Thursday, October 21, 2021

Are We the Angry Brother? (Jesus and Community)

Jesus and community... a subject near and dear to my heart as we face such division in America today.  

Jesus gives us a familiar but powerful parable about how He has come for the one:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:1-7)

After this parable, Jesus goes on to tell about a woman who lost a coin:

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

Repentance of the lost one was celebrated by the finder--a reminder to Jesus' audience that “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)  Jesus' mission was to offer a deep relationship with His Father to those who longed for mercy.  He moved passed the ruling elites and all of their impediments--excessive rules and a focus on justice, with little or no mercy--and went out to find the lost ones.  The sick ones.  The estranged ones.

I love how the return of the one is celebrated in community--the shepherd doesn't return to his flock with the lost sheep, who he had left in "open country," but he "goes home."  There, with the sheep lovingly carried on his shoulders, he shares his joy with his "friends and neighbors."

The same with the woman:  She gathers her "friends and neighbors together" and celebrates with them her finding of the valuable coin.

The community--the Body of Christ--is a place for celebration.  We gather to honor God and praise Him for the work He is doing in His people.  Just last week in church, a woman came forward to share with all of us how God had touched her.  Her joy was contagious.  She could have kept the good news to herself; just as the shepherd and woman with the coin could have remained silent, thanking God and returning to their lives. But all three (the shepherd, the woman and my church sister) wanted the community to know of the goodness of God. 

Jesus tells of His mission in this last parable, crafting it, however, in more somber tones.  We, as an audience, can smile at a shepherd and a woman with a coin, but a struggling family hits much closer to home.

Then and now.   

The last parable is a sadder one, and shows how division in our spiritual family can be painful and stunt the joy of others.  It's so familiar.  Jesus told it last, and perhaps this parable resonated best with His audience:

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

"When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

"The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

"But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

"‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)

Jesus tells a rather different celebration story here.  Friends and neighbors are not invited in--does the father have any?  Had he been socially ostracized because of his fallen son?  Were there whispers when he went into town about that son of his? A son who fraternized with prostitutes and ate pig food?  Or was the community unaware of how profoundly the son had fallen--all they knew is that he took his inheritance and left his father.  Either way, the pain in the father's heart was unimaginable.  He was, in effect, in a tiny community:  He is surrounded by his servants (two, three?) and his other son.  

The celebration commences with the return of the repentant son and a feast.  But the story says nothing of the neighbors joining the father and his servants.  

Why was the father so alone in his celebrating?  His other son won't even join in the celebration.  His angry words put a damper on the whole proceedings, for he has judged his father and brother.  The father has to plead with him and explain why (how sad) they all are celebrating.  The parable ends on a somber note: a repentant son, a happy father, a celebration, an angry brother and a father's plea to justify a celebration.

No community here.  Just a family in grief and joy, laughter and anger, return and emotional exile.

The community of believers right now in America strike me more as being in the third parable.  Though God is working in individuals and we can rejoice, there are many angry brothers and sisters out there (who can justify their anger, to be sure) who may need to learn from this angry brother in the parable:  We need to humble ourselves before God, and allow Him to celebrate the lost in His way, while we embrace His lost and forgive them.  

Let James have the last Word:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. 

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:7-12)

And all the people said, "Amen."
















Sunday, October 3, 2021

Moving Mountains? What Kind?

I find that a lot of people these days point to a verse in the Bible that is seminal to their theology of God always wanting to heal--for their presupposition is that God wants us healthy, wealthy and wise.  I am sure you are very familiar with it:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.” (Mark 11:22-5)

Pretty straightforward, huh?  If I have cancer, or I am praying for someone who does, and I believe that God wants the person healed, we pray for that "mountain"--the cancer--to be cast away.  Let's look at Matthew's take on this teaching:

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20-1)

Same basic principle:  Believe enough, and it will happen.

Right?

But, a text without a context is a pretext.  

Let's look at the contexts that the gospel writers recorded these verses.  In Mark, the chapter begins with Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  He then teaches in the Temple, leaves returns the next day.  A fig tree, pretending to offer fruit, is cursed by Jesus for its rich metaphorical example of fake fruit--piety on the outside and prideful reactions to others on the inside.   This so characterizes the leaders Jesus will be confronting in the upcoming week. 

