love

into the heart of truth

I suppose we’ve all heard someone say, at one time or another, “All paths lead to God,” or maybe we’ve said that.  Usually, that’s about different faiths, different religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on.  In many ways, I do agree with that.

A few years ago, in a previous congregation Banu and I were serving we were talking about it in Sunday school.  Someone drew a picture of a mountain, with a number of trails leading up to the summit.  For him, it symbolized those paths leading to God.

I drew something different on the paper, an expressway with many lanes, explaining I see the life of faith as a continuous journey.  In the center of this road, I put Jesus Christ.  I said I see him as the pure, perfect expression of God’s vision for humanity.  He is flowing into the heart of truth.

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Then in the lanes on either side of the center, I said to the extent that we can know such a thing, I would place other expressions of faith that have varying degrees of truth and authenticity.  Way over on the shoulders would be groups like mind-control cults and twisted versions of faith.  Like drunk drivers, they’re on the verge of going off the road entirely, crashing and burning.

I need to emphasize the importance of having a sense of humor, as well as a sense of humility, in all of this.  We too often claim to know more than we do—or even, are able to know!

I would submit as one example of our need for humility the reason for today’s name, Trinity Sunday.  Understanding that the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, people have devised all kinds of explanations for the Holy Trinity.  That is, they’ve tried to explain how one is three and three is one.

Some explanations are better than others.  Some people talk about H2O, how it exists as ice, liquid, and water vapor.  Others talk about relationship, such as, “I am a son, a brother, and a husband.”  Really, no description does a very good job.  They tend to turn God into a problem which needs to be solved!

Trinity isn’t three as the answer to a math problem.  Trinity speaks about the nature of God.  God is a community.  You need at least three for there to be a community.  But this isn’t “community” the way we often think of it.  It isn’t a collection of individuals who just happen to be in the same place.

There’s a term called “perichoresis” (περιχώρησις).  It comes from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to contain” or “to rotate.”  It was used by ancient writers to describe how the Persons of the Trinity share the lives of each other, constantly interwoven in a vibrant intimacy of love, a dance of love.  They hold each other in a holy dance.  That is what’s happening within the heart of God.

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The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I would believe only in a god who could dance.”[1]

I’m reminded of the chorus from the hymn, “Simple Gifts.”  It was a dancing song that a group known as the Shakers used to sing.  “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

This is a joyous love that is interwoven into creation itself.  God, who is love, sees of creation, “It is good.”  After the human race comes into being, God sees, “It is very good.”  When we get a glimpse of that, we realize the Holy Trinity is far from some dry, dusty doctrine.  We dive right into the heart of truth and get the invitation that says, “There’s a party going on!”

So, back to my point about speaking on matters of faith, it’s good to be humble in our pronouncements—and learn to just dance!

There is a little snippet from a passage in John’s gospel that goes on for four chapters.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure.  And at this point, he’s telling them about the work of the Holy Spirit.  To continue with that image of the dance, maybe we can see the Spirit as the music!

Still, we can sense a certain heaviness in the air.  We cannot escape the fact that this is a solemn occasion.  After all, this scripture comes after Judas has left to meet up with his co-conspirators.  There follows the ominous note: “And it was night” (13:30).  Jesus tells them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v. 12).

They’re having enough trouble with what he’s been trying to teach.  Philip has already said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:8-9).

If they still aren’t getting it, what hope is there?  If traveling with Jesus—having seen how he lives—isn’t convincing enough, then what would do it?

I like the name Jesus gives the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit of truth” (v. 13).  The Spirit of God, the Spirit of holiness, is also the Spirit of truth.  We might contrast that with the spirit of error, the spirit of falsehood, the spirit of lies.

There’s another angle to this business of the Spirit guiding us into all the truth I really appreciate.  It’s the importance of valuing people who are located all along the theological spectrum: conservatives, liberals, and everyone else.  We could say the same thing about those all along the political spectrum, as well.

I have often had the experience of finding a greater level of agreement, of rapport, with those who say and believe different things than I do.  I’m talking about people who read the Bible differently from the way I do, or those who feel differently about politics, sometimes quite differently!

