Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas is Over!

Well, it’s done for another year – the commercial side of Christmas anyway.

Now we enter the Octave of Christmas on the religious and spiritual side of things. A chance to savor the coming of God during the period leading up to Epiphany, the day that marks both the baptism of Jesus and serves as a remembrance of His being revealed to the world through the testimony of God Himself. And so, for those attuned to the rhythms of the church year, we moved through Advent as we awaited His coming into the world, and through the Christmas season wherein we celebrate His accomplished in-breaking, to Epiphany when we celebrate His revealing to the world through His ministry, and then into Lent, anticipating His death as well as ours, and so into Easter, another and perhaps His most powerful revealing in power as Savior of the world, and as our hope of living with Him forever.

And so we travel seasons with our focus repeatedly on Jesus, His coming to save us, and His acceptance of us to participate in His life forever. Later, we will enter the Pentecost season, the coming of God in the power of the Spirit, empowering disciples to live and to die in the power of God in ministry to the world.

And so the rhythm of the church year goes, making a complete cycle of God blessing the world, inviting us to live and die with Him as we live and move in accordance with His will for the world. Finally, at least in the US, we end up back at Thanksgiving. A time it seems when we can once again thank God for His multitude blessings, the chiefest of which is Jesus Himself, and the opportunity He gives us to be His hands, His mouth, His feet as we allow Him to direct our ways in blessing the world out of the blessings He has given us.

I trust that as each of us moves through these seasons, God will give us the grace of reminding us of who we are called to be, of what we are called to do, and of our calling to empty ourselves for the world just as our God has done. May you each rest peacefully in the knowledge that what He has promised, He will complete; that as we live for Him, we willingly give up ourselves for our friends, our family, and those we do not know; that we do this in the assured hope that we live in and with the God, the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer of the world.


Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Inspiration

Most Christians would agree that the writers of Scripture were inspired by God when they wrote the autographs. While we may argue whether the Holy Spirit dictated the actual words, or the thoughts and ideas, inspiration in some form is usually not debated. Inspiration is a critical aspect of Scripture, imbuing it with a divinely-appointed importance for the church. We know what God has said because we believe that what we have received was inspired by our God. Scripture is the very words of God – in some form.

But few Christians today would claim to be inspired in their daily lives, or in their church lives. To claim to be inspired is a claim that will receive considerable scrutiny if not out right rejection by the vast majority of Protestant Christendom.

While I don’t know that we should claim inspiration for every idea or thought that travels through our minds, I am equally doubtful that we do not receive inspiration as we attempt to live and minister as God would have us. If we believe that God in the Holy Spirit is active in the world, if we believe He is active in our lives, why is it that we shy away from acknowledging that Christians are inspired, and inspired in the same ways that the church fathers were?

How many of us have heard of, or have actually experienced the working of the Spirit in our ministry and every day lives? How many preachers, how many counselors, how many shepherds have found the right words, of either comfort or instruction, come to them at just the right time? How many of us have experienced a passage of Scripture, or a turn of verse, seemingly appear from nowhere just when we need them?

I believe God continues to inspire Christians today. I don’t know that He reveals new truths, but revealing previously unknown ideas is not the full definition of inspiration. Jesus tells His disciples to simply go, and God will not only provide their needs, but will also bring to their minds the words they have heard. Do we not believe that God does essentially the same things for us today?

Those who were promised divine inspiration were those who lived in, and conversed with God on a regular basis, and those who were engaged in God’s work in the world. Inspiration is not promised to those who do not seek God, who wish to use the inspiration for their own gain, for those who are not engaged in the work of God. In contrast though, it is clear that New Testament Christians were promised the presence of God in ways more manifest than simply having the Spirit. The Spirit worked in them, and with them to provide the right words, the necessary food, the physical protection, and the spiritual guidance.

If that is what God did for first century Christians, why do we believe He does less today, especially in light of our own or others’ experiences that He does. Is it not inspiration when we experience the movement of God in our lives? I can think of no reason to believe that the power that works in us is different than that which worked in the disciples.

If we pray for guidance, if we pray for assistance while ministering, and we believe and experience the Spirit’s leading and help, we must believe the Spirit provides such things to us. If the Spirit does those things, we experience inspiration in similar ways that those who wrote Scripture experienced it. In short, we are inspired.

This realization has implications for the way we live our lives. It is no longer sufficient to simply hope we can remember passages, or that somehow we will come up with the right words or the right act for a situation. We must understand that we actually have God with us, inspiring us with His Spirit. This is heady and scary stuff, but the conclusion is inescapable. Our words and our behaviors are inspired – prompted, guided, shaped by God’s manipulation of our memories, our emotions, our hands, and our tongues. The effect is the same as that experienced by the writers of Scripture, and those of whom we read in the New Testament.

When we realize this, when we get our minds around the reality of God with us in this intimate way, it should cause us to be more cognizant of who we are, of who lead us, and for whom we speak and act. We truly become the hands and mouths of God, expressing God’s words, and doing God’s work in our daily worlds. This is not cause for bragging, but for increased humility. It should cause us to live closer to God, to change our minds so that they seek His will more closely, to speak with God more deeply and more frequently.

The next time you’re tempted to say that someone’s behavior or speech is inspired, you might just be right.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Wake Up!

The following is the communion reflection given on the first Sunday of Advent, 2007.

Romans 13.11-14 reads like this:

“And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (NIV)

This is an interesting passage for communion but we will get to that a bit later. First let’s read the previous pericope. Verses eight through ten read thusly:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (NIV)

Here Paul says that we have one debt and that is to love one another. He lists some commandments and finally says all of these and any other commandment that we may be able to find are all summed up in one, to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says in another place that the Law and the prophets hand off of the Greatest and the Second Commandment, both calling us to love – God and neighbors.

It is important to note that this love is not simply doing “no harm to its neighbor,” but that this love is proactive rather than passive. It isn’t enough to simply not to hurt others, but our love must propel us to act in their behalf. The memorial we are about to remember is a clear indicator of that principle. God didn’t simply not kill us, but rather He sent His Son who died for us. It is this proactive love that we remember and that we must make our own.

Now we come to the actual reading for today, and the aspect that seems a bit odd for a communion reflection. Paul is going to end up encouraging his readers to clothe themselves with Christ – to own Jesus, His life, His death.

Advent season is a season of expectation, of looking for God, of waiting for His coming into the world. But the expectation also includes a receiving or an accepting of that for which we wait. It is that receiving of God that must speak to us, and which obligates us to some responsibility.

