Friday, June 27, 2014

Diagnosis and Treatment

The Scriptures referred to are Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39.

This man was telling my wife that his car was making funny noises. My wife asked if he had checked his oil. “No,” this highly educated professional said, “I never check the oil. I've never even put oil in the car.” As Adam Savage of Mythbusters might say, “Well, there's your problem!”

It's not that my wife is an expert on engines: it's just that we both know firsthand why checking and changing the oil is vital to car maintenance. In 1981, my moped was stolen from the hospital parking lot. Since we were expecting our first child, and since as a neurosurgery nurse I had seen the kind of damage you can sustain when you have even the slightest accident with a two-wheeled vehicle, it made sense to take the insurance money we got for the stolen moped and get something safer. We got a very cheap used car, a Dodge Dart, that had been owned by a mechanic who worked for the St. Louis County police. A month later as we drove to see a movie, the car started making a clicking sound. On the way home, the clicking became much louder—and then it stopped. As did the car. Which stranded my pregnant wife and me on the highway, many miles from home, at night. Eventually a cop stopped and radioed a tow truck. The next day, my mechanic told me the car was absolutely drained of oil and had thrown a rod. I would have to replace the engine. The police mechanic who sold me the car had either never added or changed the oil or had neglected to tell me of a serious leak. Ever since then, my wife and I have religiously checked and changed the oil in our cars.

Everyone knows that cars won't drive without gas. But because there is no immediate consequence, we don't always change our oil every 3000 miles. You can go a bit over that and your car will still run, though not as efficiently and your mileage per gallon will drop a bit. Never change your oil, however, and you will ruin the engine. The car is not getting back at you; it simply can't continue to operate if you don't follow the rules of basic maintenance.

This principle works for human bodies as well. We all know you need food and fluids to survive. But many of us neglect to get enough sleep. And we are now seeing more and more studies linking insufficient sleep with obesity, heart disease, depression and memory problems.

So it shouldn't surprise us that neglecting basic moral and spiritual rules has automatic negative consequences as well. That's the way the universe works. Asking God to protect us from the results of our continually engaging in spiritually and moral harmful behavior makes as much sense as asking a doctor to protect us from cancer and heart disease so we can continue to inhale burning tobacco. And yet when I worked at the nursing home in Plantation, I gave respiratory medications and nebulizer treatments every day to patients who would then try to bum a cigarette off me so they could go outside the facility and smoke.

Jesus and Paul encountered the same thing when it came to certain Christian wannabees. There were those who wanted to be forgiven without giving up any of the habits that make forgiveness necessary. It betrays a misunderstanding of God's laws. They thought the laws were arbitrary like some human laws. In fact they are more like the laws of nature.

To dramatize the stark choice one must make when it comes to following him, Jesus uses words that grate on our ears. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one's foes will be members of one's own household.” Jesus is paraphrasing Mich 7:6. And he is using a semitic style of rhetoric in which the results of an action are spoken of as if they were the intent of the action. It's like a parent saying, “So you came to share this news with your sick grandmother and kill her?” Of course, that wasn't your intent. But the results might be the same nevertheless. And it could have been foreseen.

Why would Jesus think his words of love and peace and forgiveness would have the opposite effect? I could quote a raft of Christ's words but let's stick to one that still divides people today. Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” But what if President Bush, the day after September 11, 2001, had said, “As a Christian, I must follow the words of Christ. He said, 'Love your enemies.' We must figure out how to respond to this outrage in a way that does not go against Jesus' explicit command.” Can you imagine the political firestorm that would have engulfed this “Christian” nation if he said anything remotely like that? Or if he said, “We must turn the other cheek”? Even Dick Cheney would have gone on TV and said, “Let's impeach this guy!” And in his day, Jesus' words upset his contemporaries, both those who wanted a warrior Messiah to drive the Romans out of Judea as well as the religious elite whose authority he undercut. They were so upset they didn't impeach him; they killed him!

