Monday, April 24, 2017

Words of Life

Recently I got an email from a woman who said that she was at the scene of my accident and that she tended to me until the EMTs arrived. I didn't know about her before, mainly because I was unconscious. But I thanked her for coming to my aid. For that matter I don't remember the deputies or EMTs who treated me at the scene, or the surgeons who operated on me that night. Nevertheless I am immensely grateful to these people whom I really don't know.

The reason I bring this up is that I was struck by a sentence in our passage from 1 Peter (1:3-9): “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy...” Last week we were talking about how essential to the spread of Christianity was the fact of the resurrection as well as all the witnesses to the risen Jesus. Christians today are in the same boat as the folks who received this letter: people who never met Jesus. However, the original recipients of this letter at least had a connection with a living witness to Christ. We do not.

But that's not, on the surface, much different than our relationships to past historical figures whom we admire: Abraham Lincoln, Aristotle, Isaac Newton. Not only are they dead but so is everyone who ever knew or even saw them. If you go on You Tube you can see a clip from the old show “I've Got a Secret,” which features 96 year old Samuel J. Seymour, who was in the Ford Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. He was 5 in 1865 and died 2 months after his TV appearance in April 1956. He was the last living witness to Lincoln.

Weirdly, two grandsons of President John Tyler, who was born in 1790 are still alive. But they never met their famous grandfather. He had their father, Lyon Garner Tyler, in 1853, when the former president was 63. Lyon likewise had his sons late in life, when he was in his 70s. They are descendants, but not witnesses to the 10th president.

My granddaughter will grow up in a generation that will see all living witnesses of the moon landing die off. The difference is that video documentation of the event will, we hope, continue to exist, although the original tapes of that have been lost. And just as historically uninformed people say Jesus didn't exist, conspiracy theorists have pointed to the lost tapes as further evidence that the moon landing was faked.

So is that all we have of Jesus? Historical documentation? Well, we do have that and we have more of it than we have for most ancient people. Plato died around 347 BC; the earliest fragments of copies of his writings date back to the 2nd to 4th century AD. That's 500 to 700 years later. The earliest complete manuscripts of Plato date to about 900 AD. That's a gap of about 1250 years. In contrast, Jesus was crucified around 30 AD. The New Testaments books and letters were written between 48 AD and 95 AD. The earliest fragments of the New Testament belong to John's gospel and date to somewhere between 117 and 138 AD. That's within a century of Jesus' earthly life and within 20 to 40 years of the composition of John's gospel. We have at present 18 manuscripts of the gospels and epistles from the 2nd century and one from the first, comprising 43% of the New Testament. In addition we have found more than 5800 copies of the various books of the New Testament and 24,000 early translations. Plus we can construct the entire New Testament, except for 11 verses, just from quotations in the early church fathers. And while some of the copies vary, scholars agree they are 99.5% identical, meaning those who copied them took special care in doing so. Most of the variants are spelling errors. We are more sure of what Jesus said and what the witnesses said about him than we are about Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, Herodotus or any other ancient figure in history. (BTW thanks to Wikipedia and Dave Armstrong's Patheos blog for the statistics.) 

This doesn't prove that what Jesus or the New Testament said was true, just that we can trust that we do have their actual words. But these words validate themselves in our lives. A lot of people find truth in the writings of the past. But they rarely change their lives in radical ways. I love the wisdom of people like Aristotle but not everything he wrote has turned out to be true, nor will I try to work out an entire way of living based on his writings. 

But everyday people are discovering Jesus and deciding to try to follow him in all they think, say and do. His words resonate with huge numbers of people in a way that even the most esteemed philosophers don't. And that's because his words aren't mere words. As he says in John 6:63, “The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Jesus' words communicate more than just meaning; they communicate life and the Spirit.

How is that so? Words are a way of changing your mind. If I say “Purple panda,” I can be reasonably sure that you are picturing exactly that. In fact it is impossible for you not to picture a purple panda. And now you are imagining purple pandas playing patty-cake! I have just taken something in my mind and put it in yours. I have immaterially changed the physical connections between certain synapses in the part of your brain that constructs visual images. If I say, “the next time you find it hard to keep your eyes from closing while driving, pull over and take a nap,” I have implanted lifesaving information into your brain. If I give you detailed instructions on how to do CPR, I am enabling you to save someone else's life. Ordinary words can change minds, which in turn can change lives and save lives. How much more can the word of God do!

Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” God's words don't just transmit information about spiritual matters; they communicate the things themselves. Again, here's an example of an analogous situation. I read of an oncology nurse who discovered she had a weird power over her patients. Often before going to their radiation or chemotherapy sessions, they would ask her if she thought that they would be nauseated after the treatments. And she found that if she said that she didn't think so, they wouldn't. Now mind you, the idea behind either of those cancer treatments is to give you something toxic and hope that the rapidly multiplying cancer cells would absorb more of it than your healthy cells. So, objectively, it should cause a reaction and nausea is a common one. But this nurse discovered that her words could counteract the body's physical response to something toxic. Her words gave them a measure of wellness.

God's word gives life. New life. His life. Jesus didn't die just to give us more life but a different kind of life: the divine life shared by the Triune God. By opening our lives to God's word, we are being included in the life of the God who is love.

What exactly do we mean by life, though? According to Wikipedia, “The definition of life is controversial. The current definition is that organisms maintain homeostasis, are composed of cells, undergo metabolism, can grow, adapt to their environment, respond to stimuli, and reproduce.” Now obviously this is a definition that applies to physical, not spiritual life. But as Jesus found parallels to spiritual things in his agricultural society, I think parallels to our spiritual life can be found in this biological definition of life.

For instance, homeostasis is the ability of an organism to maintain internal balance and consistency in things like body temperature, internal pH, electrolytes, and blood glucose, despite changes in the environment, what it eats and what it does. And certainly a healthy spiritual life requires maintaining an internal equilibrium. There are certain essential beliefs and processes that should not vary wildly, such as our trust in God's love, his justice, and his mercy as embodied by his son, Jesus Christ, and made manifest in us by his Spirit. Our commitment to daily prayer, study of his word, participation in a community of Christians, worship, stewardship, evangelism and obedience of his commandments to love God and love other people have to remain firm. Drastic imbalances in these aspects of faith and practice indicate that something is wrong in our spiritual life, in much the same way that a fever, or a skyrocketing blood pressure, or plummeting blood sugar are symptoms of major problems in one's biology.

All physical bodies are composed of cells and had the microscope been invented, I'm sure that Paul would have incorporated that into his metaphor of the body of Christ. Paul compares us to the parts that make up the body, each with a different function. Swap out cells for larger parts and the parallels hold up. And the point is that unity does not negate diversity of appearance or function. Imagine a church made up of nothing but preachers, or where everyone was a treasurer, or where no one thought of practicalities like coffee and food. A healthy spiritual life means finding your space and functions within the body of Christ and both ministering to others and being ministered to by others.

Metabolism is basically converting food into fuel and into the building blocks of the body, as well as the elimination of waste. We need to nourish our spiritual life just as we do our physical life. In both we need a variety of healthy sources of nutrition. To remain spiritually healthy we need to consume the Bible, as well as good books and articles, not just on Christianity but on the world and people that God loves so much that he sent Jesus. We also need to feed our spirits with worship and prayer and communion. Just as exercise is important to physical digestion and elimination, we need to put our faith into practice in our lives and in the world, which will help us discard from our spiritual life unhelpful approaches and untrue assumptions.