And here we have the part of this passage that seems odd for a communion reflection. Paul tells his readers to wake up because salvation is closer than it was when they first believed. These are Christians Paul is writing and telling to wake up.

Many of us who have been keeping this memorial for forty years or so can simply take this memorial without thinking about it. We’ve always done this on Sunday and so we continue – it’s expected, it’s what we do. When we do that, we fail to recognize our God in the memorial. We cannot allow ourselves to let this feast become routine. We must, as Paul encourages his readers, wake up because our salvation is closer today than when we believed.

We are told in another place that we dare not presume on the patience of God. That to delay responding to God because we have more time is in itself sin. We are called to believe, to own God so much that we live in expectation of Him, and in Him – all the time. When we take of this memorial, we must do so fully cognizant of what we are doing, what God has done, and who we are called to be. If we have begun to slumber, we must wake up and live in the salvation that we enjoy, clothed with Christ.
Delivered at Albuquerque, the first Sunday of Advent, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Communion Reflection

The following is the communion reflection given on The Feast of Christ the King, 2007.

Colossians 1.15-20 reads like this:

[W]ho is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things, and in him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fullness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens.

In these verses there are various points we can observe as part of our Supper observance. The first is found in the first verse of the selection. “Who is the image of the invisible God…” That word image, if memory serves me correctly, is eikon. Jesus is the visible representation of God. If we say we want to see God, we simply have to look at Jesus. At His life, at His death. If we are to live as God, our lives must be eikons as well. These eikons reveal the very being, the very character of God, and it is as eikons of God that Man was made to live. As we remember His body, we must own our obligation to live and die for others, rather than ourselves.

Another observation is in the middle verses. There are numerous mentions of being the creator, the sustainer, the beginning of life as we know it. In Jesus is life. Our very lives as we know them, and real life as it is meant to be lived. Paul will tell us elsewhere that life is in the blood, and so it is true here as well. The blood of Jesus cleanses us, returns us to life with and in God. When we drink the wine of remembrance, we must also remind ourselves that in receiving the life of God, we are called to give life to others. Our lives, our drives, our hopes are to lean toward giving and sustaining life rather than tearing down, and advantage.

Toward the end of the reading we read of peace, of reconciliation, made and given by Jesus’ life and death. In reconciling us to God, Jesus also reconciled us to one another. But not just to other believers, although that is a particularly true example. But even if at a different, perhaps not lesser, level, God reconciled His people to all people, to the Creation. In community we share with one another, and the same is true within the church. But that is not all. Through Jesus, God has sought to reconcile all people and the Creation to Him. We are called to be God’s hands, His servants, His blessing pots to the rest of the world. When we consider our calling to be reconcilers rather than wall builders, our hearts become open, our hands let go of “our stuff,” and all that we have is available for God’s use in this world.

Delivered at Albuquerque, on The Feast of Christ the King, 2007

God's Secret Service

During the sermon this past Sunday, our preacher used an illustration that I have heard numerous times. Oh, not word for word, but ones like it. It goes something like this:

“There was this Midwest preacher and his family who went to Washington D.C. and while there, they met a family friend. This friend it turns out was a member of the Secret Service detachment assigned to the President. The friend offered to give the family a tour of the Oval Office and the family readily accepted. The family was somewhat surprised, after expecting searches, and metal detectors galore, to be ushered around all the security because they were with the Secret Service officer.” The point of the illustration is that we gain entry past all the checks and defenses into God’s presence as people who know – or better yet, are known by the Son.

As part of the sermon, it made plenty of sense, following a discussion of Jesus’ promise to the one on the cross who asked to be remembered, and to whom Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The image of Jesus escorting the thief into Paradise is mostly appropriate. So far, so good.

The problem arises when we let the illustration say more than it does. If we aren’t astute, we may let the illustration give us, or support an already current notion, that God is in Heaven surrounded by traps, detectors, walls, gates, alarms, and guards through or around which we must negotiate our way to God at our peril. It is as though getting to God is a deliberate challenge designed to keep us out. Man apparently is so corrupted that God tries to keep us at arm’s length unless we can find the secret to get past the guards.

I guess it preaches, and many of us seem to have this idea of God and our challenge in finding Him. I don’t know though, that it is all that accurate. It seems to me that the path to God has been – and to a great degree always has been – wide open. Hasn’t God repeatedly called to us saying “return to Me, and I will be your God?” Or, if we prefer a New Testament version, “If we walk in the Light as He is in the Light, the blood of Jesus continuously cleanses us.” Man’s problem has not been that God has established obstacles to our return, but rather that we had lost sight of God and had little desire above our own enrichment, to return to Him.

We do not need an escort to protect us from God’s defenses but rather One who would remind us of God, of who He is, of what He is like, and our calling to live in concord with Him. When we recognize our creation and calling to be that of living with and in God, there are no obstacles around which we need a path.

The challenge is ours, not God’s. The obstacles we face are those we erect, not defenses that God has put up to keep us away. If we do not desire to live in concert with God, it is because we are blind and self-seeking. The obstacle is us, and no amount of escorting will change that basic fact.

God has open arms, not blocked hallways.

God is waiting. And calling.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Saved All Over Again?

The question comes, concerning whether we must be re-saved everytime we sin. Must we live such a tight rope of behavior that we are in danger of separation from God if we misstep from time to time? While I was growing up, there were some who believed, even if they didn't say it out loud as one sentence, that we in fact were doomed if we died having unrepented sins.

It seems to me that God made Man in His image, to be the kinds of people who would live out of that image. God, through history has expected two primary things:

1) That Man honor God, YHWH, Jehovah, as God – as the God to whom Man is devoted, and
2) That Man’s life of dedication, of understanding, of living out of the image in which he was made, would reflect the values and the views of God

It has always been that God sought Man to be “His people and He would be their God.” When Man forgot God, failed to trust Him, and relied on themselves, or used the promises of God to excuse their own prideful behavior, God disciplined Man in order to have Man (either particularly, or generally) return to Man’s first love. Return to live with and in concert with, the God and His image that resides in all of us.

It also has been that Man (particularly and generally) has failed to remain with God, and God’s reaction has always been to cajole, to plead, to argue, and to discipline Man so that he would return to God. Man's repeated failures and final forgetting of God, not always in ritual, but always in effect, result in God rejecting Man – not all men, and not necessarily for all time. God's forsaking of Man comes after our rejection of God, the blinding of our eyes and the hardening of our hearts.

While Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of God, has revealed God to Man anew, and has paid the sacrifice of a life unto death in obedience to God, and has made a way for forgetful, sinful, and prideful Man to return to God once again, God’s expectation has not changed. There is not any magic in the life or death of Messiah that seals forever any particular person’s standing with God despite that person’s living a life of selfish and neglectful (of God and others) pride.

Christians who taste the goodness of God and return to their pre-Christian-enlightened lives, are no different than Israelites, or even Adamic Man, who had tasted life with God and left His goodness to pursue their own desires. It has been, and remains possible for Man, and individuals, to taste the goodness of God, and return to our own vomit.

God has not called us, or caused us, to slavishly follow His will because we must, as though some force outside us makes us live in certain ways. He has called us to yield ourselves to Him, letting Him transform our lives through that submission and training, so that we grow over time to live from the image in which we were originally created. We come to a place where we “must” live for God from what becomes our very essence, flowering into the life we were made to live. Paul would say that those who have come to the fullness of God, have arrived not because God caused them to be made perfect, but because they have learned the will of God through practice, and have come to know it without thinking about it. They needn’t run to find their Bibles, or weigh the pros and cons of a question, or course of action – they come to know what is correct, what is most right, by living and experiencing the life of God. The motivation to live that life comes from within, from a yielding and a melding of the image of God with ourselves to such an extent that we can do nothing else. The "must" comes from within, not forced from without.

There is little in Scripture to support the idea that once we have yielded to God, we must continue in that path – as though we have lost our will or any susceptibility to temptation or sin. The parable of the soils, and Paul’s frequent exhortations to his children in the Faith to pursue, to not flag, to guard themselves, to ensure their salvation, provide ample evidence that there is some aspect of the Christian life that is open to failure, to misdirection, to burning out. To the abandonment of God.

None of this amounts to the idea however, that one sin, one misstep, means we must be saved all over again. The call, the admonition, is to live a life toward God, in submission to Him as a character of our life. If we live lives characterized by the image in which we were made, we remain in God. Often we act as though the only things written beforehand for our learning are the bad things the Israelites did. "Do this and God will get you!" We miss however, the grace of God evident in the early writings. The evidence is that God does not treat His people in such a arbitrary manner so as to push them aside for one or even several misdeeds as long as they remained committed to Him and lived out of His character. The same is true today. We sin, and yet there is no reason to believe that we must be “saved again.” John is clear that if we continue to live in God (in the direction He would have us go), the blood of Jesus [continuously] cleanses us from our sins.

The statement of John's is really no different than the Old Testament promise that if the Israelites would be God's people, He would be their God and bless them immeasurably - even though they may well sin from day to day. The promise God gave to those who would follow Him - from the very beginning - is still true today.

Oddly enough, God doesn’t look for perfection, He looks for commitment, for dedication, for submission, as characteristics of our lives, not punctiliar pass/fail tests. Imperfection is allowed. Abandonment is not.

So, no being saved all over again for every missing of the mark. Such a life would be anything but characteristic of loving and faithful acceptance by God. But there remains a balance, and an expectation that our missteps are lived within a life dedicated to God.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Salvation Reprise II

Salvation is not a once in a lifetime event. Having responded to God at some point in our lives does not admit that we can stand on that event forever. It is not accurate, in an absolute sense, to suggest that at some future point we can stand before God and justify ourselves because we had done such and so at some time in the past. We are not able to say that we had let go at some point, or that we had been baptized, or performed some penance and therefore God must accept us. Because salvation is more appropriately described as a relationship, a state of existence, it is not properly or completely defined by a legal state or by some act. We either are saved, in relationship with God, submissive to Him, or we are not. We cannot say "I may not be in submission to God now, but I once was." We either live in concert with God or we do not.

What God wants is people who seek Him, who want to live with Him, in Him, and to have Him move through them. This living is imperfect and God knows it will be. And so the relationship is not perfection (we continually seek to let God transform us), but a consistent though imperfect submission to Him. It is in this life of submission and trust, this character of life, this imperfect-but-made-complete-in-Christ existence that we are continuously cleansed; it is in this life that we are eternally safe. We are safe not because we have performed some act, but because of who we seek to follow, who we are. Because we have let go of self and live in trustful submission to God.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Salvation Reprise I

It is Man’s destiny, his ultimate goal or purpose, to return to God. We were made in communion with God, in His presence, and in His image. It is to this original relationship with God that we are called – a place where God is with all, in all, through all, where we live in Him and He in us. There are various schools of thought concerning how this looks in practice. For some, this is an “assumption,” a “joining,” a losing of one’s self in God so that there is little or no difference between me and God. We see the world as God sees it, we act as God acts because we have become so like God that we must. Others perceive that Heaven is the Creation restored to its rightful place. We will inhabit a pristine world as we were meant from the beginnings. Regardless of which view we take, there is some sense in which we return to God and live in harmony with or in Him.

What is sin? How do we become separated from God? Sin, regardless of which word we care to use for it, is essentially either 1) out right rebellion against God, or 2) living our lives with some perspective other than God’s. To put it another way, sin is living out of our pride, or out of fear that we must rely on ourselves. As a result, we become self-centered, concerned that I must take care of, or protect, myself first.

And so what is salvation? Salvation is not a decision, it is not an act per se. Rather, salvation is a returning to the existence, the character, the image in which (in whom) we were made. It is a returning home, it is an acceptance back into relationship with God. Salvation is not primarily or essentially a legal pronouncement, but rather the restoration of a correct world view.

How are we saved? If sin is either/or rebelling against God or behaving out of pride or fear, then salvation can be defined as trusting God, and submitting ourselves to Him and others. How do we do this; how does this occur? It is elegant in its simplicity and difficult in application. Simply, we let go of ourselves. We release control of our lives, of the world, of others, to God, the Maker and Sustainer of all. Do we trust God to handle life? If so, we live in accordance with what He has said. Do we live in agreement with the Image in which we were made? If so, we quit worrying about getting ahead, or of getting ours before others get theirs.

For some this letting go is difficult and takes great striving. For others, it appears more natural, more easily done. Whether difficult or easy, let go we must. There is no merit in this letting go, this surrendering to God, because it is simply a willingness to return to the place we were made to be. While some may need to wrestle with themselves daily, there is no merit in the daily ordeal. There is no active work that needs be done in this surrender. It is in fact, a ceasing to work, a ceasing to earn or protect something. This surrender is negative action. We simply let go and slip into the arms and essence of God.

