Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rethink: Our Duty to Ourselves

Years ago I came up with a mnemonic device to help me remember the Seven Deadly Sins--Arrogance, Laziness, Lust, Greed, Rage, Envy and Gluttony. Using their modern names they spell: ALLGREG. And who is Greg? Dr. Gregory House, of course, who displays all of these sins in his life, especially if you define gluttony, as many theologians do, as including overindulgence of any appetite. But if he is so bad, why do I and millions of viewers continue to watch him? Because he's entertaining, of course. I realize that in real life, I would not want to be anywhere near such a reckless misanthrope but I can enjoy his outrageousness on the small screen. And he does have one thing that makes him somewhat heroic: a dedication to truth so fierce that he is willing to make great personal sacrifices for it. In this season's premiere episode, he was serving time in prison, as he should for what he had done at the end of the last season. He was within days of being released but deliberately did something that would get him more prison time because he saw it as the only way to prove that a fellow prisoner had a serious illness that had been misdiagnosed. House is a model of practically every vice but he is willing to face the consequences for his actions provided he can save a patient's life. That makes him just enough a hero that we continue to watch his adventures.

In real life, House would hardly have had any adventures because he would have long ago been fired, his medical license revoked and he'd be lucky to be in prison because otherwise STDs and his drug habit would have killed him by now. Most fictional heroes are much less flawed than House but they usually share his one virtue: self-sacrifice. We have no higher admiration than for people who sacrifice themselves to save others. In the world of fictional heroes, their willingness to die for what is right is so well known that villains no longer threaten to kill the hero if he doesn't cooperate but threaten someone else, either an innocent stranger or someone the hero cares about. A hero values the lives of others over his own.

Again, in real life, such people do exist, though extraordinary self-sacrifice is so rare it makes headlines. It's news when someone crawls into a burning car to pull a victim out, or donates bone marrow to a stranger or knowingly adopts and raises a handicapped child. But many heroes are unsung.

Most small charities and local non-profits only continue to operate because of people who are willing to sacrifice a comfortable life in order to serve the needs of others. But this has a cost. At a recent meeting on volunteer and caregiver burnout sponsored by Episcopal Charities, people I admire wept while relating how hard it was to get volunteers and support for their ministries and the toll it was taking on them. One friend tearfully related that her efforts had so taken over her life that it was as if the homeless folks she served were a tangible presence in her home, crowding out her family.

Still this is the cost of following Jesus, isn't it? Jesus used the metaphor of taking up one's cross, which is the very image of painful sacrifice. And we see Old Testament prophets who had hard lives and underwent difficult trials to preach God's word. Some sound as if they were on the verge of a breakdown. So is this what God wants us to do? If not, how did Jesus make us rethink sacrificing ourselves?

In response to the toll their volunteer and non-profit work was taking on the people at this meeting, the guest speaker made a very wise observation. Joyce Curtis, Executive Director of Jubilee Center, a homeless ministry, said, "You know how, when they give the safety instructions on a plane, they say if the oxygen masks drop down, put yours on first and then put one on your child? You need to do the same here." And she's right. You put on the mask first so you are able to remain conscious and put one on the child. And in life, if you don't take care of yourself, if you let yourself get to the state when you're coming apart at the seams, you won't be able to help others. Though Jesus raised the bar by telling us to love one another as he loves us, he didn't revoke the standard of loving your neighbor as yourself. If you don't find a way to love and care for yourself, how will you be able to truly love others? Or as C.S. Lewis put it, if you are in an orchestra, everyone, of course, must all be playing the same musical composition. In addition, you must be in harmony and in rhythm with all the other musicians. But you must also make sure first that your instrument is in good shape and in tune or you won't be much use at the performance. So, too, ethics has 3 parts: being in the right relationship with God, being in the right relationship with others and being in the right relationship with yourself.

Now obviously this means avoiding falling into sin. Studies show that when people do a lot of good, they may be inclined to think they can indulge in a little bad behavior because, well, they earned it. This is House's excuse. Avoid such acting out. It is not only self-destructive but it can destroy the good work you've been doing. And the next time someone who seems to be a saint falls from grace, remember this and pray for them.

But we are not just talking about sins of commission but also sins of omission, or to use the modern word, neglect. And what Joyce Curtis shared with us, Jesus already knew.

Though Jesus lived a life of self-sacrificial love, he did take care of himself. For his spiritual health, he was often up before the disciples and would find a place to be alone and to pray. For you this may take the form of going for a walk and praying or closing the bathroom door at home and praying. I had a teacher who was definitely not a morning person so he did his devotionals at the start of the Jewish day, which is sundown the night before. Whatever works for you, schedule in some time to spend with God in prayer and meditation every day! Make it a daily habit like brushing your teeth. Otherwise you will find excuses to skip it. Get oxygen to yourself first!

Jesus was also deeply into Scripture. Not only did he quote it a lot but, in reading the Old Testament, I frequently come across passages that Jesus merely alluded to or a phrase he borrowed. Yet there were no pocket Torahs to carry with you back then so Jesus must have dropped by the synagogues during the week to nourish himself with the word of God. That may have been where he met and debated with Pharisees when he was on the road, as he did in the Temple when in Jerusalem. We have it better than Christ did in that regard. We have portable hard- and paperback Bibles as well as searchable Bible websites, the Bible as software for our computers, Bible apps for our phones and audio Bibles for the iPod. There are also free devotional podcasts you can download and listen to in your car as you commute or jog or work around the house. As Jesus said, we do not live by bread alone.

And Jesus attended Sabbath worship weekly. He may have healed on the Sabbath but we never hear of him being scolded for doing his carpentry work then. Jesus realized the importance of the Sabbath and that it was created for its benefits to humankind. Remember to keep the Sabbath holy.

Besides taking care of himself spiritually, Jesus took care of himself physically. Though Jesus kept up a grueling schedule of tramping around the countryside on foot, preaching and healing, he did take time to recuperate. He caught naps when he could. At one point, his whole group is so harried he manages to get away with the disciples for an impromptu retreat. Every fishermen with a boat knows you need to get it out of the water occasionally and check for barnacles, cracks, and wear.

When Jesus ate, by virtue of the foods available to him, he probably ate a much healthier diet than us with fruits, vegetables and grains in abundance, as well as fish and only occasionally meat. Aside from his fasting, there are no indications that Jesus and the disciples starved. And just before his crucifixion, he moved up the Passover feast, so he could enjoy it with his friends. It also gave him nourishment for the ordeal ahead. So enjoy your daily bread.

You can't say Jesus took time to exercise, but unlike us, he didn't have to. Just getting around Galilee on foot, he walked many miles a day. Lacking today's labor-saving devices, he and the disciples were in better shape than the majority of Americans are. As Paul said, blessed are the feet of those who bring good news.

Besides taking care of himself spiritually and physically, Jesus took care of himself socially as well. Loneliness can literally make you sick. Jesus had a band of disciples with him constantly. Meals in his society were occasions for spending time with family and friends. Jesus was invited to many dinners. While traveling he stayed with the families who offered him hospitality. It is quite different than today, where you might eat food via drive-thru window or microwave by yourself, stay in a hotel by yourself and deal with many people primarily by phone, email and Facebook. Just remember: Don't confuse pixels with people.

Jesus took care of himself mentally. He had a very well developed theology to explicate and defend. He had to think on his feet when challenged by critics. The things he experienced everyday came into his teachings, such as farmers sowing seeds, weeding, and harvesting. He painted vivid pictures of fathers dealing with disobedient sons, women searching for lost coins, fishermen sorting their catch. He picked up a child and set him in front of his disciples to illustrate how one must approach the Kingdom of God. When the Twelve got too full of themselves, he stripped and grabbed a towel and basin and taught them humility. I imagine Jesus was one of those people who took in everything around him. For him everyone had a story, everything had layers of meaning and there were clues to God's nature everywhere.

Jesus took care of himself emotionally. We see him tired, ironic, astonished, angry, troubled, and sad. We know because, as in last Sunday's gospel, he told his disciples. He didn't bottle things up. He wept when a good friend died. And He possessed such a sense of the absurd as to imagine Pharisees fishing gnats out of their drinks and then swallowing camels, folks with logs in their eyes looking for splinters in the eyes of others, unjust judges being defeated by nagging widows and kings throwing open their wedding banquets to the sick and poor and unwashed. I think we can assume he laughed a lot.

We are to be temples of God's Spirit and together the Body of Christ so we need to do the same things Jesus did to stay healthy for a life of serving others. That means we need to set aside time to talk to the most patient listener of all, our heavenly Father. We should spend time hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting God's Word. We need to observe the Lord's Day and rest from all other pursuits. We need to make sure we get enough sleep, eat properly, and get exercise. Studies show exercise is not only good for us physically but it can help fight depression and anxiety. We need to have social lives. We need to keep our minds sharp and flexible. We need to acknowledge and discuss our emotions.

But all this doesn't sound like sacrifice; it sounds like common sense. Where’s the sacrifice? I think we have a narrow view of that term. It is interesting that the English word "sacrifice" comes from a 13th century French word. And that word didn't mean to "give things up", it meant "to make sacred." You make something sacred by offering it and its use to God. A life of sacrifice should primarily be one of making people and activities sacred by offering them to God's use. Sometimes that does require giving things up. But nothing we give to God is lost. Instead, he makes them "holy," which simply means "dedicated to God's use." Jesus assured us that whatever we give up in this life, we will receive back a hundredfold in the next.

