A Cabin In The Corner Of Glory?

Many hymns and southern gospel songs speak of a heavenly mansion, or a humble cabin in the corner of glory where the saved will live forever with the angels and with Jesus. The imagery this evokes can be comforting, but it is not especially faithful to scripture.

N.T. Wright (1) and Richard Middleton (2) have reminded us that the “blessed hope” of the Christian faith is not a disembodied, ethereal existence in heaven, but a bodily participation in a new heaven and new earth. So, how did we get to the place where we treasure the idea of living forever in heaven?  I think much of it comes from a particular interpretation of Jesus’ words in John 14 where he says,

In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:2-3 NKJV

Several assumptions underlie thinking that this passage is about heaven, and the life of believers after death:

1. That “My Father’s House” means heaven

2. That the “place” Jesus is going to prepare is some kind of heavenly dwelling

3. That the “coming again” mentioned here is either the rapture or the second coming of Jesus

4. That being where Jesus is means being with him in heaven

But, are these assumptions reasonable? Would the disciples to whom Jesus was saying these things have held these same assumptions? And if not, how else might we understand these words?

First, I confess with the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. I’m just proposing that in this passage, Jesus may not be talking about heaven and his second coming, but something much more “here and now”.

Let’s examine these four assumptions that underlie thinking this passage is about heaven and the afterlife.

First Assumption: Is “My Father’s House” referring to heaven?

Jesus uses the phrase, “my Father’s house” four times in the New Testament: 

1. In Luke 16:27 Jesus uses the phrase in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, referring to the house of the rich man’s father – clearly not a reference to heaven.

2. In Luke 2:49 a young Jesus in the temple says, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

3. In John 2:16, during the incident where Jesus turned over the tables and drove the moneychangers out of the temple Jesus says, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

4. And in the text we’re considering where Jesus says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions” John 14:2

The Luke 16 usage of my father’s house is not relevant to this discussion, and the Luke 2 and John 2 passages clearly identify my Father’s house as the temple.

So, is Jesus, in John 14 continuing to use my Father’s house in reference to the temple? Yes, but with a twist. After Jesus had turned over the tables and drove out the sacrificial animals from the temple, Jesus said, 

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he was speaking of the temple of his body. John 2:19-21

The physical temple was where the Jews believed the presence of God dwelt. But the physical temple was soon to be destroyed.  Jesus was saying, “don’t look for the presence of God to dwell in a physical building”. Rather, my Father’s house…the dwelling place of God is in me. Paul would later identify believers as members of Christ’s body; the church,(3) and those believers are the new temple of God.  

So, my Father’s house is not a reference to heaven, and it’s not a reference to the temple in Jerusalem. My Father’s house, the place where God dwells, is us, as members of Christ’s body. We are the many mansions, the cabins in the corner of glory, the dwelling places of God. We are the living stones(4) that make up the new temple of God – my Father’s house.

The Second Assumption: Is the place Jesus was going to prepare, a heavenly dwelling?

The Greek word that is translated here as place, is “topos” from which we get the word, topography. It can mean a physical location, but it also can be used metaphorically. For instance, it is common to say something like, “I have come to the place in my life where possessions don’t mean as much to me.”  When we say things like this, we’re not using the word, place to mean a physical location, but an understanding, a realization, or a change in priorities.

If we consider that Jesus might have been speaking metaphorically here of preparing a place of understanding, a place where his disciples could come to the realization of some things that had been unimaginable before, it opens up some fascinating possibilities.

For instance, where was it that Jesus was about to go to prepare this metaphoric place? Jesus is speaking here to his disciples on the night he was to be betrayed. He was about to go to his death on a Roman cross. The disciples believed that Jesus was their Messiah, the new King of Israel, so the first thing – the first place Jesus was about to go prepare for them was a realization that God’s Messiah would not be like King David, slaying the Roman Goliath with his slingshot. 

The first place Jesus went to prepare, which would have been a place of massive cognitive dissonance for his disciples, was the understanding that God’s Messiah came to die at the hands of his enemies, not to kill them. Of course this place – this understanding, would never have occurred to the disciples if Jesus had stayed in the grave.

It was Jesus’ resurrection that prepared a place for his disciples that no amount of teaching, and no number of miracles could have prepared them for. The place that Jesus prepared through his death and subsequent resurrection, was the opening up of the disciples imaginations that because death had been defeated, they could now live as Jesus lived - without fear of death – and without an orientation toward the idea that they would cease to be.

By going to his death, Jesus was preparing a place in his disciples to begin telling a new story about life!  This is a place that the disciples could not have come to apart from Jesus going to and through death.

Instead of going to heaven to prepare a little cabin in the corner of glory for the afterlife, Jesus went through death to prepare his disciples to live without fear of death which is nothing less than an entirely new way to be human. This place was entirely unimaginable before the resurrection.

The Third Assumption: That the “coming again” mentioned here is either the rapture or the second coming of Jesus.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:3 NKJV

If going to the cross and being raised from the dead prepared a revolutionary new place of understanding in the disciples, we need not think that “coming again” here has to do with Jesus’ second coming. It simply can mean the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples – the very same disciples Jesus is here speaking to. This is the most obvious, contextual understanding of coming again.

The Fourth Assumption: That being where Jesus is means being with him in heaven.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself; that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:3

In the same way that we can understand Jesus preparing a place metaphorically, we can also understand being where Jesus is metaphorically.  In fact, Jesus often used the word, where in this way. For instance, none of the following references use “where” in a literal way, but pedagogically, metaphorically or parabolically:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21

The baptism of John – where was it from? From heaven or from men? Matthew 21:25

Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; Mark 4:5

A popular motivational meme is, “I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.”  This is not speaking of being in a particular geographic location, but of being in a certain state of physical fitness, or of comprehending something new. When we are learning something new, and only partially understand it, we might say, “I’m not there yet”. But when we “get it”, we say, “I’m there now” or “I’m with you now.”

We can understand Jesus in this same way when he says, “I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

This is Jesus describing how that, after his death and resurrection as the forgiving victim of our violence, his disciples would be able to be taken to where Jesus was. 

“Taken to himself”, not physically, but spiritually and cognitively. The disciples would finally “get Jesus”.  They would at long last be “where Jesus was” all along.

So, was Jesus speaking about being some kind of super-general contractor in heaven, constructing dwelling places for believers to reside in after death? Maybe. The Bible doesn’t say much about the intermediate state – that time between physical death and the general resurrection, but we do know that ultimately, we’re not destined for life in a cabin in the corner of glory.  Our hope is as resurrected citizens of a new Kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth where all things have been restored.(5)

Through his death and resurrection, Jesus already prepared for us a place where we can be with him, where we finally get what Jesus is all about. Where death has no more power over us than it did over Jesus. And that’s a pretty cool place to be.  


Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”  
Revelation 21:1-4


(1) Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright

(2) A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology by Richard Middleton

(3) 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:23, 1 Corinthians 3:16

(4) 1 Peter 2:5

(5) Acts 3:21

Crucified Between The Law And the Prophets

Jesus was crucified between two men. In the Gospel according to Luke, while the three of them are hanging there in agony, the two men speak to each other, and to Jesus. In their brief comments, two very different perspectives are represented; that of Law and that of the Prophets.

At the time of this world-changing event, Jews and Gentiles alike believed that being powerful and wealthy was an indication that God or the gods had favored you. Caesar was called “lord” and “son of god” because the Caesars had been successful in bringing peace (the Pax Romana) to the Roman Empire through violent conquest. Their success was understood to be evidence of divine favor.

Likewise, for Jews, the mighty acts of Moses were understood as evidence of God’s favor. King David’s military victories were also recognized as proof of God’s hand at work. The Law of Moses was foundational to this view. Deuteronomy 28 promised that, if the people were obedient to God, their enemies would be scattered and they would be prosperous. Many understood the miracles Jesus had been doing to be evidence that God was with him as well, but now that Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross, between two criminals, his identity as Messiah/King was in doubt.

It is from this perspective that the first criminal speaks.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Luke 23:39

This is the voice of the Law. If Jesus is the Messiah, the “Son of David”, there is no way that he could die an ignominious death on a Roman cross. The Law won’t have it! God would not allow his Messiah to be killed! Then the other criminal responds.

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:40-42

This is the voice of a prophet, and he makes two statements that are absolutely antithetical to both the Roman and Jewish-legal worldviews.

First, “this man has done nothing wrong.” The fact that Jesus was being crucified was, in the minds of both Gentiles and legally minded Jews, de-facto proof that he was guilty. Because Jesus did not violently withstand Rome and because he did not live up to the example of the victorious Jewish Patriarchs, there was no way in the minds of most people of the time, that Jesus could have been divinely favored. His claim to being a king was seen as simultaneously false and blasphemous precisely because he was hanging on a cross and did not save himself. He was then, on account of his crucifixion, guilty.

In that world, this criminal’s recognition that Jesus was innocent was prophetic in nature. The very fact that, today, we know victims of political and religious violence can be innocent, is because of Jesus’ crucifixion. If Jesus had called down legions of angels to save him by violently destroying the political and religious leaders who condemned him, he would have validated what they believed…that overwhelming violence is evidence of divine blessing, that the strongest are divinely favored, and we would still believe that today.

The second prophetic statement made by this perceptive criminal is, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This was recognition that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah/King, as he was dying on the most powerful symbol of the terrible might of the Roman Empire. Not even Jesus’ closest disciples could see this. They had deserted him. Even Peter, the most strong willed of them, had denied him three times, yet, as life was being extinguished from both himself and Jesus, this self-confessed criminal speaks some of the most lucidly prophetic words ever expressed – that Jesus was in fact the King of the Jews and that in dying he was about to be crowned King of a kingdom that not even death could withstand.

Two criminals with widely divergent worldviews hung beside Jesus. One looked back to the Law for justification of his violence, the other looked forward to a kingdom in which swords are turned into plowshares. One followed the lead of the crowd, who, when Jesus didn’t rise up in violence to overthrow Caesar, cried out “crucify him!” and “we have no king but Caesar!” The other followed the Good Shepherd, even unto death, knowing that even death was not powerful enough to separate them. One followed the letter of the Law, the other followed the law of love. One followed a god who proves his divinity by shedding the blood of his enemies, the other followed a God who proves his divinity by shedding his own blood for his enemies.

To both of these criminals, to the soldiers who had crucified him, to the religious and political leaders who had condemned him, and to us, Jesus says, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This is the Gospel…the good news of Good Friday. The voice of the prophet is the good news.

