can merely say, “You mean an African American.” If they talk about the poor in a disparaging way, you can say, “You mean the average poor person, a single white woman with children?” If they make snide remarks about the homeless, you can say, “You mean the average homeless person, who is a child of 9, or the half of all homeless women and children who are fleeing domestic abuse, or the 40% of homeless men who are veterans?” It can at least force people to check sweeping generalizations that blame victims for their plight.

More importantly, we need to see others through the lens of Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us that what we do to others we do to him. Mother Teresa used to emphasize this to the sisters in her order by doing rounds like this: “Jesus in room 301 couldn't keep his lunch down today. Jesus in room 306 is getting dehydrated. Jesus is room 207 needs to be turned frequently to prevent bed sores.” She was reminding them whom they served.

Appearances and status and prejudices blind the world to the truth. God sees us clearly. As his followers we need to open our eyes to the fact that everyone is created in God's image and everybody is a person for whom Christ died. They should be treated accordingly so they have a chance to see those things in themselves. If they don't see them or don't act like it, that's not our concern. What's important is that we are light to those who are willing to see and to follow Jesus' steps through this dark night until we see the dawning of his new creation. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: Who?

A prison got a distinguished guest speaker to address their prisoners. He looked out over the men in orange jumpsuits and began, “My fellow citizens...” And then he stopped as he heard some snorts and whispered comments. And he realized what he had said. As convicted men, the inmates had lost their rights as citizens. So he began again, “My fellow convicts...” The laughter was louder this time. He realized that he was going to have to drop his pretended camaraderie with the inmates and skip to one of his other standard opening remarks. So after the laughter died down, he tried a third time. He said, “Well, I'm glad to see so many of you here today...” 

In the past weeks we've talked about why we should tell people about Jesus, how we can communicate the gospel and what the essentials of our message are. Tonight we are going to talk about the important task of knowing your audience so you can effectively target our message to them.

When I worked at a radio station in the Ozarks we didn't have to worry about who are audience was. It was everyone in town who didn't listen exclusively to the Christian station, the only other radio station in this town of 5000. We were the sole source of local daily news and our most popular feature was the Civic Record, a recitation of who was admitted to the local hospital, who was discharged, who was born and who had died and where were they laid out. Among ourselves, we Djs called this boring feature the Civic Dead. Once when the station was off the air due to transmitter problems, I fielded phone calls from people who wanted to know if, despite being unable to broadcast, we were still going to read the Civic Record. I had to quash the temptation to tell them we would indeed for all our psychic listeners.

When I worked for a hard rock station, we knew who are our audience was: primarily young men from their teens to their twenties. Which is why I questioned the account executive who wanted me to write an ad for a poodle grooming service. The salesmen, not one of our best, ignored the fact that our listeners were outside his customer's target audience and the ad would not generate much if any business. He was practically taking their money under false pretenses.

Even if you are using the right medium, not everyone exposed to your message will respond. Let's say you are a Chevy dealership. The best ad in the world will not move people who usually buy a Mercedes Benz. Or a Lexis. Even Chevy buyers who have already have a model that's only a year or 2 old are not likely to be tempted by your ad to get another. Your best target are people who would consider a Chevy and who are already looking for a new car or whose present car is old and giving them troubles and might be ready to think about trading it in. No message will be effective for all people.

This doesn't mean you needn't tailor your message for your target audience. Jesus did. His audience were Jews in a largely agricultural country so he used a lot of imagery that involved seeds and plants and trees and vineyards. He also used metaphors about shepherds and sheep, another rural occupation. A carpenter, he spoke of building houses and towers. Growing up the poor son of a widow, he spoke a woman frantically searching her home for a lost coin and a widow who harasses an unjust judge till he gives her a fair verdict. Living in a land of great wealth disparity, he spoke of the rich and their slaves. Jesus spoke of things that were familiar to his audience. Knowing their attitudes towards these things, he would sometimes play to their expectations and sometimes confound them to make his point.