Prior to Jesus, the most heartrending sacrifice God asks of anyone is what he asks of his friend Abraham. God wanted to see if he was willing to give up what he loved the most but he didn't want the old man to actually kill his son. God provides the sacrifice, a ram that time, in Isaac's place. God had other plans for Isaac which involved furthering the family line that that would eventually produce Jesus. At that point, and for all time, God provides the sacrifice, the only sufficient one, in the form of his son. We need not try to out-suffer Jesus. The sacrifice he asks of us is to give up rights to what we love the most--ourselves--and to use our lives to follow Jesus instead. What we are really sacrificing is the illusion that our life is our own to do with as we wish. Yes, Jesus says we must take up our cross, but before that he says we are to deny ourselves. A better translation is to "disown" ourselves. That's the real sacrifice. If we don't give up our imagined right to veto God's plans for us, then we will never take the next step and actually pick up our cross.

So the sacrifice Jesus asks of us doesn't mean running on empty. After all, it would be a sorry story if the lifeguard who dove into the water to save a child drowned instead because he hadn't taken care of himself. It would be unbearably sad if the woman who adopted so many unwanted kids let herself become so worn down, tired and bitter that she abused them. It would be a tragedy if selfless servants of Christ let themselves get so burnt out that they lost their faith. Jesus doesn't intend us to wear ourselves out serving him and those who represent him. Just as a wise investor doesn't buy a trucking company and then hold back on maintenance until the trucks can no longer run, so Jesus doesn't want us to trash the bodies, minds and spirits he bought with his blood. He wants them repurposed. He wants us to take care of them so we can better carry out his mission of bringing the world and its people back to his Father. He wants us to be fit to serve.

When we take up our cross, there is always the possibility we may die for our faith. Christians do in other parts of the world. I went to college with the daughter of Jim Elliot, one of 5 missionaries martyred in the Amazon. His widow Elizabeth and his daughter went to that tribe and converted them through lives of self-sacrificial love. Jim Elliot's death is therefore not a defeat. Why not? We'll explore that this Sunday.

But in the meantime, ask yourself these questions: If I am to be a temple of God's Spirit, in what ways I am neglecting or abusing myself spiritually, physically, socially, mentally and emotionally? If God wants me to be whole and fit to serve, in what specific ways can I address these aspects of my life? If I am to live a life of sacrifice, in what ways can I make sacred the activities and people of my life?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Rethink: Our Duty to Others

The problem with being a big Sherlock Holmes fan is that the stories no longer surprise you. You enjoy them, of course, with their clever plots and twists. You enjoy the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as the often vivid villains. But since you know the endings, all you can hope for is that people write new stories and get the flavor of the originals right while providing fresh surprises.

I recaptured the effect of Sherlock's amazing deductions recently during, of all things, an episode of Car Talk on NPR. I enjoy the two brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, for their humorous banter as well as their ability to accurately diagnose cars over the phone, often by their owners recreating the sounds of faulty engines and parts. But Ray did something that I found breathtaking recently. A young woman called with a real mystery. Recently her car alarm started going off at random intervals. The mystery was that car did not come with an alarm system, nor was one put on by her or the 2 previous owners, her sister-in-law and mother-in-law. When she took the car into her mechanic's place, sure enough, he found that an after-market alarm system had been added, though not with a handy "off" switch.

Upon hearing this, Ray asked, "Are you a teacher?" Obviously surprised and perplexed the woman said "Yes. I teach Middle School."

"Your students did this," Ray said, with all the confidence of the Great Detective.

Like Watson, I tried to reverse-engineer the solution: Why put a car alarm on a person's vehicle without telling them? As a prank. Who would do such a complicated but juvenile prank? Teenage boys. Where is it likely for a young married woman to regularly encounter teenage boys who would be motivated to pull such a prank? At a middle or high school. Ergo, the woman is probably a schoolteacher! Q.E.D. Like one of Sherlock's logical feats, when all the steps were laid out, the deduction seems obvious. But by leaping to the conclusion, the immediate effect of Ray's reasoning left one dazzled.

Jesus often made conclusions that astounded his audience. His insights were sharp and his logic was sound. But we have heard his stories so often that, like reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, we forget how revolutionary and surprising his thinking was. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he announced what many rabbis chose when asked similar questions: Deuteronomy 6:5--"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." But Jesus realized that many people simply stopped there. Their religion existed quite apart from their everyday life. People still think that if they just attend worship, pray and make a donation that will keep God happy and they can go about their business as usual. They forget that people are created in the image of God. God loves people. And so you have make it explicit that duty to God doesn't end at the temple gates or church door. Loving God of necessity means loving people. So, unbidden, Jesus throws in a second commandment that follows logically from the first: Leviticus 19:18--"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

When people say all religions are alike, what they really mean is their ethical teachings are the same. That's not exactly true but there is a huge overlap, especially when it comes to our duty to others. For instance, the Golden Rule exists in some form in almost every religion. Usually it is negative: Don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to you. Jesus stated it positively, telling us to treat others as we would wish to be treated. But this second commandment raises the bar. It is not enough merely to act fairly towards others, now we are to strive to love them. The difference? I can treat my neighbor well and yet not have to spend much thought on him. Love involves thinking of the beloved. Your girlfriend sees something you'd like at the store and buys it for you. Your wife had a hard day at work and you offer to give her a back or foot rub. A child sees a flower while on a walk and plucks it for grandma. My neighbor doesn't expect me to give him back rubs and vice versa. Love entails thoughtfulness and consideration that goes beyond what you'd do for a mere acquaintance.

So the command to love your neighbor goes beyond what most religions require. It doesn't just mean "be fair" or even "be extra nice to others". It means "think about and act towards others in ways usually reserved for family and close friends." It means putting others' wellbeing first, which is what you do when you really love someone. And Jesus is putting this forward as the next logical step to the command to love God. As 1st John says, "Those who say 'I love God' and hate their siblings are liars, for those who do not love a sibling whom they have seen cannot love God, whom they have not seen."

But the command to love our neighbor comes from the Old Testament and was well known back then. How did Jesus make us rethink loving others?

Let's go back to the Biblical idea that humanity is created in God's image. Genesis 1 makes it clear that this is referring to people, plural, to male and female. God, too, is using the plural in referring to himself: "Let us make humanity in our image…" The traditional Jewish interpretation of this was that God is talking to his heavenly court, the angels. But might there be a deeper meaning to this? Jesus says that whoever has seen him has seen God the Father. He goes on to say that he and the Father are one. He speaks of sending the Holy Spirit and in the next breath of he and his Father coming to live with believers. Yet he speaks of one God.

The doctrine of the Trinity was not fully articulated in the New Testament but there are hints that the oneness of God is not simply arithmetic. Once again in 1st John we are told God is love. And suddenly the Triune God makes sense! God created humans in his image. Love is something that only really exists between 2 or more people. If God truly is love, there must be more than one person in the Godhead. So when Genesis speaks of the human couple becoming one, that is the image of God being reflected. We are most like God when we come together in love, when we are living as a community united by love.

That is why loving each other is the logical outcome of being created in God's image. Love is that image.

Which is why the next logical step is what Jesus told his disciples on the night before he died: "Love one another as I have loved you." Again he raises the bar. It is not enough to love others as we love ourselves. We are to love as Christ loves.

And the world needs us to love as he does, because human love is flawed. What we call love is often selfish. We can think that we love someone when really it's just because of what they give us, physically or emotionally. Human love can be superficial. We can think that we love someone when really it's just because of their beauty or sexy body or social standing. Human love can be an attempt to solve personal problems. We can think that we love people when really it's just because they admire us or enable us to continue self-destructive behavior or simply tolerate us when we can barely tolerate ourselves.

Christ's love, divine love, is different. It is what Paul described in 1st Corinthians 13: patient, kind, neither envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Christ's love isn't insistent on its own way, and it refuses to be irritable or resentful. Divine love cannot rejoice in wrongdoing but only in the truth. The love of Christ can handle anything: its trust knows no bounds, its hope knows no end and its endurance knows no limits. God's love never gives up. That's hard to say about much of what passes for human love.

Another reason we need Christ's love is that not only is human love flawed but so are humans. It's hard enough sometimes to love family and friends when their flaws are foremost in our minds; how are we supposed to love other people with all their sins? Only through the love of Jesus. As Paul says in Romans, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." God loves us at our most unlovely. Only through the power of his Spirit, can we do the same to all we meet.

Christ's love led him to sacrifice himself for us. It led him to the cross. And following him means taking up our crosses. And by that, I don't mean putting up with the inevitable burdens of our own lives. Christ took on the burdens of others. He is our pattern. As Paul put it in Galatians, "Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." If we are to love others as Christ loved us, that means doing it with a self-sacrificial love.

And that's frightening. Christ's sacrifice led to his death. He died to save us which means our lives belong to him. He told us that those who seek to save their lives will lose them but those who lose their life for the sake of him and the Gospel will save them. It reminds me of the joke, "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die first."

Of course, going to the cross was not the only sacrifice Jesus made. In Philippians we are told that though Christ was divine he did not see his equality with God as something to cling to, but he emptied himself to take on the form of a slave and be born a human being. Though he was God, he laid aside his divine prerogatives to take on the life a servant, bound to do the will of God.

