Monday, May 29, 2017

The Enemy of Success

The primary passage of scripture referred to is 1 Peter 4:12-14. 

Several years ago I realized that of all the obstacles to success the most insidious is success itself. When a person or a group or a company become successful, they are rewarded with wealth and power, and then in order to preserve those things they face choices. What of the things they did to become successful must they drop and what must they keep doing in order to stay successful? Techniques that get you to the top are not necessarily the same as the techniques that keep you on top. Many a revolutionary warrior has proved to be a terrible ruler. And often charisma may help you get to a position of leadership but then you need character to actually lead. And confidence is not the same as competence. Success changes the game and you can't be a one-trick pony or a one-hit wonder. To maintain your success, you not only need to determine what skills and techniques you need to retain, you also need to pick up new ones and you may have to discard others. The problem is discerning between the three.

We see this in comedians like Jay Leno, who get to the top by being sharp and edgy, and then, when offered a sitcom or a talk show, must become more warm and fuzzy and above all, must not offend their wider audience. We see it in companies like Apple that take risks and are innovative until they become big and profitable and then keep tinkering with their earlier triumphs rather than create something truly new. Or we see it in movements that catch fire and achieve their goal and then cast about looking for a new cause. Like the March of Dimes, which was originally exclusively focused on polio and once that was dealt with, switched to improving maternal and infant health, premature births and infant mortality. They are doing great work but they have a much lower profile these days.

I got to thinking about this because our passage in 1st Peter is speaking to the church in a difficult time. The church today is also in a difficult time but it is a different sort of difficulty we face. The early church was small and had to deal with persecution. Depending on the specific emperor and local officials you could suffer for being a Christian. If the church had died then, it was because Christians were literally dying. Today if churches are dying, it is, I think, because we have had too great a success.

By this I don't mean that we have converted everyone; in fact, we have done a pretty bad job at that. But we did make the brand “Christian” popular, and for a while the majority of people in this country self-identified as Christians. But once it became ubiquitous, it was no longer novel or special. Now the brand is cooling and people are abandoning it for the next cool label, like neo-paganism or atheism or a vague spirituality. And I think part of this was because we made becoming a Christian too easy.

It used to be that it was harder to be a Christian. You had to become a disciple first. You had to really want to learn the faith and follow Jesus. When Christians were persecuted, that cut down drastically on the people who were just doing it for the novelty. You have to have a really deep conviction that something is the right thing to do if pursuing it can get you killed. But even after Constantine ended imperial persecution of Christians, the church would withhold baptism until after a person spent 3 years as a catechumen.

A major problem arose when missionaries were sent to the barbarian tribes throughout Europe, the same ones who eventually brought about the fall of Rome. The missionaries would go to the tribe's chieftain or king and try to convert him. If they succeeded, then he would decree that his people were now Christians and order them to get baptized. Insufficiently instructed in the faith and illiterate to boot, these converts were Christians in name only. A lot of them were pagans at heart and in some cases, their gods were smuggled into Christianity under the guise of being local saints. The Irish Saint Brigid may in fact have been a Christianized Celtic goddess.

A similar problem arose with the evangelism in the last part of the 20th century. It often used sales techniques and a simplified version of the gospel to get people to say the “Sinner's prayer” and then consider themselves saved. Now this can bring a person to follow Jesus, as it did with Barbara Brown Taylor, who was speed-converted in college by someone using a tract. Taylor wondered what had she just committed herself to and not only did she do the research but eventually became an Episcopal priest and one of the best preachers in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, many people who get a canned 4 Spiritual Laws-like presentation do not follow it up. One of the things that the Billy Graham organization used to do right was involve local churches in counselling those who came forward at his “crusades” and he always encouraged new Christians to get involved in a church.

As far as numbers were concerned, quick and painless conversions worked. As recently as 1990, 86% of Americans said they were Christian. Churches were planted with an attitude of “if you build it, they will come.” But just as 45% of eligible voters don't bother to participate in our democracy, 52% of self-identified Christians don't bother to attend church weekly. Small wonder that 3,700 churches close each year.

Success can make you complacent. Living in a country where it seems like almost everybody is a Christian has made the church take a lot of things for granted. We have not concentrated on real evangelism. We have not concentrated on making sure Christians know what they believe and why they believe it and why it matters. We have not realized that having a so-called Christian nation doesn't immunize us against injustice and corruption any more than the nations of Israel and Judea were able to remain righteous under Davidic kings. Every one of our presidents, and the vast majority of our governors, legislators and members of Congress say they are Christians. If that's true, they must take responsibility for the state of our nation.

There is one advantage to being a minority faith under persecution and that is that it causes you to focus on what is vital. Such as the fact that you have no expectation that following your faith will be easy. Our passage from 1st Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Or to put it in other words, you are saying that the King of kings and Lord of lords is not the divine emperor of Rome but a Jewish carpenter who happens to be the actual Son of God. Of course you are experiencing push-back. And remember that they crucified him. So “you are sharing Christ's sufferings...” What should your response be to this persecution, according to our passage from 1st Peter? Air your grievances? Make an issue about people saying “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? Refuse to bake cakes for people you disagree with? Sue someone?

No. We are told to rejoice. Because we know we are on the right track; we are doing what God wants us to do. Imagine for a minute a TV evangelist telling his audience that instead of God making them rich, they can expect instead to suffer for following Jesus. Not only would it be hard for that preacher to turn around and ask for a 65 million dollar private jet, I imagine what would really suffer would be his ratings. Because that's not what modern American Christians want or expect to hear.

