Sunday, December 30, 2012

Did Jesus Beat Up the Rich?

It must be admitted, as we saw in the last post, Jesus was a little tough on the rich.  And it did seem to be a little sweeping.  Why did Jesus and James seem to be so hard on this particular social class?  I mean, did they do something so wrong?  And to thoroughly condemn them seems to be a bit excessive. 

            There is a definitive reason for this that can be described in four points:

1. God commands the wealthy to use their wealth for the poor
This is a consistent ethic throughout the Scripture, as we have seen above.  There are three main sections of Hebrew Scripture: The Law, The Prophets and the Writings.  The Law commands loans and alms to be given to the poor.63  The Prophets command the poor to be assisted or God would not bless them.64  The Writings speak of the dangers that happen to the wealthy if they do not give to the poor. 65  This is not a minor theme, nor is it easily ignored.  This does not mean that the majority of Bible teachers do not have on their blinders, looking only at their theological focus, but it is clearly at the heart of loving one’s neighbor in the OT.

2. Jesus is prophetically commanding an ethic of love
Jesus is not so much establishing a new law, as he is interpreting the Mosaic Law through the rose-colored lens of acting for the benefit of everyone.66  And Jesus’ ethic is not based in the realm of emotions, but in bold action.  Part of this action, an aspect that Jesus repeats a few times, is the need of the wealthy to give of what they have to the poor.  Jesus isn’t erasing the old Law and simply writing his own over the stone tablets—he is simply re-commanding what is already a part of God’s ethic.  This is so much so that Abraham, in one of Jesus’ parables, stated that the wealthy giving to the poor was so clearly commanded in “Moses and the Prophets:” that it should be obvious to everyone.67

3. The wealthy only occasionally give to the poor
The command of God was not being obeyed by the wealthy.  Surely, some wealthy gave the occasional alms, and a few would assist their poor relatives.  But the heart of the command was being ignored.  Beggars lined the street, and many poor languished and suffered for their poverty.  All the while, the wealthy not only ignored them, but they condemned them.  “They must be judged by God.”  “Repent and get right with God and you will have what you need!”  Instead of the poor being assisted by the wealthy, they were ostracized by them.

4. The wealthy are judged by God
Jesus makes it clear that there are wealthy who are righteous, a part of God’s people.  But these are the wealthy who surrender their wealth, not keeping it for themselves.68  The wealthy are to remember that their wealth is not their own, but loaned to them by their Banker, God.  When God gave them the loan, He said, “You are to give any excess you have to the poor and needy—do not keep it for yourself.”  But the wealthy ignored their Banker and used the money for themselves.  The Banker kept an eye on the accounts, until finally an accounting day came—and the Banker took back everything he had given, and more.  The wealthy are not God’s favorites.  They have been blessed by God, but that blessing comes with a condition—use the blessing for the benefit of those who most need it. 69

Jesus was not interested in "beating up" the wealthy.  Rather, he was calling them to repent of keeping their wealth for their own power, but instead to give it to those who need it the most.  He is not saying this because he dislikes wealthy people, but because he loves them and he wants to see them have all the blessings of God.  When Jesus said that he came to "seek and save the lost" it was in the context of him convincing a wealthy man to surrender his wealth to the poor. 70

Wealth (just like fame and power) is not actually a blessing for Christians, but in reality a test.  It is a test to see if one would use the wealth as God sees fit, or would use it as the world sees fit—to increase one’s power, comfort or wealth, or to surrender it to those who need it most.  C.S. Lewis passed the test (he gave the majority of his wealth to charity, choosing to live on a limited income).  Rick Warrens passed the test (he gives more than 90% of his wealth to charity, going to the poorest in the world).  Mother Theresa famously passed the test, surrendering her life for the poor.

            I mention these exceptions, although they are rare.  The far majority of Christians who face this hardest of all tests fail miserably.  They make excuses why they should use their wealth for themselves.  They make excuses not to give to the poor.  In this way, the wealthy have become disfavored and rejected by God.  And so Jesus and James and others in the New Testament have harsh words to say to them.  Because their wealth they spend on themselves is not a sign of God’s blessing, but rather of their disobedience and arrogance.  Of their failure.

63. e.g. Deuteronomy 15:4-11

64. e.g. Jeremiah 5:28-29

65. e.g. Psalm 41:1-3; Proverbs 21:13

66. This is the point of the “You have heard it said” section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  Each law or interpretation of the law is re-interpreted by the command “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Then Jesus wraps up by saying that only the leaders who obey the love command are to be listened to, the rest are false prophets (Matthew 7:12-23).

