Friday, March 30, 2007

Jesus. What a Man!

Amidst the hoopla of riding on a donkey toward Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Jesus rains on his own parade.

With Zechariah 9:9 as a backdrop, the people are yelling accolades to their humble king, blessing him and welcoming him into the "city of peace." According to Matthew and Mark, the people are cutting branches from trees and carpeting the dusty trail. John tells us that they were palm branches. Cloaks are strewn on the road as well. Jesus is receiving a royal welcome.

This is a happy, if not anxious moment for the jazzed up people. This king they imagine is going to do something amazing, something traumatic, something tremendous--what with all his powers. Look out, Roman garrison, Jesus is coming. Look out, corrupt Jewish leaders, the Righteous One is here. It's "pay back" time. Hosanna and hallelujah!

At the crest of the Mount, the panoramic view of Jerusalem fills Jesus' vision. There the "city of peace," tense with conflict and hope, smothered in prayers and blood, waits. The Temple mount captures the eyes of all. When Messiah comes, he comes as king to the Temple.

Jesus bursts into loud, wailing sobs. He is doubled over in grief. Underneath the hosannas, he hears "Spill the blood of the godless Roman swine!" He doesn't see a Temple; he sees a hideout for bandits. He doesn't see a place of prayer for all nations; he sees a money-making racket for Jews. He doesn't see a city of peace; he "sees" dead women and children strewn in the bloody streets like palm branches, like cast off clothing. So, he cries.

He also speaks. He speaks as a heart-broken prophet. He is old Jeremiah all over again. He cries because everything and everyone is so wrong. He's not coming to make Rome die; he's coming to die at the hands of Rome. He's not coming to liberate the city of peace; he's coming to declare its imminent and devastating end.

How does Jesus feel about that? What is God's heart like when he is compelled to speak judgement? For all its horror, these words of judgement do not contain any nuance of revenge. There is no hint of glee, no pay back. Only hot tear drops and deep grief. I repudiate Christians who paint a picture of God rubbing his hands together in joy and laughing as sinners go to hell, getting what they deserve. That is not the God of the Bible. Even as God unleashed the flood of Genesis 6, we read of a God deeply pained at the prospect. Jesus is that same God sitting on a donkey and crying.

Believe me, his humble donkey ride and massive cries are not a Trojan Horse act to fool Rome and Jerusalem. He's not going to suddenly enter a phone booth and come out SuperJew. He is going to walk very alone through the dark valley of the shadow of death. His weapon of choice is to receive a terrorist's death on a cross.

Triumphal or tearful? What kind of entry was it...for Jesus?


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Jesus on "Who's In? Who's Out?"

What do a Gucci chainsaw and Jesus have in common?

There's a lot of emerging conversation about re-working the whole "who's in? who's out?" construct. I think this is a good aspect of the conversation. Do some think the whole question needs deleting? I think so. Yet, I was jolted into thinking some more about this issue as I encountered Jesus in Mark 3: 31-35.

The Gucci chainsaw is not really "in." I got this picture off of "google images." And I'm not convinced it has anything to do with Jesus. I was just amazed that such a thing exists. Maybe it will be purchased by Elton John. Who knows?

Jesus was about redefining some long-held, almost irrevocable traditions in his 1st century, Second Temple Judaism culture (as many of you know from reading Tom Wright's The Challenge of Jesus). Jesus dared to redefine "family" in a centuries-long, patriarchal society. Mark makes this crystal clear in Mark 3: 31-35. It is worth reading...verse at a time.

31 Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.

32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."

33 "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!

35 Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

Why were his family looking for him? Mark 3:21 reports that they wanted to "seize" or "take custody" of him because they said, "He is out of his mind." This not a flattering picture of Mary and Jesus' brothers. They wanted to stop what they thought was an obsessed son and brother. Jesus was looney tunes.

After the classic Markan "interruption" to build the story (of the deep misunderstandings about Jesus), we pick up on the family's arrival in verse 31.

For me, Mark 3:34 is a case study in centered-set thinking. Mark writes that Jesus looked around (περιβλεψαμενος). This is a deliberate 360 degree gaze. How do we know? Because Mark adds that the crowd was "in a circle" (κυκλω) around him. This detail is important.

Who is in the center? Bingo. Those on the "outside" were natural family--"your mothers and your your brothers." Jesus takes the opportunity to redefine family as those inside who are accepting of and attentive to him and his word. Being accepting of Jesus and attentive to his word are those "who do the will of God" (verse 35). Did you hear the grenade explode? This is radical, scandalous talk!