While individual Christians may not suffer, at least not in the West, our churches are. And part of that comes down to our success—and our worship of success. Churches are considered successful if they have lots of members, big facilities, and big budgets, just like successful companies. You rarely see churches touted as successful for simply being faithful to Jesus and doing what he told us to do: feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty, welcome the immigrant, clothe the threadbare, visit the sick and the imprisoned, love your enemy, give to all who ask, forgive others, ask for forgiveness, treat others as we wish to be treated, turn the other cheek, preach the gospel, make disciples, trust in Jesus. And such churches don't get credit for these things because they can't all be captured by metrics. For instance, I can tell you how many men, women and children I have baptized here or at the jail but I cannot tell you how many lives have been changed by my ministry. Sometimes it's the little things, the singular comment, the small act of kindness that has the greatest impact.

By buying into the world's ideas of success, we set ourselves up to fail. After all, by the world's standards our founder was a failure when he was executed at age 33. So we need to look at what the Bible sees as success.

First off it is not being rich or popular. Those are things the world cares about. But you can have those things and be spiritually or psychologically unhealthy. Howard Hughes was a billionaire who was nevertheless a physically and psychologically ill person. Hitler was a world leader who dominated much of Europe and became wealthy through sales of his book, Nazi party funds, getting royalties on his image on stamps and by having the government exempt him from taxes, and yet he was spiritually bankrupt.

Wealth has many inherent temptations: to put one's pleasures ahead of others, to increase one's riches through unethical means and to abuse the power wealth offers. Love of money is condemned by both Jesus and Paul. (Matthew 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10) What is true for wealthy people holds true for wealthy churches. Yet the Bible is not wholly anti-affluence. Paul summarizes God's attitude towards the wealthy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

So what is the Bible's definition of success? It may surprise you to find out that the word “success” only appears in scripture once! The nearest equivalent to the idea of successful in the Bible is the term “blessed,” which appears in scripture 302 times. So let's look at a few of those verses.

By the way, the Hebrew word esher can be translated as either “blessed” or “happy.” It comes from a root word that means “to be straight, right, level.” The Greek equivalent makarios also means “blessed” or “happy.” It can be translated “fortunate” or “well-off” too. But what the Bible says about being blessed or happy is different from the world's definition.

Psalm 1 says blessed is the person who delights in God's laws and does not go along with those who do wrong. Psalm 2 says blessed are they who put their trust in God's son, our King. Psalm 32 says blessed is the person whose sin God forgives. Psalm 40:4 says blessed is the one who trusts God and does not respect the arrogant, nor is diverted by lies or false gods. Psalm 41 says blessed is the one who cares for the poor. Psalm 84:5 says blessed is the one whose strength is in God.

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11) Jesus has a very counterintuitive list of who is blessed: those who recognize their spiritual poverty, those who mourn, those who are gentle, those who are thirsty and starving for all that is right, those who show mercy, those whose hearts are cleansed, those who make peace with others, those who are persecuted for pursuing what is right. Those are not qualities the world generally sees as signs of success. But God does.

Ultimately, we are blessed when we are in the right relationship with God, our neighbors and ourselves. Those who are blessed are those whom God has made whole. And remembering that might be one way to make our churches healthier.

In 1 Peter 3:9, we are enjoined to “bless others because you were called to inherit a blessing.” We can bless the people of the world by bringing them to the wholeness that is in Jesus. When Jesus was sending out the Twelve to spread the gospel and heal, he told them : “Freely you received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) Rather than doing what the world does—assessing he who has the most of something as successful—let us see who can give the most.

What have we freely received? God's love, shown to us in the life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. Our salvation, a gift from God's grace, accessed through trust in him. His Spirit, poured out on all his people. The gifts of his Spirit, the skills and talents he has granted us to do the work he has given us to do. A people, a community, brothers and sisters in Christ, to uphold us and support our growth in Christ. That's an awful lot.

In addition, we have a building of which I am the sole mortal inhabitant most days.

So what can we do with all that we have? How can we use our God-given assets to bless others in our community? How can we pass on what we have received by God's grace to those who need what Jesus offers? That's our task. That's our challenge. We need to look at what God has graciously given us and then look at our neighbors and ask ourselves how can we show them love in specific and concrete ways. If we don't, if we fail to love our neighbor, we will die. Like thousands of other churches.

I nearly died a year and 5 months ago. I left rehab a year ago this weekend. It was not easy and I was nowhere near back to normal. But like Jacob who wrestled with the angel of the Lord, I came out it with a blessing—and a limp. Evidently God didn't want me to die. And I don't think he wants this church to die. But we have a lot of work to do if we are going to get back on our feet. 

And we won't get there by looking back longingly at what was. We need to look forward. Just as I couldn't measure my progress by how well others were doing in therapy, we can't let ourselves get caught up in envying what other churches are doing. I had to concentrate on doing what I needed to do. We need to follow the path God has laid out for us. I needed to step out of my comfort zone and push myself a little bit farther every day. We need to do the same. I had to let go of my pride and let other people help me. We need to reach out to others who can help us. I had to engage muscles I never suspected were necessary for walking. We are going to have to do things we never did before. We will have to make sacrifices. And it will hurt. But, believe me, the blessings will be worth it. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

In the Right Spirit

Imagine an alien had arrived last Sunday, Mother's Day. Now imagine that this alien was a clone grown in an artificial womb and raised by the otherwordly equivalent of worker bees. Now imagine you are trying to make it understand what we humans mean by the word “mother.” It might initially have problems with the whole concept of one being giving birth to another. But even if you could get that across to it, what about all the other things that come under the term of mother. Mothers feed their young from their own bodies. They comfort them. They protect them. They teach them facts. They teach them social ettiquette. They teach them morality. They act as role models. They encourage them. They make themselves available to their offspring, even when their childen are adults and supposedly don't need them anymore. And then there's the fact that some mothers aren't the biological giver of life. They can adopt childen, informally as well as legally. And what if there wasn't a single word in that alien's language that encompassed all that the word “mother” means.

