I invite you to the observance of a Holy Lent…

mississippiYou can actually step across the Mississippi River at its headwaters. It’s barely a trickle when it starts out in northern Minnesota. But just travel downstream and soon it becomes the proverbial “Mighty Mississippi.” What transforms the Mississippi River from something that’s shallow and narrow into something that’s “deep and wide” are its tributaries.  On its 2,350 mile trek from the north woods of Minnesota to the sunny shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River picks up 15 tributaries.  It’s the fact that the Illinois River, the Missouri River, the Ohio River, the Arkansas River, and the Red River – just to name a few – all join the Mississippi River at some point along its journey through the heartland of America, adding to its strength and volume, that makes it one of the largest and longest river systems in the world.

streamsThirty years ago when he saw the first signs of “a mighty river of the Spirit bursting forth from the hearts of men and women, boys and girls — a deep river of divine intimacy, a powerful river of holy living, a dancing river of jubilation in the Spirit, a broad river of unconditional love for all peoples” (xv), the Quaker author Richard Foster wrote his book Streams of Living Water: The Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith and launched a movement for the intentional spiritual formation of Christians that tried to balance the different spiritual  traditions of historic Christianity.  Just like all of those tributaries flowing into the Mississippi River making it the greatest of American Rivers, so Richard Foster believed that all of the different streams of Christian spirituality needed to be combined.

The Contemplative Stream of the Prayer-Filled Life
The Holiness Stream of the Virtuous Life
The Charismatic Stream of the Spirit-Empowered Life
The Social Justice Stream of the Compassionate Life
The Evangelical Stream of the Word-Centered Life
The Incarnational Stream of the Sacramental Life

He believed that these six streams that for so long had flowed separately could combine to form a mighty “Mississippi of the Spirit.” This is clearly a Biblical idea. Psalm 1:1-3 describes the life of a believer who is planted beside the streams of living water to be both abundant and productive.

They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (1:3)

Our spiritual vitality depends on there being these streams of life-giving water flowing into our lives, and the whole point of the church’s annual season of Lent is for us to get deliberate and disciplined about positioning ourselves beside them so that we can grow spiritually. Now, I don’t know any Christians who won’t say that this is what they want, who won’t say that they want to grow spiritually.  But this is where it becomes a matter of the proverbial “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” dilemma that we face all the time as a church. Take Lent seriously.  Practice the spiritual disciplines.  Be in church every Sunday for worship from now until Easter, and you’ll grow spiritually.  I guarantee it.   But the fact is that only a few of us will.  This is always the case.  But what a difference those few will experience, and what a difference they can make!  Jesus even said so –

Those who drink of the living water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. (4:14)

 Eastern Orthodox Christians have a traditional saying – “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” What they mean by this is that when a person drinks the living water that is Christ, they will then, in turn, become channels of that same living water into the lives of the people they know and love. And this means that the Invitation to a Holy Lent is not just an invitation for us to get serious for a season about letting the streams of living water flow into our lives, it’s also an invitation for us to allow those streams of living water that are flowing into us, to also flow out of us to others, bringing Christ’s life, light, and love to them as well.

It’s a familiar illustration, but one that seems uniquely apropos for Ash Wednesday with its Invitation to a Holy Lent –

seaWithin the borders of Israel there are two great seas – the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. These two bodies of water are connected by the Jordan River. Though these two seas share the same country and the same river, they could not be more different. The Sea of Galilee, in the North, has fresh water, and abounds with life. There are fish in its waters and lush vegetation growing on its shores.  Ninety miles south, the Jordan River ends at the Dead Sea. Unlike the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea has such a high mineral content that it cannot sustain life. There are no fish in its waters and no vegetation growing on its shores. The Sea of Galilee receives water from its surroundings and then channels it out through the Jordan River. It receives and it gives; water flows in, and water flows out. But the Dead Sea at the other end of the Jordan River has no outlet.  It keeps every drop of water it gets for itself, and this creates a stagnant and polluted body of water that’s dead.

