Monday, April 30, 2012

The Lord is My GPS

We used to have a dog who, among other things, would help me with my sermons. No, she didn't look up the words in my Greek and Hebrew lexicons, or compare dozens of translations, or seek out other relevant Bible verses, or point out important insights from my commentaries, or track down illuminating customs of the time and cultures of the Bible, or suggest illustrations from pop culture. What she did was drop whatever she was doing, which was usually sleeping, and be ready to go for a walk whenever I found myself stumped at some point in writing the sermon. I would put on her leash and we would walk around the neighborhood. She would answer her "pee-mail" and I would ponder what to say next in my homily or how to say it. With the kids grown and gone, and my wife and I working 2 jobs each, we have resisted getting another dog and subjecting her to hours of being left alone in our house. But I really miss those walks.

Taking care of animals teaches you not just about them but about yourself. A very special notoriety attaches itself to those who neglect or abuse their pets or other domestic animals. I remember reading one of the non-Fleming James Bond books and was intrigued that 007 dealt with 2 vicious guard dogs sent to rip him to shreds by harmlessly gassing them to sleep. He may be licensed to kill humans but the author knew better than to have him kill animals. So they get better treatment than most nameless guards receive at his hands.

With sheep being the most frequently mentioned animal in the Bible, shepherding them is a very important topic. Sheep were a key part of Israel's economy and, as in most Ancient Near Eastern countries, the shepherd was a popular metaphor for leadership. Patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David were shepherds, as was the prophet Amos. Ezekiel and Jeremiah blasted Israel's leaders for being bad shepherds, both neglecting and exploiting their flock. Last year for Good Shepherd Sunday, I examined the 23rd Psalm, phrase by phrase. If you want to read it, look up "Shepherding 101" on my blog. This year, let's look at our gospel, John 10, and see why Jesus compared himself to a good shepherd.

A shepherd was the sheep's GPS: guide, provider and security. That's the point of Psalm 23, that God as shepherd guides the sheep to good pasture and still waters so that they lack nothing. But guiding and providing are the bare minimum standards for being a shepherd. The amount of protection offered is what separates the person who is invested in the sheep from the person who is just out to make a buck. God provides such good protection that the sheep fear no evil, no matter how dark and dangerous is the valley he guides them through.

Right away, Jesus sets a high standard for being a good shepherd. It is one who will lay down his life for the sheep. If a sheep was killed by a beast, the shepherd had to give proof of that to the owner, like the legs or a piece of ear, even if snatched from a lion's mouth, according to Amos. Of course if the shepherd is the owner, he will do more to save his sheep. That's what the rod or cudgel a shepherd carried in his belt was for: to fend off predators of the animal as well as human variety. If the shepherd is in it just for the money and has no love for the sheep, he isn't going to risk much for them. Only he who loves the sheep, who sees them as more than meal tickets, will sacrifice himself for them.

Evidence for the shepherd's good relationship with the sheep is that he knows them and they know him. My son has 10 sugar gliders. They look like a cross between chipmunks and flying squirrels. They are very cute but they look alike to me. My son and daughter-in-law know each by sight. They've spent a lot of time playing with them, feeding them and nursing their injuries. They know their likes and dislikes, their quirks and personalities. They know which ones are nippy, which are nice and which are hairy Houdinis. When one escapes, they know the places in the house they are likely to be found. And they don't have to protect them from their cat, who is freaked out by the little critters.

You can't love someone unless you know them. I'm always surprised when celebrity marriages break up so quickly. They of all people should know about artifice and public relations. Do they not know that they need to get to know the real person, not the public persona, before making a commitment? In general, a long engagement is better than a short one precisely because it's hard to maintain a fa├žade for so long. And the personalities and character of the couple will be more vital than looks in the long run.

Earlier in John 10 Jesus speaks of the sheep knowing their shepherd's voice. In Jesus' day, that's how shepherds would separate their flocks at, say, a well or a campsite--by calling them. The sheep would follow their respective shepherds. We need to know Jesus well enough to recognize his voice. I started my IronicJesus Twitter feed because I've heard a lot of so-called Christians attribute such outrageous opinions to our Lord that I figured they must think that what he said was spoken sarcastically. "Surely he didn't really mean that how we treat the sick or resident aliens or those in prison would be judged as how we treat Jesus." So I started tweeting bizarre "quotes" followed by the Bible reference to what was really said. Some people didn't get the meaning of irony and objected. Those who didn't respond either did get it…or didn't realize it how contrary to his character the quotes I made up were.

What did the crusaders think Jesus meant when he said "put up the sword?" What did the Inquisition think Jesus meant when he said "love your enemies?" What do Christians fighting nastily over nonessentials think Jesus meant when he said "all people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another?" Are we tone-deaf to Jesus' call to repent, forgive and reconcile? If we can't pick out Jesus' voice from all the partisan, political, tribal, agenda-driven and selfish voices out there, it means we really don't know him and we have to ask ourselves if we are in fact his sheep.

It's like the really tough problem a neurologist had to solve. A patient of his could not unclench his fist and the pain was excruciating. That wasn't the problem. Ordinarily, the doctor would figure out how to open the hand. But the hand in question was gone. The patient had it amputated due to an injury years ago. He was feeling phantom limb pain. But how do you get someone to open a hand that no longer exists? The neurologist built a box with 2 compartments, one for the physical hand and one for the missing one. The compartment for the phantom limb had a mirror angled so that the reflection of the good hand appeared to replace the one that was gone. The doctor had the patient ball up his remaining hand, slide it into its compartment and had the patient look at its reflection which was in the place of the missing hand. Then he told the patient to unclench his hands. Seeing the illusory hand open up, the patient felt relief for the first time in years. Just so, a lot of the anger and pain and fear we feel towards others comes from hanging onto stuff that isn't there anymore. When we let go of the insubstantial baggage we carry around, we can relax, stop concentrating on them and pay attention to what really matters. Like Jesus' call to follow him, our good shepherd.

And we better listen because otherwise we might not understand when different sheep start joining us. Jesus says, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." Christianity started as a sect within Judaism. Despite the risen Christ's command to "make disciples of all nations," God had to give Peter a push to bring the gospel to gentiles. Paul preached in synagogues only to find that Godfearers, gentiles sympathetic to Judaism, were responding to the gospel in greater numbers than Jews. Today it is hard to find any race or nation not represented in the church. In fact, the majority of Christians are found not in the West but in the Third World: in Africa, Asia and South America.