This letting go then is not a work of merit, but we must “do it” in response to God. Not to do so keeps us in rebellion and distrust of God, and living for ourselves. This type of life is sin and separation from God. Repentance, seen in its appropriate light, is simply this letting go; this returning to trust God. It is not an empty ritual, but a realization and an acceptance of the invitation of God.

Nor is baptism an empty ritual. Seen in its appropriate light, it is the public declaration that we have accepted the invitation of God. It is not the act of baptism any more than it is the act of repentance that saves us. All of the power in both is that they embody our letting go of self in response to the grace of God.

Neither baptism or repentance are sacramental in the sense that there is something about them that is effective separate from the individual. One is not returned to God simply because they have been baptized, nor does one let go just because of outward act of repentance (or even an internal one). Neither is effective except that they witness a mystical or spiritual change in relationship – the person’s letting go of self which puts one in God.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reflections on Mary, Martha, and Laz

Lazarus is dead. In fact he’s been dead four days or so when Jesus finally arrives. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus was told that he was. It wasn’t some head cold or allergy with which Lazarus was dealing. Folks wouldn’t have sent word to Jesus for that. No, Lazarus was severely ill, and Jesus had been summoned to heal him.

But Jesus hadn’t gone. He had tarried for a day or two before heading back to Lazarus. What he found when he arrived was two distraught sisters who lash out at him, accusing even, that his delay had resulted in Lazarus’s death. They were hurting, and so were a great number of their friends. The sisters even accost Jesus saying “If you’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened!” As if to say, “What took you so long!”

As it turns out, Jesus raises Lazarus and returns him to his family; there is much rejoicing. But through the story, we learn that Jesus knew Lazarus was terminal, that he was going to die, and He took his time getting back to Lazarus on purpose. In fact, God allows these three good friends to travel this road so that God can be glorified through the raising of Lazarus.

We find also that even though Jesus knew the plan and the eventual outcome, that this is to be a demonstration of God’s power, He is moved with compassion for the sisters. Even though it is God Himself who has sent this family through this valley, His heart goes out to them.

And so we see that God may well send us through experiences that are hard to bear, that we must endure. But when He sends us through them, He is with us; He feels for us. It can be that through our pain God will be glorified, and God is with us as we bear it.

He is near.

What's a Little Water Worth?

The Christian life has never been intended to be expressed primarily in church buildings. Oh, don’t get me wrong, worshiping with one another is something Christians do, and rightly so. But despite our penchant for doing church, structuring staff, and making sure our various rituals are completed, they form a significantly small percentage of what Christian life entails. In fact, I suspect they aren’t nearly as important as we seem to think they are.

The Christian life, it seems to me, is more about who we are, what our desires are, where our life focus is. These others, assemblies, staff, rituals, are all tools to remind us or to move us closer to where we are meant to be. As tools, they are not the substance of life, and we endanger ourselves if we allow them to become the substance.

Throughout Scripture, God makes it clear that he expects his people to do what he says, to pay enough attention to him to form themselves into his likeness. But event in the expectation of doing, there is always an expectation of being. This expectation is deeper and much more substantive than doing. When God gives Moses the Law there are aspects of it that appear harsh and stringent to us moderns. The whole idea of an eye for an eye simply seems out of place in our world; we perceive it as barbaric.

What we fail to realize is that this measure of justice was a limitation on the prevailing standards. Even in the world today, we see Man’s sense of justice seems to be “I will pay you back more than the damage I have suffered from you.” This sentiment isn’t really new. Lamech vows that he will avenge himself seventy seven times. He thinks himself to be one bad dude.

And so an eye for an eye is a step in the right direction. But there are other indications of a different standard to be used. The cities of refuge is one such example. These cities were places where fugitives could flee to and be safe from revenge. The care that is expected to be taken of the alien and downtrodden among God’s people tells us that his compassion extends to those who are not ‘his people.’ A reading of the Minor Prophets tells us that in addition to worshiping the wrong gods, God’s people were not acting toward each other as God intended them to live. It is both their false gods, and their false hearts that are the problem. And it is the heart from which both false worship and wrong behavior arises.

It becomes apparent as we watch Israel and Judah being prepared for exile that we get a fuller picture of what God expects. He expects that our hearts, that our very beings reflect his care, his compassion, his love for Creation. He expects that his followers will live and become like him.

It is with this background that we read Matthew 25 (see also Matthew 10.42) and we find the Judge saying either enter my kingdom, or depart from me. These sentences are not couched in language of false worship and false gods, but speak to peoples’ hearts, eyes, and motivations. It is in this passage that we read that a cup of water, given to insignificant people, is capable of securing for us a life with God. That cup of water, if drunk by us, separates us from God, but if given out of a perceived need, ushers us into the very presence of God.

What’s a little water worth?

It may be worth your soul.

What Is Salvation?

The question of when someone is saved, or who can we say is a Christian, comes up from time to time in my circles. The ensuing dialogue usually includes points concerning faith, repentance, baptism, Calvinism, free will, grace, and a few other topics. The discussion seems to revolve around a point in time, a place where, on one side, someone is not a Christian, and on the other side, one can safely be said to be a Christian. This is important, it seems since it directly affects fellowship, communion, membership in a local congregation, and participation in assemblies.

This question has been debated for centuries, and I don’t presume to settle it in this short essay. I do however, believe that it has taken a lot more ink, blood, and hurt feelings than it deserves. It seems to me that salvation is not so much about having completed a complete ritual, but is rather a state of being in which we live with, in, and for God. It is, quite frankly, being allowed by God, through our submission to Him, to have a relationship and a character that displays the image of God in our lives.

Jesus calls people to return to God, to recognize in Jesus the presence of God, and to submit ourselves again to God’s leading. It is in submitting to God’s leading that we can be said to be living in the Kingdom. We tend to put labels on the various aspects of submitting to God. Repentance is one such aspect. While it can be described as a point in time, the import of repenting is not when one does it, but the fact that it is done. It isn’t so much that we can anticipate all that God may ask us to be or to do when we decide to follow Him, but that we submit to Him when He does ask us to be or do particular things.

Paul’s version of Jesus’ call is to transformation. This is really the same thing as repentance. While we can logically tease apart the difference between the two concepts, they are in reality the same. If we have submitted to God, we are being and will be transformed. The only way to be transformed is to return to, and submit to God. Salvation is not primarily an event, but a process, and returning to how we were made to be.