ashIf we approach Lent as something that’s just good for us, as something that will improve the quality of our spiritual lives alone, then I’m not really sure that it’s such a good thing for us to be doing. There’s such a thing as spiritual greed, of wanting to acquire more and more spiritual experiences so that we’ll feel better about ourselves, and maybe even think that we’re spiritually better than everybody else. Lent can become just such an exercise in spiritual self-aggrandizement. This is why Jesus explicitly warned His disciples about doing spiritual practices just to be seen by others (Matthew 6).  Lent can easily become that kind of spiritual dead end if we aren’t careful.  But if instead, Lent becomes a way for us to intentionally drink afresh of the living water that Christ wants to give us so that out of our hearts can flow rivers of living water (John 7:38), then these next 40 days might just be the most important of the entire year for us, for the church, and for our world. DBS +

 

 

 

 

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“If you love Me…”

The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Discipleship

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Discipleship — actually following Jesus — is not optional in Christianity, or for Christians. It’s not an extra add-on like satellite radio in your car, or the premium channels in your cable package.  We can’t break the “Good Confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior in half.  We can’t give Jesus our sins to be forgiven as Savior without Him, at the very same time, demanding to become the Lord of our lives.  Consider the Great Commission — Christ’s final marching orders to the church. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” Jesus told His first followers (Luke 14:47; Mark 16:15), “make disciples, baptize them in the name of the Father, he Son, and the Holy Spirit, teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

mennoMenno Simons, one of the Protestant Reformers who gets lost in all of the attention that Luther and Calvin get, understood better than they did what the connection is between believing the Gospel and becoming Christ’s disciples, between getting baptized and obeying all that Christ taught. Menno Simons taught that baptism is probably the least important thing that God commands us to do. Jesus Christ taught so many more important things – loving our neighbors, dying to self, serving the least of these.  But Menno Simons nevertheless insisted that people get baptized at the very beginning of their Christian lives because he viewed baptism as the first act of their obedience of faith.  Menno Simons understood that if a person agreed to be baptized because Jesus told them to do it, that he or she was someone who was already disposed to do whatever else could be shown to be something that Jesus Christ wanted them to do.

drownIt should come as no great surprise to learn that Menno Simons’ spiritual descendants – the Mennonites – more so than any other part of the Christian family today, have taken the actual living of the Sermon on the Mount most seriously. They get baptized to show their intention to be Christ’s disciples, to do whatever He commands, and they understand that the most comprehensive account of what Christ has commanded is the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not just meant to be admired by us as an inspiring ideal.  The Sermon on the Mount is meant to be adopted as our working philosophy of life as Christians.

Now, if we are to do this – and our baptisms say that we should – then there are three things that we’ve got to keep in mind –

The first thing is understanding that living the Sermon on the Mount is not something that we do in order to become Christians, but rather it’s something that we do because we are Christians.  I like the way that Frank Thielman, a Professor of New Testament at Beeson Theological Seminary over in Birmingham, Alabama, puts it – “The Sermon on the Mount shows us what life should look like for a heart that has been melted and transformed by the Gospel of Grace.”

cupWe don’t gather at the Lord’s Table to hear the Sermon on the Mount read to us. No, we gather at the Lord’s Table to break bread in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us, and to pour a cup in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us.  This is what makes us Christians.  We are loved, forgiven, and accepted by Christ’s saving work when He died an atoning death on the cross and when He rose transformed and transforming from the Garden Tomb.  But a copy of the Sermon on the Mount should probably be put in our hands at the door of the church every Sunday morning when worship is over and we’re on our way back into the world as people who have been loved, forgiven, and accepted by the Savior.  The Sermon on the Mount is what a life of grateful obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord looks like.

applesThe second thing we need to keep in mind if we are going to live the Sermon on the Mount is understanding that it is not a set of rules that gets imposed on us from the outside, but is rather the shape of the desire that arises from the heart of someone who has been indwelt by Christ.  Living like this is not something that we have to do.  It’s something that we want to do. In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about fruit and roots.  “Grapes are not gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles,” Jesus explained. “Sound trees bear good fruit; bad trees bear bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17).  Reflecting on this, John Piper writes –

Christians have to be loving. Christians have to be just. Christians have to be caring. The fruit of the Spirit really matter. We’re not Christians if we aren’t living differently than we would if we weren’t Christians.