During these past couple of years, I have found myself, in more than one way, becoming increasingly alienated from those I once considered like-minded.  The word “alienated” might be a good description.  On certain topics, if you dare express a dissenting opinion, you might find yourself censored.  You might find yourself snarkily dismissed.

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One of the Historic Principles of Church Order, dating back to 1788, which is in our Presbyterian Book of Order, is entitled “Truth and Goodness.”[2]  It says that “truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’”

Saying that “truth is in order to goodness” means that the truth is the servant of what is good.  It is possible to make a statement which is factually verifiable—we can look at it and prove that it is so—and it still not be true, at least, not be true at the deepest levels.  There is a devilish way to present the truth.

If its mission is to harm, to hurt, to shame, then it really isn’t true because it isn’t God’s truth.  It isn’t spoken by the Spirit of truth.  The truth of God never humiliates us.  The devilish presentation of truth does not “promote holiness.”

Jesus says of the devil, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).

We might wonder, “Is there a way to know what is true?”  Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (vv. 13-15).

Jesus reminds them, and us, that the Spirit of truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit doesn’t act independently from who God is.  Remember what I said earlier about expressions of faith, like drunk drivers on the highway, who veer away from the character of Christ.  Remember about the nature of God, which is a self-giving community in an endless dance, a dance of love and generosity.

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The truth that the Spirit speaks does correct us—but never shames us, never ridicules us.  The Spirit gives us the courage to follow into the heart of truth.

With God as Trinity, we have the perfect model of community.  This is a community whose only truth is one that builds up and does not tear down.  It is truth that heals; it does not destroy.  There’s no awareness of being laughed at, only laughing with.  As our friends the Shakers remind us, “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 153.

[2] F-3.0104


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/


blessed release

I’ve sometimes thought to myself, “everything is possible at night.”  That thought has occurred to me when I’ve been up very late, and it seems like the whole world is asleep.  The most incredible plans, the wildest ideas, all seem to be quite capable of being accomplished.  There’s the sudden, “Yes!  Why didn’t I think of that before?”  And then when sleep comes, it seems like everything is figured out.  All is right with God and the world.

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And then the cold light of morning forces open eyelids that aren’t quite ready to be opened.  The mental cobwebs disappear, and a sudden realization takes hold.  What a stupid idea that was!  What in the world was I thinking?  What seemed so clear and so true and so sensible now seems so unclear and so wrong and so ridiculous.

I wonder if the disciples had any similar thoughts.  Jesus had, after all, on occasion made strange statements about being risen from the grave.  What on earth could that mean?  Did they understand him correctly?  Is it possible in those dark, lonely, sorrowful hours before dawn that any of them dared to entertain such notions?

John 20 points us to Mary Magdalene, who ventured out to the tomb of Jesus before sunrise.  The other gospels say she wasn’t alone.  She was accompanied by other women, including Mary the mother of James.  According to the Jewish burial custom, they intended to anoint the body of Jesus.  Still, I wonder what thoughts filled their minds during that terrible and heart-breaking evening.

Mary Magdalene has received a lot of bad press throughout the centuries.  It’s been claimed she had formerly been a prostitute, an allegation stated nowhere in the Bible.  (Though, even if it were true, wouldn’t it be a good thing if she had left that life?)  What is stated is that she had been demon possessed (Lk 8:2).  Some people have said she’s the sinful woman of Luke 8 who washes the feet of Jesus with her hair (vv. 36-50) or that she’s the woman caught in adultery in John 8 (vv. 1-11).

In her blog, “Here’s a Story,” Ashley Buenger takes Biblical characters and events and infuses them with her vision and imagination, bringing them to life.  Here’s an excerpt from her story about Mary and her struggle with demons.[1]

{I have altered the spacing of some of the sentences.}

“I scramble to the jar [I just threw], it’s shattered.  Perfect, I think.  No, wait.  Whose jar is this?  Why have I broken it?  I pick up a shard and I scrape it along the top of my foot.  I see the red beads of blood glisten and I’m delighted.  I’m bleeding.  So beautiful, I stare at it.  Then I take a sharp edge to my palm.

