Holy Spirit

in religion, but not of religion

Presbyterians don’t emphasize this so much, but when I was in the Assemblies of God, I heard plenty of sermons that asked, “Have you had your Damascus road experience?”  Can you pinpoint a moment in your life in which you could say, “I once was lost, but now am found.  Here I am, Lord!”

The awakening of faith can be a very subjective thing.  It can be hard to pinpoint from the outside.  For many, it is a gradual growing awareness.  That is, if it happens at all.  But however it does happen, it is a gift.  Sometimes it is a gift delivered in a drastic fashion.

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For the Lord to get Paul’s attention, it took something quite drastic!  (By the way, I’m using the name “Paul,” since Saul was later known by that name.)

As we begin Acts 9 with his description, we’re actually picking up from a verse in chapter 8.  “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (v. 3).  And now, with verse 1: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

There is a sadly comical aspect to this portrayal of Paul.  Honestly, doesn’t this guy have anything better to do?  He’s pictured like a brute beast, like a wild animal.  This guy has some major anger issues!  Like the bull in a china shop, he’s been doing some serious damage.

Paul has been hurting and terrorizing those whom, in the future, he will love dearly as his sisters and his brothers.  But as I say, that’s in the future!

There is one he is hurting most of all.  We’re told, “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’  He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’  The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (vv. 4-5).  The risen and ascended Lord passionately identifies with his people.  Because of his great love, what hurts them brings him torment.

How different is Paul’s response from that of Ananias in verse 10.  Where Paul says, “Who are you, Lord?” Ananias says, “Here I am, Lord.”

It isn’t that Paul doesn’t understand the faith.  He is very well versed.  Later in Acts, he says that he has “belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5).  He knows this stuff backwards and forwards!  He has the data, but he lacks the experience.  That is, he lacks the experience of God’s love.

For me, that’s something I really value from my time with the Assemblies of God.  For someone who lived too much in his head, the Pentecostals were a needed corrective.

At an interim ministry training event, a video was presented of the late Edwin Friedman, who was a rabbi and a therapist.  In the video, he is commenting on the fallacy of expertise.  He is talking about our emphasis on information and technique.  Or perhaps I should say the overemphasis on information and technique—the overemphasis on experts.  It’s possible to be paralyzed by continuously gathering information before we take any meaningful action.  Sometimes we need to learn to trust ourselves.

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[more words of wisdom from the late great Neil Peart--the drummer from Rush, if you didn't know]

Friedman speaks of the pursuit of data as a form of substance abuse.  I had never thought of it that way.  Too often, I have greatly abused that substance!  It can have the downside of making one indecisive.

Data and experience can be phrased, for lack of better terms, as head knowledge and heart knowledge, or spirit knowledge.

Graham Standish served as a Presbyterian pastor for many years.  He is now the executive director of a spiritual counseling center.  He published an article called “Shepherding SBNR Sheep: How to Create a Church for the Spiritual but Not Religious.”[1]

For devoted churchgoers, “spiritual but not religious” is often seen as those unwilling to make a commitment.  It actually has many connotations, clearly, some more positive than others.  Those who identify themselves that way often speak of their distrust of the church, of institutionalized religion, and so on.  Some perceive a lack of authenticity.  Some look at the church and see a bunch of phonies.  To what extent that perception meets reality is a different discussion.

Standish begins his article with a sort of confession.  Speaking of the time he was a pastor, he said, “I privately classify myself as being ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR).  I know it doesn’t make sense, but somehow it feels right.  No matter how long I’ve been the pastor of a church, I’ve always been more ‘in’ religion than ‘of’ religion.”  I imagine he would still classify himself as such.

It looks like he’s using the word “religion” to mean the data it contains.  He’s using it to express doctrinal content.  There’s nothing wrong with doctrine, in and of itself.  It’s necessary; it’s simply a body of teachings.  But if doctrine is separated from a loving experience of God, it can become deceptive and even dangerous.

I’ve never really considered myself to be religious.  I guess that’s a quality I share with our SBNR friends.  To me, being called “religious” is not necessarily a compliment.  In his zeal to imprison members of the early church, Paul is definitely religious.

Those who are in religion, but not of religion, “want to experience what’s true rather than be told what is true.”  Standish talks about one of his parishioners who said, “Most churches tell you what to think.  [Our church] encourages you to think.”

I should warn you.  When we encourage others to think, we may hear some stuff we would rather not hear.  In today’s passage, there are two fellows who hear stuff they don’t want to hear.  There’s Paul, hearing how he’s been horribly wrong, and he’s been persecuting his Lord.  And then there’s Ananias, who hears that it’s his job to welcome Paul.  (“Lord, you do know that he’s done some really bad stuff?”)

Standish addresses something we’re familiar with: asking people certain questions in order to join the church, “such as ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?’  There’s nothing wrong with expecting this, although it puts the SBNR in a quandary: do I say ‘yes,’ even if I don’t know quite what that means, or do I wait till I know what it means?  And what if I never know what that means?”  He says that “healthy relationships lead more people to an experience of the holy than does rational theologizing.”

Trying to convince people into faith by using a line of reasoning is often not the best approach.  And yes, arguing with, and shaming people doesn’t work so well in demonstrating the love of Jesus.   In our scripture, Ananias says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).  Vision and the Spirit go together.

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Look at how our passage ends.  “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (vv. 19-20).  So not only is Paul’s sight restored—not only do the blinders come off—but Paul finds his voice.  Paul, in effect, joins those who are in religion, but not of religion.  That’s what happens when we experience what the data is about.

I want to mention one more thing that’s in the article.  It deals with how open we are to those unfamiliar with our language, our jargon.  We should realize “that while Christian language and [expressions] help those within a religious tradition to speak a common language of faith, that…language also creates a barrier” for those who don’t understand it.  “In effect, it helps us if we are willing learn the language of other faiths, and to learn how to translate certain concepts into our own language.”

When I was in seminary, I had Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).  What that often entails is a student chaplaincy at a hospital, which is what I did.  One of the things our supervisor would often ask of us would be to express our faith without using “God talk.”  That is, don’t use religious words.  When you’re in a hospital, you’re dealing with the entire public, people from all backgrounds.

Another way of looking at it would be: can you talk about faith by focusing on the experience, rather than the data?

On the matter of God talk, there is something I have mentioned before.  It deals with an invitation Banu and I received to stay a couple of days at a camp and conference center about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh.  We were asked to do some workshops while there.

During one session, I issued that challenge to the folks at camp: describe your faith without using God talk.  For instance, what does “Jesus saves” mean?

Some of them gladly welcomed the test and gave it a good “faith” shot!  For others—not so much.  And when I started pushing them on it, some got irritated; it was even written on their faces.  Some of them let me know their displeasure.  They were not happy with me.

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I observed how reaching out to those outside the four walls might mean learning a different language.  I don’t know if they didn’t believe me or just didn’t care.  It does require change.  Do you know what we call something that doesn’t change?  Dead.  Life, by its very nature (even at the chemical level), requires change.  That’s a word for us, also.

My guess would be they just wanted to have a nice, relaxing weekend with their friends.  They didn’t need to be given this bit of uncomfortable work.  In my defense, this little exercise lasted maybe twenty minutes, but that was enough to tick them off.

(There is a nice postscript to this story.  That night, they broke out the board games.  Even the folks who got annoyed with me were happy when I joined in.  Playing games can be incredibly therapeutic!)

How can we talk about our own experience?  How can we tell our story?  We all have them, and none of them are any less valid than those of others.

The poster boy for a story of willingness to change is Saul, later known as Paul.  His decision to embrace change was a literal turn from death, at least, the death of others.  Verse 19 says, “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus.”  These were the same people for which he begged permission to place under arrest and drag back to Jerusalem (where they would not be treated like honored guests).

We could make the argument that Paul himself was on the road to death.  Be careful with whom you ally yourself.  Choose life or choose death: blessing or curse.

Still, back to my previous question.  How about our experience?  Are we in religion?  Are we of religion?  Are there elements of both?  As I said earlier, can we talk about faith without using God talk?

Here are questions that go a bit deeper.  How are we when it comes to letting God work through us?  How are we at being a vessel of the Spirit?

Ananias laid hands on him and prayed.  “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (vv. 18-19).

Let us eat the food given by God which strengthens us on the way.

 

[1] alban.org/archive/shepherding-sbnr-sheep-how-to-create-a-church-for-the-spiritual-but-not-religious/


Thomas, the skeptic

I often wonder how much of human history—especially the darker moments of history—can be attributed to misunderstanding.  A misheard word, a mistaken look, can lead to all manner of distress in our lives.  How many wars have been fought over a misinterpretation of something quite innocuous?  (Which also brings up the point of taking a deep breath and making sure we know what we’re doing, especially when contemplating violence.)

We humans are making it even easier to not trust our eyes and ears.  The falsification of images is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  The falsification of reality is becoming ever more elaborate and effective.  One of the first major motion pictures to employ those techniques was Forrest Gump.  Imagine, Forrest Gump meeting JFK and LBJ (and a few other folks)!  We could the lament the technological trickery utilized for these counterfeit countenances, these fake faces, but the genie is out of the bottle.  Think of it, though: police can use sophisticated aging tools to track missing persons long lost.

Here’s a little game.  Can we distinguish between the faces of real people and those generated by computer?  Which are real and which are fake? (answers given below)

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Going back to my original thought, given how much more complex our ability for mimicry has become, how much more havoc can we create?  We are well aware of the mischievous purposes for which the internet can be used.  So often, we believe we are too intelligent and savvy to be taken in by bogus claims—disinformation and misinformation.  I won’t get into discussing the ease with which the powers-that-be resort to censorship by pressing those very issues.