The real question is how does this fruit get produced in us? Jesus said that the kind of fruit we produce depends entirely on the kind of tree we are. And this means that the behaviors of discipleship that the Sermon on the Mount describe – the fruit – can’t be forced on us by some kind of external authority, but rather have to be formed in us by an inward transformation. The key to living the Sermon on the Mount is being a Christian -having a heart indwelt by Christ.

yogaBut even then, it’s not going to be easy, or automatic. That’s the third thing that we need to understand if we’re going to start living the Sermon on the Mount. E. Stanley Jones said that living the life of the Sermon on the Mount is sort of like trying to walk after you’ve sat for a long time with your legs folded up underneath you. At first it feels painful and completely unnatural, something impossible to do. But after a while, with a little effort and movement, nothing else feels right. And then it dawns on us that this is the right way to live, the truest and most satisfying way of being a human being. This is the kind of life that we were built for, and when we finally realize this then no other way of living will ever be possible for us again.

kempisIn his 15th century spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’ Kempis explained that one of the real keys to making progress in the Christian life was to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord each day as if it were the very first day of our Christian lives. Don’t start the day by congratulating yourself on any sort of imagined spiritual progress that you think you might have made, but instead consciously seek the help of Jesus who is your Savior as you continue to grow in your experience of Jesus who intends to be your Lord. It’s only by “doing what He told us to do, loving what He loves, and living by His word” (J. Ligon Duncan) that we show ourselves to be His disciples, and Biblically there’s no other way for us to be in a right relationship with Him. As A.W. Tozer put it – “It is altogether doubtful whether a person can be saved who comes to Christ for His help but who has no intention of obeying Him.” “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “then you will do what I tell you.” DBS +

 

 

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Jesus, Friend of Sinners

In the October 1, 2004 issue of Christianity Today Jonathan David Taylor wrote an article (“Smugglings Cats for a Gay Celebrity”) about his experience as a Christian College student volunteering at the AIDS Hospice in Southern California where Lance Loud, an icon of gay culture, was dying. In the course of their relationship Jonathan realized that Lance was not his school service project; Lance had become his friend.  Jonathan certainly wanted Lance to know the grace of God in Jesus Christ, in fact, he says that he prayed about it all the time, but Jonathan says that he realized that he was not there to “save” Lance, but simply to love Lance. If his love pointed to God’s love in Jesus Christ, then great, he truly hoped it did, but the truth of the matter was that he was going to love Lance whether or not he ever became a Christian, and the shape that love took in Lance’s closing days were two little kittens.

When that article got published, Jonathan was taken to the woodshed by some of Christianity Today’s readers.  What was a good Christian like Jonathan doing being nice to a gay man like Lance Loud, they demanded to know.  Why didn’t Jonathan just share the Gospel with him, and if he didn’t repent and believe, move on, shaking the dust from his feet?  And Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, says that he heard an echo of our Scripture lesson this morning from Luke chapter 5 in the things that these Christians were saying about Jonathan and his friendship with Lance.

Levi gave a great banquet for Jesus in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  [5:29-30]

Blog1One of the names that Jesus was given in the Gospels was the “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).  Jesus got this name for doing things like singling out Levi, a tax collector who would have been viewed in his time and place as one of the vilest of offenders to both God and his community, and Jesus called Levi to follow Him.  Luke 5:27-32  is the flagship of Gospel texts about Jesus’ friendships with the kind of people that polite society and its religious leaders shunned – Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles… sinners.  In fact, later in the Gospel of Luke, the preface to some of the most famous parables that Jesus told – the Parable of the Lost Coin, the Parable of the Lost Lamb, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son – accented this fact –

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them [these] parable(s)… (15:1-3) 

It’s a curious thing to me that Jesus had this reputation for being so welcoming of Blog2sinners, and that His church today doesn’t.  When he was doing his research for his book – What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey says that he conducted an informal survey whenever he travelled on an airplane.  In informal conversations with his seatmates he would ask them, “What comes to mind when I say ‘Christian’?”  And he says that he heard “judgmental,” “narrow,” “hateful,” “bigoted,” “backwards,” and “ignorant” all the time, but never a word about grace — not even once.  “Apparently grace is not the aroma that Christians give off in the world,” Philip Yancey wrote (31).