Jesus returns and clears the Temple, defiled with its emphasis on commerce, and using the Court of the Gentiles as a mall, instead of a place where God-fearers (Gentiles sensitive to the things of God) can come and commune with Israel's God.  

The disciples and Jesus return to Bethany and on the way, Peter sees the withered fig, and remembers Jesus' words from the day earlier.  Jesus then says that faith, operating in forgiveness and love, will move the mountains that the disciples will face in the near future:  Evil men, parading piously and using the Torah as a foundation for a pride-filled organization that will kill the long-awaited Messiah and persecute His followers.

Hmm.  These verses are not set where someone needs healing--they are set where the disciples will be facing the mountainous edifice that is Temple system, and its secular counterpart, the Roman Empire.  

The verses in Matthew do contain a healing.  First, the three disciples, Peter, James and John, go up onto a mountain and see Jesus as He was before He came down as a man--He is transfigured into His Deity-self before their very eyes.  Jesus returns with them from the mountain, only to find some chaos in His absence.  A man brought his demon-possessed son to the remaining disciples, and they were not able to drive the demon out.  Once Jesus returns, He chides His men for their lack of belief.  Later they inquire of Jesus as to why they were unable to drive the demon out; He then says the above verses.

The "mountain" here was evil on fearful display in this young boy--having seizures, and him falling into either fire or water.   

A common theme emerges: the seemingly implacable presence of evil.   I don't think the mountain was the child's healing from a disease--though Jesus healed many of disease--it was the evil that had taken over the boy and was threatening his very life.  

So, too was the evil the disciples faced when the Jewish leadership partnered with godless Rome to kill Jesus.

In reading a book on the geography that surrounded Jesus as He taught, the authors made an interesting observation about a mountain having been moved by an immoral leader, Herod:

Josephus describes Herodium as follows:

This fortress, which is some sixty stadia distant from Jerusalem, is naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, for reasonably nearby is a hill, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast. At intervals it has round towers, and it has a steep ascent formed of two hundred steps of hewn stone. Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament at the same time. At the base of the hill there are pleasure grounds built in such a way as to be worth seeing, among other things because of the way in which water, which is lacking in that place, is brought in from a distance and at great expense. The surrounding plain was built up as a city second to none, with the hill serving as an acropolis for the other dwellings.

Archaeologists believe that the palace was designed by architects and built by slaves and paid workers (contractors). Herod was considered one of the greatest builders of his time and was not daunted by geography—his palace was built on the edge of the desert and was situated atop an artificial hill. [emphasis mine] (1)

Could it be Jesus was referring to a faith that may be small but is untainted by the world because it is born from above by the Holy Spirit, and that such a faith is eternally valuable?  Could it be such a new faith, born of God and by God, is more powerful and is in utter opposition to the worldliness and hypocrisy of leaders like Herod, the Pharisees and Rome, who seemed so tolerate of the religions of the people that they conquered, until faith actually meant something as the new church's faith would?

Was that mountain, in Jesus' teachings, synonymous with evil?  So, if our faith is strong and is utter grounded in who Jesus is, we can overcome evil...is that what He is saying?

I don't see that verse being applicable to every obstacle we face: sometimes the obstacles are the natural consequences of our poor choices.

But I do see, when His people really unite and run a mission to the very gates of hell, that love, His love in us, is a powerful weapon against evil.

Using the Word incorrectly divides us, and I see these verses being mishandled by those who do not seem to see the surrounding context in which these verses were used.  

Now is a time where the American church's theology is being tested in fire of affliction.  

Sadly, decades of misusing the Word has created a tremendous amount of dross.  

But God is faithful.  Are we?

One last thing to consider:  The mountain upon which Herod built his palace is right near the Dead Sea.  Perhaps Jesus chose that mountain and that sea to fully illustrate His work in the world through us?



(1)  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herodium



                                  


Saturday, September 25, 2021

Prosperity Gospel & Narcissism: The American Church

Yes, that's a rather potent title.  But as we are exploring Jesus and what it means to be in His community, this is the diagnosis I am giving the modern church in America.