Physical organisms grow and so should we spiritually. And this is not just about becoming larger souls but also about becoming more knowledgeable, wiser and more skilled. In this way, spiritual growth is like the intellectual and social growth of a child. We need to be able to better understand and interact with and work with God and humanity.

Living organisms can adapt to their environment. While a healthy spiritual life requires an internal constancy and balance, it also requires an ability to adapt to the world in which we live. One difference between a sailor and a convincing wax statue of that sailor is that one will be able to remain standing by shifting his balance and footing on the rolling deck of a ship and the other will eventually topple over. Christianity would not have been successful had we all opted to do what the Amish do and pull out of the world and the flow of history. In fact, we won't have much impact on society if we refuse to interact with and adapt to changes in the world. Christians have usually be early adopters of communication technology and in the same way we have to adapt to the language and forms in general use in the world. For instance, in the past we didn't have specialized ministries for single parents, or for victims of human trafficking, nor did we have chaplains for those who work in factories. One reason the church has survived for nearly 2000 years is that we have adapted to the changes in the world by changing how we express the unchanging gospel of God's transforming love in Christ.

Living organisms respond to stimuli. You know where I got that wax statue idea? When my wife and I went on our honeymoon in the UK, we went to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. I was surprised that most of the statues were not roped off from the public. So you could go right up to them and see how lifelike they were. But they also had a few "prank" statues that were made to look like a museum guard and a tourist waiting in line. You didn't notice them at first but thought they were live people. The giveaway was that they didn't blink or respond to anything around them. To have a healthy spiritual life you need not only to be aware of what's going on around you but you need to respond appropriately. 

Of course, we live in a very stimuli-rich world and you can't react to everything, so we do need to filter. For instance, there are lots of videos on the internet of cats freaking out when they see cucumbers. Perhaps they think they are snakes. But the church has been just as bad about responding to things that aren't in fact threats. In my lifetime, comic books, miniskirts, hairstyles, video games, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other cultural artifacts have been denounced by some figures in the church as grave threats to the soul. And to be sure some people go overboard on such things and let them take the place of God in their lives. But we really need to distinguish between false and genuine threats and not just react like dogs barking at everything that moves and setting off all the other dogs in the neighborhood. We need to respond to stimuli appropriately.

Finally a healthy organism should be able to reproduce. Not every individual within a species needs to do so but if the majority don't, the species dies out. And having a healthy spiritual life should beget an interest in helping others develop a healthy spiritual life. However, you don't want to be like the vegan who berates all meat-eaters at every opportunity but rather act like the person who has had a good doctor or therapist change your life for the better and recommends him to anyone who is looking for that kind of help. A lot of people think that growing the local body of Christ should be the primary responsibility of the clergy but as a bishop once said, it's the sheep that make more sheep, not the shepherd. Again if only a few reproduce, extinction looms for all. So as St. Francis is supposed to have said, we all need to be proclaiming the gospel all the time, using our words if necessary.

While Jesus is no longer walking this earth in the flesh, he has left us his word. And this enables us to trust and love him. If we let his word and his Spirit into our minds and heart, he will change us and give us new life. Maintaining that spiritual life in a healthy fashion is essential. We have become new creations in Christ and that means we will meet the one who saved us face to face one day in his new creation. And I'm as sure of that as I am that you are picturing a purple panda in a pink paisley dress driving a Prius.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Where's Jesus?

Recently my granddaughter was looking through a Bible and found some maps at the back. Lately she has been obsessed about maps, probably because of the singing and talking map on Dora the Explorer. So she showed me the map of the Holy Land and I was pointing out the cities and towns: “There's where Jesus was born. There's where Jesus grew up. There's where Jesus died...”

Jesus died?” she asked, sounding surprised. She knows about death because recently the family's cat and last remaining sugarglider died.

Yes, on the cross.” And I pointed at the cross behind the altar.

The cross?” she said, pointing at it.

Not that cross. We have that to remember what Jesus did for us.” I showed her our stations of the cross, some of which were done by her father when he was in Sunday School. We got to Jesus being laid in the tomb. Then, not wanting to leave it there, I said, “But he didn't stay dead. God raised Jesus to life again.”

He brought him back to life?”

Yes,” I said, pleased that she grasped the resurrection.

Where is he?” she said, looking around the church. “Outside?”

And that's where you realize that teaching a 3 year old the most basic theology is going to be a lot more challenging than you imagined.

But one thing I realized is that this was all new to her. She didn't know that Jesus had died nor that he had been raised. For us it's old news. To her it's new information.

It's hard to remember that the same conditions applied to the people who discovered Jesus' empty tomb that first Easter. None of the events that happened that weekend was expected. The idea that God's Messiah would die, and on a cross of all things, was new and hard to accept. The idea that he would be raised to life again long before the general resurrection of the dead was unprecedented.

And then there are the purely human reasons that resurrection would be hard to believe. We have all had loved ones who died. We may have actually been there when they died, or we saw them after they died. We saw them buried. Now imagine that someone told you they were alive again. Let's say the person telling you this was someone you knew quite well, someone you spent a lot of time with, say on the road or working on a project. It would still be difficult, if not impossible to believe them.

And sure enough, that is what we see in the gospels. When they find the tomb empty, the women do not believe Jesus is risen but that his body was stolen. Even after seeing the angels and the risen Christ, they are not able to convince the male disciples. When Jesus appears to the disciples behind locked doors, they thought he was a ghost, according to Luke. Even seeing his wounded wrists and feet doesn't do the trick. Luke says “...they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement...” (Lk 24:41) In other words, their first reaction was that it was too good to be true. It might be an hysterically happy hallucination. Jesus has to eat a piece of fish to make them realize that he is real. So we should not fault Thomas for doubting; he wasn't with the others when Jesus first appeared. They all doubted, and rightly so, until they actually encountered the risen Jesus.

How strong was the natural rejection of this new reality? Matthew says that after the resurrection, on the mountain in Galilee, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Mt 28:17) Even then, they were having a hard time believing that a man who they knew had died was alive again. So we are not talking about credulous people who accepted whatever they were told or even whatever they saw. They were normal human beings who had a hard time wrapping their minds around what they were experiencing.

But the next generation of Christians accepted the resurrection blindly, right? Not according to Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians he addresses the problem of people not believing in the resurrection. And in the process he gives us the earliest account of Jesus' appearances after he rose. “...he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also.” (1 Cor 15:5-8) This letter was written sometime around 55 AD, about 25 years after the resurrection of Christ. Again people are skeptical. And even though Paul could say, “I saw the risen Christ,” he emphasizes that 500 people saw Jesus at one time and that most of them are still alive. He's essentially saying, “If you don't believe me, ask one of them.”

In fact, the reason that the gospels were written later than the letters of Paul was probably due to the fact that for 40 years there were still living witnesses to what Jesus said and did. Once apostles like Paul and Peter and others began to be martyred under Nero, Christians probably thought that they must get their testimony on parchment. It makes sense that Mark, who worked under both Peter and Paul, would produce the earliest gospel, a rough and breathless account of what he heard them say about Jesus' life and ministry. Then Matthew and Luke, an associate of Paul's, added the information they had. And lastly, John fills in details that the others didn't have.