In the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ," while on the cross, Jesus supposedly sees what he gave up--being a normal person, with a normal life. And while the movie is fiction, I can't help but think that Jesus must have faced the temptation to just be a regular guy with a wife and family and a moderately successful business and no other demands on him. If that prospect ever did present itself to him, he thrust it aside as he did every other temptation. He chose to leave his home, to endure the mocking of his brothers, the rejection of his hometown, the opposition of the religious authorities and the ever-present threat that the Romans would crucify him as a disturber of the peace. He traveled constantly, mobbed by people who wanted healing and feeding, trying to open the truth to his very dense students, and avoiding verbal traps laid for him by enemies. At times he was so tired he could sleep through a storm at sea. Jesus' whole life was a sacrifice.

Here in America it is unlikely that any of us will ever have to die for our faith. It would be more helpful to the mission of Christ if more of us lived out our faith. That's what God asks of most of us. Again in Romans, Paul writes, "Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual act of worship." God calls most of us to live for him, to be the Body of Christ to others, the ongoing incarnation of his love for people.

But does that mean God wants us to burn ourselves out living for Christ? We'll talk about that Wednesday. But in the meantime, ask yourself this: if loving God necessarily means loving people, do I ever try to keep the two separate? If God is love, do I ever try to reflect that in the way I act towards others? If I am to love others as Christ does, do I ever try to push myself beyond my comfort zone in dealing with others? If am to love in a self-sacrificial way, what am I willing to give up in real terms of treasure, talent, time and social approval and what am I unwilling to sacrifice for him?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rethink: Our Duty to God

The word "duty" is not a popular word today. We are so indoctrinated with the idea of individual freedom that we think we are free from all constraints. But freedom is never unlimited. We have obligations to other human beings. All religions and societies recognize the obligation not to harm others. As my 8th Grade teacher, an ex-top sergeant, would say, "Your freedom to swing your arms ends at the tip of my nose." And as Christians, we recognize greater obligations to each other than just not doing harm. We also recognize certain obligations to God, our creator and redeemer.

The first 4 of the Ten Commandments spell out the basics of our duty to God. First, have no other gods besides Yahweh, the God who liberated the Israelites from Egypt. In other words, remain faithful to the Lord. A common metaphor used of God's relationship with his people is that of marriage. Faithfulness is a basic element of marriage and Israel's periodic worship of other gods was seen as a form of spiritual adultery.

The second commandment tells us not to make images of other things and worship them. If you go into any art or early history museum you will see lots of figures of gods and goddesses. Some look human, some look like animals and many are a mixture of the 2. Bulls were frequent models for idols in the Near East because they were the biggest, strongest and most fertile of domesticated animals. Sometimes a Near Eastern king would be pictured with his head on the body of a bull, to show his power and divinity. The Baal of the Canaanites, their storm and fertility god, was represented by a bull. That's why the golden calf was such an important symbol of the Israelites' defection from the God who had just led them from Egypt.

The third commandment tells us not to use God's name in vain. Originally the prohibition was not about blasphemous exclamations but about not using God's name in magical spells. The kind of magic prohibited in the Bible was primarily calling up gods, goddesses or demons, entering into an agreement with them to do one's will in everything from material prosperity to matters of love to cursing one's rivals. As their supreme Lord, God's people were not to try to use him like that. The opposite of magic, in which one tries to impose one's will on the universe, is prayer, in which one asks God to do things but only in accordance with his will and wisdom.

Eventually, saying false things about God were included in the understanding of the third commandment. At the end of the Book of Job, God vindicates him and not his so-called comforters, who insisted that Job's sufferings must be a punishment from God. God will not forgive the three men, who thought they were defending God but were not being honest, unless Job intercedes for them. Another instance of this interpretation is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In this case, Jesus' critics said he was healing people using the power of Satan. To call an act that is clearly good "evil" takes such a twisted way of looking at things that repentance and therefore forgiveness are impossible.

The fourth commandment is about observing the Sabbath and we've already dealt with that. The question is: do these commandments have any significance today in our society? It's not like we worship graven images any more, right? And how did Jesus make us rethink our duty to God?

Quite early in Matthew's gospel, in the 6th chapter, Jesus says "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Here he is designating wealth, not a pagan idol, as a rival to God. In Philippians Paul speaks of those whose god is their belly. They are saying that anything that is your ultimate concern, your primary motivator, is your god. 4 years ago a 16 year old killed his mother and shot his father in the head for taking away the video games he was playing for 18 hours a day. Videogames had become his god. People have shot spouses over changing TV channels. Others have viciously attacked supporters of rival football teams. Less dramatically people have wholly neglected their families for their careers or for dreams of achieving fame or for any hobby or interest you can imagine. I'm not saying such people might not have other problems as well but if they think something is more important than the life or well being of other human beings, they have elevated it to the status of a god. That's idolatry.

Ideas can similarly rise to the level of almost divine inspiration. Political doctrines, economic policies, academic shibboleths, even scientific orthodoxy can become sacred cows that few are willing to confront or question. They too attract their acolytes and apologists, who resist progress.

Sometimes it is a literal graven image, or at least a man-made object, that a person makes the center of his or her life. Some people collect Barbie dolls, or pay exorbitant amounts of money for comic books or Star Trek collectibles, or, lets face it, pay exorbitant amounts for recognized pieces of art so they can build a shrine to it in their homes. I'm all for art but when you pay what amounts to the entire budget of a moderate sized city for one canvas, you have to ask if we haven't elevated objects of art to the level of the medieval relics around which cathedrals and even cities were built.

What's wrong is not just the overvaluing of money, human appetites, leisure activities, man-made things and ideologies but their rise to becoming the most important thing in people's lives. And unfortunately, while they may be objects of worship, they impart no comprehensive ethical system to their devotees. That you have to get elsewhere. Now I know some people have done horrible things in the name of Christ but these things were done in direct violation of his commands to love our enemies and to put up the sword. And while many people were persecuted or even killed by so-called Christians over the last 20 centuries, the atheist countries of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and other Communist regimes killed many tens of millions more people in just 1 century. It can be argued that acting in contradiction to the explicit commands of its founder restrained the normal human bloodlust of supposedly Christian fanatics, as opposed to the result of the total lack of restraint offered by ideologies that do not view people as created in God's image.

Which brings us to another way in which Jesus makes us rethink our duty to God. For most people, their duty to God and their duty to their fellow human beings are separate things, even at cross purposes at times. But Jesus didn't endorse that kind of compartmentalization. While he attends the major feasts of Judaism, goes to the synagogue each Sabbath, and prays frequently, Jesus' mission as given in Isaiah reads thus: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Jesus' duty, laid on him by the Spirit, is to bring good news to those who need it. And as we see he does this not only by speaking the message but by being the good news. If you wanted healing or forgiveness, there was no better news than Jesus is coming. Because once he arrived he didn't just say "God wants to forgive you" or "God wants you to be well;" Jesus went ahead and forgave and healed you. Jesus serves God through serving the people God loves.

If we are created in God's image, and that makes murder a kind of symbolic deicide, as God tells Noah, then doing the opposite of harming people--helping and healing them--is serving God. In fact, Jesus makes it even more pointed when in his parable of the last judgment, he says that when feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the foreigner, caring for the sick and visiting prisoners we are doing these things to Jesus. Our duty to Jesus our Lord encompasses all that we do to the least powerful and most insignificant members of his family. And if we do not do these things, we are refusing to serve Christ our God.

Treat a mother's child badly and see if she considers you a friend anymore. Her children are physically extensions of her. Jesus is telling us that we are spiritually extensions of him. As such what we do ought to be extension of what he does and those to whom we do it are extensions of him as well.

Of course, our duty to God means being faithful to him as God alone and not letting anything usurp his place as the center of our lives. Of course it means not speak saying bad things about him, just as you shouldn't say bad things about your spouse. And Jesus summarized these things by saying the greatest commandment is to love God with all we are and all we have. But this also means we must love what God loves and what bears his image--people.

Which leads us, as it did Jesus, to the second great commandment. We'll get to that Sunday. In the meantime, ask yourself these questions: if I am to have no other gods besides the Lord, are there activities or ideologies that I let rival his place in my life? If I am not to worship man-made things, how do I protect myself from the materialism that runs our economy and tries to seduce me into loving things? If I am not to use God's name in an unworthy manner, do I not only refrain from using his name when swearing but not make it sound like he is endorsing things that are my personal opinions and political positions on matters not clearly set out in Scripture? If I am to serve Christ in others, how am I meaningfully incorporating that into my spiritual life?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rethink: Treasure

The word "money" is thought to come from a temple in Rome called Iuno Moneta. The first word is the name of the goddess Juno and the second word either comes from the Latin for "remind, warn or instruct" or from the Greek for "unique," a title for Juno. The oldest coins have been found in a Greek temple in Ephesus. And these coins may in fact be badges issued by the priests of the Temple to Artemis. So from its beginning the story of money is entwined with that of religion.

When business dealings became too complicated to be handled by barter, money was introduced. In China shells were used as money. In the West the value of the coin was determined by the metal it was made from and the weight of the coin. But eventually making money symbolic of certain values made more sense. People would agree on how much a good or service was worth in terms of money, making it possible to equate quite different things, like a certain amount of work with a specific amount of buying power of goods from a distant land. And because we are given money for using our time and talents, money tells us how society values our time and talent. It also shows how much we value the stuff we use money for.