Let’s look at one who historically has been derided by his insistence for independent verification of a claim pushed by his peers.  In John 20, St. Thomas, given the news of a resurrected Jesus, has his doubts, which later leads to the affixing of his nickname.  I would say his “unfortunate” nickname.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” he says, “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (v. 25).

Maybe we should first take a step backwards.  We hear that the disciples are huddled in fear behind locked doors.  It appears they have good reason to do so.  However, Thomas is conspicuous by his absence.  We don’t know what he’s been up to; maybe he just wasn’t as scared as the others.

It’s also possible there was a bit of recrimination going on.  It would only be natural for some finger pointing to occur.  In the aftermath of trauma—and this definitely was traumatic—there can be the temptation to lay blame.  Was it the fault of the priests and the Romans?  Was it Judas’ fault?  Those are pretty easy guesses.  However, perhaps something more was happening.  Did they look inward and see their own shortcomings?  There has been some denying going on, and not just by Peter.

Whatever the case, Thomas is with them the week after.  That is when he receives his desired second opinion—and it comes from the man himself.

Honestly, it’s hard to fault Thomas.  It’s not like the others really got it themselves.  For example, while taking Peter, James, and John down from the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus “ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”  Of course, they knowingly agreed, understanding some things are better left unsaid.  No, I’m just kidding!  Rather, “they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (Mark 9:9-10).

In other words, they didn’t have the foggiest idea what the heck Jesus was talking about.

2 jnCould we say Thomas wanted to do his own fact-checking?  Jesus agrees to it.  “Do you want to see my hands and side?  Well, here they are.  Check it out.”  Thomas is convinced.  Jesus responds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).  Is Jesus “blessing” Thomas out?

We should note that after Lazarus has died, Jesus plans to go to his home in Judea.  The disciples beg him not to, understanding he has enemies there ready to stone him if he shows his face.  Still, Jesus is determined.  It is Thomas who steps forward and tells the others, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16).  Thomas is ready and expects to lay down his life with, and for, Jesus.

Clinical social worker Jason Hobbs says, “Thomas was not simply looking for facts…the facts in the way that we think about fact…what is true and what is false…  Thomas needed to touch in order to believe.  He needed to touch something solid, not spirit, not feeling or emotion, but something real.”  He needed to “see” for himself.

I think it’s a good thing we have a record of Thomas’ doubt.  That gives reassurance for the rest of us who sometimes (and who often) doubt.  I don’t think Jesus is chewing Thomas out—or even expressing disappointment.  Let’s remember that it was the men who had trouble believing Jesus was back from the dead.  The female disciples, especially Mary Magdalene, had much less trouble.

On the question of having a record of his doubt, notice the bit at the end.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (vv. 30-31).  These words are directed to you, dear reader, just as Jesus said to Thomas, “so that you may come to believe.”

We might easily say “doubting Thomas” displays skepticism.  Mark Buchanan, professor at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alberta, has some comments on that very subject.  “Skepticism,” he says, “has an interesting etymology.  It means to look at a matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care and in minute detail.  On this definition, what the church needs is not less but more skepticism.”[1]

Buchanan continues, “I met a man who told me he didn’t believe the Bible because he was a skeptic.  I asked him if he had read the Bible.  ‘No, not really,’ he said ‘I told you, I’m a skeptic.  I don’t believe it.’  This is not skepticism.  This is its opposite—a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

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Something to note about faith: true faith is not blind faith.  How often do we hear, “Faith is blind”?  On the contrary, genuine faith is not a mindless leap into the void—or a mindless leap into the path of an oncoming truck!  Faith has its own evidence.  Faith has its own eyes.  Faith does its own fact-checking.  In 1 John we are counseled to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

Buchanan gives Thomas credit.  “Thomas was a true skeptic.  He doubted, not to excuse his unbelief, but to establish robust belief.  He doubted so that his belief might be based on something more than rumor and wishful thinking.”  He makes his point by saying that “here is the real sign that Thomas is not some poseur, some mere academic trend-chaser: his seeing gives way, not just to belief, but to worship: ‘My Lord and my God!’”[2]

For Thomas, it isn’t a matter of theoretical argument, but rather it encompasses his whole being.

That becomes true for all of them.  Jesus comes to them, not to prove anything, but to comfort and strengthen.  First it is the distraught Mary Magdalene, weeping uncontrollably at his tomb.  She mistakes him for the gardener.  Jesus, still incognito, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 15).  Put your tears away.

In the midst of those disciples, dread forcing them to take cover, their Lord appears, twice proclaiming, “Peace be with you” (vv. 19, 21).  And in what many call a preview of Pentecost, he breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and adding, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vv. 22-23).

How is that a word of comfort and strength?  What good does it do for these frightened folks to talk about forgiveness?  Would that be a word of comfort for us?  Remember earlier.  In times of distress, it’s only normal—and even expected—to thrash about, asking and crying out, “Why?”  What a gift it is to have and know the Spirit of God is with us.  There is that powerful word of knowing we are forgiven, and that we have the power of forgiving others.  Though Lord knows, it doesn’t happen overnight—if it happens at all!

Doubting Thomas.  One moment in his life earned him a nickname that has stuck through the centuries.  What have we been at our worst?  What have we been at our most embarrassing?  What have we been at the time we most want to take back?  (I can think of plenty more than one.)  Now, imagine that as forever being declared as the sum of who you are.  From now on, that is how you will be defined, how you will be identified.

4 jnHow often do we refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt?

Imagine if God decided to take us at our worst.  Actually, God does that very thing!  Nonetheless, in spite of everything, we learn with immense relief, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Ro 5:8).

Of that, it is okay to be skeptical!  It is okay to look at the matter closely, to scrutinize, to study with great care, to ponder deeply.  It is okay to take God seriously.  (Yes, it is okay!)  It is okay to join with Thomas the skeptic, and cry out, “My Lord and my God!”

 

[1] Mark Buchanan, Christianity Today, 44:4 (2000 Apr 3), 64.

[2] Buchanan, 67.

* for the faces on the left: fake, real, fake, fake


remove your veil

I want to begin with a story about Ayn Rand, or rather, my time as an avid reader of her books.  This was mainly when I was a freshman in college.

First of all, let me give you an idea of who she was.  Ayn Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and moved to America as a young woman.  She died in 1982.

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She wrote books of fiction primarily.  She believed selfishness is a noble virtue.  We are not each other’s keeper.  It’s true only to the extent it serves our own self-interest.  The same can be said of charity.  Those receiving charity should be worthy of it.

Government should be as small as possible, for example, there should be no oversight for worker safety, protection of the environment, etc.  That is to be left solely in private hands, to business.  Also, reason alone gives direction for life.  No faith, no poetic insight, no feelings should be used.  To say she was no fan of the church is putting it mildly.

That is an admittedly very quick and, no doubt at some points, imprecise picture of her.  Having said that, as a semi-disciple of hers, I often found myself thinking, “What would Ayn Rand do?”  I was channeling my thoughts along paths she laid out.  I had fenced myself in.

To show how ridiculous I had become, one day I was with some friends, eating lunch in the cafeteria.  I had my copy of Atlas Shrugged, one of her best-known books.  Pushing the book over to one of my companions, I only half-jokingly asked him to “read us some scripture.”

I really wasn’t ascribing some divine origin to Rand’s work (which actually would have driven her nuts), but it does show how straitjacketed my thinking had turned out to be.  In a sense, I fell prey to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).  He is referring specifically to the law of Moses (at least, how it was often interpreted), but it can also apply to any rigid, freedom-restricting rules to live by.

(By the way, my infatuation with the writing of Ayn Rand began to fade about a year later.  My conscience started bothering me!)

Regarding our scripture text, it’s known that Paul wrote several letters to the church in Corinth.  In 1 Corinthians, he mentions a letter he wrote previously (5:9).  Then we have the letter we call 1 Corinthians.  In 2 Corinthians, he speaks of a painful letter (2:3-4, 9, 7:8, 12).  He wanted to address some troublesome issues in the church.  The letter had a severe tone; he said he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2:4).  And now, we have the letter known to us as 2 Corinthians.

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We pick up Paul’s discussion right after he refers to the parade of “peddlers of God’s word” (2:17), preachers and teachers who have been performing with their dog and pony shows.  He asks if the folks in Corinth want him and his companions to present letters of recommendation.  Do they need someone to vouch for them?  They should have checked out those other characters.

Paul says, “I’ll tell you who vouches for us: the Spirit of God.”  He denies that they are “competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (3:5).  He says they can’t take credit for anything.  Everything is only due to God.

The apostle sets the stage with the glowing face of Moses, who had gone up the mountain to meet the Lord.  This was when Moses received the big ten, which were literally engraved in stone.  Being in the presence of God had an illuminating effect on Moses.  He was beaming!

I’ll wager none of us have had that experience.  We speak of someone lighting up a room when they enter.  This might be taking it too far.

The people would agree with that.  When Moses came down from the mountain, tablets in hand, he could tell by the reaction, the looks on people’s faces, that they were totally freaked out.  Moses still didn’t know why.  Was there something on his clothes?  Did he smell bad?

Eventually, he figured it out.  After he finished laying down the law, Moses took a veil and covered his face.  When he would go inside his tent, he would remove the veil.  If he had a message from the Lord, he would go outside and deliver it, and then to reduce the level of freaking out, he would replace the veil.  He would cover up his shining face.

Today is the Transfiguration of the Lord, when Jesus also made a trip up the mountain, and his entire body glowed.  Maybe we can see how this story of Moses is the Old Testament scripture for today.  Still, Paul speaks of the shining face of Moses as a glory, to be sure, but a glory that is fading.