“Stop it.  I say to them.  But they never listen.  They never give heed to what I want.  Get out of here.  I say to them but they laugh at me and snarl.  I can see their teeth in my head.  Oh, Mary.  They taunt me.  Silly Mary. You’re ours.  We won’t leave.

“I pick up another piece of pottery and put it between my teeth.  I chomp down on it as hard as I can.  I wince as I feel a tooth break.  They laugh and place another piece in my mouth.  It’s getting worse.  I push, they push back, I push again, they push back again.  Sometimes I win.  But not often and not lately.  It’s been too long.  I’m too tired to fight.  They have taken over this body.  I’m no longer Mary…  I don’t know half the things I do.

“Look what you’ve done to me, I say to them.  We’ve made you better, they say and laugh, we’ve made you prettier.  They take me to a booth where a man is selling mirrors.  See?  They say.  Gorgeous.  I am horrified.  My face is sunk and my eyes are empty, there are deep wounds on my cheeks.  Chunks of my hair are missing.  What is left hangs limp and dirty around my face.  I don’t even recognize myself…

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“The air shifts and the hair on my neck tingles, I stand up straight and look around.  Someone is coming.  Someone important.  The demons are stirred.  I stumble to the wall and then back and to the wall again.

“There he is, that’s him.  Who is he?…  ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they yell from my mouth.  ‘We know who you are.  The son of the Most High God.’

“‘Come out of her.’  Jesus says.  ‘Now.’

“My body shakes and they shriek as they leave.  It smells like burning flesh for a moment and then they are gone.  There were seven of them.

“I look up and into the face of my healer.  He stands before me with his hand out to me.  I take it, wincing at the pain of the gashes in my palm.  ‘Hi Mary.’  He says to me.  And I stare at him.  My name from his lips is like a song.  The most beautiful melody that I had ever heard.  It is a song of freedom.

“I am Mary again.”

Mary is given a blessed release.

By the way, I sent a comment to Ashley saying, “I love your portrait of the demons as spiteful little punks.”  At the end of the day, that’s really what they are.

The scripture reading of that first Easter morning describes the event that earned Mary Magdalene the name “apostle to the apostles,” no longer the Mary with seven devils.  She peeks into the tomb, even while she’s crying tears of sorrow.  She’s greeted by two angels who ask her why she’s crying.  Mary’s answer shows how confused she is as to how all this can be happening.

3 jnNo sooner has she answered their question than she turns and sees Jesus himself.  Says G. H. C. Macgregor, “There follows the greatest recognition scene in all literature—and one told in two words!”[2]  (Jesus says, “Mary.”  She says, “Rabbouni,” meaning teacher.)  “The greatest recognition scene in all literature.”  (Why doesn’t he tell us how he really feels?)

She sees him, but she doesn’t recognize him.  Thinking he’s the gardener, Mary figures he can explain the missing body of Jesus.

Why doesn’t Mary recognize him?  One suggestion is it was still too dark, but that doesn’t seem very likely.  After all, the disciples on the road to Emmaus spend a long time with Jesus before realizing who he is (Lk 24:13-35).  It’s not until Jesus speaks her name that the veil over Mary’s mind is lifted.

Nadia Bolz-Weber has her own take on this recognition scene.[3]

“See, when Mary Magdalene, this imperfect woman, stood at the tomb, she didn’t encounter some perfected radiant glowing Jesus that morning.  Seriously, no offense to gardeners but Jesus couldn’t have been looking all that tidy and impressive if she mistook him for a gardener.  And here’s the thing: I like to think that Mary Magdalene mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.”

4 jnThat really speaks volumes about the incarnation.  In Jesus, we have God appearing on earth in flesh, God appearing as matter—this earthly, dirty stuff.  No angel, no vision, but the physical body and blood of Jesus.  In a few moments, we will eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  (That’s the Greek word appearing many times in the New Testament which means “giving thanks.”)