 

This blog is adapted from the message, “Three Crosses – Two Churches”.

Lazarus Is Rising

The fear of death causes people to do many things; some stock up on survival supplies, others stockpile weapons. Some accumulate things that make them feel alive like cars, boats, clothing or jewelry, or they might do things that give them a thrill like gambling, risk taking or adventure seeking. Substance abuse can keep people from thinking about death, and we can always find something to entertain us and keep us in denial about our eventual destination. Frequently, a significant portion of our disposable income is spent on activities that have at their root, the fear of death, but is this the way God intends for us to live?

Can we really call it abundant life if life consists of expending large amounts of money and effort trying to avoid death?

The author of Hebrews wrote that through death, Jesus would free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15) 

This is one of the most significant things that following Jesus makes possible.

Jesus makes it possible to live without the fear of death.

Can we even imagine that? How different would our lives be if we had no fear of death? If we could reassign all the money and activities we do that are driven by the fear of death, what would we do? What would our lives look like? I dare say that we might not even recognize ourselves!

Our example in this, of course, is Jesus. He lived his life with no fear of death.

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  1 Peter 2:23

Jesus was able to live without fear of death because he knew the power of resurrection. The Gospel of John contains the account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus often healed people before they died, but in this case he allowed Lazarus to die, and he waited until Lazarus had been dead four days before doing this miracle. Jesus didn’t keep Lazarus on life support for four days. He let him die.

But physical death is not the only kind of death that we can live in fear of. We can also live in fear of the death of things. We might fear the death of a career, or the death of an important relationship, or we may fear the loss of an important possession such as a home or business. When we fear the death or loss of things, we can become manipulative, greedy, and self-centered – all things that are very un-Christ like - all things that reveal a fear of the death of those things.

Just as Jesus allowed Lazarus to die, there are times when we should allow things to die in our lives. Sometimes we expend enormous amounts of effort to keep a career or a relationship alive and on life support when it would be better to let it die. We have to be discerning here. We shouldn’t go around burning bridges on purpose, but just as Jesus healed some and allowed others to die, we should not fear the death of a job or a relationship - because we believe in resurrection.

When Jesus died, from the perspective of his disciples, their relationship with Jesus died with him. As far as they could see, Jesus was dead and all their hopes and dreams that involved him died with him. Three days later though that all changed! The relationships that they thought were dead and gone were resurrected.

Have you ever noticed that when people that Jesus had been close to before he died encountered him after his resurrection, often they didn’t recognize him. The resurrected relationship looked different than before. We can expect something similar to happen when we stop living in slavery to the fear of death. Some things may die, but the power of resurrection does more than just bring things back to the way they were. It is transformative. Resurrection makes things better than before.

The disciples struggled to adapt to this new, resurrected relationship with Jesus. Some of them doubted, some of them ran away, but eventually they embraced their resurrected relationship with Jesus. We can expect the same dynamic to play out in our resurrected careers and relationships.

I’ve been through several career changes in my life and they all felt like a death when I was in the middle of them, but each time a resurrection followed. I’ve learned not to fear things like this, because Lazarus is rising.

I’ve lost some relationships that were dear to me. Some have been restored and are better than before, and I’ve made many new relationships, because Lazarus is rising.

How about you? Will you follow Jesus in this? Are you ready for Jesus to free you from the fear of death? Lazarus is rising.

The Seventh Man & The Redemption of Eve

Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.

Text: John 4:1-42

The account of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well can be understood as an undoing – a reversal of Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden. 

The Woman is not given a name in the story, which invites us to think of her typologically.  The Apostle Paul calls Jesus “the last Adam” in 1 Corinthians.  So we might consider this as an encounter between the last Adam and a typological, last Eve.

Cultural backdrop

There is a lot of boundary crossing in this encounter. The Jews looked down upon Samaritans. The text parenthetically points this out saying “Jews, you see, don’t have any dealings with Samaritans.”   In addition, men generally did not have this kind of a conversation with women, especially not with women of another religious affiliation.  Women were not considered equal with men, so for Jesus to have this particular conversation, in which for the first time he reveals that he is the Messiah, with a woman from another religious tradition is astounding. No wonder the disciples were astonished when they returned and found Jesus in conversation with this Samaritan woman.

Who was this Samaritan woman?

She had been married five times, and was currently living with a sixth man.  I’m not going to paint her as a “loose woman” or make any assumptions about her prior behavior because Jesus doesn’t seem concerned about this at all.  Though it was possible for a woman to initiate a divorce, it was much more likely that either her former husbands had divorced her, she had been widowed, or a combination of the two.  She likely was not an adulteress, as the penalty was stoning.  Often in this culture, men just became tired of their wives and divorced them to marry someone else. It is likely however that with her background, her community probably looked down upon her.  This leads to the next point…

She comes to the well in the heat of the day.

The town well was kind of like the office water cooler.  It was a place where townspeople would congregate and talk about current affairs, and since this was before running water, people had to carry water from the town well back to their homes.  This would have mostly been done in the early morning or in the cool of the evening.  The scorching Middle-Eastern sun would have made carrying water at midday quite unpleasant. So why would she be coming now? I think it probable that she came at this time to avoid the others. Even though Jesus didn’t rebuke her for her relational history, it is very likely that her community did. By coming alone at midday, she would reduce the likelihood of an unpleasant encounter with people that looked down upon her.  In other words, by coming in the heat of the day, she was hiding in plain sight.

Here’s how I imagine the scene:

I can see her coming to the well, hoping to draw water in peace, without encountering any hostility or insults, but as she approaches she sees a strange man there, dressed as a Jew. She becomes anxious. She knows that Jews consider themselves superior to Samaritans.  She also knows that coming to the well at noon would raise suspicions, but she needs this water. If she doesn’t get it now she’ll have to return when others are there, so she drops her head – hoping to just get in and out quickly without incident.  But he sees her, and as he opens his mouth to speak she girds herself for an insult, but out of his mouth comes, “Give me a drink.”  “What?” she replies in astonishment! 

Here’s the thing.  In order to give Jesus a drink, he will have to put her Samaritan cup to his Jewish lips – an act that any self-respecting Jew would consider defiling and disgusting.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

She knows her place, and she has never heard such a request.  Jesus then begins having a conversation with her about living water, water that will quench her thirst so completely that she will never thirst again.  She replies…

“Sir, give me this water!  Then I won’t be thirsty anymore, and I won’t have to come to draw water from the well.”

Can you see how she would love not having to come to the well each day? She wouldn’t have to come in the heat of the day to avoid insults and hostility. She has some very practical reasons to want this water that Jesus is offering, and none of them have anything to do with heaven or spirituality at all. Then Jesus says…

“Well then…go and call your husband and come here.”

She replies that she doesn’t have a husband.  Jesus responds without judgment by telling her about having had five husbands and that she is now living with another man, and commends her for telling the truth. She perceives that Jesus is a prophet. They have a conversation about Samaritan and Jewish worship. She mentions the coming Messiah and Jesus, remarkably tells her, “I’m the one – the one speaking to you right now!”

Just then, the disciples return, astonished to see Jesus conversing with the woman, and excited, she leaves her water jug and runs back to town proclaiming,

“Come on! Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!”

This is remarkable!  The town scapegoat has become the town evangelist!  She becomes the first person in the Gospels to make a proclamation of the Messiah to the world!  And it’s the Samaritan, not the Jewish world at that!

Something about her encounter with Jesus set her free from all the accusations and shame that her community had been directing toward her. Remember, this was a woman who had been married five times and was living with a sixth man, telling her community about another man.  You might expect her community to roll their eyes thinking, “there she goes again”, but they didn’t.  Something about her had changed so much that they listened to her and followed her out to the well to see Jesus - the Seventh Man…

Now, there are some interesting parallels between this story and the story of Eve and the fall in the Garden of Eden.

First, we can understand the serpent’s temptation of Eve to be a revealing of the serpent’s desire.  The serpent was the one who desired to be like God.  Eve had already been made in God’s image and likeness.  When she forgot this, she acquired the serpent’s distorted desire to be like God, which led to a self-induced separation from God and she became like the serpent – separated from the tree of life.

-In the Garden, Eve acquires the serpent’s distorted desire to be like God.

-At Jacob’s Well, God is thirsty and asks the Woman to fulfill his desire.

-The Woman acquires God’s desire, and it awakens her thirst for living water-that which nourishes the tree of life. 

-In the Garden, Eve’s eyes are opened and she becomes ashamed.

-At Jacob’s Well, the Woman’s eyes are opened and she becomes unashamed.

Normally whenever we are confronted with what we’ve done wrong we become ashamed, but when Jesus tells this woman “everything she ever did” she becomes unashamed, runs to the people who had shamed her and tells them about Jesus! (We need to learn how to evangelize like this.)

-In the Garden, Eve hid from God.

-At Jacob’s well the Woman again meets God and brings her community out to meet him. “Come and See!” 

This is the typological redemption of Eve - an undoing, a reversal of the fall in the Garden. The fall is now redeemed by a five times divorced Samaritan woman, who is living with another man.

She is the first person to whom Jesus reveals himself to be the Messiah.

She becomes the first evangelist of the Messiah.

The Garden, and Jacob’s Well are two stories about desire. The Garden is a story about Eve forgetting who she was and acquiring the serpent’s distorted desire to be like God.

The Woman at the Well is the story of a woman who fulfills God’s desire and in the process discovers how loved and accepted she really is - so much so that she is set free from her community’s demonic voices of accusation.

Instead of hiding, thinking that God will be angry and expose her shame, she unashamedly runs to her accusers, shouting, Come and See! Come and see!

This is how the Seventh Man restores fallen creation…this is the redemption of Eve.

The Life of God's New Age is Love

An important leader of the Pharisees named Nicodemus comes at night to visit Jesus.  They have a discussion about the kingdom of God and being born again. 

I wrote about this in a blog called “A Down To Earth Take On Baptism And Being Born Again” in which I seek to demystify the experience of being born again.  Certainly the Spirit of God is involved in the new birth, but it also has very down-to-earth implications.  In this blog I’ll be zeroing in on two verses in the story.  The first is John 3:16, of which I’ll made two observations.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  NRSV

Eternal life or everlasting life is often understood as a timeless, blissful existence in heaven, but N.T. Wright and others contest this popular understanding.  Jesus himself doesn’t define eternal life as a timeless heaven either, but as knowing he and his Father. (John 17:3)

Wright points out that many ancient Jews thought of time in “ages” or “eons”.  The “present age” was the time before the coming of the Messiah, and the “age to come” was the age that would begin when Messiah arrived.  Wright describes it this way:

The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” “ 1

With this in mind, Wright translates “eternal life” as “the life of God’s new age”.  This is important because it reorients Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to the here and now instead of the afterlife.  It is during the Messianic age, which began with the first advent of Jesus that the kingdom of God and being born again are concerned.  So, we can now say…

John 3: 16 is not a verse about going to heaven when you die; it is about living the life of God’s new age here and now through a change of citizenship and allegiance. 