Philip told the story about a friend of his who was in church with her daughter one Sunday morning when the minister’s wife approached her and said, “I hear that you’re getting a divorce.  I can’t understand why a Christian would ever do such a thing.”  This was the first and virtually the only time that the minister’s wife had ever spoken to Philip’s friend, and she was stunned by the brusque rebuke that she was given with her daughter standing right there beside her.  “The pain of it was that my husband and I both love Jesus,” she explained, “but our marriage was broken beyond mending.”  What Philip’s friend desperately needed in that moment was not to be scolded by the minister’s wife, but rather to be gathered up in her arms, and to hear – “I am so sorry.”  That would have been the more Christ-like thing to do.  In the Gospels broken, wounded, guilty people ran to Jesus for comfort and refuge.  But today they run away from His church because they fear that all they are going to get from us is rejection and condemnation. In their experience, Christians use their Bibles to beat them up.  And it’s true, part of what we have in our Bibles as Christians is a moral compass that we believe was given to us by God.  

Blog3We operate with a Biblical sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and there’s a real fear in many of us who are Christians that if we don’t speak up and speak out when we see behaviors and attitudes that we think are contrary to what God has told us are right that we will be guilty of condoning sin.  And so Christians get known for their wagging fingers, their disapproving looks, and their harsh words.  This takes two distinct forms in the church today. Traditionalist Christians tend to focus on matters of personal morality.  They are especially vocal about questions of sexual behavior, and are most concerned about what is perceived to be a loosening of well-known and long-established standards.  Progressive Christians, on the other hand, tend to focus on matters of social justice.  They are especially vocal and most concerned about the failures of our society to deliver on the promises of liberty and justice for all.  And both kinds of Christians, each in their own way, can wind up scolding those they have judged to be the sinners — those who are not abiding by the God-given moral standards, be they personal or social. We think that this is what will change a person.  We think that once a person has been publicly scolded and shamed, that they will morally come to their senses, straighten up, and begin to fly right.  This is the rationale for hell-fire and brimstone preaching.  Just point an accusatory finger at people and tell them that because of what they are doing wrong in their personal lives, or because of their perpetration of, or complicity with the injustices of society at large, that they have sinned and fallen short of God’s expectations. I suspect that we’ve all been stiff-armed by somebody at some time in this way, and if you’re like me, then it didn’t change you at all, it just made you mad.  Instead of effecting any kind of significant change in you, it just made you even more spiritually and morally resistant to change.

Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our “Disciples” spiritual tradition, recognized Blog4this.  He said that when people are told that they are sinners that it’s not really news to them. The pointing finger and the accusatory tone only confirm what they already suspect about themselves somewhere deep inside – that they are a sore disappointment to God in so many ways. Alexander Campbell said that the only thing that has the power to break through this self-loathing and that can initiate the kind of moral and spiritual change that we all so desperately need is “the full demonstration and proof of a single proposition… that God is love.”   And when, and where, and how this “full demonstration and proof” that God is love occurred was in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It was His friendship with sinners in life, and His atonement for sin in death, that is the power of God to change us, and the whole world.

This was the theological argument that made me a Disciple 45 years ago, and that has kept me a Disciple ever since.  It’s the value we affirm as a church by our open table.  When we begin with the premise that the love of God includes everybody, then we are going to find it increasingly difficult to exclude anybody.  We’re going to meet people where they are, love them as they are, and let God’s grace do its work in them, and us.

Jonathan David Taylor will tell you that he doesn’t know if their unexpected friendship changed anything in, or about, Lance Loud.  But he is quick to say that it changed him. His unexpected friendship with Lance Loud brought healing to his own fear and prejudice toward people who are gay, and it took him deeper into the heart of God that was revealed in Jesus Christ.  The people who make us crazy are the people God expects us to love.  Get ready.  That’s where Jesus Christ is going to take us when we say we want to follow Him.  DBS +

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Gospel Words and Gospel Works

handsThere’s a memorable scene in the movie version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Jesus gets surrounded by a sea of needy people, all of them stretching out their hands trying to grab hold of a piece of the wholeness that He had offered to other people in His ministry of healing.  They wanted their share, and in this scene in the movie Jesus gets engulfed by this crowd with their needs and He disappears into them as if sinking into quicksand.

