Sunday, March 31, 2013

I Am the Alpha and Omega

During Lent we looked at the 7 “I Am” statements Jesus makes in the Gospel of John: “I Am the Bread of Life,” “I Am the Light of the World,” “I Am the Gate,” “I Am the Good Shepherd,” “I Am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and “I Am the Vine.” We established that not only were the metaphors Jesus used important but that he very well knew that by using “I Am” he was making a play on the words used for God’s covenant name, which he gives Moses and which is often translated “I Am that I Am” or “I Am” for short. Certainly when Jesus says “Before Abraham was, I Am,” his critics caught the implication and wanted to respond with violence.

But it would be inaccurate that these were the only “I Am” statements in Johannine literature. The Book of Revelation picks up a lot of the themes and wording that the Gospel of John uses. Many think the same author wrote both; some say “No, but they are part of the same school of theological thought and writings as John’s Gospel and the 3 letters of John.” And among the shared wording is another, quite significant “I Am” statement. Three times in Revelation, once in the first chapter and once in each of the last two chapters, Jesus says to John, “I Am the Alpha and the Omega.” Sometimes he adds, “the beginning and the end.”  Which makes sense because Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last. It would be the equivalent of Jesus saying in English, “I am the A and the Z.” 
What does he mean by that? Well, it could mean he is literally the first thing to exist and will be the last thing as well. In other words, it could be a way of saying he is eternal. And it’s certainly true. According to John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It becomes obvious that Jesus is that Word. John probably got the term from Philo, a Jewish philosopher who tried to reconcile Judaism with Greek thought. The Word, or Logos in Greek, was the principle of reason that gives the cosmos order. It could be seen as analogous to Wisdom, which in the Book of Proverbs is personified and who worked with God in creating the universe. Anyway, if Christ is the Word through whom God made the world, he would be pre-existent to it and all creation. And as God he would last forever though the world would not.  

But there is another sense in which Jesus could mean he is the Alpha and the Omega. He is not only the first thing that existed but should be the first priority in our life. First principles are the most important. A principle all doctors should observe is “First, do no harm,” a paraphrase of a key part of the Hippocratic Oath they swear. In the jail, the first priority is “safety.” It trumps everything else and explains why certain things that we might see as innocent, like hardbound books and regular rosaries, are considered contraband. The first priority in our lives should be Jesus. Using the question “What would Jesus do?” to determine ethical behavior is a version of this.

But when would Jesus be the last priority as well? Perhaps it would be best to say, instead, that Jesus should be the first and last thought in any endeavor. It’s possible to start off on the right foot but get sidetracked along the way. For instance, in the jail, shaving is encouraged, especially for trustees and those going to trial. To that end, male inmates are issued razors at specific times for a limited period of time in exchange for their IDs, which they otherwise must have on themselves at all times. To get his ID back, an inmate must return the razor which is inspected to see that it is intact and unaltered. How important is the last part? Just last month a serial killer in Alaska committed suicide with a razor the floor officer did not check back in. And dying along with him was the information officials hoped to get on his other victims. So safety should be first and last in your mind, and Jesus should be both your first and last thought as you serve him.

 Another possible meaning of “I Am the Alpha and the Omega” is that Jesus both starts and ends things. He created the world; he will bring about the end of the world, as we know it. He is not only the beginning and end of history; he is the cause of both. He starts creation and brings it to its culmination. And he, of course, brings us into existence and brings our existence, at least as animals, to its conclusion.

Or, should I say, its zenith. Because unlike the stories we tell, there need not be any end to our life histories. Jesus offers us eternal life. But that’s not merely more life, endless life, but eternal life, life of a different quality. It is life outside of time, life in the eternal now, God’s life. It is also a transformed life. When Jesus rose again, his body was both like and unlike ours. Still bearing his scars, he could eat, drink, touch and be touched but was not limited by time and space. He appeared to the disciples despite the fact that they were behind locked doors and did so having been with 2 disciples in Emmaus, 4 miles away, just minutes earlier. The risen Christ did things that are not actually impossible, but which only sub-atomic particles have been observed doing.

Geologist, paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin developed the idea of the Omega Point, the supreme point of complexity and consciousness, towards which all creation is moving. The Omega point is already existing, personal, transcendent, free from the limits of time and space, and irreversible. And not only is everything moving toward the Omega Point but it is actually drawing all things to itself. Chardin, of course, saw the resemblance between the Omega Point and the Logos, of which John wrote. In John 12:32, Jesus says, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to me.” If Christ is the image into which we were created, the image his Spirit works to restore in us, the model and exemplar of what we should be, as well as the one through whom all things were made, then it makes sense that he is the goal towards which everything in creation is moving and growing.  Christ is the Alpha in the sense that he is the original pattern of creation and he is Omega as its ultimate destination.

There is one last way in which Christ is the Alpha and Omega. We have dictionaries and encyclopedias; the British call these, generally when the book is limited to one subject, an “A to Z.” In other words, everything you need to know about the subject can be found within the pages of the book. Jesus can be thought of as covering everything in this life from A to Z. In him we live and move and have our being. He encompasses all of creation and all of our experiences. He knows joy, pain, humor, grief, anger, reconciliation, injustice, vindication, friendship, betrayal, prejudice, openness, false expectations, honest appraisal, kindness, contempt, peace, turmoil, love, life and death. And life after death.

That is truly the undiscovered country, as Shakespeare put it. True, throughout history people thought dead have come back to life and described being met by a being of light and love. Since the invention of far more effective forms of medical resuscitation we have many more people reporting such experiences. In a recent book, a neurosurgeon had such an experience and, what’s more, had it when his brain activity was nil according to monitors in the ICU. It could not, then, have been an hallucination, says Dr. Eben Alexander, for his brain was not working. But Jesus returned after 3 days in a tomb, not a nearly invalided survivor, requiring months of care, but hale and hearty, so robust and beaming with health that they often didn’t recognize him at first. His resurrection convinced the disciples to unlock their doors and go into the world fearlessly announcing his incarnation, death and resurrection as the ultimate good news. They went to their deaths, proclaiming his risen and eternal life, confident that they would on the last day once again stand with him in risen and renewed bodies.
Jesus is the beginning and the end, the one who was and is and is to come, the start of all things and their destination, the original pattern and its final culmination, the sum total of all there is, the Alpha and Omega. He should be our first priority and last consideration. He should be our first thought of the day and our last thought at night. He should be our last thought at our death, too, for he will be the first person we see after that, bursting with love and with light, like the sun rising behind me, but more radiant, more splendid, giving warmth and light to not merely to this terrestrial ball, but to the whole of creation, which was born out of his love and which he plans to bring within the all-encompassing sphere of his love, of which Jesus is the first and last word on the subject.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 90

The scriptures read are Judges 10-12, Psalm 76 and John 10.

Judges 10-12. We have a lot of judges about which we know little to nothing. They are kinda the Millard Filmores and Rutherford B. Hayes of the judges. You've got to include them but there are no good stories about them. But sandwiched between them is Jephthah, who has a tragic tale. He starts out the illegitimate son of Gilead, via a prostitute. He's kicked out until they need someone to fight the Ammonites. Then he makes a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his door when he returns home. And it's his only child, a virgin daughter. Finally the Ephraimites (what's with them?) are upset that they didn't get to fight so they fight Jephthah. They get trounced, especially because they can't pronounce the password, Shibboleth. Death by speech impediment. After all this, Jephthah dies after only 6 years.

Psalm 76.How fearsome God is, especially to the enemies of the humble.

John 10. This follows on from the previous chapter so this is still the aftermath of healing the man born blind. Jesus uses the metaphors of shepherd and gate about himself. (For more on this, click here.) The thieves and hired hands must be the Pharisees and scribes who do not seem to care for God's people and devour them rather like Jesus said the Pharisees devour the livings of widows.

More importantly Jesus says, "I and the Father are one." He also lets slip that he is claiming to be the Son of God. The religious leaders are about to stone him but he appeals to the works he does. What do his healings and miracles and manner of life say about him? Are these not from God? And so, long before C. S. Lewis, they are faced with the Trilemma: Is Jesus a liar, a lunatic or the Lord?
Congratulations! You're on Day 90 of the Bible Challenge! You've read 9 whole books of the Bible, and you're halfway through 3 more of them, including the Psalms. And coming up: Samson and Lazarus! 

Keep up the good work!  

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 89

The scriptures read are Judges 7-9, Psalm 75 and John 9.

Judges 7. God thins the ranks of Gideon's army to make it clear that he wins the battles. Not sure what the dog lapping has to do with it. In Sunday school, I was told that they didn't look down at the water but cupped their hands, brought the water to their mouths so they could drink while watching for the enemy. But the text doesn't indicate that. Anyway, God lets cautious Gideon overhear an enemy soldier's dire dream of defeat for the Midianites.

The whole thing sounds like psy-ops, using sounds and sudden light to disorient and startle the enemy.

Judges 8. Don't refuse giving bread to a man on a mission from God. And don't get seduced by a golden breastplate.

Gideon had 70 sons! I do think that is a Biblical record.

Judges 9. Wow! Those 70 sons don't last long. Abimelech kills them all with a single stone. Then sets himself up as a kind of pseudo-king. But violence breeds violence. Abimelech and his allies begin some serious infighting. Then a woman in a tower brains Abimelech with a mill stone. A woman saves the day again!

Psalm 75. Praise for God and a warning to the arrogant.