This has not come about easily. In Acts 6, we find a controversy developing between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews. Those from the Diaspora, who came to Jerusalem from all over the Roman Empire, felt that the native-born Jews were receiving preference. This led to the creation of deacons who made sure all who needed help got it impartially. Paul, who found himself becoming the apostle to the Gentiles, spent much of his letters emphasizing Christian unity and love. In Galatians, Paul says that the diversity found in the church should not lead to divisions. "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." In 1st Corinthians he uses the parts of the body as a metaphor for how very different people with very different gifts can still be part of a larger organism. In John, Jesus is using the metaphor of a flock made up of sheep from different folds to make much the same point.

Most religions originate within a culture and a race. They seek to foster unity among those who share blood and traditions. Towards those on the outside, the attitude is often that of "us versus them." But Christianity teaches that we are to approach everyone with love, even those who don't love us, even our enemies. That's why it soon spread beyond the people and culture in which it arose. However, it runs contrary to the human tendency to stick close to those who are like us and not get too chummy with people who are different. But how are we to practice the reconciling love Jesus calls us to if we do not reach out to folks from other races, cultures and classes? Too often Christians go to clubs masquerading as churches. We ought to be welcome centers for the Kingdom of God. Our Lord, our shepherd has warned us that he is calling others into his flock and he expects us all to be one.

William Barclay tells a story about Egerton Young, a missionary to native Americans in Saskatchewan. When they heard him speak of the love of God, it amazed them. Their chieftain asked if Young had indeed called the Great Spirit "our Father." When Young said he did, the chief said, "We never thought of the Great Spirit as Father. We heard him in the thunder; we saw him in the lightning, the tempest and the blizzard and we were afraid. So when you tell us that the Great Spirit is our Father, that is very beautiful to us." Then the chief paused in thought. He asked Young if he had referred to God as his own father. The missionary said, "Yes." And the chief asked if Young had said God was the Father of the Native Americans as well. Young agreed. The old chieftain's face lit up. "Then you and I are brothers," he said. The chief understood Christian unity better than most people raised in churches.

Every metaphor breaks down at some point. It may sound good for a shepherd to be so protective of his sheep that he would die for them but in reality, the shepherd's death would be a disaster for the sheep. They would be without protection from the very predators who killed their shepherd. After Jesus' death the disciples were predictably hiding behind doors. If Jesus hadn't risen, they probably would have slipped out of Jerusalem quietly and disappeared into ordinary lives back in Galilee. So Jesus addresses this at the end of his extended metaphor. He can not only lay down his life but take it up again. Unlike mortal martyrs he lives on not merely through his words and in stories of his life but by continuing to guide, provide for and protect his followers. We can talk to Jesus in prayer and receive answers to those prayers. We can ask for guidance and receive it. We can ask for our necessities and receive them. We can put ourselves in his hands and know that we are safe from lasting harm.

Being called a sheep may not feel like a compliment but we do tend to follow the crowd and we do tend to stray if we don't have a leader. Disease, natural and financial disasters teach us that we are never as in control of our circumstances as we think we are. Not being in control can be terrifying. Unless we know someone who is in control and that someone is trustworthy. By laying down his life for us, Jesus has proved that we can trust him. And by taking his life up again, he showed that he is in control of death and anything else we fear. All that is required is that we respond to his loving leadership. He will guide, provide for and protect us, as any good shepherd would…as long as we listen to him and follow him, as all good sheep should.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Holy Rollers

I didn't preach this week because I had little time between being exhausted and having to leave town for 3 days of diocesan and synod meetings. Fortunately I arranged for a visit from 2 Lutheran pastors bicycling across the country, the Rev. Mark Crispell and the Rev. John Cross. Instead of me preaching they spoke about their journeys and both of the churches I'm pastoring loved them. Don't take my word for it. Go to their website at Where the Road Leads.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Following Jesus in New Ways

Alcoholics Anonymous, which is a spiritual approach to living with alcoholism, owes a lot of its ideas and structure to Christianity. Though one is free to define God or the Higher Power however one sees him or it, the 12 steps do take one through a process that is analogous to repentance, confession, restoration and restitution. It is one of the most successful methods of getting and keeping alcoholics sober. Still not everyone who goes to A.A. manages to defeat the disease. That's because, as one of the programs sayings points out, "It works if you work it."

The same can be said of following Jesus. As G. K. Chesterton put it, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." Critics of Christianity do go after the doctrines, only to show that they usually have at best a half-remembered Sunday School understanding of the main tenets of the faith. Often they describe a form of Christianity that is barely recognizable or which reflects the theology of a small minority of those who call themselves Christian. What they mostly trot out are grievous failings of the church, such as the Crusades and the wars of religion. "See what you get when religion is in charge," they say. Putting aside the fact that the Encyclopedia of Wars shows that only 7% of wars were ever fought for religious reasons and account for only 2% of all war casualties, the best response is to point out that all of these actions were done in direct opposition to what Jesus said. Jesus was not the holy warrior people expected. When Peter used his sword to wound a servant in the group seeking to arrest Jesus, our Lord tells him to put down the sword because it is an instrument of death that invites retaliation. Jesus then heals the servant whose ear was sliced off. Now these are people who are about to hand Jesus over to be crucified. Peter's reaction is the typical human one, and as old as the hills--fight your enemy. Jesus' response is something quite new and divine--love your enemy.

The greatest failings of the church has been not so much what it does as what it doesn't do: it doesn't follow very closely key teachings of Jesus. That's one of the reasons why Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible by cutting out Jesus' words from a Bible and pasting them in a blank book. He left out miracles and theology but he felt he was a Christian because he tried to follow those words. (However, I wonder how much of John's gospel he used.) There are people today who call themselves Red Letter Christians; that is, they follow Jesus' words which in some editions of the Bible are printed in red.

But even if we accept the entire Old and New Testaments as God's Word, we have a poor record of following what they say. Even so-called Biblical Christians tend to overemphasize some passages while ignoring or explaining away others. A lot of the hot button issues that divide Christians have little or no Scriptural support. And both liberals and conservatives treat the Bible as a buffet, picking and choosing what they like and leaving the rest. Isn't all Scripture given for our edification?