How can we describe the intensity of the moment that follows?  In what must have been a flood of shock and joy, Mary cries out to the one she dearly loved.  There are other writings from the early church, besides the New Testament, that speak of the relationship that existed between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  They speak of a relationship, one of intimate friendship.  Some even go so far as to suggest a romantic bond.

The scripture presents her as turning twice.  In verse 14, she “turns” and sees Jesus, though as mentioned before, she doesn’t recognize him.  In verse 16, upon hearing her name spoken, she “turns” and speaks to Jesus with unbounded wonder.  She turns from grief to hope.  She turns from sorrow to joy.

Though the Bible doesn’t use that word, she turns—she returns—and brings the good news to the others.  Of course, they don’t take her word for it.  Sometimes even an apostle to the apostles isn’t believed!

Mary Magdalene is a fitting picture for Easter, for resurrection.  She, in effect, has been raised from the dead.  She has been freed from her demons.  She once was blind, but now she sees.

It’s been said that it’s “possible for Jesus to be present, and yet for [us] not to recognise him until his word goes home to [us].”[4]

“Until his word goes home.”  It’s not enough to hear about Christ or to be taught the meaning of the resurrection.  We can learn ways to understand the scriptures; we can learn the doctrines of the church—and these are important.  But hearing about Jesus won’t produce belief.  We must hear from Jesus.  And hearing from Jesus Christ means hearing the good news of his love.  That is the word that goes home.

And that is the word spoken to Mary Magdalene when Jesus calls her by name.  It’s like those three-dimensional pictures that are hidden in the midst of a bewildering array of other images.  You have to let your eyes remain unfocused.  Straining to find the 3-D picture won’t do any good.  And it can be maddening.  You’re looking right at it, but you can’t see it!

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When Jesus speaks his word, he no longer is a gardener.  He no longer is a traveler on the Emmaus road.  When he speaks his word, he can be seen as the risen Lord who comes to us even now, in every moment of life.

So the next time you find yourself awake in the midst of the darkest of nights, think to yourself that anything is possible at night—even the impossible.  For it was before the sun had yet shown its face that the light of the world emerged from the darkness of the tomb.

 

[1] ashleybuenger.substack.com/p/mary-magdalene?s=r

[2] G. H. C. Macgregor, The Gospel of John (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1928), 358.

[3] thecorners.substack.com/p/its-actually-pretty-easy-to-mistake?s=r

[4] Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), 686.


confessions of ruthless love

We’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law, aren’t we?  It basically states, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”  I did a little bit of research to find out who this Murphy actually was.  There is more than one candidate.  Many people suggest Capt. Edward Murphy, an engineer in the US Air Force.  After a technician had made a mistake in wiring, Murphy claimed, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”[1]

1 jr Others, like me, suspect an origin further back in history.  Understanding that Murphy is an Irish name, some say that the English pinned it on the Irish.  Of course, as a rule, the English have always held the Irish in the very highest regard, so it’s hard to believe they would do such a thing!

Whatever the case: if there’s anybody in the Bible who might possibly believe in Murphy’s Law, it would be the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian Empire is knocking at the door.  People are nervous.  They fear destruction and exile.  And at the same time, injustice is rampant throughout the country.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing idolatry and corruption—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

Jeremiah does not have a happy life.  His social life is all but nonexistent.  Saying “yes” to God has meant for him dealing with name-calling and far worse: slander, beating, imprisonment.  After the Babylonians do invade, he’s labeled a traitor when he warns against fighting back.  Saying “yes” to God means that Jeremiah becomes public enemy number one.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s ruthless honesty about his calling and ministry.  In chapter 1, when he is called to be a prophet, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 8).  Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

There are several poems in the book that are often called the Confessions of Jeremiah.  We have a reading from the first and the last ones.  In these poems, he sounds a lot like Job.  More than with any other prophet, we see in Jeremiah a picture of his inner being.  At times, he verges on the depths of despair.