So who are the likely members our audience? For the gospel, potentially everyone who is not already a Christian, though practically it would be mostly seekers and people who have not already made up their mind on God or Jesus. Given that most children today are rarely taken to church outside of baptisms, weddings and funerals, people with children are an important audience. In fact, a lot of people who drift from the church will return when they become parents, realizing their children should get some religious education. Which brings us to another key audience: lapsed Christians. And out of that group, our expressions of the faith might appeal to certain folks who are familiar with the way we worship, such as lapsed Lutherans, lapsed Episcopalians and former Roman Catholics.

We have to frame the gospel slightly differently for each of these audiences. For agnostics, we will want to go with the basics of theism. For seekers and those not raised in a church we also want to be adept at talking about the essentials of Christianity. We will want to have some answers for Frequently Asked Questions and for common objections. It can be trickier with lapsed churchgoers. They may have just drifted away. They may, however, have had bad experiences in a previous church or be given bad theology. I had a friend who desperately wanted a child. When she delivered a stillborn baby, her pastor told her it was God's will. Not surprisingly she did not return to that church. You don't tell people that their tragedies or losses are God's will. You certainly don't tell them they are punishment for their sins. You tell them about God's love and healing. You point out how God knows pain and loss through Jesus. You tell they can stop punishing themselves because Jesus took care of that for us. You let them find the meaning of their painful experiences for themselves, even if it takes years.

While the essentials of the faith don't change, what you emphasize in communicating the gospel will vary with each person. So a great deal of evangelism should be listening to the person to find out their specific needs and desires.

They may be simply looking for God, a creator, someone bigger than them to whom they can give their allegiance. That's a simple order to fill, but it's rarely that straightforward for most people.

They may be looking for a faith, by which I mean a way of understanding life and the world. There are many competing models out there but if the person has perceived the emptiness of the paradigms the world offers, they may rightly think that a better place to look is Christianity. They may also be looking for a source of strength, a resource to help them deal with life and their struggles.

They may be looking for a community, a group of people who provide love and support.

They may be looking for a purpose in life, an inspiration to motivate themselves.

They may be looking for a moral code, an organizing principle or way of behaving as they navigate through this tricky and corrupt world.

They may be looking for peace and/or forgiveness and healing.

Or they may simply be looking for a blessing for a rite of passage, that is, a baptism, wedding or funeral. This is definitely an opportunity to tell them the good news but it's my experience that few of these people stay in the church after the ceremony.

Jesus offers all of these things: a big God, an approach to life that gives both guidance and strength, a group of followers distinguished by their love for one another, an energizing purpose to life, a code that prioritizes ethics by love for God and others, spiritual well-being, forgiveness and restoration, and a way of fitting the big events of our lives into the larger narrative of God's redeeming love for his people.

As for our specific churches, what do we offer people? All of the above plus some features of our own. For one thing, we are small churches. Unlike bigger ones, nobody gets lost in the crowd here. You can know pretty much everyone in the congregation. The parish acts like a caring extended family. You have every opportunity to use your gifts and participate in the life of the church and make an impact.

Secondly, we are liturgical churches. There is beauty and harmony in the way we worship God. We are united in our words and actions. We are literally all on the same page. And we offer complete worship—prayer, praise, preaching and partaking in the body and blood of Christ. It is a spiritual feast for those who hunger and thirst for God.

So we have the tools to identify our target audiences and we have lots to offer them. When and where can we encounter them in order to invite them to the great feast? We will look at that in 2 weeks. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Participants in Grace

The scripture referred to is Exodus 17:1-7.