So what are we to make of this form of socialism which we find arising among the early church? Today's passage from Acts 4 says, "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet and it was distributed to each as any had need."

This looks like something new. Is it just an aberration? Not exactly. In Acts 2:44, 45, we get this description of the first converts: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." This isn't all the early church did, of course. We are told just before this that "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." In other words, they came together to learn about Jesus from those who knew him, to form a community, to share the Lord's table and to communicate with God. Let's take a closer look at the Greek word for "fellowship." It can also be translated "partnership." Christians are supposed to work together for the good of all. They learned this from the apostles' teaching. It was reinforced by their social interactions with other believers and taking communion together. They would have prayed for any who needed help. So you can see how the sharing of goods arose. Jesus said that what you do to others, especially the unfortunate, you do to him. So if any were needy, this group of Christians did what they could, including selling property so they could help their brothers and sisters in Christ out. They did it so well that no one was in need.

There was the precedent of the apostles who, while following Jesus, kept a common purse. It seems likely that they still held to that arrangement and that Matthias, who was selected to replace Judas as one of the Twelve, replaced him as treasurer as well. Luke tells us that a number of women whom Jesus had healed used their resources to help him.

This generosity, the fact that Christians cared for one another in concrete ways, was noticed by the pagan populace and remarked on by writers of the time. One of the things that changed popular opinion about Christianity was that during outbreaks of plague, rather than fleeing the cities, as did those who could afford it, Christians stayed and cared for the sick at great personal risk. As Jesus said, the world knew his disciples by their love for one another.

However, the financial arrangement we find in Acts chapters 2 and 4 wasn't copied in every city where Christians met. As the church became more mainstream, this kind of communal life diminished. But it never disappeared. Communities of Christians who owned no personal property and lived together, sharing the fruits of their labor, continued. They were the monastic orders. They arose in the 300s AD, about the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. They may have been a reaction to it. And when the Empire fell, they turned out to be the next best thing.

One of the things that Christians are blamed for is the so-called Dark Ages. The idea is that the church took over society and everyone sunk into ignorance. In fact, it was the non-Christian barbarians who were responsible for the lack of literacy and the decline of Greco-Roman culture. In the 400s they sacked Rome repeatedly and destroyed the western part of the Roman Empire. They were warriors and had no use for reading and writing. And we wouldn't know anything about such times were it not for the monasteries. The earliest chroniclers were monks. They also copied books and in their libraries were the legacy of classical civilization. But there was no longer a Southern European, pan-Mediterranean empire to offer political stability, to protect these beacons of light in the Dark Ages, the monasteries, or to maintain the connections between them so they could communicate what knowledge they had and preserved. Unfortunately, many of the barbarians saw the monasteries as undefended treasure houses. They looted them and burned the books, only interested in the covers of Bibles, provided they were jewel-encrusted. It was pagans that made the Dark Ages so dark.

The Huns, Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and other barbarians eventually settled down and were converted, or at least told to get baptized by their newly Christianized kings. Now that they had castles and lands that provided wealth and income, they realized they needed literate persons to keep their books and inventory their lands and property. Without irony, they turned to the clerics to help them. That's where we get the word "clerk," from the clerics who could do on paper what their barbarian overlords couldn't.

Christianity brought light back to the Dark Ages and it was largely Irish monks who did so. Their island was spared the early barbarian invasions that hit the rest of Europe. Instead, a Welshman captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, escaped back home, became ordained and returned to the land of his captivity. In the mid-400s, St. Patrick not only brought Christianity to Ireland but literacy and copies of classical literature as well. In Ireland, the power in the church was held by abbots, not bishops. So throughout the Emerald Island, monks copied the works of ancient Greek and Roman writers and filled libraries that replaced the plundered ones of Europe. And beginning in the 500s it was Irish monks, sent as missionaries to a fractured Europe, who brought culture and literacy back.

Historians credit the Carolingian Renaissance, the flowering of art and literature around 800 AD, to Charlemagne bringing the English monk Alcuin to the Frankish court to teach at the palace schools. Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, learned to read and write a little. He in turn founded monasteries to preserve ancient texts and to teach reading and writing.

Sociologist Rodney Stark says that capitalism got its start in monasteries, which, if they did well, had surplus wealth to invest. They also became centers of innovation, producing things like the clock, which was invented to keep track of the hours for prayer. Monks and nuns set up and ran hospitals. They raised and dispensed herbs as medicine. They started universities and men like Roger Bacon and William of Ockham laid some of the foundations of science.

More germane to our purposes, these communities of people trying to live the Christian life in a purer form, one that gave them ample time to pray, study and think, also became incubators of social and church reform. Sometimes they were reacting against was the corruption they saw in their very midst. Whenever the church got too far from the ideals of Christ, reformers tended to arise from the monastic orders: Bede, Benedict, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther. Few people remember that Luther was originally trying to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not start a new one. The Protestant Reformation he started triggered a counter-reformation in the Catholic Church which dealt with some of the excesses and corruption.

There are still monasteries and nunneries, including Episcopal and Lutheran ones. There are also small non-denominational Christian movements which live on communes that are little different from monasteries.

They all go back to that new idea practiced by the first believers. Still, what happened in the early church makes some people nervous, like Jesus' command to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. They think it sounds anti-capitalist, despite Stark's historical argument that it led to capitalism. What these passages really are, though, is anti-individualistic. We put such a premium on individualism and individual happiness that we are repulsed by anything that infringes on what we think of as God-given individual rights. We forget that that comes from the Declaration of Independence, not the Bible. Jesus tells us that we are to disown ourselves before taking up our crosses and following him. That is what the early Christians and monastic Christians tried to do by literally giving up personal possessions and living in a community with only Christian rules. These ideal societies never succeeded for long and were never the practice of the vast majority of Christians, but as we've shown, such communities did a lot of good. The history of the world would be the poorer were there not these places where Christians were experimenting with new types of communities.

In researching these passages from Acts, I found very little commentary on them and nothing dealing with what we should take from these parts of God's Word today. I think it is so foreign from our current mind set, which has grafted our current social and economic philosophies onto Christianity, that we can't process it. And I think we are secretly afraid of even considering this passage too closely lest we discover that it might be God's will for us. It is sad that monastic vocations are at an all-time low. People going into religious orders are considered quaint at best and at worst, a little crazy.