Let's define our terms first.  Narcissism is:

"[S]elfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration, as characterizing a personality type." (1)
 
Next: 

"Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God's will for his people to be blessed. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession." (2)

Wow. In just looking over the two definitions that I grabbed from Google, the overlap is astonishing.  I am going to integrate the two.  I did not plan it this way, but here goes...

"Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment proposing that it is God's will for his people to be blessed ("selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement") The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. ("lack of empathy")  This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession." ("a need for admiration")

Let's break it down.  If I have enough faith to believe that God wants and will deliver to me my desires for health, wealth and prosperity, then the focus of my spiritual life will be on me.  I will become focused on what my needs, my wants and what will bring me happiness and contentment.  I am entitled to this, for God has promised it to me and the Bible is the contract that binds us together.  If I see people walking around without manifold blessings, then it is their fault.  They haven't the faith and understanding I have; their sickness, their financial failings, their pain is not something for me to weep over.  I must educate them about what they are missing in their understanding of the Bible.  If they still carry on with pain and suffering after I have enlightened them, then they can forget any help from me, for I don't deal with such matters.  I walk in a different kind of existence.  In addition, I will have all the people around me admiring my faith as I confess, donate money, visualize and positively confess, for such things are best done in public, are they not?  Then when something good comes along, I again go public to show how my faith, my confession, brought it about.  This just proves that God and I are in harmony, happily operating in the laws of prosperity.   

Wow.  I have seen the prosperity gospel filter in to churches that are not, nor would they identify with, a prosperity gospel church.  Yet I have, as a worship leader, led congregations in singing about "breaking every chain." 
 
Pray and believe.
 
I have faith not fear.
 
Trust in the Lord.
 
I choose hope.  
 
All these pithy phrases and more have surfaced during this pandemic, which has proven to be an interesting testing ground for the narcissistic/prosperity gospel that is in so many churches--whether openly or has just seeped in from the popular Christian culture.  
 
I wonder how many of my fellow believers will not get vaccinated, because they are showing God and the church how great their faith is?  They are trusting their essential oils diffusing all around them to protect them and those they love.  Their faith is strong in God's love.   
 
If they did go and get a vaccination, would it cast doubt on their faith to themselves and to those around them? That a vaccination is partnering with the world in trying to solve this epidemic, and not partnering with God and His natural cures?  
 
Sadly, I am watching my fellow brothers and sisters fall into a ditch of their digging:  My faith keeps me safe.  Those without faith are wearing masks and getting vaccinations, and the mask is the badge of the faithless. 
 
Yet, many have fallen ill.  Really ill.  Some have died.  
 
So, now, do we conclude that (a) They didn't have enough faith
 
or,
 
(b) They may not see how self-centered their theology has become over time.  They may not even recognize it.
 
This pandemic has fractured the Christian community, pitting the "We got this, 'cause we got faith!" to those who say, "Please wear a mask.  It shows how your health impacts others, and how you want others to be safe."
 
This pandemic is the rain, wind and water that has bashed into the American Church House.  Its  foundation is not surviving the onslaught, for it is not built on Jesus' words:
 
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27)
 
Our fractured faith community may be crashing down.  I find this passage of Scripture very instructive, for these people coming to Jesus were facing an assault on their theology:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-8)

The people who came to Jesus with horrible news about Pilate were afraid, yet Jesus could see another emotion operating in them:  Pride.  That is why, I believe, He brings up the tower incident.

The people telling Jesus about Pilate weren't just reporting; their hearts were crying out, "Could that happen to us?  NO! Why not?  Because we are good people."   

Jesus went right to the heart of the matter:  These people had sinful hearts, but their pride told them otherwise.  The real question was being asked silently in these people's hearts: Only bad things happen to those who do not have the kind of faith we have. Right!  Right? 

Comforting, yes, to the people whose faith (they so proudly believed) exempted them from the vicissitudes of life.  Their fundamental belief in their own goodness made them lack empathy for the victims.  Their theology drove them away from the community.  Their fear kept them clinging to a belief that Jesus corrected. 