Jesus never speaks of dual citizenship.  Being born again and baptism should affect a new citizenship in God’s kingdom with a change of allegiance from any particular political party of ruler to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  This is why the confession “Jesus is Lord” became the basis for much persecution of the early church.  It was understood politically as a direct challenge to Caesar’s authority.  The early church did not partner with any earthly political movement.  Their total allegiance was to a different King and kingdom, which put them at odds with the nationalistic systems of their day. 

In this way, the first advent of Jesus can be understood as an apocalyptic event. It was the actual inauguration of the age to come.

The second observation about John 3:16 comes from James Alison.  He notes that the Greek adjective houtos that is translated as “so” in “for God so loved the world” more often means “in this manner”.2   This makes a considerable difference in how we understand John 3:16-17.  If houtos is translated as “so”, it functions to intensify God’s love, but if translated as “in this manner” it becomes descriptive of what God’s love does.  This means that it is what God actually did, not what we presume about how God felt about us that we should use to understand God and his love toward us.

So, if we combine the insights of N.T. Wright and James Alison, we could translate John 3:16 as follows:

For it was in this manner, you see, that God loved the world; he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.

This gets us to the crux of why Jesus came.  God loved the world IN A PARTICULAR WAY, FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE.  And the purpose was that we should share in the life of God’s new age here and now!

NOT TO BIDE OUR TIME EITHER WAITING TO DIE, OR WAITING FOR THE 2ND COMING, BUT TO SHARE IN THE REVOLUTIONARY LIFE OF GOD’S NEW AGE HERE AND NOW!

The next verse describes the manner of God’s love, and it is mind-blowing!

After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.  John 3:17 KNT

It is in this manner that God loves the world – totally without judgment or condemnation.  This is a negative description of how God loves – a description of what God’s love is not like, and it is incredibly good news… 

God’s love contains no judgment or condemnation.  Let that sink in. 

The word “condemn” here is from the Greek word, “krino” which means: to separate, put asunder, pick out, select, choose, to esteem, to prefer, to be of an opinion, deem or condemn, to pronounce an opinion concerning right & wrong, to be judged, i.e. summoned to trial

We can now combine and amplify John 3:16-17 like this:

For it was in this manner, you see, that God loved the world; he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.  After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn, separate, put asunder, choose, prefer, to be of an opinion or to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.

In other words, we should never use the threat of judgment or condemnation to get people saved, because Jesus didn’t use the threat of condemnation to save people.

And what exactly is Jesus “saving” people from here? The present evil age… not eternal torment in hell.

This is not a passage about heaven and hell!

It’s a passage about living in the life of God’s new age which began 2000 years ago and continues today.

God doesn’t pick and choose who can join in the life of God’s new age.

He loves everyone, and he doesn’t divide us or condemn us - we do that.

We divide ourselves.  We condemn and judge each other.

God doesn’t.  He invites all of us into the life of God’s new age now.

Sure, we can choose to remain in this present evil age if we want.

But God isn’t keeping us there.

We can choose to remain in this present evil age if we want.

God doesn’t condemn us for it.

He just calls us “lost” if we do.

It’s a loss of opportunity to participate in the life of God’s new age here and now.

This is really, really good news expressed in a negative way.  Jesus doesn't do judgment and condemnation, and if we choose through new birth and baptism to enter the life of God’s new age, we shouldn’t do judgment and condemnation either.

 

1 N.T. Wright, “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels”

2 James Alison, “Broken Hearts and News Creations”

Seeing The Transfiguration With Resurrection Eyes - Part 2 "The Earth, Wind and Fire of the Resurrection"

In part one, I outlined the astounding revelation in the Transfiguration story that even the law and the prophets must be understood in light of Jesus -that what Jesus has to say is more authoritative than what Moses and Elijah (the law and the prophets) had to say. (Matthew 17:1-13)

I ended part one with Jesus telling Peter, James and John “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)

In part two I will draw on Moses and Elijah to help us understand why Jesus didn’t want his disciples talking about the Transfiguration until after his resurrection. 

The law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb.  It was there that God met Moses in a cloud and gave him the law, which would become the “founding document” if you will of Judaism.  Moses now appears again in a cloud on the mount of Transfiguration – Mount Tabor, but this time the voice from the cloud gives priority not to the law given at Sinai, but to God’s beloved Son.  The law was validated by Moses’ presence, but superseded by a person – Jesus Christ.

As Jesus and his disciples are descending the Mount of Transfiguration they ask Jesus a question about Elijah: “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”   The prophet Malachi had written, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” (Malachi 4:5 ESV) 

The disciples were expecting Elijah to come before the Messiah, but they hadn’t seen anyone who resembled Elijah prior to Jesus.  What kind of “Elijah” were they looking for?

In addition to his prophecies, Elijah had done a number of miracles.  He started and stopped a drought, he multiplied meal and oil for a widow, and he even brought a dead child back to life.  These miracles actually look a lot like the miracles Jesus had been doing, but Elijah was also known for some other remarkable deeds: 

He called fire down from heaven and incinerated 102 Samarians, (2 Kings 1) and,

He had a famous showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel during which he killed over 400 prophets/priests of a competing religion. (1 Kings 18)  Neither of these events bore any resemblance to what Jesus had been doing.

The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is the story of a religious rivalry- two different religions, trying to one-up each other’s gods. The Baal prophets try to enlist their god in rivalry against Israel, but are unsuccessful.  Elijah mocks them and their god.  Then Elijah works the Israelites up into a religious frenzy trying to enlist Yahweh against the prophets of Baal.

“Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering…” 1 Kings 18:38

Sacrificial fires are set ablaze.  The crowd proclaims that the Lord is God!  And in a mimetic, religious frenzy, Elijah unites the crowd against the prophets of Baal, and kills them all.

This is the Elijah that Jesus’ disciples had invoked when they wanted to call down fire on a Samarian village, but Jesus rebuked them for it, saying, “You don’t know what spirit you are of”.  (Luke 9:55) And this is the Elijah many Christians want to invoke against their “enemies” today. 

I have some friends who regularly appeal to Elijah and the prophets of Baal in support of the church winning various culture wars- the idea that we just need to have the faith of Elijah and we will be victorious.  I’ve lost count of the sermons I’ve heard that read the story this way. 

After Elijah slaughtered his religious rivals, he heard that Jezebel had vowed to kill him so he fled into the wilderness and was led by God to Mount Horeb (Sinai) where Moses had received the law.  Many see this part of the story as Elijah’s failure - that he had no reason to fear Jezebel because of his great victory, but that he doubted and fled.  I think this is how Peter, James and John probably understood the story too, but I think this is a tragic way to understand this story.  Here’s why.

While Elijah is hiding out in a cave on Mount Sinai, the voice of the Lord comes to him and says:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; (1 Kings 19:11-12)

“The Lord was not in the wind.”

“The Lord was not in the earthquake.”

“The Lord was not in the fire.”

The Lord was not in the fire on Mount Sinai, and the Lord was not in the sacrificial fire on Mount Carmel that lead to the killing of Elijah’s religious rivals either.  God is not to be found in the destructive forces of earth, wind and fire.  But God is found in the sound of sheer silence. 

…and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:12-13)

When we see Elijah’s retreat into the wilderness as a failure…as a lack of faith, we miss the trajectory of the story.  We miss the revelation that is in the story.

God is not, and never was in the business of sending fire from heaven to burn up our religious rivals.  Whatever happened on Mt. Carmel that caused the religious frenzy that Elijah harnessed was Elijah’s doing…not God’s.

But the Elijah of Mt Carmel was who the disciples were looking for.  So Jesus responds to his disciples question about Elijah coming first by saying:

“Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things;  but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.”  Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:11-13)

Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah, but not the Elijah of Mount Carmel.  John the Baptist didn’t call fire down on Herod.  Herod took John the Baptist’s life, and Jesus says the same thing is about to happen to him.

This is why Jesus told Peter, James and John not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration, because right up until the crucifixion, they were all hoping Jesus would act like Elijah on Mt. Carmel.  They were hoping that Jesus would rain fire down from heaven on his enemies.  But Jesus is not Elijah.  Listen to Jesus.

Jesus only does what he sees his Father doing. (John 5:19-20)

So when they arrested him, he didn’t call down fire from heaven.  Because he only did what he saw his Father doing.

And when they were whipping him with a cat of nine tails, he didn’t call down fire from heaven.  Because he only did what he saw his Father doing.

And when they spit in his face, and pulled out his beard, he didn’t call down fire from heaven.  Because he only did what he saw his Father doing.

And when they drove nails through his hands and feet, he didn’t call down fire from heaven.  Because he only did what he saw his Father doing.

And when they mocked him and said, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself!” he didn’t call fire down from heaven. Because he only did what he saw his Father doing.

And when he rose from the dead, and appeared to his disciples he didn’t call down fire to destroy them for abandoning him…because he only did what he saw his Father doing.

BUT, after he ascended to his father in heaven, on the day of Pentecost, he rained down fire from heaven! Tongues of fire…”on people from every nation under heaven”, God rained fire down from heaven. 

This is the fire of God.

And the fire of God was accompanied by the sound of a “rushing, mighty wind”.

A wind that didn’t break rocks like those outside Elijah’s cave…A wind which broke open the hard hearts of all who would let the Spirit blow over them.  A wind which blows away our false notions of a God who sends destruction from heaven.

And, an earthquake accompanied Jesus’ rising from the dead!  (Matthew 28)

There is a way in which God is in the fire, the wind and the earthquake; as tongues of fire and the wind of the Spirit, made possible by an earthquake that opened the tomb of Jesus. 

This is the earth, wind and fire of the resurrection.  

We can think of Elijah’s cave as a tomb.  It was in that cave that God showed him that the destructive forces of earth, wind and fire are not evidence of God’s presence, and that God is not blessing our violent rivalries with each other.  It was in that cave that Elijah started to let that god die.  Can we let that god die too?