This leads to some interesting juxtapositions. We pay entertainers and professional athletes a lot more than we pay police officers, or teachers or nurses or soldiers. Yet most people would agree that the work done by those in the public service professions is of more value to society. Why don't we pay the people who keep us safe, teach our children, or help us heal better? That's a question for economists to ponder. The point I'm getting at is that there is no direct connection between the worthiness of the work a person does or his personal worth and the money he has. The hardest working teacher in the world will never make anywhere near what a major movie star will. And as we've seen, the sleeziest operator on Wall Street, even after nearly wrecking his company, will get bonuses that amount to more than the most honest cop will make in his whole career.

And very few of those who are rich got to that state without some help or advantages. How many millionaires are ugly, handicapped, non-white, female, and not related to or connected to other rich or powerful men who could give them a start and advice? True rags to riches stories are rare.

The prophets and the psalmists were not oblivious to the incongruity of wealth and virtue in this world. Jeremiah asks God, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" The writer of Psalm 73 admits to envying the wicked until he sees how precarious their position is. The writer of Psalm 37 concludes, "Better is the little of the righteous than the abundance of many wicked."

But by Jesus' day popular thought held that wealth was a blessing from God, specifically, a sign of his favor, and consequently poverty must be a punishment. So when Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, even his disciples were shocked. "Then who can be saved?" they asked. Jesus' reply was that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." We all need God's grace.

And this is a major way in which Jesus tried to get people to rethink money and wealth. First off, it is not as a sign of who is right or who is righteous. It is not your worldly wealth or power that counts but your heart. Actually, great wealth is an obstacle because you are more likely to rely on it and trust in its power than to rely on or trust in God. In fact, this whole discussion comes after Jesus just told a very wealthy young man who claims to have kept all the commandments that he only had to do one more thing to be saved: give everything he had to the poor. Jesus never asked this of anyone else but obviously this man could not divest himself of everything and just rely on God. When Jesus is listing the commandments that the man should follow he stops just before he gets to the one about coveting. Jesus must have seen that this particular man did not just have wealth; his wealth had him. He was addicted to acquisition. Advertising and marketing companies would love this guy because when it came right down to it, he loved money more than anything or anyone else.

Jesus often cautions against serving money or putting one's trust in it. It is not that being rich is bad, provided that you got that way through hard and honest work and that you are generous to the less fortunate. Jesus and the disciples got support from several well-to-do women, according to Luke and his friend Lazarus doesn't seem to have done badly for himself and his sisters Mary and Martha. But just as fame offers constant temptations, so does wealth. If a starving man steals, it will be limited to food or money for food. But only people who eat and live well would conceive complicated financial schemes that will deprive others of houses simply to make more money.

Ever wonder why Judas was the disciples' treasurer and not Matthew, the former tax collector? Probably because Matthew didn't need or want the temptation. He had lived well on the fees he had extorted from his fellow countrymen while collecting taxes for an occupying power. He chose to follow a poor carpenter over an easy life based on ill-gotten gains. He was probably like that rich man: addicted to money. He needed to go cold turkey.

In the movie "The Gods must be Crazy," a tribe of bushmen in Africa find a Coke bottle. They realize it has a wealth of uses: as a mortar to crush vegetables, as a container of precious water, as a musical instrument. They treat it as a gift from the gods--until they start fighting over it and one child hits another over the head with it. They call it "the evil thing" and one of them undertakes a quest to return it to the gods.

They learned the wrong lesson. No thing is either good or bad, in and of itself. The Coke bottle could be used for good purposes, as they discovered. But it was their greed for this unique thing that made them use it for bad purposes. James writes, "You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts." Evil thoughts and deeds, Jesus reminds us, come, not from anything external, but from our hearts.

This is not to say that some things do not have more power than others. Having the right tool can make some things more easily realized. Money has value and if you have access to lots of it you can do a lot with it. You can feed the poor but you could also buy yourself the latest totally unnecessary electronic gadget. You could fund medical research or buy a fleet of sports cars. You could give it to a church or lose it to a casino. You could build a school in Haiti or a dog house with air conditioning. You could support your wife and kids or a mistress. The choice is yours.

Spiderman learns that "with great power comes great responsibility." Jesus put it this way: "To whom much is given much will be required." As we've established, your income does not accurately reflect your worth to society. If it did good teachers would be well-compensated and lobbyists would hold bake sales. And there would be no such thing as a professional video gamer.

So if you are poor, it doesn't mean God hates you. And if you make more than enough to live on, it doesn't mean you are extra-virtuous. But you should look on any wealth as a blessing from God.

Wait! Didn't we say that Jesus deflated the whole idea of wealth as a blessing? No, what he did was show that it could also be a curse, if you let it take over the way you think and live. The Biblical idea is that the purpose of having a blessing is to bless others with it. If I'm throwing a party and I give you a tray of desserts, it's not because I want you to eat them all. I intend for you to pass them out to others. God has given some people a knack for making money. God doesn't intend them to hoard it all for themselves, lest they succumb to the toxic effects of a wealth overdose, the way your body would be damaged by all the carbs and cholesterol you'd ingest if you ate all the desserts. God has put the moneymakers in charge of helping those in need or those whose gifts lie in other areas. Where would our communities be if rich people did not get together and create foundations and build hospitals and fund schools and endow scholarships and underwrite medical research and contribute to charities? It was just reported that J. K. Rowling, the first female billionaire author, is no longer a billionaire. She has founded 2 charities and is president of a 3rd. She has given away so much money that she is merely a millionaire. She said, "You have a moral responsibility when you've been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently." J. Paul Getty put it more colorfully. To paraphrase his words, money is like manure. In a big pile it just stinks. But spread it around and things grow.

And even those of us who are not rich in relation to the cost of living in this country are still wealthy in comparison to most of the world. The majority of the 7 billion people on this globe live on less than 2 dollars a day. By combining in giving just some of what we receive thanks to God's grace, we can bring medical care and schooling and clean water and farm animals to people living in poverty the like of which we cannot imagine. Our churches give money and food to local charities and provide places for other groups to meet. And here's another odd statistic: poorer churches give more proportionately than rich churches. That's probably because we can better empathize with those for whom money is always a factor in their decisions. Remember the poor widow whose contribution of 2 cents, Jesus said, meant more than all the money richer people gave, because it was all she had. Without being asked, she did what the rich young man could not. Why did she give all? I don't know. Maybe she heard Jesus say that where our treasure is, there our heart will be. Maybe she gave all because she realized where it all comes from.

Our time, our talents, our treasures: all are gifts from God. We only think we control them. But there are less millionaires today than before the Great Recession, and not from generosity. So don't get too attached to anything in this life and don't make it your ultimate concern. That position belongs to God alone. While all we are and all we have belong to him, all he asks is for gratitude and that we use our gifts for his purposes. In concrete terms, he asks for a 7th of our days and a 10th of our income, at the very least. It's a small thing to give in return for the gift of life and all the other gifts life makes it possible for us to enjoy.

Is that the sum of our duty to God? We'll look at that Wednesday. But for now ask yourself this: if wealth is a blessing from God, how am I sharing that blessing with others? If money has the potential to be a curse, what am I doing to keep it from dominating my thinking and my life? If I can't give a tenth of my income, what percent can I contribute? If I am not rich, how can I nevertheless share what blessings God has given me?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rethink: Talent

When Whitney Houston's death was announced and tributes were given, I was not surprised to find out that she got her start in Gospel. A lot of pop singers do, especially if they sing blues and R & B. I did not know, however, that her mother, Cissy Houston, was a successful Gospel singer. In her childhood, Whitney went to the Baptist church but was exposed to the Pentecostal church as well. She went to a Catholic girls' high school. And I wondered if she had stayed in Gospel music would her life have ended as suddenly. I know that no industry is immune from temptation, but it is so common for pop and rock music stars to die early that it was a running joke in the mock documentary "This is Spinal Tap." Having people treat you as royalty or even a god because of your talent is too much for most people to handle. You could probably list 5 rock stars off the top of your head who either died of drugs or violence, and with very little thought be able to list as many who suffered from broken marriages, run-ins with the law and other major problems. Many a performer has come to view stardom as more of a curse than a blessing. I'm sure that Gospel music stars know a few sad tales as well but I'm also certain that far fewer of them have died before the age of 50. And I wonder if constantly repeating core Christian truths doesn't at least have some dampening effect on the hubris that is epidemic in secular music circles. I hope no one in Gospel or Christian music asks their Siri to call them a "Rock god."

We all have talents and abilities, whether we are Christian or not. It is part of the common grace which God's Spirit showers on all. We may not all be prodigies, but we all have things we are very good at, things we're fairly good at and things we aren't good at. A wise person recognizes where his strengths lie and where he is weakest. Anyone who thinks he can do it all is arrogant. The wise person works to hone and enhance her most powerful abilities and to minimize what she's weak at. And the very wise person seeks out others whose strengths lie in areas in which he is weak and teams up with those people. Knowing what you do best and where you need the help of others is true humility.