In some discussions of salvation history, we talk about “now and not yet” to describe our living in God now, but looking forward to our eventual complete restoration to and with Him in the future. Salvation can be described as a now and not yet concept, but the not yet does not invalidate the now in which we live in a submissive relationship with God. It is important to understand that we are not saved by living in a relationship with God, nor are we placed in a relationship with God by being saved. The two concepts are identical. We cannot be saved and yet not have a relationship with God, and we cannot have that relationship without at the same time being saved. They are the same; they are different ways of describing identical ideas.

It is important to note that the now does not invalidate the not yet. The history of time is moving toward a completion in which God’s plan for the Creation will be finished or in which it will be returned to its original state. It is this ultimate state that is not yet. But the idea of not yet embodies some uncertainty. If we are not saved yet, is it possible that we may at some point be unsaved? I think that possibility is entirely possible given the history of God’s working in the world. We know that God’s promises to Israel included a not yet clause. Normally the formula is similar to “I will be your God, and you will be my people if you keep the commandments that I have given you today. If you don’t keep the commandments, I will remove you from before me.” These conditions are repeated so often through the Old Testament that it is hard to miss. We argue over God’s promises to Abraham and David, saying that God’s promises are always kept. What we fail to realize is that God’ promises include the conditions attached to them. While it is true that a descendent of David’s in on The Throne, it is also true that David did not have that in mind when he received the promise. The promise to have a king in Israel forever was conditional as God’s discussion with Solomon makes clear.

But the Old Testament is not the only place we find God’s conditions. We find passages similar to those found in the Old Testament in the New. For instance, Deuteronomy 28.1-2 says:

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” (NIV)

There is a similar passage in 1 John 1.7:

“…if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his son, purifies us from all sin.” (NIV)

The two passages carry the same ideas. If we submissively live with God, if we follow him, if we allow him to nurture and guide us, he will remain with us and allow us to remain with him. If we elect to follow our own desires, our own egos, our own rationalizations of what’s good for me, we separate ourselves from him, and he no longer lives with us. We are no longer ‘saved.’

This is not new theology; it has been evidenced by God from the very beginning. Adam and Eve were not thrown out of the Garden because they sinned, because they didn’t do something quite correctly. God removed them from him because they listened to someone other than God; they were no longer submissive to him. Their sin was not a “something” they did, it was an attitude they allowed to develop within themselves. When we no longer wish to live as God has made us to live, we separate ourselves from Him and we are lost, unsaved, cast away. The good news is that our God is merciful and we can come and go, apparently, a number of times. Well, until our hearts and minds become so seared, so calloused, that we can no longer see in Jesus the essence of God; we can no longer be enticed by the goodness of God to submit to him.

Salvation is not then, primarily an event. It is rather, a state of being, a state of living in which we submit ourselves to the leading of God, denying ourselves in order to be shaped by God and minister to his creation. Salvation really is Life, lived as we were created to live it.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Radical Church

As learning to live out of the image of God transforms the way we live and see one another, it must also transform the way in which we do church. I come to worship fully cognizant of my relationship to and in God and therefore my worship becomes more personal and more relational. I not only worship God by myself, but within the community of believers with whom I share the image and relationship with God. Just as a more fully understand the real spiritual connection I have with God, I come to our assemblies with the same mind of God and I see my brothers and sisters as God sees them. I see them as a shepherd would; as sheep who need nurturing and safety. In a real sense, I join with God and our assemblies become opportunities for me to share Him with the others here, regardless of their station, their challenges, or their failings. I see them as God sees them, and my worship and our assembly becomes ministry to them.

Because I live my life in this same way, in recognition of my relationship with and to God, and I see others as God sees them, my worship and our assemblies are transformed from something particular done on a particular day, to an extension of my life in this world. The assembly becomes an opportunity to worship our God and encourage others in the faith. I become less concerned with what I want to see happen, the style of the activities, the form of our sharing together, and I become more concerned with enlarging and enhancing our mutual and one another’s life in and with God.

Our assemblies become a sharing of both the worship and presence of God, and a particular aspect of our life in community with one another. As community expands into other areas and days of our lives, it enhances and nurtures our joint worship of our God together. These people here are truly part of my community, my communion with God, and I approach them at assembly times as I would at other times. We become open with one another, and we learn to accept one another in worship as we do at other times. As a result, we allow ourselves to live even more in the image of God, lightening both our and others’ loads of life and church.

Life, our being, our selves, become consistent wherever we are, whatever we are doing, and with whoever we are with. Psychology tells us that people who can be themselves wherever they are, are the most contented people there are. Living through the image of God allows us to be who we are, and who we were made to be, and it allows us to live like Paul, content in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.

Natural Christianity

The previous post, Radical Christianity?, posited the idea that Christianity isn’t as radical as we sometimes want to make it seem. Rather, Christianity is the most natural and normative way to live since we are made in the image of God. If we can grasp the idea that it is this image in which we were made that actually defines both who we are, and the most natural drives and cares we have, we gain a different perspective on Christianity and the Christian life.

Christianity becomes not something strange to which we must convert people, but a natural way of living that frees us from chasing unnatural things, and allows us to share with others a way of life that satisfies, and a God that blesses those who can see the blessings. Rather than a God that seems to have lost control of humankind and who seeks to judge people if they don’t jump through the correct hoops, we see a God that made us, and we can see (and experience) ourselves as most contented and happy when we live in concert with the insight that God tries to give us about Him and us. Jesus’ life and words were a revelation of God, but they were also a revelation of how we were made to live. Living life becomes less an imitation of God, and more of living more fully who we are.

Paul urges Christians to imitate him as he imitates God, and so imitation of God is not a bad thing, but it is only a beginning point. Paul urges us to be transformed into the likeness of God so that we will know his will, and apply it without thinking about it. We see a progression from imitation to living in faith and experience. As we imitate God, we learn that we are most contented when living in the ways we see Jesus having lived, and we sense the satisfaction that the experience of this contentment gives us. We sense that this way of life is most natural for us.

Because we now live in the image in which we were created, it becomes natural to live it, and it becomes easier to tell others about it. We no longer need to depend on personal evangelism efforts, or academic debate, or logical reasoning, but we can express our hope and our experience from human perspectives, to humans who are missing the very thing that we live out of day to day. Evangelism becomes peer-to-peer example and discussion with those who are on this planet with us rather than brow-beating and debate winning. It is also in this context that we can be honest with ourselves and others, and admit that living out of the image of God is not always easy; it was not easy for Jesus. But it is the most rewarding and satisfying life that we have experienced.