After Elijah’s time on Mount Horeb we never see him again calling down fire or stoking religious rivalries.  Shortly he would hand his mantle over to Elisha. 

In part one I wrote, “we must take Jesus with us when reading the law and the prophets, and interpret the law and the prophets according to the teachings of Jesus.  If we don’t do this, we will be willingly reverting to a pre-Jesus way of understanding the Scriptures.” Part two has been an exercise in doing this.  It can be a challenge, but the Transfiguration, taken seriously calls us to listen to Jesus and to let the law and the prophets find their place in the back-story. 

This is seeing the Transfiguration with resurrection eyes.  

Seeing The Transfiguration With Resurrection Eyes - Part 1 "A Transfiguration Awakening"

I believe the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most important, and yet most misunderstood passages in the New Testament.  (Matthew 17:1-13)

Growing up in Evangelical and Charismatic churches, the Transfiguration was something of a curiosity.  Jesus took Peter, James and John up to Mount Tabor.  He then was transfigured and was seen speaking with Moses and Elijah.  Peter offers to build three tabernacles; one for each of them. A voice from a cloud speaks; validating that Jesus is God’s beloved Son.  Moses and Elijah disappear into the mist and Jesus tells them not to tell anybody what they just experienced until after he is raised from the dead.  In my experience, I don’t remember any pastor offering much of an explanation, let alone an exegesis of this story beyond perhaps that it proved that Jesus was divine.

But there is a depth of revelation in this story!  This Orthodox Icon can help.

In the Icon, Moses and Elijah are seen standing on separate mountain peaks.  This is an indication that Moses and Elijah represent more than just themselves as individuals.  Moses indeed represents the Law (Torah), the pinnacle of Old Covenant justice.  Elijah is representative of the Old Covenant prophets.  Jesus now appears as a central figure between the law and the prophets.  

I can’t stress how important the law and the prophets were to first century Jews.  The law and the prophets were the authoritative sources of their religion.  But when Peter offered to build three tabernacles, in essence elevating Jesus to the level of the law and the prophets, God interrupts and says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!” and the law and the prophets dissolve into the mist.

This is so unsettling that the disciples fall to the ground in fear, covering their eyes.  The implications are almost too much to bear.  They’re not yet willing to see what God is telling them. Peter was ready to give Jesus a place of equal standing with the law and the prophets, but God would not have it.  “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” In this vision, Moses and Elijah have disappeared.  This is where Peter, James and John have to let go of the law and the prophets. We need to let them go too.  The types and shadows of the law and the prophets lead us to Jesus, but they don’t accompany Jesus from here on.

When I suggest that we must give more weight to what Jesus says than we do other voices in the Bible, some people get all kinds of squirrelly and defensive. The most common response I hear is, “But we need the whole counsel of God!”  by which they mean, we must give equal weight to voices other than Jesus.  It seems to me that the Transfiguration defeats that argument once and for all.

If this leaves you a little shaken and disoriented, make note of what Jesus did next. 

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

If you’ve been taught to give all scriptural voices equal weight, it can be a fearful thing to let some of them go, but Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

When I say we should “let other scriptural voices go”, I don’t mean that we should ignore them.  They all have something important to teach us, but the message of the Transfiguration is that Jesus is more authoritative than all others, meaning Jesus is the “Rosetta Stone” if you will.

We must take Jesus with us when reading the law and the prophets- interpreting the law and the prophets according to the teachings of Jesus.  If we don’t do this, we will be willingly reverting to a pre-Jesus way of understanding the Scriptures. 

This “pre-Jesus” way of understanding the Bible is rampant in the churches of America today.  I am encouraged, though that there are people around the world that are having a Transfiguration Awakening. I am excited and hopeful for where Jesus is leading us!

After comforting his terrified disciples Jesus then says a peculiar thing:

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)

Peter, James and John had just been given an astounding revelation, but Jesus forbids them from telling anyone else about it until after he has been raised from the dead!  Why would Jesus do this?  That’s the topic of part two of this blog entitled, “The Earth, Wind and Fire of the Resurrection”.  

The Beatitudes and Alternative Facts

This past week, “alternative facts” have been in the news.  The Trump administration claimed that the crowd at his inauguration was the largest ever.  On Meet The Press Chuck Todd interviewed Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top advisors and asked her why the administration was promoting a “provable falsehood”.  She responded saying that the administration had “alternative facts”.  Todd pushed back saying, “Alternative facts are not facts, they are falsehoods”.

This got me thinking.  What if Chuck Todd could interview Jesus about the opening statements he made in his famous Sermon on the Mount - the Beatitudes?

The Beatitudes include sayings like:

“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

If Chuck Todd interviewed Jesus about the Beatitudes I can imagine it going something like this: “Jesus, these statements are “provable falsehoods!”  “Meek people don’t inherit the earth, the powerful do.”  “Those who mourn are often not comforted, and merciful people usually get their butts kicked!”  “Respectfully Jesus, you’ve got to admit it, your Sermon on the Mount is just a collection of alternative facts!”  “People would be foolish to live by these statements!”  

From the point of view of many, Chuck Todd would have won this debate. Now, I’m not implying that there is any sort of moral equivalence between the “alternative facts” of the Trump administration and the Beatitudes, but I am interested in the concept of “alternative facts” in order to shed some light on the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.

So, are the Beatitudes a collection of “alternative facts”?  First, lets establish some things that the Beatitudes are not intended to be.

The Beatitudes are not a description of the way things currently work in the world.  They are not instructions for people to mourn, to be merciful or to make themselves poor in order to be blessed by God.  They are not just for “super saints” like Mother Teresa, and they are not the idealistic, unattainable musings of Jesus. 

Stanley Hauerwas says, “The sermon…is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus.”  

In the Beatitudes, Jesus is not describing how things currently work in the world. Rather, he is introducing an entirely new way of being in the world.  And don’t make the mistake of thinking this kind of community will only happen off in heaven in the future.

Perhaps more than any of Jesus’ other teachings, the Sermon on the Mount is the one many want to push off into the afterlife, or explain away. Often, because it includes teachings like “turn the other cheek”, and “go the extra mile” and “love your enemies” people say trying to live by the Sermon on the Mount today is foolish and even dangerous - foolish because the world just doesn’t work that way, and dangerous because if you don’t fight your enemies, your enemies will defeat or kill you. 

But when Jesus concludes these teachings he summarizes his entire sermon saying; “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”  (Matthew 7:24-27)

Jesus clearly expects people to both hear and act on these teachings.  What would have been the point of telling the crowds listening to him this if he didn’t expect them to begin living this way?  And did you notice that he considers those who hear and act on these teachings to be the wise ones, and those who don’t hear and act on his teachings to be foolish?  This is so different from the way things work in the world that it sounds like an alternative reality, based on alternative facts.

Brian Zahnd, in his book “Beauty Will Save The Word” writes, “The Beatitudes are subversive to the established order – they are the subversive values of the kingdom of God…We have not been formed by the values of the Beatitudes; we have been raised on the received text of a superpower.  Contemporary Americans are scripted in a way that is completely counter to the values of the Beatitudes.”

We who claim to be Christians, who claim to be followers of Jesus, should look like we are living in an alternative reality, based on alternative facts.  Sadly many of us are indistinguishable from the rest of the world.  (…preaching to myself here.)  The lives of a people gathered by and around Jesus should be a shelter from the storms of the world, a place of comfort for those who mourn, and a peaceful place for the meek to exercise the gifts that find no outlet in the furious world around us - a place where the meek inherit the earth today.

Call these alternative facts if you will - even call it an alternative reality.  I’ll just call it the Kingdom of God.  

A Down-To-Earth Take On Baptism And Being Born Again

water-baptism1.jpg

Jesus said to Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Growing up in an Evangelical environment, I heard a lot about being born again.  It was typically associated with saying a prayer of repentance and “asking Jesus into your heart”.  After doing these things you were assured that you had been “saved”.  (Translation: “You will now go to heaven when you die.”)

I noticed however that lots of people who said the prayer struggled with believing and accepting that they were in fact, saved.  Some people had a kind of spiritual/mystical encounter that seemed to validate the experience for them, but lacking this, many questioned their salvation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for repentance and salvation, but I don’t think this understanding of salvation is what Jesus was really talking about with Nicodemus at all. 

First - The Kingdom of God  

Lets establish that when Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew puts it, he wasn’t generally talking about a place you might or might not go after you die.  N.T. Wright (1) and others have shown convincingly that the Kingdom of God Jesus spoke so much about is the realm in which God has authority both on earth and in heaven.  Jesus said that it was “at hand”, and “among you”, and “within you”.  The Kingdom of God, then, is here and now, although many people (many Christians included) don’t live as if it is.  Its certainly not here in its fullness, but nevertheless, the Kingdom that Jesus is now ruling and reigning over is already here on earth, manifesting in people who submit to him.

Second – Being Born Again

When Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to see or enter the Kingdom of God he would need to be “born again”, what was Jesus getting at?  Well, what happens whenever a baby is born in any particular nation or kingdom?  That baby becomes a citizen of that nation by birth.  At birth the baby enters the kingdom he or she is born in, and when its little eyes open they see this same kingdom for the first time. Nicodemus was born a citizen of Israel.  He had entered and seen and become a citizen of Israel, yet Jesus tells him that he must be born again to see and enter the Kingdom of God.  This tells us that God’s Kingdom absolutely cannot be associated with any earthly nation or kingdom.

Every nation has its own constitution, customs and laws.  Every child grows up and learns to live according to these societal norms.  Typically, people remain citizens of the nation of their birth until they die, at which point their name is removed from the citizenship roles of that nation.  This leads me to a question. 

When does a follower of Jesus die?

Third – Baptism

Paul wrote, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:4)

According to Paul, when I as an American citizen was baptized, I died.  And when I came up from the water, I began a new life, in a new Kingdom, with an entirely new citizenship, and...

As a minister, when I baptize someone, I am functioning as a benevolent executioner. 

I am putting the person to death, in order that they might be set free from their earthly citizenship.  And when I lift them up out of the water, by the Spirit of God, they are raised from the dead into newness of life.

The last breath they take before I put them under the water is the last breath they take as a citizen of the kingdoms of this world, and the first breath they take when they come up out of the water is the breath of a newborn citizen in the Kingdom of God.  It’s like the first breath a baby takes after birth and they are… born again. (2)

Through death they are now set free from their prior citizenship, with its customs, constitution and laws. This is necessary for them to be able to see and enter God’s Kingdom.  (Their name may still be on the citizenship roles of the country of their first birth, but according to Paul, they have died to that so that they can begin walking in newness of life.)