The problem is that you can be smart with regard to nurturing your talent and still misuse it. In comic books the main difference between the superheroes and super-villains is not their powers but whether they use them for good or not. Spiderman initially did what most of us would do if we had superpowers--use them to make money. But when his refusal to stop a petty crook led to the death of his uncle, he learned that "with great power comes great responsibility." The same issue is at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. In J.K. Rowlings' universe witches and wizards are not those who have sold their souls to the devil or who call up demons but, like the X-Men, are born with certain extraordinary powers and must choose whether to use them for the good of others or selfishly. In the end, it is not Harry's power that is the issue. Others are better at various forms of magic. It's the moral dimension that sets Harry apart. Several times in the books, he shows he is willing to risk his life to save others. When at the end Harry realizes that the only way to make Lord Voldemort mortal is for Harry himself to die, he walks unarmed to meet his foe and offers himself as a sacrifice. At that point, it becomes clear that the whole saga was a Christian story after all.

Your talent may be that you are a good musician. You could create haunting or exhilarating or groundbreaking music or make racist heavy metal for skinheads. You could be a skilled doctor. You could build up a practice helping suffering people or set up a bogus pain clinic which dispenses oxycontin prescriptions for anyone with the cash. You could be a good photographer. You could use your talents to create beautiful or thought-provoking art or to make internet porn. You could have a good head for money. You could work for a legitimate company or a nonprofit or organized crime. You may a clever writer. You could write entertaining or enlightening books and articles or blatantly political propaganda. You could be a good preacher. You could open the Scriptures to a local community of believers or become a televangelist making millions by preaching a personal "prosperity gospel."

We say "follow your dreams," but talent is not enough and by itself does not provide moral guidance. Some of the alternatives I gave could bring a person more money and fame or at least notoriety. But God intends us to use our talents in alignment with his purposes.

Now you could have figured all that out without Jesus. How did he make us rethink talent? By choosing 12 ordinary people as his inner circle. Before Jesus, the concept that a humble person could rise to extraordinary heights was not popular. In Greek and Roman stories any hero who seemed to be of humble birth was found to be a lost prince or a demigod. In the Old Testament there were precedents for God choosing someone otherwise unremarkable to carry out his purposes, most famously David, the shepherd boy. But nowhere in the New Testament are any of the apostles given grand genealogies. They were not descended from kings or priests or prophets. They were fishermen or tax collectors or from professions so mundane they aren't given. And these were the people whom Jesus chose to spread and organize his kingdom. He was going to send them to the ends of the world, to people with very different religions, into cultures foreign to them, facing challenges unprecedented and bearing the responsibility of being the sole source of information about the Gospel and Jesus.

And they did it. Scripture only records some acts of some apostles but we see them living up to the commission given them by Christ. Peter starts the outreach to the Gentiles though the person who really runs with that ball is Paul. By the end of the first century, Christianity has spread to every major city in the Roman Empire.

What was it that Jesus saw in them that led him to choose them? According to Acts 1, when seeking a replacement for Judas Iscariot, they look at people who were with Jesus from his baptism by John. That means they must have followed John the Baptist first. So they were seeking to be reconciled with God and were not adverse to doing so through a person who, though unconventional, told the truth. That commitment to the truth is tested when, as we are told in John 6, the 5000 whom Jesus fed wanted to make him king. Jesus eludes them and when they catch up to him, Jesus tells them that "they who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life." This turns a lot of people off and many disciples leave him. When Jesus asks the Twelve if they will leave, too, they reply, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." Because they recognize the vital nature of the unpopular truths Jesus teaches, they will stick with him.

That perseverance is important. Studies show that to master something you need to practice it for 10,000 hours, which is about 5 years of 40 hour weeks but is just over 2 years of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. As near as we can tell, Jesus' ministry lasts 3 to 3 ½ years. That's a lot of time to spend with someone and still think he is God's Anointed Son and more than enough to learn what he preaches and how he acts. But the disciples, which, remember, means students, stay with Jesus to the bitter end. And beyond. Most followers of would-be Messiahs who get killed, if they avoid being caught, either latch onto the next Messiah wanna-be or slink back to their old everyday life. But the disciples, understandably stunned by Jesus' resurrection, get over their astonishment and follow him anew. After 40 days post-resurrection training, they are no longer disciples or students but apostles, emissaries of the king.

Another thing stands out about the Twelve is their boldness. Peter is outspoken, of course, and James and John are so loud and fervent, Jesus calls them the Sons of Thunder. Philip has a penchant for bringing people to Jesus. They all do well when Jesus sends them and the Seventy out to heal and preach the gospel.

Having a talent is not enough. You must use it. In Jesus' parable of the Talents, which in that case were units of weight and money, the point isn't how much each slave makes investing his master's money; it's that they use it at all. The slave who comes off worse is the one who buried his talent to keep it safe for when the master returns. But the master wanted the slave to at least do some investing with it, however conservative. It's his lack of boldness with what was entrusted to him that gets the man into trouble.

Jesus is saying, "Use what God's given you. Take risks with it." In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, in effect, it's stupid to hide a candle under a bushel basket. The whole idea is to pierce the darkness, reflect God's radiance, glisten with his glory. Look at the world. The voices that get heard aren't always the best, as American Idol shows us, or the most honest, as almost any political discussion reveals. It's the loudest. Mediocrity and mendacity will triumph if better voices don't make themselves heard. The same is true of any medium. Quantity can beat quality if those who have better talent keep it to themselves.

Jesus saw in Twelve otherwise ordinary folks the necessary talents to spread the good news. He taught them the truth, which was sometimes unpalatable. He honed their skills and perceptions, challenging their preconceptions about who gets into heaven and how many you can feed if you go to God and how often you must forgive and who's really righteous and how to keep trusting God when it looks like it's all over and all hope is dead. Jesus opened their minds about God's love and mercy and power. And when they had mastered all that, he set them loose on the world. What they preached went against everything society thought was true. Money and power rule the world? Not if you follow this poor carpenter. God only listens to the respectable? Not if you look at how these tax collectors and prostitutes are manifesting the Kingdom of God. Death has the last word? Not if you listen to these ordinary folks whose world was turned upside down one Sunday morning.

Through his Spirit, God distributes talents and abilities to all. Not every one of them is glamorous but all are vital. But we must master them. We must persevere. And we mustn't hold back but be bold in manifesting them. And we must stay committed to the truth, revealed by God in Jesus. I love "Harvey" the Jimmy Stewart movie about the drunk with a 6 foot rabbit as his invisible friend. But I've worked as a nurse on the psych floor and real delusions are not comfortable or comforting. The world prefers illusions about the nature of reality and especially about itself. The truth is that when God's Love Incarnate presented himself to us we nailed him to a tree and spat on him. The good news is you can't stop God's love. You can't bleed it dry, you can bury it in the ground, and you can't shut it up in hole. There are no barriers that can keep God out. You can flail your fists ineffectually at him or shiver in shame before him or you can rethink your response, wrap your arms around him and return his love.

Like our time, our talents are gifts from God, to be used for the good of others and the glory of God. It is a matter of stewardship. On Sunday we'll get to what most people think of when we say stewardship. But in the meantime ask yourself: If the Spirit of God gives everyone talents and abilities, what are mine? If I am to use them properly, what am I strongest in and in what things do I need help from others? If I am to hone and enhance my talents, how am I doing that and how dedicated am I to it? If I am not to hide my talents, how boldly am I manifesting my gifts and staying true to the good news of God redeeming his creation through Jesus Christ?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rethink: Time

I watched a special in which Stephen Hawking was going to disprove the necessity of God. Basically, his argument is that we can account for every second of time since the Big Bang and thus there is no time left in which God could have created the universe. I'm not a theoretical physicist but I know enough theology to know that God does not live in time, which is simply another creation of his, but in eternity. And even physicists say that there was no time before the Big Bang and they cannot go back farther than the beginning of the material universe. So God could have front-loaded the singularity at the heart of the Big Bang with all the material, energy and natural laws it needed to unfold precisely as he designed it, the way a fireworks maker can design a rocket so it will deliver different kinds of explosions and colored lights and even whistles at various intervals. Then then there are physicists who feel time as we experience it does not exist but each moment is eternally present and we travel through them. Some feel that there are multiple universes in which every decision we could have made is played out. It looks like there's a lot of room for God to reach out from eternity and intervene in time, the way a reporter in a helicopter can visit any and every point in a parade, several times and from several angles, without being subject to its flow.

We, however, do live in time. How did Jesus make us rethink this vital piece of creation? By reclaiming time for God. We think our time is ours to do with as we please. But it does not belong to us. Time existed before us and will continue after our earthly existence is over. We cannot stop it or replay it. In fact, according to Einstein, the only kind of time travel possible is to get into the future faster. We are already doing that. In fact the world seems to be traveling too fast. First artificial lighting, then TV and now the internet have tempted us to spend time we should be resting in pursuits both worthwhile and decidedly not. Sleep deprivation and overwork are epidemics, destroying health and lives.

God knows we need rest and so he commanded us to observe the Sabbath, one day out of seven when people are to rest. From sunset Friday to sunset Saturday the Israelites were to cease work, as were their slaves and animals. The Bible gives 2 purposes for the Sabbath. One is to commemorate the creation of the heavens and the earth, after which God rested. Another is to remember how God liberated his people from slavery in Egypt.

A third purpose of the Sabbath, given by rabbis, is that it serves as a foretaste of the Olam Haba, or the world to come, the Messianic Age. For that reason meals prepared before the Sabbath but eaten during it are festive. It is a time for socializing with family and friends, singing songs, reading, studying and discussing the Scriptures, praying, and napping. Rabbis also think it is a fine day for married couples to spend time together, to put it delicately. The Sabbath is a day to enjoy the goodness of God's creation. As one rabbi put it, the Sabbath is the day we recover Eden.