During one of my summers in college I was working with A Christian Ministry in the National Parks, and I was assigned to Roosevelt Lodge in Yellowstone Park. I had a secular job but when off-duty I worked with a seminary student and his wife arranging Bible studies and worship services at the lodge and local campground. There was another employee who claimed to be a Christian but certainly didn't act like one. When the discrepancy came up he invoked what Paul said about our salvation depending on God's grace and not our works. No matter what I said, he said that obeying commandments was an attempt to attain righteousness by our works. Besides they infringed on our freedom in Christ.

At that time I had not read Dietrich Bonhoffer's critique of what he called “cheap grace.” In The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” What people hear preached often goes like this: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolation of forgiveness.”

In other words, it is the preaching of one half of the gospel, ignoring the whole “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus” part. It is misunderstanding what salvation is. It is thinking that good and evil are static states and that being saved is simply being moved from one position to another, there to stay. But as in physical life, in the spiritual life one either grows or deteriorates. You are either becoming more Christlike or less so.

Bonhoffer's description of the world of 1937, written from the heart of Nazi Germany, sounds very much like the 21st century: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available at too low a cost. We gave away the word and the sacraments wholesale; we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which is holy to the scornful and unbelieving...But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.”

God saves us without our help but he never tells us to be passive. God always requires our participation. In today's Old Testament lesson we see an example. The Israelites are thirsty and once again grumbling against God and Moses. God agrees to give them water but doesn't make it rain or lead them to a spring. He tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Then the water comes out. It is the same staff God told Moses to hold over the Nile and turn it to blood. Is the staff magic? Or is God making a point of involving humans?

We see similar things throughout scripture. The Israelites must march around Jericho and blow their horns before God makes the walls fall. When Naaman comes to Elisha to be cured of leprosy, he has to bathe in the Jordan 7 times before God heals him. When Jesus gives Peter and the not yet disciples a spectacular catch of fish, he doesn't have the fish jump in the boat or enter the net they already have in the water; he has the men throw their nets on the other side of the boat. When Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, he tells him to stretch out his hand. When he feeds the 5000, he has the disciples check for what food they have at hand, which is 5 loaves and 2 fish, and uses that to feed everyone. But couldn't Jesus have made do with nothing?

The principle seems to be that even when God could do something without our help, he nevertheless involves us in the process. Is he just showing off? No, I think he is doing what my wife does when she lets little Nicholas help her bake. She could probably do everything faster and better without him. But she includes him for 3 reasons.

First of all, he wants to help. The best time to get kids into helping with chores is during that period when, as toddlers, they want to help you and want to imitate what you do. New Christians are often the same way. They want to get out there and do God's work. They may need training and guidance, which takes time, but it's a mistake not to let them help. It helps them feel a part of the church and of God's kingdom, where what we do on earth is what is done in heaven. So you may not have them take over running the Sunday School or managing the soup kitchen or heading up the Altar Guild but you do let them join in and help at any or all of those things, rather than worry that they'll mess things up or not do things precisely the way you'd like them done. As my wife does with Nicholas and will do with our granddaughter when she gets to that stage, you let them do what they can. And that's one reason God lets us do stuff he could do without us: to let us show our love for him by helping him and imitating him.

The second reason my wife lets Nicholas help her bake is to teach him how. A motivated student is a valuable resource. Most people have a hard time learning things they don't care about. But when they want to learn, it would be foolish not to teach them. My kids went to my wife and asked her to teach them to cook because they didn't want to be like me. (In my defense I can cook anything in the world...provided there are microwave instructions on the box.) So she let them help her and taught them how to increase their skills in the kitchen. God lets us be part of what he is doing because we are supposed to be in the process of growing into the likeness of Christ. He will do the heavy lifting but he involves us so we learn about him and so we learn to be like him. Disciple, after all, simply means student. God believes in learning by doing.

