Sunday, June 30, 2013

Following Jesus in the Right Spirit

The Authorized Version of the Bible, better known as the King James Version, was completed and published in 1611, just over 400 years ago. It was the third translation into English commissioned by the Church of England, the first being the Great Bible during the time of Henry VIII and the second being the Bishop's Bible. King James wanted this translation specifically to counter the Geneva Bible, whose marginal notes he perceived as anti-monarchy and anti-Church of England. The work was begun in 1604 with 47 scholars, who were also Anglican clergy, divided into 6 committees.

The text they used for the New Testament was the Textus Receptus of Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus. It was the first Greek New Testament ever published. It was based on 6 late Greek manuscripts which didn't cover all of the New Testament. So Erasmus turned to the old translation of St. Jerome, the Latin Vulgate, to back-translate and fill in the bits missing in his Greek manuscripts!

Nearly 200 years after Erasmus, many more copies of the Greek New Testament had been found. And scholars like John Mill discovered lots of variants or differences in these manuscripts. Most of these are obviously copyist errors, like misspellings, but a few phrases and even verses could be found in some but not other copies of the Greek New Testament. How could people figure out which was original?

In 1844 Constantin von Tischendorf was visiting the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai when he discovered the monks were using old manuscripts of the Bible to light fires. He was horrified, of course, and asked for them. On a subsequent visit in 1853 the monks showed him the oldest complete copy of the Greek New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, written in the mid-300s AD. He convinced them to make it a present to Tsar Alexander II, who published it. In 1933, the Soviet government sold it to the British Museum where you can see it today. You can also see it online. But obviously those who translated the King James version did not have access to anything as old as Codex Sinaiticus or Codex Vaticanus, an equally old Greek New Testament. Modern translations use these and literally thousands of books from and fragments of the Greek New Testament that go back even farther to reconstruct an accurate picture of what the New Testament originally said.

Why am I giving you all this background? Because I am going to cite one of those less ancient, probably not original variants and you won't find it in today's Gospel texts, though you will probably see it in the footnotes of modern translations. I chose it because it is an excellent observation on Jesus' attitude toward people and his mission, which is probably how it got into the Textus Receptus.

Jesus is heading to Jerusalem for the Passover. He is taking the direct route from Galilee which goes through Samaria. Most Jews would have taken a detour around Samaria. The Samaritans and Jews did not like each other. The Samaritans were a mixture of the Israelites left behind when the Assyrians took the cream of the northern kingdom into exile and the pagan peoples resettled in the area. Their version of the Torah is different, as is their version of the 10 Commandments. And their temple was on Mt. Gerizim. So to the Jews they were not considered pure, either racially or religiously. The Samaritans not only thought the Jews were wrong on these issues but were angry that during the time between the Testaments a Jewish King, John Hyrcanus, destroyed their temple. So it's not surprising that when Jesus passed through Samaria on his way to the temple in Jerusalem, the residents of the town where he was thinking of staying wanted nothing to do with him.

James and John, whom Jesus nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, want to call down fire from heaven on the village. They are probably thinking about how Elijah called down fire from heaven upon the priests of Baal and the soldiers sent from the king of Samaria to arrest him. Jesus “turned” (which means he was already heading on) “and rebuked them.” But what did Jesus say to them? The oldest manuscripts of Luke's gospel don't say. But some later versions have a couple of statements that purport to tell us what we would like to know. Whether this originated as an explanatory statement by the monk reading the manuscript to his fellows making copies or as a comment in the margin that was included in the text by a monk who thought it had been left out, we don't know. But the statements do sound like a good explanation of what Jesus' objection might have been. They read, “And he said, 'You do not know what sort of spirit you are of, but the Son of Man did not come to destroy people's lives but to save them.'”

Despite putting words in Jesus' mouth, this comment is in line with other statements Christ made. In John 3:17 we are told that “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.” And when in situations in which anyone else might fight and harm others, Jesus did not and told Peter to put up his sword, even healing the man Peter had wounded. While talking to Pilate, Jesus says “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom was from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities.” Except for his cleansing the temple of corrupt money changers, Jesus does not resort to force. His mission on his first coming is to bring people to God, not to judge or execute judgment upon them.

And we sometimes forget that his mission is ours as well. We really get into judging people and pronouncing our verdicts on their lives. We satisfy our sense of justice by imaging them getting their comeuppance. Like Jonah, we hope to see them get what's coming to them. We feel reasonably sure that people like Hitler and Pol Pot and Ted Bundy are in hell. And we think pedophiles, rapists and torturers will end up there as well. If we could, we might call down fire from heaven upon them.

What kind of spirit is that? Justice? Or vengeance? According to Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. God is the only one who can justly judge and when the time comes, it will be his place to decide the final destiny of each individual. But for now, as it says in 2 Peter 3:9, God “is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”

So, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people's trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making his plea through us.”

If you are trying to reconcile with someone, calling down fire on them will backfire. Condemning them will not commend you to them. Swearing to get even with them will not make them hear you out. To get people to listen to you, to approach them about reconciliation, you have to do so in the right spirit—specifically, the Spirit of God.

In our passage from Galatians Paul delineates the fruit of the Spirit, which he produces in us. And I go along with those commentators who point out that since the Greek word for “fruit” used here is singular, the one fruit the Spirit produces is love. The rest of the qualities listed are attributes of that love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. No room for wiping out Samaritan villages in that love. No space for passing verdicts on who is going to hell. No permission to hate people, regardless of how different they are from us. Those things—enmity, strife, anger, quarrels, dissension and factions—are listed as works of the flesh. They are not products of love, especially divine love.

That is the Spirit whom the disciples did not realize they were of. Only the Holy Spirit of God's love could accomplish the ministry of reconciliation.

Violence against others does not make them our friends. Threats and insults and harassment will not bring them to Christ either. Being loving will.

One person who understood Jesus' attitude towards destroying his enemies was our 16th President. Abraham Lincoln was told he was too courteous to his enemies, people he really ought to be keen to eliminate. To which Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

It's difficult to win people over and time consuming. That's why you rarely if ever see reconciliation in movies. Physical conflict is easier to depict and more exciting to watch. Forgiveness, especially of a bitter enemy, confuses the stark narrative of good versus evil, so that too is seldom shown.

But in real life, violence begets more violence. It doesn't actually solve problems. Iraq is still wracked with violence, though we have deposed their tyrannical leader and withdrawn from active fighting. Afghanistan doesn't look like it is going to be enjoying lasting peace when we have reduced our presence. Both sides in Syria have resorted to horrific acts and it is doubtful whether those who seek to replace President Assad will be any better than him. Humanity's pervasive violence is the reason given for God cleansing the world with the flood and starting over with Noah.

Could God establish his kingdom through violence? The experience of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament rather conclusively says no. All who think that a top-down official endorsement and enforcement of God's laws are a good policy would do well to read Deuteronomy through 2 Kings closely. The dismal record of the people and their kings succumbing to the temptations of arrogance, lust, greed, rage, power and idolatry over and over again is hammered home. Unaided human nature is incapable of obeying God's law. That's why through Christ God is doing something new: winning over the hearts and minds of those who oppose him and then writing his law in those hearts.

Paul himself is converted from a man driven to try to stamp out an idea through persecution and execution to a man so touched by God's love that he willing to die for that same idea. And he knows that the methods of coercion and suppression will not prevail against the gospel. It is God's power to save everyone who believes. And it is a power that has to be individually accepted to be effective. It cannot be forced onto anyone, much less an entire city, state or nation. It must be sown as a seed, scattered everywhere, and trusted to grow as each soil and soul permits.

But that doesn't mean that anyone can declare himself a disciple. In the second part of our Gospel reading we see a succession of would be followers rebuffed by Jesus. To the first guy, Jesus points out that his life is a peripatetic one. Perhaps thinking of the Samaritan village that refused him, Jesus points out he has no place to lay his head. If you follow Jesus, you can forget about being guaranteed the comforts of home. So count the cost before signing up.

Jesus tells a second man to follow him. The man says he has to bury his father first. It's unlikely that he would be hanging around Jesus had his father just died. It is more likely that his father has been dead a while and he is talking about the custom of reopening a tomb a year later after the soft tissue is gone and gathering the bones to be put in an ossuary. So he is asking Jesus for a significant rain check. Christ replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead...” In other words, let those who are spiritually dead attend to such things. Proclaiming the gospel is much more urgent. And what's more, if you don't act now, you probably never will.

Finally one fellow says he will follow Jesus after he says goodbye to the family. Again Jesus quashes this idea. If you're plowing a field, you have to keep your eyes forward. Look back and you'll veer off course and make a mess of the furrow you're carving into the ground. Jesus doesn't want his disciples looking back in nostalgia or homesickness but forward in anticipation of the challenges and opportunities coming up.

Is this a contradiction? Jesus is reconciling the world to God but turning away people? Actually, Jesus is not so much turning them away as warning them of the conditions for following him. For all we know one or two or all three changed their minds and followed him without hesitation. Jesus was just being upfront about what they were signing on for. You don't want to find out how skydiving works after you've leaped out of the plane. And if you're joining the army, you need to know that you must obey the orders of your superior officer. You can't go AWOL for family get-togethers.

