Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dry Bones- Lent 5

Shortly after King David’s son Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel was split into two- the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. In the 6th century the Babylonian Empire invaded the southern kingdom and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and took a number of people off as captives to Babylon (586 BC). The northern part of the empire fell to the Assyrian Empire 134 years earlier (720BC).

One of the people that was taken away into captivity was Ezekiel, who was both a priest and a prophet. This is one of the darkest times of their history. Ezekiel is speaking to his people in exile. The temple King Solomon built has been destroyed. It was the place heaven and earth overlapped. It was the place the presence of God was witnessed and experienced. It was the place of the Arc of the Covenant. Jerusalem was the City of David. They had been taken from the Promised Land God had promised to the ancestor Abraham. It was the land they went to after God used Moses to rescue them from slavery. 

Now they were being integrated into a larger Babylonian culture. Within a few generations their identity was going to be stripped away. They lost everything. They lost their identity. They tied God to the temple and the land, so it must have felt like they lost their God. They must have felt like they lost everything- They might as well have been slaves once again. Nothing to give their children. No hope. Nothing but lament.

That’s about as dark as it gets for human beings. I’m not sure how much we can relate to that situation, but most of us know what it’s like to lose hope. Maybe someone you love has died and you didn’t know who you were anymore. Maybe you lost your job, or had to change careers, or suddenly was diagnosed with a long term illness. Maybe you didn’t know what your future looked like.

Maybe it isn’t as intense or dramatic as that. Maybe you just have a sense of emptiness in your life. You live not really sure about what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. You’re just going through the motions. Maybe you feel morally or spiritually dead. Maybe you have an addiction that you can’t shake. Maybe you have anger that takes over your life and hurts the people you care about. Maybe you just don’t know what your purpose is. Maybe you have lost your hope that life can be anything other than what it is.

The broader story of the Bible tells us that we are all experiencing a kind of exile. When we go back to Genesis and the first human couple loses paradise, they entered into exile. Human being lose access to the tree of life and so they live with death. In Genesis work was supposed to be fulfilling, but now in exile it will become difficult and unfulfilling. We live lives knowing we will die someday and we try to hide away from that thought which can leave us without hope and without meaning. There is something in us that feels like our life and work should be meaningful. And there is something inside us that says death is not the way things are supposed to be. C.S. Lewis said in his book “Mere Christianity” that 
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.” 
We are in exile.

Now we have to be careful with this too. God created the earth to be our home. So this way of thinking isn’t a rejection of the earth. What we are in exile from is the way we were meant to live here. God meant it to be paradise, but we are in exile.

There is a Jewish doctor named Victor Frankl who wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning”. He was writing about his experience in the Nazi death camps. He said that in the camps death was everywhere. He noticed that when confronted with death people generally reacted in 3 ways (I heard the preacher Timothy Keller point this out). 

Some turned bad. They lost all their principals and did anything they possibly could to survive. They became informants for the Nazis. They betrayed one another. They exploited people. 

Some people just gave up. Some literally curled up on the floor and withered away. 

Some became heroic. They acted self-sacrificially for the benefit of others. Frankl asked himself what the difference was. 

His conclusion was that It depended on what your hope was. If your hope could be taken away from you in the death camp, then you might go bad as you scramble to rescue it, or you could give up because of the inevitability of death. Your hope might have been in money, or your family, or your social class, but in the death camps that was all taken away. Frankl realized that most people didn’t have a hope that could up against death. Those who had a hope that could stand up against death were able to become heroic (1 Cor 15:19).

Through Ezekiel God gives the Israelites an image of hope. These dry bones are brought together. Tendons tie them together and flesh and skin grows over them. But they are still corpses until God breathes life into them. This passage really emphasizes the need for the breath. It’s worth saying that in Hebrew and Greek the same work is used for breath, for spirit, and for wind. In Hebrew it is “ruach”. This word appears many times in our passage. After the breath, or spirit, arrives then the bodes are made alive. This is a powerful image that was given to the people in exile. It reminded them of the sovereignty of God. When they were tempted to look at the world around them and their circumstances and draw hope from that, God gave them this vision to draw hope from him. Eventually the exile will end.

However, the bigger exile still existed. We are still exiled from paradise, from the life meant for human beings. We are still faced with death that can strip away the meaning of our lives.

Jesus gives us an image to draw from that is not a vision. Jesus comes to the tomb of a friend, Lazarus. He has been dead for 4 days. He is dead. His body is decaying and stinks. This is the equivalent of the bones being dry. Dry Bones are the least alive those bones have ever been. Lazarus in the tomb for 4 days and doing nothing but filling the air with the smell of his decaying flesh is as dead as Lazarus has ever been. Jesus calls Lazurus out of the tomb and the dead man is alive and is returned to his family. It is a real act, but still symbolic of the greater thing God wants to do. Lazarus would eventually die again. Jesus brought him back showing God’s desire and the power available to him. God is going to remake the world. Bringing Lazarus back was a sign. Jesus’ resurrection was the first fruit. His resurrection is the true resurrection that has been promised as the never ending and ultimately meaningful life.

It was Jesus’ victory over death, and the promise of their own resurrection, that gave the early Christians confidence to face all kinds of opposition- be it lions in the coliseum, or tyrants, or mobs, or shipwrecks. Paul talks about all he suffered as he spread the news about Jesus- hard work, imprisonments, countless beatings (often close to death), 5 times receiving the forty lashes minus one, beaten with rods, once stoned, shipwrecked, adrift at sea overnight, frequently travelling and in danger from rivers, robbers, danger from people opposed to his message, often without food, exposed to the elements (2 Cor 11:23-33). Paul knew a hope that stood up in the face of death. Paul could have looked around and saw the power of the Roman Empire and the fact that his own people were largely turned against him and he could have given up. But he didn’t. He knew God was greater. And he knew that whatever the circumstances looked like on the outside God was able to accomplish his goals. No one could have guessed that Christianity would eventually sweep over the entire Roman Empire and even become the religion of the emperor by the 4th century.

The preacher and poet, John Donne, speaks to death about the Christian’s victory over death in his poem “Death Be Not Proud”.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,

For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Donne expands on Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15:54-55, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

We are invited by God to live lives of deep meaning because death has been overcome by Jesus on the cross and by his resurrection. We are invited to have God’s Spirit breathed into us and to have whatever dead bones are within us reinvigorated and filled with hope. We can live out of the future God has in store for us.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Psalm 23

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.