Jesus talks about sin and repentance using both incidents. People died, not because they were "selected" for their unrighteousness; they were living in a fallen world where terrible things happen.  To everyone, good, bad or indifferent.

So, Jesus clarified His inspection of their theology with a parable.  The fig tree was not producing fruit, yet the caretaker gave it one more year to produce fruit.  What was the tree given?  Fertilizer.  It is the fertilizer of life that makes us grow, and if we push it away out of self-righteousness, fear and not wanting to be with Jesus in a community He has created, we will not produce fruit of any eternal value.  

We, in America, are being given a similar opportunity to produce fruit, or the axe will come. Where do we start?  With ourselves, repenting of our pride.  Then with others, reaching out and loving them with a Christ-centered love.

Now, that's church!

 

 

 


(1) "Narcissism." Google's English Dictionary, Oxford Languages

(2) "Prosperity Gospel" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosperity_theology.  Accessed 9/25/2021








 


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Jesus and Community

Jesus could have saved the world alone.  The moment He stepped out of the water of the Jordan, He could have walked off, and just started His ministry.

It wasn't a lack of ability, power, or mental resources.  He was given everything He needed by the Father:

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.  For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. (John 5:19-20)

So, the Son, under the marching orders of His Father and the power He held as the Son of God, could have simply partnered with His Father and that would have been that. 

But Jesus came from a community:  The courts of Heaven were resplendent with angels, creatures and His Father.  Jesus would not have stepped onto the earth to go solo.  He received the Holy Spirit at His baptism (showing us what would happen to the newly birthed church at Pentecost) and went out with the Trinity animating everything He did.
 
He sought a public inauguration of His ministry by being baptized by John, and after He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune launched by Satan in the desert, He started to preach.
 
He also starting choosing disciples. 
 
Huh?  Was He just operating in the rabbinical tradition of talmidim?  These talmidim were more than disciples; they lived, ate and breathed every moment they could in the presence of the Rabbi.  They desperately wanted to not only learn His wisdom but emulate His very behavior.
 
So, yes He was acting in the tradition, but Jesus went deeper:  He was showing us the power of community. 

Community would sustain the disciples throughout His ministry and when they needed each other the most--when Jesus was being crucified--they scattered.  But when the resurrected Christ appeared, His presence galvanized them into an unstoppable force that spread the message of the Savior to the far ends of the earth.
 
We, who believe in Christ, are here today because of those talmidim.  
 
I find it sad, however, that today the church is made up of many 'brides."  The church in the Bible is referred to as the "Bride of Christ"--a kind of e pluribus unum of all of us throughout the ages.  I know that division was rampant in the history of Christianity.  
 
But in my lifetime (I was born in 1960) I have seen a decisive and divisive swing to the church being centered on the individual.  When I first started to go to church as a new believer, as a teenage in the early seventies, the message was clear:  You learn the Word and go out with the message of the hope in Jesus.  I was part of the "I Found It!" campaign, and the Evangelism Explosion campaign.  Both those programs embodied the idea of learn the Word so you can lead others to the Word--Jesus Himself.

I continued to see that in the churches I attended, but by the 80's, I started seeing a shift.  It was the time of the Recovery Movement--the church was a place where broken people came and lay leaders, pastors and worship leaders emphasized healing and how trauma affects everything we do--including in our walk with Christ.

Sometimes the psychological terms and the emphasis on the broken self (as opposed to the sinful self) gained the ascendancy; but overall, it was a positive effort.  Someone who has suffered trauma will need more than an altar call; the Gospel reaches (or should reach) the whole self.

By the 2000's, I started seeing an emphasis on the self.  Period.  Churches began to eschew the little church with a pastor sitting in an oak-lined study, ready to talk with you, to a kind of corporate model.  The very first cell phone I ever saw was in the hands of a pastor, who drove a Mercedes and pastored a mega church in California.  The church he was in split over him leaving; half the congregation came with him to found this new church.  It was big in every way.

Later I found out this pastor left the church over an affair.  