As we live without having to perform, but rather being shaped over time, life becomes more positive, our outlook more outward, our behaviors and actions more focused on and considerate of others. We become less worried about ourselves and our stuff, less about getting ahead, and keeping up. We become content with where we are and yet can focus on addressing the injustices and challenges of people who are less well off than we are, and who don’t grasp the meaning of life as we do. We become truly free to live out of who we are, and that provides greater and greater freedom and satisfaction.

Now that’s radical.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Radical Christianity?

We hear a lot about radical Christianity these days. Whether from the Emergent church world, or from social religionists, people like Brueggemann, and others, we hear that true Christianity is radical – that it goes against the grain, against the status quo. If we really buy into Christianity, our lives would be counter-cultural. Sometimes we get the idea that if we were real Christians, we’d live in communes - maybe in the forest, dress like monks, and cease most interaction with those outside our community.

I know that is an extreme caricature, few people would advocate eliminating outside contact, and most don’t espouse communal living. Most advocates of this style of spiritual living aren’t arguing that you can’t work on Wall Street and be a Christian, but they do want us to think about others (and the environment) first, rather than buying the latest Lexus. The picture created is that true Christians have a different set of priorities, different views of what is important both eternally and in the present. And I think that’s a good thing – they are on to something. And so we paint a picture of Christianity being radical – almost alien – to ourselves, or to the way most people live.

While I can agree that Christianity does look different than what we normally see portrayed on TV, or perhaps even at the office, I’m not sure that real Christianity is that much a radical departure from who we are, nor is it alien to our human being. Rather, Christianity is a return to who we were made to be and as such, is completely “normal” for humans. Christianity isn’t as radical as we sometimes think it is, although I understand the idea of transformation. It’s just that I see that transformation as being the completion of a cycle rather than something entirely new.

Humans were designed, were originally made, to be the image of God. A rather simplistic explanation of this image bearing is that we are spiritual beings, being in that way different from all other creatures and like God. While that may be true, it does not go far enough. Bearing the image of God, as the created design for humans is the bearing of God’s character within us. We are like God – we bear His image – in that we hold within ourselves the drives and values that mirror God.

I will not argue that we have not become distracted, corrupted, lost in our humanness. But being lost – misguided – does not destroy the image that we bear at our core. It is generally understood that the happiest people on the planet are not those who are chasing the latest and greatest. It is not the famous and rich that are happy. Rather, those people who are most often said to be the most contented, the most well-adjusted, are those who are almost the opposite of the popular ones. These people don’t spend their time chasing stuff, or fame, or recognition. They generally are described with at least two characteristics: satisfaction with who they are and what they have, and giving spirits. The happiest humans it seems are not those that reflect the epitome of society we see on television. Rather, they are those who reflect what Christians know to be key attributes of God.

You will notice that these people are not necessarily Christians or particularly religious, but they are the most contented. This should not be surprising to us since they have somehow made contact with the image in which they were made. The transformation of people through the Spirit is a transformation that changes us from prideful, self-centered people into disciples that submit to others, that seek others’ benefit above our own, and who learn to be content with what God has given to us and made us to be. In short, Christian transformation is a return to that existence and view of life with which humans were created from the beginning.

In this sense, Christianity is anything but radical, it is not alien to humans. It is rather, the very expression of who we were created to be. It is not some artificial form of behavior, of doing church, of relationship building. It is rather, the most natural expression of life that we could find.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I'm So Sorry For Him

Lauren McCain was a Virginia Tech student. She died on Monday, the 16th of April. The title is a snippet of what her father has said about her killer. Yes, it is only three days after his daughter’s death and he may well still be, and likely is, in the initial stages of his response to his daughter’s loss. He may well change his message, or at least his emotions surrounding it, in the coming days and weeks.

Maybe when his daughter doesn’t come home for the summer and his house seems so empty, so quiet, so desolate, he will come to more fully grasp the violence that has been done to him and his world. And he will be entitled to changing his view.

No one would blame him for changing his views, for being angry and demanding some sort of vengeance from someone. Anyone. While we deduce that he and his family have some pretty strong Christian convictions, he remains human. Feeble, imperfect, and subject to emotional and psychological conflicts and swings as are the rest of us. And so no one would blame him.

It is interesting that in more rural areas, those areas that are normally considered backward, or not quite as advanced as the rest of us, we have seen over the last few months, remarkable abilities to forgive, to let go of anger, to accept murderers as fellow humans who are hurting.

Lauren McCain’s father is another example of Christian faith, working its way out among the tragedies and confusion of life, and coming through clearly and humanely. He gives the rest of us tangible examples that the life we have been called to live, can in fact be lived even in the face of unexplainable madness.

I hope he doesn’t change his mind.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Fig Tree

When Jesus is in the environs of Jerusalem prior to the Passover of His death, He spends time in the city, but apparently spends evenings outside the walls, in one or more of the small towns in the vicinity. It is coming into Jerusalem from one of these small towns that Jesus sees a fig tree and goes over to it.

When Jesus gets to the fig tree, He searches through its leaves, looking for figs apparently. Finding no figs, He curses the tree saying that no one will ever eat figs from it again. We find out later that the tree withers and dies.

None of this seems overly out of place. That is until we reach the phrase “It wasn’t the time for figs.” What? That simply doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t time for figs and yet Jesus curses the tree for not having any figs on it. Surely the creator of the universe knew that it wasn’t fig season. No, this story now takes on an almost laughable and confounding aspect.

How are we to accept the text as written? How will we correlate Jesus looking for figs on a tree outside of fig season? The answer it seems is that Jesus surprised the fig tree. Yes, that’s right. Jesus surprised the fig tree.

The fig tree is symbolic of Jerusalem. The tree is simply being a tree. It is responding slavishly to the seasons, the warmth, the length of days, and the amount of water it receives. So are the people in Jerusalem. The people are simply living life. They celebrate births, and weddings, mourn deaths, go to work, get drunk, take trips, and whatever else a first century Jew might do.

Just as the fig tree was not “looking” for God to arrive, the people of Jerusalem were not expectant of the arrival of their king, their redeemer, their God. Jesus is going to check for fruit in their lives and the corporate lives of the Jewish people. Whether they are ready or not, God has arrived, and He will curse those who are not prepared for His arrival.

And so Jesus surprises the fig tree just as He will surprise the people of Jerusalem. He will find little if any fruit, and their judgment is the same as that of the fig tree. Jerusalem will be destroyed because when its God came to find fruit, He didn’t find any.