That's the problem we have with the key word used in John's gospel for the Holy Spirit. The Greek word is parakletos and there is no equivalent word in English. The King James version translates it as “comforter.” The RSV renders it “counselor.” The New RSV gives it as “advocate.” Still others translate it as “helper,” “someone to stand by you,” and “he who is to befriend you.” They are all correct and they are all insufficient to explain everything that the original Greek word means. So let's look at what this word reveals to us about God's Holy Spirit. (And I want to thank William Barclay's book New Testament Words for much of what follows.)

Parakletos literally means “one who is called in.” The question is “called in to do what?” So we need to look at what it meant in ordinary speech at the time of the New Testament. What kind of person would you call in to help you? If you needed advice, a counsellor . The Spirit is called the Spirit of truth by Jesus. He will guide us into all truth. (John 16:13) Specifically, he will reveal truth about Jesus and remind us what he taught. When we ask ourselves about specific situations “What would Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus have me do?” we need to listen to the Spirit. (Yes, Jesus drove the corrupt moneychangers out of the temple but that stands out precisely because it is so different from how Jesus usually acted. We are not God. We are forbidden by Jesus himself from passing a final verdict on someone else or acting aggressively towards others.) We need to listen to the Spirit who, through Paul, says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

What other kind of person would you call in to help you? If you were undertaking a hard task or battling an adversary, an ally. In the Old Testament the Spirit of the Lord enables the judges and kings of Israel to rule and protect the nation. The Spirit inspired the prophets to reveal God's will and perform mighty acts in his name. It was by the power of the Spirit that Jesus did his acts of healing (Matthew 12:28), routing the spiritual forces that oppressed and inflicted suffering upon people.

The verb form of the word was used for rallying the troops about to go into battle, urging them on. And this is where we get to the translation “comforter.” While parakletos was on rare occasions used to mean “one who consoles,” when the translators of the King James version picked “comforter” that word had a different meaning. It comes from the Latin and means to fill with fortitude. This reflects the meaning of parakletos as encourager, literally “one who gives others courage.” The Spirit cheers us on when we need to be brave.

What other kind of person would you call in to help you? If you needed someone to plead your case in court, an advocate. A very common use of parakletos at that time was as a character witness when a person was being tried. He is the opposite of an accuser, which is what the devil is called. (Revelation 12:10) The Spirit speaks up for us, intercedes for us, defends us. In times of persecution, the Spirit will give us the right words at the right time. (Mark 13:11)

We have another intercessor and that is Jesus. In Hebrews 7:25, it says that, as our High Priest, he intercedes for us. 1 John 2:1 says, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One....” The word translated “advocate” is again parakletos. And indeed in today's gospel Jesus refers to the Spirit as another parakletos, whom the Father will send in his place to be with us forever. (John 14:16). William Barclay wrote, “In the Gospel, as Dr. G.H.C. Macgregor finely puts it, the Spirit is Christ's alter ego. The parakletos, the Spirit, is the constant, illuminating, strengthening, enabling presence of Jesus.” And in Acts 16:7, the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of Jesus.”

But doesn't this confuse the persons of the Trinity? Not really. If, as Jesus says, the Spirit does not speak on his own but relays what he hears, recalling what Jesus said and did and bringing it to remembrance, he is like an ambassador. He is the voice of the one who sent him. (John 16:13; 14:26) The persons of the Triune God who is Love are one, so united that what one does or says is the will of all. When we deal with the Spirit it is the same as if we were dealing with Jesus. There is perfect harmony there.

And that is the harmony that Jesus wants us to have with one another. We are the body of Christ, filled with the same Spirit that empowered him. And on the night he was betrayed after Jesus prayed for the disciples, he said, “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one—I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

We see couples and families that love each other, or say they do, but are fractious and frequently at odds with each other. And we know that this is not how love should be. Love should unite. Those in love should be a unified front. It should be “all for one and one for all.” That's what we should strive for. We may not always achieve perfect unity but we should always aspire to it.

Did you notice that Jesus pointed out a big reason why the world does not believe in him? “I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.... that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me....” If God is love and Jesus is God and we are followers of Jesus, we should display that love in all we think, say and do. But we don't. We called by one Spirit to be one body of Christ. But when we fight and maintain our rigid distinctions from other Christians, when we let our differences become divisions, when we are more concerned with what separates us rather than with all that we have in common, we deny that we belong to the God who is Love. We deny the ministry of reconciliation he has given us. We deny Christ because he said the world would know that we are his disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35) and our actions make him out to be a liar. The world should look at us and say, “That's how people should act. That's how the world should be.” Instead, we don't look any different than anyone else in the world.

There are a lot of analyses of why the church is shrinking, why people, especially young people, are leaving. I think it is because we are not listening to or being guided by the Spirit. As someone once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” And that's because we often do not resemble him in what we say or what we do.

Jesus kicked off his ministry by proclaiming “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor....” A lot of American Christians haven't gotten that message. 56% of Evangelicals favor cutting economic aid to the poor around the world. 40% support cutting government assistance to the unemployed. More are in favor of decreasing funding to poor in the U.S. than the average non-Evangelical American is. Lest we pat ourselves on the back, a Pew Research Center survey found that 39% of Episcopalians and 47% of those in the ELCA said government aid to the poor does more harm than good. So helping the poor is bad? Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

Jesus said we are to love our neighbors and our enemies and he sent us out to preach the gospel to all nations. The first Gentile convert was an Ethiopian eunuch. Paul said that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Yet the church is racially divided. 86% of mainline Protestants are white. That's more than the 76% of Evangelicals who are white. And it shows in our attitudes. When asked if the police generally treat blacks and minorities the same as whites, 62% of white Evangelical Protestants and 47% of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics agree. But 75% of minority Protestants disagree. Obviously, we don't believe the experiences of our minority brothers and sisters in Christ. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