Then I noticed the march towards a kind of McChurch--Jesus as a kind of spiritual Big Mac.  What makes the Big Mac so universally loved is it has just enough punch in the secret sauce to have some flavor; otherwise, it's a pretty insipid burger.  Jesus was presented as having just enough punch (He loves you; He is your Friend, your Life Coach, Your Healer, Your Provider) to draw people in and yet otherwise, Jesus was preached in a way that portrayed Him as rather insipid.  In fact, as a kind of repose to this weak Jesus were books trying to insist that manly men could love Jesus, who Himself had manly characteristics. (What is taught from the pulpit often doesn't match what is written in books and vice versa).

Now, in the last 15 years, I have watched churches brand themselves, market themselves, and act like profit-driven organizations, with the "product" being the Christian lifestyle:  God wants you to live your best life.  

Sin?  Some churches still preach it, praise God.  It is at the core of the Christian message:  Jesus didn't die on the cross so you could be healthy, wealthy and blessed.  He died because sin divides us away from God; God's wrath was satisfied in the death of His Son.
 
The early church preached the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus because THAT WAS NEWS WORTH DYING FOR!  They would give up everything they had to spread this news; have we lost the kind of zeal they had we preach another Gospel--one of health, wealth and prosperity?  Has our message of Jesus as Cosmic Coach, kind and loving, who really won't call anyone out (and thus, nor should we) taken over the complacency-shattering news that we were crucified with Him and now the life we live is because of Him in us?  (Galatians 2:20 is the essence of the Gospel applied to a life!)

After so many years of filtering the Gospel through a prosperity/consumerist lens, the church in America is facing a time where community is essential:  banding together to help in this pandemic, by comforting each other, praying for each other, and doing whatever we can to maintain that community.

Sadly, I see quite the opposite happening.

The "brides" of Christ are at war right now.


 
 















Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Human Experience Distilled: Jesus' Words on the Cross

I just got a new job!  Thus, working in a classroom all day means I come home pooped.  Hence, it has been a while since I blogged.  So, here we go.

I think we have explored quite thoroughly how Jesus understands us so well, having experienced all of the human realm of loss, abuse, rejection, joy, sorrow and yearning. 

It is interesting to me how Jesus' words on the cross so encapsulate the human experience.  Let us stand at the foot of the cross and listen to His heart-rending words. 

 Let's start with Matthew's account: 

At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. But the rest said, “Wait! Let’s see whether Elijah comes to save him.”

Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people. (27:45-53)

Even at Jesus' greatest need, no one really understood Him.  He was truly isolated from the human community at the most vulnerable, most frightening and the most painful time in His life.  He endured mockery from the leaders and some of the people there; someone thought He needed an analgesic; others thought He was calling upon Elijah.

They were all wrong. 

Darkness engulfed the land. Had the mockers and the leaders fled earlier on, as the darkness descended?  Were they now afraid, witnessing something that even they, in all their supposed wisdom, could not explain?  

Jesus released His spirit unto His Father.  The work was done; salvation was secured.  But just like the animal God killed for Adam and Eve's covering, to the many slaughtered creatures in the Temple whose blood covered the people's sins, Jesus' eyes were lifeless.  

But all around Him was life!  The Temple was no longer a segregated place where only certain people could go in; everyone could now approach God because of the blood flowing down from the now deceased Savior.  Light flooded into the Holy of Holies and God's life flowed out, transforming dead humanity into sons and daughters who would dwell with the living God.

The earth seconded this message of new life:  No longer a still silent spectator to the drama on the hill, it quaked and the dead left their newly opened tombs.  Soon like the disciples, who were to tarry in Jerusalem for the bestowal of the Spirit upon them to empower them, the dead also waited until Jesus resurrected, to show what new life really meant:  life here and life in the hereafter. 

With the lifeless Savior placed in a borrowed tomb, He experienced separation from His beloved Father.  Death does that.  It takes away those we love, and creates a never-ending longing for reunion; Jesus faced that as well as did His Father.  

But this despised, lonely, abused and broken Son burst to new life three days later.  Satan could no longer laugh in the cemeteries; he was silenced when that stone rolled away.

The broken One became the Risen One; we too, will share in that part of Jesus' story.  He walked into our story; we will one day walk into that final chapter of His life over death.  We will enter into eternity and worship His Father.   