The kingdom is open to anyone who wants to become a citizen but not everyone will want to, especially when they find out what changes they must make. Jesus must come first. Anything that will impede that relationship has to be jettisoned. It's not that you have to love your family and friends less than you do, but you must love Jesus more. If that's a dealbreaker, then move on. There are other religions out there that will accommodate themselves to your personal priorities.

The commandments to love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself must be your overriding operating principles. It is our love for one another that Jesus said would identify us as his disciples. If you reserve the right to hate or be indifferent about certain people, you aren't cut out to be a Christian.

Spreading the good news about Jesus is another big priority. If you want to keep what Jesus has done for you a personal secret, then you really don't understand the program. It would be like finding a doctor who fixed your heart and saved your life, and then not telling other sick people about this great heart surgeon. We're not trying to get fans for Jesus but save the lives of others.

Perhaps that's the big thing to take away from today's gospel. Think of all the sins as the symptoms of disease. Some symptoms are annoying—like the sudden bursts of profanity folks with Tourette's Syndrome might involuntarily shout out. Some symptoms are revolting—like oozing sores. Some are alarming—like the blood-tinged sputum TB patients cough up. But we don't call down fire on these people. We try to help them. Sin is a disease of the human moral faculty. Individual sins are the symptoms. Some are annoying, some are revolting and some are alarming for being possibly contagious.

But Christians shouldn't show annoyance or disgust or alarm. We need to show compassion. We are Jesus' health care team. We urge people to come to the great physician to be healed. We give support and encouragement; we help remind each other to take our medicine, take in proper spiritual nutrition, get our exercise, and follow the doctor's orders. Remember what Jesus said about the doctor's place: it's to be with the sick. And as his staff that's where we are to be as well. We are not to decide who is and is not worthy of being healed. Nor do we force anyone to undergo treatment. We are simply helping the great physician by bringing the sick to him for healing, just as he is healing us.

Jesus didn't come to destroy people but to save them. As his disciples, we must do the same. We act out of love for them and out of love and gratitude for him.

And that's the Spirit we are of. 

The Bible Challenge: Day 181

The scriptures read are Job 7-9, Psalm 148 and 2 Corinthians 7.

Job 7. Job complains that life is hard, painful and ephemeral. He wishes his life were over since he has seen the last of goodness. Even sleep gives him no rest. Well, he won't be around long. (Job sounds suicidal to me.)

Job 8. Bildad speaks. Does he pick up on Job's despair? Does he empathize with his suffering friend? No. He says that God doesn't make mistakes so Job's kids must have sinned. Everything in the world makes perfect sense to Bildad. Get down on your knees and God will make everything right.

Job 9. Bildad has added nothing new to the discussion so Job ignores him and wonders how he could make his case before God. God knows more. Job acknowledges that God's wisdom is immense as is his power. It's an unequal match. Job just wishes God would hear him. Or maybe God is indifferent to people, good or bad.

Psalm 148. Let everything and everyone praise God. This is so encyclopedic it reminds me of St. Patrick's Breastplate or St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun.

2 Corinthians 7. Paul wrote a rather harsh letter between 1 Corinthians and this letter. He was worried about its effect. Then Titus came with the news that the Corinthians straightened up and flew right. They were even concerned about Paul. And the distress has brought the church closer to God. All in all, the harsh letter did its work. Paul is proud of this church for turning things around so thoroughly.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 180

The scriptures read are Job 4-6, Psalm 147 and 2 Corinthians 6.

Job 4-5. Eliphaz goes first. What he says sounds very orthodox, very biblical. "Doesn't God come through in the end? Just accept his discipline and ask for his mercy. It'll all turn out for the best." We believers tend to say such things when others are hurting. But notice how inadequate this line of talk is for someone in Job's situation. He's lost his wealth, his health and his kids: everything! He is in philosophical and physical pain. Eliphaz's words are like a bandaid on a sucking chest wound. Worse, they are like rubbing salt in the wound.

Job 6. Job says, "Look, God has really worked me over. I am suffering and would be happy to be put out of my misery. You're not listening to me as I express my pain. Your words are of no help. They are like an oasis in the desert that turns out to be dry. Besides, you are implying I deserved this. Really? I deserved this?!?"

Psalm 147. This sounds like it was written after Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. It praises God for returning the exiles and redeeming Jerusalem.

2 Corinthians 6. Paul gets lyrical about the paradoxes of the Christian life; how things good and bad occur but the true Christian soldiers on, helping fulfill God's purposes but not letting the bad stuff derail them. God is our partner, not the forces of darkness. Don't embrace corruption; embrace God our Father.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 179

The scriptures read are Job 1-3, Psalm 146 and 2 Corinthians 5.

Job. Don't ever let anyone tell you that the Bible says follow all of God's rules and only good things will happen to you. This book refutes that. It says, yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people. While the causes of a lot of the world's suffering are obvious, that is not always true. And it is supremely dishonest to say that there is always a rational answer to suffering. That's the Bible saying that--in this very book, the first of the Wisdom books.

Job 1. Job is established as an extremely good man. He's been blessed with wealth (lots of animals) and family (7 sons and 3 daughters). Every morning Job makes a sacrifice for each of his kids lest they inadvertently sin.

The scene shifts to the heavenly court. The angels file in, including Satan! (The name means the Adversary or the Accuser. He appears to function like a prosecuting attorney.) God asks him where he's been and Satan answers like an evasive kid: "Around. Here and there." God asks if he's seen good ol' righteous Job. Satan says, "Sure, he's good. You've made it pay for him to be good. Take away all his blessings and he'll curse you like that." God says, "Do what you want with the blessings but don't touch Job himself." Satan sweeps out.

The timing of this next scene would be comic were it not so devastating. 4 messengers, one after another, come running in to tell Job of some disaster that has wiped out his wealth and finally his children. Job reacts by tearing his garment and shaving his head in a traditionally Middle Eastern display of grief. He says, stoically, that he came into this world with nothing and can take nothing out. We have to take the good with the bad from God. He doesn't curse God.

Job 2. The scene is the heavenly court and everything starts out as before, down to Satan's evasive answer and God touting Job's integrity. Satan is having none of it. "Sure, he's holding up well. He still has his health, hasn't he? Take that away and it's curse-God time for Job." God says, "Ok, you can do what you want with his health but don't kill him." God has Satan on some kind of leash. He can't go farther that God lets him.

(BTW, if you are wondering where the writer got the lowdown on what happens in heaven or feel that God and Satan betting with Job's life and happiness is just awful, feel free to see this as an extended parable. Whether or not this was based on an actual person is not important. The point of the story is.)

Job takes his new misery stoically. Even his wife feels he should curse God and die. Job rebukes her. He is still capable of being philosophical about this, sitting on his ash heap and scraping his open sores with a broken piece of pottery.

Enter Job's friends. They, like he, live outside of Canaan (Job is in Uz or Edom). They come and simply sit with him for 7 days (rather like the Jewish mourning ritual of sitting shiv'ah.) When a friend is suffering sometimes the best thing to say is nothing, just be there for them. If Job's friends had stayed quiet, they would have served Job better. But then we wouldn't have this book debating the causes of suffering.

Job 3. Job is through being stoic. He breaks his silence and instead of cursing God he curses the day he was born. He wishes he was never born or that he was stillborn. The grave is quiet and peaceful and everyone is equal there. Job is seriously depressed. He just wants the pain to end.

Psalm 146. This is a good counterpoint to Job's lament. The psalmist expresses faith in God and in his justice. Both viewpoints are valid. C. S. Lewis once pointed out that one cannot say anything either bad enough or good enough about life.

2 Corinthians 5. Paul begins to soar. We do what we do, in part, because we have gotten a glimpse of the resurrection and we can't wait to fold up these tents, our earthly bodies, and move into better digs, our resurrection bodies. As Peterson translates it, "The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what's ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we'll never settle for less."

That's what makes us happy, no matter what happens, and knowing that we must one day face God keeps us on our toes.

All this is possible thanks to Jesus, who died so we could have his life. That makes us look at everyone differently, not based on externals. Because in Jesus everyone gets the ultimate makeover: we become new creations. God was patching up things with the world through Jesus and now that is our mission in life: letting everyone know that you can get everything patched up with God through Christ. He's made us his ambassadors to tell everyone that. Become friends with God. Jesus took the punishment for your sins so you can stop punishing yourself.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 178

The scriptures read are Esther 9-10, Psalm 145 and 2 Corinthians 4.

Esther 9-10. The dreaded day comes but it is a reverse massacre, not of the Jews but of their enemies.And we get an explanation of the name and duration of Purim.

Did you notice what was missing? Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God. Or indeed anything religious.

Psalm 145. Another acrostic psalm, using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The subject is God's surpassing goodness to all. I especially like verse 14: "The Lord supports all who stumble, and makes all who are bent stand straight."

2 Corinthians 4. Paul reminds his readers that the good news is not centered on him and his band of missionaries but on Jesus. That's clear to all but the spiritually blind. We on the other hand are flooded with God's light, though we are fragile vessels of it. But that gives us the strength to bounce back when life knocks us down. The thing to remember is that what is visible now is temporary; what is invisible is eternal.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 177

The scriptures read are Esther 7-8, Psalm 144 and 2 Corinthians 3.