67. Luke 16:19-31, esp. v. 29

68. Mark 10:21-25; Luke 19:1-10.  It is interesting that Job and Abraham are often given as examples of people who were wealthy but named righteous before God.  It is clear in Scripture that part of the reason they were righteous is because they generously gave to the poor and immigrants. Genesis 18:2-8; Job 29:11-16.

69. Luke 16 is the primary focus for this understanding.  In the parable of the unrighteous steward, Jesus interprets as a person using money that was not his own to make friends of the poor so he would be helped when he was poorer than they.  Jesus also in that chapter, uses the example of the rich man who didn’t help Lazarus, a destitute beggar at the rich man’s gates, and so was brutally punished in the afterlife.

70. Luke 19:1-10

Jesus and the Rich

Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem.  He was going there to proclaim his authority over the city, but also to be killed by the leaders.  Nevertheless, he made it clear that he was heading toward Jerusalem.  Some of the Samaritans, who thought the temple in Jerusalem was not of God, was angry at Jesus because of his focus on the city, but Jesus ignored them.  Every step drew him closer to the cross, and he called everyone who followed him to take up a cross for themselves.

As Jesus was walking to Jerusalem, a young man stopped him and asked a question, “Good Teacher, what do I have to do to gain eternal life—to enter God’s kingdom?”  It seemed at first that the man was just trying to test Jesus so Jesus said, “Don’t flatter me.  Only God is ‘good.’  And as far as your question goes, everyone knows how to have eternal life, you don’t need to ask me about that.  Follow the commands from God—Don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother—you know all that.”

            The young man replied, “Yes, I know all that.  I have been keeping these commands all of my life.  Are you telling me that there isn’t anything more?”  Jesus then saw that the man was sincere and he desired to help him in any way he could, “If you want to be sure of God’s kingdom, then do this—sell off everything you have, then take that money and give it all to the poor.  At that point, your reward in heaven is guaranteed.  Once you’ve done that, follow me.  I am going to the cross, and anyone who would come after me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  Come.” 

            However, the young man walked away in mourning because he had many possessions and to get rid of them all was very difficult.  He didn’t know he could do it.  Watching the man, Jesus mentioned to his disciples, “It is very hard for a rich man to enter into God’s kingdom.”  The disciples were surprised at this, so Jesus said, “Are you surprised?  It is so hard for a rich man to enter into God’s kingdom, that it would be easier for me to take a camel and put it through a needle’s eye than to get a rich man into God’s kingdom.”  The disciples were shocked and said, “Then can no one be saved?  Can no one enter into God’s kingdom?”  Jesus nodded and said, “It is just about impossible.  But the things that are impossible for people are more than possible if God is with you.” 

Peter's boat, still at the Sea of Galilee
            Peter, though, thought about what Jesus said to the wealthy man and asked, “Lord?  You told that man to sell his possessions and give to the poor.  But we didn’t sell our possessions.  We left them, yes, but they are still sitting there waiting for us.  And I had no intention of selling them.  Will we gain God’s kingdom?”

            Jesus replied, “Don’t worry, Peter.  Anyone who gives up what they have for me and for the gospel—whether it be their family, their homes, their land or their job—will gain more, much more.  Those who surrender all for me will gain more family, more homes, more land and more work—and more persecutions.  And in the end, they will gain eternal life.”

            A little while later, Jesus was travelling through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.  As he was passing through, a huge crowd surrounded him, blocking the streets.  There was a very wealthy man in Jericho named Zaccheus.  He was a chief tax collector of the Romans, and that and his wealth indicated that he had cheated money out of his fellow Jews.  Because of this, he was ostracized by all of his people, they wouldn’t even go to his house or greet him. 

            Zaccheus, however, greatly desired to be right with God.  And he figured that Jesus was one of the last chances he had to repent and make peace with God.  So Zaccheus tried to get through the crowd to meet Jesus.  But he was so short, no one even noticed he was trying to get through.  Frustrated, Zaccheus decided that even if he had to look foolish, he would meet Jesus.  So Zaccheus went ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree, and then waited for Jesus to pass it. 

            As the crowd passed, they laughed at him, but Zaccheus didn’t care.  One of those from Jericho whispered to Jesus, “This is Zaccheus, the chief tax collector of Jericho.”  That was all Jesus needed to know.  He said, “Come down Zaccheus.  I need to stay at your house today.”  Zaccheus thought that was great—he was finally having the change to make his life right with God.  But some others didn’t think it was great.  They said, “Doesn’t he know what a terrible sinner this man is?  Why is he even talking to him?”