Jesus welcomed and healed Gentiles, who, since he never left the Holy Land, were either occupying Roman soldiers or immigrants. A recent survey of Evangelicals found that only 1 in 10 says the Bible influences their views on immigration. 1 in 5 say immigrants are a threat to law and order, a threat to the safety of our citizens, and a threat to traditional American customs and culture. 48% said recent immigrants are a drain on our economic resources. Only 40% saw this as an opportunity to show them love. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sins against us. Yet in a Fetzer Institute survey, 58% of Americans feel there are instances where a person should never be forgiven. 41% put murder in that category, which rules out Moses and Paul being forgiven. 26% say abuse or sexual crimes should never be forgiven, so that excludes David. 22% say those who intentionally commit any crime should not be forgiven, which means Jesus was wrong to forgive the thief on the cross next to him. 71% of the respondents in this survey were Christian. Is that in line with the Spirit of Jesus?

God is love. Jesus is the God who is Love Incarnate. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of that Divine Love. If we do not reflect that same love, that same care for the disadvantaged, that same forgiveness for fellow sinners, it's because we have replaced his Spirit with beliefs and rules that are dead. Dead things don't respond to people or to the world around them. Dead things eventually smell and people stay away from them. Maybe that's why people are staying away from the church?

The great thing about God is that giving life is his specialty and bringing what is dead back to life is no problem for him. In fact, he brings spiritually dead people back to life in Christ everyday, every time someone realizes their condition and sincerely asks him to change them. As a church, we need to realize that we are dying and in some places, already dead and we need to ask God's Spirit, the giver of life, to resurrect us. We need to ask him to make us responsive to the world he loves so much and wants to save from all the things which deaden our spirits. We need to ask him to breathe new life into us and revive our love of Jesus and renew our desire to follow him and reignite our passion to tell others about him.

Any organization can stray from the spirit in which it was created. The NRA was founded by 2 Civil War veterans as a club to improve people's marksmanship with rifles, not as a Washington lobbying group, nor to endorse or oppose political candidates. The Red Cross, originally a humanitarian movement to care for wounded soldiers, promised to build houses in Haiti after the earthquake and failed spectacularly to accomplish what had never been their purpose. The church was founded to live out the Kingdom principles taught by and demonstrated in the life of Jesus Christ and to spread the good news of God's love and grace. It was not intended to be a clique or a club or a cult or a political party or a “get rich quick” scheme. It was intended to be the community of God's people carrying out God's mission to reconcile all people to himself out of love. We tend to forget that. We need someone to remind us of what Jesus taught us about the church, someone to counsel us, someone to guide us, someone to help us, someone to act as an ally, someone to act as an advocate, someone to fill us with courage, someone to make sure we never lose the constant, illuminating, strengthening, enabling Spirit of Jesus.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Real Task

One Saturday morning a mother decides to make pancakes for her 2 little boys. She is doing it the old-fashioned way: with a mix and a griddle. Belonging to the microwave generation, her kids start getting impatient. Seeing that Mom can only make one pancake at a time, they begin arguing over who will get the first one.

I'm the oldest; I should get it,” says one boy.

Well, I'm the baby, so I should get it,” says the other.

To head off an escalation of the conflict, Mom says, “You know what Jesus would say, if he were here?”

No,” says the older boy.

What would he say?” asks the younger.

He'd say, 'I love my brother so much, I want him to have the first pancake.' What do you think about that?”

Yeah, that's good,” replies the older boy. Turning to his little brother, he says, “You be Jesus!”

That's the problem with the world in a nutshell. Everyone wants someone else to be the good guy and to make the sacrifice. Everyone wants to get the best of the deal. Nobody wants to suffer. Not even fanatics. Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics, killing 2 and injuring 120 in the name of the pro-life movement. He hid in the woods for 5 years. Then he made a deal with authorities so he wouldn't face the death penalty—so he will continue to live. He was willing to kill for his cause but not to die for it. That's not nobility; that's cold-blooded calculation. He's pro-life, all right: pro-his-life!

The leaders of terrorist groups are always more willing to encourage suicide bombers than they are to risk their own lives. But that's true of all leaders. Gone are the days when generals or kings led their troops into battle. Gone are the days when leaders took responsibility for anything that happened on their watch. A huge company is exposed as riddled with corruption and unethical business practices, and the last thing you can expect to hear is the C.E.O. taking the blame. The man who was paid millions for his leadership is suddenly utterly unaware of the actions of his management team.

It's always been this way. Genesis tells us that after the first sin came the first finger-pointing. The man blamed his wife and his wife blamed the snake. From the beginning the rule has been: get someone else to take the risks and the blame. For some this comes easily.

In her book The Sociopath Next Door Harvard psychologist Martha Stout cites the chilling statistic that 4% of the population have no conscience. A sociopath, like the more organized psychopath, is a person who cannot develop emotional bonds with others. In neurological tests their brains show no more response to words like “love,” “mother,” or “pet” than to “table,” “window,” or “toaster.” Unable to feel emotional attachments or obligations, these people can do anything without the slightest remorse. Some, obviously, become criminals, but most learn to fit in by becoming excellent actors. They are often immensely charming and masters of manipulating people whom they see as hamstrung by their consciences. They can talk people into taking the risks and even the blame for them. People are pawns to them. If they treat you well, it's simply because you are useful to them. They may even marry if it suits their schemes, but neither love nor faithfulness is an option for them. Because they are experts at gaming society's rules, if they have ambition, sociopaths can go far. History shows us that, under the right circumstances, they can even become the leaders of nations.