John 9. The man born blind. Jesus refuses to engage in needless theological speculation. Love how Peterson translates this: "You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do."

Needless to say, Jesus heals him. Needless to say, it's the Sabbath. The blind man and his parents are grilled. Unable to reconcile the miracle with the violation of the Sabbath, the leaders take it out on the man once blind. Jesus goes to the guy and the man gladly gives Jesus his allegience. Then Jesus paraphrases little Donnie Dark. Or Jonathan Swift: "There are none so blind as those who will not see." (Cf. Butterflies Are Free on IMDB)

The Bible Challenge: Day 88

The scriptures read are Judges 4-6, Psalm 74 and John 8.

Judges 4. The story of Deborah, the only woman (that we know of) who was a judge over Israel. She calls Barak to lead the army against Jabin the king of Hazor. But Barak won't go into battle without Deborah. Barak routs the enemy but the coup de grace is delivered by Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite. She nails Jabin, literally, in what has to be considered a major feat of strength plus hand and eye coordination. (You try hammering a tent peg through someone's head. On second thought, don't.) It is also, it seems to me, a serious breach of the Middle Eastern ettiquette of hospitality. All's fair in war, apparently. The upshot is 2 women triumph over the enemy.

Judges 5. A long song about the victory, giving everyone who participated credit. Kind of a sad coda with Jabin's mom waiting for him to return. If they had dramatized this in the Bible mini-series, I would have had Emily Lou Harris sing Deborah's part. Not sure who should sing Barak's part. Seriously, though, I would love to have heard what the original song sounded like.

Judges 6. Gideon sure is a cautious fellow. Totally ignores the "Do not put God to the test" idea.  Today Gideon would be a scientist, running multiple trials to confirm his work. But God is patient and works with him.

Psalm 74. The Jews were in exile in Babylon for 70 years. This lament seems to have come out of that. The psalmist asks if God has abandoned them forever? Will he let the actions of blasphemers go on? When will he remember his covenant and act?

John 8. This only qualifies as a trap if you figure Jesus is merciful, which evidently even his enemies acknowledged. They figure they can catch him trying to wiggle out of the requirements of the law. I always wonder what Jesus was writing in the dirt. A list of the sins of her accusers? The relevant passage in Deuteronomy 19 where it says the false witness shall receive the punishment the accused would have gotten? The words "Where is the man?" since if she was caught in the act a guy should be standing before Jesus as well? Whatever, Jesus' answer stifles the urge to stone her. Not one person in the crowd would claim to be sinless. Jesus doesn't excuse her behavior; he just doesn't pass sentence on her. He tells her to "sin no more." 

Jesus declares himself to be the light of the world. They just don't see it. Then the dialogue turns to paternity and they are offended by Jesus' suggestion that they are children of the devil. Oh, and that Jesus is the son of God. Jesus drops an "I Am" statement and the folks get the reference. Jesus absents him from their presence before it gets ugly,

Service, Love and Honor

The scripture referred to is John 13:1-17.

John's Gospel is the odd man out when it comes to so many events in Jesus' life. It mentions John the Baptist  but not Jesus' baptism. It tells us Jesus cleansed the temple but puts this event at the beginning of his ministry, not the end the way the other gospels do. It mentions the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples but not the words "This is my body"  and "This is my blood." Scholars attribute this to a radically different tradition but I think there is a simpler explanation.

I once read a book called The Unknown Hitler.  It was written by a German historian who had penned a biography of Rudolph Hess, the enigmatic man who was once Hitler's designated successor. In doing the research, the historian picked up a lot of information about Hitler that he had not seen in any of the biographies of the Fuhrer. So he published this small book and explained that it was not a full biography of Adolph Hitler but a supplement to the others, shedding light on and emphasizing certain aspects of the man that the others missed. I think John's Gospel does the same thing for Jesus. He skips the stuff the other gospels had already covered and instead concentrates on the events and sayings that they didn't have. I was gratified when New Testament scholar Dr. Minka Sprague not only showed interest in my theory but had me repeat it to my colleagues at a clergy conference.

John is not only notable for what he leaves out but for the things that appear only in his gospel. Only John tells of Jesus' first miracle: changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Only John tells us that immediately after Jesus fed the 5000, the people wanted to make him king. Only John tells us of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And only John tells us about Jesus washing his disciples' feet.

People did not wear shoes in those days. And their sandals did not protect their feet from the dust and mud of the dirt roads. And remember, there weren't gutters and sewers. People threw garbage and worse in the streets. So it was traditional to take off one's sandals before entering a house. And before guests entered a rich man's house, a slave would wash their feet. Jesus is not only doing an unpleasant chore but the task of a slave.

Luke tells us that the disciples were talking about which of them was the greatest. To us, this sounds unseemly for these holy men but we have the benefit of hindsight. Look at it from their point of view. They had been worried about going to Jerusalem. Jesus was talking about dying. But when he entered the city on a colt, the people greeted him with palms and hosannas. "Hosanna" is Hebrew for "Save now!" It was the ancient equivalent of the British cheer "God save the king!" After such a display of Jesus' popularity, the disciples were probably starting to relax. Maybe Jesus was going to turn out to be the kind of Messiah everyone wanted. Certainly, they felt safer than before. Thanks in large part to Jesus' raising of Lazarus, the people are behind him. And if he is to be King of Judea, someone would have to be his right hand man. We know James and John asked to sit on the right and the left of Jesus' throne. And this made the other disciples jealous. So perhaps in response to this, Jesus deliberately displays the humility they lack.

Peter is so ashamed that he won't let Jesus wash his feet. Only when Jesus tells kim he can't be a part of him, does Peter relent. But he then goes overboard. He asks Jesus to wash his head and hands as well. Peter still doesn't get it. His request smacks of inverted pride. He trying to be humbler than thou! But Jesus tells him that since he's already bathed for the festival, only his feet need attention.

When Jesus finishes, he explains why he acted this way. He is setting an example. It's an example of a new kind of leadership: servanthood. The only leaders people knew then were those who ruled by force of arms. Julius Caesar transformed the Roman Republic into an empire by seizing power. There was no separation between military and civil power. And once in power, leadership was maintained by the ruthless exercise of that same power. One did not claw one's way to the top to serve but to be served.

Jesus turns the normal order of things upside down. The one who wants to be leader must be servant to all. Leadership is not exercised for the benefit of the leader but for the benefit of his followers. This is a radically different definition of leadership...for then and for now.

We might not think that this is unusual because we call our leaders civil servants. Yet even though they supposedly work for us, those who rise particularly high often live better than we do. Nor is corruption unknown. Servant leadership is still more of a concept than a reality in this world.

The one way in which our leaders do try to serve us is by giving us what we want--more services and lower taxes, total freedom and total security, free trade and protectionism! Well, they promise to at any rate. But for Jesus, servant leadership doesn't mean giving people everything they want but everything they need. Peter, for instance, either wanted Jesus not to wash his feet or to wash his head and hands also. Jesus says, "No. All you need is your feet washed." The servant-leader is not a slave to the desires of his followers.

In a way, it's like being a parent. If an an alien from a world that reproduced in a totally different way came to this world and observed a parent care for a toddler, it might think the adult was the child's slave. After all, she cleans, dresses, feeds and entertains the child. So it might be puzzled when she takes sharp objects away from the child, though he throws a tantrum; or when she refuses to give him dessert before he eats his vegetables; or when she plays judge whenever the toddler and his sister fight over a toy. The parent is serving the child but she is serving his best interests. She doesn't automatically give in to him. Why? Because she loves him.

We do have a curious omission in this footwashing story. John doesn't draw attention to it but Jesus must have washed the feet of Judas. We know that Jesus has worked out who his betrayer will be. And yet he washes the man' dirty feet. Would you? Would you do a demeaning chore for a person you knew was going to sell you out? Why did Jesus? Because the proper motivation for service, like parenthood, is love.

John opens this chapter by telling us that Jesus loved his disciples to the end. It doesn't say he loved all of them but Judas. Jesus told us to love our enemies. He even loved a friend who was going to stab him in the back. And perhaps he was doing more than just modeling humility. Perhaps he was trying to win Judas back.  Because not only does he wash his feet (How could Judas betray such a gentle man?) he makes Judas the guest of honor.

How do we know this? The typical way at that time for people to eat the Passover meal was reclining around a U-shaped arrangement of tables. Servants would work within the U, and could therefore distribute or clear away dishes without reaching over or between the diners. Those eating would recline on couches around the outside of the U. Their heads were near the table with their feet radiating away from the table like the leaves of fan palms. The diners reclined on their left elbows so they could eat with their right hands. (To see some pictures of this, click here.)

Jesus was the host and so he would sit on the right arm of the U (from his perspective), not in the center as Da Vinci puts him in his famous painting of the last supper. Jesus doesn't sit at the very tip of the U's arm but one seat in. That allows someone to sit on either side of the host. We know that Peter was at one end of the table because Jesus washes his feet last. But he can't be at the same end of the table as Jesus because we know John and Judas were near Jesus. John, reclining on his left arm, must lean back against Jesus' chest to ask him a question, the Bible says. So John is at the very end of the arm and has a clear view of Peter directly across from him on the other end of the U. When Jesus announces that one of them will betray him, we are told that Peter motions John to ask Jesus who it is. Jesus says it is the person to whom he gives the bread after he dips it into the stew. He gives it to Judas. So Judas must have been on the other side of Jesus and thus in the position of honor.