But even though this communal lifestyle isn't mandatory for all Christians, these scriptures tell us that we need to be more concerned about taking care of each other's needs. True, in Jesus' day, there were no comprehensive governmental programs to take care of the needs of the poor. Today there are. And yet there are also moves to reduce what the government spends on the poor, the sick, the handicapped, the aged, children, the homeless and other disadvantaged people. It has nothing to do with saving money. Each US penny, which is 97% zinc, costs more than 2 cents to make. Last year we lost $60,200,000 minting pennies. We continue to do this because of a powerful zinc lobby. The poor, of course, have no large well-funded lobbies.

Churches and charities are trying to take up the slack but they've been caught on the horns of this recession's dilemma: they are experiencing reduced giving at the same time they are receiving increased requests for help. Recently Dr. Joel Hunter, the pastor of a mega-church in Orlando that helps the homeless and works with schools to help feed low-income children, said that all the churches in America would have to double their budgets and spend all of that extra money simply to feed our nation's hungry. And nothing would be left over to help with all the other needs that have to be met. The churches cannot do it alone.

For a "Christian" nation, we don't seem willing to follow the practical implications of our Lord's command to love one another, or to see Christ in the least of people and thus do for them what we would do for Jesus. Part of it is a fear that we are sliding into socialism. That's like worrying about being in a plane crash when we are in far more danger of being killed in a car wreck while driving to the airport. C. S. Lewis pointed out that we are often told to fear that which is least likely to happen, with the result that we fall prey to the opposite temptation. One example is how we are constantly cautioned against sexual repression when that seems to be the last thing threatening to engulf the world. The real spiritual danger facing us is our becoming a more callous, less compassionate society. And this has nothing to do with endorsing any specific political or economic system. Christianity has managed to exist in all. Jesus lived in one of the worst, in which none but a few who were granted Roman citizenship had any rights. The overwhelming majority of the populace were slaves and subject peoples. Jesus didn't call for a political or economic revolution. He called for a spiritual one. He called for us, whatever our status or wealth or situation, to treat everyone, even an enemy, with love. He called for us to put God before money. He told us to go out of our way to help others, as the Samaritan did in his parable. We are to be ready to help the needy anywhere and anytime, as we would family.

The first Christians came up with a creative solution to meeting the needs of others. We need to do the same. I'm not an economist, nor an expert in political science but anyone can see that Christians are not coming up with new ideas these days but are borrowing entire platforms from political parties. They forget that it was Christians who approached Madison to put the separation of church and state in our constitution in order to keep the faith from being corrupted. Now we have a unique privilege. For most of history Christians never had to participate as active citizens in a democratic country. We can and we should. But we mustn't put our trust in politics as we do God. We need to listen to the Spirit and not be afraid of doing things never attempted before. The old human responses don't work. We need to try something else. Fortunately, ours is a God who does new things. And, as he acted through those small groups of Christians, so he will do through us, provided we are willing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rethink: Eternal Life

The Scriptures referred to are Isaiah 25:6-9 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-15.

It was a rainy day in St. Louis. I sloshed back to school in my yellow raincoat and galoshes. We couldn't play outside, so we sat in the gym waiting for the bell to ring. My friend, Kenny Cross, leaned forward and whispered that President Kennedy had been shot. Kenny had a weird sense of humor so I didn't believe him. But once we got back in our classroom, we were soon told that it was true. Someone had killed the president. It cast a pall over the rest of the week, over Thanksgiving 1963 and, for some, over the rest of the decade. The world looked darker from that point on.

Since then a lot of theories have arisen about who killed Kennedy, how and why. I've read that Kennedy was shot from the Grassy Knoll and from a sewer. He was assassinated by the CIA, the Mafia, by Cubans, and accidentally by a Secret Service agent in the following car. All this, despite numerous forensic evidence and scientific experiments that show that there is no need to posit any other assassin than Lee Harvey Oswald, a Marine sharpshooter who had previously shot a judge. Just one theory hasn't been seriously proposed in the 48 years since that day in Dallas: that Kennedy rose from the dead.

In the case of Jesus, the theories run the other way. People try to explain away how in less than 20 years it became widely believed that Jesus rose from the dead. I've read wilder theories about Jesus' resurrection than I have about Kennedy's assassination. I've read that Jesus never really died thanks to a drug that fooled everyone by lowering his heart rate and breathing--but miraculously without finishing off a man who was already suffering from multiple trauma, at least 5 wounds, a flayed back, blood loss, dehydration, shock and air hunger. And it doesn't explain how the disciples saw him as the victor over death when he would have looked like a victim of a train wreck instead. I've read that the women went to the wrong tomb and really did mistake the gardener for Jesus. And apparently everyone else, including his enemies, continued to go to the wrong tomb! I've read that it was a group hallucination...that lasted 40 days! None of these hold up to critical examination, leaving us with but one reason that his followers turned from disappointed disciples cowering in a room to daring missionaries proclaiming good news about him to the crowds: Jesus must have risen from the dead.

The resurrection is found in the earliest part of the New Testament: the first chapter of 1st Thessalonians. In today's reading from 1st Corinthians, written just a few years after the letters to the Thessalonians, we get the first detailed account of the resurrection and Christ's appearances to not only the apostles but to 500 witnesses, most of whom were alive when Paul wrote this. Here is the reason why Christianity spread to every major city in the Roman Empire in less than a century. Here's why Jesus, out of all the would-be Messiahs executed by the authorities, not only kept his disciples after his death but gathered more and more. Here's why his followers went to their deaths rather than recant and why more people turned to Christ despite the very real threat of martyrdom. It wasn't just one woman, or a group of women, or his closest disciples who said they saw the risen Jesus; there were 500 people who saw him as well.

We know this, of course. How did the resurrection of Jesus make us rethink life?

In the Old Testament, there is very little information on the afterlife. When it is mentioned, the realm of the dead is called Sheol, a deep, dark place of silence and forgetfulness. No one was thought to come back from the grave, according to Job. There were, however, glimmers of hope, as we see in our passage from Isaiah, that one day God will end the reign of death. I love the imagery the prophet uses: God hosting a rich feast with good wines on Mount Zion, where Jerusalem is built; death as a shroud cast over all nations; God swallowing death, a reversal of the image of people swallowed up by death; and God wiping the tears from every face. It is a striking image of God's fatherly love.