Jesus knew his message was so radical that it would polarize people. Those who loved it and those who hated it would be facing each other across the dinner table. Each would think that they were right and that the other was dangerously wrong. And because this concerns things of ultimate value, namely, God and how he proposes to deal with evil, it's not an issue folks can simply shrug off or ignore. To use another medical analogy, if the problem is heart disease rather than a hangnail, then our choice of treatment is vital. If a treatment is toxic or quackery, it will spell death for the patient. So we mustn't let ourselves choose a course based on whether it sounds nice or comforting. Only acting on the truth will save the patient.

If we are talking about how God is going to fix the world, it is essential that what is proposed be examined to see if it fits what we know of human nature. Lots of people think they know what's wrong with the world and have nice neat solutions. We've seen many solutions for an earthly paradise. It's been proposed and even implemented by people like Hitler, Stalin, Jim Jones, and others. And it's frightening how many folks have been attracted to their visions of how to set everything right. So what makes Jesus' version better?

For one thing, Jesus has the right diagnosis. Socrates, for instance, thought the only good was knowledge and the only evil was ignorance. But smart and educated people do evil all the time, fully aware that they are doing harm. Remember back in 2008 when 2 hedge fund managers were arrested for urging investors to stay in a couple of funds they knew were about to go under? One manager pulled $2 million of his money out of the fund even as he was telling others to keep cooperating. In fact only smart and educated people could have dreamed up the whole sub-prime mortgage scheme. Lots of people do evil despite knowing better.

Ignorance is not the source of all evil. Neither is poverty or war or tribalism or sexism or any other “-ism.” None of them are the actual disease; they are just the symptoms. They are evil's fevers and rashes and pains and excretions. Treating the symptoms will certainly make the patient feel better, but they will erupt all over again unless you also get to the cause of the disease. In Jesus' day rigorous observance of certain external rites were considered vital lest one become ritually unclean. But that's superficial.

If the problem was external, then imposing rules would make people good. A police state would be populated with virtuous people. We know that is not true. Changing the externals of our existence won't make us more ethical. When it comes to church attendance, we have the most religious country in the industrialized West. And yet we have one of the highest murder rates, one of the highest prison populations, one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and one of the highest divorce rate in the world. Is the problem that it's hard to get Bibles or that there are too few churches or that a lot of people are Christians in name only and that what's preached in church stays in church? We live in the richest country in the world. Yet our life expectancy doesn't even make the world's top 40. Is that because we lack medical knowledge or that we lack the will, the heart to what we know we ought?

The real problem is internal. We all fall short of the glorious image of God in which we were created. We let ourselves become enslaved to our fears and desires. We all misuse and abuse and neglect God's powerful gifts to us, which harms ourselves, our fellow human beings and our world. Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what makes him unclean. For from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual sins, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a person unclean.” If that is the state of our heart, then what we need is a heart transplant.

And that's what Jesus offers: new life. As Paul says, if we unite ourselves to Christ, it is as if our old selves were crucified and buried with him. The lives we now live are new lives, lived in and through him. We are not just the same people forgiven; we are new people. We should live in a new way. Why do we not see this more in the church?

Part of this is a misreading of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. How did that come about? Jesus emphasized the importance of faith or trust in him. Trust underlies all healthy relationships. It is the prerequisite for a love relationship. It is a prerequisite for the kingdom of God. That kingdom is not like earthly kingdoms, which are created by external conquest. The kingdom of God is created by him for those who trust in and love him and each other. This must be voluntary. You can't force people into those relationships or into this kingdom.

Paul, in trying to explain the idea of a kingdom not defined by externals, emphasized the essential nature of faith. We are accepted into the kingdom, we are saved, not by any externals like race or class or heritage or circumcision or acts that make one ritually clean or moral worthiness, but by trusting in God's goodness. We don't earn it, just as you can't earn having someone give you his heart to be transplanted into you. It is God's gift. We don't merit this gift. We were still sinners when Christ died for us. It is such a great gift that nothing we can do afterward can repay him. There are no deeds good enough to equal its value.