We live in a world that seems to be full of reasons to be afraid. You watch the news and you are told about terrorist attacks, or some common food product that is going to cause cancer. We are worried about our family- or worried about not having a family- Worried about paying bills- worried about or job- worried about the way we look. Anxiety disorders are supposed to effect 12% of Canadians. It becomes a disorder when it starts to affect your daily life, so way more of us are dealing with anxiety without it becoming a disorder. … If you think about everything else going on in the world we have it pretty good. There is horrible war in Yemen and Syria, and famine in Sudan. Iraq is still dealing with ISIS. I’m sure there are many people all over the world who would be overjoyed to live in Canada and call this place home. And yet, we still seem to be haunted by fear.

Many of the Psalms are associated with King David, but it’s not clear if they are dedicated to David or written by him. David’s life was filled with many reasons to be anxious. Whoever the author was, Psalm 23 gives a kind of personal parable of their experience of facing fear with God’s help.

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the psalms surrounding the Psalm you are looking at. The previous psalm, Psalm 22, has some incredibly painful expressions of human anxiety. It starts out: 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (Ps 22:1-2).

“For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me” (Ps 22:16).

In the next psalm God is imagined as a shepherd and everything seems to change. Psalm 23 is very short, but there is a reason we go to it so often for comfort. The Psalmist imagines himself as a sheep being cared for by God who is his shepherd.

The opening line is insightful- 

“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (23:1). 
In Harry Potter there is a magic mirror. When you look into it you see your deepest desires. Harry is an orphan, so when he looks into the mirror he sees himself with his parents. His friend Ron looks into the mirror and he sees himself as a great athlete and head boy for his house at their boarding school. Harry had not yet figured out what the mirror was when the very wise wizard, Dumbledore, gives him a hint. He says that the happiest person in the world would look into the mirror and see themselves just as they are. The insight is that the happiest person doesn’t have any deep wants. … How often are we driven to unhappiness and anxiety by a deep unfulfilled desire? We desire a certain kind of life. We want a certain kind of house. We want a certain kind of vacation. We want a certain kind of relationship. We want a certain kind of life for our kids. … What if, with the psalmist, we could be without 'want' because God is our shepherd? We could trust that God knows exactly what we need (not what we want) and provides for us. 

This is deeper than the necessities of life. God wants us to be shaped into a particular kind of person- a Jesus-like person. That is our deepest need. And that is the need God will always provide for because it leads to a never ending life with Him … where eventually every joy will be fulfilled.

God will lead us to the abundance of green pastures, and still waters. For sheep to be healthy, they need these. What if from God’s perspective we are surrounded by the abundance of green pastures and still waters for the life God wants for us. Remember that God’s goal for us is that we take on a Jesus-shaped life. What if our life is filled with opportunities to learn this, but we just don’t take advantage of it? What if the sheep are brought to a green field, but for some reason doesn’t know it can eat the grass? What if the sheep is brought to a stream, but doesn’t know to drink? Could it be that we are surrounded by the abundance of God, and don’t even realize it?

“He restores my soul” (Ps 23:3). 
That is God’s goal. He wants to restore us to who He made us to be. He does this by leading us “in right paths”. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of hiking and with every step your soul felt healthier. Every step feels like some poison was drawn out and you could breathe in a way you couldn’t before. … The path God leads us on is what restores our soul. Over and over throughout the Bible we hear about the ‘way’ of God. In the New Testament, we would call it discipleship, or apprenticeship to the ways of Jesus. Our souls are restored by living the in the ways of Jesus. God doesn’t give us these directions for His sake- they are for our sake. They are for the restoration of our soul.

An interesting thing happens in this psalm at this point. We are free from wants. We have the abundance of green fields and clear water. Our soul is restored by walking the shepherd’s path. And we might think the sheep goes blissfully on. But then we read about walking through the darkest valley, or the valley of the shadow of death, and then we are in the presence of our enemies. We might rightfully ask, I thought I was on the Shepherd’s path? It leads me to dark valleys and to the presence of my enemies? … When we know our Shepherd is with us these don’t have to be terrifying experiences. We read, 
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (23:4-5).
 … There are so many times in the Bible we read about some messenger telling the person to not be afraid because the Lord is with them. … The Shepherd’s rod and staff were to protect the sheep from wolves or other predators, but they were also used to keep the sheep on the right path, or to pull them up if they got themselves into a hole, or down the side of a cliff. It is a symbol of God’s guidance. There are times He gives us a tap to redirect our path. There are times we get ourselves stuck and we have to cry out for him to pull us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

God’s path also doesn’t save us from being faced with our enemies. But it is an interesting way of being with your enemies. … Put yourself back in grade school and imagine the biggest, meanest bully you ever met. Every day they torment you. They tease you. They push you into the mud and take your lunch. Now imagine this giant of a man caring for you. He sets up a table in the school yard and hovers over you while pulling your lunch out of your bag and setting it up on front of you- that’s what it means to fill your cup and anoint your head with oil. It means to be caring for you, even serving you. Imagine Him doing this while looking at the bully. … That is a very different way to be in the presence of your enemies.

Of course this starts to sound like the way Jesus lived. Jesus knew his Heavenly Father loved him and cared for him. Jesus knew there was a bigger picture. He knew he didn’t have to worry no matter what happened. Jesus could walk through the valley of the shadow of death and face his enemies from the cross, even speaking words of forgiveness for his enemies, because he knew there was a bigger picture- the story wasn’t over yet. Jesus knew that even death couldn’t end God’s plans for Jesus.

The way we view our life and death can have a tremendous effect on how we live our lives. St. Athanasius lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He lived while Christians were being persecuted. So you might have heard about Christians being thrown to the lions to be devoured for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds. This is when Athanasius lived. This is what he says of Christ's victory over death, 
" is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into [death], but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power. (On The Incarnation, xxix.3-5) ...

So weak has [death] become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed." (xxvii.3)

"For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2).

Athanasius is speaking about Christians who were tortured and killed because they were Jesus followers. These Jesus followers laughed at death. These people were not suicidal. They did not hate their lives, but they no longer feared death. Even their children didn't fear death and would make fun of the lions that were about to kill them. Imagining living with that kind of freedom from fear.