Let him who has ears to hear, understand the symbol of the fig tree.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Green Beer

The latest hubub at church has to do with reflections prior to the Lord’s Supper. Last Sunday, the speaker used an illustration of St. Patrick and how the attention paid to him has shifted over the centuries from his accomplishments in the Kingdom of God to green beer, rivers, and clothing. The speaker’s thrust was that we humans often forget the point of our faith and the purpose of our God in coming to the earth. Just as St. Patrick’s memory has shifted from hard and self-less evangelistic work to beer parties on the local college campus, we often lose track of the point of our calling and our God’s death for us. We are too often distracted by life, by work, by ourselves, that we forget who we were made and called to be. The Supper is not just a remembrance, but in that remembering, a rededication and a proclamation of faith. A faith that is supposed to lead to our very transformation into different people, with different values and goals. The importance is not in how we do it, but rather what it does to us.

All too often we let the green beer get in the way of living for God. It’s important to remember that, especially, when we gather to communally remember His life for us.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Forgiveness

The topic on the radio talk show’s nine o’clock hour was forgiveness. The host related a story of a lady who said that she had forgiven the people who had killed one of her daughters and severely wounded another. Her daughters were twin twelve year olds, shot by a drive-by shooter last week. The host of the show didn’t know whether or not he could forgive someone so quickly if they had killed his daughter.

As you can imagine, there were phone calls galore, ranging across the spectrum of possible responses. There were those who said they would forgive someone after they had been punished, and there were those who said that the only one who can forgive is the victim and since one of them is dead, that’s not possible. Still others said they’d forgive the shooters only after “taking care of them.”

Others seemed more willing to forgive. A couple folks called in to say that they would forgive the shooters because that’s what their faith said they were supposed to do, and one caller said if Jesus could forgive people while on the cross, he supposed he could follow that example.

I don’t know where you are on this question, but it seems to me that quite a few of the callers missed the point entirely, and others, while closer to the ideal, still didn’t seem to grasp the concept of Christian forgiveness. It seems to me that forgiveness is not something we do, but rather something we are. Christian forgiveness isn’t something we wonder whether we should extend to various people, but an attitude, a readiness to forgive all comers because forgiveness is one of our characteristics. It is in our makeup. We should have a hard time not forgiving others, rather than a hard time deciding whether we will.

One caller said that forgiveness isn’t about the other person, but about me. If we don’t forgive, we harbor bitterness, hurt, sadness, anger, and in many cases depression. If we forgive, we free ourselves of the limiting and burdening weight that hanging on to hurt produces. I think that caller is close too, but not close enough. I think forgiveness is about the other person; it is about forgiving someone else.

While we may benefit from forgiving someone, we also free them. We lighten our load, but we also extend grace to them. Our God is an other-centered God not because He gets something from forgiving us, but because He cares for us. If we are like Him, we extend grace and forgiveness to others because they need it.

One of the callers essentially said “an eye for an eye, and I won’t rest until I get it.” Has it not dawned on us that this mentality is one of the causative factors in the Bosnian genocide, the conflict in Palestine, and the killing in Darfur? No, an eye for an eye is not the answer and that view is a dangerous one. It epitomizes the very opposite of forgiveness and grace toward others, and scars society for centuries.

Forgiveness is who we are. It is not something we do.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Obedience Rather Than Sacrifice

Saul it seems, was instructed to have the Israelite completely destroy the Amalekites – people and animals. Rather, Saul allowed the Israelites to capture the Amalekite king, and to bring back the choicest live stock. When Samuel returns to visit Saul, the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the cattle are clearly audible. Assuming that the Israelites had done what had been directed, Samuel finds this noise to be somewhat unexpected, and so he asks Saul to explain what has happened. Saul’s response is a two-parter. The first is that the people have brought back the best of the plunder to sacrifice it to God. The second is that Saul was afraid of the people and so he let them bring back the plunder [and in this explanation, we don’t know why].

Samuel’s response is his mission for God, and he will complete it. Samuel tells Saul that he has failed in his mission to destroy the Amalekites and as a result God has rejected him as king of Israel. In Samuel’s discussion with Saul, he says:

“Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” (1 Sam 15.22-23, RSV)

Verse 22 is one of the most familiar verses in all of Scripture: God prefers obedience rather than sacrifice. What exactly does this mean, and what are the implications for us? What does the word obedience entail, what does it mean?

Obedience in the immediate context deals with Saul’s failure to wipe out the Amalekites, as he was told by God to do. And why are we told Saul failed to do this? It is simply this: Saul’s pride. After returning from the Amalekite battle, he goes to Carmel and sets up a monument to himself. This is in stark contrast to what the people of Israel have done in the past when given victories by God. In those instances, altars and sacrifices, accompanying praise to God have been offered. Here, Saul apparently thinks the victory has been secured through his efforts rather than God’s. Perhaps bringing the Amalekite king and the best stock isn’t so much for God’s glory but more as a procession to exalt Saul as the conquering king. Saul has a pride problem.

As verse 23 tells us, God says Saul is rebellious and stubborn, two characteristics of prideful people. This gives us a window into Saul’s problem and why God is so displeased with him. Obedience it seems is not obedience for its own sake. Rather, obedience is an indicator of Saul’s submission to God in all things. Saul didn’t complete his mission because he was dismissive of God’s directive.

And God knew it.

Sacrifice is secondary to obedience because acceptable sacrifice comes only from those who submit to God and who trust Him above their own reasoning, above their own ideas of what is “right.” The words in the Hebrew that are used here for obedience and hearken have as their root, the idea of listening, of pricking up the ears, of intelligently hearing and owning what has been said. Obedience then carries with it much more than simply hearing the words, and arises out of a hearing and owning what has been said. It stands to reason then that sacrifices made by those who are rebellious toward God are worthless.

What does this say to us? There are at least two things we can gather from this event. The first is that God wants us to trust Him and to submit to what He wants, especially in contrast to our own glory and advancement. As Paul will say in Ephesians, God has submitted Himself to us and we in turn submit to one another. It is in this submitting to one another that we are tested in the same way Saul was tested. Do we trust God sufficiently to submit ourselves to each other, or do we reserve the option of asserting our rights if we get too uncomfortable? Do we become self-righteous, counting the number of times we have been hurt, and justifying this instance of taking care of Number One? We do so at the peril of our souls.

The second application is that sacrifice, or worship is unacknowledged by God if it comes from rebellious and prideful people. Even if done correctly, according to the book, sacrifice and worship avail nothing. Worship, rightly done, is a response of a grateful people to their gracious God to whom they are submissive.