The most convincing evidence for Jesus' resurrection is the fact that those who knew the truth died rather than renounce it. If I made up a story and could save my life by simply admitting it, I would. Why die for a lie? But if I saw Jesus alive again, if my earlier perception that he was the Messiah was completely vindicated by his resurrection, I would likely lose my fear of death. Jesus' talk of eternal life wouldn't be a mere hope but a palpable reality. And nobody could stop me from telling others about him, even if they threatened to kill me.

Michael Grant, an historian who specialized in classical Greek and Roman history, admitted that it is hard to understand how Christianity survived the death of its founder and spread so fast and so widely without positing the resurrection of Jesus. It's difficult to explain why we are here now, nearly 2000 years later, if Jesus had not risen from the dead. He said a lot of good things but some of them make no sense without the resurrection.

His admonition, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also,” (Mt 5:39) is a good recipe for getting beaten up or even killed. “Take up your cross and follow me.” The cross was an instrument of death. The only people carrying crosses then were condemned men and women going to die. Jesus tells us to count the cost and follows that up with “...any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” (Lk14:33) Back in 1 Corinthians Paul says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only in this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Cor 15:17-19)

Imagine how differently you would play a video game if when your character died, that was it. No more lives. Game over. No do overs. That's the one and only time you get to play that game. Everything you invested in that world would be done and over with. The game would cease to be an adventure. You would play it very conservatively. Who would take risks? Who would make major changes in the in-game world if opposed by powerful enemies who could take you out for good?

After the disciples got over their natural skepticism, it was replaced by joy. And courage. They rejoiced that Jesus was alive. And the fact that he defeated death encouraged them to live brave new lives. Taking up the cross was no longer a dreaded idea but a liberating one. Because just as Jesus had turned other perceptions about the world upside down, so did his resurrection.

We think this world will outlast us. It was here before we were born; it will be here after we are dead. But not if what Jesus said is true: that trusting in him leads to eternal life. This world is not eternal. The sun will burn out one day. This will be a cold rock orbiting a dead sun. But we will live on. God will not only bring us back from the dead but the universe as well. The climax of creation is the new creation: new heavens and a new earth. An eternal habitat for eternal people.
C.S. Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” If we live only for 7 or 8 decades, then how we live won't matter much, at least to us. One day it will be “game over” and the damage we have done will be someone else's problem. But if we live forever, then the trajectory of that life is of supreme importance. Is that life moving us ever closer to the God of love, or ever farther from him? Are we expanding in response to his warmth and light or are we shrinking and becoming colder? If we do not course-correct, will we not end up in the outer darkness?

Believe or not, no matter how much it moans about death, this world needs it to keep us docile. It needs us to think that this life is the only one. Because then we will not want to risk it to change the way things are done. Because then we will settle for the amusements and distractions it sells us and consider the bad things that accompany them as necessary evils. Because then it will not matter how we treat others or whom we deem it OK to exploit or even to kill. They were going to die anyway and they are not coming back. And if, when we die, we have avoided the consequences of our bad behavior, we need not worry about justice afterward. And those who make huge sacrifices for others can be seen as having wasted their one and only life.

But if we and every person we meet are so valuable to God that he will not let us go, that he will not give up on us, that he will bring us back, then the logic of this world is turned on its head. It does make sense to risk it all to confront and change what is evil in this world. It does make sense not to indulge in everything that promises pleasure if it diverts us from everlasting good. And how we treat others is essential, in part because the consequences of our words and works will catch up with us, if we did not turn around the direction of our lives. But mainly because the person we affect is a fellow immortal. We are horrified if someone damages or destroys some ancient work of art—Michelangelo's Pieta or the Acropolis or a statue of Buddha; how much more terrible is it to try to damage or destroy a person created by God and destined to live forever?

But God is the only one who can decide if a life is truly over. When he lived among us, his works were to focused on bringing life and health to all. He turned water into wine and a handful of loaves and fishes into enough food for 5000 plus hungry people. He gave sight to the blind, speech to the mute, hearing to the deaf, the ability to walk to the lame, freedom from continuous hemorrhage to this woman, a functional hand to that man, freedom from seizures to this boy, and life to a young girl, to the son of a widow from Nain and to his friend Lazarus. And when his creatures murdered his son, God gave his life back to him.

We worship the God of life. As Paul tells us, nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ, not even death. And the resurrection of Jesus verifies that. In this world, everything ends, everything dies, everything goes away. But God will not allow us to go away. Jesus died to save us. And as God raised him from the dead, so he will raise those who are in Christ. The God of life gives us new life. And that is the good news the apostles were so fearless in spreading.

My granddaughter just learned that Jesus died and that God brought him back to life. She pretty much accepts what we say. But the men and women who first had to accept this news were rightly skeptical. Dead men just don't get up and leave their tombs. They knew that. And then nearly 2000 years ago, they had to unlearn it. Because of the resurrection, they had to accept that Jesus was the Messiah after all and that his mission was not to liberate some people from being subjects of some political empire but to free all people from their subjection to sin and death. Because of the resurrection, they had to accept that the things this world uses to enslave us are our masters no more. Because of the resurrection, we need not fear death and that frees us to do all that God wants us to do. To love others, even our enemies. To forgive all wrongs done to us. To stand up to the powers of this world and work for justice, peace, mercy, health and reconciliation for all people.

That's what I want my granddaughter to learn. That the powers of this world tried to use death to stop Jesus and shut him up in a tomb. He blew the door off that tomb and strode out into the world and everyone he touches awakes to new life. That's what I want her to know—firsthand. That Jesus is not just outside but inside as well. As Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) Or as Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) So when we proclaim Jesus' resurrection, we are not merely stating an historical fact but an ongoing reality. Christ lives in us. We are his body. We are the temples of his Spirit. We are his presence in the world today. So let's live like it.

Be fearless. Death is defeated. Christ is risen! 

He is risen, indeed!

Friday, April 14, 2017

For Others

For those few of you who don't know, last year I was in a head-on collision. I broke both legs, both wrists, my sternum, 6 ribs, collapsed a lung and did a lot of internal damage. I spent 40 days in the hospital, including 2 stints in ICU, and 100 days in a rehabilitation center learning to walk again. During the worst of it, when I had pain, when I threw a pulmonary emboli, when physical therapy had me in tears, my attention pretty much focused on myself. Pain gives you tunnel vision and all you can think about is how to make it stop.

I am here to preach on Jesus on the cross. And right off the bat, I want to say that I am not comparing my suffering to his. For one thing I was given fairly powerful pain meds. Immediately after the first of my 5 operations, I was put into a chemically induced coma for a week. So I did not suffer a 100th of the pain Jesus did.

Plus those directly in contact with me were working to save my life and make me better. Those directly in contact with Jesus' body were trying to make him suffer and die.

People who came to see me gave me emotional support. Many of those who came to see Jesus mocked and taunted him.

Finally, I did not deliberately put myself in harm's way, nor did I do it for others. Jesus took on the cross like a suicide mission and he did it for you and me.

The reason I started out telling you about the times I did feel pain was to emphasize how it makes you turn inward. You don't care about anything or anyone else, just your pain and when will it stop. And once again Jesus was totally different in this regard. As he hung on the cross he felt pain; he felt thirst; he felt exhaustion and air-hunger. And yet he was able to focus on others throughout his ordeal.