We might make another mistake and think that these Christians were all about going to heaven when they die, but no. Their lack of fear meant that when a plague hit a city, instead of fleeing, many of them stayed to help the sick, even if that meant getting sick and dying themselves. It meant that they were willing to stand up for what was right and just even in the face of cruel kings and rulers. The promise of God’s presence with them- guiding them like a shepherd- freed them from fear.

The early Christians also lived in the wake of Jesus' resurrection. They knew the limitations of death. This allowed them to live amazing lives free from fear. These Christians saw the resurrection as having very real day to day application for how they lived their lives. They were able to live their lives free from fear.

We don't face lions, or persecution at the hands of cruel kings. Some Christians do face horrible deaths even now because of their belief in Jesus. Some of us watched a series about Christians facing ISIS. There are places in our world where what we are doing right now is illegal, or even if it isn't illegal we might still worry about our safety being gathered together like this. We might not face persecution like this, but we have our own worries and fears. We fear cancer. We have disease. We have abuse and betrayal. We have the death of a loved one to face. We have financial issues to face. Some of us fear commitment, or rejection. ... What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Maybe you're facing it right now. ... Could you live through these dark valleys knowing that God is shepherding you? Knowing that while things are difficult right now, that ultimately everything is okay? Could we live seeing everything we deal with as an opportunity to become the person God wants us to be? Knowing that God is with us, guiding us, leading us, and serving us. Perhaps we could even say with the psalmist, 
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever” (Ps 23:6).


Monday, 20 March 2017

An Unlikely Meeting- Lent 3

Some of the best stories are about two people who never really should have met: Romeo and Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, the Prince and the Pauper. In John chapter four we read about another meeting that shouldn't have happened.

Jesus is alone sitting on the edge of a stone well. It is an ancient well that was said to have been dug by the patriarch Jacob. The disciples have gone into town to buy food and Jesus stayed behind at the well. This is where he meets a Samaritan woman who has come for water.

The first reason this meeting shouldn't have taken place is that a group of devout Jews really shouldn't be spending any time in Samaria when there is a perfectly good detour around the territory. Samaritans and Jews were hostile to each other. They were ethnic and religious enemies. To a first century Jew a "good Samaritan" was an oxymoron. It was a contradiction. So the first reason this meeting shouldn't have taken place is because of geography. Jesus, as a devout Jew, had no business being in the enemy territory of Samaria.

The second reason this meeting shouldn't have happened is because of gender. Rules of decency and good etiquette in the Middle East would not allow for Jesus and this woman to be alone talking. When Jesus saw the lone woman approach he should have stepped away from the well and waited about 20 feet away until the woman had gathered her water. He shouldn't say anything to her. He shouldn't even look her in the eye. This is dangerous territory for both of them, especially since they are alone. There are no witnesses to attest to their behavior and nothing to stop people from assuming whatever they want when they hear that the lone woman was alone with a strange man by the well. But, Jesus did not move ... and she needed water. So she approached anyway. The scholar Kenneth E. Bailey says, "Throughout forty years of life in the Middle East I never crossed this social boundary line. In village society, a strange man does not even make eye contact with a woman in a public place." A meeting like this between a man and a woman in the Middle East should not have happened.

A third reason this meeting shouldn't have happened is because of ethnicity and religion. When the Samaritan woman comes to the well Jesus asks her for a drink. Verse 9 says, "The Samaritan woman said to him, 'You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?' (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)" Samaritans and Jews will not even share dishes. These wells required you to bring your own bucket to retrieve the water. As a Jew, Jesus should not even consider drinking from a Samaritan's bucket even if she were to draw up some water for him. The water would be ritually unclean and not drinkable for a devout Jew.

There is also a fourth reason that this conversation shouldn't be happening. Morally they are on different playing fields. Jesus is a devout and holy person. He is leading a group of devout Jewish disciples. She is not only a Samaritan, but there is good reason to believe that she might not even be a very "good" Samaritan at that. As a woman she really should not have been traveling alone. She should have been with a group of women so that there would be witnesses to attest to her whereabouts and her virtue. Since she is arriving at the well alone and is carrying a heavy jar of water back to her home in heat of the day it is safe to say that she has become separated from her community- she is an outcast. As the woman and Jesus get further into their discussion it is revealed that this woman has been married to five men and is now living with a man who is not her husband. This may be the reason she has been separated from her community. She has perhaps gained a reputation in her community as being a woman with loose morals. Perhaps this is why she's willing to approach a lone man by a well. I don't know, but maybe. It’s also possible that numerous men divorced her because she wasn’t able to have children.  We aren’t sure, but for some reason she is an outcast. She is a woman haunted by broken relationships.

Jesus jumps all these barriers that stand against him meeting this woman. And he does this in our own lives as well. Jesus jumps over all kinds of barriers to get into our lives. Some think that they really need to get their lives in order before they can really have a relationship with God. Perhaps some of you feel this way. Maybe you don't feel holy enough to really connect to God. Maybe you really don't think God would want to have anything to do with you. Maybe you feel like you need to shake some sin before God would want to meet you. We feel like we need to get our lives straight and then go on some pilgrimage, and get ourselves into a more holy pattern of life and then God might peek into our lives.

Maybe you feel like human beings and God are just too different to really be able to have a conversation. God has created the universe. God is the one who caused the Big Bang, and here we are on this blue and green marble floating through a massive universe that is beyond our comprehension. And we think that God would have anything to do with us? We are little bits of flesh that are here for a few moments and then we die. Why would the eternal God of the universe want to have a conversation with us? If we are really deeply thinking, we can't even begin to wrap our heads around what a being like God would even be like.

But what we learn from watching Jesus and this woman is that Jesus jumps those barriers. Those walls are not ours to jump. Jesus jumps all those barriers. God the Son has taken human flesh onto Himself. He came to us as a baby that needed milk and warmth and love. And here he stands before the Samaritan woman as a thirsty Jewish man asking for water. God has made a tremendous journey to meet this woman. And God has leapt over just as many barriers to meet us. It is not our journey. God has made the journey. God comes to meet us. Often in unexpected ways. To the Samaritan woman God came as a stranger needing a drink of water. God came to me unexpectedly in a bar and showed me His overwhelming love. God has come to many of you in a variety of unexpected ways as well. God comes to us and then asks us to respond to His invitation to know him better.