Esther 7-8. At her second dinner with Haman (boo! hiss!) and the king, Esther reveals that she is a Jew and she and her people are doomed to die because of their enemy. And who is that enemy? Haman! (boo! hiss!) Haman (boo! hiss!) realizes the danger of his position and begs with the queen. But he ends up impaled on the 75 foot stake he had intended for Mordecai (yay!).

The king gives Haman's (boo! hiss!) estate to Esther and his position to Mordecai (yay!). But he still hasn't countermanded the order to massacre the Jews! So the king lets Mordecai (yay!) write it and seal it with the signet ring of the king. Mordecai (yay!) goes farther, giving the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies. This new decree goes out to all the provinces of the empire.

Psalm 144. A psalm of David, the warrior-king.

2 Corinthians 3. Paul's critics attacked his credentials as apostle. Paul says the people of the Corinthian church itself are all the credentials he needs. And they were written by the Spirit of God.

Paul contrasts the old covenant with the new, the fading glory with the eternal glory. He contrasts the dead covenant of law with the covenant of the living Spirit of God. And the Spirit, Paul reminds us in v. 17, is the Lord, who needs to be obeyed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 176

The scriptures read are Esther 4-6, Psalm 143 and 2 Corinthians 2.

Esther 4. Mordecai (yay!) learns of the proposed slaughter of the Jews. He puts on sackcloth and ashes and openly laments. Esther gets word of this and communicates with her uncle through one of the eunuchs. Mordecai (yay!) passes on the decree to slaughter the Jews and urges Esther to intervene with the king. But no-one can enter the king's presence unsummoned. It means death, unless he extends the golden scepter toward them. Esther asks Mordecai (yay!) to have the Jews in the city fast for 3 days for her. She will speak to the king, though it may mean her death.

Esther 5. Esther lets the king see her and he extends the gold scepter. She approaches and invites him and Haman (boo! hiss!) to dine with her that night. The king, deep in his cups, asks what she desires and she invites him and Haman (boo! hiss!) to dinner again tomorrow.

Haman (boo! hiss!) is full of himself, getting to dine with the king and queen. But Mordecai (yay!) still isn't showing him respect. Zeresh, Haman's (boo! hiss!) wife, suggests he have a 75 foot high stake put up and in the morning ask the king to have Mordecai (yay!) impaled on it. The stake is installed.

Esther 6. This is such a wonderful reversal I'm not going to spoil it. Read it.

Psalm 143. Urgently asking for God to come through for someone whose spirit can endure no more.

2 Corinthians 2. Paul refers to a harsh letter he wrote and sent before this one. It's not 1 Corinthians so scholars posit another letter than came between these 2 letters. Paul was anxious about it but it has done its job. And since the excommunication of the man sleeping with his mother-in-law has worked and Paul tells the Corinthian church to now forgive the man and welcome him back. Pour on the love, as Peterson puts it.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Collateral Damage

After a superhero has been around a while, his audience has grown up and their tastes change. What enchanted them as kids now seems naïve and cartoonish. So eventually, the comic book writers do a what is called a gritty reboot. The most obvious example is what has happened to Batman. In the 50s and 60s Batman was very kid friendly, with colorful villains committing nonsensical crimes. The old TV series took its cues from that. In reaction, comic book artist Frank Miller was allowed to do a gritty reboot in the mid-1980s which has influenced the grimmer Batman films of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, where the gray and blue Caped Crusader became the black-garbed Dark Knight. And soon every comic book hero was being made darker and, if not realistic, then reality-adjacent.

Superman is 75 years old so I guess it was time for his gritty reboot, which he gets in the new movie, Man of Steel. I personally liked most of the changes they made to his legend. They made Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Lois Lane smart enough to figure out that Superman was Clark Kent. They showed how the influence of his 2 fathers, Kryptonian and earthly, shaped Clark's ethics. And they made the fight between super-powered beings from Krypton epic. Which means Smallville and Metropolis take a lot of damage, as Superman and the bad guys battle it out. Someone on the internet worked out that the property damage was easily in the range of a billion dollars, with the death toll something like 100,000, plus a million injured. But if Superman had failed, everyone on earth would die as General Zod terraformed our planet into the new Krypton.

It's called collateral damage, the military term for unintended destruction of life and property that is often an unavoidable consequence of achieving a goal. If we use a drone to take out a terrorist, anyone else killed by the blast, whether family or friend or passerby, is considered collateral damage. By the military, that is. I'm sure the families of the victims see their deaths as anything but secondary consequences of some action.

Jesus caused some collateral damage in the healing of the demoniac who confronts him in today's passage from Luke 8. A whole herd of pigs were lost. They were somebody's property, someone's livelihood. Were their deaths worth it?

Jesus and his disciples left Jewish territory and crossed the Sea of Galilee to the other side. The Decapolis, which means “Ten Towns,” was Gentile territory. As soon as they step onto land, they are confronted by a naked and scarred man. He lived among the tombs, where he wandered screaming and cutting himself with stones, according to Mark's account. He may have been dragging the chains he had broken out of. Most of us, upon seeing such a guy coming towards us, would get back in the boat and push off.

Mark tells us the man saw Jesus from some distance and ran towards him. Jesus stands his ground and the man drops to his knees and cries out, “Jesus, son of the Most High God! What do you want with me?” Jesus is already commanding the demon to come out of the man. “I beg you, do not torment me!” the man screams.

Healing this man is a tough case and Jesus asks him, “What is your name?” Chillingly, the man says, “Legion, for we are many.”

Every time I read that passage, my mind goes back to my college days. I was part of a skid row ministry. The college van would take us from Wheaton in the suburbs to a section of downtown Chicago that looked as if it had been bombed. Entire blocks had been razed to the ground. The center of our ministry was an old building where a lot of alcoholics and drug addicts stayed. It was an ancient hotel with a large old-fashioned lobby. Upstairs, the interior walls had been ripped out and replaced by many smaller cubicles separated by partial walls that didn't reach to the ceiling. Chicken wire had been stapled to the top of the walls to keep, I suppose, the residents from getting into each other's living spaces. The rooms, or more accurately human kennels, were only big enough for one small bed that took up one wall, a bedside table and a chair. They were no bigger than jail cells. And here lived men whose lives were blighted by the demons they had fought and lost to. The name of the place was, appropriately, the Legion Hotel.

A Roman legion was about 4 to 6000 men. We needn't take the number literally. It just means that this man was bedeviled by forces that overwhelmed his mind and made him violent and unable to live among the people of the city.

The demons beg Jesus not to send them into the abyss, the void, hell. They ask instead to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus consents and the demons leave the man for the pigs. The pigs promptly stampede down a steep bank or cliff and into the lake, drowning. They are collateral damage to the healing of the man.

A lot of people have trouble with the whole concept of demons causing mental illness, including some Christians. I have worked with psychiatric patients who were convinced they were possessed. They heard voices telling them terrible things, urging them to harm themselves. One commentary I read suggested that Jesus was having trouble healing the man because the guy felt he was so dominated by demons, and so Jesus used the pigs to convince the man that the demons had left him and that he was indeed healed.

I'm not going to argue over which things invisible to the eye afflicted the man--germs, DNA or demons. The fact is that Jesus healed him. When the townspeople come to see what happened, they find the man sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they all rejoiced and praised God, right?

Wrong. They were frightened of Jesus and upset about the pigs. They asked Jesus to leave. They cared more about animals and money lost than the fact that a man gained his sanity and a chance at a good life. They felt the collateral damage was too high.

In fact, as in Jesus' day, the collateral damage of our actions is often monetary and we frequently put a higher priority on money than on people. We will help people if it doesn't cost very much. We will refrain from helping people if it costs what we consider too much. A lot of the hot button issues of the day pit people against money. For instance, some people think that cuts to Medicare and Social Security are too high a cost to pay in the effort to decrease the deficit, despite the fact that together they make up more than 40% of the federal budget. Some would rather cut safety net programs like food stamps, supplemental income for the disabled or elderly poor, school meals, low income housing assistance, child care assistance and programs that aid abused and neglected children, though these only make up 12% of the budget. And we've seen that politicians think that continuing to get money from lobbyists and special interest groups is worth the collateral damage done to their constituents by the resulting gridlock of the legislative process on issues such as immigration, the safety of our kids, the mentally ill, and communities recovering from disasters.

What we consider acceptable collateral damage varies with who sustains that damage. We want help when we need it but we are not so quick to help others when they need it, especially when they are people who are far from us, in geography, culture or appearance. To the people we call NIMBYs, we can add ISEPs: “It's Someone Else's Problem.” We are not much different from Caine who denied he was his brother's keeper. That word could also be translated “preserver or protector.” Jesus teaches us that there is no such thing as “Someone Else's Problem.” As we learn in Matthew 25, when we neglect to help others who are in need, we are neglecting Jesus. When we help others, we are helping Jesus.

So is helping Jesus worth the loss of a herd of swine? Is helping our neighbor worth spending some of our time, talent and treasure? If not, what did Jesus mean by his parable of the Good Samaritan? The hero of that parable checks out a man left for dead, gives him first aid, transports him to an inn, nurses the man and then pays for his continuing care. Imagine what that cost him in terms of time, effort, and money. And Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

Let's put it this way. If your child was seriously ill, is there anything you would not give to make her well? Would you not spend all your time, use all of your abilities, spend whatever you had to cure her? And if it led to her cure, would you not consider that worth it? Of course. That's natural. But as Christians, we are to see everyone as our brothers and sisters. We are to view them not as annoyances or as drains on our resources but as children of God, worth what it takes to cure or save them.