Fourth – What Now?

After becoming a citizen of God’s Kingdom we must learn the ways of this Kingdom.  I propose the following analogy to the government of the United States.

In America, much of Christianity has capitulated to our national government as the means to living and being in the world.  I see more Christians getting very worked up over how to interpret the U.S. Constitution than I see seeking to live by the Sermon on the Mount.  If what I am proposing is correct, this is nothing short of idolatry. 

John writes, We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19)  All worldly governments function under the power of the evil one.  If we were meant to consider ourselves as dual citizens (part American, part Christian) then baptism as dying makes no sense. (3)

No, as followers of Jesus we are to be born again as citizens of God’s Kingdom, subject to King Jesus and his constitution, bylaws and laws.  Unfortunately, for too long we’ve preferred to pass judgment on and amend the Sermon on the Mount rather than seeking to live by it as citizens of God’s Kingdom here and now.   

I’ll finish with a quote from Greg Boyd’s important book, The Myth Of A Christian Nation.  “Consider these questions: Did Jesus ever suggest by word or example that we should aspire to acquire, let alone take over, the power of Caesar?  Did Jesus spend any time and energy trying to improve, let alone dominate, the reigning government of his day?  Did he ever work to pass laws against the sinners he hung out with and ministered to?  Did he worry at all about ensuring that his rights and the religious rights of his followers were protected?  Does any author in the New Testament remotely hint that engaging in this sort of activity has anything to do with the kingdom of God?”

==========================================================================

(1) See Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T.Wright

(2) I’m not suggesting salvation by baptism here.  I’m suggesting that Jesus wasn’t even talking with Nicodemus about salvation, at least not salvation in the way Evangelicals generally conceive of it.  Jesus was talking with Nicodemus about seeing and entering the Kingdom of God on earth, i.e. submitting to God’s government as distinct from any earthly nation’s government.  I’m also not contesting the long-held understanding of baptism as identification with Christ’s death.

** See Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You

The Sermon on the Mount  (Matthew 5-7)

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matthew 22:36-40)

 (3) Baptism, and infant baptism in particular became a means to becoming a citizen in many European countries. While this had some beneficial effects culturally, it is the inverse of what I believe Jesus and Paul were envisioning when speaking of new birth and baptism. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2007/02/baptism-and-citizenship

Raising Our Expectations - Swords Into Plowshares

When a woman is pregnant, we say that she is expecting.  When a loved one is expecting, her friends and family all have high expectations about the coming birth.  This is as it should be. 

The prophet Isaiah had some high expectations about the coming birth of Israel’s Messiah.  His prophetic expectations included this:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”  (Isaiah 2:4)

What other person in human history has had expectations like these set upon them?

Tanks turned into combines.  Peace between nations.  No more need for military academies or war colleges.  Unthinkable things, yet these are the clear expectations Isaiah, and other Hebrew prophets had of their Messiah-to-come.  But when did they expect these things to take place? 

The Hebrews thought of time in two ages or eons - the present age, and the age to come.  The present age was the time prior to the coming of Messiah.  The age to come was the Messianic age, when all these expectations were to be realized.

And how would the Messiah make all these expectations possible?

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

Teaching and instruction is how Messiah will make the unthinkable, possible.

The kingdom of God comes by teaching…not terror.

The disarmament of warring nations comes by teaching…not terror.

The closing of war colleges and military academies comes by teaching…not terror.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, but by-and-large Christians have pushed Isaiah’s expectations of a peaceful world off into our distant future.  We’ve created an intervening period of time called the “church age” in which Isaiah’s Messianic expectations don’t apply.  How convenient.

By shifting Isaiah’s Messianic vision to a time after the second coming of the Messiah we’ve absolved ourselves of learning the lessons of Jesus and from walking in his paths now.

I’ve seen the elaborate end-times charts.  I’ve studied so-called Bible prophecy that predicts the return of a violent, bloodthirsty Messiah forcing every knee to bow, but I wonder what Isaiah would say about all that. 

I think he might say that Messiah taught us how to walk in his paths 2000 years ago.

I think he might remind us that Messiah instructed us how swords could be turned into plowshares 2000 years ago. 

I think he might say that the kingdom of God comes by teaching, not terror. 

Our world is longing for this powerful teaching today.  Poet and author, Rivera Sun expressed this longing when she wrote, “Maybe we wouldn’t have so many wars if we didn’t train so hard for them.”

And G.K. Chesterton put his finger on the problem when he wrote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

This Advent, as we wait in expectation for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, let’s pull those end-times expectations back into the present.  Jesus already taught us how 2000 years ago.

 

This blog is condensed from a message of the same name that can be found here.

Ten Lepers - When Disobeying Jesus Is The Right Thing To Do

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ encounter with ten lepers, Jesus praises the one who disobeyed him, and criticizes the nine who did what he asked!  We might subtitle the story,

“When Disobeying Jesus is the Right Thing To Do.” 

It also is a story of marginal places, and the marginalized people who live there.

On his way to Jerusalem, ten lepers, living on the margins of a town, which is situated on the margin between Galilee and Samaria, call out to Jesus for mercy.  Their religious communities had marginalized these lepers and they knew to keep their distance, but somehow they recognize Jesus and call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

Like the demonized man of the Gadarenes who immediately recognized Jesus as the Son of God, these marginalized lepers recognize Jesus from a distance and somehow perceive that he is able to extend mercy to them; mercy that their religious communities could not or would not give them.

Leprosy in the Bible could apply to a wide range of skin conditions and or diseases.   According to Leviticus 13, a priest determined if a person was leprous according to a specific list of criteria.  If the person was leprous, the person was pronounced unclean and kept separate from the community for a time and reexamined.  If the ailment was chronic, however, the afflicted person was permanently banished to the margins of their community.  

Reading this from our modern place in an advanced western society we might think these precautions had to do with limiting the spread of infectious disease.  While these measures may have functioned in this way, people of the time had little knowledge of how contagious disease spread. 

The significance of leprosy in this story has more to do with where people thought leprosy came from – what was the cause of leprosy?  Two stories from the Old Testament illustrate how they thought about this.

In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron are complaining about Moses marrying a Cushite woman – a foreigner.  Their complaining angers God and God gives Miriam leprosy.  Moses prays to God and Miriam is healed after 7 days.  In this account, complaining against God’s representative (Moses) angers God and he gives Miriam leprosy.

In 2 Chronicles 26 King Uzziah enters the Temple to make an offering to God at the altar of incense.  The priests resist him saying that he is not a priest and that he should not be making offerings in the Temple.  This makes Uzziah angry and verse 20 says that God struck him.  He immediately has leprosy on his forehead and suffers with it until his death.  So, in desiring to worship God in a personal way, without priests in between, this story says that God gave Uzziah leprosy for life.

Based on these Old Testament stories we might say that,

Leprosy was understood as a disease that God inflicted if you dared to question his representative or his priests, or if you worshipped God in an incorrect way. 

With this background let’s return to the story in Luke 17.

When Jesus saw the ten lepers calling out for mercy, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.

First, Jesus sees these lepers.  He doesn’t marginalize the marginalized.  Jesus sees people that have been pushed to the margins by their religious communities.  The reason they had been marginalized was because leprosy was thought to have come from God. 

Now, Jesus intends to heal them, but he doesn’t do it immediately as was his usual method.  Instead he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests.  They all set off to do what Jesus asked and find that their skin is healed on the way. 

One of them however doesn’t follow through.  He doesn’t show himself to his priest, but instead returns praising God and thanking Jesus.  And what is Jesus’ response to this former leper who had disobeyed him?  He praises him and asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”    

Why does Jesus commend a Samaritan for not doing what he had clearly asked him to do?  And why does Jesus criticize the others for presumably doing exactly what he told them to do?

When Jesus tells them, “go and show yourselves to the priests” (plural) the implication is that there was more than one priesthood involved.  The Samaritan would not have gone with the others to their Jewish priest.  He would have had a Samaritan priest in another town. 

And here’s the crux of the matter; by sending them to their priests, whom was Jesus sending them to?  He was sending them back to the very people who had marginalized them in the first place!  He was asking them to return to the very religious system that believed God had given them leprosy.  But before they get there, they are made clean…

Maybe Jesus wasn’t really asking them to go back to the sacrificial religious leaders that had excluded them at all.  Perhaps this was Jesus doing a bit of “inquiry-based-teaching” - a method that encourages students to think and to ask serious questions about what their teacher is telling them.  Questions like:

Why, if Jesus can heal me, do I need to go back to the religious system that couldn’t heal me?

Why did Jesus see me out here on the margins and care about me?

Does this mean that God isn't angry with me, and does this mean that God didn't give me leprosy in the first place?

After his brief encounter with Jesus, I can envision this Samaritan alone on his way back to his priest, and as he is walking his skin becomes clean!  He begins asking himself questions like these and I can feel excitement beginning to bubble up in his heart as he considers the implications of what had just happened!  Can you sense it?  I can see him running back to his teacher, Jesus praising God at the top of his lungs and falling at Jesus’ feet in gratitude. 

So much of what he had been told was wrong!  So much of what his religious community had told him about God was the opposite of what Jesus had just taught him about God! This Samaritan asked the questions that Miriam was asking, but instead of it leading to leprosy, it led to his being healed and made whole. 

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Your faith has made you well…faith in what?  Surely not faith in the sacrificial religious system that had excluded and marginalized him.  Surely not faith in a God that gave people leprosy for questioning him or his representatives.  The faith that made this Samaritan “well” (meaning whole) was faith in the God that Jesus just revealed with so few words, in an inquiry-based lesson that only one of the ten understood.  The Samaritan, the most marginalized of the ten had what James Alison calls the intelligence of the victim. 

We need the intelligence of marginalized people.  Marginalized people see God in places that we middle class members-in-good-standing of our respectable religious communities can’t.  It is in the very people that our churches marginalize and exclude that God is to be found!  God, have mercy.

Our American churches are truly at a crossroads.  For the last 40 years or so we’ve been much more like the Pharisees and priests, excluding and marginalizing entire groups of people that we thought God is angry with.  But little by little though, the Gospel is at work, in stories like this one, helping us to rightly divide the word of truth. 

Lord, help us to follow the example of our Lord and teach us, as you did the Samaritan, to know when disobeying Jesus is the right thing to do.  

 

This blog is excerpted from a message of the same name that can be found in its entirety here

Charles Dickens, Lazarus & the Rich Man

How can Charles Dickens, a Victorian era fiction writer inform our reading of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus & the Rich ManI think in some important ways. 