I think of Mark 3:7-10 whenever I see of this scene –

Hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Jesus told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.

The physical needs of people were so great and so many in the days of His public ministry that Jesus could very easily spent every waking moment He had healing them, feeding them, and delivering them. And so Luke tells us that early in His ministry Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to think and pray, and when the crowd found Him and wanted more, He told them – “I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43).

Word and action were inextricably intertwined in the ministry of Jesus. The verbalization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose – His “Kingdom” – and the visualization of the Good News of God’s presence and purpose were equal parts of His ministry.

Jesus preached and Jesus healed the sick.
Jesus preached and Jesus cast out demons.
Jesus preached and Jesus raised the dead.
Jesus preached and Jesus fed the hungry.
Jesus preached and Jesus calmed the storm.

This is why Luke began his second book, the book of Acts, with a description of the content of his first book, the Gospel of Luke. “In the first book,” Luke explained, “I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). “Do” and “teach.” Jesus did things and Jesus talked about things. Word and action — that was the pattern of Christ’s ministry.

JesusIf I’m reading Luke 4:40-44 correctly, then it was figuring out how to balance the things that Jesus was sent to say with the things that Jesus needed to do to give those words credibility that proved to be so tricky for Him because there were always more people who needed Jesus to do things for them — to heal them, and to feed them, to deliver them —than there were people who were eager to sit and listen to Him preach. It would have been easy for Jesus to have neglected His mandate to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom because He was so busy meeting people’s physical needs.  This is a theme that recurs throughout the Gospels.

The Adversary tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread in the Wilderness. Some interpreters hear in this taunt the suggestion that Jesus should substitute His spiritual mission for a purely material one alone “You don’t have to go to the cross as the Messiah to do the saving work of God, just meet people’s physical needs, that will get you a following” seems to be the subtext of the Devil’s suggestion.  And then later, in the Gospel of John, after feeding the 5000, we’re told that the crowd was actually ready to take Jesus by force and make Him King (6:15), and why not?  He could keep their bellies perpetually full.  But Jesus turned and walked away from this offer, and when the crowd finally caught up with Him again, He told them directly –

“You came looking for Me because you ate the bread and got all you wanted, not because you were looking for the Christ.  Don’t seek the food that spoils; instead, seek the food that lasts for eternal life. This is the food that the Son of Man can give you…” (6:26-27 – paraphrased)

Then Jesus preached one of His most important sermons in the Gospel of John — the Bread of Life discourse.

What I see going on in the story that Luke tells in 4:40-44 is this same struggle to hold the Gospel’s words and the Gospel’s works together in proper balance. This isn’t easy to do.  In fact, it’s a horse that we can fall off from either side.  And so there are word churches. There are works churches.  But there are very few word and work churches.  Word churches are good at telling people about Jesus.  Works churches are good at showing Jesus by the compassionate things that they do.  But what God wants, what God needs, what God always intended, was for every church to hold their Gospel words and their Gospel works together in proper balance.

The church I serve is a Gospel works church, in fact, we do the works of the Gospel just about as well as any church I’ve ever known. If there’s someone who needs to be fed, or clothed, or sheltered, or taken care of in a time of distress, deprivation, or desperation, we’ll be there because we understand that this is what Jesus Christ expects of us as His people. But ask us to tell somebody about Jesus, and we’re like deer caught in the headlights.

assisiWe just love that saying that gets popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi – Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.”  We love this saying because we’re Gospel works Christians, and we think that it excuses us from ever having to talk about our faith. There are several problems with this.  First of all, St. Francis never said it. The Franciscans have thoroughly checked.  They’ve searched their sources, and not found it anywhere.   And the truth of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that St. Francis would have ever said this.  He was a preacher, and the order that he founded – the Franciscans – are an order of preachers.  They’re all about the preaching of the Gospel.  They’re word Christians. And finally, we probably shouldn’t say it because it’s ultimately illogical.  Saying – “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words” – is sort of like saying – “Call me on the phone, if necessary use numbers,” or – “Fix me dinner, if necessary use ingredients.” The fact of the matter is that the Gospel has some specific and essential content. It’s about Jesus — it’s about who He was and what He did – and that means that it can’t be preached without using words.  The Gospel is inherently verbal.  The cool cup of water that we give has got to be explained at some point if it is in fact being offered in Jesus’ name.