As our friend Murphy might say, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Jeremiah feels like God has betrayed him, and he isn’t shy about letting God know it!  More than once, he decides that he’s had enough; he is not going to do this anymore.  Let somebody else do this job!  But he finds it impossible to stop.  Chapter 20, verse 9, has the perfect example of this.  “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

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“The Prophet Jeremiah” by Michelangelo

The Contemporary English Version puts it this way: “Sometimes I tell myself not to think about you, Lord, or even mention your name.  But your message burns in my heart and bones, and I cannot keep silent.”

That’s a confession that only someone who is in love can make!  Jeremiah loves the Lord, but he’s also mad and disappointed.

In chapter 11, we see something that would have anyone wondering what’s going on.  The people of his hometown issue him a warning: shut up or change your tune—or you won’t like what’s coming!  It’s been said that they’re “shamed to the depths that one of themselves should undermine the very foundations of the nation by what he said, and should make himself the most hated man in the country.  So they threaten to murder him.”[2]

Jeremiah laments that he is “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter” (v. 19).  That’s one of the comparisons people make between him and Jesus.

And at the end of chapter 20, we see him cursing the day of his birth.  There’s a comparison with Job.  He even curses the man who brought glad tidings of his birth to his father!  That wasn’t good news!  Why didn’t he just kill me?  “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (v. 18).

Of course, Jeremiah is far from alone in wanting to just call it quits.

A story is told about John Robertson, a 19th century minister in the Church of Scotland.  Having preached for forty years, he “decided one morning to resign.  He prayed: ‘O God, Thou didst commission me forty years ago, but I have blundered and failed and I want to resign this morning.’  But as he prayed and sobbed, he heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘John Robertson…‘tis true you have blundered and failed; but…I am not here for you to resign your commission but to re-sign your commission.’  He went on to new and greater things in his ministry.  And so did Jeremiah.”[3]

After everything falls apart—after everything crashes and burns—after the Babylonians destroy the temple—Jeremiah has a message of hope.  The exiles, one day, will return.  Rebuilding will happen.  Of course, if he had just quit (speaking of the prophet and John Robertson), he wouldn’t have been able to give that message of consolation.

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I want to change gears and look at the value of Jeremiah’s Confessions.  Actually, I should probably ask, “Do we think they have value?”  As expressions of lament, do they have value?  What is the value of lament?  What is the value of giving voice to our grief?

The Confessions are about stuff that happens to more than just one person.  They are about the community, the people of Israel.  And they’re also about us—all of us, in every time and place.  We haven’t gone through what the people in Jeremiah’s time do, but we also know what trauma and disaster are all about.

Clearly, the last two years have taught us a few things about that.

Some people say that we shouldn’t talk about the bad things that happen, certainly not in church.  I wonder, have they ever looked at a cross?

I’m sure none of you have ever experienced this, but sometimes when tragedy strikes, we can offer some unwanted explanations.  Stuff like, “God never gives us more than we can handle.”  Let’s ignore the fact that isn’t in the Bible—it’s an altering of something in 1 Corinthians about God giving us a way out of testing and temptation (10:13).  But aside from that, does that really help anyone?

This is among my favorite unhelpful explanations: when someone loses a loved one, especially if that person was young, I’ve sometimes heard that “God needed another angel in heaven.”  We should understand humans and angels are two completely different types of beings!  Aside from that, something far worse, in my opinion, is the funeral poem claiming, “God broke our hearts to prove to us He only takes the best.”  That seems to say nothing less than God is a monster.

Still, I think we can see that those types of remarks say more about the person uttering them than anything else.  When we’re at a loss for words, we too often offer things that are unhelpful and painful and stupid.  Maybe a better approach is simply to be present.