Scott Hoezee, who teaches at Calvin Seminary, speaks to that point of a glory fading away.  “Great though the reception of the Law had been,” he says, “and wonderful though it was that Israel really was now a nation (in fulfillment of what God had promised in Genesis 12 to Abram), the fact is this was not the end of the line. This was not the end-all and be-all of God’s ultimate plans for this fallen creation.”[1]

Paul makes a rather stark statement about the law of Moses.  He labels it “the ministry of death” (v. 7).  It’s not that he hates the law.  It’s not like he’s saying to avoid it, or it will kill you.  In another place, he speaks glowingly of it.  He says, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Ro 7:12).

In fact, the word translated as “law” (תּוֺרׇה, torah) could be easily rendered as “direction” or “instruction.”  That fits right in with Paul’s description in Galatians as the law being a tutor or a schoolmaster, guiding us to Christ (Ga 3:24).

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He’s exaggerating to point out that the law is powerless to make us righteous.  It’s true: the people of Israel couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face because it was so glorious.  Yet, the apostle asks, “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?” (v. 8).

If the term “ministry of death” was stark, we can see Paul apparently piling it on in the next few verses.  His analysis, his perspective, of the people of Israel is “their minds were hardened.  Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside” (v. 14).  He goes even farther.  “Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (vv. 15-16).

It sounds like there is a Christian triumphalism going on.  Those poor foolish Jews—no, those bad Jews—need to be taken in hand.  Certainly, that’s one way this has been interpreted.  And when the Jewish people have been taken in hand, it has rarely been a tender hand!  So, I would be delinquent if I didn’t address how this passage has been misused through the centuries.

A veil lies over our minds if we fall into an anti-Jewish reading of the text.  It’s not unlike the veil I placed on my mind by blindly following the nonsense of Ayn Rand.  (With apologies to Ayn Rand fans!)

Back to Paul’s point in bringing this up, he had the perfect example of removing the veil, of having one’s eyes opened—himself!  On the road to Damascus, he literally saw the light.  His startling and dramatic language (some might say overly dramatic) is meant to highlight the awesomely dramatic difference between the law and Christ.

Our friend Scott Hoezee applies this to us.  “The only reason you keep looking to the Law as the source of your salvation is because your heart still has a veil over it—you’re not seeing clearly.”  Can we see how we allow Law to govern us?  We follow a method.  We have some strict and inflexible guidelines as we run through the maze of life, like rats in a lab.

God wants to unlock us.

We are reminded that “far from having to then turn back to our own sorry reflections in the mirror only to be reminded how far short we fall of the glory of God in our own lives—the glory of Christ is contagious!”  I want that contagion to infect me.  I don’t want my immune system to protect me from that contagious glory.

The apostle encourages us, saying, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 18).

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“From one degree of glory to another.”  To experience ever-increasing glory: only unlocked and unveiled children of God can enjoy that privilege.  Only they can enjoy that grace.

A few moments ago, I said how I would be delinquent if I didn’t acknowledge the ways in which our scripture has been twisted to stir up hostility toward the Jewish people.  As I’ve sometimes noted, events happen that just can’t be ignored.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine with its sadness and horror is one of those events.

Paul has spoken of minds being veiled, minds being hardened.  He has spoken of the ministry of death.  I dare say those have been on vivid and terrifying display these past days.

Ultimately, however, what we have seen is a demonstration of cowardice.  Vladimir Putin’s choices are not an exhibition of strength of spirit, but rather a weakness of character.

Clearly, he isn’t alone on the world stage in choosing to follow a Law that enslaves, a letter that kills.  He isn’t alone in that among the entire human race.  I know none of us is plotting the invasion of another country!  Still, at some level, as said before, God wants to unlock us.  We are in need of that holy contagion; we need to be infected with the glory of Christ.  The Lord gives us the ability to be of service to each other, not of laying down oppressive rules, but of turning to Christ, who sets the captives free.

We can take heart, knowing that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (v. 17).

 

[1] cepreaching.org/commentary/2016-02-01/2-corinthians-312-42/


bearing belief of enduring hope

There are several scripture texts that are popular at weddings, but one I believe is on the short list is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  It fits what our hope would be of the newly married couple.

It is also good fodder for greeting cards.  Please note: when I say “fodder,” I’m not demeaning greeting cards, and I’m definitely not demeaning Paul’s chapter on love.  However, sometimes it gets reduced to a touchy-feely, cute teddy bear level.  That’s instead of the serious and even fierce declaration of the stratospherically high nature it embodies.

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At times it’s even scary.

Something else often ignored or overlooked is its location.  It is smack dab in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, in trinitarian language, he tells us, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6).  He speaks of, for example, gifts of healing, working of miracles, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues.  Paul finishes with the promise, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).

Thus, we have chapter 13, which teaches us if the gifts are not used under the guidance of love, then they are worthless.

In chapter 14, Paul shows how the gifts are to be used in worship.  There is to be no putting oneself ahead of others, no strutting around and saying, “Look how spiritual I am.”  Since “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” the apostle sums it all up with the reminder “all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 33, 40).

This has been addressed to a church with all kinds of problems: splitting themselves up into competing factions, treating the poor with disrespect, chasing after the latest fads.

Consider the place where they live.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.  On that last note, the city developed quite a reputation.

2 coThere was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to all manner of carousing, or as the band Kiss put it, to “rock and roll all night and party every day.”  The church has reflected the culture around it, with both its honorable and its less than honorable qualities.

In retrospect, I hope we can see the apostle Paul’s message isn’t intended to address romantic love or warm fuzzies.  He is concerned about life in community.  How do we order it?  How do we fail and fall into disorder?  How does the love of the meek and mighty Spirit strengthen and counsel us to not tear each other apart but to build each other up?

This chapter is jam packed with lovely ingredients.  Paul begins by listing events one might find in the spiritual Olympics.  You can set a world record, but without love, you might as well be sitting on the bench.

Next, we have a laundry list detailing what love is and what love is not.  Love is kind; love is not rude.  Love is patient; love is not irritable.

There’s a German word “schadenfreude.”  It expresses the joy at someone else’s misfortune, the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain.  Love does not engage in schadenfreude.  When someone slips on a banana peel (literally or symbolically) love doesn’t laugh.

Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  I’ll come back to that verse.

Moving on, we see that when all else ends, love never does.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).

Paul presents us with this majestic observation, saying, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).  The apostle Paul is a man whose life has been transformed by love.  He has gone from the schadenfreude of approving the stoning of Stephen, often considered to be the first martyr, to identifying with the frail: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (Ac 8:1, 2 Co 11:29).

3 co

The chapter ends with his grand proclamation, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).  That’s a note for this motley crew with their quarreling, nitpicking, shaming, shameless ways.  In other words, they’re behaving not unlike us.  (That is at least, in our worst moments!)

Now, back to verse 7, informing us that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.

What does it mean to say love bears all things?  The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.”  One thing we’re basically talking about is keeping confidence—not going around blabbing.  If you get some dirt on someone, keep it to yourself.

There can be confusion between confidentiality and secrecy.  Sometimes a good faith attempt at keeping confidence can be misconstrued as dealing in secrets.  Here’s one good measure for telling the difference: confidentiality affords protection, secrecy causes damage.  While confidentiality respects, secrecy disrespects.

Love believes all things.[1]  Love places confidence in someone or something.  Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt.  On occasion, it can even be accused of being naïve.  We might suspect that someone is taking advantage of us, but we let it slide.  In the world’s eyes, we can appear foolish.

In chapter 6, Paul speaks of believers taking each other to court.  He goes as far as to put the questions, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (v. 7).  Those are awkward questions.

Love hopes all things.  The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence.  This isn’t an empty hope.  It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.”  It’s a strong and secure hope.  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

4 co

It’s a hope when everyone else has given up.

It’s a hope when all we want to do is fret.  Fretting attracts negative energy, bad mojo.  I have usually found that when I lapse into fretting, it turns out to be a waste of mental, emotional, and spiritual power.

Love endures all things.[2]  Love remains.  Love waits.  Love doesn’t flee.  Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack.  Love perseveres.  Love stands alongside.

Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off?  I admit I have done that.  Love has called to me.  Love has pleaded with me.  Love has begged me.  But instead, I said “no” to love.

These are less commands than they are descriptions.  That would be setting a very high bar indeed.  It would be quite a challenge even for those athletes in the spiritual Olympics!

Remember the location of this hymn to love.  It’s placed in the midst of Paul’s commentary on spiritual gifts.  This love, αγαπη (agapē), is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We can’t summon this up by ourselves.  Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to put it into practice.

I want to revisit verse 12 where it says, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.”  The old King James language has a poetic spin as it states, “now we see through a glass, darkly.”  I like how the Revised English Bible reads, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.”  Puzzling reflections.

Even the sharpest of insights is barely visible from the world behind it.  In a time beyond time, that world, that realm, will be apparent.  Still, the gift of grace that is agapē gives us fleeting glimpses.

5 coLove, in its many facets, emanates from the Spirit.  It is a gift.  What do we do with this gift?  How can it transform us?  Would we like to be transformed?

I’ll give us all an assignment.  I definitely include myself in this challenge / opportunity / blessing.  Can we do our best to bear with each other, to believe in each other, to hope for each other, and yes, to endure each other?

Let’s learn to treasure the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] “believes”: πιστευω, pisteuō

[2] “endures”: ύπομενω, hypomenō


be afraid. be very afraid

The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis is credited with the demand, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  However, we can come up with numerous ways that command is laid upon us.  Unfortunately, being exposed to manufactured fear has become a way of life.