Jesus could always be found in a synagogue on the Sabbath. But Jesus did not observe all of the prohibitions of what constituted work. When his disciples pulled some heads off of grain and ate them, some Pharisees saw this as breaking the Sabbath. Jesus referred to an incident when David took the sacred bread from the tabernacle and shared it with his hungry companions. He said, "The Sabbath was made for human beings, and not human beings for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath." Jesus was extending a well-known principle. A Jew is not only permitted but required to violate the Sabbath if it is necessary to save a life, whether Jew or Gentile. This principle, called pikuach nephesh, allows a Jew to violate any law in the Torah, except those prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy or murder, when faced with a situation that threatens a specific life. But when a condition was not life-threatening, experts differed on whether one should do something to, say, alleviate pain or suffering. Here Jesus ran afoul of some Pharisees. Jesus felt that healing was always permitted. He saw it as releasing someone from bondage and therefore quite appropriate for a day that recalled God rescuing his people from bondage.

But the overriding principle of saving people from death and suffering any time doesn't mean we should keep working 24/7 rather than observe a day of rest. Early in the church, believers started observing Sunday, the day of the week when Jesus rose from the dead, calling it the Lord's day. As the church became more Gentile, observance of the Sabbath gradually shifted to Sunday. In the so-called Dark Ages the church tried to get warring princes to lay down arms and observe the Truce of God on Sundays, Fridays, and all during Lent. It was a non-violent movement to stop supposedly Christian nobles and kings from fighting. Like Jesus they were trying to put the principle of preserving life and health above the "business as usual" attitude of getting what you want by taking the health and life of others.

By marking out a day when we are to cease from all work, God staked a claim on our time. He had saved his people and their lives belonged to him. They showed this by giving up making money for one day and devoting it to him. Jesus showed us that observing this day of rest did not mean refraining from doing good and helping those who were suffering or in need. No matter what day it is, we are to do good. He thereby plants a flag on our entire life. By his blood, he freed us from our bondage to sin and death. Our time is not our own but to be spent spreading this good news, not only with our lips but with our lives.

Since our lifetimes are gifts from God, redeemed by his Son, how we spend our time therefore becomes a matter of stewardship. On Wednesday we will reconsider how we spend our talents but in the meantime ask yourself this: If the time I'm given is not my own but God's, how much do I devote to him and his work? If my life is not my own, am I damaging it by not taking the rest God commands? If I do take a day of rest, do I spend it enjoying the gifts God's given me--family, friends, my spouse, my church community, the outdoors or do I fritter it away in pursuits that draw me away from these things? And if my life is Christ's, do I have certain personal rules and rituals that get in the way of doing what I can to save the lives and health of others?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rethink: Humanity

The thing that struck me when I first saw the Louvre was a powerful kind of not quite déjà vu. It held so many works of art with which I was already familiar. The Mona Lisa, of course, but also the Rosetta stone, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Venus De Milo. Finally I was able to see to see that sculpture in 360 degrees. I was seeing the actual art for the first time though I had seen copies, good and bad, before. The Louvre converted my teenaged son from a sullen and unwilling presence on our 19th anniversary trip to an enthusiastic world traveler, so much so that 9 years later, when he went on his honeymoon, Paris and the Louvre were a must-see.

In the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, we learn that human beings are created in the image of God. It is the reason given to Noah by God for murder being forbidden. Because people are made in the image of God, murder is symbolic deicide. What the image of God consists of is never defined but in the ancient world an image was thought to carry the essence of what it represented. At that point in the Bible we only know that God is intelligent, communicative, and creative. He is also Lord over all creation and he deputizes, in a sense, human beings to be his representatives on earth and stewards of it. We are to do his work in the world.

By chapter 3 humans have done what God told them not to and one way in which they might have been like God is closed off. Immortality is forbidden them. God chose to work through his people Israel to be a light to the world and a blessing to humanity by obeying the Torah. So when Jesus came, that was pretty much the sum of the teaching on humankind. How did Jesus make us rethink what we know about humanity?

As we've eluded to before, Jesus said that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. He is the image of the invisible God, says the Book of Colossians. But if humanity was created in God's image, what is so special about Jesus having this image? Well, it's like only knowing Venus De Milo from pictures and poor copies. Once you see the real thing, you understand why it is such a great work of art. The Book of Hebrews says Jesus Christ is the exact imprint of God's very being. The word for "imprint" comes from coining. It means the image comes from the original mold. You see the image as intended.

As we've pointed out, Israel's view of God was colored by their being a small nation surrounded by super-powers. They emphasized God's might and his ability to protect them and fight for them. So precarious was their existence that the rules for the community were enforced with an almost military discipline. Just as slacking off on a farm could cost you a good crop or cause the animals to starve or suffer, any kind of rebellion, insubordination or infighting could mean death for the community. So, despite the fact that there is ample evidence of God's love in the Old Testament, Israel focused on the aspects of God that made him sound tough, exacting and unyielding. And because people grow to resemble the God they worship, the children of Abraham had become nitpicky and merciless, quick to condemn a guy for healing on the Sabbath, or to shun a repentant woman for washing and touching Jesus' feet, or to harass a man born blind because they didn't like the guy who healed him, or to nearly throw a fellow townsperson off a cliff for saying controversial things.

In Jesus we see that imbalance in the popular picture of God redressed. Jesus emphasizes God's love and mercy. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, touched outcasts, restored dead children to life, forgave sins and told the people good news for a change. And the people who followed him came to resemble Jesus and his corrected picture of God. They didn't jettison God's righteousness or his demand for moral behavior but came to understand that the boundaries between good and bad people are porous. Sinners can be made righteous and the righteous had to watch that they didn't slip into hypocrisy and an unforgiving posture towards others. I think Martin Luther perfectly captured the paradox of being a Christian by describing us as simultaneously sinners and saints. Rather like the tax collector who prayed for God's mercy and went home justified whereas the apparently righteous self-satisfied Pharisee was not pardoned by God.

Again if I may use a metaphor from my nursing career, humanity is like the folks I took care of in a nursing home. Beside the permanent residents who were chronically ill or had a condition that would deteriorate, we got patients who were sent to us from the hospital for rehabilitation. And soon you noticed a real difference in these post-op patients. Some were eager to get better and so they faithfully went to rehab and worked with the physical therapists and did their exercises, no matter how hard or painful they were. Others would balk at the unpleasantness of relearning how to walk, or the pain of putting weight on a repaired hip or the fatigue that the exercises left them with. These people would not do the exercises they were given and skip or stop going to rehab altogether. They were content to become invalids; it was easier than the work of getting better. They even became semi-permanent residents of the nursing home, though they didn't have to.

The world is like that. We are all infected or broken by sin. Jesus can fix us up, repair what's broken and heal what's diseased. At that point we are healthier than we were but not yet out of the woods--simultaneously saint and sinner. However if we don't follow doctor's orders, if we don't do our part of the recovery process, if we go back to the bad habits that got us in such bad shape in the first place, we won't enjoy the good spiritual health made available to us. And we won't get to go home with God our Father.

The Christian life is a matter of moving in the right direction, not of having already arrived at the goal set for us. We may stumble, we may backslide a bit. As long as we stop, admit what we've done (or not done) and ask God's forgiveness and grace to get back on our feet and back on the right path, God is willing to help us, no matter what. As Paul said in Philippians, "I do not consider myself to have achieved it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."

But God is not just calling us to be better human beings, he is calling us to be like Jesus. Christ laid the challenge on us when he changed his second commandment from "Love your neighbor as yourself" to "Love one another as I have loved you." In 1st John we learn that God is love. So we are most like God when we love each other as he loves us. Jesus would not call us to exhibit Christ-like love if we could not, through his Holy Spirit, achieve it. Because Christ, the divine love incarnate, is the very image of God, he is what we should be aiming for. He is the picture of perfect spiritual health.

Christianity is not about being a good person; it is about becoming a Christ-like person. It is about putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is about having the same mind that was in Christ. It is about moving towards that point that "when he appears, we will be like him." If we are to be the Body of Christ, we need to think and speak and act like him. Not literally, like in a Sunday School play, with robes and a crepe beard. Instead think of, say, Sherlock Holmes, the most portrayed character in cinema history. Many actors have portrayed Holmes, each a bit differently, but the best ones have captured his essence. The same goes for James Bond or Doctor Who, other roles played by many actors. The good ones become the character even if they look nothing like their predecessors. And in real life, anyone can be like Christ with God's help.

Not only did Jesus want us to rethink how we see ourselves but how we see others as well. All human beings are created in the image of God, which is Christ. As Jesus said in his parable of the last judgment, what we do to others we do to him. So we are to look for Christ in others. But how can that be? How can we see Christ in the addict, the prostitute, the murderer, or the rapist? It's hard. The image gets marred and obscured by our sins and the damage done by others. It's like the gold coins of the Atocha treasure. When they were first brought up after centuries on the bottom of the sea, they didn't look like anything precious. They had to be cleaned from all the accretions that had grown on and covered them. But when they were restored, they shined in the light as they had when newly minted.

Or think back to the nursing home. Those in rehab were once in better health. They may not look it. They just need help, as Jesus needed help carrying his cross to Golgotha. He wasn't looking so good then. He barely resembled a man, as the prophecy of Isaiah says. But a robber on the next cross was able to see Jesus as the king he was. So must we. Every person you see was created in the image of God; every one is a treasure meant to shine for eternity. And our job is to help them realize that and cooperate as God's Spirit works on them and on us to reveal the glorious image of Jesus buried deep within the muck of our sinful and self-destructive ways.