Jesus leads the woman step-by-step to know him more fully. When she points out the barriers that should not allow her and Jesus to have this conversation Jesus answers her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

He begins to draw her to himself. She becomes more interested. Who is this man? Where would he get this living water from? Is he greater than the Patriarch Jacob who dug the well where they are meeting?

Jesus responds to her questions, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Now it is the Samaritan woman who is thirsty and it is Jesus who has access to the water. "Sir, give me this water", she says. She doesn't quite understand, but she knows that she is weary. She is tired of making the journey to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the awkward stares and the reminder that people don’t want to be associated with her. But, she is even more tired of carrying her shame and dissatisfaction with life.

Jesus tells her to go and bring her husband. She tries to avoid her shame and says that she has no husband. Jesus sees through her half-truth and replies, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” Another layer is pealed away. She sees that this is not just an open-minded Jewish man who doesn't mind talking to Samaritans. This man knows her life. He knows her shame. And he does not look at her with disgust. He is a prophet.

Her shame has been exposed, she cannot hide from God. But where does she go? Does she return to God by going to the Samaritan holy mountain, or does she go to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. She turns to Jesus the prophet to answer her question. How does she return to God? Amazingly, Jesus says neither. … This is profound. Jesus announces that the Temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritan Holy Mountain are both obsolete. Jesus proclaims this daringly, "... a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” These are not the words of any ordinary prophet. (If any prophet can be called ordinary). What he is saying changes everything for Jews and Samaritans.

Another layer is removed. She is beginning to draw from the well that is Jesus. He is not just an open-minded Jewish stranger. He is not just a prophet. The woman says, “I know that Messiah ... is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Could he be the one like Moses who they have been waiting for? Could he be the messiah?

Jesus' response takes her even further. He is not just the messiah (if you can say "just" messiah). In the Greek version of the Old Testament we read about the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3 (v14). When Moses asks God's name he replies, "ἐγώ εἰμι" (Ego Eimi) I AM. … When Jesus replies to the Samaritan Woman he declares, "ἐγώ εἰμι", “I, the one speaking to you—I AM.” This is the one who spoke to Moses from that burning bush. It is this One who says in Jeremiah 2:13- "They have forsaken me, the spring of living water...".

Jesus meets her where she is, but she doesn't stay there. He guides her to himself. He does this with us as well. He is always meeting us in the everyday ordinary events of our lives. If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear we will notice his movements. God came to me in the bar and introduced me to his overwhelming love for humanity, but he didn't leave me in the bar. Many of you met God in a variety of places. You felt that warming of your heart. You felt overwhelmed by beauty. God met you, but he didn't leave you there. He wanted to start a relationship with you. He wanted you to know Him better.

The disciples arrived back from town and were shocked to see Jesus having leapt over the cultural and religious barriers speaking to a Samaritan woman. She leaves her jar there at the well and runs back to her town to bring people to meet Jesus. She isn't sure about every detail. She doesn't know exactly who this man is, but she feels that she cannot keep the news to herself. After being with Jesus she leaps over her own walls to tell people about Jesus. She leaps over the walls that cause her to get water at the well in the middle of the day in the heat of the sun, alone, rather than with a group of female friends in the cool of the morning. She leaps over the wall of her own shame. This woman makes herself vulnerable to further rejection and ridicule in running to tell the people to come and see if this man might be the Christ they have been waiting for- The prophet like Moses mentioned in Deuteronomy 18. She goes to her people not as someone made perfect. Not even as someone who really completely understands Jesus. She goes to the people of her town with a question. … Could it be?

We stand as people with many barriers. We have barriers that sometimes separate us from each other. We are divided by economics, race, language, marital status, politics, etc. … And we have barriers that separate us from God- our own sin, our own feelings of inadequacy, the vastness and otherness of God. … God crosses those barriers and teaches us to do the same. Once God has crossed those barriers and has entered our own lives and revealed himself as the great "I AM", then that unity overpowers any divisions that can stand between us. God's reality in our lives calls us to gather others to "come and see" and received the living water that spring up to eternal life. AMEN.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

born again?

I wonder if you’ve ever been waiting somewhere, like at a bus stop, and you’ve had someone come up to you and ask if you’re a Christian. If you reply, “yes, I am a Christian.” The follow up question will often be something like, “But, are you born again?” The term “born again” is almost used as a denominational marker. It is used of a kind of Christian who worships in a particular way (usually involving putting your hands in the air), and who is more likely to approach people on bus benches to ask about their spiritual lives (sometimes handing out little pamphlets).

More traditional Christians usually have two responses to being asked if they are “born again”. One is plain dismissal. We roll our eyes and say to ourselves “oh, you’re one of those”. We label them as zealots, extremists, unsophisticated, overly emotional, and religious nuts. Once we label them, we can dismiss them and not actually take what they say seriously. We can give them a bit of a smirk and go on merrily with our day.

The other reaction is often self-doubt and anxiety. Am I “born again”? Is it not enough to be a Christian? What does it mean to be born again? I grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian all my life? How do we do it? We can feel Nicodemus’ confusion, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

The 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon describes being “born again” this way.

“Regeneration is a subject which lies at the very basis of salvation, and we should be very diligent to take heed that we really are ‘born again,’ for there are many who fancy they are, who are not. Be assured that the name of a Christian is not the nature of a Christian; and that being born in a Christian land, and being recognized as professing the Christian religion is of no avail whatever, unless there be something more added to it-the being ‘born again,’ is a matter so mysterious, that human words cannot describe it. […] Nevertheless, it is a change which is known and felt: known by works of holiness, and felt by a gracious experience. This great work is supernatural. It is not an operation which a man performs for himself: a new principle is infused, which works in the heart, renews the soul, and affects the entire man. It is not a change of my name, but a renewal of my nature, so that I am not the man I used to be, but a new man in Christ Jesus. To wash and dress a corpse is a far different thing from making it alive: man can do the one, God alone can do the other” (Morning and Evening, March 6, Charles Spurgeon).