Alan Kreider, the late Mennonite theologian, had a good friend who spent some time serving at one of Saint Teresa’s hospices in Calcutta. As he reflected later on his experience there, he said – “Since I don’t speak Bengali, I couldn’t talk to them in their own language, and that meant that they were left to draw their own conclusions about why I was there.” And that troubled Alan’s friend because he knew that he was there serving.  He wasn’t there because he was such a good and generous person in and of himself, but rather because he had such a good and generous Savior, a Lord who wanted him to be there. His actions were all because of Jesus, but the people he served never knew that because he never mentioned Jesus.

Churches and Christians that do the works of the Gospel need to speak the words of the Gospel with equal intentionality. And churches and Christians that speak the words of the Gospel need to do the works of the Gospel with that same focus.

steveSteve Sjogren, was pastoring a church in Cincinnati back in the early 1990’s when he realized that his verbalization of the Gospel was in desperate need of some Gospel visualization if it was ever going to get an honest hearing. Steve says that he had become a pretty obnoxious “word” Christian.  People actually turned and walked the other way when they saw him coming because they didn’t want to be badgered by him about Jesus again.  He was that guy who went into public bathrooms and unrolled the toilet paper in each stall just so that he could roll it back up again with a witness tract strategically stuck in-between the sheets every five squares or so.  Not many people were coming to Christ through his efforts.  So Steve dramatically changed directions.

godworkSteve resolved to start doing the works of God’s love for people with the heart of a servant before trying to share a single word about God’s love with them. He concluded that if people could first see a demonstration of God’s love in Jesus Christ that they would then be more receptive to hearing the message of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ. And it was a woman that Steve humbly served one day at the point of a need she had that actually confirmed that this was the right approach for him to take.  She began to weep as Steve served her at the point of her felt need, and when she asked why he was doing it, he simply said – “Because of the love of Jesus Christ.” “I’m 50 years old,” she told them, “and all my all I’ve ever heard Christians do is talk, talk, talk about God’s love. But here today, for the very first time in my life, I’ve actually experienced something of God’s love for me personally!” (The Conspiracy of Kindness – 102).

The Gospel is something we say. The Gospel is something we do. When we hold the Gospel words and the Gospels works together — when people can see the Gospel then they will be so much more willing to hear the Gospel. So, how shall we live so that people will want to know more about Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Savior?  What can we do that will make somebody stop and wonder – “Why is she like that?” “Why is he doing this?”  And should they dare ask these questions of us out loud — are we prepared to tell them — “Because of Jesus and His love”? DBS +

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Jesus is Our Jubilee

jub

The word “Jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word for a ram’s horn. Rams’ horns were used in ancient Israel to signal the arrival of important moments in their public life, and so the word Jubilee became the name of the biggest and best day imaginable on the Hebrew calendar.

  • Every seventh day on the Hebrew calendar was the Sabbath for our spiritual mothers and fathers – a day each week for them to stop and give God His due.
  • Every seventh year was a Sabbath Year – a whole year when their fields were supposed to lie fallow so that they might be replenished. Spiritually the Sabbatical year was the reminder that God was the provider for all of His people’s needs and that He could be trusted completely to meet them, even when they weren’t working.
  • And every seventh Sabbatical Year was supposed to be the Jubilee for our spiritual mothers and fathers – a moment in time every 50 years when everything that had gone haywire in people’s lives and worlds throughout that generation got put back in right order again so that everyone might get a fresh start.

jubilee

Debts were forgiven. Slaves were set free.  Land reverted back to the families of its original owners.  The Jubilee was a season of redemption, reconciliation, and redistribution that came around once in everybody’s lifetime.  It was a generational reordering of the world so that God’s conditions for human flourishing might be restored.  And although it was commanded by the Law of Moses (Leviticus 25), historians tell us that there is no evidence that the Jubilee was never actually kept.  Apparently it was just too radical a realignment of life to be practically undertaken by God’s people.  But they didn’t forget it.  The Jubilee remained an ideal for them.  It was their dream for the future they wanted, but it was a dream so big that they concluded that only God could finally bring it about (Isaiah 61).  When the Messiah came, they said, that’s when the Jubilee would arrive.