It is a peculiarity of human beings that we tend to value what is dead over what is alive. That is we value things over people. We prize our belongings, our toys, our money more than we do others. If we did not, we would not turn our back on others because of the cost. It would be rare rather than common for someone to work hard and yet not be able to afford a place to stay, as is true for people working minimum wage. The most frequent cause of bankruptcy in this country would not be medical bills. People would not be cheated, or robbed, or murdered for their possessions and money. I remember once hearing a news story about a person killed during a robbery in which the robber got ten dollars. I thought, “How sad that he should die over ten bucks.” And then I realized that it was sad that he should die over any amount of money.

A lot of the problems in this world are due to having our values and priorities inverted. We put things ahead of people. We put beauty before character. We put any shiny new idea before old but ageless wisdom. We put our own good, or that of our family, our people, or our country ahead of the good of everyone else. We put the transient things of this life ahead of eternal life. We put our desires ahead of God's will.

In Acts 17:6 Christians are called those who turn the world upside down. If so, we get it from Jesus. He's the one who said that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of God rather than the outwardly righteous. He's the one who said those who enjoyed most of the blessings of this life were not a shoe-in for the next life. He's the one who said the leader of all must serve all. He's the king who inaugurated his reign not by killing his enemies but by letting his enemies kill him.

Of course, Jesus wouldn't say he turned the world upside down; he'd say he was turning right side up. In the world God created, he sets the values. The creator, the author of life, the pattern of and reason for the world, comes first. People, created in his image, come next, before all the things we have created: money, possessions, politics, social classes, even art.

And, yeah, people come before pork. Healing people, freeing them from whatever enslaves and oppresses them, whatever separates them from God and from others, comes before our comfort and convenience. What we expend to help others is not wasted but a sacrifice, something made sacred by being offered to God and his purposes. Jesus said that anyone who offered someone a glass of water because of him would be rewarded. Surely that applies to whatever we give or give up to bring others to Jesus.

What a different story this would be had the city folk rejoiced to see the man healed. Perhaps that why Jesus didn't let him come with him. Someone needed to let people know what really happened here: that Jesus brought a homeless, naked madman out of darkness into light, out of pain into wholeness, out of anguish into peace, out of the world of the dead into the realm of life. And all it cost was some pigs. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 174

The scriptures read are Esther 1-3, Psalm 142 and 2 Corinthians 1.

Esther. This book is unique in many ways. It is the basis of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is a fun occasion involving music and feasting and dressing up in costumes. Gifts of food and drink are exchanged, special charitable giving to the poor is practiced and the climax is the reading of the whole book (often by women, since Esther is the heroine of the story, a kind of Jewish Cinderella with moxie) with special chants and cheering for the hero and noise-making to drown out the name of the villain who is mentioned 54 times in the book. Rabbis even prescribing drinking until one could not distinguish between cursing the bad guy and blessing the good guy. This is a time of raucous rejoicing.

There is something else unique about this book of the Bible. In the Adventure of the Silver Blaze, when a police detective asks Sherlock Holmes if there is anything else about the crime that he wishes to draw their attention to, Holmes says, "The curious incident of the dog in the night." But, the police inspector says, the dog did nothing in the night. "That is the curious incident," Holmes replies. There is likewise a curious omission in the Book of Esther. Are you observant enough to catch it?

Esther 1. The whole thing starts when the Xerxes, King of Persia, gets drunk at a party, calls for his Queen to leave her party, come over and show herself off to his guests. She refuses. He gets mad. His advisers tell him to dump her lest all the women in the kingdom forget their places. And to bolster the positions of husbands everywhere, he does. (BTW, Xerxes is the Persian king made famous in the film 300 for losing a lot of men to just 300 Spartans.)

Esther 2. The king starts to regret his action so his advisers go about rounding up virgins to present to the king so he, presumably, forgets his uppity wife. Enter our heroine. Hadassah, which is Hebrew for "myrtle," is a virgin orphan raised by her Uncle Mordecai (yay!). She's hot and is selected by the king's men to be one of the virgins. Mordecai (yay!) has advised her to keep her race secret so we know her as Esther, probably from the Persian word for "star." After a 12 month beauty regimen (Katniss got off easy!) Esther is presented to the King. He falls for her and makes her queen. It doesn't hurt that Mordecai (yay!) passes on word of a plot to assassinate the king and Esther warns the king of the treachery of two of his eunuchs. They get impaled. (That's how they hung people in Persia.)

(BTW Hadassah is the name of a Jewish women's volunteer group, like WELCA in the Lutheran Church or the Daughters of the King in the Episcopal Church.)

Esther 3. Enter the villain. Haman (boo! hiss!) is the king's right hand man and he likes it. He doesn't like that everyone bows to him but Mordecai (yay!). So in true supervillain fashion Haman (boo! hiss!) plots to kill all the Jews on the 13th of the month Adar. And after poisoning the king's ear about the Jews, Xerxes is going to let him.

Psalm 142. Feeling all alone, the psalmist (David according to the ascription) appeals to God.

2 Corinthians 1. The problems in Corinth were not entirely resolved by Paul's last letter to the church there. He evidently made a quick visit to them which did not go well. Then he wrote a rather harsh letter to them (some commentators think that it is chapters 10 through 13 of this letter). That did bring results and so we get to the present letter.

Unlike 1 Corinthians, Paul does have his usual prayers and blessings for the church. And he is grateful to God to getting him and his mission team out of a potentially deadly crisis in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).

Paul talks about his change of plans, assuring the church he wasn't being wishy-washy. But after his last visit he was pretty sure another visit would just be painful so for their sake, he cancelled.

Great verse: 20. Jesus is the "Yes" to all God's promises.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 173

The scriptures read are Nehemiah 13, Psalm 141 and 1 Corinthians 16.

Nehemiah 13. Nehemiah goes to Persia to brief the king and everything falls apart while he's gone. When he returns to Jerusalem he has to fix things up again. So not much has changed.

Psalm 141. A prayer for protection against sinning.

1 Corinthians 16. Paul wraps up his letter with a few odds and ends: the offering for relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem, plans for a long visit soon, news about Timothy visiting and possibly Apollos, greetings from friends and a line written by Paul himself.

You have now finished 16 Old Testament books. You are almost done with the historical books and about to get into the Wisdom books. You've also finished 7 New Testament books. And the end of Psalms is coming soon. Just 22 OT and 20 NT books to go at this time. In a little over a week the year of reading the Bible will be at the mid-point. Keep up the good work!

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 172

The scriptures read are Nehemiah 10-12, Psalm 140 and 1 Corinthians 15.

Nehemiah 10. The oath and the signatories (not necessarily in that order.)

Nehemiah 11. The names of those who moved to Jerusalem and those who didn't.

Nehemiah 12. More names and the dedication of the wall.

Psalm 140. "I know that the Lord will champion the cause of the poor, the right of the needy."

1 Corinthians 15. Just like the Lord's Supper, Paul gives us our earliest written account of the resurrection of Jesus. Notice that he mentions 500 people who saw the risen Christ. It's like he's saying, "If you don't believe me, ask them."

Then Paul goes onto the importance of the resurrection: if Jesus didn't rise then we are screwed. Who would face ridicule, shame, pain and martyrdom if Jesus didn't rise from the dead?

Paul lists the ways Jesus recapitulates and reverses Adam's actions.Then he moves on to our resurrection bodies and how they will be as different from our present bodies as a full grown plant is from its seed. That flowering will come because Christ is in us, growing and giving us our final shape.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 171

The scriptures read are Nehemiah 7-9, Psalm 139 and 1 Corinthians 14.

Nehemiah 7. The gates are finished and we get a rundown of those who returned from Babylon.

Nehemiah 8. Ezra reads the Torah and the people cry. Ezra reminds them "The joy of the Lord is your strength." We need to be reminded of that as well.

The people celebrate Sukkoth or the Feast of Booths.

Nehemiah 9. The people come in sackcloth and ashes and confess their sins. The Levites say a rather lengthy prayer recapping Hebrew history from Abraham to the present. They draw up a pledge...

Psalm 139. God is omniscient and omnipresent. He knows everything, even about ourselves, and has done so since before we were born. That's comforting or not depending on how much you trust God.

1 Corinthians 14. How does Paul follow up his eloquent chapter on Christian love? He writes of the controversy about speaking in tongues, another divisive issue. Paul speaks in tongues but realizes that if it doesn't edify the church, it should be saved for personal and not public spiritual refreshment. Clear preaching is more useful to those meeting together.

Worship being his focus, Paul gives practical tips to keep the services from being either chaos or the same old, same old. And, as Peterson translates it: "Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could be more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home." Which fits with what Paul says in chapter 11, namely, that women could prophesy (preach) and pray in church, provided they covered their heads. As for the disruptions, perhaps they arose because women weren't really allowed to participate in Jewish worship and now that they were free to do so, they were interrupting the service with questions and comments. All Paul is saying here is, "handle those things elsewhere; when worshiping, focus on God and not other details." One thing he is not doing is telling women to never speak in church. That's poor hermeneutics.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 170

The scriptures read are Nehemiah 4-6, Psalm 138 and 1 Corinthians 13.