By the time of Jesus, at least some Jews believed that God would not merely end death but resurrect the dead. This would happen at the end of this, the current evil age, and before the start of the Messianic age. That's why the disciples were so confused by Jesus' talk of his own death and resurrection. He was the Messiah. The Messiah doesn't die. He ends the present evil age by conquering the bad guys, basically the gentiles who oppress his people. First that happens, then everyone dead gets resurrected and judged. And the Messiah presides over that; he doesn't die himself. That was unthinkable.

So the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was trying to get through their heads until he actually rose from the dead. And it still took them a while. If the accounts said Jesus' followers immediately accepted his resurrection, we would suspect the stories were made up. But, no, it takes them a while to get used to the idea, just as it would if a friend you saw die was back in your midst, hale and hearty. We speak of doubtful Thomas but as the only disciple who didn't see Jesus that first Easter, his reaction is quite understandable. As is his response when he at last sees Jesus, who offers his hands and side to be touched. I imagine Mary of Magdala was not the only one to weep but the tears from then on were tears of joy.

But this meant they had to rethink everything they thought they knew about life, death and the life to come.

Pre-resurrection, when Jesus spoke of eternal life, his followers naturally thought he meant they would never actually die. They would simply pass from the current evil age to the future Messianic age. But post-resurrection, undergoing physical death, as Jesus had, was a possibility. Actually it was more like a probability. But the difference was that they no longer feared death. The contrast to their earlier behavior is significant. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled. An anonymous boy, dressed only in a sheet was braver than they (though he ran away naked when the guards grabbed him by the sheet.) Peter later snuck into the courtyard of the high priest but vehemently denied being one of Jesus' followers. He still feared death. But afterward, they didn't care about what physical harm befell them. They didn't care about warnings from the authorities or imprisonment or worse. They would not shut up about the risen Christ. Most of the Twelve were martyred: by beheadings, by torture, by burning to death, and even by crucifixion. The story is that Peter asked to be crucified upside down, because he felt unworthy to die as his Lord did. And none of them ever recanted their belief in the resurrection. They knew it to be true.

But if we who receive eternal life still have to die, in what way is it eternal? The clue is there in that last word. Eternity is not just a long, long time. It is not properly time at all, because eternity has no beginning or end. And only one thing has no beginning or end: God. The only way we, who have beginnings, can have eternal life is by entering into the life of God. That's why scripture doesn't say we get more life; what we get is new life in Christ--new to us, a different quality of life. We are entering into the eternal life of God himself.

This is what Jesus meant when he prays in John 17 that "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…" This is what Paul means when he talks of being "in Christ." When we take God's Spirit into our hearts, we are taken into the heart of the Triune God, into the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father, in the unity of the Spirit of that love from which all life and creation springs.

When we enter that eternal life, we undergo a spiritual resurrection, as if were. Our old life is past and gone, all our sins and guilt are nailed to cross and buried with Christ. As he rose again in a glorified body, we become a new creation in Christ. And we are not the only new creation God has in mind.

I have never been asked by a dying person about heaven. They tend to talk of their family. It's the family who ask about heaven. Once immediately after the death of a beloved parishioner, as we awaiting the person from the funeral home who would pick up the body, I was caught unawares by a rather intense interrogation by the family of just what heaven would be like. And I had little to tell. All I could do was repeat what Paul said: that when we depart this life, we are with Christ. Later, I searched the Bible for a really detailed description of heaven only to find there isn't one. And there's a good reason for that. If you're going on a trip to an exciting and wonderful place, why would you want to hear a description of the waiting room? Jesus says "In my Father's house, there are many dwelling places." Another translation would be "way stations." When we die, our journey has not ended.

Our final destination is not an ethereal existence in an insubstantial dimension; for his new creations in Christ, God plans a new creation in which we will live our new lives. And it's already in the works. Remember how the disciples thought the present evil age would have to end before the general resurrection of humanity and the beginning of the new Messianic age? When Jesus was resurrected, the disciples had to rethink the whole timeline. But it's actually quite logical.Even if Jesus had led a conventional revolution, it would have started at one place and one point of time and slowly spread until all opposition was ended, which to them was the whole pagan domination of earth. In other words, during such a campaign, the present evil age and the Messianic age would in a sense coexist. There would be those living under the Messiah's reign while those still unconquered would be living under the rules of the evil age. Jesus wasn't that type of Messiah and he rarely used military metaphors. But in comparing God's Kingdom to seeds and crops and trees, he was saying the process is a gradual one, as the new age grows and undermines the old age.

Jesus' resurrection did however signal the start of the Kingdom of God. As the firstborn of the dead, he planted his flag here and now in the present age. Which means the 2 ages overlap, and what we are living in now is the time of transition. Transitional times are always unsettling. The past must be cleared away to make room for the new. And people don't want to let go of the past. It's familiar, comforting, even if it's not that good. Better the devil you know than the God you don't. And there is always rearguard action trying to stop and if possible erase the gains made by the vanguard. It can feel like chaos. But God has never let chaos stand in the way of creation.

Heaven is not so much a place as where God is. Heaven apart from earth is not our final destination. In the 21st Chapter of the Book of Revelation, we read that in the new creation a new Jerusalem will become the meeting place between heaven and earth. "See, the home of God is among mortals and he will dwell with them; they will be his people and God himself with be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." Sounds like heaven on earth. And that is where we will live eternally, in a new creation where there is no divide between the spiritual and the physical, where not only minds can meet but we can hear and smell and touch and taste and see that the Lord is good.

And notice the echoes of Isaiah's prophesy in John's revelation. No more tears. And death which sought to swallow up the Son of God will be swallowed up by God. And that's the main way Jesus makes us rethink God. He is not a God of death and destruction; he is the God of life and creation. In the beginning he created the heavens and the earth. In the end he creates new heavens and a new earth. To do this, he did not send the kind of Messiah people thought they wanted: a warrior king who conquers by meting out death to his enemies. He sent the Prince of Peace who conquers by meeting his death at the hands of his enemies. And the Lord of Life doesn't just stop death--he reverses it. He metes out new life to all enemies who lay down their arms and open their hearts to him. He conquers hate with love, darkness with light, lies with truth, evil with goodness and death with life. And we, his followers and members of his body, must do what he does.

