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. 

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