I have heard many people speak with a sense of guilt that they don’t think they have been born again. They don’t have a moment they can point to when they were “saved”- when they had an overwhelming experience with God that changed their life. And they are faced with this paradox that they can’t make it happen, it has to happen to them, but they need it in order to be saved.

I think both these reactions can have dangers. To dismiss the idea of needing to be “born again” means we are dismissing Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. However, we can also become caught up in a particular definition of what “born again” means and be crushed by the weight of it.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Darkness is very symbolic in the Gospel of John. Darkness is associated with the human ways of the world that ignore God and God’s ways. To be in the dark is to not see clearly- it is ignorance. Nicodemus is a leader of the Jewish people. He is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council and law court for the Jewish people. By outward appearance Nicodemus is doing everything right. He takes the commandments seriously. He teaches them. He is high up the totem pole in his community. The equivalent for us might be someone who was born in the church and has always been involved. They have been wardens or sat on Parish Council. They might lead services. They might be a priest or a bishop.

It seems like something is missing for Nicodemus though. He seeks out Jesus who doesn’t have any of what Nicodemus has. Jesus isn’t a Pharisee. He doesn’t sit on an important council. He has been wandering around with a motley crew of fishermen and tax-collectors, while preaching. He’s only been doing this for three years. Based on outward appearance, Jesus should be going to Nicodemus for spiritual advice. However, Jesus’ ministry is filled with power. Nicodemus is humble enough to recognize that Jesus has something he doesn’t.

Sometimes we can be in the church and we think we are doing everything right. We tick off the right boxes, we a dutiful in the things we think we should be doing, but we still have that sense that something is missing. There is still an emptiness in it.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." “Born from above” can be translated as “born again”, or “born anew”. Nicodemus came to Jesus from out of the darkness and that darkness is still blinding him. He tries to interpret what Jesus is saying in a literal way- he starts talking about crawling into his mother’s womb as an old man.

In Jesus’ first statement he speaks about seeing the kingdom. This time Jesus speaking about entering the kingdom- "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The church has traditionally interpreted being “born of water” as meaning baptism. Baptism isn’t just a ritual where we get someone wet and speak the names of the Trinity over them. Baptism is a covenant where we are adopted as God’s children and we make certain vows as a part of belonging to this family. In Baptism we declare or belief in the Trinity as outlined in the Creed. We promise to study Scripture, to develop relationships with other Christians, to partake of communion, and to lead a life of prayer. We promise to resist evil and to repent of sin. We promise to proclaim Christ by word and example. We promise to serve Christ by serving others, and by seeking justice and peace for all people. Baptism is more than getting wet. It is the beginning of a certain kind of life.

The Church has also recognized that we need to be born of the Spirit. In the Bible there were people who were baptized, who then received the Holy Spirit in Pentecost. This has been ritualized in traditional churches through Chrismation and Confirmation. In Confirmation, those who were baptized as babies, confirm the promises that were made over us. We make the promises ours. And the Bishop prays for a particular filling of the person by the Holy Spirit to empower them to live the Christian life. In some churches this is not formalized and so they wait for an experience of the Holy Spirit that has a paradigm shifting effect.

I actually agree with both of these. I think a prayerful life dedicated to God should be marked with experiences. Some of these experiences are more dramatic than others. But these experiences cannot be conjured up. We can make ourselves ready for them by leading lives filled with prayer and Bible Study, and times of silence and solitude. But we cannot force it. It is outside our control- like being born- like the blowing of the wind. It is a gift. All we can do is open our hands to receive it, but our hands being outstretched does not mean we will receive it right in that moment. But neither should we expect to receive it if we fill our lives with busyness and distraction. Sometimes we can’t help this, but should be aware that this kind of frenetic activity can get in the way of experiencing God. Sometimes it is church stuff that is keeping us too busy!

This kind of encounter is not something God is trying to keep away from us. Sometimes we are too busy to receive it. Sometimes we receive it and we don’t realize it has happened. Some receive the Spirit like a bolt of lightning. Some receive the Spirit like a glowing fire that slowly burns away inside of them.

To those who dismiss the question “Are you born again?” I challenge you to consider it more seriously. Have you had experiences with God? Have you been open to those experiences? Could you be more open to experiencing God?

To those who are troubled that they don’t have a date and a time associated with when they were “saved”, I would say consider more your love for God. Do you have a relationship with God that is developing and deepening? That is more important than having a “moment” you can name. I believe and hope that I have been saved, that I’m being saved, and I will be saved. I believe and hope that I have been saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I believe and hope that I am being saved by the work of the Spirit in my life, transforming me into who God wants me to be. I believe and hope that I will be saved when I am face to face with Christ when my life ends. So in a sense we are not born again only once. We are born again all the time. The Spirit is constantly renewing us and drawing us into a deeper relationship with the God of deep sacrificial love.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Temptation and Sin- Lent 1

Our Genesis reading not only talks about how sin entered the world, but it also speaks about how sin works. To deal with any disease it is important that we have an intimate understanding of how the disease works and how it effects the body. Likewise, if we are to deal with temptation and sin we have to understand how they are likely to effect us. 

God has created Adam and given him purpose. God gives the human permission to eat from every tree in the Garden except for one- The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Some people wonder why God would put a tree like that in the garden at all. The explanation I find most convincing is that for love to be genuine it has to be chosen. For Adam and Eve’s love to be real it had to exist alongside the reality of rejection. Someone can’t put a gun to your head and make you love them. They can make you say it, but they can’t make you love them. The tree is the opportunity to reject God. If the tree didn’t exist then Adam and Eve wouldn’t really be able to love. … There are consequences to rejecting God, who is the source of all love, beauty, grace, peace, and joy. The consequences of rejecting God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is that by rejecting God they will experience evil. Up to then, they have only experienced good. The day they eat it, which means the day they reject God, they enter spiritual death.

The command from God is quite clear. Eat from any other tree in the garden, just not that one. The serpent causes doubt to arise in Eve’s mind. He asks the question, “Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The answer is almost the exact opposite. Eve replies, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

We notice something interesting when we compare what Eve says to the original command. Eve has somehow added “nor shall you touch it”. Ancient rabbi’s wondered where this extra command came from. Eve wasn’t created when God gave the command, so they wondered if maybe Adam added that bit when he passed the command on to Eve- just to keep Eve extra safe. But then they imagined the serpent pushing Eve up against the tree showing her that when she touched the tree nothing bad happened.