It is interesting that Luke adds another detail that Mark and Matthew do not: Jesus' death on the cross shows its power already in progress when Jesus invites the believing thief, who has shown an open heart to His message, to join Him in paradise.  If Jesus, even at His most helpless, could offer salvation to a willing soul, how much more now does He offer it as the Son crowned in heaven? 

Even at our most helpless, the Son still reaches out to us thieves, dying of our own sin and desperate to believe in Someone beyond ourselves.

John adds a final detail to Jesus' words on the cross, that ring down through the ages and pulls us out of the miry clay and puts our feet on higher ground: "It is finished."

Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus.




Saturday, August 21, 2021

Jesus and the Individual, Part II

If Jesus was so concerned about saving the world (collective noun), why are there so many stories about individuals in the Gospels?  I am looking at Matthew and here is what I see, people who are named and their story is woven into Jesus':

  • Mary & Joseph (mother and stepfather; crucial to His birth and early years)
  • King Herod (demented murderer of small children, forcing Jesus' family to flee)
  • John the Baptist (he sets the stage for Messiah's arrival, fulfilling prophecy)
  • Simon & Andrew (first called of The Twelve; dubbed "fishers of men")
  • James & John (next in line; leave their nets to follow Jesus)

Now Matthew's narrative swings full force into crowd scenes:

Jesus preaches in Galilee then news spread up to Syria (the crowds come bringing their sick and "he healed them all. Large crowds followed Him wherever He went...") (Matt. 5:25)

Jesus and the crowds assemble on the mountainside and He preaches the so-called Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus ends this long discourse with the analogy of, because they have listened to His words and follows them, is like the man who builds his house on a rock that is able to face the storms of life and remain standing.  Then Matthew concludes the Sermon with the comment, "And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes."  (Matt. 7:28-9)

Then, heading into Chapter 8, we meet:

  • A man with leprosy (whose heartfelt plea to be healed moves Jesus)
  • A Roman officer (whose faith and humility moves Jesus again)
  • Peter's mother-in-law (Peter's family is now Jesus', too)

Then, more crowds.  But, before He departs:

  • He advises a teacher of the law that He has no where to lay His head 
  • A man who should not look to the dead, but to the Living One 

Then a storm.  Then the calm.  Jesus triumphs over chaos, as had His Father when He hovered over the primeval waters. 

Then:

  •  Two demon-possessed men (scary for everyone concerned, but Jesus faces the demons head-on)
  • A worried group of townspeople who beg Jesus to leave; He does

Then:

  • A paralyzed man (Jesus sees his sins as the greater disability)
  • Matthew is called (he is in his booth--the scene of the crime--and he leaves everything behind)
  • Grumblings and rumblings of the religious leaders, who scorn Matthew's dinner guests and are scandalized Jesus eats with them

Some more teachings and then:

  • a leader of the synagogue petitions Jesus (his daughter just died)
  • a woman whose bleeding has made her an outcast, but her faith compels her to touch Jesus' prayer shawl (and He commends for her faith)
  • Two blinds men call out (Jesus heals them)

Then, Jesus' call to His followers to see the harvest of souls and to be willing to go out and minister to the crowd. 

Then, we read many chapters dedicated to His teachings.

I am seeing a pattern here.  Focusing on individuals seems to be how Matthew demonstrates Jesus' ministry:  Jesus worked one on one, sometimes in front of a crowd, but the individual is always important and center stage.  Period. 

There is a scene from The Chosen series that really captures what I am trying to say.  In it, we see Jesus going through Samaria (His disciples are not pleased--it's the long way around and the people there are well, Samaritans!) and after they go into town to buy food, He rests at the well.  A woman arrives, and after some dialogue, and her utter surprise about having a Jewish man pay any mind to her, He says that He came there just to see her.  

That scene lit up the Scriptures for me.  Then it hit me:  How often did Jesus go to a place, where He knew an individual would be stationed, only to touch that person and then move on?  

In other words, where certain people in need could be found, is exactly where He went.

So now, His seemingly random encounters with people in the Gospels makes sense:  Go where someone is in need, and meet that need, to the glory of the Father, by the touch and words of the Son. 