The third reason my wife lets Nicholas help her is that she loves him. When you love people you love doing things with them. It's fun when someone shares their knowledge and skills with you. God loves us and wants to share his wisdom and gifts with us. One of the things Jesus did was make it possible for us to be reconciled with God and so enjoy his love. There is a time to simply spend time with someone you love, gazing at them and thinking about them. We do the equivalent in worship and in our private time with God. And then there is time to do things with a loved one. We shop or go to a movie or go for a hike or do a project together. God too wants to spend time with us, doing things together: sharing his word with others, helping people out, taking care of his other creatures as well as his creation, learning the wonders of expressing his love through our work and through our talents.

A saying attributed to St. Augustine summarizes God's penchant for involving us in his plans thus: “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” After all, he reveals his will to us. He invites us to enter his kingdom, become his children, become co-heirs with his Son. He commissions us to tell the love story of God and his creatures. He gives us the ministry of reconciliation. Why? It's not like he needs our help. Maybe he is trying to show us that we always need his help.

The paradox of how God works with us is captured in Philippians 2:12-13, where Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling...” which makes it sounds as if it all depends on us, but then it goes on to say, “for it is God who is working in you, both to desire and to fulfill his good purpose,” which makes it sound like it all depends on God. It is in fact a collaboration but one in which God is in charge and a lot of our job is getting out of his way and following his lead. It's like working with tech support to fix your computer: you have to do what they say, shut down programs you were running, and then let them take control of our cursor and screen, delete stuff that is harmful, and put on a security program to protect you in the future. In the same way, we have to do what God says, shut down some of our own pet projects, let him take control of life, let him eliminate our destructive habits, and fill us with his Holy Spirit. We are cooperating with him but it is not an equal partnership.

That's the key difference. When Paul writes of our salvation being a matter of grace and not works, he means we cannot save ourselves but he doesn't mean we do nothing. He just means we are not in charge; it is not our initiative but God's. But we still must respond to God's offer. After all he says in 2 Corinthians 5:20, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Our part is to say “yes” to God: to his gift of grace and then to all that follows from that. Which means obeying his commandments. Not because they make us righteous but because they are what people made righteous by Christ do.

It is all about what kind of people we are and are becoming. Are we becoming more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, kinder, more generous, gentler, more faithful, more in control of ourselves? Because that is what the Spirit is trying to make of us. And we can quench the Spirit, just like a child can bring a planned family outing to a grinding halt by refusing to cooperate at all. Or like a person can sabotage his recovery from an illness by not taking his meds or not doing his rehab exercises or not giving up the foods or habits that are bad for him. Sometimes people so hate being told what to do that they will refuse to do it even if it means they will remain ill rather than get well again.

I wonder what happened to that employee who felt he could call himself a Christian while still doing whatever he wanted. Did he eventually give up the pretense of following Jesus? Or did he come to see that what he thought of as freedom in Christ was an excuse to indulge in behavior that was ultimately self-destructive? Did he ever come to see that the whole point of following Jesus was to be transformed? Did he ever realize that such a life promised him more pleasure and contentment than his self-centered life of seeking new sensations, regardless of the personal cost? Or did he stay entrenched in his habits despite mounting negative consequences?

I don't know. That was a summer job nearly 40 years ago. But I hope he did have a moment of clarity, an epiphany, a falling of the scales from his eyes. He was a charming and intelligent man. He had a lot of promise and, I hope, a long life ahead of him. I hope it has been a good life, in every sense of the word.

God is not looking for perfect people. He is looking for imperfect people who realize what they are and want to change, want to change enough to surrender to God, to let him have control of their lives, and who are willing to not only pay lip service to being Christians but to actually deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow in Jesus' footsteps. It's not that we can do anything to save ourselves but having been saved by him, we receive the power of his Spirit to think and speak and act like him more and more day by day.

And that is true freedom in Christ: the freedom from the enslaving habits of sin that keep us doing the same things over and over while expecting different results. The freedom we receive in Jesus is the freedom to enjoy God's gifts and use them as he intended. Real freedom is having the ability to choose what is good for you, with a clear mind and a clean conscience. Only then can you discover that what is good in the sense of being morally right is also good in the sense of pleasurable. Because then we will be in harmony with God our creator and so with with all our fellow creatures as well as with ourselves. We will be free to be the person God created us to be, not limited by our past but facing a future as boundless as God's love. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Invitations to the Feast: What?