And in addition, it was an honor for the host to give you a piece of food. Judas would have known this. So Jesus washes his feet and makes him guest of honor at their Passover feast. He gives him a sop, a great honor. Jesus is telling Judas how much he loves him--and the man still goes and betrays him.

That is the risk of love. Love is perhaps the riskiest thing that we do. We offer our love to someone and there is always the chance that they will reject it. Or, accepting it, will go on to misuse or abuse our love. It would seem safer not to love. But without love, we wither and die. That's the paradox of life.

God offers us his love through Jesus. He offers to clean up our sins. He offers us a place at his table in his heavenly kingdom. He offers us his body torn for us and his blood spilled for us. All he asks in return is that we love him and those he created in his image, even if they're our enemies. As we approach his table this evening, let us each ask ourselves, "Have I been faithful? Have I been loving? Have I acted worthy of the great honor God has shown me? Or do I need to be washed by him before I can take my place beside him?"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 87

The scriptures read are Judges 1-3, Psalm 73, and John 7.

Judges 1. In Peterson's introduction to Judges, he writes, "God, we are learning, does some of his best work using the most unlikely people." That's a good lesson to draw from this book which chronicles a kind of Wild West situation that arose between the time of Joshua and the first king of Israel.

Judah and Simeon capture and burn Jerusalem! It's part of a campaign to chase the Canaanites out of the land. They have successes but can't subdue the coastal cities. Those folks had iron chariots. Must be the latest in military equipment.

The men of Benjamin can't oust the Jebusites from living in Jerusalem with them. Up in the north they aren't having much luck getting the Canaanites or Amorites to leave either.

Scorpion's Pass! That really sounds like the Wild West.

Joshua 2. God's angel scolds the Israelites for not getting rid of pagan altars. And we are told that after Joshua and his peers all die, there arises a generation with no direct knowledge of God and what he's done for Israel. A cycle starts. The people sin, fall prey to an oppressor. They cry to God, he sends a leader (called a judge) to lead them against their enemies. But as soon as the judge dies, the people go back to their idolatrous ways. This book takes us through several of these cycles. 

Joshua 3. The first cycle involves the king of Aram oppressing the Israelites. They are delivered by the Spirit-led Othniel, nephew of Caleb. But after 40 years he dies and the people backslide. And so the cycle repeats itself.

Ehud, the second judge, assassinates a very fat tyrant in a rather gross scene. Result: 80 years of peace. Then the people of Israel...oh, you know.

Psalm 73. The psalmist speaks of a time he was tempted to follow the wicked. Their lives seemed better than the hard life the psalmist had. Then he woke up to the reality of the situation. It was a close call but now he is getting ever closer to God.

John 7. Jesus faces skepticism from his brothers. Later he does a "Prince and the Pauper" thing at the Feast of the Tabernacles and overhears the gossip as they talk about Jesus.

Jesus finally puts in an appearance at the feast. The whole thing develops into chaos as folks debate his identity. Nicodemus tries to help Jesus but is shouted down.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 86

The scriptures read are Joshua 22-24, Psalm 72 and John 6.

Joshua 22. Joshua dismisses the Israelites who chose land east of the Jordan with a blessing. They go home and build a huge altar. Then the 10 tribes are all in a tizzy because they think the altar was built as a rival worship site. They almost go to war till they find out it was built, not as a functional worship altar, but more like a memorial reminding everyone that, though on the other side of the Jordan, they are God's people as well. A very instructive tale on how people can misinterpret religious symbols and make a mountain out of a memorial.

Joshua 23-24. Final admonitions from Joshua which boil down to "Stay loyal to God." He recaps briefly the events from Abraham through the conquest of the land and then tells Israel to choose what God they will follow. Joshua completes a covenant with the people.

Psalm 72. A prayer for the king that he will protect the poor and needy.

John 6. As a second Passover approaches, Jesus feeds the 5000. John tells us what they others didn't: that the crowd wanted to seize Jesus and make him king. Jesus gives them the slip, as only he can, walking on water. They catch up with him in Capernaum and Jesus gives them the "I am the Bread of Life" speech. For more on that, read my recent post on that here.  The "Eat my flesh and drink my blood" metaphor is too much for some of his disciples and they leave him. The Twelve stay loyal, though Jesus knows that one is a traitor.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 85

The scriptures read are Joshua 19-21, Psalm 71 and John 5.

Joshua 19. The rest of the territory is allotted. There is a readjustment. Turns out Judah got too much land for its needs so a bit was carved out for the tribe of Simeon. And Joshua gets a city of his own.

Joshua 20. The asylum cities are chosen. If somebody kills someone unintentionally, he can flee to one of these to escape the blood avenger (usually a kinsman) out to kill him. There he is to get a fair trial.

Joshua 21. The Levites and Aaronic priesthood don't get a territory but they do get cities in which to settle and these include the asylum cities.

I gotta say, this is all fairly comprehensive. I couldn't set up a nation. By the way if you wish to see what the arrangement of the tribes in Israel is click here.

Psalm 71. An elderly person praises God for his grace in the past and asks for help in his present problems. "You who have made me undergo many troubles and misfortunes will revive me again, and raise me up from the depths of the earth." Hint of resurrection?

John 5. Another feast, another trip to Jerusalem. Again, unlike the synoptic gospels, John focuses more on Jesus in Jerusalem. A hint of the location of the beloved disciple?

Jesus is healing on the Sabbath again. He just can't let people suffer till sundown, like God intended! Then he makes it worse by saying, "After all, my Dad doesn't take the Sabbath off." That really sets them off.

Jesus explains his M.O. at length: He's only doing what his Father tells him to do. He offers life to those who trust him. If you don't believe him, believe John the Baptist. Or what God is doing through Jesus' works. Everything in the Bible points to him. Don't believe Jesus and Moses will be your accuser on Judgment Day.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Juxtaposition Sunday

"Juxtaposition" was one of Mr. Morrison's favorite words. He was one of my High School English teachers. And it became one of my favorite words for a while. It means to put 2 things together for the purposes of comparison and often for contrast. He used it in a literary sense, regarding themes in novels or images in poems. But it could be used for ideas as well, and that's how I liked to use it. I was discovering philosophy and I thought juxtaposing 2 nearly contradictory observations worked better at encompassing the complexity of reality than the usual habit even of great thinkers, which consisted of reducing everything to one main idea.

Since this day can be called both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, one could almost add a third name, in the manner of Miami streets, and call it Juxtaposition Sunday. Because we are simultaneously celebrating 2 rather disparate events in the life of Christ: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion a week later. And it is rather instructive to compare and contrast the two.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem comes first chronologically and so we'll treat it first. Most of Jesus' ministry took place in Galilee, which the cosmopolitan residents of Jerusalem saw as a bit of a backwater. I once made the mistake of saying people saw the disciples as "hillbillies," not realizing that that is now considered by some folks from rural states as a politically incorrect term of derision. "Rednecks" then. My point was that the folks from Jerusalem would look down on them, as urban people usually do toward rural folks. But news of Jesus' healing and miracles, coupled with his spiritually and morally astute if unorthodox teachings, made him an intriguing figure. And after raising Lazarus, just 2 miles away in Bethany, Jesus had garnered a lot of interest in the Capital. Not all of it was healthy.

Jesus had been dogged by Pharisee and Herodian critics even in Galilee. In Jerusalem, he made enemies of the Sadducees, the priestly class. Furthermore, Passover was practically here. Passover is a celebration of liberation and freedom. This made the Romans nervous and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor or procurator of Judea, whose headquarters was in the more paganized coastal city of Caesarea, stayed in Jerusalem during the feast to dampen revolutionary sentiments. So Jesus' following was viewed with alarm by the priests. If Jesus declared himself the Messiah and led an uprising against the Roman occupation, the priests had no illusions: Rome would destroy their country. Caiaphas, the High Priest, who served at the tolerance of Rome, was a master at political expediency. He suggested that it would be better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish. But they would rather not make a move during Passover because the people loved Jesus.

It was the common people who were cheering Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey's colt. I doubt many of them knew that he was fulfilling an obscure prophesy of Zechariah. All they knew was that this celebrated healer and teacher was coming into the city. They cut down branches and threw down robes so he could enter on a sort of improvised red carpet. And no doubt many did think him to be the Messiah because according to Luke  they were shouting, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" This naturally made the religious leaders uncomfortable and they told Jesus to rebuke his disciples. But Jesus said, "If they are silent, the very stones will cry out."    

Contrast this with our passion narrative. The term of Messiah or King is applied to Jesus not in acclamation but as an accusation. And later as mockery. And he has no snappy comebacks but is silent before his accusers. He is not being blessed but cursed. He is not being welcomed into the city, carried by a colt but he is being led out of it, carrying a cross.

How could this happen in the short space of a week? How could the crowds that called for his reign at its beginning turn around and call for his blood at the end?

On that point, we can venture to suggest that they were not the same crowds. Throughout the week, we see no change in the admiration of the average Jew for Jesus. All of the animosity is coming from the religious leaders. But the main clue is the timing. John tells us that Jesus was marched before Pilate on the Day of Preparation, the day, in other words, when everyone was taking their lambs to the temple be slaughtered in time to roast for Passover. So no average Jew was hanging around the Antonia Fortress, wondering what Pilate was up to. He was getting his lamb sacrificed at the temple next door. Where, then, did the crowd crying for crucifixion come from?