It can make you wonder: what could you accomplish if you didn't care who got hurt, who got blamed, who got lied to and betrayed? Of course the price for such freedom of action is high. You would not be able to love or feel love. Your spouse might be beautiful or handsome but you would have no more feeling for them than for a sports car or a nice pair of shoes. Dr. Stout recalls one sociopath who didn't visit his wife when she was deathly ill and in the hospital for 3 weeks. When she recovered, he fumed that she might lose her looks. He could not feel grateful that she was alive. In fact, had she died, he might have used that, for sociopaths love to play on people's pity. The man was not a criminal but a respected high school principal.

Since they don't get any emotional high from relationships, they occupy themselves with games of domination. If they cannot top a colleague or charm him, they will undercut him. They will play head games on others and commit meaningless cruelty just for fun. Addicted to stimulation, they will take needless risks. They are more likely than the general population to use drugs and alcohol because, without love, they have nothing to fill their empty lives.

But you needn't be a sociopath to want someone else to be the one to give in or take the fall. Because being good can be painful, or even fatal. Our passage from Acts is an extremely abbreviated account of the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.

We don't know a lot about Stephen but we do know that he was not one to let someone else do the right thing. He was one of the first deacons. The word comes from the Greek for “server” or, in modern parlance, “waiter.” Deacons in synagogues were responsible for gathering alms to be distributed to the poor—widows, orphans and the sick. So Stephen was a man who served others, especially the less fortunate members of the church. Normally he wouldn't have caught the eye of Christianity's enemies. But Stephen was a gifted speaker and a worker of signs and wonders. It is probable that these included healings. Previously, only the apostles did such things. Stephen may have been seen as a rising star, and since his duties took him to the homes of the poor, he was an easy person to seize. Accused of blasphemy, he was hauled before the Sanhedrin. His eloquent defense takes up almost the whole of chapter 7 of Acts. We only get the last sentence and his murder seems harsh and abrupt. But had he kept his mouth shut, he might have lived. Instead, he dies, like Jesus, even asking God to forgive his killers.

Stephen could have let someone else stand out. He could have left the preaching to the apostles. He could have backed down. But he didn't insist that someone else be Jesus. He realized that, at that time and in that circumstance, the role had fallen to him.

In fact, this is what post-ascension Christianity is about. We needed Jesus to come and show us what God is like. We needed him to die for our sins. We needed him to defeat death and our fear of death. But why didn't he stay and establish the kingdom of God? Because the kingdom is not an external thing. It can't be imposed. True righteousness can't be coerced.

The kingdom, or royal reign of God, begins by inviting his Spirit into one's heart and then letting him into every aspect of one's life. It's letting him dig out and restore that image of God buried in each of us, under all the crud we once thought was more important. The Spirit makes us ever more Christlike and better citizens of the kingdom of God. The kingdom spreads by our living out and proclaiming the good news of God's love and forgiveness. It's not that Jesus wasn't ready to establish the kingdom. The world wasn't ready. Getting it to that point is our task.

Jesus didn't stay and hold our hand during the process. He gave us his Spirit and let us go in order to grow. That's the way any child develops into an adult. At some point, the parent has to let the child start making choices and taking responsibility. This doesn't mean cutting off communication but giving the child the opportunity to internalize what he has seen and heard. There is nothing more reassuring to a parent than to hear his child recount how she made a good decision by herself.

Like I said, the lines of communication are always open. We can bring anything that bothers us to God. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “was tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) Another passage says that he suffered as he was tempted. That means he knows our fears, our urges, our desires and our pains. So we can confide everything to him. And we can take comfort and strength from the fact that he was able to conquer them.

But the task to spread the word and the kingdom of God is ours. And the way we do it is by being Jesus. Paul said, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who...[took] the form of a servant.” (Philippians 2:5, 7) God knew that the best way to communicate his love was in terms that we could understand, ie, in the form of a human being, Jesus. And that's still the best way to show his love—in our human lives as we follow Jesus. Part of that is taking up our crosses: making sacrifices, doing what is right and loving even when it is difficult and painful. In other words, we are to be Jesus to those around us.

As Jesus taught the nature of God's reign, we are to teach. As Jesus reached out to the marginalized and the outcast, we are to reach out. As Jesus stood up to those in power, we are to stand up. As Jesus confronted sin, we are to confront. As Jesus forgave, we are to forgive. As Jesus healed the sick and suffering, we are to heal. As Jesus nurtured his community, we are to nurture.

And in that way we grow into his image. In that way we reflect his glory. It's not easy. It is not always fun. But we cannot stay infants and children forever. We cannot avoid what we were created to do and still stay true to what we are to become.

To put it another way: want the world to be a more just and loving place? Want it to be a more holy and forgiving place? Don't look for someone else to do it for you. You be Jesus. If you do it right, it will be infectious. And someone will be Jesus to you when you need him.

Life is not a game to win. The point isn't who gets the most or who gets the first pancake. And besides, it's not the pancakes we will remember—it's the time spent sharing them with those we love which will stay with us all our lives. And it is the hope that we will be seated together at the wedding feast of the Lamb that motivates us to be living invitations to his kingdom. 

Monday, May 8, 2017


The Christian doctrine that is least developed in most denominations and most disputed by all branches of the that of the church itself. Obviously the older denominations—the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches—have the most elaborately developed teachings about the church. They depend chiefly on the unbroken line of succession of bishops from the apostles and the preservation of apostolic teaching. Most Protestant churches claim to have rediscovered the true apostolic teachings, in the form of the New Testament writings. The Episcopal church, considering itself both catholic and protestant, claims both apostolic succession and apostolic faith. Through the 1999 agreement Called to Common Mission, this is true of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well.