Are we familiar with the slogan regarding news broadcasts, “If it bleeds, it leads”?  The focus in the news tends to be on bad news.  And what poses as discussion is either interviewing people who already agree with the host or shouting at and interrupting those who don’t.  On occasion, good news finds its way into the mix.  Nonetheless, it seems that the directive, “lead with the bleed,” has been bumped up a notch or three in the past couple of years.  We are learning to fear each other.  We are being censored.  We are taught, like it or not, fear sells.  Panic is profitable, as in billions of dollars profitable.

1[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]

Still, there are reasons for fear that are legitimate.  Fear jumping off your roof—especially if you have a three-story house.  Fear driving down the interstate with your eyes closed.  Fear walking up to your wife while she’s cooking and asking, “What is that stench?”

The psalm which is Isaiah 12 addresses a basic fear.  The first two verses tell us,

“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. / Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

(Quick note: if you wonder what “in that day” means, see chapter 11, which speaks of the restoration of Israel.)

This is a fear pervading the prophet / psalmist’s outlook, one which is seen to be found in the God of all.  Some might prefer language such as “pervading life itself.”  An elemental anger—an inherent indignation—welling up from the divine is felt.  We might think the whole world is against us!

2However, there is a discovery of salvation.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom from fear.  “I will trust and will not be afraid.”  Trust and fear don’t do very well in the presence of the other.  Fear is afraid of trust.  To be honest, fear is afraid of many things!

We can even be afraid of ourselves.

I remember one day when I was in college and visiting home for the weekend.  I was arguing with my mother—an argument, to my shame, that I started.  Quite simply, she was talking to me about the Lord.  It was a conversation I didn’t care to have, and I made it quite clear.

She responded in an overly emotional manner, and it irritated me.  It made me mad.  I stormed up the stairs to go to my room, and with each step, I became angrier and angrier.  I slammed the door to my room as hard as I could, causing a sound like a thunderclap.

I plopped down in my chair, shaking.  It terrified me that I was capable of such rage.  (And I don’t use that word lightly.)  I was scared.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night.  I immediately got in my car and drove back to school.  Fortunately, a few days later, we were reconciled.  Thanks be to God!

Looking back at my outburst that day, I would say that I was convicted by the Holy Spirit.  The Lord was reaching out to me, and I did my best to say “no.”

Verse 3 seems instructive at this point.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  With joy I drew water from the wells of salvation, though it didn’t happen then!

My experience of faith and college differed from what is so often the case.  If college does have any effect on a student’s faith, it’s usually that they lose it.  Of course, it can always be retrieved!  But for me, college is where I found my faith.  And this wasn’t a religious college; I was at a state university, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).

Recall my comment about divine anger welling up.  Following along with that image, the fresh water from those wells of salvation quenches the fire of fury.  Salvation brings the ultimate trust, and fear is banished.

That’s not the only time the book of Isaiah speaks of pure fresh water welling up: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (58:11).

There’s something about how that well water will be drawn.  There’s a certain state of mind, or state of being.  It will be drawn with joy.  Such is the promise of the prophet: with joy.  It won’t be a question of going through the motions, of following a formula, of following instructions on a box.  I mentioned how fear and trust have trouble co-existing.  With joy, that’s even more the case.  The force, the energy, pulsing at the heart of joy is the power of God.  We hear and feel the holy message, “Fear not.”

3

Still, there is a fear many people have, and it is singing before others.  Maybe that’s a fear I would be better off having, at least, according to critiques I’ve received over the years.

However, to that point, there is a theological lesson we can learn from Isaiah.  Verse 5 tells us (no, encourages us, exhorts us) “Sing praises to the Lord”!  If we understand that when we’re singing, we are singing to God, we can be assured we aren’t being graded; we aren’t being critiqued, as I have been!  God is tone deaf in the best possible way.  God is the ultimate in being a forgiving audience.

More than once, the psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!”

There’s a joke along those lines.  Someone is being recruited to sing a solo, and they respond, “I’ll sing a solo.  I’ll sing so low you can’t hear me!”  (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)

Why is Isaiah 12 a text for Advent?  What does it have to do with the coming of Christ?

We always have to be careful when taking an Old Testament scripture and viewing it through New Testament eyes.  Still, this chapter works well for this time of year.  It speaks of hope and joy that the Holy One is in our midst.

The same is true of our epistle reading from Philippians 4.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4).  We are reminded that the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”!

There’s something about verse 5 I really like.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  The Lord is near.  If that’s not an Advent theme, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The word translated as “gentleness” has many nuances.  The Greek word επιεικης (epieikēs) is powerful.  For example, it expresses what is suitable or fitting.  One described as επιεικης is patient and gentle.  Understand, this isn’t a gentleness born out of weakness.  It portrays one who possesses a loftiness of thought, one who is noble.

4I especially appreciate how it reads in the New English Bible: “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all.”  Be magnanimous.  Be great in character.  Avoid the pettiness, the vindictiveness that so easily infects.  Cultivate the willingness to laugh at oneself.  (Sadly, that’s no problem for me.)

Sometimes I’ve heard people say if they had the ability to do it all over again, they wouldn’t change anything about their life.  After all, it has led them to be the person they are.  Well, I would love to do some things over.  (The day of my meltdown would be one!)  There are many situations in which I wish I had been more… magnanimous.  In that way, we help each other disobey the command to be afraid, to be very afraid.

The apostle Paul counsels us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6).  A life of anxiety hampers the desire and ability, not to pray, but to pray with thanksgiving, with gratitude.  There’s a big difference.  Paul says to thank God even while making our requests, our supplications.  One version says, “Be saturated in prayer” (The Passion Translation).

Then what happens?  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).  The peace of God is superior to every frame of mind.

Trust, joy, gratitude—all of these send fear packing.  We can cultivate healthiness as a nation and as a church.  We too often fall sway under the politics of fear, which has its own sad spirituality.  Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population.  A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work.

Elsewhere, Paul cautions us, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:14-15).  If we develop a taste for human flesh, we will never get enough.

Still, there is the holy word of peace, “Fear not.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, but there are ways in which we choose to be afraid.  Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get a sip of that bitter draft of dread.  We ignore Paul’s guidance to not worry, to not get all worked up.  We ignore Isaiah’s encouragement to shout aloud and sing for joy—to raise the roof!

When we do not ignore the prophet and the apostle, what we do is to face down fear.  We embrace a holy boldness.

5

[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]

Can we agree to engage in a kind of rage?  Not the foolish, stupid rage that captured me on the day I spoke of.  No, can we agree to rage at all that would intimidate us, to fill us with fear?  Can we agree to a holy rage?  The peace of God isn’t passive; it flexes its muscles.  It is shalom, and shalom kicks fear in the hiney.

“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  Do not be afraid.


let’s go crazy

Of all the things said about Jesus in the Bible, only once was his mental stability openly questioned.  When we look at what led up to that, his actions and statements, maybe there was good reason to wonder about it!

1 mk

Mark 3 begins with Jesus healing a man in the synagogue.  So far, so good.  However, he does this on the sabbath, and according to the law, the Torah, that constitutes work.  The authorities start plotting against him.

Jesus goes to the lakeside, and the crowd follows him.  He heals many people, and he commands the unclean spirits who would identify him to shut up.  Later, we see him going up the mountain and calling twelve of his followers to him, he gives them the name “apostle.”  The word means “one who is sent.”

We pick up the reading with verse 20, which has Jesus going home to Nazareth.  As fate would have it, he draws another crowd.  Word has gotten out about this Jesus.

So often when we read the scriptures, we fail to envision the scene.  We don’t hear the sounds; we don’t smell the smells.  When this throng of humanity comes flooding down the street, it draws some attention, to say the least.  Just when you think too many people are already there, here come some more!  The mob keeps pressing closer and closer.  More and more bodies keep getting crammed together.  (This might be a good time to imagine those smells.)

It gets so bad Jesus and his friends don’t even have enough room to enjoy a decent meal.

Meanwhile inside the house, Jesus’ family is frantic.  They call out to him, “Why are all these people here?”  “Why are you embarrassing us?”  “What will the neighbors think?”  Indeed, what will the neighbors think?  With his behavior, Jesus is drawing unwanted attention to his family.  Things might get out of hand, which the Romans no doubt would take as their cue to crash the party.  The Bible says, “they went out to restrain him.”  The Greek word (κρατεω, krateō) is a forceful one.  It means “to grab” or “to seize.”  They want to yank him inside.

Here’s where we get to the point of wondering if Jesus actually does have a screw loose.

Let me pause for a moment and take notice of the saying, “Every family has one.”  For example, that could be the uncouth uncle who makes inappropriate comments.  Maybe some of us fit into that category of “every family has one.”  Maybe we were (or still are) the rebel, the snob, the perfectionist, or something else altogether.  With Jesus, I imagine his family isn’t quite sure what to make of him.  That probably had been always the case.

2 mk

We learn what people are saying: “He has gone out of his mind” (v. 21).  The word is εξιστημι (existēmi), which means “to throw out of position,” “to be beside oneself,” “to displace.”  Jesus’ mind has been displaced; he has gone insane.  By the way, it’s possible his family is included in the folks saying that.

If they are, they might feel the need to protect Jesus.  Scribes from Jerusalem have heard some stories, and when they see what’s happening, they conclude, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22).

If this were simply their own opinion, it would be bad enough.  But it’s probably more.  These scribes have laid a legal charge.  When he is accused of demonic practices, he is accused of practicing magic, sorcery.  If that’s true, he would be breaking the law.  Deuteronomy 18, among other places, condemns one “who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (vv. 10-11).  This is a serious indictment.