In Jesus we see both what God is like and what we can be. That's how he wanted us to rethink ourselves and our neighbors. And if we do that we see our relationship to the rest of creation differently as well. That's what we'll deal with on Sunday.

But in the meantime, I want you to ask yourself this: if I am a bearer of the image of God, what things in my life obscure that from myself and from others? If I am to be Christ-like, what do I need to do to strengthen those aspects of myself? If everyone carries the image of God, what can I do to be more perceptive of that? If I am to treat everyone like Christ, what specific ways should I treat specific people in my life and how can I help them carry their cross?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rethink: the Holy Spirit

The very first Muppet movie has a scene near the beginning with Kermit and Fozzie Bear traveling in a balloon. Meanwhile credits are flashing on the screen. A technical credit like "cinematography" or "sound" or "best boy" (whatever that means) pops up and Fozzie asks his friend if anybody ever reads those names. "Sure," replies Kermit, "They all have family." The joke works just as well today when, at the end of one of Hollywood's big blockbusters, what appears to be the entire population of Silicone Valley scrolls up the screen for the last 10 minutes of the film.

But the fact is that without all of those people the latest action movie would be filmed on the director's iPhone, showing the actors in their street clothes in front of a green screen battling nothing. As an amateur actor I know how hard the behind the scenes persons work and how vital they are to getting a play on. But in live theatre, they get less recognition than the folks who put digital monsters into films.

Of the members of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the most shadowy and least understood. And part of that is because the Spirit is the behind-the-scenes person of the Godhead. God the Father and Jesus are featured prominently in major speaking roles, whereas the Spirit is working in the background, setting things up, illuminating things, relaying communications, and making sure everyone is properly equipped to do their job. He acts like one of the koroku or black garbed stagehands that flit around the stage during a Kabuki play. They aren't supposed to draw attention to themselves as they hand the actors what they need, change the scenery and pull one costume off an actor to reveal a second one that makes clear his true nature. Like them, the Holy Spirit is both vital and invisible and it's hard to define the scope of his functions.

Ask an ancient Hebrew about what the Spirit does and he would say that the Spirit fills great men and women to do extraordinary things for God. Remember when we said that 3 types of people were anointed: prophets, priests and kings? Well, at their inaugural ceremonies they were anointed with oil but they were supposed to be anointed with the Spirit as well. The Spirit gave them the strength, wisdom and courage they need to do the task set before them.

Often being filled with the Spirit made a person prophesy or speak God's word. Frequently being filled with the Spirit made a person feel ecstatic. In fact, Israel's first king, Saul, on the day he was anointed, was told by Samuel that he would join a band of prophets and "then the Spirit of the Lord will possess you and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person." We'll return to that.

So in the Old Testament God's Spirit indwells a few people given special work to do, either to speak God's word or lead God's people. But there were prophesies in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel that in the Messianic age God would pour out his Spirit upon all people. The typical interpretation of this was that it would happen at the end of the present evil age, after the Messiah had defeated all earthly powers. So the world in which this would happen was seen as a very different place than our everyday world.

The Spirit was active in Christ's life before his earthly existence, of course. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. At the start of his ministry, he was filled with the Spirit. It empowered him to heal and preach. But this was expected. Jesus was, people thought, a prophet at least and to some he was the Messiah. They expected him to be filled with the Spirit. So in what ways did Jesus make people rethink what they thought they knew about the Holy Spirit?

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus spoke about the Spirit to his disciples for quite a while. Jesus said that because he was going away, he was sending another Comforter. The use of that word today is unfortunate. At the time the Bible was first translated into English, "comforter" meant not merely one who consoled but one who brought with him courage ("con fortis" in Latin). It was an attempt to translate a Greek word that has no single English equivalent. Parakletos means literally someone who is called to one's side. As William Barclay points out, it could be someone who is an ally, a counselor, a helper, a character witness, or an advocate. Basically, the Spirit is God standing by your side ready to help you in whatever capacity you need.

And the remarkable thing is that Jesus is promising this not just to the disciples. As foundational members of the Kingdom they may be considered great men like those of old. But Jesus promises the Spirit to all his followers. In John 14 he says, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them." In other words, the indwelling of the Spirit is given to all who love and are faithful to Jesus, not just to leaders.

This is the first major idea that Jesus wants us to rethink. The Spirit of God is not something reserved to just a few. It is promised to all of God's people.

But remember that the prophets said the Spirit won't be poured out until the end of the present evil age and the beginning of the Messianic age? Obviously, evil has not been eliminated so how can the Spirit be available to all? Jesus in speaking of the Kingdom of God spoke of it as being in the future but he also talked of the Kingdom being among or in us. How can it be both future and present? The clue is his comparison of the Kingdom to a mustard seed that is tiny but eventually grows into a huge tree.

When is a war won? When the tide of a key battle irrevocably turns? When the enemy surrenders? When the peace treaty is signed? When shall we say a new tree originates? When it breaks through the earth? When the embryonic plant cracks through the seedcoat? When the seed is buried in the earth? When the seed develops inside the fruit hanging on its parent tree?

There is always an period between the conception of something and its emergence as a fully realized creation. Looking back one can see that it was in a sense present, if only as an idea or DNA or a force, at the very beginning and throughout the whole process. The seed of the Kingdom of God was planted by Jesus and started growing right then and there. Just because it hasn't reached its full height and width doesn't mean it wasn't and isn't a reality. The Kingdom was and is and is to come. The Messianic era had begun even though the present evil age hadn't ended everywhere and in everyone. Despite the overlap, the tide was turning.

The Spirit was poured out upon the church at Pentecost. It is God's gift to all believers. You don't have to be a candidate for a special position or ministry to be anointed. The Spirit's empowerment is available to all Christians.

This leads to another way in which Jesus made people rethink some major ideas about the Spirit. In his day, the temple in Jerusalem was considered the only place where a man could encounter God. On the Day of Atonement the high priest went behind the veil and entered the presence of God in the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the bull sacrificed for the people's sins. The Samaritans did something similar at their rival temple. Yet when the subject comes up, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that the time is coming when those who worship God will not worship in Jerusalem or some other place but will worship in spirit and in truth. Just as the temple of Solomon was destroyed, Jesus foresees the fall of Herod's temple. But that's OK because there will be no need for further sacrifice after him. And people need not look to some geographical point or man-made building to enter into the presence of God. As Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians, "you are the temple of the living God." In Ephesians he says, "In him, the whole structure is joined together and grows together into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together in the Spirit into a dwelling place for God."

For Christians, God is no longer some remote deity in a fancy building on a mountain; he is in us, among us, standing by our side ready to help. We are portable dwellings for God and together a magnificent temple. Or to switch to another of Paul's metaphors, we are the Body of Christ. As he was filled with the Spirit, so are we to be. As he was the embodiment of the Spirit of God's love, so should we be. As the Father and the Son are one in the unity of the Spirit, so Christians are to be one, just as Jesus prayed after his last supper.

We fall short of that, of course. Because of sin and because we do not think to pray and inquire of and wait upon the Spirit in our decisions, as they did in the early church. Read through the Book of Acts and you will find that before every major decision, the church looked to the Spirit for guidance. Jesus' favorite title for the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of truth, because the Spirit reveals the truth and guides us to the truth and convinces us of the truth. It was the Spirit that lay behind every push to bring the Gospel to the gentiles. It was the Spirit who led Ananias to heal Saul of Tarsus, a mortal enemy of the church, because Christ had called him to be an apostle. It was the Spirit who guided Saul, now Paul, on his missionary journeys as he planted churches. It is the Spirit who distributes gifts to all Christians and who brings to maturity his fruits in our lives. It is the Spirit who grants us access to God and who prays for us when we are unable to articulate what we need.

When King Saul was filled with the Spirit, Samuel told him he'd become a different person. And that's what the Spirit seeks to do with us. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation." The Spirit works in us to make us the person God intended us to be. The Spirit sanctifies us. He purifies us so we can serve God. And our service is part of God's recapitulation of his creation. God created the world and pronounced it good. We have turned his earthly paradise into hell on earth. But unlike some popular preachers make it sound, God is not itching to destroy the world. He wishes to redeem it, to resurrect it, to recreate it. Just as we will one day have new and better bodies, God's goal is a new heaven and a new earth, not totally discontinuous with the present ones anymore than Jesus' resurrected body was totally unlike his mortal one. And we, as Christ's Body, are his agents in that global transformation. The Spirit, who hovered over the waters at the original creation and was God's power active in creation, will be active in the new creation, working through us. God wants to pronounce everything very good once again.

There is a lot more to the Spirit's work than we can touch on in these few minutes. If you want a short book chock full of good Biblical teaching about the Spirit, may I recommend William Barclay's "The Promise of the Spirit," to which I am much indebted for the material underlying this sermon.