I have to concur with Albert Ross, who in his book Who Moved the Stone?, written under the pen name Frank Morrison, suggested that the crowd was made up of the Sanhedrin and members of Caiaphas' household. Relations between Caiaphas and Pilate were never good. Had he and a handful of priests brought Jesus over, it is quite possible Pilate would have overturned the Sanhedrin's verdict out of spite. He nearly did so as it was. But if they whipped up some sort of crowd to back up their accusations, people worked up enough to look like they might become an angry mob, that might persuade Pilate. And this explains why they were so adamant on Jesus being executed and why they chose Barabbas over Jesus. And it explains why when the procurator still wavered, they brought up the rather politically astute accusation that not killing a person who proclaimed himself a king was tantamount to treason against Caesar. Caiaphas would have known that Pilate's sponsor Sejanus was accused of treason, putting Pilate on thin ice with the Emperor. The average Jew would not have known this. The campaign for Jesus' death was not a grassroots movement among the people but what they call in modern politics an Astroturf movement, political insiders masquerading as the will of the people.

And so 2 more things are juxtaposed: the cheering of Jesus by the average person and the jeering of him by an elite inner circle of the powerful.

But there is a greater juxtaposition going on this Sunday: it is the contrast of the two versions of glory. The worldly one is close to what Palm Sunday looked like: people praising Jesus and doing special things for him. When we think of glory we think of people at their best, looking good and surrounded by admirers. But in John's gospel it becomes obvious that Jesus' real glory was to be lifted up on the cross. People are making fun of Jesus and treating him badly. It doesn't look glorious to us. But a lot of glorious moments don't. At least those moments for which we should praise people and give them glory. Giving birth, for instance: very messy, very unglamorous. But in retrospect, glorious. Raising children in general is messy and unglamorous and yet glorious. Surgery to save someone's life can be nauseating to watch but is a glorious undertaking. Jesus' violent death was bloody and painful. Its ultra-realistic depiction in The Passion of the Christ is why I can't recommend that very well-made movie to most folks.  If you can't stomach brutality and violence in movies, don't see it. I know a soldier who couldn't deal with it. It reminded him too much of what he had seen overseas. But Jesus did it to save us and so it is glorious.

Often what we think is a person's moment of glory is really the culmination of a lot of long, hard and frequently mundane work. An athlete's win in an Olympic sport is based upon tens of thousands of hours of grueling exercise, practice and discipline. A scientific breakthrough requires a lot of close reasoning, well thought-out experimentation, sharp observation and detailed documentation, repeated obsessively over years or even decades. Even what Jesus accomplished was not begun on the cross. It began in his childhood as he took in the realities of life as a member of a poor family. He soaked in like a sponge the details of the lives of his friends and neighbors: the vineyard owner, the farmer, the shepherd, the hired hand, the domestic slave, the housewife, which became material for his parables. He absorbed the Torah studies offered at the local synagogue, developing his own views and interpretations of the scriptures. Once he began his ministry, he paid attention to the followers who gathered around him, selecting 12 to be his special students. He drilled into them a new way of looking at God's kingdom and the Messiah's mission. All of this was necessary so that they would be able to grasp the significance of his death and resurrection, if only afterward, and to spread God's good news to the ends of the world.

One last juxtaposition: that of two ways of getting things wrong. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that donkey, people got caught up in the fervor and probably thought that he was the kind of Messiah they wanted: a holy warrior king. That's what the chief priests and Pharisees were afraid of as well. And they all were wrong. On Good Friday, the chief priests and all who watched thought Jesus was a false Messiah and a failure. His followers thought this was the end of him and of the movement he led. And they all were wrong.

Aristotle's golden mean is a method for locating a virtue somewhere between 2 vices that represent extremes. For instance, bravery could be said to lie between cowardice and recklessness. But it can also be used to find the truth between 2 opposite errors. Jesus was not the popular version of the Messiah, but neither was he a failure for dying a humiliating death on the cross. Rather than ushering in a material kingdom of God based on shedding the blood of those unwilling to go along with him, Jesus was ushering in a spiritual kingdom based on shedding his blood for those willing to commit themselves to him.

Before you can change the world, you have to change the hearts of people. None of the political empires that existed 2000 years ago are still around. Egypt is a democratic nation, not an empire ruled by a divine pharaoh. The same is true of the successors of Rome, Greece, Babylon, and Persia. China is not ruled by a dynasty but the Communist Party. But the kingdom of God is still growing. It is spreading through South America, Africa and Asia. Jesus' words still inspire and his call is still heeded. And, oddly enough, that would probably not be true if he had tried to go up against the Roman Empire by physical force, rather than the strength of the Spirit. He would be like Simon Bar Kokhba or if he was lucky, the better known Spartacus, who also ended up on a cross. But he would be listed among the losers in history, people who tried to gain political power and failed, instead of as God showing his love for the world.

C. S. Lewis once said that it was hard to say something either good enough or bad enough about life. It encompasses cruelty and kindness, pain and pleasure, death and life. All of those factor into the events of the coming week. It is a study in contrasts. The creator of the universe washes the feet of 12 ordinary men. The God who liberated a people is arrested. The source of life is killed. The victim of the overkill of fist, staff, whip, and cross comes back to glorious life.

We call this week Holy Week. We do so because of the events that take place within it. Because of the Person involved, the events become holy. And in a sense, it shows that all bad things can become an avenue to holiness as well. God takes the worst thing we can do--kill his son--and turns it into the best thing he can bestow on us--eternal life. That is God's Modus Operandi--to make good out of nothing, to make good out of bad, to make life out of death. Which is another reason we can trust him.

This week we are going to move from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the horror of Good Friday to the stunned silence and muted grief of Holy Saturday to the incredible joy of Easter Sunday. A lotta of juxtaposing will be going on. Fasten your seatbelts; it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

The Bible Challenge: Day 83

The scriptures read are Joshua 16-18, Psalm 70 and John 4.

Joshua 16-18. Still dividing up the land. The 2 half-tribes descended from Joseph get a chapter apiece. We also get some adjustments because of the terrain and the size of the tribe. Then, after a survey of the remaining land, Joshua casts lots before God to allot the rest. First up, Benjamin.

Psalm 70. "Hurry up, God and help me." A fairly common prayer expressed nicely.

John 4. Jesus and the Samaritan woman. She is shocked at first that he, a Jew, would talk with her. Jesus stays on message; the woman tries to sidetrack him. Jesus says one day where you worship God and who you are won't matter, provided you worship God in Spirit and in truth. The woman wants to table such discussions till the Messiah comes. Well, guess who's talking to you?

The disciples are shocked by the sight of Jesus talking to a woman, much less a Samaritan woman, much less a Samaritan woman with such a scandalous past that she comes to the well to get water in the heat of the day (noon) instead of early morning or late afternoon like everyone else. But she leaves her water pot, tells everyone in the village about Jesus and they have him stay over 2 days. Word of mouth is the best advertising.

Jesus heals a boy by long distance, the second of the 7 signs John builds his gospel around.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 82

The scriptures read are Joshua 13-15, Psalm 69, and John 3.

Joshua 13-15. Joshua allots the land to the tribes of Israel. Caleb, the only spy to give a favorable report of the promised land, is rewarded. A whole chapter is devoted to describing the boundaries, geographical features and cities of Judah.

Psalm 69. A very moving plea for help from someone who is drowning in sorrow and yet does not despair of God's help.

John 3. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and, as we see later, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court,  comes to see Jesus incognito. What Jesus says goes over his head. Because he is not talking about following rules but being spiritually reborn, born from above, born from the Spirit.

We get the famous verse, known by sports fans everywhere: John 3:16.

Then we get a glimpse of John the Baptist, eclipsed by his cousin. He doesn't mind. He sees himself as the best man and Jesus the bridegroom. The attention properly belongs to the groom.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 81

The scriptures read are Joshua 10-12, Psalm 68 and John 2.

Joshua 10. In rescuing the city of Gibeon, Joshua kills 5 kings. God helped a little with the deadly hailstones and the sun standing still (!) and all. It also helped that the 5 kings all ran and hid in the same cave.

Joshua 11. Joshua is going through kings and towns like a buzzsaw. I had to get out my MacMillan Bible Atlas to follow the action. Lots of obscure cities mentioned.

Joshua 12. For those keeping score at home, Joshua has killed 31 kings with God's help.

Psalm 68. A magnificent hymn of praise to God for many things: his victories over his enemies, his being "the father of orphans, the champion of widows," rain, and his choice of Jerusalem for his temple.

John 2. Jesus acts as emergency sommelier  at some relative's wedding. I love the brief but typical mother/son exchange between Mary and Jesus. "Mo-om! Not now!" But then he does what she wants like a nice Jewish boy.

First Passover mentioned by John. If not for his chronology, one would conclude from the synoptic gospels that Jesus' ministry lasted maybe 6 months instead of 3 years or more.

Jesus clears the temple of the buyers and sellers and moneychangers--with a whip yet! Jesus, meek and mild? Never heard of him.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 80

The scriptures read are Joshua 7-9, Psalm 67, and John 1.

Joshua 7. What happens when you take plunder and you're not supposed to.

Joshua 8. Joshua uses clever tactics to take the city of Ai.

Joshua 9. The people of Gibeon use a clever tactic so they don't end up like Ai.

Psalm 67. A prayer for a good harvest.

John 1. Last of the 4 gospels to be written, John seems to know about the other 3. So he skips familiar things but gives us a lot of background and reasons why the stuff the other gospels narrate happened.