Lazarus & the Rich Man is a parable, recorded in Luke 16 that Jesus tells in response to being ridiculed by the Pharisees who were lovers of money.  Lazarus is a beggar who sits by the gate of a rich man’s estate.  The rich man walks by Lazarus day after day, ignoring his plight.

Lazarus dies and is carried away by angels to be with Abraham.  The rich man also dies and is in torment in Hades.  He looks up, and sees Abraham and Lazarus far off, on the other side of a chasm that cannot be crossed.  He calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him something to quench his thirst.

Abraham refuses, saying that the rich man received his comfort during his life, and that Lazarus is now receiving his comfort.  The rich man also pleads for Lazarus to be sent to his father’s house to warn his family about this place of torment, but Abraham says that they wouldn’t believe even if someone were raised from the dead. 

This parable is often understood to be about heaven and hell, and the impenetrable chasm between the two.  I don’t think it’s about that at all. 

First, the rich man is in Hades.  Hades is not hell.  Hades is Greek for the Hebrew word Sheol, the place of the dead prior to the general resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns.

Also, Lazarus is said to be with Abraham, not God.  How many southern gospel songs have you heard about going to heaven to be with Abraham?  Not many.  Or, how many near death experiences feature heavenly bliss with Abraham?  Also, if this parable is about how to get into heaven and how to avoid hell, the only criterion seems to be caring for the poor.  No faith required.

This is where Charles Dickens can help.

Dickens was a master at creating memorable, fictional characters.  Jesus too, was a master at creating memorable, fictional characters.  The parables of Jesus are works of fiction.  You couldn’t go anywhere in the first Century Middle East to actually meet the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan, but these characters comprise some of the most influential teachings of Jesus.

One of Dickens’ most loved works of fiction is A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation from a crotchety old penny pincher into a generous benefactor.

In several otherworldly scenes, Scrooge is shown the past, present and future.  During these scenes, Scrooge begins to see the error of his ways and cries out across a chasm that cannot be crossed, trying in vain to change his past in order to affect his future.  Scrooge awakes from his last vision a changed man.  He runs out on Christmas morning, buys the biggest turkey he can find and hurries to the home of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.  The otherworldly scenes and visions function in the story to help Scrooge see the error of his ways and change the way he lives in this life. 

When reading A Christmas Carol we don’t try to extract any doctrine about heaven, hell or the afterlife from it.  We understand that the visions and apparitions function in the story as a way of giving Scrooge the opportunity to repent and change the way he lives before he dies.

I think this is exactly what Jesus is doing in the Parable of Lazarus & the Rich Man.

1. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens constructs a story, which leads Scrooge to discover his biases and blind spots.  In Lazarus & the Rich Man, Jesus constructs a story, which is intended to help the Pharisees discover their biases and blind spots. Even the biases and blind spots in their own Scriptures!

2. In A Christmas Carol Scrooge cries out across a chasm when he discovers the error of his ways, but the chasm can’t be crossed.  In Lazarus & the Rich Man, the rich man cries out across a chasm when he discovers the error of his ways, but the chasm can’t be crossed.

3. In A Christmas Carol, the otherworldly visitations offer Scrooge the opportunity to see his own actions more clearly, and give him the opportunity to repent (change his thinking and actions).  In Lazarus & the Rich Man, the otherworldly scene that Jesus constructs is meant to help the Pharisees see the error of their ways, and give them an opportunity to repent.

4. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge does change. He becomes gracious and generous with his resources IN THIS LIFE.  In Lazarus & the Rich Man, Jesus leaves the ending of the story unwritten.  It will be up to the Pharisees to decide how they will respond IN THIS LIFE.

The Parable of Lazarus & the Rich Man isn’t meant to teach doctrine about the afterlife.  It’s meant to give us the opportunity, like Ebenezer Scrooge, to change the way we live in this life.  It uses fictitious, otherworldly imagery to draw us into the story, but the imagery and the characters are meant to invite us to change.

When we read A Christmas Carol, we don’t take it literally.  In the same way, we shouldn’t take the parables of Jesus literally.  We should, however take them seriously.  In fact, to take the Parable of Lazarus & the Rich man seriously, we mustn’t take it literally.

This blog was adapted from a longer message of the same name that can be found in its entirety here.

Who Are the Lost Sheep?

The Parable of the Lost Sheep is a familiar parable told by Jesus and recorded in Luke 15.  It is the story of a shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and then leaves the 99 to search and find the lost sheep.  It is a parable of redemption, of rescue, of love and of concern.

Luke begins telling the story by writing, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” (Jesus)  Whenever I read this opening statement I immediately have to ask myself a few questions:

1.  Are sinners coming near to listen to me? If not, why not?

2.  Are sinners coming to our churches to listen to what we have to say? If not, why not?

3.  If sinners were attracted to Jesus, why aren’t they attracted to many Christians today?

4.  To what degree am I the tax collector or sinner in this story?

In the United States and Europe people are leaving churches in great numbers.  I think this parable could be really important in helping us understand this trend, and hopefully help us to begin to reverse it.

Who were the tax collectors and sinners?

Tax collectors were Jews who had gone to work for the Romans, collecting taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the Roman Empire.  They were despised by their communities and were treated like traitors. 

Sinners were people that the religious establishment of the time had excluded from life in the religious community.  They might have been people who had violated one of the many laws that the religious leaders found important, or they may have not been paying their tithes.  But they may also have been sick, blind, poor, lame or disfigured in some way.  All these conditions were considered to be curses from God.  According to Deuteronomy 28, these conditions were what God did to people who were disobedient!  This is one of the things Jesus came to sort out for us.  Jesus went about healing people like this, not cursing them!

The grumbling religious leaders

Luke goes on saying that the Pharisees (religious leaders) and scribes were grumbling about Jesus eating with these tax collectors and sinners.  They thought that being righteous and holy meant that you had to be un-welcoming to traitors and sinners.  But here was Jesus, eating, conversing and welcoming them!  Sadly, this un-welcoming attitude is present in many of our churches today.  This is why not many are interested in listening to what we have to say.  These churches look more like grumbling Pharisees than Jesus.  Lord, have mercy!

This sets the stage for the parable that Jesus tells, which begins like this: “So he told them this parable”.

Jesus tells this parable TO the grumbling religious leaders while enjoying a meal with the people they had excluded.  And he tells it primarily BECAUSE of their grumbling attitude.

The cast of characters

Let’s consider the ninety-nine sheep in this parable to be the grumbling religious leaders and their followers.  Let’s consider the tax collectors and sinners to be the lost sheep, and lets consider Jesus to be the shepherd.

 Jesus begins with a question.

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

First, where does Jesus locate the grumbling religious leaders?  In the wilderness. Not in the Temple or in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness.  Keep this in mind.  It will be important in a moment.

Second, there is an assumption in the way Jesus asks this question.  Do you hear it?  The question is framed such that leaving ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness would be the most obvious thing to do if one had been lost.  But is this what the religious leaders would have thought?  I don’t think so.  To leave a flock alone in the wilderness would be to leave them without guidance and without protection.  It would be like asking a banker today to leave his bank unlocked and unguarded to go after one lost customer. 

This question, from a practical perspective seems irresponsible – even reckless!  But there is another perspective from which to hear this question…the perspective of the lost sheep. If you were a lost sheep, isn’t the way Jesus frames the question the way you’d like it to be framed - with the assumption that your shepherd found you valuable enough to go seeking until he finds you? 

This is how Jesus the shepherd frames the question while surrounded with lost sheep…the traitors and sinners.  From the perspective of the lost sheep, any sign that someone is coming to find you would be great news! Jesus the shepherd goes on to say that, having found the lost sheep he brings them home rejoicing! Now do you see why they all wanted to be with him – listening to every word he had to say? 

A recurring Scriptural theme

This picture of many against one is a recurring theme in Scripture.  Joseph’s brothers became jealous of him and sold him into slavery.  The man of the Gadarenes had been scapegoated by his community.  The religious leaders used the woman caught in adultery in an attempt to unify people against Jesus.  Everybody that Jesus healed and delivered had been rejected by their religious communities, and the entire religious and political system turned against Jesus, leading to his crucifixion.

An inversion of the Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement the priest would lay his hands on the head of the scapegoat and ritually transfer the sin and guilt of the people to the scapegoat, which was then led out into the wilderness.  The parable of the lost sheep can also be understood as an inversion of the Day of Atonement. 

In the parable, it is the religious leaders who are in the wilderness while Jesus is with the scapegoats!  Now, those who thought they were on the inside find themselves in the wilderness, while those who had been excluded find themselves eating and celebrating with the Good Shepherd!

So as we come to the end of the parable, and if we understand the parable of the lost sheep as an inversion of the Day of Atonement we can ask this question:

“If the scapegoats are safely celebrating with the Good Shepherd, who in fact are the lost sheep?”

Perhaps there is something for our declining churches to learn here…

Communities that continue to find unity through excluding others are lost in the wilderness, but Jesus is with the outcasts.

A Dangerous Allegiance - How the Galatians Risked their Lives For Their Faith

“Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law.”  Galatians 5:2-3 NRSV

This statement written by the Apostle Paul to the Galatians, in which he prohibits them from being circumcised (becoming Jewish) has had countless pages written about it.  Brigitte Kahl, Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary has recently contributed to the literature exploring Galatians in her book, “Galatians Re-Imagined – Reading With The Eyes of the Vanquished”.  This blog is based, in part on her groundbreaking work.

Kahl’s work focuses on the relationship between New Testament texts and the Roman Empire.  It goes without saying that the New Testament was written within the Roman Empire, but often theologians and Biblical scholars have not explored the many implications of this fact.

Who were the Galatians?

Kahl makes the case that we should think of the Galatians as a large group of people, including Gauls and Celts who had been very resistant to the advance of the Roman Empire in the centuries leading up to the time of Paul.  She writes,

“Like the Greeks before them, the Romans knew the land inhabited by the Celtic peoples as barbarian territory par excellence.  It was populated by a particularly hostile race who, after five centuries of godless and irrational onslaughts against the sacred shrines and foundation of Greco-Roman civilization, had at last been subdued and assigned their place within the god-willed system of worldwide Roman rule, whether in Italy or Spain, Britain or France, Greece or Asia Minor.  Galatians/Gauls retained a notoriously indomitable tendency toward lawlessness which lurked always just beneath their newly civilized demeanor…”

Many enduring remnants from Antiquity illustrate the conquest and violent annexation of the Galatians/Gauls/Celts into the Roman Empire.  Paul was writing to these strong, yet conquered people. 