There is no way we can in the time allotted comprehensively look as all the various doctrines of what the church is and how it should be. But let's touch on some of the Biblical roots of what the church should do as found in today's reading from Acts. We are looking at the church right after Pentecost. Acts 2:42 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostle's teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” This is a seminal verse. We are given 4 identifying characteristics of the church. Let's look at each.

We are told that the first converts were devoted to the teachings of the apostles. And what were they? Despite what popular authors say in order to sell books which give different and sensationalistic accounts of what the early church believed, the oldest actual documents are not hard to find. They are the 27 books of the New Testament. True, we also have numerous later books but over the first few hundred years of this era, Christians discussed them all and what we have in the Bible is the firm consensus they reached. The canon of the New Testament was not decided on by Constantine at the Council of Nicea. Rather the council simply ratified what had already been hashed out over the centuries. The so-called “gospels” of Thomas, Judas and all the other touted alternatives weren't even close to getting in. If you want to read the ones that almost made it, google The Shepherd of Hermes (or click here) or the letters of Clement (here) or Barnabas (here).

Throughout Acts, Luke gives us summaries of early apostolic preaching. Scholars have derived from these a basic outline they call the kerygma, which is Greek for the “preaching,” or the “proclamation.” Basically the apostles concentrated on how, in fulfillment of the Old Testament, Jesus died for the world's sins, was resurrected and thereby revealed as Christ and Lord. Those who therefore repent and put their trust in Christ will be forgiven. You see passages in Paul that also mirror this. You can even see how it was incorporated into the creeds. The creeds are really just synopses of the story of the Bible. They evolved from the questions asked of candidates for baptism. They need amplification to be fully understood but they are great summaries of what we believe.

There were ethical teachings, too. Prominent among them were Jesus' teachings to love one another and to be one as he and the Father are one. And so we get to the second characteristic of the early church and the first converts. The Greek word is koinonia and it's usually translated “fellowship.” Sadly, we've taken that word and reduced it to the time we spend eating and chatting after the worship service. That's just a small part of it. For the Greeks koinonia meant a spirit of community that is the opposite of selfishness. So they used it of business partnerships, of marriage and even of the relationship we seek with God. At its heart koinonia means generosity, sharing, participation, partnership with each other, and through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, partnership with God. The church was not just about listening to the sermons of the apostles; they shared—everything.

One of the ways they did so is scandalous to this day. But we will get to that a little later.

The next thing Luke mentions is another manifestation of sharing. From the beginning, the presence of Jesus was known in the breaking of the bread. In the first century, the eucharistic feast was an actual communal meal. But it wasn't merely a potluck. The highlight was the consecrated bread and wine, a sharing of the gifts of God with and among the people of God. Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ?” According to the Didache, an early church manual, one version of the eucharistic prayer went, in part, “As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills [as grain] and then brought together and made one, so let your church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” Thus the body of Christ on earth comes together to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ and made one with each other and with Jesus.

Finally Luke lists the early church's devotion to prayer. All religions have prayers. How are Christian prayers different? For one thing, we pray through Christ. He is the one mediator between God and humanity. He knows our weaknesses; he has firsthand knowledge of our suffering. He was tempted in all ways as we are and yet did not sin. We do not pray to a God who is utterly unlike us but to one who has the experience of living and dying as one of us. That is a tremendous incentive to pray. It is also a great comfort.

Nor do we pray to a distant God, whom we cannot hope to understand. Because we have the Holy Spirit living in us. Thus we have a deep connection to God, that allows us to communicate with him in ways beyond words. As we said last week, Paul tells us that when we don't know how to pray as we ought to, the Spirit pleads our case with groans or sighs inexpressible by us. We can go to God and know that our inability to articulate what we really mean is not a barrier, for the Spirit of Christ in us is making our deepest feelings known to God.

Participating in the Spirit led to manifestations of koinonia that were new and surprising even then and whose existence bothers us today. I'm not talking about the signs and wonders or speaking in tongues. I'm talking about a different economic model. Acts 2:44-45 says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Staunch capitalists will not be happy that one of the first things the earliest Christians did was invent communism. Secular communists will probably be uncomfortable that those involved in the “opiate to the masses” invented their system. In fact, Karl Marx was born a Lutheran and some scholars think that Marxism is a materialistic Christian heresy.

This early Christian communism didn't last. Just 3 chapters later, a husband and wife sell some land and lie about giving all the proceeds to the fellowship. Since it was their property to do with as they wished, their sin was not in holding some back but in lying about it and accepting the praise for giving it all to the community. We don't hear of the experiment again. So did this kind of koinonia come from the Spirit or not? If it was, why did it go away? If it wasn't, why was it mentioned at all?

The ephemeral nature of this form of economic sharing leads some to the conclusion that we should ignore it and definitely not emulate it. But that is way too dismissive of something that the Spirit led Luke to include in God's word. Maybe we get too hung up on the specifics of this particular manifestation of Christians participating in a new kind of koinonia. It turns out there are at least 2 lessons we can learn from this.

First, following Jesus should change how we live our lives in practical ways. It seems that this experiment was seen as a way of dealing with the inequalities in the Christian community. Some of these believers had land and goods, and some didn't. The early church obviously considered this a valid Christian way of dealing with poverty. It called for self-sacrifice on the part of the richer Christians. It called for humility on the behalf of the poorer Christians. And it called for tremendous faith in God. There are a lot of so-called Christians whose lives are no different than those of non-Christians. They really don't try to change the world, not even in small ways. But God wants to redeem and renew all of creation. If we are participating in his life, we need to be doing our share in turning the world upside down, which is to say, right side up.