CHristLuke 4:16-21 is the story that Luke tells us about the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. A hometown boy made good, Jesus was invited to read one of the morning Scripture lessons for his community gathered in worship, and the text that He read to them was a Jubilee text – excerpts from Isaiah 61 –

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After reading these words that everybody in the room understood were about the Jubilee, Jesus gave the scroll back to the attendant, sat down – the teaching posture of a rabbi in the synagogue – and once He had everybody’s attention, Jesus preached a nine word sermon –

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Christopher Wright, an Old Testament scholar, writes –

How many years had this Scripture been read in the synagogue? How many times would the local rabbi have encouraged his people to go on praying and trusting for the day to come when the one of whom it spoke would come and do those things? 

“May he come soon, O Lord!”
“Bring us this good news in our lifetime. Perhaps tomorrow…”

Then one Sabbath morning, the local carpenter’s son shocked the whole town with the electric word: “Today!” No more waiting.  What you have hoped and longed for all these years is here, in the One standing before you.

More than one interpreter suggests that Luke wanted the readers of his Gospel to use the Jubilee categories of Isaiah 61 that Jesus told His family and friends that day in the Nazareth synagogue had been “fulfilled in their hearing” as the window for us to use to look at His ministry.  They say that the rest of the Gospel of Luke can be read as a record of how Jesus actually went about fulfilling His Jubilee mission as the Messiah, the Christ – how He brought good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, set the oppressed free, and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. As Jesus, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, went about doing good (Acts 10:38) — healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, forgiving the wayward, freeing the possessed, embracing the marginalized, announcing the arrival of the kingdom, and finally, going to the cross — Luke wants us to know that Jesus did all of these things with the Jubilee in mind.  There is no better way for us to get to the heart of Jesus, which is how we get to the heart of God, than to look at Him and what He did when He was here through the window of the Jubilee.

Those same interpreters who want us to read the Gospel of Luke against the backdrop of His announcement in the Nazareth synagogue that the Jubilee had arrived in Him, also want us to read the book of Acts, the other New Testament book that Luke wrote, in the same way. “If the Gospel of Luke shows how Jesus fulfilled the [Jubilee] mission mandate of Jesus as recorded in Luke 4:18-19, then the book of Acts shows how the church, guided and empowered by the same Spirit, worked to carry on the [Jubilee] ministry of Jesus” (Jeremy Myers).  Now, the key to all this, it seems to me, is to always be just as clear as we possibly can about the fact that Jesus is the Jubilee, and that we, His church, are just a signpost that points to Him as God’s Jubilee.

Our spiritual parents, the Jews, realized pretty quickly that bringing about the Jubilee on their own was something that was well beyond their capabilities. It’s well beyond our capabilities as Christians too.  And that’s okay because it’s not our job.  Jesus is God’s Jubilee.  He’s the good news for the spiritually and materially poor. He’s the One who brings release to the captives.  He’s the One that gives recovery of sight to the blind.  He’s the One who sets free the oppressed.  He’s the one who establishes this as the time of God’s favor.  We’re not the Jubilee; He is.  We’re just signposts that point to the Jubilee that Christ embodies and establishes. It’s our job to bring His good news to the poor, to proclaim His release to the captives, to offer His recovery of sight to the blind, and to point to His liberation of the oppressed because now is the time of His favor.

I’ve heard a story about a group of slaves who were working in a field during the Civil War when a battalion of Union soldiers marched past headed south. One of the slaves in the field ran over to them and fell into step with them, his hoe over his shoulder like a rifle.  His friends all pointed and laughed. “What do you think you’re doing?” they asked.  “You’re not a soldier,” they scoffed.  “You don’t know the first thing about fighting” they  taunted.  And turning to face them he said, “You may be right, but I don’t want there to be any mistake about which side I’m on!”

I may not be able to bring about God’s Jubilee in my own wisdom, or by my own effort, but I can make it unmistakably clear by what I think, and by what I say, and by what I do that I’m on the side of God’s Jubilee that’s arrived in Jesus Christ.