            Zaccheus heard the accusation and said, “I say that beginning today I will give half of what I make to the poor.  And on top of that, I will do just as Moses’ law commands and give back four times as much to anyone whom I have stolen from.”  Jesus was impressed and said, “You see—today Zaccheus has come back from sin and is once again a child of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.”

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cheap Grace v. Costly Grace

The following is from Deitrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.... 

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.... In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. 'All for sin could not atone.' Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin....

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus Doesn't Believe in Cheap Grace

It's easy to say that salvation is free. It's easy to go to seeker services and feel good, pumped up spiritually for another week.  It's easy to hear what we want to hear.  It's easy to separate what Jesus actually said and did from our lives and claim a superficial Christianity.

But Jesus didn't allow for any of that.  He isn't interested in being people's savior without being their Lord.  He'll only accept people as His when they are willing to make the greatest sacrifices.

  • Jesus said we have to "hate" our family and friends.
  • Jesus said we have to surrender our possessions.
  • Jesus said we have to give up on selfish ambition.
  • Jesus said we have to stop looking for ways to promote ourselves.
  • Jesus said we need to sacrifice ourselves for others.
  • Jesus said we need to accept homelessness, rejection, persecution and death.
  • And Jesus said that if we ignore any of these, then we cannot be his disciple.  We cannot truthfully call him Lord.

Jesus requires these difficult requirements because in this world it is easy to get distracted by the things that will cause the world to implode.  To love wealth is to destroy others.  To have the destruction of innocent people as a tool is your belt is evil.  To see other people as less than human undermines the world.  To be so loyal to family or friends to stand with them as they do wrong is to do wrong. To get ahead by any means possible is the destruction of the weak.  To  be with Jesus is to be against all of these.

Following Jesus isn't pretty.  It requires tough minds, tough wills and tough decisions.

Why does the Protestant church insist upon free grace?  Because it is available to anyone, no matter what they've done in the past.  It's available to anyone, no matter who they are or how much money or time they have.

However, once we have committed to Jesus as Lord, we need to see how we can best follow him by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can't make a firm step in any of these areas without the Spirit.  But with God's power, we can do all this and more.

The Cost of Discipleship

Because Jesus was going to be killed as a revolutionary, he recognized that being a follower of his is no easy task.  They would be attacked, arrested and even killed for following him.  And not only that, but Jesus wanted everyone to recognize that if they were going to be given honor from God on the judgement day, they needed to be servants and the lowest of all in this world.  This makes following Jesus very difficult, and Jesus didn’t make it easy to do.

Jesus at one point had a large crowd following him, and many of them were thinking about being his disciple.  Jesus announced to the crowd, “If you want to follow me, your parents and friends and everyone you know will think you hate them.  You will have to act like it, because you must give up everything to be my disciple.  In fact, you will have to give up your inheritance, your possessions, even your own life, if you are a disciple of mine.

            “Let’s say someone wanted to build a skyscraper, and then halfway through it, he ran out of money.  Everyone passing by would laugh at it because he didn’t plan ahead to know how much it would cost.  Even so, before you become my disciple, look at how much it will cost you.
            “In the same way, if there was a king that had an army of ten thousand, but he was being attacked by another king with an army of twenty thousand.  Wouldn’t the first king wave the white flag and ask for terms of surrender?  And wouldn’t he give up everything he has in order to gain peace?  Even so, if you want peace on the day of judgement, you will have to give up everything you possess.”

            One of the crowd then came up to Jesus and said, “I want to be your disciple. I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus replied, “God has provided even the animals of the world homes, but I have no home—remember that, if you choose to follow me.”
            Another wanted to be Jesus’ disciple, and they asked, “But first let me say goodbye to my family.”  Jesus replied, “Elijah allowed his disciple Elisha to say goodbye to his family.  But one more important than Elijah is here now.  If you turn back away from me, then you are not worthy of God’s kingdom.”
            Jesus came up to another and said, “Follow me.”  That one asked, “Let me first bury my father, he is sick.”  Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you follow me.”

            Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, came up to Jesus and asked, “Lord, when you are ruler of the kingdom of God, we have a great favor to ask you.”  Jesus said, “Yes, what is it?”  They replied, “We would like to rule with you, one of us on one side of you, and the other on the other.”  Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup I am to drink and to be baptized the way that I will?  Are you ready to suffer and die?”  They said, “Yes, anything, Lord.”  Jesus said, “Well, you will suffer like that, but I don’t think you really understand.  Even so, the high positions in the kingdom of God aren’t mine to grant—only the Father can determine those positions.”

            The other 10 heard that James and John asked this, and they were angry.  Jesus heard their murmuring and said, “Look, if you guys really want the top positions in God’s kingdom, then you’ll have to work at it now.  If you want to be first, then be last.  If you want to be great, then be lowly.  The rulers of this world, they call themselves “ministers” or “servants of the state”.  But in fact they rule harshly.  But you are not to be like that.  If you want to be the greatest, then now you need to be a slave.  In the same way, the Son of Man is giving up everything for the sake of others, in order to deliver them from slavery to sin.”

            At one point, Jesus was at a party, and he told the guests of the party, “Let me give you a good rule.  If you want to be seen as important, don’t fight for the best seats.  Otherwise your host will ask you to move somewhere else, and then you will look like an idiot.  Rather, sit in the worst places, so your host will come up to you and say, ‘Why are you sitting here?  Why don’t you sit up front?’  And then everyone will see how important you are.”

            Jesus then spoke to the host of the party, “If you want to have a party that will really give you honor, then don’t bother inviting your friends and family who can pay you back.  Sure, they’ll like you, but God will give you nothing.  But if you invite the poor, homeless and needy to your party, then God will give you honor that you would never gain on earth.”

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Jesus' Acceptance and Rejection

Jesus knew that for the Kingdom to truly be of God, it must be open to everyone, without exception.  This doesn't mean that there weren't dividing lines, but one couldn't be excluded by race or class or sex or disability.  Everyone must have the same opportunity of acceptance.

This doesn't mean that Jesus gave everyone equal opportunities.  After all, if one wanted to connect to God, a healthy Jewish male adult had a better opportunity to do that than anyone.  They were the only ones who could enter into God's house, the only ones who were considered to be heard by God.  Jewish women were somewhat accepted, but non-Jews were completely excluded, unacceptable.

Jesus made it clear that Gentiles had the same opportunity as anyone else to enter God's kingdom.  If they showed faithfulness to God and belief in God's Messiah to save them, they were in.  This is a radical notion, especially among the first century Jewish theologians, who had deep debates of how pure one had to be in order to be acceptable to God.  And if there was one thing the Jewish theologians agreed upon, it is that no Gentile was pure.

Jesus said that only faith made one pure.  And for this reason, he made the most radical statement:  Not only will Gentiles be accepted, but many of those who have remained "pure" all their lives will be rejected, outcast by God.  Most because they refused to accept those whom God accepted.

Anytime we reject a mentally ill person, a homeless beggar, a child, a person of a different culture, a person with different spiritual habits than we, we are committing the same sin.  Should we reject those who Jesus accepts, we will find ourselves rejected by Him.

Let us take great care as to who we outcast, lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of the gate.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jesus and Gentiles

The majority of Jewish people, who worshiped God and honored the Scriptures, did not associate with anyone who was not Jewish.  The non-Jewish people—those who were not born in a Jewish household—were called “Gentiles” and they were rejected as apart from God and apart from the people of God.  For the most part, this was true.  Most Gentiles worshiped idols and practiced evil, and enjoyed evil.  And so the Jewish people wanted to have nothing to do with these types.  The Jewish Sanhedrin even established laws to separate themselves from Gentiles.  There was a law that said that they may not enter into a Gentile’s house or eat with one.  Many felt that a law should be passed that did not allow Jewish people to eat meat in Gentile cities for fear that the meat might have been offered as a sacrifice to an idol.  Jews and Gentiles never had anything to do with each other, if they could help it. 

However, there were some Gentiles who believed in God and wanted to worship him alone.  They were called “proselytes” and while they could never enter the temple, it is possible that their children might be able to.  Jesus had a mixed reaction to Gentiles, but he affirmed one thing—that anyone, whether Jew or Gentile, sinner or righteous person—anyone can come to God if they have faith.  And that those who do not have faith cannot come to God, even if they were the best Jew in the world.