They accuse him of trafficking with Beelzebul.  Who in the world is that?  The word comes from the Philistine god who was “lord of the heavenly dwelling.”  The Israelites had some fun and called him “Beelzebub,” which meant “lord of dung.”  There are a number of places in the Old Testament where a slight altering in spelling resulted in a change from the sublime to the ridiculous.  They turned something revered by their enemies into a laughing stock.

3 mk Actually, it sounds like something an elementary school student would have thought up: “lord of poop.”  And going along with the insects attracted to such a substance, he became known as “lord of the flies.”  However, over time, he morphed into something truly evil.

Very quickly, Jesus responds by saying if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?  It would surely fall.  How could that possibly describe Jesus?  Furthermore, to rob a strong man’s house, he has to be bound.  Jesus is indirectly saying he is stronger than Satan.

He has one more thing to say to the scribes and the people packed together.  This has caused no end of consternation and confusion down through the ages.  I will quote it at length: “‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).

People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.  I think we understand the “sins” part, but what about the “blasphemies”?  Can we recognize blasphemy as an insult or curse against God or that which is holy?  Sorry folks, I will not give you an example!  That last word, “utter,” is key.  A blasphemy which is spoken, or even written, can be forgiven.

But what about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  It doesn’t seem like we’re dealing with something uttered, something said.  After all, it is “an eternal sin.”  It can never be forgiven.  What could it possibly be?

Presbyterian minister James Ayers has some helpful comments.  “Here is the rope to pull you out of the quicksand; the rope holds no grudge if you reject it, but you cannot be rescued without it.  Here are the paramedics to extricate you from the wreck in which you are trapped; if you shout curses and slap their hands away, you will be unable to escape on your own.  They will not be offended, but will think you must be in shock and will go on trying to rescue you.”[1]

It seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an action, not an utterance.  Perhaps we could say it is a lack of action, an inaction.  It is a refusal; it is indeed a rejection.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a continual turning away from the liberty, from the salvation, conveyed by the Spirit.  That’s why it is eternal.  It’s a never-ending state of freely chosen slavery.  At some point, slavery simply takes control.

For the boys accusing Jesus, their slavery has them truly believing that something holy is actually evil.

4 mk

Here’s a word of comfort: if you are concerned—if you wonder—about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t committed it!

Just as he began the passage with Jesus’ family, Mark ends it on the same note.  They decide to come outside and send someone to go fetch him.  They tell Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (v. 32).  He says something rather unexpected.  He doesn’t say, “Tell them to hold on.  I’ll be there soon.”  Jesus doesn’t want to assure them that he’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Rather, he redefines, he reimagines, he expands, the definition of family.  “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (vv. 33-34).

Jesus’ family wants him to come home.  He has found a new home.  This speaks to those who have taken a decisive step on the spiritual path.  It’s not necessarily the case their old home was bad.  Perhaps it was wonderful.  But they have found a new truth, a better truth.

Those who have had a dramatic, or sudden, conversion experience probably can relate to this.  However, it’s not necessary to point to a particular moment in time to see oneself pictured here.  Many of you have been in the church your entire life.  It might be you look back and think, “Yes, that’s when it really clicked for me.”

There has been that sense of repentance, of μετανοια (metanoia), literally a “change of mind,” a revolution of mind, leading to a change of path, a turning around.

Having said that stuff about family, I quickly add that those who would manipulate others love this scripture.  We can think of cults and churches with cult-like behavior.  Followers are told, “We’ll do the thinking for you.  Welcome to the family!”  That isn’t the freedom of the gospel, the good news; it’s the slavery of the bad news.

I have a quick story to tell.  I’ll leave out some pertinent details to speed things along.  A few days after arriving at seminary in Philadelphia, I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.  I came upon a group having a car wash.  It turned out to be a church group, and they invited me to worship.  I went for a couple of weeks, but decided it wasn’t for me.

One night before I decided to leave, we were at somebody’s house and having a Bible study.  It was the strangest one I ever attended.  I was literally in the middle of a circle; people were sitting on chairs and couches around me.  They kept directing questions to me—no one else—about what it meant to be a disciple.  I was talking about following Jesus, etc., etc.  At some point, I decided to have some fun with them; I asked, “Am I giving the right answers?”

5 mkThere was a really creepy family vibe to that bunch.  (Though to be sure, not quite like the Manson family!)

A couple of weeks after that, two guys showed up one night at my seminary room.  I had met one of them; the other one I had never seen before.  This was at 11:00.  They said they were wondering what happened to me.  I said I had found another church.  (It was the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.)  The one I had previously met looked around the room and said, “Just because you’re in seminary doesn’t mean you’re a disciple.”  I replied, “I think you guys are a cult.”  They took off, and I never saw them again.

If you hadn’t figured this out already, their definition of disciple was joining their creepy family-like church.

Jesus gave this response to those asking about his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 35).  Jesus never employed mind games.  He didn’t coerce people.  In fact, when someone decided they weren’t ready to commit, he sent them on their way.

One thing I find interesting about Mark when talking about Jesus’ family is that he doesn’t mention Mary.  I imagine if there were one person in the family who understood Jesus, it would be his mother.  Still, it’s also likely at times he was a puzzle even to her.

Whatever the case, it’s okay to be puzzled.  We’re not expected to understand it all at once.  Actually, we’re not expected to ever understand it all.  There is room for all in the family of Jesus.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  If you love God, I’m with you.

6 mk

["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus says to me there’s room for the creepy family crew.  There’s room for those who disagree with me politically…  who disagree with me theologically…  those who would shame and exclude me…  those I don’t like…  those who don’t like me…  those who love onions…  Jesus welcomes you and me into his family!

Call me crazy, but I believe there’s room for all of us.

 

[1] James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51:2 (Apr 1997), 182.


Spirit of repair and renewal

I want to steal Banu’s answer to something I asked her.  “What comes to mind when you hear the words, ‘creation and Pentecost?’”  “How about when you hear the words, ‘Earth and Holy Spirit?’”

1 joel

[photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash]

She spoke of a portal to heaven being opened.  She spoke of the Spirit covering the earth as the waters cover the sea.  I mentioned the book of the prophet Joel, which assures the outpouring of the Spirit “on all flesh.”

This pouring out has sons and daughters prophesying, the elderly dreaming dreams, and the young seeing visions.  There is a note on male and female slaves also receiving the outpouring of the Spirit.  Maybe we can translate that to “everyone, both great and small”!

The promise of “all flesh” receiving the Spirit only refers to human flesh.  Is it possible the animal kingdom could also be intended?  I’m not sure.  I think the animals already have their act together.  It’s the human race that needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit of wind and fire—the wind to steer us straight and the fire to burn away the impurities.

Unfortunately, the church (at least, the church in the West), has rarely thought of creation and Pentecost, Earth and Holy Spirit, as going together.  Happily, that is increasingly no longer the case.

Regarding Joel, we really have no idea when his book was written.  Unlike many of the other prophets, there is no helpful mention of historical markers, such as who was king during that time.  There is, however, mention of a devasting ecological disaster—wave after wave of locusts have swept through and ravaged the crops.  The destruction has been frightful.

They are described in rather stark language.  “They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge.  As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle” (2:4-5).

I think I’m safe in saying these critters are unwelcome guests!

2 joelThese locusts are seen as God’s call to repentance.  Joel doesn’t go into much detail as to what the people need to repent of, as some other prophets do.  He just speaks of disobedience in general.  An interesting thing is that this call to penitence involves nature itself—the invasion of locusts and the resulting devastation of the nation’s harvest.

Likewise, the sign of the salvation by God also involves nature.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.  You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you.  And my people shall never again be put to shame” (vv. 25-26).

Before he gets that far, the prophet has a message for creation itself.  He addresses nature.  “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!  Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield” (vv. 21-22).  When we look at the reading in Romans, I’ll say more about why I’ve highlighted this.

We might want to dismiss Joel’s speech as flowery symbolism.  He attributes emotion to his non-human, even non-living audience.  (At least, not living the way we think of it.)  Fear not!  Be glad and rejoice!

However, we are today understanding more about these things.  For example, there have been experiments in which rats have been observed consciously sacrificing themselves for others.  (I should add, that wasn’t the expectation at the beginning of the experiment!  No one actually thought the rats would give up their lives to save one of their fellows.)

In the recent movie, My Octopus Teacher (2020), the filmmaker befriends a creature that apparently has a high level of sentience.[1]  I’ll think twice before eating calamari again!  (And I do understand that calamari are squid; but they’re close enough!)

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I grieve for trees that are cut down.  I see them as having some level of consciousness.

My point is that we too readily disregard our fellow earthlings.  Sometimes I think of war and the toll it takes.  Obviously, the loss of human life is both horrific and unnecessary.  When we go to war, it shows a failure of imagination and creativity.  Do we ever consider the mass murder we commit against animals and plants?

Actually, the Bible itself makes an issue of that very thing.  In the law of Moses, in Deuteronomy 20, there’s a section on the rules of warfare.  An environmental clause was inserted.  The Israelites are told, “If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them.”

When an army lays siege to a city, it is blockaded.  Supplies are cut off, including food.  Sometimes the water supply is hindered.  The strategy is if the population is starved, denied vital necessities, eventually it will have to submit.

The verse goes on, “Although you may take food from [the trees], you must not cut them down.  Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?” (v. 19).  I’m not sure how often that warning—that wisdom—was heeded.  We can learn a lot from it.  It’s an early version of the Geneva Conventions.