But John starts with a deep theological poem that is meant to echo Genesis 1. "In the beginning was the Rhyme and Reason for everything, and the Rhyme and Reason for everything was with God, and the Rhyme and Reason for everything was God."

John the Baptist kicks things off as in the other gospels but John the Evangelist neglects to narrate one thing: the actual baptism of Jesus. The Evangelist does this a lot. The theological discussion of the event is there, just not a description of the event itself.

Jesus starts gathering followers from the start: Andrew, Peter, Philip. Nathaniel, though billed as a cynic, is easy to impress. Except for Thomas, there's a lot less doubting in this gospel.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I Am the Vine

The scriptures referred to are John 15:1-11.

My knowledge of viticulture is pretty much limited to a special I saw by John Cleese on PBS. I know some of the stuff goes into the flavor of wine: the type of grape, the type of soil, the weather, the cask, the length of time the wine ferments, the temperature it's kept at. Jesus, though not a vintner, probably knew as much as me if not more, just by virtue of living among vineyards. But a parable is not usually a thoroughgoing allegory. It usually has one main point and it's obvious that calling himself the true vine, he did not want to get into the details. His point was more basic. And it's hard for many of us modern Christians to grasp because we are WEIRD.

Let me explain. A lot of the research you get on the psychology and sociology of human beings is skewed. And that's because a lot of it is done by university researchers using university students. Where do you think they get so many people willing to take so much time to take the tests and do the kind of experiments that the researchers come up with? And even if the researchers branch out and try to get ordinary adults from a nearby city or even a number of cities, their subjects have several things in common that make them different from much of the rest of the people on this planet: they are WEIRD. The acronym stands for those from cultures that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Jonathon Haidt says, in his book The Righteous Mind, that, compared to the rest of the world, we are statistical outliers. Even in the West, Americans are more WEIRD than Europeans and within the US, educated upper middle class folks are even more so. He says the essence of the viewpoint of such a culture is this: "The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships." Give a bunch of Westerners a list of twenty statements to complete that start with the words "I am…" and they will put down internal characteristics such as "happy," "friendly," or "into country western music." But give the same list to an East Asian and he will complete the sentences with his or her roles and relationships, such as "daughter," 'father," or "an employee of my company."

This difference extends to all kinds of thinking. "Most people think holistically (seeing the whole context and the relationships among parts) but WEIRD people think more analytically (detaching the focal object from its context, assigning it to a category, and then assuming that what's true about the category is true about the object.)" This extends to our morality. In the West, we put the individual and his rights above those of the group. The typical American hero is pretty much detached from relationships. He is either never married, divorced or widowed. Girlfriends come and go. If he has kids, he rarely sees or takes care of them. That is seen as tragic rather than neglectful. Oh, and when crossed, he will bring down society rather than compromise his autonomy or personal freedom or violate his code of ethics.

For instance, in the climax of the first Dirty Harry movie, Clint Eastwood's character, when he finds out the serial killer he is chasing has taken over a bus full of school kids, backs off and negotiates their release, right? No, he jumps onto the roof of the bus, causing the killer to drive erratically until he crashes it. The villain leaves the cover of the bus, takes a kid hostage and Harry shoots the guy, anyway. By the way, the killer was back out on the streets because Harry did an illegal search of his home. It is interesting that in every other Dirty Harry film, they make sure he is up against rogue cops, terrorists, vigilantes and serial killers who are even worse than him, or in the last film, people who make gratuitously violent horror films. They even joke about how his partners always die, collateral damage, like the traumatized children, in what he apparently sees as a personal contest between hunter and predator.

Now, of course, Harry is a fantasy figure. We would not really like a cop (or a government agent like James Bond or whatever John McClane is now) in real life, someone who acts as judge, jury and executioner, who enters homes without a warrant and who will shoot up or blow up several city blocks or destroy several cars that are not his own in a single-minded pursuit of bad guys. In real life, Harry would be fired, possibly imprisoned and definitely sued by the parents of those school children. But the fact that our iconic heroes are lone wolves says a lot about how we look at the world.

The majority of the world puts the needs of the community over that of the individual. And indeed that is probably why human beings have survived. We are not stronger or faster than most predatory animals, nor do we have large fangs or claws, nor the strength of a bear or great ape. What we have is an ability to communicate and cooperate and thereby bring down large animals and build large complex communities. And even while we worship rugged individualism here in the West, our achievements could not have been accomplished without large numbers of people carrying out their roles.

So why do we focus on the individual and not so much on groups? Part of it might be the fear of unthinking mobs. And that is a real consideration. Like anything powerful groups can do great good or great harm. The difference is if they are following anyone and who. A riot can be leaderless, though usually someone incites it, by words or actions. Mobs are rarely good. In the case of a following, however, it depends on who the leader is.

In the church, Jesus should be our head, our leader. In fact, not only do we get our direction from him but also our life, energy and nourishment. This is what Jesus is getting at in using his metaphor of being the vine. He may have borrowed it from the Old Testament's portrayal of Israel as a vineyard or even a vine. But by making himself the vine, Jesus is making a distinction. The branches may be the ones that bear fruit but not unless they are attached to the main vine. In fact diseased or non-fruit-bearing branches can be trimmed without hurting the vine itself. Judicious pruning of branches actually stimulates new growth in a plant. The freed-up energy, if you will, can go into growing new branches and into better fruit.

Even in a community, if everyone is not on the same page, if everyone is not working together towards one goal, all that work can go for naught. One obvious illustration was the 1999 Mars probe that hit the atmosphere at the wrong altitude and disintegrated due to the fact that different teams working on the craft used different measuring units. Mixing metric and non-metric units caused the loss of a $125 million spacecraft. People did speak up about the discrepancy between the measured and the calculated trajectory but their concerns were dismissed. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Communication is crucial to community. Jesus says that if we abide in him, his words will abide in us. His words are our nutrition, because we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. God's word is important for it can, as it says in Isaiah 50:4, "sustain the weary with a word." As the two disciples on their way to Emmaus later said about Jesus, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road opening the scriptures to us?" And that fueled their immediate flight back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples that Jesus was risen and they now knew why.

Specifically it is his commandments that he wants us to keep in mind and actually obey. The commandments he is speaking about in this context of abiding in his love are obviously the commandments to love God and love one's neighbor. But aren't those rather easy to keep?

If love was easy, Jesus wouldn't have to make it a command. If love was easy we wouldn't have so many broken relationships--spouses who have failed to love one another, parents who have failed to love their children, children who have failed to love their parents, siblings who have failed to love each other, and, of course, Christians who have failed to love one another. Jesus says our love for one another is how the world will know we are his disciples. Yet what they see instead is Christians fighting over non-essential matters, calling each other names, suing one another, and generally acting as non-Christians do, loving only those who love them and who agree with them on every particular. Small wonder people are dropping away from the church. We get enough hate in modern day politics.

And we can't bear much fruit, either. If we are not abiding in Jesus, then we won't bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we don't abide in Jesus we won't bear the fruit of new followers of him, especially if we are alienating people rather than attracting them. Folks came to Jesus because of his words and actions. If we do not abide in him, we will exhibit neither.

The first thing Tech Support does when you call them about a malfunctioning computer is ask if it's plugged in and turned on. If you aren't plugged into Jesus, if your power switch is off, you aren't going to be able to do anything for him. How can you change that?

The first thing is to learn more about him. A surprising number of Christians know very little about Jesus except for the bare minimum. If you haven't read the gospels all the way through, or haven't lately, do so. If you haven't read a good book by a scholar who can express his findings to the average person, do so. I recommend I Came to Set the Earth on Fire: A Portrait of Jesus by R. T. France, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright, or almost anything by N. T. Wright.

So much for theory. Now put it into practice. Try loving God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength. Try loving others as you do yourself. Try loving your enemies. Try disowning yourself, taking up your cross and following Jesus. Try giving to all who ask you. Try helping those who cannot help you. Turn the other cheek. Bless those who curse you. And you know what you'll find? That you can't do it. Not without help.

Then start praying for God to fill you with the Holy Spirit, to come into you and your life and change you. Every time you fail, ask God's forgiveness and for his help in doing better. Ask that his Spirit make you more Christ-like every day. Remember that as a Christian you represent Christ to others as surely as a U.S. Ambassador represents America to other nations.

When you think of an apple tree or an orange tree or a grapevine, you think primarily of the fruit. Most of us could care less about a tree or plant if it doesn't yield something delicious and nutritious. So it is with people when they think of Jesus. They see the fruit we produce first. If the fruit is bitter or poisonous, they aren't going to be interested in the source. We need to bear fruit that will attract and feed others. Only then will they want to get to know more about Jesus and eventually plug into him.

What Christianity is really about is becoming more like Jesus. The only way to do that is to abide or remain in him. If we are in him and he is in us, if his word is in us and we obey his commandments, we will bear good fruit. And the benefit is that his joy will be in us and our joy will be complete. And if there's one thing we don't have enough of in this life, it's joy, the upwelling of excitement and delight that comes from being directly connected to our wonderful, loving and giving Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Bible Challenge: Day 79

The scriptures read are Joshua 4-6, Psalm 66 and Luke 24.

Joshua 4. Every tribe is to grab a rock from the river bed of the Jordan as the priests stand in the middle, keeping the water away. Then they pile the rocks in one place as a memorial to the event. I bet some kids grabbed rocks as they crossed the Red Sea. I would. What a great souvenir!