That leads us to the value of lament in the scriptures, with the example of Jeremiah’s Confessions.  Old Testament scholar Kathleen O’Connor says, “They give voice to profound fidelity because they keep communication with God alive in the midst of destruction and despair.”[4]

When it comes to reflecting on our fears and insecurities versus relying on God, I think it’s safe to choose the latter.  As a result, I think I like her advice better:

“Here is what to do in the pit of hopelessness.  Cling to God, even when God has slipped away from you.  Yell at the top of your collective lungs.  Hold tightly, mercilessly, and, with every ounce of strength, shout and scream at the deity…  Hold nothing back. Complain, protest, resist.  Reach into yourself to claim your experience and your capacity to see and name reality.  Rise up, ‘give God an account,’ and approach God ‘like a prince’ [or a princess] (Job 31:37).”[5]

The good news for Jeremiah is that he doesn’t remain in the pit of hopelessness.  His love of God is what sees him through.  It is precisely because he loves God that he’s able to say the things he does.  His honesty, joined with his love, is what honors that relationship.  It keeps the relationship alive.

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It might feel wrong to be angry with God, but that’s okay.  God already knows how we feel, and when something terrible happens, God is saddened even more than we are.  At the time, it might not seem that way, and that’s also okay.  We can be honest with God, and we also can make our confessions of ruthless love.

So it’s important to ask, for those of us here, how can we welcome expressions of lament?  How can we, as the apostle Paul advises, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”? (Ro 12:15).  It is more than appropriate for the church to do that.  It’s a sure sign that we are on our way to becoming the beloved community.

The Confessions of Jeremiah, as opposed to Murphy’s Law, is a good and faithful road to follow.

 

[1] www.murphys-laws.com/murphy/murphy-true.html

[2] Klaus Koch, The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 39.

[3] www.directionjournal.org/article/?168

[4] Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamenting Back to Life,” Interpretation 62:1 (Jan 2008), 42.

[5] O’Connor, 45.


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).

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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.”

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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


tin foil hat not required

People being shamed.  People being ostracized.  People being made to feel fear.  It’s that last one with which I have especially become reacquainted.  My wife has reminded me of it.

She came of age in her home country, Turkey, during a time of political and military unrest.  She has spoken of going to school amid bodies lying dead by the road.  Rumbling tanks were not an uncommon sight.  Questions were put, “Are you on the left?  Are you on the right?”  It took many years for her to see a police officer without a sense of dread building inside.

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[photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash]

Living in a climate of fear takes its toll.  To be afraid of the police is destructive.  Not daring to speak your thoughts, as was the case with her father, shrinks one’s healthy participation in society—indeed, such a society becomes unhealthy.  It loses vitality.

Is it unreasonable to suggest that we today might possibly be taking steps in that direction?  Understand, I’m definitely not claiming we’re on the verge of transforming into a totalitarian police state!  Still, that language of shaming, ostracizing, exclusion being voiced, is occurring more often.  In this case, I am speaking of it directed at those who choose to forego Covid vaccinations.

2 blogTrust me, I am well aware there are some truly crazy batshit conspiracy theories floating around.  However, one need not be wearing a tin foil hat to have legitimate concerns.  (Going into all of them would require a lengthy discussion; I won’t do that here.)

There are, in my opinion, valid questions regarding the testing of the vaccines, the billions of dollars made by pharmaceutical companies (who are shielded from lawsuits), and the lack of investigations into numerous serious and lethal side effects.  This last point is instructive.  The hundreds, even thousands, of people who have reported these conditions usually have their claims dismissed as “anecdotal.”

My wife and I have had personal experience with several individuals whose health suffered a severe decline after receiving the vaccination.  Admittedly, I can’t say that with absolute certainty, but the timing of the jab and the apparent randomness of the afflictions are too convenient to ignore.

Then there is the matter of endangering the public.  I certainly understand that concern.  That opens up an array of factors, including the reporting of deaths as caused by Covid versus deaths of persons who simply had the virus—but died for other reasons.  We now have the prospect of herd immunity and what percentage of people is necessary to reach it.

3 blogThere are those who have medical reservations.  (I would count myself among those.)  I’m not one of so-called “anti-vaxxers.”  I don’t have a problem with vaccines in general.  I got my flu shot.  I’ve had more than one tetanus shot.  When there was a chance I was bitten by a bat, I didn’t hesitate to receive rabies vaccinations!

From a theological perspective, I must confess hesitation to put into my body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, experimental chemicals whose long-term effects are largely unknown.