Nehemiah 4-6. Nehemiah describes the nerve-wracking conditions under which the wall is rebuilt--guards, even the builders armed against those who would stop the Jews from their task. Then he has to deal with a revolt due to the rich gouging their fellow Jews. Nehemiah shames them into returning property and not charging interest. Then he has to deal with a psy-ops campaign from his enemies who were not above bribing  "prophets" to lead Nehemiah astray.

Psalm 138. A psalm of praise and confidence.

1 Corinthians 13. Do yourself a favor and read this beautiful but oh too familiar chapter in the J. B. Phillips translation here or the Message here. No further commentary needed.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 169

The scriptures read are Nehemiah 1-3, Psalm 137 and 1 Corinthians 12.

Nehemiah 1-3. We learn how Nehemiah found out about the fallen walls of Jerusalem, how he got the king of Persia to endorse his efforts, and his assessment of the condition of the city infrastructure. Everybody decides to pitch in. In a church today they'd get plaques. In those days your family got mentioned in the Bible!

Psalm 137. A lament by the Jews in exile. Very moving, till that jarring last line. Points for being honest before God about your feelings, though.

1 Corinthians 12. Paul is still working with divisions in Corinth. He starts off by mentioning the spiritual gifts, different talents given by the Spirit to empower the different kinds of people in the church. I don't for a minute believe this is an exhaustive list.

Then Paul brilliantly uses our bodies as a metaphor for all the different parts and functions of the church, united in Christ's Spirit. Paul points out that we are interdependent on each other and cannot say to fellow Christians that they are unneeded. Nor that unity requires uniformity. The yukkiest parts of the body are just as vital as the really attractive parts. And if one part is in pain, the whole body knows and suffers. Read this chapter carefully and think of examples of it in your present or a past church. How can we be more like a healthy body and less like a collection of unrelated folks who only think they share a a common mission?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Power Usage

In the musical Camelot, King Arthur is trying to adapt medieval feudalism to fit the ideal he has in mind. The problem is that feudalism is all about, as Wikipedia puts it, “reciprocal legal and military obligations among warrior nobility.” The grants of lands and titles come from kings, who were also warriors. And generally in a warrior society, might makes right. But Arthur knows that this is wrong. The strongest guy is not always in the right. But the way the world works, that rarely matters. In the play, Arthur's innovation is the idea of enlisting might for right. He institutes the rule of law, under which all, strong and weak, must live. He turns his Knights of the Round Table into instruments of enforcing the laws and dispensing justice. Ironically, Mordred frames Guinevere for adultery with Lancelot and by law, adultery against the king is treason. The queen is sentenced to burn. But Lancelot, Arthur's mightiest knight, leads a rescue of Guinevere, killing several fellow Knights of the Round Table. This act of violence triggers a war and the tragedy of the fall of Camelot is that might in service of rage and revenge triumphs over right.

To quote Lord Acton, “Power corrupts.” When you can do things others can't because of your physical, financial or political power, it's hard to deny yourself all the things which that power can bring you. Studies have shown that people who are handsome or pretty are more likely to cheat on their spouses. And you have only to follow the news to see how people with lots of wealth and/or political influence abuse the power they have. We are not much different from animals who use their power to get what they want: food, a mate, or the position of top dog.

We have different Old Testament readings in our lectionary but similar displays of naked power in both. In 1 Kings 21, Ahab, king of Israel, is in his second home, his palace in Jezreel. His neighbor Naboth has a fine vineyard. Ahab wants it to plant as a vegetable garden. He offers Naboth a better vineyard or the land's value in money. But Naboth expresses a sentiment grounded in the history of Israel. God directed Joshua to divide up the promised land between the tribes and clans. To Israelites, their land was given to them and their descendants by God. Naboth cannot bring himself to give that up.

So Ahab sulks. Jezebel, his Phoenician wife, can't understand why her husband can't have what he wants. In her culture, all land belongs to the king, not to God. So she comes up with a scheme to get Ahab what he wants. She forges letters in Ahab's name calling a fast. Fasts were announced when there was a serious matter before the land, like a threat from a foreign army or the famine resulting from the drought Elijah announced. The people were to fast and call upon God and ask for his mercy and forgiveness of their sins.

Jezebel arranges to have Naboth seated in the place of honor at the event and then have 2 confederates denounce him for cursing God and the king: the twin crimes of blasphemy and treason. He is then dragged outside and stoned. Then Jezebel tells Ahab that the vineyard is his, seized from the dead traitor. But through God, Elijah knows and announces God's judgment on Ahab and Jezebel right there in their bloodily acquired vineyard.

The other track of the Revised Common Lectionary tells the almost parallel story of David and Bathsheba. Our passage from 2 Samuel 11 and 12 picks up after David commits what should be the perfect crime. After having impregnated the wife of his loyal soldier Uriah, David called the man home from the front. But Uriah, mindful that his fellow soldiers are far from their families, refuses to sleep with his wife. So, much as Jezebel will later do, David sends sealed orders by Uriah that he be put into the thick of the fighting and the rest of the troops withdrawn. So he dies in battle. And David claims his widow. But again through God the prophet knows. Nathan gets David to condemn himself through his reaction to a hypothetical case of injustice. Cleverly, he uses the story of a lamb to appeal to the shepherd-king. David loses his temper against the rich man who kills the lamb of his poor neighbor. “...the man who did this deserves to die!” David roars. To which Nathan replies, “You are the man!”

In both stories, the rich and powerful take what is not theirs to satisfy their pleasure. In both cases, they abuse their positions and mask their theft with murder. In both cases, God knows and pronounces judgment on them.

Ever so often, when discussing morality, people appeal to what is natural. Unfortunately, nature really can't tell us much about what we should do, only what we in fact do. It is natural for a lion, upon defeating the head of a pride, to kill all the cubs sired by his predecessor. It is natural for higher tier baboons to physically bully those lower in the hierarchy, who in turn bully those below them. It is natural for the black widow spider to eat a male after mating with him. Nature can't be relied upon to tell us how we ought to behave.

Human beings, like other animals, tend to use their power to get what they want, even if it means screwing over those less powerful. Slavery was an normal institution in most societies throughout most of history. (Which is why the term “normal” is no more useful than “natural” when discussing ethics.) And slavery still exists and not just in benighted countries far away. Human trafficking, which happens right here in this country, is slavery. And paying people less than a living wage, which is widespread in restaurants and retailers, is little better than slavery. Why have so many companies moved their manufacturing overseas? Because for what they would have to pay an American for an hour's labor, they can pay people in those countries for a whole day's labor.

In the vast majority of societies, men have more power than women. Even in our society, men make about 30% more than women. I was shocked to find that this was true in nursing where women greatly outnumber men and often have positions of leadership. Only once in 30 years have I worked for a male head nurse. So why do the 9.6% of nurses who are male make on average more than the 90.4 % who are female?

In Jesus' day, women's opportunities were more limited. Marriage was the main goal for the Jewish virgin. A Jewish woman could only inherit her father's property if he had no sons. Women could go into business but generally only if they had no male relative to support them. And when it came to worship, women were segregated from the men and didn't participate, except for Sabbath prayers at home. A contemporary prayer had the worshiper thank God that he was not a woman. And the Talmud, a commentary on the Torah, said it was better to burn the Torah than to entrust it to a woman. Jesus teaching women was revolutionary. And letting a disreputable woman touch him was scandalous.

A sinful woman, probably a prostitute, had come into the banquet which was held for Jesus as guest teacher in the local synagogue. In such cases, the poor could enter but were, of course, to keep to themselves and not interfere with those at the banquet tables. As was the custom, Jesus and the others were reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and eating with their right hands. Their feet would be pointing away from the table, which is how the woman got access to Jesus' feet. She was anointing them with oil, crying on them and drying them with her hair. A respectable married woman would never uncover her hair and let it hang loose in public. And if the woman was a prostitute, just touching Jesus made him unclean. Imagine how you would feel if at a church dinner, a woman in tube top and hot pants with way too much make-up on came in and was touching and smearing lotion and crying on me. That's how the Pharisees felt about the drama this woman was making over Jesus.

So Jesus tells a parable of a creditor who forgives the debt of 2 men, one of whom owes 10 times what the other does. Who will love the creditor more? Jesus' host, Simon, says it would be the man forgiven the larger debt. Jesus agrees and then points out the ways in which the woman did more for him that his host had. This indicates the depth of her repentance. Jesus forgives her and tells her that her faith in him saved her. Naturally, this goes over like a lead balloon with the Pharisees.

Society is less forgiving than Jesus. One of the hardest thing to do these days is get a job if you have ever been convicted of a crime. Most job applications have a box you must check if you have. How many of the applicants who check that box get hired, do you suppose? And only occasionally do they specify felony convictions only. So anybody who has been convicted for possession of a joint, having an open container, having a DUI, or shoplifting, or any minor infraction, must check that box. How is someone to get their life started over if they can't get a job because of a onetime lapse of judgment?

Again the more powerful you are, the more easily you can get around a youthful or not-so-youthful indiscretion. Big name actors and celebrities rarely have their careers seriously sidelined for any crime less than murder. Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13 year old girl in 1977 and then fled to France hours before sentencing. Since then, he has made many successful movies, won 6 Oscars and has never served his sentence.