Joshua 5. First things first: gotta circumcise the new generation of Israelites. Ouch! Then they celebrate their first Passover in the Promised Land, using the produce of their new country. God turns off the manna.

The commander of the Lord's army (an angel?) appears to Joshua as a man with a drawn sword. Cool.

Joshua 6. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come a-tumblin' down. And no one is to take the least bit of plunder. This is a holy war. The spoils go to God. So everything in the city is killed and the whole place is burned. Except Rahab and her family. They are alive and well in Israel to this day, we are told.

Psalm 66. A song of thanksgiving to God. With a reference to the Israelites crossing the Jordan on dry land!  

Luke 24. The tomb is empty. No one believes the women about the angels. Two disciples on the road to Emmaus are schooled by Jesus but don't realize it's him until he blesses and breaks the bread. Then deja vu! Then no vu.

Jesus appears to the disciples but they are too freaked out to believe it's him until he eats some fish.

Jesus ascends and the disciples depart in joy. With a mission. And orders to sit tight until they receive power from on high. To be continued in Acts.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 78

The scriptures read are Joshua 1-3, Psalm 65 and Luke 23.

Joshua 1. New man, same God. Getting ready to enter the Promised Land.

Joshua 2. Scouts are sent to scope out Jericho (oldest continuously occupied city on earth) set in an oasis on the river Jordan. The spies are hidden from authorities by Rahab, a prostitute. The spies promise her that she and her family will be spared when they invade.

Joshua 3. God does the parting of waters thing with the Jordan. And so the people, following the Ark of the Covenant, enter the land.

Psalm 65. A song of praise to God in his temple for his care for the fertile earth.

Luke 23. Luke is the only evangelist to tell us that Pilate sent Jesus over to Herod. It sounds totally in character with Pilate's behavior as recorded in all the gospels. He wants to pass on this hot potato. He never had good relations with the Jews he was supposed to govern. And he probably did not want to do Caiaphas, the high priest, any favors if he could help it because they had been at odds from the beginning. Pilate at last gives in (John's gospel tells us why) and sends Jesus to his death.

Only Luke records Jesus' prayer for God to forgive his executioners, his pardon of the robber being crucified with him and his prayer commending his soul to God.

A Joseph was there when Jesus was taken from the womb and a Joseph was there to lay him in his tomb.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Problem of Judas

I've been watching the Bible mini-series, of course. It's well-done, in that the actors are good, the special effects are pretty good, the dialogue isn't as clunky as usual for such things. I was a bit surprised at the Ninja angels who come to rescue Lot and his family from Sodom. And, in trying to jam a book with 1189 chapters and 31,173 verses into 10 hours minus time for commercials, I understand that some things have to be cut. I'm trying not to be like those Tolkien fans who were outraged when Tom Bombadil was cut from the first Lord of the Rings movie. Tom is a delightful character but he adds nothing to the plot and the filmmakers, though big fans of the books, knew they had to keep the action moving. Still, I feel we are watching a Bible highlights reel. We start with Noah and the Ark in storm, with him telling the Adam and Eve story to his terrified family to explain why God was starting over with humanity. Then we go to Abraham. Then all of a sudden we're in Egypt. No Jacob wrestling with God, no story of Joseph and how the Israelites got to Egypt in the first place. A lot of time is spent on the exodus but the Ten Commandments are just a shot of Moses coming down a mountain with the tablets and talking to Joshua. Then--Bang!--it's 40 years later and Joshua is facing Jericho. No fire on the mountain, no golden calf, no wandering in the wilderness following the cloud by day and the fire by night. There's a lot of drama skipped over--the earth swallowing people, plagues, manna, quail, Moses pleading for his stiff-necked people. So I just hope it does send people to the Bible because, as you know, the book is always better than the movie.

I am intrigued as to how, when they do the story of Jesus, they will combine the 4 gospels and, as an actor, how they handle Judas Iscariot. Dorothy L. Sayers faced that challenge. Besides writing the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Sayers was an amazing lay theologian (See her essays in The Whimsical Christians and her amazing The Mind of the Maker) and church dramatist. She wrote plays for presenting in church and they weren't the "kids in bathrobes" variety. Asked to write a play for the Colchester Festival, she took the slim thread that the historical basis for Old King Cole might have been the grandfather of Constantine, and used it to write a play about the first Christian Roman Emperor and the creation of the Nicene creed. She did a lot of research and it is a fascinating attempt to combine a portrait of a very complex man while dramatizing a great achievement that is intellectual and spiritual.

She was also asked to write a series of dramas on the life of Christ for BBC radio. The Man Born to be King is perhaps her masterpiece in playwriting. She not only had to research the gospels but work out how to portray each person as a character. One, who is key, was very problematic for the dramatist. "Judas in the Gospels is an enigma," Sayers writes in the introduction to the book of her play cycle. "One thing is certain: he cannot have been the creeping, crawling, patently worthless villain that some simple-minded folk would like to make out; that would be to cast too grave a slur upon the brains or the character of Jesus. To choose an obvious crook as one's follower, in ignorance of what he was like, would be the act of a fool; and Jesus of Nazareth was no fool…But to choose an obvious crook for the express purpose of letting him damn himself would be the act of a devil;…for a God, who behaved like that, nobody--except perhaps Machiavelli--could feel any kind of respect. But also (and this is far more important to our purpose) either of these sorts of behavior would be totally irreconcilable with the rest of the character of Jesus as recorded." She says that you might write an anti-religious propaganda piece that Jesus was stupid or an extreme predestination tract that Jesus was beyond morality "…but there is no means whatever by which you could combine either of these theories with the rest of his words and deeds and make a play of them. The glaring inconsistencies in the character would wreck the show; no honest dramatist could write such a part; no actor could play it; no intelligent audience would accept it. That is what I mean by saying dramatic handling is a stern test of theology…"

Sayers' solution was to make Judas' besetting sin his intellectual pride. She makes him the smartest of the disciples, the one who first grasps the true purpose of Jesus' Messianic mission. But Judas is bothered by how the "dumber" disciples get more attention from Jesus and is worried that Jesus may not stay true to his purpose but instead fall for the idea of an earthly political kingdom. He is, as Sayers writes in her notes to one of the plays, "in the mood of a jealous husband, whose suspicions would only be confirmed by protestations of innocence….Rather like Othello, he can only believe in innocence after he has killed it." Her Judas betrays Jesus when he thinks Jesus has betrayed his mission and ideals. Only later does he realize he was wrong about Jesus and what a terrible thing he's done.

Sayers was gratified by the angry letters she got from listeners who saw Judas' motive as too noble for such an evil person. She pointed out that it is the most gifted of people who can be either the best of saints or by misusing them, the worst of sinners. My illustration of this: imagine if Hitler, with his ability to stir people up and make them follow him, had been a preacher and mobilized the German people and the rest of Europe in a Christian revolution of helping the poor, the hungry, the immigrant, the sick and those in prison. He would have been a great saint. We might have named our church after him. The Pope might have taken his name!

Of course, Sayers has to invent other characters and a subplot to explain her subtler and more plausible Judas. But you can look at it the other way. In the old Tab Hunter film King of Kings Judas is in fact part of the political faction, thinks Jesus is the Messiah but sees him as way too spiritual to bring about a physical kingdom of God on earth. He hopes to force Jesus' hand by endangering him. If Jesus was captured by his enemies, he would surely call for his followers to fight for him and overthrow the Roman occupation. It is Jesus' meek acceptance of his death that leads Judas to see what a monstrous thing he has done.

The gospels really don't help us much with Judas' motivation. In today's gospel, John tells us that Judas was a thief. But I must agree with Sayers that Judas could not have been so transparently evil or Jesus would be either stupid or incredibly manipulative in selecting him to be one of the Twelve. I agree with both The Man Born to be King and King of Kings that whatever Judas' specific reason for betraying Jesus, he had to have been sincere about following Jesus, at least at first. So the question is: what made him change?

One thing commentators notice is that Judas seems to be the only Judean among the Twelve. The rest are Galileans. Iscariot could mean "man of Kerioth." There are 2 towns with that name, both in the south of the Holy Land. So he would have felt like a bit of an outsider.

Judas was also the treasurer. When Judas leaves in the middle of the Last Supper, the disciples think he was dispatched by Jesus to make a donation to the poor for Passover. Now you don't make an obviously greedy or dishonest person your treasurer. You give that responsibility to someone you trust. That's why when organizations and churches find out that the person in charge of the money has been embezzling it, they feel hurt and betrayed. Sad to say, in all of these cases the money was rarely going to a noble cause but personal indulgences, like a big house, cars, clothes, tuition for their kids, etc.

However in Judas' case, what would he spend it on? With their peripatetic lifestyle, Jesus and the other 11 disciples would have noticed if Judas was suddenly wearing very expensive robes, or if he was drinking a lot, or buying jewelry, or eating better than them. Sayers has Judas paying an informant within the group of Zealots he feels are seducing Jesus with dreams of an earthly kingship. Were I writing a drama, I might have Judas taking the money to help out a ne'er-do-well relative. We all have, or know of people with brothers, sisters, grown children or the like who can't get their lives together, who are addicts, or homeless, or petty criminals. These people come to their better-off relatives from time to time and ask for financial help. And because they are family, it's hard to refuse them. Perhaps Judas was taking from the common purse to help a hard-up relative and rationalizing it as charitable giving to the poor. Unfortunately, this is speculation. As I said, the gospels don't make Judas' motivations clear.