After they crucified him, after they stripped him naked and nailed his wrists to the cross beam and lifted it onto the upright and dropped it in place, and then bent his knees, turned his legs to the side, skewered his ankles with a long nail and hammered it home, he should have rained down curses on their heads. He should have asked God to strike them all dead. But instead, Luke 23:34 writes that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Could you do that? Based on my reaction when a hospital transporter banged my broken right foot into the side of a doorframe, I couldn't. And he hurt me inadvertently. The soldiers harmed Jesus deliberately. The transporter didn't want to cause me pain. The soldiers wanted Jesus to feel dreadful pain and then die. And yet he prayed for them.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) And how many of those listening to him then said, “Yeah, sure.” They probably thought he was naive to say such things. But while his enemies are actively torturing him to death, Jesus prays for them. He asks God to forgive them. Though they know they are killing a man, they are ignorant of the fact that they are murdering God. And yet Jesus prays for them. Despite his pain, he is thinking of their spiritual well-being.

The men being crucified on either side of him are acting as we would expect. The pain brought out the worst in them. Perhaps to take their minds off their own suffering they lash out at Jesus. They join in with Jesus' enemies who are saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself.” “And us!” chimes in one of the men. But perhaps because of Jesus' lack of ire in return, one of the criminals rethinks how he is spending his last hours on earth. Perhaps he heard of Jesus before and now sees how he conducts himself during his long and drawn-out death. He reprimands the other bandit, pointing out that they are just getting what they deserve. But what he sees in Jesus tells him this man is not a criminal like them. In fact, what he sees tells him that Jesus is what the crowd jeeringly calls him: the Christ, the Messiah, the king God promised to send. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Instead of a world-weary, “Sure thing, buddy” Jesus says, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in paradise.” That robber is the only person in the Bible who receives that assurance from Jesus himself. That Jesus was able to pull himself out of his own misery to give that promise to a man who earlier had been mocking him is astounding. Despite his pain, Jesus thought of the man's eternal well-being.

John's gospel tells us that Jesus' mother and his beloved disciple are at the cross. It must have been horrible for Mary to see her first-born, dying in shame and agony, as the crowds jeered him and the soldiers indifferently gambled for his clothes, which she probably made herself. And if Bible scholar Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological seminary is correct, the beloved disciple was Lazarus. (John 11:3) Imagine how hard it was to see the man who restored him to life die.

Jesus notices the two but more than that, he realizes his mother's situation. She is a widow and poor. Perhaps she is estranged from Jesus' brothers, who used to mock him and thought he was crazy. (John 7:3-5; Mark 3:21) Lazarus was well off, as evidenced by the tomb he was able to afford and his sister Mary being able to buy the expensive perfume with which she anointed Jesus' feet. Jesus is able to, at the time he is dying in horrible pain, think of a way to provide for his mother. So he says to her, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” John tells us the disciple took Jesus' mother into his home from that day on. Despite his pain, Jesus thought of his mother's physical well-being.

When I was in pain it was really hard to think of others. As my mother declined I was glad my brother was handling things because I physically and emotionally couldn't. But Jesus did what he could to make sure his mother would be taken care of and did so while nailed to the cross.

Jesus was able to think of others while fighting pain, exhaustion, blood loss and air hunger. And yet we Western Christians, living in the richest country on earth, think mostly of ourselves. We live in a world where millions needs help, such as our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity. Some are being sold into slavery; some are being beheaded; some are literally going to the cross for their faith. Others are fleeing and trying to get to more stable and more democratic nations, which are increasing turning their backs on them.

What would Jesus do? What would Jesus do from the cross? Why did he go to the cross? To rescue us. Out of love. What should our response to him be? What should our response be to a world God loved so much that he sent his son to die so we could live?

Let us pray:

Oh, Jesus, you did this for us. I am amazed and ashamed and grateful. As you took up your cross for us, help us take up our crosses daily for others. Help us to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. Help us to remember that what we do or do not do to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the threadbare, the foreigner, the sick, the imprisoned, the least of your brothers and sisters, we do or do not do to you. Help us to show your self-sacrificial love in all we think, say and do to all people so that they may know you through us, the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of your love for the well-being of all those created in the image of God and for whom you died. Amen.

Politically Correct Reasons for Killing God

Much has been made of Pilate's seeming reluctance to crucify Christ in the gospels. We know he was a brutal military man who was not a very good politician and who did not get on well with the people he was supposed to govern. Philo, a contemporary Jewish writer, described Pilate as vindictive, “inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness,” with a “furious temper.” Some scholars figure he would have killed Jesus, a potential revolutionary, without a second thought. Why the hesitation we see in the gospels?

People act differently in different circumstances. And Pilate's behavior was influenced by his situation and by the people he interacted with. One person that probably is most responsible for Pilate's behavior in this case was Caiaphas, who was appointed High Priest by Pilate's predecessor. When Pilate first entered Jerusalem, he did not do what his predecessors did and remove the insignia and effigies from the army's standards. The Jews saw these as idols and staged demonstrations, asking they be removed. After 5 days' deliberation, Pilate had the demonstrators surrounded by his troops and threatened them with death. Which the Jews were willing to undergo rather than violate the 2nd Commandment. Eventually Pilate stood down. A similar incident later led to a reprimand from the Emperor Tiberius. Pilate had no love for the religious leader of the Jewish people.

It was quite likely, therefore, that when Caiaphas came early on the Day of Preparation for the Passover with a man he wanted Pilate to execute that very day, Pilate was suspicious. As High Priest, one would expect Caiaphas to be, not at the Antonia fortress, but at the Temple. And the crowd of Jews calling for Jesus' blood should have been there, too, having their lambs sacrificed for the feast. Obviously it was not a random gathering of Jewish citizens; the mob was probably made up of Caiaphas' supporters and his servants.  So Pilate could see that Caiaphas wanted this execution badly. Since Caiaphas had never done Pilate a favor, Pilate would be reluctant to help him. In fact, if he could determine that Jesus was no insurrectionist, but merely a religious rival to the High Priest, he might release him just to serve as a thorn in Caiaphas' side. To him, Jesus was a pawn to use against a man Pilate hated.

Joseph Caiaphas was a consummate politician. He was High Priest before Pilate came and he remained High Priest for most of Pilate's term. When he heard that Jesus was growing popular and had raised Lazarus from the dead, his reaction was not to wonder if the Galilean carpenter was indeed the Messiah; he saw him as a potential threat. At Passover, Jerusalem filled with Jews from all over. It was a feast celebrating God liberating his people from Egypt. The parallel with the Roman Empire wasn't hard to make. Jesus had said nothing political but he had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, which could be seen as fulfillment of a prophesy in Zechariah 9:9. Jesus had driven out of the Temple the moneychangers, an easy target for discontent because of they enriched themselves using unfair exchange rates. The Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Jewish leaders, was already afraid of Jesus' popularity. They said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will take away our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) But Caiaphas had done the cold-blooded calculation. “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) Caiaphas didn't care that Jesus was performing the same signs as a prophet. To him, Jesus was a problem to be eliminated.

In his effort to not do Caiaphas a favor, Pilate sends Jesus across town to Herod Antipas, who rules Galilee. After all, Jesus falls under his jurisdiction. Earlier Herod had been afraid that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist risen from the dead. Herod had arrested John for calling his marriage to his sister-in-law incestuous. He couldn't bring himself to kill John and listened to the captive prophet despite the way he made Herod squirm. Then Herod had been tricked by his spouse and adopted daughter into beheading John. Now he was finally getting the chance to see and hear Jesus for himself. But Jesus won't play along. Herod can see he is not John and has no interest in killing another popular religious figure. He is however grateful for the Roman governor recognizing his authority over Galilee and they become friends. To Herod, Jesus is a curiosity and more importantly, someone else's problem.