If what you've done is really notorious you can get interviewed on TV shows and write a book. You might even get your own TV or radio talk show: G. Gordon Liddy and ex-governor Elliot Spitzer spring to mind. Politicians who have committed adultery or certain misdemeanors can re-elected. There is a definite double standard when it comes to crime and punishment of the rich and powerful.

Jesus, as usual, looks at the heart. To him the big divide is not between rich and poor, sinner or saint. All human beings are sinners. To Jesus the crucial difference is between the penitent sinner and the unrepentant one. Is the person moving towards God or away from him? Are they open to the good news of God's love and forgiveness or are they closed to it? Jesus can't save those who won't let him.

At first the 3 passages don't quite go together. Except for this, all 3 of the sinners repent. The passage from 1 Kings doesn't go on long enough but Ahab does repent. Jezebel does not. David repents. The woman who washes Jesus' feet with her tears repents. And God forgives them. Rich or poor, respectable or not, God forgives us if we humbly confess our sins and ask for his forgiveness. That is how God manifests his power: in giving us a chance to repent and then in forgiving us. That is where we are equals: in our need for God's grace. And in that we are equally precious to him.

In next week's passage from Galatians Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” If we are one, we cannot bully or discriminate against one another. It would be like an inmate convicted of 3rd degree murder looking down upon one convicted of 2nd degree murder, or one charged with attempted murder feeling superior to a prisoner charged with actually committing murder. Paul, though he asserted his apostleship, never forgot that he was the last one Jesus appeared to, and only after Paul had arrested and condemned to death other Christians. Paul definitely loved Jesus more than many because he was aware of the great debt forgiven him. Paul thought, if God can forgive me, he can forgive anyone and he wanted everyone to know that. And that is why he got upset when anyone tried to put obstacles in the way of people coming to Christ. And that is why he bristled when anyone suggested that the grace of God was not sufficient to salvation, that we had to add something to earn salvation. Salvation isn't a standard of behavior you must reach in order to be accepted by God; salvation is a pardon handed down by God for the sins we can never undo or repay, and for which our only response should be eternal gratitude.

The Declaration of Independence said all men are created equal, and that's true as far as it goes. And obviously Jefferson did not mean equal in intelligence, or strength, or wealth, or class. He meant equal in worth and so equal in the eyes of the law. But we are equal in another way. We are all sinners; we all fall short of the glory for which God created us. We all betray even our own standards and constantly justify our own lapses while jumping on the other guy's flaws. Therefore, when God shows us mercy, we cannot boast of our own merits. We can only be thankful. If I have cancer and a doctor saves my life through surgery and treatment, I have no reason to look down on others who are still suffering from cancer. Rather I should tell them about my cure and urge them to see my doctor.

Today you seldom hear the term inferiority complex; you hear a lot about low self-esteem. And that can be a problem if it keeps a person from doing what he can. But I think more problems in this world are created by those with a superiority complex; who have very high self-esteem and feel entitled to everything they desire. They can be blinded by their own strengths to their equally real weaknesses. They disregard advise and caution; they refuse help; they don't recognize the contributions of others; they think that they and they alone are indispensable. This is arrogance and under its old name of pride is considered the worst of the 7 deadly sins. By definition, it precludes a humble, which is to say realistic, assessment of one's strengths and weaknesses. It precludes any doubt that you are right. It precludes asking God for help or really anything substantial.

Arrogant people bully others and disregard their feelings and rights. Ahab could not comprehend Naboth's desire to keep his family's land when it conflicted with the Ahab's desire for it. David could not see how Uriah's life was more important than David's reputation for righteousness. The Pharisees could not see how a woman's salvation was more important than their rules of ritual purity and propriety. Until Elijah, Nathan and Jesus showed them how God saw them and what they'd done.

Jesus said that in his Father's kingdom many who were first shall be last and the last shall be first. Do not be surprised if you find that the most honored human being in the new creation is someone you never heard of before, someone who was never made a saint by any church, never given an award, never put on a top ten list, never able to be found on a Google search. Because that person probably never made a name for him or herself, just acted in the name of Christ. That person never had any earthly power, only the power of the Holy Spirit in him or her. That person never had any wealth on earth, but only treasures in heaven. The people who give themselves totally to Jesus are like icebergs: what is most important about them is unseen and immense, beneath the surface, keeping them upright in a fluid and shifting environment. And never forget the lesson of the Titanic. For the proud creation of men sank while the nameless creation of God traveled on. And Jesus said that on the very last day, the impact we have on the least of his siblings will reveal whose power we put our trust in, our own or God's. 

The Bible Challenge: Day 167

The scriptures read are Ezra 10, Psalm 136 and 1 Corinthians 11.

Ezra 10. Turns out the exiles are only too willing to divorce their foreign wives. This is a somewhat disturbing end to this book. Contrast it with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7 about being married to an unbeliever; ie, if it's OK with the unbeliever, stay married and he may convert. (Still think Paul is all wrong on marriage?) I think it is harder to stay committed to God when your spouse is not but that's something major you should deal with before getting married, not after the fact.

Psalm 136. Obviously liturgical, with its repeated chant, "His steadfast love is eternal," this psalm is part of the Passover Seder and is known as the Great Hallel. If you'd like to hear what I think is a rabbinical student hypnotically chanting this psalm you can go here. For an orchestral setting click here. And I really like this Orthodox version here.

1 Corinthians 11. Paul sorts out some worship matters. Did you know that in Japan the neck is considered sexy? In the same way, women's hair was considered sexy in the ancient Mediterranean. A woman's head would only be shaved if she were a captive and slave. A respectable woman wore a head covering. But then as now, some women were deliberately provocative, (think Oscar nominees on the red carpet trying to have the most daring, most talked about dress) and, very much like Hollywood actresses, it was especially upper class women who liked to show off the latest fashion in hairstyles. So we have a culture clash here with upper class women flaunting their do's while women from the lower class were concerned about sexual propriety. Paul uses a lot of arguments that don't resonate much today but the thing you can take away from this is that ultimately, not human but God's glory is supposed to be on display here. (Human vanity being what it is, in some churches today women do wear hats but try to compete in who has the grandest church hat.)

BTW, notice that Paul's argument in verse 4 makes no sense unless women were allowed to pray and prophesy in public--with head properly covered, of course. Starting in 350 AD, we get church councils prohibiting women from being priests, elders and deacons. Which means they must have existed prior to the prohibition. Again people don't read Paul closely enough and thus misread him.

Also notice that Paul says in verse 11 that neither women or men are independent of one another. And we all come from God, who again is supposed to be the focus of worship.

The Lord's Supper or Communion or Eucharist was once part of a communal meal called the Agape Feast (agape being the Greek word for spiritual love). Apparently in Corinth this had degenerated into an excuse for gluttony and drunkenness. So Paul gives us the very first account of the Last Supper (remember he was writing this before the gospels were written). He emphasizes the connection with Jesus' sacrificial death for us. So this is to be a sober undertaking. And you can see in this the roots of the modern rite, divorced from a  feast or full meal. (That is saved for coffee hour, at least at my Lutheran church!)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 166

The scriptures read are Ezra 7-9, Psalm 135 and 1 Corinthians 10.

Ezra 7-9. Ezra, the lead character, makes his entrance. King Artaxerxes sends him to Jerusalem. I like that after telling the king that God protects his people, Ezra is too embarrassed to ask for an armed escort for the 4 month journey.

Ezra has a very bad reaction to being told that the people, including priests and Levites, have intermarried with the pagans. He's afraid that they will be led away from God by their non-Jewish spouses. After all, that's what happened with the kings from Solomon on. So Ezra asked God for forgiveness.

Psalm 135. Praise to God for all he's done, The psalmist points out that idols, though they have the requisite parts of the body, cannot use them, Then he says that their worshipers would become like them--spiritually blind, deaf and dumb. People not only come to resemble their dogs but also their gods.

1 Corinthians 10. Paul gives some cautionary tales from the past. Don't think God can't snatch the rug from under you if you are bad. The good news is that God gives us help when we are tempted.

But food should not be treated as a matter of damnation. Paul here shows himself to be on the side of those who thinks we needn't abstain from meat offered to idols--so strongly that Paul says eat whatever is offered to you. But not if your host is going on and on about how they were sacrificed to Dagon or such. Or, based on the discussion earlier, if you are being watched by a picky fellow-Christian, whose faith might be shaken by what he considers a casual attitude towards the issues. Exceptions and nuances in Paul? You betcha! People listen to Paul and hear what they want to. But that's the price of being a smart and subtle thinker.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 165

The scriptures read are Ezra 4-6, Psalm 134 and 1 Corinthians 9.

Ezra 4-6. The rebuilding of the temple is stopped by enemies who make it sound like the city's defensive walls are being rebuilt. Those who make the accusation have the king of Persia check his records to see if Judah has been rebellious in the past. She had, so the works stops for 15 years. When the Jews start rebuilding the temple again and are questioned, they tell the king to check out who originally authorized the work. Darius finds out it was his dad, so he not only gives the rebuilding a go ahead, he finances the work out of the royal treasury. The people finish and celebrate another Passover at the temple.

Psalm 134. Bless the Lord and he will bless you.