The serpent causes Eve to doubt God, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." God is keeping something good away from you. What a mean God. And Eve sees “that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

We can learn a lot about the process of sin from this passage. First, it seems like they were hanging around the forbidden tree. It doesn’t see like they had to travel to get to the tree. You have the sense that the tree was right in front of them. … Don’t we sometimes do that with those sins that we are most drawn to? We dance around the line. We put ourselves close enough to the sin that we aren’t technically sinning, but we are close enough to make it easy.

Then we see the sin as a good thing God is denying us. Eve didn’t desire the fruit because she desired to be disobedient. Her motivations were to eat the beautiful fruit and obtain wisdom. … That is how sin tends to work in our lives. Take stealing for example. Wanting money isn’t bad in itself, but stealing as a means to get it causes it to enter into the realm of sin. Pleasure isn’t bad, but when we become addicted to an illegal drug to obtain it, then we enter into the realm of sin. Desiring intimacy with another person is good, but not when the means are an extramarital affair. …

We can see this on a broader scale as well. Did Hitler think he was a bad person? … I don’t think he did. In his mind he was creating an empire that would eventually bring in an era of peace. He was following the principles of evolution to help the human race become stronger in the long run. So he tried to remove those elements of humanity that he thought were weak and emphasize those elements he thought of as strong. Did he think he was doing something evil? No, he probably saw it all as a means to a good end. … That is why we always have to beware of “means to an end” thinking to justify our behavior. Sin, in my own life, and in the lives of those I encounter seems to be a desire for something good, but the means of attaining it makes it sinful. We obtain the thing outside of God’s plan.

The temptations of Jesus (Mat 4:11) follow a similar pattern. Jesus wasn’t tempted to do evil, he was tempted to good … outside of God’s plan. What was Jesus tempted to do? Jesus is hungry after fasting for 40 days and the Devil tempts Jesus to use his power to turn stones into bread. The desire for bread is a good thing, but his hunger in fasting is a reminder that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. His fasting and hunger in that moment have a purpose. It is preparing him for his ministry where he has to rely of his Father’s provision.

The Devil then took Jesus to the top of the temple where he is invited to very publically throw himself off and allow angels to catch him, which would remove any doubt in the minds of the temple elite that the messiah has arrived. Again, Jesus isn’t tempted to do evil. He is tempted to good. Jesus will do miracles as a part of his ministry. He is the messiah and invites people to arrive at that conclusion. However the invitation will begin with fishermen and tax collectors in the towns and villages, not with the ruling elite. The invitation to perform this particular miracle is outside of God’s plan.

Then the Devil tempted Jesus with the promise of giving him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus as the ruling king of the world is not a bad thing. In fact he is the King of kings, and Lord of lords. We read about Jesus in Colossians that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16). His ultimate destiny is indeed to be King of the whole world. But not through force, and not by avoiding the cross. His empire is to be built on love. The Devil is tempting Jesus to attain good things, things even appropriate for Jesus to have. The Devil even uses Scripture to support his temptation. Jesus recognizes that he is being tempted to take shortcuts that avoid the poor, love, and the cross.

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as our true high priest saying, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus is the Second Adam who was able to not eat the forbidden fruit. He is the one who resisted sin, but understood the strength of it. As C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of [an] army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.” (Mere Christianity). Jesus resisted and invites us to share in his victory over sin.

Jesus is tempted to avoid the way of God- but he is tempted by good things. This is important because unless we realize that we are tempted to good things we will justify our sin. Cheating on our spouse is not sin, we just fell in love. We aren’t stealing, we just took what we deserved. We can hurt someone and think they deserved it because they did something that made them deserve it- it was for the sake of justice. It is usually the means that makes is sin. It is attaining some good, or some pleasure in a way that doesn’t fit with the ways of God.

The bible tells us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Temptation will not come to us in a cloud of black smoke, speaking in a raspy voice, wearing horns and carrying a pitchfork. Temptation will come to us as a beautiful good, but avoiding the ways of God, and especially avoiding any cross that God might be asking us to carry. AMEN.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Transfiguration- Jesus, as he is

Sometimes our ideas of who someone is can overshadow the person. Sometimes we think we know someone, but then we get new information that is hard to fit with our idea of who that person is. Maybe we find out the person has been to jail, suddenly we wonder if we really know that person. Sometimes our prejudice can cause us to be surprised when we learn that our cab driver was a medical doctor back in the country they moved from. Our assumptions can sometimes overshadow the person to the point that we don’t really see them.

Something similar happened to the Apostle Peter, who is often the spokesperson for the disciples. In the chapter before our Gospel reading today (ch 16) we witness an interesting conversation between Jesus and the disciples. They are walking along the road and Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them "who do people say that the son of man is?" They respond by saying "some say John the Baptist [who had been killed], but others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets?"

In our world we would get a variety of answers to the question, "Who do people say Jesus is?" There are no shortage of positions. An enlightened being- like Buddha. A wizard who can do magnificent miracles. Others might say that Jesus was an alien in disguise. Some think Jesus was just an idealistic young man. Others believe Jesus was an anti-Roman revolutionary. And we could go on and on. I'm sure you've heard your share of answers to the question, "who do people say Jesus is?"

After the disciples answer, Jesus turns and asks them a more important question. His second question is not about what people say, but what they say as his disciples. Who do they say he is? Saying what others believe can be a way of distancing ourselves. It can allow us to sit on the fence and not make a decision. Jesus turns and asks his disciples (and us), "who do you say that I am?" This is a more personal question. Our answer will have implications for our lives. If we answer, "A nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice" that might not impact our lives much. But if we answer, "My Lord, and My God" then our lives will need to be changed to match than belief. A command coming from a “nice young man who tried to teach people to be nice” will be treated like a suggestion that can be ignored. A command coming from someone we call the “Lord” of our life and the world cannot be disobeyed without turning us into liars and hypocrites.

Peter spoke up saying, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God". Jesus praises Peter for his answer saying it was a revelation from the Father in heaven. It was the right answer. … But something strange happens after this. Right after Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus praises him for it, Jesus then starts teaching about how he will suffer in Jerusalem at the hands of the authorities and be killed. … In Peter’s mind there was no room for this image of a messiah who suffers and dies at the hands his enemies. To Peter the Messiah is someone who is a great military leader. He leads his followers to reclaim their land from the oppressive Roman forces. He assumes leadership of the temple and the nation. That is what the messiah does. He liberates the people from oppression. A suffering and dying messiah doesn’t make sense to Peter or to most Jews of the time.