A word about circumcision

Circumcision was the mark of the covenant for Jews.  If you needed to prove that you were a Jew in the first Century, you didn’t reach for your I.D. – you lifted your robe.  Paul argues in this letter that Gentile Galatians should not be circumcised, but he does not argue for an end to circumcision for the Jews.  In fact, he has an entirely new community of faith in mind.

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  Galatians 3:28-29

Paul envisions nothing less than new creation in which both Jews and Gentiles find ‘oneness’ in Christ Jesus.  This vision however, of circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles becoming one in Christ had some serious ramifications for the Galatians.

Jewish accommodations

In 64 B.C.E, Israel was conquered by the Romans and became a province of the Empire.  Some accommodations were made to allow the Jews to continue to worship in their synagogues and in the Temple in Jerusalem, even though Israel was now a province of Rome.  One of the most striking of these was that the Jews agreed to fund and offer sacrifices, prayers and honorary dedications to the Empire and the Emperor twice daily from within the Temple in Jerusalem!  In exchange, the Jewish people were not required to take part in imperial sacrificial cultic practices in other Roman cities. 

Roman citizens however were required, in various ways and at many specific times, to voice and demonstrate their allegiance to Caesar.  The Roman Empire was considered a divine empire, and the Emperors considered “sons of God”. 

William Barclay writes of the obligation placed on male citizens of the Empire:

“So, in the end, the worship of the Emperor became, not voluntary, but compulsory. Once a year a man had to go and burn a pinch of incense to the godhead of Caesar and say, ‘Caesar is Lord.’”  Juxtapose this confession to something Paul wrote to believers in Rome:

“that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved”  Romans 10:9

For a Roman citizen to confess Jesus as Lord required the de-throning of Caesar as lord for that person.  There was no way around it. You had to choose who your Lord would be.  Jesus or Caesar. 

Can you see now why Galatian men might have wanted to be circumcised?

If they could have been circumcised, they would have become Jews in the eyes of the empire, and there were accommodations for Jews such that they could avoid confessing allegiance to the emperor and the empire.  Lacking these accommodations, Galatian believers would be faced with a sobering choice; confess Jesus as Lord and face the wrath of the empire, or deny Jesus as Lord and remain a subject of Rome.  Paul was indeed asking for a dangerous allegiance to Jesus.

Why would Paul place this difficult demand on Galatian men?

Being a Pharisee, Paul was intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures.  Both he and Peter identified the post-resurrection time they were living in as “the last days”.  Peter said as much at Pentecost when he said, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” Acts 2:16-17

These Hebrew Scriptures foresaw the time Paul was living in and described it in Scriptures like this one in Isaiah 2:

“Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it.”

All the nations will stream to the house of the Lord.  The Hebrew prophets didn’t foresee a time when all the nations would become Jewish (circumcised).  They foresaw a time when all the nations, meaning uncircumcised people groups, would come to the chief of the mountains…the mountain of the house of the Lord.

Paul, believing that the cross & resurrection marked the transition to the last days now expects the nations, as nations to stream into the new creation, the new covenant kingdom where there is neither Jew nor Greek, and where Jesus, not Caesar is Lord.  This is the nature of new creation.

Many Gentiles made the dangerous confession that Jesus is Lord in the face of the Roman Empire.  This is what it meant to be a witness to the resurrected Lord of lords, and many of these faithful witnesses died horrible deaths for making the Jesus is Lord confession.   The Greek word that we translate as “witness” is “martys” where we get the word, martyr.

What about today?

Living in the United States in 2016, I see large parts of the church jockeying to gain a seat of influence at the political table of empire.  It is usually done with good intentions, but when Jesus was tempted to go that route he refused.  He said, “My kingdom is not from this world.” 

Instead of the political table of empire, Jesus is inviting the nations to a different kind of table; a table of bread and wine, a table that unites all under the dangerous confession that Jesus is Lord, a table that invites a dangerous kind of allegiance to a different kind of King, with a different kind of kingdom.  Isaiah saw it and wrote…

“Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” 

Isaiah saw it.  Jesus saw it.  Paul saw it.  Can you see it too?

This blog is condensed from a message of the same name.  The entire message can be seen here.

The Return of the Scapegoat - A literary reading of the Man of the Gadarenes

The story, recorded in Luke 8 of Jesus casting out a Legion of demons from a man is surely one of the most remarkable exorcism stories in history. The man had been living in the tombs, howling and bruising himself, chained and under guard for a long time.  Jesus sent the demons into a herd of some 2000 pigs, which then ran headlong over a cliff to their death in the Sea of Galilee. This is the literal reading of the story.

Humans speak and write in various ways.  We sometimes speak literally, but we often speak or write in a literary way that invites the hearer to seek meaning behind the words of the text.  For instance, if I were building a house and I asked my helper to cut me a 2X4, 48-3/4” long, I wouldn’t expect my helper to ask, “what do you mean by that?”  The request is a literal request and there is no need to seek some deeper meaning in it.  This is how many people approach the Bible.  They expect the Bible to only be speaking literally.  I think however, that the story of the Man of the Gadarenes literally begs to be interpreted in a literary way – like how you might read literature.

This is not to say that the story should not also be understood literally; just that the story might have more to tell us if we approach it as a piece of literature, like how you might approach something written by Shakespeare.

We might begin by looking for symbols – words that held a particular meaning at the time the story was written.  In this story, four words in particular are freighted with meaning – sea, cliff, pigs and stones.

In Scripture, the sea often represents chaos or the abyss.  Cliffs and stones represented ways that communities executed people, either by a mob crowding a person up to the edge of a cliff until he fell, or by everyone throwing stones at someone until they died.  Finally, the Jews considered pigs unclean.  This story takes place in a Gentile region among people that the Jews considered unclean.

This story begins as a classic scapegoat story.  The demon-possessed man is the town’s scapegoat; like a town drunk or someone the community ridicules and excludes. 

Scapegoats are people we compare ourselves to in order to make us feel better about ourselves. 

Luke tells us that this man was kept in chains and under guard, but that he would often break free.  The guards would recapture him and he would again break free. You might think they kept him in chains because he was a threat to the community, but Luke says that when he broke free he ran off into the wilderness.  So why did they keep him around? 

They kept him around because they needed him.

Communities often define themselves over and against someone else-some “other”.  In order to feel good about ourselves we need someone bad to compare ourselves to.  We need the town drunk, the demoniac in order to feel better about ourselves.  We sometimes scapegoat entire communities of people – people of different races, genders, religions, and LGBT folks etc. to make us feel righteous and good.

When the demoniac sees Jesus coming, he runs to Jesus, bows down before him and shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”  This is amazing.  When the town’s scapegoat sees Jesus, he immediately recognizes him for who he is.  Even people in Jesus’ hometown couldn’t see this. 

This is what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim”. 

The people that we marginalize and look down upon have a different vantage point.  They see the world, and they see God differently than their oppressors do.  They actually have an intelligence that the whole community needs but forfeits access to when it sees itself as better than those they scapegoat.

Then Jesus asks the man for his name.  He answers, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”  Did you see the switch from singular to plural in that response - the transition from “my” to “we”?  This is the voice of a crowd or mob, speaking with one voice.  These are the accusatory voices of the community.  Legion is the collective voice of this man’s community that has marginalized him for their own benefit…to make them feel better about themselves.

Over time, this tormented man has internalized all the sinful accusations of his community.  He has accepted their judgment of him and come to see himself as they have defined him.  All that is left now is to carry out of their righteous sentence…he begins “bruising himself with stones”. 

He begins to stone himself.

Today we call this self-harm.  Cutting disorders, anorexia, addictions, violent outbursts and more can be the result of being marginalized by a person’s community.  When people become convinced of their own worthlessness, and accept the judgments of others they begin inflicting on themselves the sentence they believe they deserve.

Then Legion makes a request of Jesus. “Don’t send us back into the abyss!” Or, don’t do something that will send our community into chaos!  When a community loses its center…the ones it defines itself against, all hell can break loose!  Jesus gives Legion permission to enter a herd of pigs and they rush over a cliff into the abyss.  The demonic voices of accusation are sent into such disarray that they destroy themselves in an act of pathological suicide.

I think what happened here in a literary sense is that when the man who had completely given in to the unclean, demonic voices of his community saw Jesus for who He is, the Son of the Most High God, he began to see himself for who he really was – someone who was loved and made in God’s image.  Then, the exodus of all the other accusatory voices could not be stopped.

The swineherds go tell the community what has happened and all the people come out to see.  When they see the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind they were “seized with great fear”.  Why?  Because they no longer had their scapegoat, and without a scapegoat to define themselves against, how would they know who they are?  Talk about an identity crisis! 

Rene Girard has observed that human communities become cohesive through this process of scapegoating.  It serves to create unity, but the unity is always found at the expense of a scapegoat.  It is a ‘negative unity’.  But Jesus gives us a new way to be human – the potential for a ‘positive unity’.  He prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one.  There is no scapegoat in the Trinity.

After this, the man from whom the demons had gone asks Jesus if he can leave with him.  Jesus replies, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Was Jesus being mean?  I don’t think so.  I think Jesus knew that the presence of this healed and restored man in his community would serve as a reminder, even a promise that there is the possibility of a new kind of unity – a new way to be human. 

In his book, “Compassion or Apocalypse”, James Warren writes: “…a herd of pigs charging over a cliff and falling into the sea – the same thing that had happened countless times in the ancient world to countless victims of mob violence.  The real excitement of Jesus’ miracle, therefore, is that for the first time in history it is the crowd, the mob, that is cast over the cliff, while the scapegoat goes free!  Rather than the scapegoat being cast out of the city, the city is cast out of the scapegoat, who now sits there “clothed and in his right mind.”

Perhaps this story has much more to say to us today than a simple literal reading reveals.  The return of the scapegoat, healed and in his right mind challenges us.  His presence among us asks us to reconsider how we form communities, how we define ourselves, and how we will live.

This blog is condensed from a message of the same name.  The entire message can be seen here.

 

The Widow & the Tanner

The Widow & the Tanner

What Peter came to understand there on the tanner’s roof was one of the most important spiritual break-throughs ever given to anyone…that God sees ALL people the same, that God doesn’t have favorites, that God doesn’t divide people into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, and that what God has made clean, Peter was not to call ‘unclean’.  Oh that we all could learn this lesson today.