1 Corinthians 9. Paul must have anticipated some push back on that last bit of teaching because he goes into a defense of his authority as an apostle. He saw Jesus face to face and he was commissioned to spread the gospel, the good news about Jesus. By all rights he deserves to be supported in his ministry. He deserves to but he hasn't taken advantage of that privilege. (Remember in Acts we find him supporting himself as a tentmaker.)

Paul paints a vivid picture of how he tries to meet people where they are, relate to them on their level, so he can introduce them to Christ. He reminds the readers that athletes, if they want to win, are always in training. That's Paul, eyes on the prize, running all out, daring others to do likewise.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 164

The scriptures read are Ezra 1-3, Psalm 133 and 1 Corinthians 8.

Ezra 1-3. The cream of Jewish society was taken into exile in Babylon for 70 years, till the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great let the Jews return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Why didn't the Jews get assimilated as the Israelites did when they were taken into exile by the Assyrians? For one thing, the Jews came up with a form of Judaism centered on the Torah rather than the temple. That form of Judaism would continue alongside the restored temple worship and eventually survive the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD to become the rabbinic Judaism of today.

So in these first few chapters of Ezra we learn of Cyrus' decree, of who returned and in what numbers, and the start of rebuilding the temple and resuming the rituals and holy days.

Psalm 133. When I took Hebrew in college, we were taught to sing the first verse of this psalm. I can still sing it. And when watching a film about the raid on Entebbe, I heard the song sung to a different tune. The psalm is probably about the northern and southern kingdoms reuniting under one God. The oil imagery refers to anointing the high priest with olive oil. The Anointed One in Hebrew is Messiah, in Greek Christ.

1 Corinthians 8. In the Gentile world, your local meat market was attached to the local pagan temple. The excess meat from sacrificed animals was sold there. But if you are a Christian, can you eat meat offered to an idol? This was a big controversy and Paul comes up with a solution widely ignored by Christians ever since.

Basically Paul agrees with those who say there are no other gods and so the sacrificed meat is not actually dedicated to anything. But more scrupulous Christians, who can't get over a lifetime's association of meat with idols, can't shrug it off that easily. So does Paul tell them to grow up and get over their scruples? No, Paul tells those who don't see a problem with it to accommodate their weaker brothers. Don't force them into a crisis of conscience over meat. Better to become a vegetarian than to make them act in a way they aren't comfortable. The strong should protect the weak. That's Biblical. But we who know better don't like accommodating those we feel just don't get it, do we? We don't think we should baby them or give up our Christian liberty because they haven't arrived at the same conclusions we have over a controversial matter. After loving your enemy, compromising your freedom to protect the conscience of the weaker brother is the most disregarded Christian ethical injunction in the Bible.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 163

The scriptures read are 2 Chronicles 35-36, Psalm 132 and 1 Corinthians 7.

2 Chronicles 35, 36. The end of Josiah. The new information here is that opposing Pharaoh Neco was against God's will. And God spoke through Neco!! So that's it for Josiah.

It all goes downhill from Josiah, king-wise. But the Chronicler, ever the seeker of silver linings, ends his tale with the decree of Cyrus the Persian king, letting the Jews return from the Babylonian exile to rebuild their temple.

Psalm 132. This psalm harks back to David and God's promises to him while sounding like a song sung as the Ark of the Covenant was moved to Zion and its resting place in Jerusalem.

1 Corinthians 7. I don't know how the church got what Paul said in this chapter so screwed up. Paul is clearly responding to an assertion sent to him, and quoted in the first verse, that celibacy is better. Yes, Paul prefers the life of celibacy and recommends it but he says it depends on whether you have the gift. Marriage is not sinful. In fact, Paul's preference that people stay single if they can manage it has a practical reason: he thinks Jesus may return soon and obviously single folk can devote more of their time to ministry and be less entangled with the world. Notice that twice Paul says he has no explicit command from the Lord on certain matters. He freely admits that he is giving advice, albeit advice he is confident in. But his basic message is, as Peterson puts it, "where you are right now is God's place for you."

(BTW, did you notice that Paul says the husband and the wife have equal rights to each other's bodies. Paul is saying that you should make sure you are giving your partner pleasure. Doesn't sound like such a misogynist, does he? Paul gives such good marital advice [way more progressive than the pagan moralists] that I think he was once married and widowed. After all being married was a requirement to be on the Sanhedrin which he was. It explains his insights into things like, hey, your wives should enjoy sex too, guys!)

But your status can change. Yes, Paul tells slaves to make the best of their position but he also says that if you can get your freedom, do so. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the institution. But Paul is saying you can serve God, regardless of your status. And indeed some slaves became bishops in the early church. Besides, we are all slaves of Christ and that's a lot better than being the slaves of men, says Paul.

Anyway, Paul never says you have to be single or you have to marry. That's very freeing. Just ask single Protestant clergy or Jewish rabbis who feel pressured to settle down or Catholic clergy who by accepting the RC sacrament of ordination are forbidden to even consider the sacrament of marriage. Which would make it the only instance where one sacrament vetoes another.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 162

The scriptures read are 2 Chronicles 32-34, Psalm 131 and 1 Corinthians 6.

2 Chronicles 32. The rest of Hezekiah's story. First we have the threat of Sennacherib. The interesting thing is that we have archaeological evidence of his preparations, namely changing the route of the water supply into Jerusalem. In 1838, this tunnel was found with an inscription of how the tunnel, dug by 2 crews working from each end, found each other and connected the 2 excavations into one tunnel. For more on this, click here.

2 Chronicles 33. Ever notice how good kings often have bad sons and bad kings often have good sons? Then as now, kids rebel against their parents. Manasseh undoes everything his dad accomplished and even resumes the practice of sacrificing his sons in fire--in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, known in Jesus' day as Gehenna, his term for hell. (Also by then it was the town dump where the fire never went out.) By the way, fertility religions commonly featured human sacrifice (Druids, Aztecs, the association of Dionysus with Demeter in Greek religious rites, etc). They were not nicer than "Sky god" religions. They certainly weren't feminist (the goddesses were literally sex objects) because a fertility religion is fine with the "keep em barefoot and pregnant" philosophy because, you know, fertility! Modern paganism goes back no farther than the early to mid-20th century and is a kinder, gentler, almost fairy tale version of the real thing. (But not like the real fairy tales which are bloody and scary. Read the original Grimm's fairy tales--not for kids!)

The Chronicler reports repentance on Manasseh's part, something not covered in 2 Kings. The Chronicler sees more good in these kings of Judea than the compiler of the books of Kings does.

2 Chronicles 34. Josiah is the last free and good king of Judah. The story of the finding of the Torah (or perhaps just Deuteronomy) during temple renovations is repeated.

Psalm 131. The humble psalmist waits for God and is contented. This is one of the psalms that casts God in the role of mother.

1 Corinthians 6. Christians should not take each other to court. Better to be wronged, says Paul.  Remember that "turn the other cheek" and "settle with your brother" stuff Jesus said? He meant it. Christians suing Christians isn't going to attract converts.

Love Peterson's paraphrase of v. 12: "Just because something is technically legal doesn't mean that it's spiritually appropriate." A word to the lawyer in our souls that tries to split hairs and justify our hypocrisies.

Which leads Paul back to thinking about soulless sex. Corinth had a huge temple to Aphrodite on the top of the hill that dominated the town. Sacred prostitutes came down to troll for "worshippers." Supposedly they had the words "Follow me" embossed on the soles of their sandals so the message would be imprinted on soil and sand. Neat marketing. But it made it hard to remind Christians that, in Peterson's translation, "There's more to sex than skin on skin." For Christians sex is sacred, too, but it is tied up with marriage and faithfulness. Far from denigrating the body, the Christian view is that it is sanctified by the presence of God's Holy Spirit in us. Sadly, in a few centuries, the Gnostic idea that matter, the body and sex are evil will have crept into the church. Which is why it's important to listen to what Paul is and is not saying.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Back For Good

Fictional heroes rarely die. Or stay dead. It used to be different. Beowulf dies fighting a dragon. King Arthur dies at the battle of Camlann. Robin Hood dies and is buried where his arrow falls. Hercule Poirot dies. The notable exception is Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was sick of his creation and thought Holmes kept him from being recognized for his more serious works. Holmes had been saved before by the author's mother. But with her passing, Doyle felt he could finally put an end to the Master Detective and did so in the story The Final Problem. It is said that British readers wore black arm bands showing that they were in mourning for Sherlock Holmes. Ten years later, Doyle had a great story in mind which he could not get to work. Then he realized it would be a perfect story for Holmes and Watson. He dated it before Holmes' demise but the publication of the Hound of the Baskervilles renewed public clamor for more stories about the sleuth of Baker Street. So Doyle resumed the adventures. Originally, he had written Holmes' death so that it wasn't so much witnessed as deduced by Watson. Using that loophole he resurrected Sherlock Holmes and the game was afoot once more.

Since then it's been popular to kill off or appear to kill and then resurrect pop culture heroes. James Bond, Mr. Spock, Magnum P.I., Neo, and every comicbook superhero from Superman to the majority of the X-Men have died or seemed to and come back again. For the titular character of Doctor Who, it's part of his DNA. As a Time Lord, the Doctor can regenerate after an otherwise fatal injury up to 12 times. We just found out that the Eleventh Doctor will die and regenerate on this year's Christmas special. Look for the writers to figure out a way to get past that number 12 when the next actor decides to move on.