So why do people usually betray friends or leaders? There is the mundane reason: for money. One of the most damaging spy rings in US history, in which a Navy officer helped the Soviets decipher more than a million encrypted naval messages, was created because John Anthony Walker was strapped for money. So it could have been that simple, although, as we've pointed out, it's difficult to see what Judas was doing with his ill-gotten gains.

But unlike Walker, Judas wasn't someone who happened to be born into a country, felt nothing for it, and sold it out. Judas joined Jesus' following. Because of the potential Jesus saw in him, he was picked to be one of the Twelve. He was trusted with the treasury funds. For Judas to betray someone who inspired him and a movement he believed in, he must have first become disillusioned. He must have felt in some way that Jesus betrayed him.

If Judas felt that Jesus was not who or what Judas thought him to be, it means he must have made some fundamentally wrong assumption about Jesus. He must have thought Jesus was something other than he really was. And while it is tantalizing to speculate what that was, the important thing was that Judas had, as most of us do, created in his mind a Jesus after his own image. Judas wanted a Jesus that conformed to what Judas wanted him to be. He wouldn't let Jesus be Jesus.

We see this today. Biblical scholars are always coming up with a Jesus who was an enigmatic wanderer-sage, or a political radical, or an apocalyptic nut job, pretty much what they want him to be. Christians and non-Christians see Jesus as either a modern-day progressive or a modern-day conservative. The people at PETA think Jesus was a vegetarian. White Supremacists think he was an Aryan. New Agers think he was a guru. I have to catch myself lest I fall into thinking of him as a spiritual Sherlock Holmes, an unofficial rabbi who comes in and solves medical problems and religious questions that the official rabbis are wrong about. I actually think Holmes was based on Jesus.

The problem with preconceiving Jesus as someone committed to our ideas and our issues is that eventually you're going to come across evidence he isn't. Those who think Jesus is staunch supporter of the Right are going to be disconcerted by Jesus telling the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor or his parable where those who don't welcome immigrants or visit those in prison are sent to hell. And those who think of Jesus as a firm supporter of the Left are not going to be happy with his condemnation of divorce and sexual promiscuity, or his indifference to the injustice that Roman soldiers represented, or, for that matter, his belief in hell! But if you are a Christian, your commitment is to Jesus as he is, not as you wish him to be. Jesus isn't the man of your dreams; he's Reality itself, to which we have to adapt, not vice versa.

If Judas got disillusioned, the illusion he lost was that Jesus was something other than his own man. It was that everything Jesus would think and speak and do would be exactly what Judas would do in the same situation. Whatever it was that broke the spell of the dream that Judas was having, it left him so angry that he had no problem turning in this man who healed thousands and fed the hungry and preached the forgiveness and love of God. Judas was so mad he couldn't see the harm he was doing. Or he could and didn't care.

Except he did care on some level. Just as a perceived injury by one we love can fuel fierce hatred and lashing out, it can turn to sorrow and regret after the violence is over and the damage is done. After Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin, and marched off to Pilate, Judas is horrified by what he has done. "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." He flings the 30 silver coins he had been given onto the temple floor, goes off and hangs himself.

And that is what makes Judas a truly tragic figure. In classical tragedy, a man falls through his own fault. Because what Judas doesn't do is ask the man who preaches God's unfathomable forgiveness to forgive him. Would he? Would Jesus forgive Judas? He forgives Peter, who stood outside the place where Jesus was being tried and denied him 3 times. He asks his Father to forgive those who are in the process of crucifying him. Jesus forgives the robber crucified next to him who had been mocking him beforehand. I think if Judas had not despaired, had not decided to be his own judge, jury and executioner, if he had not doubted the grace and mercy of God displayed in the daily life of Jesus, he could have been forgiven. He not only gave up on himself, he gave up on the goodness of God. Drowning in sorrow over his sins, he did not reach out for the hand of the Savior who could pull him out. Burning with shame and self-loathing, he did not seek the living water that Jesus could give to quench his anger at himself and his actions. C. S. Lewis said the gates of hell are locked from the inside. Judas consigned himself to the hell of his self-targeted rage, shut the door on himself and threw away the key.

Judas is a cautionary tale. His decision warns us never to put anything before Jesus--not our own version of him, nor our pain and outrage at finding him to be our God and not our tool or pet or mini-Me. Nothing is more important than faithfully following Jesus, wherever he takes us. We must not second-guess him or be offended when he does not do or say what we want him to. Today we tell every human being to be himself or herself; not to let anyone else define them. But we think God can be whatever we say he is.

Judas' fate warns us not to fall into the trap of thinking our sin is too big for God to forgive. That's arrogance--thinking anything we can do can stymie God. God is bigger than all the sins of the world. Jesus was able to shoulder them all. He died for all the sins of the world. What's really sad is that Jesus died for Judas' sin, too, but Judas didn't avail himself of what Jesus won for him. He could have, had he thrown himself at the feet of his crucified Lord. But he didn't give Jesus a chance to forgive him. And that's tragic.

The Bible Challenge: Day 76

The scriptures read are Deuteronomy 34, Psalm 64, and Luke 22.

Deuteronomy 34. God gives Moses a bird's eye view of the promised land, then Moses dies and God buries him. Nice tribute to him at the very end of the book.

Psalm 64. Slander and evil schemes aimed at the innocent will be repaid.

Luke 22. The Last Supper. For a discussion of the possible motivations behind Judas' betrayal see my sermon this Sunday.

Jesus' enigmatic talk about swords doesn't seem to be an endorsement of them since he undoes the slicing off of an ear with one.

Though the words are slightly different, once again it's Peter's being Galilean that triggers his last denial.

Luke doesn't mention the night trial, just the morning one. The result is the same: they are taking him to Pilate.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 75

The scriptures read are Deuteronomy 31-33, Psalm 63, and Luke 21.

Deuteronomy 31. God is commissioning Joshua. He isn't too optimistic on the future faithfulness of Israel.

Deuteronomy 32. A poem to teach the Israelites. It's not optimistic either. (Jeshurun is a poetic name for Israel meaning "upright.")

Deuteronomy 33. Moses' blessing on the tribes. Pretty optimistic.

Psalm 63. Song of one in love with God.

Luke 21. Jesus commends a poor but generous widow.

Things will get worse. The end will come. Don't be deceived by fake messiahs, Don't be too quick to accept doomsday predictions, but keep alert, just the same. Don't goof off; don't get lazy and sinful. Do pray for the strength and wisdom to survive.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 74

The scriptures read are Deuteronomy 28-30, Psalm 62 and Luke 20.

Deuteronomy 28. Very long chapter with a soupcon of blessing and a lot of very vivid, frankly horrifying consequences of breaking the covenant. Was this the chapter that was read to King Josiah, causing him to tear his robes and bring reform to Judah? (2 Kings 22) Is this the chapter that Ezra read to the people that caused them to weep? (Nehemiah 8) Peterson uses the phrase "the Book of this Revelation." Foreshadowing the more bloodcurdling passages of the last book of the Bible, is he?

The chapter itself foreshadows the siege of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, though neither is named.

Deuteronomy 29. Getting ready to enter the promised land; more precautions.

Deuteronomy 30. A rousing ending to Moses' long sermon. Some great familiar verses.

Psalm 62. An exhortation to wait patiently for God. "Do not trust in violence, or put false hopes in robbery; if  force bears fruit pay it no mind."

Luke 20. Jesus parries a question about his authority with a counter question.

Jesus tells a very pointed parable about his coming death.

The question of taxes comes up. Jesus says essentially, "Give Caesar what has his image on it and God what contains his image." Things may belong to human rulers; people belong to God.

No marriage after the resurrection. Something better in store for us?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 73

The scriptures read are Deuteronomy 25-27, Psalm 61, and Luke 19.

Deuteronomy 25. Miscellaneous but interesting laws relating to everything: justice, good treatment of animals,  what not to do with your widowed sister-in-law, what not to do in a fight, fair weights and measures.

Deuteronomy 26. A couple of liturgies of thanksgiving.

Deuteronomy 27. A liturgy of curses upon those who break God's law.

Psalm 61. A prayer for the king.

Luke 19. Jesus converts Zacchaeus just by being decent to him.

God wants us to be bold with what he's given us.

Jesus enters Jerusalem with palms and psalms.

I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life

The scripture referred to is John 14:1-9.

The person who led the clergy retreat this year has had an interesting life. The Rev. Renee Miller has been an Episcopal priest, been Canon to the Ordinary, raised 17 foster children, gave herself a small facial tattoo of a flower (based on that of one of her foster children), commutes from California to a small parish in Arkansas where she is Priest in Charge, and is a trucker. She told us of this one time, while she was still learning to drive an 18 wheeler, that her mentor and she were late with a delivery. Using GPS, he found a shortcut to their delivery point. The problem was the road had one of those "No Commercial Traffic" signs. It was late at night, though and the driver thought it was just posted because the people in the neighborhood objected to the noise or smell of big rigs. So he turned down it. It turned out to be narrower and a lot twistier than he has anticipated. But he expertly threaded the asphalt ribbon for several miles. Until he came upon a bridge with a height limit. There was no way he could get his tractor trailer under it. And no way to turn around. If he thought it was challenging driving that curvy narrow road before, it was even worse backing that 18 wheeler all the way back to the main road. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.