Secondly, God honors efforts to serve him even if we fail in the eyes of the world. If failure is not an option, people won't try anything new. Bureaucracies don't innovate because people are not rewarded for taking risks but they are punished for failing. But if you look in the Bible, you see that God is constantly calling people out of their comfort zones to take bold actions. He calls Abram out of the earliest civilization into a lawless land to start a special nation. God calls Moses, a fugitive, to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. God calls a frightened Elijah out of the wilderness with a mission to confront a regime which wants his blood. Some of their efforts do not go according to plan. God promises Abraham a son through his wife Sarah. But after decades of sterility, Sarah tells Abraham to father a child by Hagar, her servant. And though the child is not the one God promised, he nevertheless makes a great nation of Ishmael, too.

Conceived in the aftermath of Pentecost, this small scale communism doesn't continue as a feature of the church but neither is it condemned. It is preserved in the book of Acts as a challenge for us to try new ways of participating in the divine life and manifesting his redemptive love in community.

Because in the final analysis this is what God is working towards; this is why Jesus came: to make us into a new community, created in his image, a community that is fit to work with God to create a new world and to someday rule it under him. In the words of 1 Peter 2:9, which we will read next week, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people....” None of those are reasons to feel superior. We were chosen, yes, but to do this work. Holy in this context simply means set apart for God's purpose. We may be kings and priests but we are also his servants. It is an honor but nothing to brag about. After all, we all started out as rebels, who had to surrender to God, accept his pardon and let him re-create us.

The church is a work in progress. It does not yet fully reflect the glory of God. Some bits of it even seem to be regressing. Too often we try to emulate the world rather than Jesus. Frequently we capitulate to the world rather than change it. We are rife with factions which are more concerned with their own rights than with feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, visiting those in prison, and welcoming the foreigner. Yet, in various places, Christians are renouncing themselves, taking up their crosses and sacrificially following Jesus.

And we must not despair. Jesus says in John 14:12 that the one who trusts in him will do greater works than Jesus did. How that is possible I do not know. But with that promise ringing in our ears, we should get started. We should start trying out things that embody the koinonia of the Spirit, no matter how idealistic or un-P.C. they are. Remember the parable of the talents. God is more concerned that his servants use the talents entrusted to them to bring in some return than that they play it safe and just conserve them. God wants us to take risks. He wants us to rethink how things are done, always in the Spirit of what he has done and said.

As N. T. Wright says, the Bible is like the first 4 acts of an uncompleted 5-act play. The story and the themes are laid out. We just need to improvise the last act in harmony with what has gone on before, keeping the story's resolution in mind. Not all of our ideas will pan out. We don't know beforehand which ones will succeed and which won't. But actors know that the worst thing to do when improvising is to just stand there. The key is to jump in. Act boldly. Stay in character. Work with what the other actors give you and be generous with them in turn. Don't worry about failing. Ignore the critics. The only opinion that matters is God's. And he says it's going to be a big hit. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Return Trip

My wife and I have found yet another British detective series on Netflix. It is a procedural as are most of these shows and as usual it's all about the discovery and arrest of the murderer. Then they expect you to accept that the evidence presented is sufficient to convict the lawbreaker and that he or she is going away for a long time. Only a few detective series even touch on the trial phase, such as Law and Order. One of the best depictions of how the trial can go quite differently than one expects is the second season of Broadchurch.

Since I am chaplain at the jail, I see the punishment phase up close. I got curious about the history of punishment and imprisonment and decided to do a little research. In primitive tribal cultures, you don't have jails--for obvious reasons. Punishment for breaking the rules could be the forfeiture of property, shunning, exile or corporal punishment, such as beatings or even death. As civilizations arose, all of these, with the possible exception of shunning, are seen in the earliest law codes. These codes primarily use the principle of lex talionis or the law of retaliation. Punishments are supposed to be proportional to the crimes committed, ie, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. Imprisonment was used in Athens as an alternative for those citizens who couldn't afford to pay fines. But the Romans were among the first to use prison on a large scale for punishment. They put their prisoners to work doing hard labor and they used slavery as a punishment as well. We still do. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishes slavery and involutary servitude, except as punishment for a crime! I highly recommend watching the documentary 13th on Netflix for an eye-opening exploration of how slavery in the US never completely went away.

It wasn't until we get to the ancient Greeks, like Plato, that we get the idea of trying to reform the lawbreaker, to make the bad guy into a good guy. At least so far as secular history is concerned, that is. In regards to God's moral laws, that idea had already been around for centuries among the Hebrew prophets. Much of their message was to urge people to repent, literally “ to turn back or return” to God. When you are going in the wrong direction, the only logical thing to do is to turn around and go back. God is less interested in punishment than in seeing in us a change of heart and mind that leads to a change in our behavior. As it says in Ezekiel 18:21-23, “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

The call to repent is a mark of a prophet. Thus John the Baptist and Jesus begin their messages with the call to repent. And in our passage from Acts, Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) Repentance is the beginning of the process. It's the realization that the pit you've dug for yourself is way too deep and you need to stop digging and start looking for help getting out. Essentially it is like the first 3 steps in a 12 Step Program, which were summarized by a friend in AA as: I can't; God can; I'm going to let him.

But you don't hear the word “Repent” in most mainstream churches except when it pops up in the lectionary. Probably because we think that repentance is for people who commit horrible crimes or the more disreputable sins, the ones folks can't reasonably deny. But John never says, “Repent your grossest sins!” Jesus never said, “Repent your most obvious sins!” Peter doesn't say, “Repent only the sins that really bother you!” We are to repent all the ways that impede our ability to love God and to love other people, including the ones we kinda like and the ones we rate as trivial. Killing people is wrong but so is crushing their spirit by continually putting them down, which Jesus also condemned. (Matthew 5:21, 22) Lying is wrong but so is spreading malicious gossip, even when true. Adultery is wrong but so is controlling your spouse by destroying their self-esteem. Denying God is wrong but so is using his name to manipulate people to do your will.