Peter pulls Jesus aside to correct him, "God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you." Peter was persistent and passionate in rebuking and correcting the one he called “Lord”. “Rebuke” is a strong word. I don’t know if any of you have been rebuked lately, but it is the kind of thing that happens to you as a child when you get some hair brained idea that is going to get someone hurt. Being rebuked is not comfortable.

Jesus responds strongly, "get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Talk about rebuke! … Peter is imposing his image of the messiah onto Jesus. Peter just couldn't combine the image of suffering and death with his image of the messiah. He either had to change Jesus, or change his idea of messiah.

Of course we do this to Jesus all the time- knowingly or not. We impose our image of who we think he is onto him. We don't see him as he is, we try to make him into someone else. Often we emphasize one aspect of who he is and diminish or forget about the rest, which skews our image of him. Some might only see Jesus as dealing with forgiveness of sins and that's it. While this is true, he also wants us to be transformed and to transform the world as well. Some will emphasize other teachings of Jesus and will make him into a kind of social activist who stands up for the rights of minorities. While this is also a part of the image of Jesus, it is not the whole picture. We often decide on the kind of Jesus we would like to follow and then we impose that idea onto him, rather than following Jesus as he presents himself to us.

That's what the Transfiguration is about. It is about showing the closest disciples- Peter, James and John- who he is. Right after Jesus speaks about how he has to suffer in Jerusalem, which Peter is not able to accept, they go up a mountain. Mountains to ancient people were almost like suburbs of heaven. That's why they are often the place where people go to meet God. And our modern minds might think that's a bit silly, but when you stand on top of a mountain you can start to get a sense of why people might have thought that way. So Jesus takes his three closest disciples up the mountain.

Suddenly they see Jesus transfigured. He is changed. He is transformed. He is shining- glowing like the sun. Even his clothes are bright. He looks like a heavenly being, which is of course who he is. He came from heaven, he existed before his own birth. … The Eastern Orthodox Church sees the transfiguration as a huge deal. They see this as Jesus revealing his divinity- Jesus is God. It is the revealing of who he actually is. Divine light shines from him. What they experience is a revelation. Something hidden is revealed and the disciples see Jesus as he truly is.

This is a bit of a side note, but this is also important to the Orthodox because we are supposed to be constantly growing into the image of Jesus. Getting a clear image of Jesus also gives us an image of God’s desire and goal for our life. There are many stories about Orthodox saints that begin to shine with a divine light. The 19th century Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, was being interviewed by a man named Nicholas Motovilov when light began shining through his face. Nicolas recounts the experience saying, 
“Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?’ I replied: ‘I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’ … After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!”[1]

The Orthodox see the goal of human life as being filled with divinity. They will describe it like a piece of iron that is placed in the fire and begins to glow with the energy of the fire. It is still iron, but it has taken on qualities of the fire. So we remain human, but are filled with divine energy and take on qualities of divinity. This is what the Orthodox think when their hear Paul's teaching to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" 
(Rom 13:14).

Two others appear with Jesus- They see Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses and Elijah both had experiences with God on mountains. Their appearance shows that what Jesus is doing is in line with what God has always been doing. What Jesus is doing is supported by the representatives of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Jesus is not starting a new religion though he is leading God's followers to a new covenant- a new stage in their life with God.

Peter, not knowing what to do, but feeling he should do something speaks up. "Should I set up three tents- one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?" even this shows that Peter still isn't getting it. Peter might be thinking that his image of the messiah as the warrior-ruler is coming true. Tonight they set up camp and tomorrow they head to Jerusalem with Moses and Elijah to set up the kingdom. But of course that still leaves out the unpleasant suffering bit that Peter wanted to forget about before.

While Peter is still speaking a bright cloud- the Glory of God that rested on Mt. Sinai and filled the temple- surrounds them, and they hear a voice, "This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" They hear the voice of God the Father and he declares that He has a special and intimate relationship with Jesus. He is His beloved Son. These words echo the words we hear at Jesus’ baptism. The disciples are reassured that Jesus is indeed in line with God's will.

I'm sure the Father's last words echo in Peter's ears- "Listen to him". Peter, who rebuked the one he called “Lord”. God says, "listen to him". I'm sure that if you hear God tell you to listen to someone your ears would be especially attentive to the next sounds that come out of the person's mouth. And what does Jesus say next? First he says, "Get up and do not be afraid". Then he tells them to keep this experience secret until he is raised from the dead. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, and then mentions his own death, which was the truth Peter was unwilling to accept.

It can be easy to poke fun at the disciples as they stumble around trying to figure out who Jesus is, but we really aren't all that different. There are parts of who Jesus is that we don't want to see. There are parts about Jesus we want to emphasize and follow, but there are also parts we are just unwilling to incorporate into our life. At that point we have to ask ourselves what we mean when we call Jesus our “Lord”. Is it just a word? Or, do we actually believe he has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Does he actually know the best way to be human? Or do we know better than him?

Perhaps as we prepare to enter into Lent we could hear the Father's words with a new kind of gravity, “Listen to Him!” Perhaps we can allow those words to change how we hear every Gospel reading as we hear with hearts that desire to live out his teachings. Perhaps we can reconsider what we mean when we call Jesus "Lord". AMEN


Sunday, 19 February 2017

enemy love

These teachings of Jesus are among the most challenging words he ever spoke. He says, 
“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. ‘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, … Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I suspect many of us hear those words, but then quietly reject them as not livable. It is anti-intuitive to love your enemy. Is it even possible? What do we mean by “love” in that context? We hear Jesus say to turn the other cheek when struck and we suspect that our fist would be halfway to the other person’s nose before we have really had a chance to start thinking at all. We hear Jesus saying give to everyone who asks and we suspect we could go broke quite easily following that command. So what many Christians do is politely and quietly put these teachings away as nice words, but don’t seriously consider them realistic and livable.