No mass Gospel.  Just a Gospel for the masses, given out to one individual at a time.  When someone's life is so touched by Jesus, the Gospel cannot help but multiply.  

I struggle with the large, en masse way church in Jesus' name is conducted today, as I have made clear.  When I cannot go and talk with a pastor/leader because he is too busy; when a pastor/leader cannot visit me in a place of great need, such as a hospital, because he is too busy; and when I visit a pastor/leader and he is listening only marginally because he is too busy, then, well, that pastor/leader is too busy.

Hold on a minute, Cramer!  I can hear you say.  What about the Book of Acts, where the apostles have to create deacons because they were busy?  Let's go there:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)

What I see here is, the individual is still important, because disturbing food meant taking the time to talk with each person, not just giving food out, like a take-out or a drive-thru.  But if a lot of people need food, then it takes more time and people to help out.  It's not that the distribution of food was unimportant to the disciples; it was that the time required to do the task took away time from prayer and preaching.

That was the disciples' priority:  prayer and the Word.  You can't teach it and preach it if you don't know it.  

But then the narrative in Acts moves right back to an individual:  Stephen.  His witness, as he was dying, was enormous.  Could it be that the disciples praying and staying in the Word, with Stephen chosen as one of the seven men to serve, was able to sustain his witness as he was being questioned, preaching to the leaders and as he died as the stones knocked him down?  

In other words, if our priority in our churches is not the Word, is not prayer, then when we are out there, ministering in the face of opposition, will we be able to endure?

In order to stand on the rock when the rains and winds come, will we really know what Jesus said and enacting His words on a daily basis?

It is easy in America now (relatively) to stand, for the storms and waters are not raging.

Not yet. 

But when the waters do rage down, flash-flood fashion (as they do in the Middle East), will we be ready?  

Or will we be:

  • Planning the next big event?
  • Attending a worship concert with lights, camera, action? 
  • Listening to it's-all-about-you-and-God's-wonderful-plan-for-your-best-life sermon and then hustling out to grab a coffee and go?
  • Worrying about building budgets, buying expensive equipment and burning out well-intentioned volunteers every Sunday because the Sunday Experience has got to bring people back due to the enormous investment the church as made in all the modern accoutrements?
  • Pastors who are CEO's rather than shepherds and then fall into temptation due to exhaustion and isolation (because it is lonely at the top)?
 I don't know.  That worries me a lot.
 
 
 
 






Saturday, August 14, 2021

Jesus and the Individual

I believe I have established that Jesus did not use politics as a way to bring on the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom comes from changed hearts:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
    and with the people of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
    I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
    to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
    though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34)

Ezekiel reiterates the same theme:

"For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." (Ezek. 36:24-27)

A nation of righteousness is solely built on hearts that are transformed by Christ, for He is our Righteousness.  We have to be guided by His light in order to create light; His wisdom, to create wisdom and His love to create love in all we do.

But.

My greatest fear today is the evolution of the mega-church, where individuals come in to a large worship center, the lights darken, and the congregation becomes a crowd.  Everyone is enveloped in a sense of self-focus:  I am worshiping God as opposed to We are worshiping God together as His Body.  

The lights come up and the focus is now on the pastor.  He alone dispenses the Word; have we been in the Word at all this week, and come to church already fed?  Or do we rely on him to feed us in a fun and exciting way, that will make personal Bible study later on seem rather boring by comparison?  His stories, his analogies, his jokes seem to make the Word interesting; just sitting there at home, simply reading the Word, is comparable looking at the sheet music, as opposed to going to a symphony. 

But I don't understand the Word, many will say.  But that is our problem.  We have many churches where, for some time now, people have listened to the Gospel in topical preaching, filled with stories, videos, film clips, personal experiences and modern references.  No depth, no digging deep:  just enough Bible to make it a sermon, but it is short, sweet and simple. 

That is why many don't know the Word now, and pastors have to dumb the Word down.   

I have seen and heard in the last ten years:    

  • A large, stuffed beat placed a wooden altar to talk about sacrifices.
  • A clip from Survivor to talk about the lost.
  • A clip from the 60's sitcom, the Andy Griffith Show. (forgot the application)
  • A flyer from a new church sneering at hymns ("Nobody ever played Hymn Hero") and mocking name tags.