We also often believe that repentance is a one time thing, the part that kicks off becoming a Christian and then is discarded, like the first stage of a rocket. But that's like thinking that once you get a medical check up, you needn't ever do it again. Step 10 of the 12 Step Programs is about continuing to take a personal moral inventory and promptly admitting when you're wrong. Think of how an athlete reviews every performance or game to see what they did right, what they did wrong and what they can do better. I find that last part the key: one may not be able to reach perfection in this life but one can always do better; one can always improve. Because what is essential to repentance is not feeling bad or sad but changing direction, changing your mind and your behavior.

What comes next? After you decide to reverse the direction you were taking, then what should you do? What are the next steps in returning to God? Peter says, “ baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven....” If you were to confess to a crime to earthly authorities, our criminal justice system would offer punishment. When we repent and confess our sins to God, we are offered forgiveness and grace. And we access that by being baptized. Originally a rite by which Gentiles came into the covenant community of God's people, the Jews, John the Baptist repurposed baptism as something Jews also could undergo to show their repentance and willingness to start over with God. For Christians it is both a sign of divine forgiveness and an entrance rite, by which one becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God and a member of the body of Christ. In the early church, its form was that of immersion of the whole convert. But the word was also used of cleansing things like tables, which are unlikely to be immersed. So it can also mean having liquid poured on something. Paul used the picture of immersion to explain how through baptism we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. As he was buried, we are immersed in water and as he rose again, we rise out of the water, a new creation.

Along with becoming one with Christ, we are anointed with the Holy Spirit. Peter speaks of it as a gift because our reception of the Spirit is, along with our salvation, unearned. God graciously gives us his Spirit to remake us, to equip us and to unite us with him and with all other Christians. And indeed, as sincere as our repentance may be, we cannot follow Jesus without the Spirit to empower us. Again the 12 Step Programs tacitly acknowledge this when the person seeking help admits that he or she is powerless over whatever substance or behavior is making their life unmanageable and turns their will and their life over to God. (After all, AA got a lot of its ideas and principles from the Oxford Group, a Christian movement.)

There is another thing the Spirit does for us. If you've ever worked for a large company or organization, you realize how little communication there is between the average person and the man or woman at the top. In some organizations, you are discouraged to talk to the big boss and must go through your immediate supervisor or manager instead. But that is not how it is with God. The Spirit is our link to Jesus and to the Father, enabling us to communicate with God and God to communicate with us. Paul even tells us that when we don't know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us, communicating what we feel or need on a level too deep for words. (Romans 8:26) God expresses what we cannot.

Our passage from Acts got us talking about repentance, baptism and the gift of the Spirit. What surprised me was that in our Gospel for the day (Luke 24:13-35) brings in two other essential elements of the journey back to God. In this passage, the risen Christ joins two disciples heading to Emmaus. They express disappointment in the death of Jesus which invalidates his being the Messiah in their eyes. And Jesus responds to this mistaken idea. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” (Lk 24:27)

Remember no New Testament existed then. Jesus is using the familiar Hebrew scriptures to give them a new perspective on what happened. And that is another part of being a Christian. Including the New Testament, God left us a lot of words wisdom to work with: about 773,692, more or less. We need to study them, think about them, and discuss them with fellow Christians. And as Jesus demonstrated in this passage, we need to keep our eyes open for Christ in the scriptures, even the ones in which he is not explicitly mentioned. In Jesus we see what God is really like: loving but just, demanding but merciful, forgiving but not a fool, opposed to evil but willing to die to save sinners.

While we don't have the details of what Jesus pointed out in this instance and throughout the next 40 days, we can make educated guesses. In the Torah, there is the Passover lamb whose blood saves God's people from death. Moses speaks of a prophet who will come after him yet who will be greater than he. Isaiah, the book Jesus quotes more than others, speaks of God's suffering servant who takes on the iniquity of the people and by whose wounds we are healed. The prophets talk about a descendant of David who becomes an eternal king. The psalms talk of the son of God, God's anointed, the good shepherd and give chilling descriptions of Christ's death. I imagine the two on the way to Emmaus felt a bit like Detective Kujan at the end of The Usual Suspects: the clues and the person they were seeking were there all along if they just looked at things properly. Afterward they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32) We too should have our eyes open as we study the written Word of God in order to find the Living Word of God.

In the twilight, the disciples don't perceive that it is Jesus who is talking to them. They invite him to stay with them. And it says, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him....” (Lk 24: 30-31) Later they tell the other disciples “ he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Lk 24:35) The literal meaning of the word “companion” is “one who breaks bread with another.” Just as Jesus was both a fellow traveler and one who broke bread with the Twelve, he is both to us. Through his Spirit, he accompanies us on all our journeys through life, and in the Eucharist we break bread and drink wine with him. In fact, he is our food and drink, our spiritual nourishment. We come together as the body of Christ to share the Body and Blood of Christ. In this act, as Paul says, “ proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.”

As Christians, we need to examine our souls regularly, like those who examine themselves for breast or testicular cancer. When we find something amiss in our spiritual health, we need to tell it to God and if it is our fault, confess it and repent. We need to make sure we do not quench the Spirit we receive at our baptism. We must search the scriptures for what God is saying to us, keeping an eye out for Jesus. And we need to regularly break bread and share wine with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Their encounter with the risen Jesus lit a fire under the disciples. They could not keep from sharing the good news with all they met. We need to do the same. After all, the good news is that whatever is wrong with us or with society, it is not hopeless. However set we are in our ways, we can change. However dirty we feel deep down, God can cleanse us. However helpless we feel, the Spirit is there to empower us. However often we have heard God's word, there are surprises in store for those who search it. However empty we feel, Jesus is there to fill us up and nourish our spirits. Whatever we need, we can trust God to provide it. We just need to step out in faith and let Jesus, our companion, lead us home to God.