Now “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” we get. It is from Exodus 21:24. There we read 
“if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-24).
 We get that. Someone harms you so that you lose an eye, well you can’t kill them, but you can take their eye. The Old Testament is often about managing sin. It is about putting boundaries on the influence and damage of sin. So someone harms you and you lose a tooth, you can’t get revenge by killing the person. Otherwise, one sin could turn into many more. If you escalate by killing the person who knocked out your tooth, then their family retaliates against you and soon we have a feud. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was meant to put limits on retaliation. It limits the effects of sin.

If you take away the context though and you just think about the act of taking a person’s eye, or tooth, we see that it is an act of destruction. One anonymous Church Father said, 
“If therefore we begin … to return evil for evil to everyone, we are all made evil.”
Jesus wants us to live in the kingdom right now. He wants us to behave as citizens of the kingdom now. So in everything we do we need to ask ourselves, is this the kind of act that we would find in God’s kingdom? Is a person who lives in the kingdom of God the kind of person that can gouge out a person’s eye in revenge? … Destructive actions like taking a person’s eye out do not have a place in that kingdom. Those acts of destruction belong outside the kingdom, so participating in them does something to us and our ability to live in the kingdom Jesus speaks about. We are suddenly acting like people of the world (that organizes itself apart from God), rather than kingdom people. It’s not about behavior as much as it is about our heart. It’s not about faking it. It is about the kind of person we are.

We shouldn’t think that Jesus’ words are just letting evil have its way, rather Jesus just knew that when we use fire to fight fire we are likely to have a giant fire. We need a different way of reacting in the kingdom. We need water, not more fire. … Put yourself in the attacker’s position if you hit someone and then they hit you back, you suddenly feel very justified in hitting them again. But if you hit someone and they don’t hit you back it is usually harder to feel justified in hitting them again.

Some, like Bishop NT Wright, believe that there is strategy behind Jesus’ words. If someone were to strike you on your right cheek it probably meant they struck you with the back of their hand. This was not only a violent act, but it was insulting as well. It was an action that declared you were an inferior. In that culture, it is the way someone might treat a slave, a child, or a woman. What Jesus says isn’t “run away”, nor is it “hit back”. Jesus says to face them and turn to them the other cheek. To hit you on the other cheek with their right hand means suddenly the person has to treat you as an equal, rather than as an inferior.

Gandhi was incredibly inspired by these words of Jesus. He believed that not hitting back and looking the attacker in the eye called out the deeper humanity of the attacker. Gandhi is probably the person that comes to mind for most people when we think about the reality of living these words out. It is ironic that a Hindu man has become iconic of living out these words of Jesus. The other famous example is The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Christian minister, but who also wrote that Gandhi’s teachings were “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change”. It was a Hindu man who taught the Christian minister that the words of Christ could be lived. …

Moving to the next example, Jesus tells us that when a powerful enemy tries to sue us for our coat, then we should give him our cloak as well. Bishop Wright says that in a culture where people usually only had those two garments your nakedness would expose the shameful act of the person suing you. This powerful person is reducing the poor to a pitiful situation. It exposes what kind of a person they are- greedy and willing to take advantage of the poor. …

Bishop Wright also says that under Roman law a Roman soldier was allowed to force a person to carry a load, but they could only force them to carry it one mile. The law strictly forbade forcing someone to carry it further than a mile. So if you carried it two miles a couple things would happen. One, is that the soldier would begin wondering what kind of a person this is and why they are doing this. But secondly, the soldier might begin worrying that his superior officer might find out and punish him. So there is probably more to Jesus’ examples than meet the eye.

This reminds me a bit of Jigoro Kano, who was the founder of Judo. It has been said that wrestling him was like wrestling an empty jacket. He just went with whatever force was being used on him. If you wanted to push him, he could use that force. If you wanted to pull him, well, he can use that force too. He would just go with it, absorb it, and use it to his advantage. But he avoided meeting force with opposing force.

I don’t think Jesus meant these as rules to blindly follow, but examples of Kingdom living. The early church father Theodore of Heraclea (355ad) says, 
“he does not command to give to everyone who asks without exception, even if one has nothing to give, for that is impossible. Nor does he instruct us, if we have plenty, to give to someone who asks with a bad motive. For the donation then goes for evil things. … For why is it said [in Acts 4:35] concerning the apostles that ‘distribution was made to each as any had need’? This tells us that they gave not so much to those who simply asked but that they provided for others on the basis of need.” 
So the early church understood that these were complicated issues.

The examples Jesus gives are examples of the kinds of things we might do as children of God as we attempt to imitate the holiness and generosity of our heavenly Father. They show that our hope is not found in our earthly safety because we will all die. Our hope is not found in our possessions, because they can be easily stolen from us. These examples show our hope is in God.

The kingdom way that Jesus describes is also about our own spiritual health. Loving our enemy benefits our enemy, but it also benefits us. If we sit in our hatred of our enemy we are really only hurting ourselves. The same anonymous church father said, 
“I think that Christ ordered these things not so much for our enemies as for us: not because enemies are fit to be loved by others but because we are not fit to hate anyone. For hatred is the prodigy of dark places. Wherever it resides, it sullies the beauty of sound sense. Therefore not only does Christ order us to love our enemies for the sake of cherishing them but also for the sake of driving away from ourselves what is bad for us. … If you merely hate [your enemy], you have hurt yourself more in the spirit than you have hurt him in the flesh. Perhaps you don’t harm him at all by hating him. But you surely tear yourself apart. If then you are benevolent to an enemy, you have rather spared yourself than him”.[1]

One of my favorite teachers, Dallas Willard, once commented that if we think loving our enemies seems impossible we should look at the lives of those who hate their enemies. Perhaps we could look to Palestine and Israel, or the Hatfields and McCoys. Then we can ask ourselves which way of living seems more desirable- hating our enemies or loving them?

We should also remember that Jesus is not asking us to do anything he himself didn’t do. Jesus lived the kingdom life. Bishop Wright says, 
“When they mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told quizzical, sometimes humorous, stories that forced them to think differently. When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the worst bit of Roman equipment on his back- the heavy cross- piece on which he would be killed- he carried it out of the city to the place of his own execution. When he nailed him to the cross, he prayed for them”.
 Jesus asks his followers to live the way he did. And he promises that it will lead where it led him- to resurrection and new eternal life.

[1] Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 13- pg 56:702. 
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