When Jesus gets kicked back to Pilate, the governor has one more trick up his sleeve. He has Jesus flogged as a punishment and shows the people this bloody, beaten man. Then he offers to pardon one prisoner for Passover. Who do they want—Barabbas, a real insurrectionist and murderer, or Jesus, whose followers, the Nazarene astutely points out, are not fighting to free him? To Pilate's surprise, the bogus crowd requests Barabbas. And they shout that since Jesus claims to be King of the Jews, if Pilate pardons him, he is no friend to Caesar. And Pilate may not survive another Imperial reprimand. So he washes his hands of the responsibility and lets Jesus be crucified.

Pilate was a military man playing politics badly. Caiaphas was a religious leader playing politics expertly. Herod was an unpopular puppet of the Empire. And then we have Jesus. Jesus was a king but his kingdom did not come from this world. You belong to one of the kingdoms from this world by simply being born into it. Or because your kingdom was conquered by another. But citizenship in the kingdom of God is totally voluntary. No one is there against his will. You have to be born again, born from above to be a part of it. You have to ask God to enter your life in order to enter his kingdom.

The kingdoms of the world were all established by spilling the blood of the conquered. And that blood and the death of soldiers and citizens benefited the king or emperor or premier or president.The kingdom of God is established on the spilt blood of its king, Jesus. And ultimately the death of Jesus benefited the lives of the citizens of God's kingdom. He gives up his life that we might have life eternal.

The kingdoms of this world all end. The pharaohs no longer rule Egypt. Assyria and Babylon are history. The Roman Empire fragmented and fell to barbarians. The kingdom of God is everlasting. The reigns of leaders of the kingdoms of this earth also come to an end. Pilate's patron, Sejanus, second in power only to the Emperor Tiberius, was arrested and executed. Pilate was removed from office after the Samaritans wrote to the Emperor protesting his violence against them. Caiaphas was removed as High Priest a year before Pilate's downfall. Herod Antipas was accused by his nephew of conspiracy against the Emperor Caligula and died in exile in Gaul.

Jesus was crucified, a punishment reserved for slaves and traitors. Yet God raised him on the third day and his name and his movement has spread throughout the world. These other 3 men are footnotes to history, known primarily because of their interactions with Jesus.

To Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod, Jesus was a problem to be dealt with. None of them cared who he really was. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” As Pilate cynically said, “What is truth?” They didn't care. They only cared about the political realities of the moment. The Son of God was not killed because of who he was or what he preached. He was killed because of other considerations.

What about you? Do you in times of crucial decisions take into account only what will benefit you and yours or do consider who Jesus is, what he has done for you and what your response should be? Do you try to sideline the Son of God so you can continue with business as usual in your life? Do you treat Jesus as an inconvenience or as your Lord, your Savior and your King now and forevermore?

Let us pray:

Lord God, Heavenly Father, King of the Universe, so often we confuse the ephemeral with the eternal, the trivial with the important and the important with the essential. Too often we put more emphasis on the things of this world than the matters of your kingdom. Change our perspective, Lord. Help us to see all things through your eyes and act accordingly, regardless of how it looks to the rest of the world. May we never be ashamed to show our allegiance to you and your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray and who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Cleaning Up Messes

I have been giving confirmation classes recently and I was trying to explain the sacraments. Some churches say there are 7; we only accept 2, baptism and communion, because they are the only 2 Jesus actually commands. But if I were pressed to nominate another act of Jesus to be a sacrament, I would be tempted to say, “footwashing.” Jesus actually said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:14-15) That's almost a commandment.

We do practice footwashing on Maundy Thursday. It feels weird because it's not really a part of everyday life, as it was in Jesus' day. But it was weird then, too, because Jesus was doing something relegated to the lowest slave. People didn't wear shoes and socks but open-toed sandals. And the streets weren't usually paved, nor were they cleaned regularly. And they didn't have sewers. So folks' feet were nasty. But that was the point. When you love someone, you do what needs to be done for them, even if it means you have to get your hands dirty.

I don't think you could be an effective parent if you had rupophobia, the fear of dirt, filth and feces. Likewise you would have trouble taking care of a child if you had emetophobia (fear of vomit), quenliskanphobia (fear of spit or saliva), hemophobia (fear of blood) or mysophobia (fear of germs). As a nurse, I can handle anything provided I am wearing gloves and a paper gown and sometimes a mask. But most parents realize you don't always have a hazmat suit available; you do what you have to do with what you have at hand. And you do it out of love.

Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin word for commandment. That refers to what Jesus says in John 13:34, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Love is messy and Jesus is showing us both how much he loves us and how much we should love one another.

So what kind of messes should we be willing to deal with when expressing Jesus' love?

Besides physical messes, there are emotional messes. We all know people who have been an emotional mess at some time. And some folks are an emotional mess more frequently than others. Usually we try to distance ourselves from such people. We may fear being drawn into the drama or just feel unable to help the person. I get exposed to all kinds of messy emotions at the jail: anger, despair, jealousy, remorse, and on rare occasions, false hope. What I do is listen. Sometimes all the person needs is someone to vent to. If you let them talk long enough, they might even suggest a solution to the problem. The real difficulty might be facing the unpleasant truth. They may just want someone to confirm what they already know they must do but really don't want to. Sometimes they just want someone to say, “That sucks.” And it helps when they realize how Jesus also faced a choice and course of action that sucked but which he accepted for our sake. When I pray with them, I restate what they said about how they feel and they are moved and relieved that we could be that honest in presenting it to God.

Keep in mind that Jesus stripped himself of his tunic and wrapped a towel around his waist. If you are dealing with a mess, you don't want to get any more of it on you than necessary. Crying with those who cry is fine but you don't want to get enraged with someone who is in a rage or panicky when the other person is panicky or hysterical with someone who is already hysterical. A nurse washes her hand before touching a patient. Ask God to help you keep your head and stay calm and helpful while dealing with the mess. And just like a nurse strips off the gloves and gowns and washes her hands again after cleaning up the mess, you need to shed as much of the debilitating emotions afterward and spent some time getting yourself back on an even keel. Ask God's Spirit to cleanse, refresh and restore you. Get sleep; exercise; eat well.

Protecting yourself from the chaos is especially important when dealing with the financial messes people find themselves in. I am grateful that my contract with the jail forbids me from handling money or doing business for or with the inmates. Sometimes I wish I could help them deposit a check and pay their landlord so they don't lose their place to stay while in jail. But that would open me to a lot liabilities and I might mess things up because I am not a financial worker. I try to see if they can call a friend or relative. (And, sadly, I have found that usually they have no one in their life they can trust.) Probably the best thing you can do is refer someone in financial trouble to an expert and keep them from making fiscal decisions while in emotional turmoil.