And here's where that misreading comes in. Some people take this to means we don't need to do good deeds. We are saved by faith alone. To feel obligated to do good is to still be trying to earn God's favor. And this fact devolved into the idea that we needn't change the kind of person we are or the way we behave because God can't help but forgive us. He loves us just the way we are and we needn't change a thing. This wasn't what Paul meant at all! Since our sin prompted God's gracious act to save us, Paul asks rhetorically, “should we continue to sin so that grace may increase?” His answer is so forceful that it can't be adequately translated into English. The Greek phrase means something like “May it come to pass that it never actually came to be.” Other translations have rendered it “God forbid!” or “By no means!” In the light of the impossibility of expressing the paradoxical verb tense used, I would translate it “Unthinkable!” Continuing to live as you did before you became a Christian makes as much sense as getting a heart transplant and continuing to eat Philly cheese steaks, curly fries, blooming onions and pork rinds. It is a mind boggling contradiction.

Faith doesn't exclude good works; it gives birth to good works. In fact, as Jesus' brother James writes, faith without works is dead. It's like telling someone you love them but never actually doing anything about it. No cards, no gifts, no helping out, no commitment. We have a lot of people who say they love Jesus but you would never know it by looking at their lives. James says, “Show me your faith without works and I'll show you my faith by my works.” Jesus himself said, “By their fruit you shall know them.” You can't claim to be a good mechanic if you never check or change the oil.

You can't go against the moral or spiritual laws of the universe any more than you can defy its physical laws. There are consequences to living a spiritually unhealthy life. You can't ask God to make an exception in your case either, because these laws are expressions of God's very nature: love. He loves us all which means he must be just to all. And because he loves us, he gives us the freedom to decide if we love him back. If we don't, he won't force us. But it does mean that eventually there will be permanent consequences. Don't take care of your car and one day it will just stop. It will end up in a junkyard. By the way, the word Jesus uses for “hell” is literally the name of the Jerusalem city garbage dump, where the useless was discarded and dumped. If you don't follow the rules of healthy living, your body will stop and end up in a graveyard. What happens if you don't live a spiritually healthy life?

But maybe you can get a new engine put in your car and give it new life. Or you could have a new heart transplanted into your chest and come back from certain death. In the spiritual life, we can ask God for forgiveness, a new heart and a fresh start. We can ask him to repair the damage we've done and to help us change direction and to guide us in living a healthy spiritual and moral life. But it means following the Great Physician's orders. It means denying yourself the bad habits that harmed you and those around you. It means practicing good habits like prayer and studying the Bible and meeting with others that are following Jesus. It's the equivalent of visiting your doctor regularly, eating your vegetables and joining a support group. It means giving generously of your time, talents and treasures to help others.

It also means not letting fear of what others may think and do stop you from doing and saying what's right. That's where the parallel between what's healthy physically and what's healthy spiritually sometimes diverge. Speaking and living God's truth can be very risky. It got Jesus and most of the apostles executed. For a lot of Christians in the early church there was nothing metaphorical about the command to “take up your cross.” But they did it anyway. They were witnesses to the truth even to death and today we call them martyrs, which comes from the Greek word for “witnesses.” What they did, just like the last verse of today's gospel, only makes sense if Jesus was right about the next life and resurrection. That's why we need to trust him. Otherwise everything he said was not merely mistaken; it's crazy.

The world is sick. Desperate measures are needed to save it. Jesus is calling us. Will we answer? Will we go? You can play it safe for now and hope that Jesus was wrong. Or you can bet he was right, take up your cross and do what's right, putting your hope in him who loved us enough to die and whom God resurrected in anticipation that he will do the same to all of creation. It's a clear difference and a life or death decision. And one you've got to make, each and every one of you, each and every day.

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