Still, a lot of innovation comes from needing an alternate way to do something. Human beings can get real creative when they have to. We keep hearing that the last 7 words of a church are, "But we've always done it this way!" And it's true that some things have to change periodically. For instance, a bishop used to be the person who presided over the Eucharist at the one house church in a city. When churches started to grow to the point that new ones had to be established in the same community, the bishop had 2 or 3 Eucharists to perform in different locations. When that became unmanageable, he appointed one of his elders to take over in his individual churches and he was their overseer (what episcopas or bishop in Greek literally means). He visited them as often as he could but the elder, or presbuteros in Greek, ran the local church on a day by day basis. The presbuteros began to be called a priest. He represented the bishop to his people and he represented his people to the bishop. In other denominations they may use different terms but the offices function roughly the same way, like a local manager and a district manager. And I'll bet some people in the churches complained that they liked it better when they had the bishop all to themselves.

But why did the church not switch to a congregational model, where each church had its own bishop and could make its own rules and believe what it wanted? Like Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, which all other Baptist churches have repudiated? The change in structure was made to preserve what mustn't be changed: the truth that launched and sustained the church and which had to be transmitted to the world intact--the gospel of Jesus Christ. The bishop was to act as guardian of the faith.

We see in the New Testament that people were already twisting the idea of Jesus to suit their tastes. The Gnostics may well have existed before Christianity. They believed that matter and therefore the body was evil and only the spirit was good. The way to be saved from imprisonment in the body was through secret knowledge, or gnosis in Greek, that elite, very spiritual teachers had and could impart. Some of them entered the church and started adapting Christianity to their philosophy. Jesus, however, could not have taken on a material, which is to say, evil, body and so the Incarnation was an illusion. The God Jesus came from could not have created this evil material world and so the creator must be some other being than the Father of Jesus Christ. Because the body is evil, some Gnostics were very ascetic, abstaining from all pleasures of the flesh and eating as little as necessary. Others figured since matter is irredeemably evil, what you did with your body did was irrelevant, so long as you remained spiritual inwardly. A lot of people in the church found this version of Christianity to be attractive and so its heresies spread. This is why in John's letters there is so much emphasis on Jesus' bodily Incarnation. This is why the creeds affirm that God created all that is. This is why, I think, James emphasized that faith without works, without any visible manifestation, is dead. Creation and the body are good. People have physical needs, like food and warmth, and telling them to simply have faith is not the Christian response. John echoes this when he says in 1 John 3:18 "Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth."

So how do we know what to change and what shouldn't change? I like to compare doctrines and church practices to a bicycle wheel. The hub is essential and must be in the middle of the wheel if you are to make good or indeed any progress. The spokes are important though the number can vary and sometimes one or two may have to be changed. They have to be firmly connected to the hub however and have to be balanced or the wheel will deform. You need a tire, where the rubber meets the road, but the tire not only can be changed but must periodically be changed if the wheel is to do its job properly.

Just so some doctrines and practices are absolutely essential to the church. Without them at the center, the hub, you aren't going to get anywhere. Some doctrines and practices are important but not, strictly speaking, essential. They need to be connected to the center and flow out to the parameter. They must be balanced and on rare occasions they might have to be replaced by something that accomplishes the same function. Some doctrines and practices are necessary for everyday operation but are neither essential or very important. They can become worn out and have to be discarded and replaced. This model shows how both change and changelessness are important to keeping the church moving. The trick is discerning which is which.

Which leads us to today's passage from John's gospel. Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me." He is responding to a question asked by Thomas. Jesus had said he was going to make ready a place for his followers and that they knew the way. Thomas protests that they neither know where he is going nor the way to get there. And so Jesus reveals himself to be the way. How is that possible?

If Jesus were talking of a physical place, he would be the guide rather than the way itself. But the place he is going is his Father's house. Normally this means the temple, as Jesus referred to it when he was left behind as a boy in Jerusalem. But Jesus is talking about his death and ascension. He is going to heaven, where God is. So the way is not a physical path but a person. Know why?

Let's say you wanted to meet the President, not just see him at a distance at a public event but actually meet and talk with him. The physical way to see him would be to, say, enter the White House and walk to his office. But you would not get very far that way. Not even important people can simply drop in and wander up to him. You would have to go through a person, like his secretary. You might also get to see him if, say, you knew his Chief-of-Staff and he thought it was worth the President's time to see you. Or, if you were a friend of one of his daughters, she might be able to get you in. The point is your way in is a person, a person with whom you have a good relationship. If you merely tried to barge in, you would not see the President; you would see the White House carpeting real close, courtesy of the Secret Service man holding you down.

Jesus is our way in to the Father. But it is more than him merely securing us an introduction. Let's say you went to ancient Egypt to see the Pharaoh. And let's say the situation was that the Pharaoh was letting his son act as co-ruler, as was the custom. In seeing the son of Pharaoh, who was ruling Egypt with his father's permission, you would in a sense be seeing Pharaoh. He was making the decisions in ruling the land. Provided they were totally in sync in all their decisions, seeing him was as good as seeing the father.

In Jesus we see what God is like. In Hebrews we are told that Jesus is the very image and essence of the Father. The Greek word for "image" here is one used for coins, which were, of course, stamped out so that the image was exactly the same as the original model. So as Jesus says to Philip, "The person who has seen me has seen the father." And as he says to Thomas, "If you have known me, you will know my Father too."

A true image is vital. There is a sculpture garden off Mallory Square that is supposed to have the busts of 36 people important to Key West history. When I saw it, I thought these people must be inbred, because each bust had the same long narrow face, the same cheek bones and the same eyes, including Hemingway! Then I saw a picture of the sculptor and realized he had made all of them, including the women and the people of other races, in his own image.        

We tend to do that: make God in our own image. So if we really want to see what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. If we really want to know what God is like, we need to get to know Jesus. He is the only way to the Father and he is the truth about God, the only true image of the Father. This is the essential truth at the heart of the faith. This is what everything else revolves around.

It is Jesus who says, "No one comes to the Father except through me." Again, just like that trucker could not use that winding narrow road with the low bridge to reach his destination, you can't get to every destination by just any path. If you wish to drive to Key West, you have to take US 1. You can take the Turnpike or 27 to Krome Avenue or a number of other roads to get to south Florida but if you want to enter the Keys, you eventually have to get on US 1. It may not seem fair that you can't take the NJ Turnpike, or Route 66 or the Yellow Brick Road but the fact is that Key West is where it is and there is no other road by which you can reach it.

Why can't there be multiple ways to God? While all religions say there is something wrong with this life, they disagree on precisely what it is and how to fix it. While their ethics overlap greatly, their goals are quite different. Is the problem suffering and the way to solve that to rid oneself of all desire? Is the goal to avoid being reincarnated again but instead going directly to Nirvana, literally the "blowing out" of desire and aversion and individuality and absorption into the world soul? Is the problem is that people have not surrendered and submitted themselves to Allah? Is the goal to earn a place in a vividly described paradise of family reunion, eating good food, sex and watching your enemies being tortured in hell? Is the problem merely ignorance and if everyone has the special knowledge, everything will change? Or is the problem that we can misused, abused and neglected the good gifts of God's creation so that evil corrupts what we think, say and do, how we interact with others, with the rest of creation and with God? Is the goal the reconciliation of God and humanity and making all of us part of God's new creation, where we will experience his love?

And how does one achieve this? By following the Eightfold path? The Five Pillars? The Ten Commandments? Or by recognizing one's inability to perfectly obey any set of laws, accepting the sacrifice Christ offers and trust his Spirit to enter us and change us into people who do not need written laws for he has written them in our new hearts?

The way of Jesus is the way of love. All the commandments boil down to loving God and loving one another. We are even supposed to love our enemies, who, like us, are created in his image. Our ethics flow from love, not fear of suffering or punishment. Our goal is to be with our love forever.

Jesus is the way of love, the truth of love and the life of love. And we are to imitate him and one day we will be like him. There is no other way into the heart of the love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit except through Jesus, the Love of God Incarnate.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 72

The scriptures read are Deuteronomy 22-24, Psalm 60, and Luke 18.

Deuteronomy 22. Miscellaneous laws, some of a more ethical nature (like not looking the other way when someone's animal wanders off or is hurt), some practical (put a parapet around the roof of your house so no one accidentally falls off.) Also rules about what to do if a man ruining his wife's reputation and what to do in cases of rape.

Deuteronomy 23. Who is and is not allowed to worship. Also camp hygiene.

Do not return a runaway slave! Guess the people who passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 skipped that part of the Bible.

Do not charge your countryman interest. Guess the people who issue credit cards skipped that part of the Bible.

You can eat your neighbor's grapes as you cut through his vineyard! Guess the people who would shoot or sue you for doing such a thing skipped that part of the Bible.

Deuteronomy 24. Remarriage rules. And a rule giving newlywed men a year off from military duty.

Kidnapping is a capital offence. What can and can't be used as collateral for a loan.

Don't abuse poor workers or hold up his pay. Guess some employers skipped that part of the Bible.

Don't mess with the rights of widows, orphans and immigrants.

When you harvest your land, leave a little of your produce behind to feed the widow, orphan and immigrant.

Psalm 60. Contemplating military defeats.

Luke 18. Persistence pays off, especially in prayer.

Repentance works whereas self-righteousness doesn't.

Jesus loves the little children; the kingdom does, too.

Getting to heaven is impossible...unless you let God do it for you.