If the person is a spiritual mess, you should definitely refer them to The Expert: God. You may need to assure them that God can forgive anything and is willing to hear their cry. This is a situation in which it is important to have some passages of scripture memorized that can help. Hopefully, some of them are verses that have helped you. The main things that keep people from God are guilt, shame and fear. I have found that doubt is a very distant fourth on this list. They wouldn't have turned to you for spiritual help if their doubts were that strong. Again you must be very empathetic, even if the person seems a bit blasphemous. A lot of it has to be discounted as the pain and despair talking. Feel free to call me in if you sense you are out of your depth. And maintain your spiritual hygiene. To shift the metaphor, drowning people are panicky and will grab for anything, including a rescuer and take them under as well. Experienced lifeguards know how to approach such people so that they don't both drown. To shift the metaphor once more, remember to have your oxygen mask on first so you can be able to help the other person with theirs.

People are messy. Their problems are messy. And our master Jesus the Messiah, the son of God, is willing to strip down, put on a towel, grab a basin and clean up people and their messes. As his students and followers, we need to do what he has done. It is how we love one another as he loved us.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Following Jesus: Obeying His Commandments

My son has been into Dungeons and Dragons for at least 20 years. When he was a teen people used to view that fact with alarm. They asked me if I didn't think it was “of the Devil.” I would respond that the only thing diabolical about the game was the fact that it was so complicated that the kid had to buy a library's worth of books to play it! Seriously, you have books that give you a breakdown in constructing the characters you play, including their races, professions, strengths and weaknesses, intelligence levels, dexterity, stamina, charisma, wisdom, etc. Then there are books on the various weapons, spells, and useful items you may find. There are books on the monsters you will fight and books on the various worlds and game settings. Each world has its own set of books on characters, items, monsters, etc. My old Encyclopedia Britannica takes up less shelf space.

I'm actually glad he got into D & D because it kept him occupied, educated him in various time periods and cultures (some games are set in the real world), and took so much of his allowance that he had nothing to buy drugs with! Actually D & D was his drug of choice and he and his wife still meet with friends to play. It's rather like the bridge clubs of my parents' generation.

That said, D & D holds almost no attraction for me (nor do most games). I don't mind him calling me and asking for help in constructing a storyline for him and his friends to play. But the game itself has too many rules. One whole session is usually spent just making your characters. And once you start playing—well, a D & D joke goes that in a game your group can travel a hundred miles in 5 minutes and then spend two hours fighting a 5 minute battle. It's as if someone played The Lord of the Rings movies in slow motion and then added statistical analysis to every move each character made. And don't get me started on how many different kinds of dice you need! For me all the rules spoil the fun. 

A lot of people have the same criticism of religion: too many rules! And, yes, if you start with the first 5 books of the Bible, the Torah, you will find 613 commandments in about 200 pages. Small wonder that even the scribes and Pharisees, who literally made their living explicating and expanding on all these laws, debated which one was the most important. Hillel the Elder was supposedly confronted by a Gentile who said he would stand on one foot while the great rabbi explained Jewish law to him. Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and learn.”

Jesus, when asked which commandment is the greatest, said something a little different. For one thing he actually cites the Torah. Hillel's negative version of the Golden Rule is not found in the Bible. (And when Jesus states the Golden Rule he makes it positive: treat others as you would like to be treated. In a sense his version puts a greater demand on us because he eliminates the possibility of neglect. Following Hillel's version would mean upon finding someone suffering from misfortune, you simply couldn't make it worse. But it doesn't explicitly stop you from leaving the person alone. Jesus' version of the Golden Rule requires you to help the person out and do what you can to alleviate their suffering. You can only do that with Hillel's version if you see “not being helped” as something hateful to you. I'm sure Hillel would approve of that interpretation but Jesus takes that kind of hair-splitting off the table by requiring you to do in every situation what you would like others to do to you.)

But in regards to the question of the greatest commandment, first Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And then, unprompted, he quotes Leviticus 19:18, which says,” your neighbor as yourself.” Hillel only deals with the social ethics of the Torah. Jesus puts our relationship with God at the top, and then adds our relationships with others. The one flows from the other because humanity is created in God's image. So one could see the second commandment as a logical extention of the first. In Matthew 22:40, Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” which is similar to Hillel's comment.

And in Mark 12:31, Jesus says, “There is no commandment greater than these.” In effect he subordinates all the other commandments to these two. By setting these commands—to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves—above all others he creates an ethical hierarchy. All other commandments must be specific expressions of the first two. And if they aren't, they are superceded by the two greatest commandments. Let's see how this works with the other moral demands in the Bible.

The Ten Commandments are easily assigned to one or the other of the greatest commandments. Having no other gods before him, not trying to reduce God to a symbol or image, not abusing his name and devoting a day to him each week are expressions of our love for God. Respecting your parents, not murdering others, being faithful to your spouse, not stealing from others, not lying about others, and not obsessing over and wanting what belongs to others are all ways of showing your love for your neighbor. And indeed you can easily work out how most of the other commandments  in the Bible fit into this scheme. And when we encounter ones that don't seem to be loving, they are overruled by the commandments to love. Jesus demonstrates this when he heals people on the Sabbath or touches lepers, menstruating women, and dead bodies, all of which would make him ritually unclean. Following the commandments to love negates implementation of lesser laws when the results would be unloving.

But before we see how this applies in everyday life, let us examine what precisely we mean by love. To most people is means a positive emotion in regards to someone or something. To others it means a desire to possess the object of affection. Neither of those works in regards to what the Bible means when it talks of our love towards God or our neighbors or especially towards our enemies. Remember that peace means total well-being. Love is doing what you can to ensure the total well-being of the other. It may be accompanied by affectionate feelings and certainly such feelings make it easier to perform acts of love. But, as anyone who is married or has kids knows, there are times when you have a hard time feeling that way towards those you nevertheless love. Then the thing to do is to work for that person's well-being despite being angry with or disappointed in or appalled at them.

One of the greatest displays of love I have seen was by a woman whose husband, my patient, required a lot of care. She emptied his urine bag, mopped up the saliva that flowed constantly from his tracheostomy, and took him to Miami for doctor's appointments weekly. The one thing she didn't do was his dressing change, which encompassed 2/3s of his back. His oozing open wound was the one thing that nauseated her. Changing that was my job. When it became evident that soon his insurance would no longer pay for my visits, she reluctantly watched how I did it. She fought back the revulsion because she knew she would soon have to do that for him as well. That's love.

That is how God loves us. He loves us despite our brokeness, despite our messiness, despite our wounds, self-inflicted or not. Paul said, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) And Jesus confirms this when he upgrades the second commandment on the night before he goes to the cross. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) It is no longer enough to love others as we love ourselves. We need to go beyond that. We need to love one another to the same extent as the man who died for us does. If there is one word to describe Jesus' love, it is self-sacrificial.

That is how we should love him and love others. But how does that translate into everyday life?

The 13th chapter of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth is a popular passage to read at weddings. But in context, Paul is not talking to couples so much as the whole church. The Corinthian church was fighting over a lot of things including spiritual gifts. Paul points out that just as a body has many diverse parts, so does the body of Christ, the church. Then he prefaces his chapter on love by saying, “...I will show you a still more excellent way.” And he enumerates the qualities of love.

Love is patient.” In older translations the word was translated “long suffering” and the Greek has the sense of not merely waiting but enduring. Rather than insisting on its own timetable, love lets people take the time they need to recover or change. In an impatient world, love's patience is sorely needed.

Love is kind.” The Greek means “to show oneself to be useful; to act benevolently.” Kindness is becoming rare these days. In an increasingly cruel world, love's kindness is necessary.