Now to my point about emphasizing addressing creation itself in Romans 8.  St. Paul speaks of the present suffering as not even close to the glory which will be revealed, adding that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19).  The creation waits with eager longing.  There is an intelligence at work, an intelligence that yearns, and it yearns for the unveiling of God’s children.

I wonder how often we act like the children, the daughters and sons, of God in our care of creation.  We are reminded of that ancient command in Genesis 1 in which the human race was told to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (v. 26).  We should remember that there is a difference between dominion and domination.

There is a reason given for creation’s longing.  It has been “subjected to futility” (v. 20).  That word “futility” (ματαιοτης, mataiotēs) means “vanity” or “emptiness.”  One translation says, “creation was condemned to lose its purpose” (Good News Bible).  Of course, we’re the ones who lost sight of creation’s purpose!  We too often lose sight of our own purpose.

4 joelVerse 20 goes on to say the creation was subjected “not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.”  As they ask in the crime novels trying to solve a murder, “Whodunnit?”  Who subjected creation to futility?  Was it we humans, or was it God?  Majority opinion goes with the latter.  It’s unclear why God would do such a thing.  One explanation is the ones put in charge by God—us.  We are the ones who screwed it up.

We dump plastic into the soil and into the sea.  We pave over the earth with reckless abandon.  We do chemistry experiments with our atmosphere, altering its composition.  We even inject ourselves with chemicals, the long-term effects of which we really don’t know.

Despite our failings as caretakers, God has made sure that the futility, the purposelessness, we have inflicted has been done “in hope.”  The story isn’t over.  Ultimately, despite our destruction (including self-destruction, God forbid), creation will endure.  Creation will be repaired and renewed.

If all of this is giving you a headache, or maybe giving you a pain in the rear end, take heart!  You’re not alone!  The apostle Paul understands, and it’s causing him to groan.  Actually, what he does is to give us a three-fold list of groaning: “the whole creation” (v. 22), “we ourselves” (v. 23), and “the Spirit” (v. 26).

I won’t into great detail about all of this groaning.  All of these “groaning” words are related to στεναζω (stenazō), which besides meaning “to groan,” also means “to sigh.”  The creation groans with labor pains.  We groan, awaiting our adoption, the final redemption of our bodies.  And that bit about our bodies is important.  Remember, in Jesus the Christ, God chose to be manifest in flesh—to appear in matter, to become part of creation.  Resurrection is not about the spirit; it is about the body.

Lastly, there is the Spirit, who helps in our weakness, not knowing how to pray as we ought.  The Spirit intercedes with sighs (as just mentioned) “too deep for words.”  Some say that refers to glossolalia, speaking in tongues.  However, speaking in tongues is an occasion of elation, as Paul says elsewhere.  In this context, the word is used as an expression of pain, of great discomfort.

The Holy Spirit grieves for us; the Spirit grieves for the creation.  Yet, as I said before, this is not the end of the story.  At this point, let me return to my original question I put to Banu.  That portal to heaven is open.  The Spirit is poured out as the waters cover the sea.

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[photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash]

Our duty, our calling, our joy isn’t simply to each other.  The gospel, the good news, goes throughout all the earth.  “God so loved the world (the cosmos)…”  Pentecost is a powerful reminder of the awesome privilege we have.  God issues the invitation to join in repairing and renewing the world.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt12888462


love conquers, fear abandons

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  That’s a question addressed by Niccolo Machiavelli in his 16th century book, The Prince.  He deals with other issues, but that’s the one which is considered to be the most intriguing, the one which is the most discussed.  According to Machiavelli, if a political leader is able to be both loved and feared, that is best, but the two don’t easily go together, if at all.

1 1 jnThe problem with being loved is that people will eventually take advantage of you.  Perhaps Machiavelli is sadly accurate in his assessment of human nature when he says if a leader shows too much compassion, the people will want more and more.  They will begin to throw off restraint.  Thus, the need for a firm hand.  Being feared is safer.  If people know they better toe the line or else face, let’s say, unpleasant consequences, it’s an effective way to maintain order and to eliminate dissent.  It’s the rather cynical, “you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet” approach to life.

On the other hand, it’s important to not take it too far.  Excessive fear can turn into hatred, which can lead to open rebellion.  For one in authority, that spells danger.  Actually, that spells danger for those not in government.  It’s not good for those in business, in the school system, in the church!

Unfortunately, I think we know what rebellion in the church can look like!

Is it better to be loved or to be feared?  Some might say the opposite of love is hate.  We’re told love and hate cannot co-exist.  However, I might respond with the reality of a love-hate relationship.  Love and hate, as emotions, are powerful and passionate.  However, there is a thin line between them.

The epistle reading in 1 John suggests the opposite of love is fear.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).

2 1 jn[photo by Luis Machado on Unsplash]

Let me expand on my original question, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”  I would say those who want to be feared are filled with fear themselves.  They sense an insecurity within, an inner dread, perhaps a feeling of worthlessness, and they feel the solution is to command respect, twisted though it may be, which is produced—which is created—by the fear from others.  Is it out of line to suggest that all the weapons we invent, especially the really powerful ones, demonstrate not how strong we are, but how scared we are?

Let me quickly add I’m not saying everyone who is filled with fear demands to be feared.  That is not at all the case.  In one way or another, we all deal with fear.  At the same time, those who desire to be feared are at heart seeking love; they seek affirmation.  We have been created for love by the one who is love.  As we read in verse 16, “God is love.”

If God is love, then why are we so fearful?  Here’s an interesting example.  Whenever angels appear in the scriptures, they are not the cute, warm, and fuzzy creatures we like to imagine.  They are fierce, and yet they often say something along the lines of, “Fear not.”  In fact, that’s one of Jesus’ favorite lines.

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment” (v. 17).  Love has been perfected.  The Greek word (τελειοω, teleioō) has the meaning of “has been completed,” “has been accomplished.”

Fear has to do with punishment.  We might want to avoid punishment, or at least lessen it, if we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court.

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With that in mind, I have a little story from when I was a small boy, maybe four or five years old.  If I did something I knew I shouldn’t have done, on occasion I would rat myself out to my mother.  I would confess my crime.  I figured if I came forward before my misdeed had been discovered, I would gain leniency.  And it always worked!

There were times, though, when my transgression went undetected.  I got away with it, or so I thought.

One day when we were living in California, the door to our garage was locked.  I didn’t have the key, so I came up with the idea of getting a stick and pushing it into the lock.  I imagined the wood molding itself to the inside of the doorknob, thus becoming its own key.  When I turned the stick, it broke loose, leaving the lock filled with wood.

I don’t remember if it was my mom or dad who later wanted to get into the garage.  Lo and behold, something was blocking the key!  Upon interrogation, I decided to pin it on my sister.  Despite her protestations of innocence, she received an undeserved spanking.

I don’t recall if it was months or years later, I finally admitted she had not committed the crime.  By then, the statute of limitations had expired.  I was spared punishment.  (For many years after that, my mom would remind me of my false testimony.  Of course, my sister had known the truth all along.)

Fear has to do with punishment.  Dare we say we have a guilty conscience?  But if love is perfected, we have boldness on the day of judgment.

4 1 jn Rudolf Bultmann, one of the noted German theologians of the twentieth century, said of the human race, “the eschatological hour is first of all an hour of dismay.”[1]  The word “eschatological” refers to the end times, the end of the world as we know it.  When the bell tolls, so to speak, it is an hour of dismay.  It is a time of alarm.  The reason for that is because we know we haven’t been perfected; our love isn’t complete.  We have fallen short.  Love is perfected because of Christ.

Chapter 4 ends by telling us we can’t claim to love God if we don’t love our brothers and sisters—indeed, if we actually hate them.  By framing my sister, I was not showing hatred, but I certainly was not showing love either!

Fear is suspicious.  Fear keeps us from opening our hearts to each other.  Fear keeps us stuck in the way things are.  It robs us of creativity, to imagine other possibilities.

We can sense that in the ways John uses the word “world.”  In Greek, it is the word κοσμος (kosmos), where we get our word “cosmos.”  One way he uses “world” is by speaking of God’s good creation, our material planet and everything that praises the Lord.

However, “world” can have a sinister meaning.  It’s the world as under the sway of “the evil one” (5:19).  Michael Rhodes says, “John tells us all is not well in God’s good world…  The kosmos has become a battlefield, and all humanity is caught up in the conflict.”[2]  It’s the place where fear reigns over love.

I’m reminded of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface, when his character, Tony Montana is asked by his partner what he expects: “The world, chico, and everything in it.”  In designing a cheesy statue that fits a wannabe dictator’s dreams, he takes inspiration from a blimp he happens to see that says, “The world is yours.”[3]

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Do I need to say, he wasn’t a guy noted for spreading the love around?

Fortunately for us, God isn’t content with leaving the world as it is.  Rhodes tells us, “For John, the world is finally and fully the world that God so loved that he sent his only Son as a ‘Savior of the kosmos’ (4:14).  In Jesus, the Creator has returned to reclaim what is his—a rescue operation that has required him to ‘destroy the works of the devil.’”  He envisions an action movie!

“To be a disciple, then, is to find oneself transferred from the kosmos under the control of the devil and into the realm of the God who is Light.”[4]

If one is under control of the devil, it is difficult, to put it lightly, to be a disciple of the Lord.  Now it has become “a glorious possibility for us as those born again by the Spirit of God.”

He tells us something I think we’re all going to love.  As the church, “because every child of God began life in enmity to God under the influence of the demonic, such a community is also always intrinsically missional.  The doors of the church are always open to any and all of the devil’s children who are willing to come in and be reborn.”[5]

Again I ask, “Is it better to be loved or to be feared?”