  • Wherever people are spiritually or materially impoverished, I can share from the bounty of the abundance that I have been given in Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
  • Wherever people are being held captive in prisons of hatred, addiction, prejudice, or sin, I can extend the freedom that I myself have received from the hand of Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
  • Wherever people are suffering limitation and loss, physically or spiritually, I can provide comfort and care even as I promise them the eventual healing of all things in Christ who is God’s Jubilee.
  • Wherever people are “oppressed, distressed, weighed down, or grieving” because they have been pushed away from opportunity and community because of the color of their skin, or the country that they come from, or their gender or orientation, or because of how much they have, or because of what they have done or been in the past, I can open my heart, my arms, and my doors because Christ who is God’s Jubilee opened them for me.
  • And to anyone who might be wondering what God thinks of them, or wants for them, I can announce without any hesitation at all that God loves them and wants them to come home because Jesus Christ is God’s Jubilee, and this is the moment of God’s favor for me, for you, for all.  DBS +

jubi

 

 

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The Crushing Place

olivepressThe word “Gethsemane” literally means “the place of the olive press.” Olive oil was essential to life in ancient Israel, and the way that it was produced was by putting the harvested and pitted olives into a great big stone trough and then rolling another enormous stone back and forth over them, crushing them and extracting their oil.  The Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray on the night that He was betrayed was an olive grove, and there would have been just such a press nearby.  The symbolism is obvious.

Jesus’ “crushing hours,” the place He went to struggle with the weight of doing God’s will, was the place of an olive press.  This was a time of real testing and a place of real struggle for Christ. “My soul is very sorrowful,” He told his disciples, “even to death” (Matthew 26:38), as He begged them to remain there and watch with Him. “Abba, Father,” He prayed, “all things are possible to thee, remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36).  And in a detail that only appears in some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of the Gospel of Luke – “being in agony, Jesus prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to upon the ground” (22:44).  It’s a powerful word picture.  Just like the oil being extracted from the olives through crushing in the press in that garden where Jesus prayed, Luke was telling us that the life of Jesus was being extracted from Him through the crushing experience of wrestling with God’s will.

fatherWhat God the Father asked of His only begotten Son that night long ago in the garden was a unique part of His work of redemption. This will never be a part of our experience.  We can’t do what He did.  We can only receive the benefit of it by faith.  But the Gethsemane experience of heaviness, that feeling of the moral and spiritual weight of the choices that are constantly in front of us, that’s always going to be a part of our experience as Christians, and Jesus knew it, which is why I think that the very first thing He said to His disciples when they got to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His testing was – “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (22:40).

The Greek word translated “temptation” here is a word that means “to test,” “to try,” “to prove.”

It may be used in a positive sense as in the case of Job, who said in the midst of his trail, “When the Lord has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (23:10).  Or it may be used in a negative sense: to tempt toward evil. (Ron Ritchie)

And the point is that this is going to be our experience as followers of Jesus Christ. We’re going to find ourselves in our own Gethsemanes constantly.   Every single day is crowded with choices great and small, and as Christians we’re going to make these choices acutely aware that there is always more than just one will that’s pulling at us.  There’s that adversarial something that crouches at the door of our lives just waiting to spring (Genesis 4:7).  There’s our own will, what it is that we think we want for ourselves. And then there’s the Lord who has a vital interest in everything we think, say and do as His disciples.  Paul told the Corinthians that the love of Christ “constrained” him (2 Corinthians 5:14).  The word that Paul used for “constrain” is a word that literally means to “press hard together,” and suddenly we’re back in Gethsemane, at the crushing place.  Faithfulness is all about this struggle of wills.  Every decision we make as Christians is made in the push and pull of these forces.  We will constantly feel the weight of them, and it’s always going to hard.  There’s simply no escaping it if Jesus is your Lord.

When we say “yes” to Jesus when he asks to be the Lord of our lives and worlds, Gethsemane becomes our home address.  It’s where we’re going to live the rest of our lives.  It’s in this crushing place of the contest of wills that we are going to find ourselves tested and changed, and through the experience, it’s where we’ll discover the best ways to cooperate with the God who’s will is one day going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.   And it all starts when, with Jesus in the place of the olive press where lots of different forces all seek to master us, we can pray – “Not what I will, but what will… not what I want, but what you want…” DBS +

 

 

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Beloved

beloved
The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +

 

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