Returning to my original thought, I am disturbed by the spirit of mistrust and misgiving gaining traction among us.  The thought of our eyeing each other with suspicion troubles me.  An atmosphere of fear calls out our less noble qualities.  Whatever one’s viewpoint on the vaccines, is it possible for us to regard each other with a little more love and with a little less fear?


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.

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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.

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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.


Jonah, where is the love?

I said a couple of weeks ago that sometimes events happen during the week that must be addressed on Sunday.  Sometimes it works in reverse.  On Wednesday, Inauguration Day took place in an atmosphere of a, let’s say, rather argumentative transfer of power.  And look at who’s featured in today’s Old Testament reading.  It’s none other than that argumentative prophet, Jonah.  I don’t think he set out to be a curmudgeon, but that’s how he wound up.

1 jonI will connect the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah in a few moments.

Those who know nothing else about him remember that he’s the guy who got swallowed by a fish.  (Or was it a whale?  Whales aren’t fish!)

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah.  (I didn’t start going to church in earnest until I was in my twenties.)

Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those images that cling to a felt backboard.  Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me.  How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature?  He was there for three days and three nights!  How could he breathe?  Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

It really doesn’t work to just talk about chapter 3 without telling the rest of the story.  And what a story it is!

The book of Jonah has plenty of satire.  There are numerous places where the humor breaks through.  If you want a story filled with zany and sarcastic images, this is the one for you.  The first word of the book in Hebrew (וַיְהׅי, vayehi) means “and it happened.”  Once upon a time.

The Lord wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the people to turn from their wicked ways.  Something to understand about Nineveh is that it is a bitter enemy of Israel.  It might be the least likely place Jonah would want to visit.  He buys his ticket, but it’s for a ship sailing in the opposite direction.  It’s headed for Tarshish.  It’s thought to have been a city in modern-day Spain, at the other end of the Mediterranean.

So basically, God tells him to go to one place, and he heads off for the other side of the world.

I don’t suppose anyone can relate to Jonah, that is, sensing God would have us do something—and our really not wanting to.  It’s “really not wanting to” to the point of running away as far as possible.

Very briefly, a storm breaks out, and the sailors are doing their best to handle it.  While the tempest is raging, Jonah is down below snoozing; he’s taking a nap.  They wake him up, and he winds up telling the crew to throw him into the sea, and the storm will cease.  Jonah is ready to die.  Anything is better than setting foot in that horrible city.  Even spending time in a fishy gullet beats it!

Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah (Mt 12:38-41).  He sees himself in Jonah’s three-day tour of the deep.  The ancient Hebrews spoke of Leviathan, the great sea monster dwelling in the watery depths.  Jonah prays, “out of the belly of Sheol I cried” (2:2).  This is a picture of death.  When that critter upchucks the prophet—that must have been a serious case of indigestion—Jonah, figuratively, goes from death to life.  And just as Jonah emerges from the grave, so does Jesus.

I’ll jump ahead to chapter 4, which is after we find out his message has done its job.

This is not what Jonah wanted.  He was hoping they’d shake his hand, say “nice sermon,” and then go right back to their deliciously evil stuff.  Unlike Abraham, who didn’t want Sodom destroyed, Jonah’s already got a spot in mind with a good view of the city.  He’ll set up his lawn chair, kick back, and get ready to watch the fire fall!  Okay Lord, smite them, O mighty smiter!

Unfortunately for Jonah, God has the best interests of the city in mind, and Nineveh is spared.  This is where we’re treated to some of that argumentative character I mentioned at the beginning.  In verse 1, the Hebrew word for “displeased” appears twice, and the word for “angry” (חׇרׇה, charah) literally means “hot,” “to burn.”  One might say Jonah is blazing with fury.

Here’s where I connect some of the dots between Inauguration Day and Jonah.  He would rather die than have things work out for the Ninevites.  Does that sound familiar?  When we watch the news networks, when we peruse social media, it seems like it would kill some people to say something good about “the others.”  I would rather die than give them a thumbs-up!

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As for Nineveh, things work out so well that when the king hears Jonah’s message, he not only repents but he also issues a decree.  “No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything.  They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.  Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.  All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (3:7-8).