We all have a vision of the good life, a life without the terrible things which derail our peace and happiness in this life. But few of us would enjoy a life standing in clouds, playing harps. The good news is that not what God promises anywhere! I don't know where cartoonists ever got that image. When God made this world, it was good and he said so. We have done our best to try to remake it in our image and we've done a creditable job of making it hell on earth. Those few of us who do live a better life, do so in large part on the backs of those who live terrible lives, working hard while barely able to make a living, or losing their lives to problems we have pretty much eradicated. But God has been working through his people to set the stage for the coming of his son, Jesus Christ. And now we have been given the task of picking up where he left off, spreading the good news of forgiveness and transformation in Christ, and doing so not only with our lips but with our lives, not only by giving expression to God's love in beautiful words, but giving it concrete expression in good works, which flow naturally from being recipients of God's grace. We are to prepare things so that when Jesus returns, the world will be ready for the last stage of the establishment of his Kingdom. And then that vision of the good life, a life of peace and happiness, of harmony with nature, with others, with ourselves and with God, will become reality for all who trusted him.

On that first Easter morning, when his friends saw Jesus, solid and healthy and unbound by the restrictions of space and time, it was so wonderful, it changed the way they saw everything. They saw a God of love and forgiveness, rather than justice alone. A God who would become one of us, who would die for us, who would rise again to give us his eternal life. A God who fills us with his Spirit. And therefore they saw everyone they met as created in the image of God, and as either a friend and follower of Jesus or a potential friend and follower of Jesus. They saw evil not as an barrier to good but as unfinished business. They saw no reason to fear death because that battle had been won decisively and Jesus was now Lord of all. They saw, not a darker world, not one spiraling into endless night but one just touched by the first light of a glorious dawn. They saw everything and everyone through new eyes, through Christ's eyes. And I have just one question to ask: what's stopping us from seeing and thinking and acting the very same way?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

To Hell and Back: The 4th Word from the Cross

For a dozen years I have been participating in the Community Good Friday Service held at the local United Methodist Church. Preachers from the local churches--Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Vineyard, Episcopal--each preach on one of the 7 words Christ spoke from the cross. I was asked to preach on Matthew 27:46.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

No words are more chilling. Jesus has already undergone horrible violence to his body. A close friend has betrayed him. All his other friends deserted him during his arrest and trial. The religious leaders of his people have handed him over to a pagan empire. He has been stripped naked and hung by a public road so that his death will be humiliating. Now people, some of whom are total strangers, are mocking him. But just when it looks as if things couldn't get any worse, they do. He senses the withdrawal of God.

Does he really? It could just be that Jesus is depressed. He only feels that God has abandoned him because of all the other things that have gone wrong.

Or maybe he is exaggerating. Like when we have a bad day. You know, the alarm doesn't go off, we're late, the car won't start and we locked ourselves out of the house and left the cell phone on the dresser so we can't call anyone. We think: God must hate us!

Or maybe Jesus is drawing attention to the prophetic words of Psalm 22 so his disciples will have further proof that his death was predicted.

I don't think so. I'm sure Jesus was depressed but God's absence wasn't a conclusion based on his other miseries; it was the chief cause of his misery. I don't think Jesus was just being dramatic or engaging in hyperbole when he said God had abandoned him. And I don't think Jesus was concocting clues to the Biblical precedents for his predicament. I do think he was so saturated with Scripture that the words that sprung to his lips were exactly those that described his condition. He was completely alienated from God the Father. And it wrung this cry from the depths of his soul.

When we contemplate the cross, we concentrate on the physical agonies. And they were considerable. One of the things that attracted so much attention to the film "The Passion of the Christ" was the brutally realistic depiction of the tortures Jesus endured. My son and I saw it soberly at the theatre. We told my wife and daughter they would not want to see it. I can't recommend it to any parishioners that are the least squeamish about explicit violence. A year after its release my son bought me the DVD. It took me a year to get up the courage to watch it. It's not a popcorn movie.

What Jesus suffered at the hands of the temple guards and Roman soldiers was appalling. His wounds were horrific. But at the heart of his agonies was this one: that the God who had always been there for him was gone.

He had to be. Jesus had elected out of his love for us to bear the brunt of our evil, to take on the consequences of the sins of the whole world. What is the ultimate result of sin? Something called the Second Death. It is not mere separation from our loved ones and all the good things of this life. It is separation from the source of all love and goodness. We cannot have goodness apart from God any more than we can have light without a light source. We cannot have love without a lover and we cannot have the divine love without the God who is love. The opposite of love is not hate. Hate still implies a relationship, a connection. It is possible to transform hate into love. No, the opposite of love is the total lack of a connection. If Jesus was truly to take on the consequences of our rejection of God and his ways, he must experience the estrangement from God it naturally produces.

But how much worse it was for him! We live with our separation from God everyday. We find ways to silence the pain, to muffle the longing, to distract us from the emptiness. Eventually, if we do not turn to him, we manage to live with the deep chronic ache. But Christ from all eternity knew the love of the Father for the Son and now, somehow, he is cut off. Rip a baby from her mother's arms and she will cry as if struck. Jesus felt like that infant but in an infinitely deeper sense. It was excruciating; it was excoriating; it was hell.

What is hell but separation from God? The old translation of the Apostles' Creed said of Jesus "he descended into hell." The newer translation is "he descended to the dead," a more accurate rendering. But there is truth in the old version. For our sake, Jesus took on the punishment for our sin. And part of that punishment was to experience our eventual exile from God.

We cannot know what it was like for him. We cannot begin to understand what it is to have not just the rug pulled from underneath you but also the floor, the ground, the earth itself, all you have ever counted on, suddenly gone. All light is extinguished; all communication is cut off; and you can feel...nothing. Was Jesus' experience something like that?

When I was a child, I saw a film in which 3 astronauts are marooned in space. To give the others more time and oxygen, the captain climbs out into space and cuts off his tether to the capsule. As his crewmates watch in horror, he floats off irretrievably to drift forever in the cold dark silent void of space. To me, that was as awful an end as I could imagine.

Hell is exile from the warm love at the center of the universe. But it is a self-imposed exile. The gates of hell, as C. S. Lewis observed, are locked from inside. We are not flung into hell by God so much as we fling ourselves away from God. It is as if an astronaut, disgusted with all things earthly, pushed away from his craft and launched himself into the vacuum in the belief that anything is better than what he leaves behind. His trajectory will take him further from what he hates but its end is utter loneliness and death. And to bring him back, his rescuer must also fling himself into the darkness.