The word “world” (kosmos) has another meaning, which is “system.”  As before, it can have a positive connotation, but John is here using it in a negative sense.  It is the system as trapping us, working against the Spirit of God.  It is the system as robbing us of our freedom, quenching the liberating Spirit.

Bultmann says this: “Again and again the world seems to conquer, and again and again the disciple wavers and seeks refuge in his native haunts, in the world, leaving Jesus alone…  In fact he is not abandoning [Jesus] to the world, but by imagining him to be so abandoned and by despairing of him he is rather abandoning himself.”[6]

Let’s ask ourselves: how often do we abandon ourselves?  How often are we conquered by the world?

6 1 jnStill, all is not lost, “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (v. 4).  On a side note, you already know the Greek word that “conquer” and “victory” come from: νικη (nikē), which we pronounce like the shoe, Nike.

The conquering—the overcoming—goes on, because “in [Jesus] the Father is at work, the Father with whom he is one, and therefore…in his apparent defeat he is in fact the conqueror.”[7]  One of my favorite scriptures in the entire Bible comes in the gospel of John, when Jesus is about to leave the upper room and go into the dark, to face betrayal and arrest.  He tells the disciples, “In the world you face persecution.  But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:33).  His defeat sure doesn’t look like victory.

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[photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash]

So we have the joyful question, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (v. 5).  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God means many things.  Jesus as Son of God brings freedom, not compulsion.  Jesus as Son of God means clarity, not confusion.  Jesus as Son of God is indeed courage facing persecution.  Jesus as Son of God is light in the dark.

 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 592.

[2] Michael J. Rhodes, “(Becoming) Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Discipleship as Gift and Task in 1 John,” Word & World 41:1 (Winter 2021), 24.

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAlTJ8gPJ3M

[4] Rhodes, 25.

[5] Rhodes, 33.

[6] Bultmann, 592.

[7] Bultmann, 592.


embezzling the Spirit

The scripture reading in Acts 4 and 5 presents what many people have often described as an early look at Christian communism.  Before anyone gets too excited, understand I’m not talking about the tyrannical political system we became familiar with in the 20th century.  I know that “communism” is a word that raises a red flag.  (Yes, a “red” flag!)

1 acWe see language like “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions” and “everything they owned was held in common” (v. 32).  Chapter 2 has similar descriptions of the community.  “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” (vv. 44-45).

That actually sounds communist.  That is, it sounds commune-ist, as in living in a commune.

We’re not talking about any element of force here.  There isn’t any government mandate; there isn’t anything done at the point of a sword.  Rather, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.”  This is a community bound by love.  It looks like it’s taking care of everyone.  “There was not a needy person among them” (v. 34).

I would like to make a couple of side comments on all of this.  I do have respect for folks who choose to live communally.  (Understand, that excludes cults and brainwashing and places where people are held against their will!)  Many communes demonstrate a life with a healthy perspective on putting people before property.

Having said that, I’m not sure the early church in Jerusalem really was a commune.

Questions of commune set aside, building community is not easy.  Sometimes people speak of it in romanticized terms, but community involves characters of all sorts: crabby and gabby, serious and delirious, careless and cautious.  It seems inevitable there will be those who give and give and give and apparently don’t get much in return.  And then there are those who live by the motto, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.”

As they say, it takes all kinds.

At the center of it all are the apostles.  They’ve been acting as a sort of clearinghouse for the dispersal of funds.  They didn’t get that job because of any economic training they received.  They didn’t take any extension courses.  Instead, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (v. 33).

2 acThat word “power” in Greek is δυναμις (dunamis).  It’s where we get our word “dynamite.”  Does anyone remember the 70s TV show Good Times?  It included the Evans family elder son, J. J., who often proclaimed he was “Kid Dyn-O-Mite!”  I don’t suppose any of the apostles would claim that title for themselves!

They use that great power in giving testimony, in giving witness, to the resurrection of the Lord.  (“Resurrection” makes this a fitting theme for the Easter season.)  Something about resurrection is that it’s not a one-time thing.  Resurrection is ongoing.  These early disciples, the Jerusalem church, demonstrate resurrection power.  The Holy Spirit is moving among them.  As we see, “great grace” was upon the community.

As we might know about community, there are those who simply get it.  They know what goes into building it, and they’re willing to step up and take part.

Everyone is important in the eyes of the Lord, but there are those whose presence, and whose absence, is especially felt.

One such person in that early church is a Cypriot named Joseph.  We’re told he is a Levite, a member of the priestly tribe of Levi who traditionally would help with ceremonial duties.  He has made a really good impression, because he has been given the nickname, “Barnabas,” “son of encouragement.”  He’s the guy who will help you when you’re feeling down.  He’s the one who will reassure you.  “You can do it!”  He is the encourager.  (That sounds like the name of a superhero—the Encourager.  He’s the one who’s in your corner.)

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[photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash]

Barnabas plays no small role in the book of Acts.  If this were a movie, we could say his agent did a good job in getting him the part.

After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) goes to Jerusalem, but the disciples there don’t trust him (9:26-28).  They know about his past, how he persecuted the church.  But Barnabas steps forward and vouches for him.  “This guy is okay.  He’s the real deal.”

In chapter 11, news has come regarding the church in Antioch: the number of believers is said to be growing quickly.  They want someone to check it out.  Here’s how the scripture reads: “News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were brought to the Lord” (vv. 22-24).  He also accompanies Paul on his first missionary trip.

I really like that.  Barnabas is known to be a good man, filled with the Spirit and faith.  He is a good man.  I don’t know what more can be said.  It’s hard to beat being called a good man.  True to his reputation, he sells a piece of land and brings the money to the apostles.  He wants to contribute to the cause and help those in need.  Thus endeth chapter four, and we move to chapter five.

4 acBut then…  You know Bonnie and Clyde?  Well, they ain’t got nuttin’ on Ananias and Sapphira!  Unfortunately, this part of the story does not end well.

We start off on a good note.  Just like Barnabas, they sell a piece of property and bring the profits to the apostles.  They’ve done their fair share in helping the community.  However, there is a problem.  The two decide to hold back some of the money, even though they said there would be more.  One of the meanings for the word translated “kept back” (νοσφιζω, nosphizō) is “embezzle.”

Peter knows something is up—maybe it was divine inspiration, or maybe he simply did the math.  He confronts Ananias, letting him know he could have given whatever amount he and his wife chose.  It was up to them.  He asks a rather blunt question: “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?” (v. 3).  He lets him have it.  “You haven’t lied to me.  You haven’t lied to us mere mortals.  No, my dear fellow, you’ve lied to God!”

What follows next has been the subject of controversy down through the centuries.  Ananias keels over and falls down dead.  Did Peter intend this?  Did he in some way cause it to happen?  If so, does the punishment really fit the crime?  It does seem to be a bit of an overreaction.  Peter’s ethics are called into question.

There have been numerous explanations about this.  Don’t worry, I won’t attempt to go into all of them.  Some say the pair have broken an oath to God and to their fellow believers, in that they agreed to pool their resources—without embezzlement!  Such oaths often included self-curses if they were broken.  “May God strike me down if…”

Others say Peter plays the role of prophet.  His words pierce Ananias into his very soul.  Others say when Ananias’ craftiness is exposed, he simply has heart failure!  So, there’s no great mystery.

Whatever the case, Peter seems to be a bit fuzzy on notifying the next of kin!  He arranges a hasty burial for Ananias without his wife’s knowledge.  (By the way, the name Sapphira is where we get our word “sapphire.”)  She shows up three hours later, and Peter gives her a chance to tell the truth.  A similar exchange happens, and she’s buried next to her husband.  On the bright side, at least Ananias and Sapphira are together forever!

Our passage ends, “And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (v. 11).  I would think so.

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My earlier comment on Bonnie and Clyde notwithstanding, we should be cautious on how we judge Ananias and Sapphira.  As the noted 20th century British theologian F. F. Bruce said, “be careful: the temptation to seek a higher reputation than is our due for generosity or some other virtue is not so uncommon that we can afford to adopt a self-righteous attitude towards poor Ananias [and Sapphira].  Let us rather take warning from [their] example.”[1]  Their story is a cautionary tale.

What can we learn from this?  Is it as simple as Barnabas choosing love and Ananias and Sapphira choosing fear?  Did they go with safety and security over the apparent uncertainty that comes with genuine openheartedness?  Did they put their trust in material possessions to provide security?

Can we imagine another culture teaching that—one with which we might be quite familiar?

I’ve heard it said one good way to defeat the power of money and possessions over us is to give them away.

Luke is the author of Acts.  In his gospel, he tells the story of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus about eternal life.  He says he has kept all the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (18:22).  I don’t think Jesus was laying down a law for everyone and for all time.  He told him what he needed to hear.  Jesus recognized the grip the young man’s wealth had on him.

That can apply in a different way, and it regards our possessions after we have shuffled off this mortal coil.  Including the church in your will is a meaningful and needed way to benefit those who remain and those who come after.  It is yet another way of worshipping the Lord.  It is yet another way of giving to the community, indeed, the community united by the Holy Spirit.

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[photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash]

Aside from matters of material possessions, we can see how Ananias and Sapphira chose to hold back.  Don’t we also do that, to one extent or another, in one way or another?  Are we not too often guilty of embezzling the Spirit?  And yet, thanks be to God, even when we hold back from the Lord, if we remain open to the Spirit, God is gracious.  There is always opportunity for service—and for the love that conquers fear.

 

[1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 113-114.


in the system, but not of the system

We tend to be more comfortable with priests than with prophets.