Why? No longer is Abraham's blood in the veins a family identity marker. No longer is Jewish circumcision an identity marker. No longer is eating Moses' menu an identity marker. No longer is being a Jewish man the identity marker. "Whoever does the will of God is my family," Jesus declares. This opens the door to women, Gentiles, Samaritans, the poor, lepers, outcasts, "people of the land," slaves, whoever! The old stand-by markers are old wineskins exploding as the new wine of Jesus' Way is poured into human lives and relationships.

Centered set. You could be a diligent Jerusalem scribe in the lineage of Abraham and be guilty of the sin that is never forgiven (verse 29). You could be a marginalized, needy Samaritan woman who is a true worshipper of the Father in spirit and in truth. It depends on your response to the Center, the one in the middle of the circle.

There are those who are "in" according to Jesus. And those who are "out." Jesus will later say, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables..." (Mark 4:11). Those on the outside (δε τοις εξω). Those on the outside seem to be those wanting to ignore, defame, detract from, even destroy Jesus. They are neither accepting of nor attentive to Jesus and his word.

The emerging conversation cannot shake the need to discuss "who's in? who's out?"


Monday, March 19, 2007

Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright

When an "outsider" to the mishmash of our American politics mixed with our evangelical faith speaks to us, we can easily take offense. Unless that "outsider" is Nicholas Thomas Wright writing on the present day evil of our world. With none of "our" issues to defend, no senator or representative to vote for, no USAmerican evangelical cause to promote, N. T. Wright drags our country's conscience to the bar of biblical truth. He dares to do this in his book Evil and the Justice of God. He also engages his own country's conscience; even the Western world's conscience.

He dares to say that our country's reasons for our response to the evil of 9/11 were "immature and naive." What does he mean? He explains that it is immature to think that "they" are "evil" and "we" are "good." Evil runs right down the middle of every human heart. In this point Wright agrees with Jesus, not our politicians. All the evil of the world comes from the heart according to Jesus, not from a government style or a religion. It is immature to think that a style or kind of government (democracy) will eradicate evil from the world. We are told that if we bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East, evil will go away. That is biblical foolishness. Who is the largest exporter of pornography in the world? The democratic republic called the USA. Is that evil?
Wright does not try to divine the origins of evil nor does he rehash all the philosophical/theological conundrums associated with "the problem of evil." His task is more simple and practical. Wright asks, "What is God doing about evil?" With this question he surveys the Bible and comes to the fine point of the identity and task of Jesus and his mission. He then explores the task of the church in a world wrecked and terrified by evil--a church that is now participating in "new creation" on the resurrection side of Jesus' redemptive work.
I found the book unselttling at times. Wright presses me to state my loyalty. Am I more loyal to God and his work in the world or am I a loyal American who blindly believes everything I'm told by those in power in Washington, DC?
Evil is too serious a topic to turn into political slogans and shallow promises. Evil must be dealt with the way God dealt with it. This is the real "war" of the church.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Line in the Sand

The Line in the Sand
John W. Frye

The time that Jesus drew a line in the sand
The scandalous woman lived; sent away forgiven
While blood stones lay unused on the ground,
Once held by self-confessed sinners.

What is our line in the sand?
Does it heal, forgive, give hope and life?
Is it a life line or a line of dark challenge,
signaling separation, judgment and death?

Go ahead, make someone's day.
Draw your line in the sand.
People will see it and know your heart.
Love that forgives draws lines in the sand,
And so does the code of law that kills.

The hand that drew the line for the woman
Who, in panic and shame, bent naked in the crowd
Took the hammered, ragged nail.
His warm blood ran down to the line in the sand.

Where does our blood run these days?
Those who don't bleed, don't forgive.
What's our blood line...or
Blood stone?


Monday, March 12, 2007

Simply Christian by N.T. Wright

This is simply one very good book by a good guy.

Those who long for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty will find Tom Wright's exploration of these realities within the Christian story a compelling read.

I connected with his often repeated refrain that we do not live in a world where God and everything are one (pantheism or panentheism) or in a world where God and everything else exist on the opposite sides of some great cosmic divide. Wright presents a reality of God and everything else overlapping and interlocking. Heaven (and God) are not me and you and the wind and trees nor is heaven (and God) polar opposites of earth and human existence. God and heaven are here in and around us. Torah and Temple, Jesus and the church are where heaven and earth, God and humans have overlapped and interlocked. We are called "to live at the intersection of heaven and earth." And Tom points out--it's not an easy place to live.

His descriptions of the 'church' and her mission are profound, yet simple to grasp. The implications of his re-definitions of church and mission from what most of us have received are staggering. New creation began in earnest at the (bodily) resurrection of Jesus and because followers of Jesus participate in that resurrection, we are new creatures commissioned to announce to the world that with Jesus--his life, death and resurrection--everything has changed! Jesus alone is the world's rightful Lord.