I have participated in:

  • Setting up a full concert venue for the worship team in a school auditorium with an elevated stage, a very tall screen, concert lighting, full sound board and having the main pastor streamed in, with all the attendant problems technology brings with it.     
  • The volunteers in this church were exhausted.  Then the Sunday worship was renamed, "Sunday Experience" which put even a heavier burden on the volunteers to make Sunday interesting and going off without a hitch.   

I was told to:

  • Wear a t-shirt to the school's games (the school that allowed us to use their auditorium) to cheer on their students.  (I refused.  I thought that was asking a lot, and it felt disingenuous.)

I have watched:

  • The branding of a church reach epic proportions of importance. (The amount of discussion was disturbing.)
  • Money that was tithed was spent on mugs, pens, banners, cafe tables, chocolate, expensive equipment, water bottles and t-shirts.  (How does any of that further the Kingdom of God?)

All right.  I will stop.  I have also watched good, well-intentioned people get caught up in trying to pack their churches for various reasons, whose hearts are for God to examine, not me.

But the one thing I notice as I work through the Gospels is how much time Jesus spent with the individual, because He made the time to do it.  He had a world to save, but He went to the places where an individual was hanging out, and He made a point to talk with that person and share His love, healing presence and care. 

The apostles, on the other hand, got caught up in being busy, going from town to town, bothered about children getting in the way, finding meals and worrying about the angry leaders who were spying all the time.   

In other words, they were caught up doing church.  

Jesus, on the other hand, made the time to:

  • Talk to two men who were living amongst the tombs, and were demon-possessed; their only contact was being chained by the townspeople;
  • Talk to the woman at the well and bring to her the words of life;
  • Talk to the Phoenician woman whose comments about taking the table scraps made Jesus appreciate her faith;
  • Face the woman who touched His garment and received healing;
  • Encourage the man who asked Jesus to help him in His unbelief;
  • Talk with centurion whose faith amazed Jesus;

and the list goes on and on.

So much of the Gospel is showing Jesus meeting one on one with the needy, the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized.  We all know this, but how do we do church in His name?  

Crowds.  Concerts.  Large groups.  Small groups.  Events that are women-themed; church-themed;  men-themed; youth-themed; patriotic-themed.  Lots and lots to go and do at church.

But is there the time for us to sit down and speak to the individual?  The widower?  The woman who is struggling with an abused past; the friend whose marriage is falling apart; the man who is lonely and has a lot of health problems and cannot leave his home...

If we are so busy doing church, with all work that needs to be done to just have one modern service (let alone two or three services, as many churches now have) and we have lots of events to set up for, volunteer at, and tear down, will we have the mental energy to sit down and talk with a needy individual?  

I have sat with a few pastors who were so busy getting ready for the next thing, they didn't have the time to focus on me for a little while.  I have had several pastors move the conversation over to what I could do for them, even though I was asking them to consider me. I walked out feeling betrayed, to be honest with you, for if a pastor doesn't have time to really listen, it feels very dismissive.  

The modern church asks a lot out of its people.  But there's always new volunteers, right?  Or the burned-out ones feel guilty, so they don't speak up.  These churches are so busy planning the next event, how many people who attend are falling through the cracks?  Will anyone even notice if someone stops attending (especially if so many others are coming in to fill the empty seats)?  

Jesus made time for individuals for He kept His ministry simple.  He didn't even have a place to lay His head.  He obviously trusted God for the day to day running of His ministry, so He could concentrate on speaking to those in need, who would then go on and be a living testimony to His grace, and train up His disciples to do the same.

These verses are ever so relevant to the modern church:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Cor. 3:1-9)

Check:  Will the church go on if the pastor leaves?  Or is it built around him?  Do I expect him to be my "lord" and give me the answers, or do I seek out and depend on Jesus and His Word?

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor. 3:10-15)

Check:  Will all the things the church focused on--the sound systems, the branding, the mugs and other promotional materials, the videos, the streaming, the amazing concert-quality worship--come through the flames when tested in that Day?  Or will the time spent with each other, caring and sharing one on one be what glorifies Jesus the most?















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