Some might quickly say that their church (or other religious tradition) has no priests.  Being a Presbyterian, I would be one of those folks to make that claim.  I’m not necessarily speaking of a man (or woman) who has been ordained to that office.  I’m thinking of a priestly function or priestly posture.  Likewise, I’m not necessarily thinking of a person identified as a prophet.  Again, it’s more of a prophetic function or posture.

Given the way I’m using the words right now, I can even imagine priests and prophets existing outside of any faith or spiritual context.

This is admittedly a crude oversimplification, but I’m thinking of a priest as one who serves the system—who keeps the system running.  I’m thinking of a prophet as one who questions or critiques the system.  The prophet doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  That approach might better fit the profile of revolutionary.  If you’re wondering what I mean by all of this, as I often say, hold that thought.  Stay tuned.

Before I go any further, I need to address an unfortunate way John’s use of the word “Jew” has too often been misunderstood.  The Greek word is ΄Ιουδαιος (’Ioudaios), which does mean “Jews,” but when it appears in the gospel of John, it’s mainly used for the enemies of Jesus.  The word can also mean “Judeans,” a word which has not led to the persecution of Jews through the centuries, especially by Christians.  It has led to a history of anti-Semitism.

A Judean was from Judea, just as a Samaritan was from Samaria.  If we feel like we can’t use the word “Judean,” we must recognize that “Jew” (as portraying an enemy of Jesus) only speaks of a tiny minority of Jews and/or Jewish leaders.  After all, it should be remembered that Jesus himself was a Jew.  Amazing!  Not only that, he was a faithful, observant Jew.

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The second half of John 2 describes what’s been called the cleansing of the temple.  Notice how it starts: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 13).  Passover is one of the high holy days.  Jesus, as a faithful Jew, goes to celebrate.

Everything’s going fine; he’s with the crowds of worshippers who have come from parts near and far.  When Jesus enters the temple, his mood suddenly changes.  He sees the moneychangers at work.  They’re taking the peoples’ ordinary currency, with its images of Roman emperors and Greek gods (which would be idolatrous for purchasing animals for sacrifice) and exchanging it for Judean shekels.  And also, is it possible they’re ripping people off?  Of course, we also have to deal with the animals, producing their smells and solids.

Jesus goes ballistic.  He does his best impression of a bull in a china shop.  He takes off, flipping over tables, scattering coins, shouting at the merchants, and brandishing a whip.  Does he actually flog those fellows?  St. Augustine thought so.  He said Jesus “made a scourge of small cords, and with it lashed the unruly, who were making merchandise of God’s temple.”[1]  When the smoke clears, the place looks like the scene of an action movie.

On the matter of Jesus wielding that whip, some have said it justifies the use of violence, even to the point of punishing heretics and waging war.  “If Jesus was violent,” it’s been reasoned, “what’s to stop us?”

Others have a more nuanced perspective.  After all, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that animals were being sold for sacrifice.  There was no need for Jesus to throw a “temple tantrum.”  James McGrath has noted, “The sale of animals was essential for the temple’s main function as a place for the offering of animal sacrifices…  Both the selling of animals for sacrifices and the payment of the temple tax were activities required by Jewish law and central to the temple’s functions.”[2]

Maybe Jesus doesn’t fly off the handle.  This all might have been premeditated.  Maybe it was to make a point.  That would seem to be more in fitting with Jesus’ character.  And about Jesus being violent, there’s a long tradition holding that he was being nonviolent.  No one could have weapons of any kind in the temple area.  The Romans had their own security measures.

As you walk in, they scan you with the metal detector and ask, “Do you have any items to declare?”

That whip Jesus had could only be made with material on hand—stuff like strips of animal bedding.  (A lethal weapon, it was not.)  Not only did Jesus refrain from beating the people, as Andy Alexis-Baker says, we don’t see “Jesus beating the animals; but instead he saves their lives from sacrificial slaughter in a monetary and religious system.  The fact that he deliberately refrains from overturning caged pigeons shows his carefulness with the animals.”[3]

He has no doubt watched too many of those Sarah McLachlan commercials with the sad doggies.

2 jn

Is Jesus protesting worship which consists of the sacrifice of animals?  In chapter 4, we see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well.

He says to her, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (vv. 22-24).

To worship God means to worship in spirit and truth.  There isn’t much there about killing animals.  Maybe Jesus is trying to open our minds to a higher understanding, a more open awareness.  God doesn’t require us to slay our fellow creatures.

We hear Jesus saying, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (v. 16).  Our Old Testament reading has the final words in the book of Zechariah.  It’s part of a longer section on the day of the Lord.  The Lord will return to bless Israel and to defeat their enemies.  On that day, ordinary objects in the temple will be considered sacred.  What’s more, “there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (14:21).

Perhaps we see a promise of the day when exchanging of goods will no longer be necessary?  The slaughter of animals will be a thing of the past?

Whatever the case, we’re dealing with something grander in scope.  Whatever the case, we’re dealing with a challenge to the system.  In return, Jesus is demanded to explain himself.  “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (v. 18).  The word “sign” (σημειον, semeion), apart from the ordinary understanding, can also be a miracle or wonder by which God authenticates someone.  It shows that God is behind this.

They want to know why he’s there, messing up the program.

The first half of chapter 2 is about the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.  We’re told this is “the first of his signs” (v. 11).  His second sign doesn’t come until chapter 4, when he heals the son of a nobleman (vv. 46-54).  So in case you were wondering, Jesus doesn’t give these guys a sign.

Instead, as he so often does, he reframes the question.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19).  Aha!  One of his interrogators slips away to grab a security guard.  He points Jesus out, saying, “You better search this guy again.  He’s threatening to blow up the temple!”  Of course, they misunderstand him.  He’s referring to the temple that is his body.  This is John’s way of pointing to the resurrection.

3 jn["Rage, the Flower Thrower" by Banksy]

I hope we realize that we all are temples.  As temples of the Holy Spirit, we in a sense, house God.  That’s what temples have always been for—to in some way, house a deity.  In our case, true deity, true divinity, dwells within us.

The chapter ends by saying, “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (vv. 24-25).  Jesus doesn’t put his faith in others, but he isn’t ridiculing his fellow humans.  It’s simply a recognition that, for all their efforts, they aren’t God.  People fail.  People fail us, and we fail them.  It’s just reality.  Jesus puts his faith in God.

On a side note, we so often disappoint each other because we want what only God can provide.  We subconsciously want each other to be God.  Our love falls short.

On the matter of love, I need to ask, “How does the cleansing of the temple demonstrate love?”  It might not seem like it all the time, but Jesus always acts with love.  He chooses to follow the path of love, not that of sin.

Jesus knows the opposition he would face in challenging the system.  He goes in with eyes open.  It’s not that he hates the system.  He wants it to operate in a loving and compassionate way.  He longs to show those in the system that it can be better—that they can be better.  Jesus wants them to risk being more.  He dares them to be more.  He dares them to be more human, which really is a high bar.

Here’s where we return to my opening statements about priests and prophets, or more precisely, their postures or functions.  The priestly function or spirit desires normalcy, a sane and orderly running of the system.  That in itself is a very good thing.  Systems are good.

Nothing could work—nothing could live—without say, the water system.  Take away H2O with its liquid, gas, and solid states, and see what happens.  We have the body’s digestive system, which is obviously necessary.  We have the political system, which is simply the way we structure our society.  It dates back to when protohumans lived in groups.

Too often, though, systems we create deviate from the beneficial, just, and even holy treatment we owe each other.  They become harmful and not helpful.

That’s when the prophetic spirit is required.  It challenges; it seeks to go deeper.  As I said earlier, the prophetic spirit doesn’t necessarily want to overthrow the system.  However, it does point to qualities that have long outlived their usefulness—that is, if they were ever useful for anything but cruelty and tyranny and ungodliness.

The true prophet is in the system, but not of the system.  What I mean by that is similar to what Richard Rohr says about being “on the edge of the inside.”  Prophets “cannot be fully insiders, but they cannot throw rocks from outside either…  Only with great respect for and understanding of the rules can a prophet know how to properly break those very same rules—for the sake of a greater purpose and value.”

Think of it.  Are you more likely to listen to someone who respects you and speaks your language (so to speak!), or to someone who disrespects you and thinks you’re an idiot?

Being in the system means having learned how it operates.  Being of the system means not being able to imagine anything outside of it.  It means not being able to visualize something new, something different.  Think of the times when Jesus apparently broke the Sabbath.  He healed people on the Sabbath.  He was working!  Yet, he was showing the deeper, more faithful meaning of Sabbath.

4 jn

May I suggest that many people who are accused of hating America really do not?  There are some, of course, who do hate America; I’m not talking about that.  I’m speaking of those who simply want America to be a kinder and more decent place, a more virtuous place.  There is indeed a prophetic spirit which calls us to be our best selves, to heed our better angels.

If we can see how the cleansing of the temple demonstrates love, we also should ask, “What does love require of us?”  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking!  It’s the question Jesus is fond of asking me, and truth be told, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.  Love exacts a high price.  Perhaps, in their heart of hearts, some of those in the temple that day behaved in such a defensive manner because they understood that.

What is it about our temples that need cleansing?

Are we carrying on with business as usual?  Are we welcoming the unexpected and unwanted visitor—maybe one who’s cracking the whip and upsetting our plans?  All of that is part of the work of God.  All of that is part of the sacrifice, not of animals slain, but of love spent.

May we welcome, may we receive, the Lord who resurrects the ruined temples of our lives.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.xi.html

[2] www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/jesus-and-the-moneychangers

[3] Andy Alexis-Baker, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Temple Incident in John 2:13-15, Biblical Interpretation, 20:1, 2 (2012), 91.