Love does not envy.” Like most of the “seven deadly sins,” envy has been put in service to our economy. Envy of the rich and famous is used to fuel consumption of stuff we don't actually need. Of course, for many people such things are way beyond their ability to buy which turns envy into resentment. In an ever-more materialistic world, love's lack of envy refreshes the spirit.

Love is not boastful.” The era of the humble-brag is over. People in public life are just out and out bragging about themselves, what they've accomplished and how they rank against others. This sets a bad example for others. A healthy ego doesn't need to obsess over itself; only an insecure ego needs constant praise. Love is outwardly focussed. In a narcissistic world, love's lack of incessant self-promotion is vital.

Love is not conceited.” When fictional protagonists like Dr. Gregory House were allowed to be arrogant, it was a refreshing change from vanilla-flavored heroes. But now it is acceptable for brilliant people (or people who just think they are brilliant) to be arrogant. And it is bleeding over into real life. I'm not telling anyone to hide their light under a bushel but nobody excels at everything. No one is totally self-sufficient. Recognition of that fact is humility. In a society that tolerates arrogance, love's humility is an important corrective.

Love is not rude.” Politeness is not a quality people prize anymore. They like to tell it like it is, no matter who it hurts. Love realizes that the truth rarely needs to be told in the most offensive way possible. In fact, that kind of talk rarely opens up useful conversations; rather it shuts them down. In a world that goes out of its way to step on people's toes, love's politeness is important.

Love is not self-seeking.” Some translations render this “Love does not insist on its own way" or "its own rights.” Let's face it: we all think we are right. But when we refuse to even consider someone else's way or someone else's rights, we lose other perspectives and we cease to learn about a world that is too variegated for any one person to comprehend. Love takes other people into consideration. In a self-righteous world, love's tendency to think about others is essential to cooperation within society.

Love is not irritable.” Doesn't it seem like a lot of people have a hair-trigger temper nowadays? Some folks are in perpetual outrage mode. They go on and on about petty grievances and are unable to shrug off the slightest insult. Love isn't touchy or resentful. In a prickly world, love's ability to absorb minor irritations makes life less fractious.

Love does not keep a record of wrongs.” In context it probably means wrongs against itself, but it could just as easily be keeping a count of other people's mistakes or missteps. You know a relationship is in trouble when someone is keeping score. In an unforgiving world, love's decision not to keep count of every wrong is a mercy.

Love finds no joy in injustice but rejoices in the truth.” People are gleeful when they find out others are doing wrong. That's one of the attractions of reality shows as far as I can tell. Certainly our politics has been poisoned by each party gloating over the misdeeds of the other side. Love finds nothing to celebrate in anyone's wrongdoing. Love delights in the truth. In a world with a perverse sense of justice, love's refusal to revel in wrongs and the gladness it finds in the triumph of the truth is crucial.

Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything.” I'm using J.B. Phillip's translation of this verse because I think he expresses it best. When doing the right thing gets hard, a lot of folks just quit. Love never gives up. In a world that abandons noble endeavors when they get difficult, love's neverending trust and hope are an indispensable part of bringing God's healing to those who are perishing.

Since Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is love, and since we are the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of that divine love, we should be able to replace the word “love” in this passage with “a Christian.” A Christian is patient. A Christian is kind. A Christian does not envy. A Christian is not boastful. A Christian is not conceited. A Christian is not rude. A Christian is not self-seeking. A Christian is not irritable. A Christian does not keep a record of wrongs. A Christian finds no joy in injustice but rejoices in the truth. A Christian knows no limits to their endurance, no end to their trust, no fading of their hope. A Christian can outlast anything.

Want to try a good spiritual exercise? Substitute your own name for the word “love” in this passage. When you get to an attribute that you wouldn't be able to say with a straight face in front of a bunch of people, like “Chris is patient,” you know what to ask for help with when you pray to God.

During Lent we have examined 7 key elements to following Jesus: prayer, studying the Bible, community, worship, being a good steward, telling the Good News and obeying his commandments to love. There may be other elements but these are essential. As students and followers of Jesus, we need to implement all of them for the spiritual health of our relationships with ourselves, with others and with our Lord and Savior who invites us to take up our cross and accompany him on his path to the kingdom of the God who is love.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Following Jesus: Telling the Good News

It used to be that the way to spread news was exclusively by word of mouth. That's never gone away but the invention of writing made the reach of the news even wider and longer lasting. The existence of the gospel (literally, good news) in the New Testament was possible because the Roman Empire made it safe for travelers and had good roads which facilitated sending letters. And as the original apostles were martyred, churches not only saved the letters they had received from Paul, James, John and the like but also traded copies with other churches that had different letters. So we have literally hundreds of copies of the books of the New Testament, which enables us to reconstruct accurately what the original texts said.

Everything was hand-copied, of course, until Guttenberg's press made it easier to print thousands of copies of books and broadsheets and eventually newspapers. Print technology remained dominant until the advent of movies which could be viewed by the masses in theatres. Once sound was added, a news reel could not only show but tell the news. Radio allowed the news to be heard simultaneously across the world and you could hear it in your home. TV added pictures. And now the internet can bring the news to a device you keep in your pocket or purse. It also allows anyone in the world to disseminate their message.

Two groups of people were early adopters of these communication technologies: Christians and pornographers. Both had content they wanted to get out there. We are going to concentrate on the former group.

Guttenberg's name will forever be entwined with the first mechanically produced Bibles. Missionaries went on to use magic lanterns to help spread the gospel and in 1899, Herbert Booth of the Salvation Army is thought to be the first person to use film in the cause of Christianity. We are all familiar with Christian radio and TV. There are now thousands of Christian websites. Even my humble sermon blog has a small but international audience, with readers in France outnumbering those in the US for the last couple of weeks, followed by Russia, South Korea, Germany, Poland, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and China.

Nowadays just about every church has a website and a Facebook page. Some have Twitter accounts and some have YouTube channels. We haven't even touched on media used by denominations and Christian organizations. If anyone has access to any kind of media, they can easily learn about Jesus.

So have we fulfilled the Great Commission—to make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Triune God and teach them to observe all that Jesus commanded us? Well, certainly the content of the gospel has gone all over the world as well as Jesus' teachings but we haven't figured out a cybernetic way to baptize people. And you have to wonder if simply putting the knowledge out there is sufficient. I remember after the Columbine shooting, people actually saying that it wouldn't have happened if we had just let authorities post the 10 Commandments in schools. That's not how it works! The Decalogue is not a magic spell and I don't think the shooters' problem was that they simply forgot the commandment against murder and needed to be reminded of it. The problem isn't an external one but an internal one. As it says in Jeremiah 31:33, the law must be in a person's mind and written on his or her heart.

And I think that must be done in person. Very few people have come to Christ merely by reading or seeing or hearing a Christian message, especially when it's delivered by technology alone. And when people did do so, they almost always knew and interacted with Christians before that. St. Augustine famously one day took up and read the gospel but his mother was a Christian. C.S. Lewis is as close to anyone who has come to the faith through a rigorous intellectual process, yet he had Christian friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, who helped him as he wrestled with certain issues. We are social animals and messages have the most impact when delivered by someone we know and like.

In fact, a study has shown that 3 quarters of people who come to church did so initially because they were invited by other churchgoers. If I, a clergyman, invite people to come, they discount it because, after all, I work here. It's like a restaurant manager telling you to come to his restaurant. They figure we're paid to do that. But if you recommend a restaurant (or a doctor or a church), people are more likely to take the offer seriously because you go voluntarily.