In the last two weeks we have looked at why we should tell people the Good News about Jesus and how we should tell them. This week we get to what we should tell them.

The gospel can be as simple or as complex as needed, just like most things in life. If you want to explain atoms to kids or laypeople you can use the picture of a ball or clump of balls being orbited by other balls, rather like a planet with many moons or satellites. If you want to explain it to a physics major, you can go into the fact that the traditional picture is a very simplified image of the way atoms really are.

To get a really good look at our really big God and the different ways he relates to different situations, you need to read the whole Bible, preferably in the original languages, and then read Bible dictionaries, commentaries, theological works, etc. But not everyone can do that. And even if they did it would take a long time to do it and then digest it all. So when people want to become Christians, while we encourage them to start a lifelong habit of reading the Bible and other good Christian literature, we first just give them the basics. The church even took the traditional baptismal formula and expanded it into what is now know as the Apostles' Creed. It is a good summary of the essentials of the faith and we say it every time we baptize someone, as well as frequently throughout the year, alternating with the Nicene Creed which is really an expansion of the Apostles' Creed. We use catechisms to get deeper into the beliefs we build our lives around. But for starters, we can use something even simpler than the creed.

By the way if you wish to see how the apostles summarized the gospel read Acts 10: 34-43. It is Peter's speech to Cornelius and his family, the first Gentiles he ever evangelized. He talks of the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit. Jesus went about doing good and healing, was crucified and rose from the dead. He will come to judge the living and the dead but those who trust him will be forgiven their sins. Bible scholars call this basic outline the kergyma, Greek for proclamation. You see variations of it throughout the book of Acts.

There are other ways to present these facts and we will discus them a little later but first let's look at the elements using the 5 W's you were taught in writing class: who, what, when, where, why and, for good measure, how.

Who is the subject of the good news? Jesus, of course. But who exactly is he? The early Christians, during times of persecution, came up with a secret sign to identify each other. It was the ichthus or what we call the Jesus fish. It was not an arbitrary symbol. Some clever person realized that the Greek word for fish could be used as an acronym for everything one needed to know about our Lord. Ichthus stands for Iesus Christos Theos 'Uios Sator, or in English, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. The first letter of ichthus was the same as the first letter for the Greek form of Jesus. Not only is this his given name, it also means the person we call Lord is a real human being. No reputable historian denies that Jesus of Nazareth lived. He was a real man. What it means for us is that when we look at Jesus we see what a human being can be. He lived and died as one of us; he ate, got tired, got angry, slept, felt pain, was tempted but without sinning. He is the epitome of humanity.

The second letter stands for Christ, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah, the Anointed one. Christ is not Jesus' last name but his title. It means he is God's promised and anointed prophet, priest and king. He speaks for God; he acts for God; he is to be obeyed as God. Jesus is not merely a philosopher or a good teacher. As C.S. Lewis said, after all Jesus said about himself, he can only be one of 3 things. If he is wrong about himself, he either knew it was false and is therefore a liar. Or he didn't know he was wrong and so was deluded and a lunatic. Or he is right in what he said about himself and therefore is the Lord. There really aren't any other choices.

The 3rd and 4th letters stand for God's Son. As his son, Jesus shares God's nature, the way a person's offspring shares their DNA and is a human being and not a dog or a frog or a rhesus monkey. The Bible says that Jesus is the very image of his Father and so when we look at Jesus we see what God is like: just but merciful, loving and forgiving. As J.B. Phillips put it Jesus is the God who is beyond our ability to comprehend focused in terms we can understand, in time and space and human personality.

The last letter of the Greek acronym stands for Savior. He redeems us, literally, buys us back from slavery. He saves or rescues us. But from what?