Obedience then is not simply lock-step behavior, but arises from the heart and is itself colored by the kind of heart out of which it comes. Worship arises from and is colored by the same heart and is acceptable to God on the basis of the worshipper rather than the worship behaviors themselves.

Friday, February 23, 2007

And The Beat Goes On

I don’t know much about her, but I do know that the media has said “she captured our attention,” and “she wanted to be like Marilyn Monroe,” or other silly things. While she was breathing, she had a lot of attention, even a pretty poor television show for a while.

But really, did anyone care? What do we know about her? Oh, that she married some rich guy, was in the middle of fighting for millions with the rich guy’s children, apparently slept with a number of weird and rather opportunistic guys, resulting in a laughable-if-not-tragic episode of one after another claiming to be the sire of her little girl, just to find out that she had left all her money to her now dead son. Unfortunately we knew much more about her than we needed to know.

We know that she had little self control, loved attention, and led a life style that was unthinking and dangerous. She apparently taught her son to live the same style of life, using drugs, being unproductive, and dying early by mixing drugs in a reckless manor in an apparent effort to escape life. Well, he did. And so did she. Perhaps her daughter will have a better chance of maturing a bit more, well, maturely.

Someone said that they knew her life would end tragically. Well, is it any wonder? She died lying on a hotel floor, choking on her own vomit, likely the result of misusing drugs of various sorts. Some report has said that her mother said of her that she liked downers. She liked them too much apparently.

Her body now decomposes at a faster pace than expected. Could we see some pictures of that? Could we see to what kind of end her life has led? No longer the Playboy bunny, the little girl playing the role of Ms Monroe, the adult who didn’t know who she was. Rather, the rotting corpse of someone who died of her own doing, the end of a self-shortened, sorry life. Maybe she did imitate Marilyn after all. Of course all our lives lead to decomposing corpses, but most of us will have been buried safely out of sight before we start causing concern at the local morgue.

Maybe her end will teach some folks about the reality of life, about the pointlessness of wanting attention, of wanting money, of wanting fame. The pointlessness of having a pointless life.

Of course the people that need to learn that lesson won’t even hear it, much less learn it. The tragedy is that none of this is new. Even before the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote his second chapter, there were people who lived and died like she did. And there will yet be others. And all of them will be forgotten; few will leave anything of lasting value.

So what remains? Fleeting pictures of a woman who’s identity changed almost weekly and which are as thin as her life was. Nothing but a little baby who for the rest of her life will have to say she was my mother.

Vanity; all is vanity, and there is nothing new under the sun.

She captured our attention? Please.

And the beat goes on.

Friday, February 02, 2007

What Was He Asking?

What was Jesus asking when He looked at His disciples and asked, "Who do you say that I am?" He had gotten a few answers surrounding what the people at large had been guessing; primarily some famous prophet from Israel's history. But the people hadn't gotten it right. Jesus wasn't the reincarnation of some long-dead prophet.

We may want to offer answers such as 'the messiah,' or the 'Son of God,' or some other such title. But I don't think Jesus was asking "What's my title." He wanted to know if the disciples had had their eyes openned to the working of God. And so His question is more than "Who am I?"

I think He was asking something like "So, after running around the country side with me, watching me care for people, and hearing what I have said, do you think you can see God in me?" He wanted to know if the presence of the Divine among them awakened their hearts to who He and they really were.

The question remains for you and I. Who do we say Jesus is? Is He more than just an intellectual decision about a title, or do our hearts resonate with the Divine when we see Him? Do we know who He is and can we identify with Him in whose image we are made?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Belief

John 3.16 is the most well known verse in the Christian church, and rightly so. This verse tells us of the Father’s love for us, as Paul will say, even while we were yet sinners. This verse, and the one that follows it, form the core of the Gospel, explain why God was interested enough to send Jesus to earth, and establishes the basic expectation of Man’s return to God.

It is that basic expectation with which I want to deal in this essay. The expectation is “…he who believes....” But what is that belief that is spoken of in this passage? If we go to our Greek dictionaries we will find words that deal with the apprehension of facts, or assent to a proposition. Many people will take that simple definition and expand it to include a following through on that belief. Namely, repentance is often included in a rightly understood belief. After all, if we really believe that Jesus is who He said He was, we must be compelled to make ourselves look like Him.

While I acknowledge the foregoing definitions and parameters of the word in these two verses, I also think belief includes an expanded definition in this passage.

Here is the text that I’d like to consider (John 3.14-21, ASV):

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him. He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God.

The word “loved” used in describing the way Man considered darkness is the same word we use for a good love. It is agape. Man so loved [cared for, nurtured, sought to expand, looked to the interests of] darkness that they failed to, no, could not, see the Light. When we read these verses, the idea of belief takes on another shade of meaning or implication. Belief takes on an idea of recognizing God in Jesus, in His life, and in His words.

In other words, those who are saved are those who can see God in Jesus. Those in whose souls God resonates when they see Jesus are saved because they come to the Light. That recognition, that resonating beat, that feeling that says “Yes!” within us causes us to move toward Him, to live like Him, to be formed in Him. It is those who are saved.

When Jesus is with the Samaritan woman (John 4.10), He says to her that if she “knew the gift of God” she would have received something much better than regular water. The word “knew” carries with it an expanded definition as well. It is not simply mental assent, but recognition, awareness, or understanding. Again, here we see that it is those who perceive God in Jesus that are the receivers of His grace.

It seems reasonable then to enlarge the idea of John 3.16 and 17 from simple belief to apprehension and recognition of Jesus as God. This is important to grasp because it not only describes Man’s response to Jesus, but provides insight into the kinds of people who are saved – those who perceive God in Jesus. These are not just people who have learned a catechism or who have learned the intellectual arguments. These are people whose very beings identify with Him.

And that is no wonder. Man we are told is made in the image of God; we were made and remain so in the image of the Divine. We have become disoriented, misled, duped, and misguided by our own pride into thinking that we know best, that life is about getting ahead, that others come after me. If we continue in this path too long, our consciences become seared and we cannot recognize God when He presents Himself to us. We come to love the darkness rather than Light. We lay on our beds at night devising new and novel ways of taking advantage of others to line our pockets or stroke our egos.

But if we can come to our senses before it is too late, or if we encounter God before we are too long gone, our souls are awakened, they are stirred to repentance at the recognition of God, of what is right, of who we were meant to be, and we are saved. Our response to God becomes not a legalistic response but a whole-being, no-holds-barred leap into His arms. This leaping feels right because we identify with God from our very essence. We cannot do anything else. And in the Light we are saved.

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