Paradigm Shift - Mary Got It!

Paradigm Shift - Mary Got It!

A common complementarian justification for exclusive male leadership in the church is that Jesus selected only men to be his disciples.  The more I reflect on the fearless perceptive faithfulness of many of the women who followed Jesus, the more I think Jesus may have been deliberately constructing an object lesson for those who have eyes to see-a lesson in which the women come out looking much more committed and perceptive than the men.

The Prodigal Pirate

One of the things I value about the parables of Jesus is that they can be understood in multiple ways, similar to a prism.  One beam of white light enters a prism and several streams of different colored light emerge from the other side.  Our own experience of life can be likened to a prism.  When we hear Jesus telling us a parable, the prism of our lives, our cumulative life experience, our family history, our socio/economic standing and many other things function to refract the parable into something that is intelligible to us.  How receptive we are to the various streams of light that emerge from the prism that is our lives will vary.  

Some approach the parables of Jesus seeking to find one correct interpretation.  I think this is a mistake.  In Judaism, teachers recognized that texts could be understood in various ways and an approach called midrash arose that made an attempt to explore these different understandings by “filling in the blanks” in the stories with plausible details that brought a range of insights into view.  I think that this same approach, applied carefully can be a valuable tool in approaching the parables of Jesus as well.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well known of Jesus’ parables.  It has been the subject of numerous interpretations, not least of which is Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal: A Story of Homecoming”.  Traditional interpretations usually center on the grace of a loving father who welcomes a repentant, wayward son who had squandered his inheritance back into the family, and an elder son’s struggle in extending the same kind of grace toward his younger sibling.  These understandings are powerful, full of beauty and have been a blessing and a challenge to many people.

Kester Brewin, in his book, “Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us” presents an alternate interpretation of the prodigal son parable that differs a great deal from traditional views.  His is a tragic, “dark” reading of the story that I think is well worth your time investigating.  Following Brewin’s approach, I offer the following reading of the prodigal son that is similar to Brewin’s but having passed through the prism that is my life, some different colors emerge.

The Prodigal Pirate – A Tragic Reading of The Prodigal Son Parable

The parable is recorded in Luke chapter 15.  Jesus tells this parable (and two others) in response to some Pharisees and legal experts grumbling about him welcoming and spending time with sinners.  (Luke 15:1-2) 

I will present the grumbling religious leaders as the father figure in this reading.

 These religious leaders were overseers of an “Estate” known as the Temple.  They were well cared for inside this walled and gated Estate, receiving their income through tithes, and via the lucrative system of currency exchange, and the sale of animals that undergirded their sacrificial religious system.  This “father figure” kept the keys to this kingdom and could block access to the Estate to whomever he deemed sinful.  The Estate provided very well for those who played by its rules, including benefits like high social status, beautiful clothing and a never-ending supply of fresh meat and grain, but those who violated the rules of the Estate were expelled or even executed. 

Into this Estate Jesus introduces two sons.

The elder son was a true son of the estate.  He knew how to play by the rules.  He knew what to expect.  He knew who belonged inside the Estate, and who was outside.  Being the firstborn, he knew what was expected of him.  He worked hard and knew what he was entitled to.  Perhaps he was being groomed to be a priest, a scribe or a Pharisee.  His father was very proud of him.

The younger son also grew up in the Estate, and enjoyed all the benefits of being an insider.  He ate the best food and wore the best garments.  He had unfettered access to the religious machinery that kept order in Israel and knew how it all worked.  But like many young people, he began to have some questions.

Walking through the streets of Jerusalem he sees people who don’t have the same advantages that he has - the poor, the sick, and the oppressed that his father tells him are cursed by God.  He begins to wonder why he should be so blessed just because he is a son of the Estate, while these outsiders are cursed.  Why should he have all that he has, including the promise of a great inheritance for no reason other than being born into the right family inside the Estate?  A couple of times he secretly talked with some of the outsiders even though his father had prohibited him from doing so. They didn’t seem all that different from him.

The more the young son thought about this, the more it bothered him.  He thought, “It doesn’t seem fair”! “It’s not just”!  But what could he do about it?  How could someone like him have any impact on his father and something as great as the Estate?  Then it occurred to him; he couldn’t change the whole system, but he could ask for his inheritance, he could take what was his and play the pirate with it.  He could leave and live by a different kind of code – a code based on equity, a code that recognized the inherent worth of the outsiders that his father and the Estate so despised.

But this will be no small mutiny…it will mean dying to all that his father and the estate hold sacred.  It will mean becoming as dead to his father, his family and the religion of his youth.  It could cost him everything but he feels like he’s dying inside the Estate.  So, one day he gets his courage up and asks his father for his inheritance.  His father is shocked, but for some reason he gives him what he asks for.  Perhaps the father has seen troubling signs of weakness in his younger son.

The younger son then sets sail, goes to a distant country and seeks out the very people that his father and the Estate wouldn’t have anything to do with; the outsiders, the sinners, the poor, the sick and the prostitutes.  He generously spends his inheritance making life a little more merry and bearable for these outcasts-the ones the Estate had blocked from access…the ones they cursed and shunned.

Somehow word of all this gets back to the elder brother, and he is livid!  He accuses his younger brother of living riotously, of eating and drinking with sinners and whores.  He can’t understand why or how his younger brother could have given up all he had in his father’s house to live among the cursed refuse of society.  

The elder brother thought…

            My brother had the same highly honored name as his father, but he let it go.

            He gave up his exalted position and took on the appearance of a sinner.

            He doesn’t seem to care about his reputation at all. 

The younger brother kept spending his inheritance among the outsiders but after a while, the money ran out.  And to make matters worse, a famine struck the land and with all his inheritance spent, he found himself in the same straits as the ones he had come to help.  He went to work for a farmer and became so hungry he even considered eating the disgusting food he was feeding the pigs.

It was just then that the younger son realized what it was like to be one of the outcasts.  He had wanted to help them, but now he was one of them, and it was horrible.  It was foul and detestable.  For the first time in his life he felt hopeless, alone and without a home.

It was then and there, in the depths of an outsider’s existence that he began to weigh the costs of his youthful idealism.  As he sat there among the pigs, starving, disillusioned and poverty-stricken for the first time, his thoughts drifted back to the Estate.  He remembered that back at the Estate, even his father’s slaves were eating better than he was.  He had had such big plans of helping the very people his father didn’t want him having anything to do with, but now, he was one of them.

His act of mutiny, of rebellion against an unjust system had come face to face with reality.  It was no longer sustainable, and he hadn’t really changed much of anything.  Sitting there in the mud, among the stinking swine he thought, “I guess my father was right…” I guess allowing myself to care about the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the outcasts was all a big mistake.”  And then it hit him; “It’s ME! It’s ME! I am the sinful one!” And he repented.

So he decided to go back…but not as a son. NO! As a slave.  He wasn’t worthy of being considered a son…he had destroyed that by dishonoring his father, his family and the Estate.  His misplaced compassion had made him unworthy of being considered a son.  

He began making his way back, and when the Estate came into view, his father saw him.  His heart stirred with love and pity, he ran to meet his wayward son.  His son began to repent, explaining how wrong he was to have cared for those sinful outsiders but his father interrupted and barked an order to the slaves, “Hurry! Bring out the best robe!  Put it on him, and put my signet ring on his finger and sandals on his feet!  Kill the fatted calf!  Everyone, eat, drink and be merry, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again! He was lost and is found!”  And they began to celebrate.

This young pirate’s mutiny was pardoned.

                            All will once again be as it should be.

                                                            The Estate has restored one of its own.


In this tragic retelling of the prodigal story, I note the following in support of this being a plausible alternative midrashic interpretation.

1.            Jesus told this parable in response to some Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling about his associating with sinners (Luke 15:2).  The elder brother’s accusation in verse 30 that the younger had devoured the father’s property with prostitutes sounds very similar to criticisms often made against Jesus by Pharisees and other religious leaders like those to whom Jesus was telling this parable.  Perhaps Jesus was using this story element in a way that would highlight his questioner’s judgmental attitude rather than as a judgment against the younger son.  Jesus was not in the habit of denouncing people like those the younger son was spending his time with.  In fact he was famous for loving and giving himself to them.

2.            Jesus does not preface this parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like”.  This leaves open the possibility that this parable can be understood as a parable in response to the kingdom the religious leaders had constructed that was very unlike the kingdom of God.

3.            Concerning Luke 15:13 and whether or not the younger son’s spending was “riotous”, the Greek word “asotos” only appears here in the NT.  “The word does not necessarily signify “dissolutely” (riotous) per Vines Expository Dictionary.  In addition “diaskorpizo” which is translated as “wasteful” or “squandered” can also mean “to scatter or disperse”.  So, an alternative translation of Luke 15:13 might read, “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he dispersed his property in extravagant/generous living.”  This would remove the negative connotation.  Regardless, if we understand Jesus as narrator of the parable, possibly telling the story from the perspective of a pharisaical father figure and his idealistic young son, either translation could legitimately sustain this interpretation. One person’s wasteful spending is another person’s extravagance.  When the woman broke the alabaster jar of perfume over Jesus, his own disciples described it as wasteful, but Jesus received it as an act of extravagance.

4.            In the two preceding parables, (The Lost Coin and the Lost Sheep) the main characters go about diligently seeking what was lost.  In the prodigal story, the father stays comfortably at home and takes no initiative to find the lost son.  This may be a clue to the fact that this third parable is approaching the “problem” that the Pharisees were complaining about (Jesus’ associating with sinners) from a different angle.  In this parable, the father figure, while he receives the prodigal back into the family, took no initiative in finding the lost son.  This father actually was acting much like the Pharisees in that he kept himself apart from the “sinners” his younger son was associating with, but accepted the wayward son back into the Estate when the son was ready to rejoin the family on his father’s terms.

5.            The Lost Coin and Lost Sheep parables conclude by describing joy in heaven over the restoration of something of value being restored.  The prodigal parable, understood as a tragedy illustrates the sobering consequences of a young son’s awakening to how lost he was while living in the secluded comfort of his father’s Estate, and who made an attempt at finding himself amongst the outcasts, but when confronted with the cost, could not escape the gravity of his father’s kingdom.  There is no concluding statement of joy in heaven at the end of the parable of the prodigal, even though the son was restored.  Could it be that this “restoration” was not something that caused joy in heaven?

6.            At what other time does Jesus present as positive the wealthy who keep themselves separate from those in need?