The reason modern day heroes get resurrected is the same reason Doyle brought his creation back—popularity and money. But the idea of resurrecting a hero probably goes back to Jesus.

Before Jesus, there is no religion that posits bodily resurrection. The early Jews' concept of the afterlife was shadowy Sheol, where all the dead go. Even in Jesus' day, not all Jews believed in resurrection. Hinduism does have reincarnation but that is not a joyful concept. It is karma. If you come back it's not a reward but an ordeal you have to undergo to be a better person. You want to be a good Hindu so that you can progress upward through the cycle of death and rebirth until you achieve Nirvana, literally the “blowing out” of the flame of life, at least as an individual. You are absorbed into the world soul. Be a good Buddhist and you can skip reincarnation altogether and get to Nirvana in one lifetime. Exceptional Norse warriors who died in battle were selected by the Valkyrie to go to Valhalla so they can fight in a doomed attempt to prevent the deaths of Odin, Thor and all the major gods at the end of the world at Ragnarok. In all of these religions you ultimately end up dead forever.

But with Jesus, things change. The afterlife is not just being a memory and a name to your descendants or some shadowy existence as a disembodied ghost. God will bring you back completely in a new and improved body, as he did with Jesus. Theologians disagree as to whether we sleep or are awake in our interim state but in either case the faithful are with God up to the time of their resurrection. (Nowhere in the Bible are the dead depicted as having wings and halos or walking about on clouds, playing harps.)

Resurrection does have at least 3 major implications. First, it affirms God's power. Secondly, it affirms God's nature. Thirdly, it affirms the goodness of creation. Let's examine these as we look at our Old Testament and Gospel readings.

Our passage from 1 Kings 17 picks up in the middle of a contest between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Baal, the Phoenician god of fertility, rain and storms. Ahab has come to the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel. He built a temple to Baal in Samaria, the political and religious capital of Israel. Child sacrifice is being practiced in Israel. This is probably due to the influence of Ahab's wife Jezebel, daughter of the pagan king of Sidon. We find out in the next chapter that she is systematically killing off the prophets of Israel's true God.

So through Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God,” the Lord issues a challenge. He will bring a drought upon the land. No rain shall fall for 3 years. In other words, God will negate the power of the storm and fertility god, Baal. To protect him from Jezebel, God tells Elijah to hide in the Kerith Ravine, where he can drink from the brook and obtain food from the ravens. We're not sure if the ravens brought food directly to Elijah or if he simply observed where they hid their food in the rocky crags of the ravine. The arrangement works until the drought causes the brook to run dry. So God sends Elijah to the last place you'd expect him to be: a Phoenician town belonging to Sidon, Jezebel's hometown! God is bearding Baal in his own den, so to speak.

Ezekiel comes to Zarephath and as he approaches the town gate, he sees a widow gathering sticks. He can tell she is poor by the fact that she is gathering sticks not under trees but in the gate, where they must have fallen from the bundles others were bringing in. He asks her to bring him water, a normal request according to the customs of hospitality. But when he asks for bread, the widow bursts out with the information that she only has a handful of flour and a dollop of olive oil, evidence of the drought. She was going to make a last meal for her and her son. Elijah assures her that God will not let her and her son starve but will stretch her food supplies till the drought ends.

Elijah stays in an upper room and this arrangement works until the widow's son gets gravely ill. When the boy could no longer breathe, the widow takes this for some kind of divine punishment. Elijah asks for the boy and takes him up to his room.

Elijah is upset as well. He asks God why is he letting this disaster come upon his landlady. Then he does something odd by modern standards. He lays himself out at full length upon the child 3 times. The prophet's successor, Elisha, does the same thing and we get a fuller description of the procedure: he lays mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes and hand to hand with the dead child. It was believed that demons entered people that way and the prophet may have been trying to drive them out by transferring his vitality or the Holy Spirit to the child. This would be akin to sympathetic magic except for the prayers Elijah cries to God to bring the boy back. When the boy is alive again, the widow recognizes the power of the Lord. Again God bests Baal, the fertility god, in his own territory.

In Luke 7, Jesus deals with a more severe case with a lot less drama. He is going to Nain, a town a couple of miles south of Nazareth. As he approaches the gate of this town, he sees a widow following the bier carrying her only son to be buried. Jesus has compassion on her (wasn't his own mother a widow by now?) and tells her not to weep. Then he touches the bier, making himself ritually unclean for at least a day, a week if he actually touched the corpse. He says to the body, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And the man sits up and talks. And Jesus gives him to his mother. The people are awe-struck and praise God.

Let's look at the 3 things we mentioned earlier in the light of these events. Resurrection affirms God's power. We speak of the power of life and death belonging to God. But it's bringing people back to life impresses others as the work of God and causes them to praise him. It's not like it happens very often. The Elijah account is the first in the Bible that depicts someone coming back to life. In 66 books the Bible only records 10 instances of people being raised to life: this one with Elijah, 2 attributed to his protege Elisha, 3 people raised by Jesus, and 1 each attributed to Peter and to Paul. That leaves the events of Holy Week. Matthew mentions that “the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” Just how many and who we aren't told. And God raised Jesus, of course. Each of these are displays of the power of God. Only God can give life, especially after death. I've performed CPR on a patient—unsuccessfully I might add. Statistically, between 2 and 30% of those receiving CPR are revived, with the variations depending on the underlying health and age of the victim, the cause of their cardiac or respiratory arrest, the elapsed time between arrest and the start of CPR and the technique of the person giving CPR. Averaging them all out, only 8% survive. It's better than 0% but it shows that we have not yet mastered death.

Only God gives life. And that speaks to the nature of God. God gives us good things. Life is the first gift, the gift one must have to enjoy all of his other gifts. God is generous, giving this gift to all. But he expects us to use it in the spirit in which it was given: to make creation better, more beautiful, to make our relationships and communities more loving, more reflective of his nature. He sent Jesus that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

By raising Jesus from the dead, God not only vindicates what Jesus is and says but he also shows the importance he places on life. He is not fixated on death or only on the immaterial. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, contrary to what some people think, God likes bodies and matter and this world. He invented them. He doesn't want to abandon the material world for the spiritual but to wed the 2, to bring them together, so that the material gives form to the spiritual and so that the spiritual gives meaning to the material. Mostly, as he did with his battered, abused, and dead son, he wants to resurrect this broken world. He wants to redeem and restore the planet he created as a paradise and the people he created to take care of it.

We've anticipated the third thing that resurrection implies: that creation, all the creatures that inhabit it, and our bodies, which were created good and pronounced to be such by our Creator, are still valued by him. So much so, that he sent his son to redeem them at the cost of his life. And in Jesus' resurrection, God reveals how he will do that. Paul tells us that we need to die with Christ in baptism to be raised with him. And that's what God will do with his ailing creation. Some people get hung up on the end of the world stuff in the Bible. But it's no more the end than Jesus' death was the end. Things will get bad, we are told in the gospels and the Book of Revelation, but the point is that God's will for us cannot be thwarted. He can take the worst we can do to his world, to each other and to ourselves and give it new life. The end result of his salvation: a new creation--a new heaven and a new earth populated by his people made new. 

I mentioned that Paul saw in baptism, where we become dead to sin and alive in the Spirit, a parallel to Christ's death and resurrection. Nor is it merely a metaphor. Just as Jesus physically died and rose again to new physical life (or perhaps we should say, physical life Plus!) we really die spiritually to sin and its consequences when we let Christ into our lives and really find ourselves come alive spiritually. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” If I receive a new heart, both I and the donor must die. My diseased heart is removed and only when the new heart is implanted and hooked up and started up, do I begin to really live again. Jesus died to give us his life, life eternal, so we may live like him, alive to God and in God. 

It's weird but many heart transplant recipients report picking up the habits and interests of their donors, like music, art, vegetarianism, and career choice. A 47 year old man who received the heart of a 14 year old girl now giggles as she did. A seven month old who received the heart of a 16 month old walked up to a strange man at church, hugged him and called him daddy. It was the donor's father whom he had never met. A 56 year old college professor who received the heart of a 34 year old police officer has vivid dreams of a flash of light in his face and then seeing Jesus. The officer was killed when he was shot in the face. With Christ's Spirit within us, our lives also change and his interests and qualities become ours.

Jesus didn't just come to give us more life but a new quality of life. It is the life of the God who is love. We don't just get an extension of our life but a transformed life, with a new focus and a new way of expressing that life. We see the connections between this world and its creator, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and the God in whose image we are crafted. We live our life, not in selfish and self-destructive ways, but in selfless and constructive acts, as stewards of this world and our brothers' and sisters' keepers. We counteract harm with healing, injustice with fairness, betrayal with faithfulness, degradation with holiness, anarchy with order and oppression with freedom .

And we know that in the end God will make everything right. No one who seeks him will be lost, no one who asks for him will be unanswered, no one who knocks will be barred from the kingdom. Whatever is beautiful, though it be destroyed, will be restored; whatever is true, though it be shouted down, will be heard; and whoever relies on God totally, though he dies, yet he will live again. 

The resurrection of Jesus says that ultimately nothing and no one can kill those God loves. And if you are in Christ, that includes you.