From this eminent and prolific New Testament scholar, historian and theologian, we get a down-to-earth vision of heaven (pun intended) and a breathtaking vision of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord. We are able to set the universal longings for justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty into a thoroughly Trinitarian-framed, Christ-centered, world-affirming theology. We are invited to imagine how our little acts of kindness and love done out of loyalty to Jesus are changing this planet for the better. The "little seeds" will in fact become very big trees someday. Jesus said so.

Simply go and buy and read Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

What's Out? Mind-Game Christianity

So I got to wondering if God does anything in response to human mental assent...

For example,

A: "Do you believe God forgives you through the blood of Jesus Christ?"

B: "Yes, I believe that." (Meaning, "I assent to its truth)."

A: "Good. You are thereby totally forgiven by God."

Is this accurate? Is it saying more than Jesus would say?

Is forgiveness a mental game played with God and his grace based on the work of Jesus Christ?

With an uneasy heart I say "I don't think so."

"Forgive us our debts/sins, as we also have forgiven our debtors/those who sin against us. ...For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

We like to think that forgiveness is a neat, clean transaction just between our mental agreement and God's Word (promise). Other people are actually peripheral or unnecessary. Not so, according to Jesus. There are very real social, relational connections between us and others and God and us. Nothing is private about forgiveness.

Less you think this is going astray, let me refer you once again to Jesus as recorded in Matthew:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
"The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
"Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." --Matthew 18:21-35

Now if there is a relational dimension to something as fundamental as the forgiveness of our sins, I wonder if all of our alleged privatized doctrines ("between just me and God") are suspect. What if all our theology is valid only through the gateway of the entire Great Commandment which ends with "...and your neighbor as yourself." What if it is true that we don't really love the God we can't see because we don't love the very real human being we do see. John the Apostle suggested something to that effect.

What if all propositional theology is valid only if relationally lived. I don't think the simplistic bifurcation (dividing into two parts) of Paul's letters (e.g., Ephesians) is correctly understood. We tend to think that the lofty doctrines of Ephesians chapters 1-3 are a thing in themselves. They present "truths" we then "have to live out" (chapters 4-6). Not quite accurate. The changed lives and ethical newness of chapters 4-6 are the God-energized validation that the truths of chapters 1-3 have taken root in human lives.
Paul can describe the wonderful, comprehensive salvation in Jesus the Messiah (chapters 1-3), but he is thrilled to go on and describe the incarnation of that salvation in wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters, Gentiles and Jews, poor and rich, female and male, cultured and Barbarian (chapters 4-6). In another place Paul actually says that believers are "the message of Christ." Words carved in stone and placed in the ark of the covenant, and written with ink on leather, papyrus, and printed on paper---words highly revered---have never thrilled God as much as "the Word made flesh." God dreamed of the day when "I will write my words on their hearts...I will put my Spirit in them..." That's incarnation.

Unless we incarnate what we say we believe, we're stone monuments, not living messages; museum pieces, not world-changers.


Monday, March 05, 2007

The USAmerican Luxury of Church Hopping

Sasha Savich is a good, truth-telling brother.

I wrote earlier about his thoughts on our USAmerican "cheap grace." With our "repeat after me" prayer followed by our rock-solid affirmations of eternal security, we produce a cadre of people convinced of heaven when they die without any shred of evidence that the seed of truth has taken root in the soil of their lives. I don't think this "gospel" is either Jesus's or Paul's.

Sasha is stunned by another USAmerican church feature. We have the luxury of church-hopping. We are so use to this feature that it is hard to understand the spiritual horror that this feature generates in our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. With our franchizing everything in the USA, including church, we cater to the consumer mentality, to the shopper spirit, to the hopper syndrome.

I report this to Sasha and he sucks in his breath like I am lying to him. I'm not. Sasha shakes his head and looks so bewildered.

"Oh, John, that does not happen here. When we unite to the church, it is a covenant decision. It is serious. We would be horrified to see Christians in Lutsk shifting around from church to church. We pastors would not allow it."

In Ukraine Christ-centered, Bible-informed, mission-minded churches are hard to find. You find a family of believers and you become part of that family.

Imagine if our own children shifted around from family to family in our neighborhood, saying, "I don't like my current family. I think I'll go join the Smith family. They have a swimming pool and a large screen HD TV." We would be shocked. That's how Sasha responds to the USAmerican church-hopping mentality.

Serious. That's the word that describes the faith of Ukrainians. Utilitarian. That's the word for our USAmerican faith. What will my faith get me? My family?

Serious, but not somber. Committed and saturated with joy. United and living in a wide-open freedom. One of the reasons I like going to Ukraine is that it gives me a reprieve from the evangelical bubble of feel-good, me-centered, "I-deserve-to-be-served-today" faith.

Some of our luxuries are killing us.