What he rescues us from is evil, which can be defined as the misuse, abuse and neglect of the good gifts God gives us in creation. There is nothing in this world we have not turned against ourselves or others. We have used our God-given intelligence to makes weapons out of everything we have discovered: our muscles, rocks, sticks, metals, chemicals, germs, and nuclear materials. We have created civilization and used it to create dictatorships, war, slavery, prostitution, and exploitation. We have enormous inequality in the distribution of pay so that those who work the physically hardest and most hazardous and nastiest jobs get paid less. Except for professional athletes, who first have to risk their bodies for no money in school and college before we pay them large sums for short careers that are over just when other people's careers are hitting stride.

We do evil or sin by our thoughts, by our words and by our actions. Jesus says, in Mark 7:21-23, “...from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, promiscuity, envy, slander, arrogance and foolishness.” The evil conceived in our heads comes out in what we say and what we do. We even manage to sin by what we don't do, like not helping the hungry, the threadbare, the sick, the imprisoned, the person who is not like us in appearance or culture or status. The typical attitude toward God, at least when his way conflicts with our way, is “My will, not yours, Lord, be done!” Like rebellious children, we don't see God's will for us as loving but as telling us what to do and we would rather suffer the consequences of our bad choices than do what we don't want to do. This contrarian way of thinking, speaking and acting alienates us from God, which in turn alienates us from everything else he created: nature, other people, even ourselves.

This separation from God, the source of all goodness and life, causes spiritual illness. Sins are the symptoms of this spiritual and moral disease which can lead to spiritual death, the ultimate separation from God. That is what Jesus came to rescue us from.

When did Jesus do this? During his earthly life. He preached, that is, told us what the problem is with us and what the cure is: himself. And to show that he was right in his assessment and that he was what we need, he healed all who came to him and trusted in him from whatever illness enslaved them, be it physical, mental or spiritual. When an illness is really severe, a transplant can be the only thing which can saves the sick. And some transplants, like a heart, require the death of the donor. Such is the spiritual disease of the whole world, that the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, gave his life on the cross. (Crucifixion is, not coincidentally, a method of death that was the product of evil minds, who communicated that evil idea to other people who built it and evil leaders commanded that still other people act on this evil thought by nailing folks to it.)

Of course, Jesus could have been a liar caught in his own snare or a lunatic who didn't know he could die. But God raised him from the dead on the third day since his burial. This event vindicated Jesus and turned his followers from fugitives into witnesses to his mighty act of self-sacrifice and triumph over death. It was his resurrection that showed that Jesus was right about who he was and what he was sent to do. He was God doing for us what we could not do: live a human life perfectly in harmony with God's will and take on all the consequences of human evil. As Paul wrote in Colossians 1:19-20, “For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, to paraphrase 2 Corinthians 5:19.

Why would he do this and at such a high cost? Because he loves us, as John 3:16 says. Or as Romans 5:8 puts it, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” If you really love someone you would do anything you could to save them. The extent to which Jesus went to save us shows how much he and his Father love us.

How should we respond to this good news? How should you respond to anyone who offered to save your life? If it were your doctor and you trusted him, you would do what he said. You would undergo a heart transplant if the doctor said that was the only way to save you. You would put yourself in his hands. And if afterward he said to stop doing these things and start doing these other things, you would do what he said. That's all Jesus wants us to do: believe what he says and act like it. Respond to his love and faithfulness with love and faithfulness.

That is the gospel or good news in a nutshell. Notice I stated the problem—evil—and the solution—Jesus. You could tell the gospel as a story. Jesus often did. And he used common things and experiences to make the gospel more understandable. You'll see that I used medical metaphors to explain it. Use ones from your own background if you find appropriate examples. Or from the background of the person you are talking to. Which is the second part of successful communication: know your audience so you can tailor your message to their level of understanding. That's what we'll discuss next Wednesday.