Of course, it has to be something they are already interested in. I have found that I can recommend good books or TV shows or movies to people, but if they just aren't interested in that type of thing, it won't do any good. I have a brother-in-law who hates musicals; he wouldn't go to Hamilton if it was free and being performed across the street from his house. There are some people like that when it comes to church. Or they may simply be committed to their own church or denomination. You can't sell a Lexis to a person who loves Chevys.

And timing makes a difference. Recommend a dinner restaurant to a person who just ate breakfast and you are less likely to get a response. Tell him about the great restaurant you found at the end of the workday, and that same person might be more interested. Folks rarely care about choosing a doctor when they are feeling all right, but when they are sick, they might ask you whom you go to. One of the things I've learned in my jail ministry is perfectly summarized by the chaplain of the Senate in a recent documentary on PBS. He said, “Nobody really needs a chaplain...until they really need a chaplain.” And if people don't feel their spiritual needs keenly, if they aren't hungry for the nourishment God provides, they are less likely to come. Of course, you don't know that just by looking at them. And they have to know that you are someone who can help them with that. I don't have to wear my collar when I go to the jail. My predecessor didn't. But it lets people know at a glance who I am. The first step in telling people the good news about Jesus is to stop being an undercover Christian.

That doesn't mean you have to do what I do when I enter each unit at the jail. I yell, “I'm Chaplain Chris. I've got Daily Breads and I am available if you want to talk or be prayed for.” (Daily Bread is a daily devotional booklet.) And I shout to be heard over the din of TVs and ping pong and the general hubbub of inmates talking. You don't need to be obnoxious about it but you do need to let people know that you follow Jesus and are available if they want someone to talk with or pray with. Think of yourself as a spiritual resources person for the folks around you.

I think that a lot of us are reluctant to tell others about Jesus because it feels like we are trying to sell others on him and we don't want to think we are simply another person in this culture selling something. But if you are a spiritual resources person, you don't have to push people. You simply make yourself available for folks when they need a spiritual perspective on things in their life.

Part of the problem with modern evangelism is that we live in a very different world than the first Christians. Nobody knew about Jesus then and so the market place of ideas was wide open to them. On the other hand, you could be killed for declaring yourself a Christian. Today's world is very different. Everybody in the US knows all about Jesus, or thinks they do, and so the good news is not perceived as news by anyone. Also far from getting killed, at least in the West, being a Christian is equated with being privileged, at least in the US. And, sure enough, 75% of Americans and 88% of Congressional members self-identify as Christians. Yet 51% of Americans say they go to a service at least once a month and only 37% say they attend weekly or nearly weekly. That's about the same number as European Christians who say they attend monthly or more. In contrast more than 2/3s of Latin American Christians and 90% of African Christians attend church regularly. We live in a post-Christian society.

The media has hyped the fact that those who say they are unaffiliated with any religion has risen to 23% of the population. But only 33% of the so-called “nones” say they do not believe in God; 61% say they still believe in God. And only 11% were raised in secular homes. So why did the formerly faithful leave organized religion? 49% said they were disenchanted or ceased to believe.

Some of those have accepted the false dichotomy between science and religion. Being unable to reconcile a literalist interpretation of parts of the Bible with current science, they have walked away. And sadly, some fundamentalists have simply doubled down on untenable positions on the matter like the pseudo-scientific Answers in Genesis. Yet a lot of Christians do accept science, including John Polkinghorne, the theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest, DNA pioneer Francis Collins and Robert Bakker, who is both a respected paleontologist and a Pentecostal minister, and whose pioneering work on dinosaurs led to his being an adviser on the original Jurassic Park. Sadly these Christians aren't as good at capturing media attention as scientists who are anti-theist. To win back those who think that science disproves or is a good substitute for religion, we need a new C.S. Lewis.

But some who have fallen away from the faith are simply disenchanted with a church in which there are, as one Pew Research respondent said, “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things.” The problem is not that people are turned off by talk of God or Jesus; they are turned off by people who talk the talk but do not walk the walk.

How we live our lives is just as much a way of proclaiming the gospel as what we say—more so! How many people have lost respect for a parent or a previously admired person when they found out they did not act in harmony with what they said. Jesus criticized the hypocrisy of the Pharisees when he said, “So practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach but do not practice.” (Matthew 23:3) James wrote, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22) And 1 John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18)

If we tell people about how Jesus transforms lives but our lives are mired in destructive behaviors and unrepentent sin, they aren't going to believe us. And if we tell folks about the joy Jesus brings but we are unenthusiastic about following him, they will not believe us. If we tell them God so loved the world that he sent his Son and then we exhibit hatred towards some of the inhabitants of that world, they will not trust a word we say. Because everyone is sick of a society that says it's Christian but doesn't act like it.

To go back to the restaurant analogy, who will believe your recommendation of a gourmet restaurant when they see that your car is full of old Burger King bags and pork rind packages? It's not that we have to be perfect but we have to be seen to be actually following Jesus and actually making progress in that regard. God's grace is not merely something that was once a factor in our becoming a Christian but should be a daily reality in our becoming more Christlike. As Jesus pointed out, you can't see the wind but you can see clear evidence of its work and the same is true of the work of the Spirit in us.

Jesus also said the Spirit would help us say what we should when the time comes. So we need to be open to the Spirit. This doesn't mean we should just open our mouths and let whatever pops into our mind come out. The fishermen who followed Jesus knew that you needed the wind to get somewhere but you didn't just open your sail and sit back. You knew your destination and you set your sail to get there and you may have to tack. You also may have to change your itinerary if the wind wasn't favorable. But it wasn't a passive thing.

And this brings us back to something I touched on a little ways back. You need enthusiasm. The word originally comes from the Greek for “inspired by God.” Because of religious fanatics, we tend to worry about letting ourselves get carried away in our devotion to God. But look at Jesus. He was filled by the Spirit and yet he comes off as the sanest man on the planet. Remember that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control.
Remember how the sailor uses his sail. Being filled with the Spirit doesn't mean acting like a madman. It means seeing things differently, from God's perspective, and being empowered to act on that. The actions may seem odd to others, such as stooping to write in the dust when a woman is in danger of being stoned for adultery, or washing your students' feet like a slave, or going to the cross when you could have just told those in power what they wanted to hear.

C.S. Lewis said Jesus didn't send us into the world to tell it that it's all right. Part of the reason we don't want to talk to others about Jesus is the implied judgment. Jesus saves, so if you tell me I need him, it must mean I need saving. Nobody likes to be told they need help. Until it is obvious, even to them, that they do. Maybe that's why I get so much out of working in the jail. The people there have less illusions of being perfectly all right. Most of them know they need help, like the people in a doctor's waiting room realize they need help.

And that's why one way you can fulfill the command to preach the gospel is to let people know by your deeds as well as by your words that you are a spiritual resources person. A doctor doesn't grab people off the street and force them into treatment. Even a doctor can't help someone who doesn't trust him and won't cooperate with him. But he lets everyone know he is there. He lets them know that they can trust him. He lets them know that their well-being is his top priority.

As students and followers of Jesus we need to let people know by our lives as well as by our words that they can trust us to help them and that their total well-being is our top priority. And we need to remember that we are not the Great Physician. We need to refer people to him. Because we too are in need of his help. In the end, we need to remember what Martin Luther said about evangelism: it is just one beggar letting another beggar know where to find bread.