It was the thought of leaping into the void that had Jesus sweating blood that night in Gethsemane. Yes, he wanted God to veto the beating and the flogging and the nailing; yes, he wanted his Father to waive the blood loss and the dehydration and the air hunger; yes, he wanted to avoid his rejection by the whole social order and the desertion of his friends and the jeering and humiliation by uncaring passersby. But I think what he most dreaded was this moment--when the clouds covered the sun and the sky went dark and God hid his face.

How could this happen? How can God be abandoned by God? How can God be God forsaken? How can Jesus be God damned? I don't know. All I do know is that our Lord plummeted to the very depths of the abyss between us and God. Like a free diver, holding onto the weight of our sins, he sank to the bottom of the ocean of our rejection. He went as far as only he could. And he did it for us.

But nature abhors a vacuum and God's nature abhors the absence of love. The void tried to contain Jesus. All that afternoon and all that night and all the next day and all the next night, death clenched its teeth and clamped its jaws and tried to swallow the Son of God like a chewed up piece of meat. But early on Sunday morning, Christ punched a hole in death. Life and love and hope flooded back through the gaping mouth of the tomb. And we need not fear hell anymore.

Whatever hell you have known, whatever despair you have encountered, whenever God seems distant and unreachable, know that Jesus has been there, too. Whenever love is gone, whenever hope seems dead, whenever faith seems absurd, know that Jesus has been there, too. Whenever you are so blind with pain you cannot see God's glory, whenever you are so deafened by the jeers of the crowd that you cannot hear God's voice, whenever you are so numb from the coldness of human hearts that you cannot feel his presence, know that Jesus has been there, too. And reach out your hand anyway. He is always there, no matter what, to pull you out. Don't push him away. Don't make it permanent. No matter how hellish your circumstances are, no matter how deep the pit you have dug for yourself, no matter how far you have fallen, Jesus can save you. Jesus has been to hell and back and he has the scars to prove it. He descended into hell. So you don't have to.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rethink: Glory

We have no good modern day equivalent for a word found throughout the Bible: the word "glory." The Hebrew word for "glory" actually means weight, but came to mean "worthiness, honor, abundance." The Greek word means "reputation, recognition, acclaim." But it has overtones of splendor and radiance. The closest modern word is "awesome." It means impressive or breathtaking. And indeed there are praise songs that use it like "Our God is an Awesome God."

In ancient times, people desired and sought glory. One of the things that made one glorious is being victorious in battle. Kings with the title "the Great" were usually awesome warriors as well as impressive rulers. On the website TV Tropes they list a lot of what they call "Moments of Awesome." And while they encompass a lot of thrilling moments in literature, comic books, film and TV, they are often ones in which the hero shows mastery, or he deals a death blow to his foe. The site even covers the Bible and when you look at Jesus' Moments of Awesome you get his healings, his saving the woman caught in adultery, and even the part in Dante's Inferno (not the Bible) where Jesus, between his crucifixion and resurrection, kicks down the gates of hell and frees the Old Testament saints from Sheol, the shadowy realm of the afterlife referred to in parts of the Hebrew Bible. But, tellingly, the entry for Jesus says nothing of his crucifixion being a Crowning Moment of Awesome. And yet that's the way Jesus makes us rethink the concept of glory.

God's glory is, especially in the Old Testament, conventional. The very nature of God is glorious and his mighty acts are as well. God's glory can be seen in storms and the rainbow and other parts of nature. In the New Testament, the glory of God is Jesus himself, his divine nature and the light he brings to the world. But in John's gospel, where the words "glory" and "glorify" appear 41 times, it comes to include something else: his crucifixion.

Now this causes a problem, both then and now. There was nothing glamorous about nailing someone to a tree. First off, it was a form of execution reserved for slaves, traitors and the lowest of criminals. Secondly, it was meant to be the opposite of glorious; it was designed to be humiliating. The person was flogged then the heavy crossbeam was laid across his shoulders and tied to his arms. Then the condemned was forced to trudge the streets as he went to his place of crucifixion, which was a public place. Jesus was crucified on a hill along a road to the city of Jerusalem. There the person was stripped naked. He was either tied or nailed to the crossbeam, which was hauled up and slid onto the upright section which was already fixed in the ground. Sometimes, they took an actual tree, cut off the top and branches and carved it so a peg-like projection fit a hole in the crossbeam. He hung just high enough that his feet couldn't reach the ground. At this point, the soldiers put Jesus' feet together and hammered a spike through his heels. Often a sign announcing the person's crime, which had been carried before the condemned on his death march, was hung from the upright peg above his head. Unable to control the body fluids streaming from his wounds, his nose, his bowels and bladder, wracked by pain, dehydration, shortness of breath, and exhaustion, the person died a shameful public spectacle, a warning to all who dared defy the powers that be. It would be the equivalent of being hung naked on the side of US-1 so all could see you slowly and agonizingly die as they entered Key West.

So where is the glory in that? Especially in the founder of a movement? If one of the disciples died that way, but Jesus escaped, that martyr would be honored. But when your leader dies that way, a pitiful, panting, shivering horror show on the side of the road, how can that be him in his glory?

In action movies, which are about wish fulfillment, in the rare event that the main hero dies, he dies clean. You don't see him torn limb from limb, you don't see him disemboweled, you don't see his brains explode out of the back of his skull if he's shot in the head. If he dies nobly, they want a last lingering shot of him peaceful in death, as if he's died in bed. Heck, in most movies, heroes can take a major beating and there is rarely much in the way of bruising or swelling. Facial wounds don't bleed alarmingly in movies as they do in real life. Because we don't want our heroes to look vulnerable or messed up. And we really don't like them to die in the first place.

But when Jesus says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," he is talking about his death, and it runs against human psychology. We see no glory in a man killed so brutally and bloodily. And it's not like they thought differently back then. In fact, most people knew first hand what real death was like. 50% of all children died by the age of 5. If you were a child in Jesus day, you would have seen half of your brothers and sisters die as young children, and be buried. Medicine was rudimentary and based on old wives tales. A cut or a broken leg could get infected and kill you. And you would die at home, nursed by your family, not trained professionals and not in a clean and antiseptic hospital. Unless the cause of death was obvious, what killed you would forever remain a mystery. If you went to war, you would be killed in hand to hand combat most likely, looking at the person who stabbed you or hacked you to death. Your family might look for you to bury your body. If they couldn't find you, the animals and the elements would dispose of you. Death was common and well-known by all. Its ugliness was inescapable.

Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee. In 4 BC, when Herod the Great died, the inhabitants revolted. The Roman army destroyed the entire city. They crucified the men and sold the women and children into slavery. In 1 AD, Herod's son, Herod Antipas, was made governor of Galilee and he rebuilt the city to be the ornament of his territory. By this time, Jesus' family would be living in Nazareth, 4 miles away. It's likely that a builder like Joseph would have found work there and Jesus may have accompanied him as his apprentice. He would have heard the stories from the lips of witnesses to the horrible event that occurred while he was a child far away in Egypt. He would have known the death that awaited those who challenged those in power. His own cousin, John, was beheaded for denouncing the adultery of Antipas. And yet Jesus obeyed God, which he knew would lead to controversy, confrontation and condemnation.

The people who followed Jesus knew he was at least a prophet. As they saw him heal and heard him preach, they became convinced that despite his pacifist nature he was the Messiah. They were ready to crown him and follow him into battle against Rome. That's why the religious leaders were so upset by his entrance into the city on what we call Palm Sunday. Especially after he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple. It sure looked like a revolution brewing. And it was Passover, when worshippers inundated the city, to celebrate a holiday about how God freed the Jews from Egyptian oppressors. Politically shrewd high priest Caiaphas did the math. "It is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed." His reasoning was impeccable. Nobody wanted to see Jerusalem follow the path of Sepphoris.

It's rare for a man to do what is right when it will cost him everything. Politicians put off doing what is necessary if it merely brings a slight risk. Jesus made the decision to keep speaking out even if it meant death. And unlike a movie hero or even Samson, Jesus could not do his enemies mortal damage as he went down. He could only let the overwhelming physical power of his foes take him and do whatever they wanted to with him. The dedication it took for Jesus to stay on his path is awesome, glorious.

You know what's as scary as death: having no control whatsoever over what happens to you. That's what remains with victims after a mugging, or a beating or a rape: they could not stop it from happening. So most of us avoid situations in which we have no control But that didn't stop Jesus. Every blow to the face and head, every skin-stripping lash of the whip, every blow to the nails skewering his arms and legs, took incredible courage to endure. He knew what would happen and at no point did he try to stop it, however futile such a gesture would be. Jesus' composure during his tortures is awesome, glorious.

He was marched through the streets for people to spit on. He was stripped naked before his mother, his friends, indifferent guards and a hostile crowd. He was mocked as he died by the reputable and by the criminal. And he asked God to forgive them. Jesus' refusal to curse those who cursed and humiliated him is awesome, glorious.

Then he felt the full weight of the world's alienation from God. He who knew the Father's love from all eternity feels it no more. He who was always closest to the burning love of God feels the coldness of being at an infinite remove from the source of all goodness. The sun hides its face, the world falls into darkness, and Jesus descends into the hell of abandonment by God. He cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" That Jesus chose to take on our punishment, estrangement from God, for our sake is awesome, glorious.

Very few people realize the awesomeness of the willing sacrifice made for others. J. K. Rowling did and she put before Harry Potter the same choice. Joss Whedon ended what looked to be the last season of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" by having his heroine realize that her gift was her death to save the world. Neither one tried to take down the bad guy as they died. They embraced that which we cower from, the pit, the void, the undiscovered country. But in both cases the authors were consciously mirroring Christ. They realized that what made Jesus awesome was not that he killed bad guys or defeated armies but that he conquered the fears that sit in the pit of our stomachs, the fear of death and the fear of pain and the fear of shame and the fear of not being in control and the fear of abandonment. Jesus felt all those things but he didn't let them control him. A man may fight because he is afraid of those things. Jesus didn't fight because he would not be conquered by fear. He fought fear with faith, trust in his Father even when he couldn't sense him. Death gets us all at some point. Fear needn't. And that is the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

When the Roman Empire finally recognized the church, Christ was given a makeover. Jesus was pictured as sitting on a dais, triumphant, a conqueror. He was portrayed as the Emperor of the universe like the Emperors of the earth. When pictured on the cross he looked serene, stately. It wasn't till the Middle Ages that Jesus was shown to be suffering while on the cross. We still have a hard time seeing the glory in Christ crucified. Even Paul said it was an offense to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

The heart of Christ's glory is his obedience to God to the point of dying. And in the same way we glorify God by obeying him. As Jesus says in John 15, "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love." Again the world sees no glory in the one obeying but only in the one commanding. But just as Christ's glory was his breath-taking obedience to his mission to suffer and die to save us all, so we bring glory to God by obeying his commandment to love everyone--neighbor, stranger, friend and foe.

And it is not our glory we are seeking, it is God's. We are bearers of God's image, but not God himself. The problem with a human being glorified is you can begin to believe what people say about you and become smug and arrogant. Arrogance is the deadliest of sins. It means putting yourself before all others. C. S. Lewis called it the anti-God state of mind because if there is a conflict between what God wants you to do and what you want to do, you follow what you want to do, because you know better than God. The world is full of people who think they are right fighting other people who think they are right. Humility is still not a very valued virtue. And worse, we teach our children that the highest value is to follow your heart's desire. That's what Ted Bundy did. And Jeffrey Dahmer. And Hitler. And Pol Pot. Our hearts are not always the best guide of what to do. We need God's laws written in our hearts. We need a change of heart. Which only really happens when we open our hearts to God's Spirit. And then we can obey his commandments to love all and glorify him in our lives.

A dead Messiah, however, was not a rallying point for the first disciples. They could not see any glory in what happened on the cross. God is a God of the living and Jesus was undeniably dead. How did he make us rethink that? We'll discuss that next Sunday. In the meantime, ask yourself this: If glory is not always to be found in winning at any cost, what can I do to remind myself of that? If God is glorified by our trusting obedience to him, in what areas am I not obeying him? If I am not obeying him, what do I fear and why should I not? If Christ's glory could be found in doing a necessary, painful, and humiliating act of love for us, what am I willing to do to show his love for others and lead them from fear to faith?