We are dealing with how Jesus made humanity rethink everything, including humanity itself. That is what we'll look at Wednesday. But right now I want you to ask yourself some questions this Lent. In view of the fact that the Spirit is in all Christians, does that make you rethink how vital your role in the church is? In view of the fact that God's Holy Spirit dwells in you, does that make you reconsider how you think and speak and behave? In view of the fact that the Spirit is working to recreate the world, does that make you rethink the nature of your work and outside activities? In view of how the Spirit drove the ministries of Jesus and Paul, does that make you rethink your reluctance to share the good news of Jesus Christ?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rethink: God the Son

The most difficult thing Jesus had to make people rethink was who he was. The title of Messiah, God's anointed one, was a bit nebulous in the mind of the average Jew. Usually people were anointed when they entered a special office. Prophets were anointed and some saw the Messiah as the prophet Moses predicted that God would raise up. Priests were anointed and some saw the Messiah as a special priest who would cleanse the people from their sins. Kings were anointed and most people saw the Messiah as a king like David, a holy warrior, come to liberate God's people from their oppressors.

What nobody expected was the kind of Messiah Jesus was. If he was a prophet, why didn't he say, "Thus says the Lord…?" Instead, he said, "Truly, truly, I say to you…" If he was a priest, why wasn't he, well, officially a priest, preferably the chief priest? And why didn't he offer sacrifices? If he was a king, why didn't he raise an army and declare war on the Romans?

By contrast Jesus went around healing people and preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God was near. But Jesus wasn't following the guidelines for healing people, like not doing it on the Sabbath and not touching the unclean. And the stories he told about the Kingdom were not about pronouncing judgment on the gentiles for humiliating God's people or repaying them for the same but rather about things like seeds and nets and pearls and other decidedly non-military matters. In fact, after miraculously feeding thousands, he disappeared before the mob could crown him. They certainly saw him as royal material.

Though Jesus did not talk about fighting or raising an army, the leaders of his people, the Sanhedrin and the chief priest, were afraid he might be doing just that. They sent people to quiz him about his stands on controversial matters, such as paying taxes to the Emperor. Jesus did not let them trap him but often turned the tables on them. This did not reassure them. And when, just before Passover, Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by people waving palms and throwing down their garments for him to walk on, and when he followed this by throwing the notoriously corrupt moneychangers out of the temple, the religious leaders were pretty sure that Jesus might begin a revolution.

They bribed one of his students, one who was part of his inner circle, to give away where he could be found in a Jerusalem that was swollen with pilgrims. Once they knew where he was, they sent guards to arrest him and bring him in for interrogation. When morning came, they held a pro forma trial and sent him to the Roman governor to execute. Pilate, notorious for his poor relationship with the people he governed, didn't cooperate at first. Perhaps Pilate just didn't want to do Caiaphas, the chief priest, any favors. Perhaps he thought this was just a vendetta against a religious rival, one who did not appear to be political in the least. But when the manufactured crowd outside the Antonia Fortress (rather than at the temple where all good Jews were having their Passover lambs sacrificed) threatened to tell the Emperor that Pilate refused to execute a traitor, Pilate folded.

Jesus was flogged, forced to carry his crossbeam through the streets, and nailed naked to a tree on a major road outside Jerusalem. When he died, his body was buried in a tomb and that seemed to be that. As the sorrowful disciple on the road to Emmaus said, "…we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." By the end of that day, the disciples would totally rethink what Messiah meant.

Jesus qualified as a prophet. Many a prophet died for speaking unpalatable truths to power. But the one category that Jesus seemed to be the weakest in, that of priest, now looked to be fulfilled without a doubt. He had offered the ultimate sacrifice.

If you have a good nose you wouldn't have liked the temple in Jerusalem. Everyday its priests spilled the blood of animals and burned their bodies. That was to atone for the sins of all the people. When the Hebrews were herdsmen, giving up a big fat flawless animal was a real sacrifice. It could have fathered a lot of calves or lambs. It was precious. And you didn't eat meat everyday either or you'd run out of livestock. Killing a calf or a lamb was for special occasions and sacrifices for sin.

Eventually, the animal sacrifices lost their psychological effects on people. They simply saw the sacrifices as the price of doing business, of living the life you wanted. That's why there are passages in the prophets where God rejects the sacrifices and burnt offerings. If people weren't feeling penitent for their sins anymore, if the whole thing had become an empty ritual, it wasn't doing what it was supposed to.

What people needed was not a symbolic atonement; they needed a real one. The problem was the human heart or mind. As Jesus says in Mark 7, "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: sexual sin, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evil things come from within and they defile a person." Again this echoes what the Old Testament says in Jeremiah 17: "The heart is more deceitful than anything else. It is beyond cure. Who can understand it?" Incurable from a human perspective, perhaps, But as God prophesied through Ezekiel, "I will also give you a new heart. And a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give to you a heart of flesh."

As a nurse, I prefer this metaphor to the usual legal one theologians use, wherein God uses what sounds like legal chicanery to circumvent our death sentence and put it on Jesus instead. Who is he trying to fool? God is not under the law; he is the source of the law. He is the lawgiver and the judge; if the problem is merely legal, he can acquit us. But if your problem is that your heart is incurably sick, then you need a heart transplant. And that means the donor must die. Seeing that while Scripture tells us that Christ's death redeems us, but never spells out the precise mechanism by which this happens, I choose the heart transplant metaphor. Jesus' death offers the cure for our sin-sick hearts. But only if we accept it.

For the disciples, the death of Jesus took on a new dimension. What John the Baptist said about him being the Lamb of God, what Jesus said about giving his life as a ransom for many, about his being the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, about the seed dying into order for the plant to live and grow, came together for them. This was the new thing that God was doing. The Messiah hadn't come to liberate his people from the chains of one earthly political regime only to establish another; he had come to liberate his people from their slavery to sin which truly keeps the Kingdom of God from being realized. By his one sacrifice, he ended the need for any other. By his blood he washed away the sins of all who put their trust in him. He forever smashed the barrier between holy God and sinful humanity. He made it possible for us to cease being rebels against God and to become his sons and daughters, Christ's brothers and sisters, and heirs of his Kingdom. By the death of one man on the cross, Jesus did all this. Wait--by one man? What kind of man, however good, could accomplish this? Sure, Jesus was the Messiah…but was that all he was?

And here we come to the big question: how did Jesus get a group of pious Jewish monotheists to believe that he was divine? What had kept the Jews intact as a people was their faith in one God and adherence to his law. To believe in second God was unthinkable. It was idolatry! So how did they come to rethink the nature of God in such a way as to include Jesus?

Jesus healed the sick but so did the prophet Elisha. He raised the dead but so did Elijah. People could at times hear God speak to him but that was true of Moses. Jesus made predictions that came true but so did most of the prophets. None of those made Jesus God. But one prediction he made stood out. It was so outlandish that the apostles could not comprehend it when he first said it. They didn't even get it right away when it was fulfilled. And who can blame them? Crucified men don't walk away from their tombs.

It was the resurrection of Jesus that made the disciples rethink his identity. He did what only God could do--be so innocent of sin that the giving of his life could bring eternal life to all. And then he came to life again. Not as the wretched survivor of a ghastly ordeal but a strong solid presence that was simultaneously not bound by the constraints of time and space. He could eat with and touch them. He still bore the scars but none of the debility of his crucifixion. Now they understood what he meant when he had said that if one had seen him, one had seen the Father, and that he and the Father were one. Those words should be blasphemy. Would God resurrect a blasphemer?

No. But how is it possible that the Father is God and that Jesus is God but there is only one God?

There is a precedent in Scripture. In the Book of Proverbs, in the 8th chapter, God's Wisdom speaks in the first person. Wisdom speaks of preceding creation. Wisdom says of the creation of the world, "then I was beside him as a master craftsman, and daily I was his delight." Here was an attribute of God treated as if she were a separate person but not as a second god. The Bible also speaks of the Angel of the Lord as a separate person. Yet when he is there, so is God and he speaks as if God. And in Genesis 18, it says "the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him…" When Abraham speaks to them, he is speaking to God. When they speak to Abraham, the Lord is speaking to him. That theophany certainly seems to lay the groundwork for the existence of the Trinity.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out, based on Jesus' claims to be God, he cannot have been simply a good moral teacher. He was either a liar, a lunatic or just who he said he was. And those who lived with him for 3 years came to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed God. I doubt they would have laid out the relationship of the Father and Son as later theologians did. But they referred to the Father, to Christ and to the Spirit as individual persons and yet never said there was more than one God. They probably concluded that God, a Spirit, was not limited as we humans are, to one person per being.

Paul, who wrote the earliest account of the resurrection, said 500 people saw Jesus after he rose from the dead. He said that most were still alive, about 20 years after the fact. And in his earliest letters, Paul also asserts the divinity of Christ. And Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, a fierce defender of the Torah. Yet he was willing to acknowledge that not only was Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, but also the Lord. Paul in his letter to the Philippians says of Jesus that "though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…" That's about as clear a statement of the Incarnation as one could expect to hear from the first generation of Christians. That's how thoroughly the life, death and resurrection of Jesus made people rethink the idea of Messiah and the idea of the way in which God exists.

This Sunday we will look at how Jesus made people further rethink God and his Holy Spirit. But for now, I ask you to reconsider how you think about Jesus. The two errors the church has tried to avoid from the beginning is treating him as merely human or conversely, as merely divine. How does the fact that God became a vulnerable human being make you rethink him and his love? How does the fact that he lived a human life and faced all the temptations we do without sinning make you reconsider how you live your life? How does the fact that he endured pain and death make you think about the troubles you're likely to face representing him? How does the fact that he rose from the dead make you reconsider how you face death? How does the fact that he did all that for you affect your relationship with him?