Even the animals have to repent!

Maybe it’s clear by now that Jonah is a bundle of contradictions.  He senses his God-given duty, but he fights like the devil against it.  He sets off on the longest journey he possibly can and finds himself back at square one.  The thing that he believed would destroy him becomes the vehicle of his deliverance.  The message of the grace and forgiveness of the Lord becomes in him an occasion for anger and bigotry.

Jonah almost literally has to be dragged kicking and screaming to do his job.  He’s successful in his God-given task, and you better believe, he’s mad as a wet hen about it!  And yet Jesus sees in Jonah a lesson for others.  That’s the power of grace in action.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us.  Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up.  He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city.

There is another connection between Inauguration Day and Jonah, and it’s a contrast, thanks to Amanda Gorman.  At 22, she is the youngest poet in US history to appear at an inaugural event.  Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” begins with these words: “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast.” [1]  Maybe Jonah can relate to that.

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["There is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it."]

She also references words from the prophet Micah.  Speaking of the vision of the Lord’s embrace of all peoples, we hear, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (Mi 4:4).  Vines and fig trees are signs of prosperity.

What a contrast.  Micah speaks of hope and courage, and Jonah sits under a bush, stewing with anger!

Still, we hear the words of Jesus.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:43-44).  Inauguration Day was four days ago.  How are we doing with loving our enemies?  Must we regard each other as enemies?

(By the way, the last verse in that passage, verse 48, has created plenty of confusion.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word “perfect” doesn’t mean “flawless.”  Rather, it means “complete.”  Jesus is saying we are to be completed, we are to be perfected.  In the same way, the US Constitution’s “a more perfect union” doesn’t mean a flawless union.  If that’s the case, Lord help us!)

Now, back to love!  Danielle Kingstrom speaks about love, saying, “Love is…not an easy phenomenon to engage.  It comes out of nowhere and rams into you like a semi-truck on the freeway.  It smashes all your senses and discombobulates your reason.  Of course, people are afraid of it!  It’s an explosion of accident and attention all at once.  What the heck do we do with energy like that when it surges?”[2]

Here’s a lesson for Jonah, and here’s a lesson for us.  She adds, “Love doesn’t have to decide what to ‘do’ about certain groups of people until love is face to face with the person.”  We can be face to face with people in a way that exudes disgust and disdain and dread.  So Jonah, where is the love?  (The Black-Eyed Peas asked that same question.)

“Love is like a mirror…  It shows you where you need to grow…  The thistles and thorns will stick us—it’s challenging to see a reflection of ourselves that we hadn’t expected.  But love is unexpected like that.”  It’s so easy to simply dismiss someone as lacking comprehension or lacking character.

And here’s a crazy thought: even if we hang on to those attitudes, even if we still look on them as enemies—even if we’re still not yet ready to make that step toward freedom—we come right back around to Jesus.  Love ‘em anyway!  Let’s take the actions, and refrain from the actions, that make life harder for them.  We don’t have to wait until bad stuff happens to us.  We can help each other walk a silver, if not a golden, path on this planet.

It’s like the question God poses to Jonah at the very end of the book.  “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (4:11).  I like the way the natural order is included in God’s concern.

Jonah doesn’t answer the question.  At least, we’re not told the answer.  What is our answer?

As we enter a new political landscape (and they do come and go), let’s learn a lesson from Jonah—and from Jesus.  When we love our enemies, we must first deal with the enemy within.  (I need to learn this as much as anyone else.)  To the extent we have division and fear inside ourselves, we project division and fear outside into the world.

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We need to realize that we are worth loving.  We need to realize that we are loved.  We are loved by our Lord, but to really experience it at the flesh and blood level, we need love face to face.  There are those who never see that.

Let’s love our neighbor and love our enemy.  Who knows?  We might find they’re one and the same!

 

[1] www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35268337/amanda-gorman-the-hill-we-climb-poem-biden-inauguration/

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/daniellekingstrom/2021/01/no-love-let-us-remember-that-we-know-love/