Jesus was walking near Capernum one day when a Roman Centurion came up to him, looking for help.  “I have an important servant,” he said, “who is very ill.  Would you please heal him?”  Some Jewish men were with the centurion and witnessed that he was a righteous proselyte who paid for their synagogue to be built.  Jesus said, “Very well, let’s go to your home.”
            The Centurion stopped him however and said, “Please don’t.  I am not worthy for you to enter my home—I don’t want you to be defiled by entering it.  Look, I am a military man, and I am used to taking orders.  Everyone in my household does as they are told.  I say, ‘Do this’ and they do it.  There is no need for you to come with me.  Just speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”
            Jesus was amazed at this response.  “I have never heard a Jew show so much faith!  I tell you the truth, on the final day, there will be many people who come from far away—far from the east or far from the west—and they will sit with the Jewish fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But there will be many who are Jewish, who live in Jerusalem, who will be thrown out of the Jewish kingdom of God.”
            Then Jesus turned to the Centurion and said, “It will be as you say.  Your servant is healed.”  The Centurion went back home and found that his servant was cured in the same hour Jesus spoke the healing.

           At one point Jesus traveled to Tyre, a Gentile city north of Israel with a large Jewish population.  Jesus was sitting at a table with some Jewish people, telling them about the kingdom of God and eating.  A Canaanite woman was sitting below Jesus on the floor, near the disciples.  A Canaanite was someone, according to the Bible, cursed by God, never allowed to approach God or ask him for help.  But she kept asking Jesus for help, to heal her daughter who was possessed by a demon.  Jesus kept teaching, just ignoring her.  Some of the disciples near the woman was offended by her and asked Jesus, “Could you please get rid of her?  She’s bothering us, and we can’t hear your teaching.”
            Jesus then turned to her and said, “Go away, dog.  It is not allowed to take the food of the children and throw it to dogs.”  Jewish people often called Gentiles “dogs” to show how offended they are by them.  But the woman said, “But aren’t even the dogs allowed to eat crumbs that fall off of the children’s table?  I don’t care what you call me, heal my daughter.”  Jesus was amazed.  “Your faith is great!  You are humble enough to accept an insult and still ask for God’s help?  Go home, daughter.  Your daughter is healed.”

            As Jesus was nearing Jerusalem, he knew that his end was near.  He was teaching, and then his disciple Philip came up to him and said, “Jesus?  There’s some Gentiles here who would like to speak to you.”  At once, Jesus began speaking to the crowd, “It is time for my lifting up.  Now it is time for God to glorify me.  If a grain of wheat wishes to become many, he must first die and be buried in the ground, and then it will multiply.  Even so, if any of you wishes to save his life, you must lose it.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Experiencing Jesus

Atheists fascinate me.  I just don't get them.  From their experience and perception of the universe, they determine that God cannot possibly exist.  I don't deny them their claim, but I do find it an amazing act of faith.  Because they are denying the existence of a person because they have not experienced that person.  If I say to you, "The other day my friend Bill said to me..." and you interrupt me and say, "I'm sorry, but I've never met Bill, so I don't believe he exists" I think I might be justified in wondering at your reasoning.  You don't have to have met Bill to know that I have experienced Bill in some way.  Even so, there are billions of people who have experienced God in some way, and while you don't have to act on the experience of others, is it really rational to simply deny the experiences of the majority of humanity?

However, the basis of any relationship is experience.  To consider someone "saved" because they are convinced by an intellectual argument or because they rationally believe in a doctrine seems a considerable distance from Jesus' statement, "Trust in God, trust also in me."  Trust means knowing a person, finding them to be reliable and so leaning on them.  While part of our experience of Jesus is intellectual, that cannot be the heart of it.

But each person's experience is different.  Jesus only took three disciples out of thousands to the top of the mountain where they saw him transfigured in glory.  The majority heard this story, eventually, but only a bare few had this experience.  It is interesting that Jesus repeated this experience for his persecutor, Saul of Tarsus, but again, the 3000 who believed in Peter's message didn't have this experience.

Many more were directly healed by Jesus.  We don't have any numbers, but it was enough that thousands more followed Jesus wherever he would go to possibly be healed.  These healings continue to this very day.  There are many thousands who live today who affirm that their healing, their deliverance, their sound mind can be given to the glory of Jesus.  This is a powerful experience.  It means that Jesus is not only kind and merciful, but also powerful enough to change our lives for the better.

Still more have experienced Jesus through the actions of others.  There are so many who follow Jesus example, obeying his commands to love, show mercy, be compassionate, to give to the poor, to forgive.  And this community of love is experienced by millions of people throughout the world.  This is Jesus in his people, alive, powerful and changing the world one act of kindness at a time.

If we see our experience of Jesus as something intellectual, then we will base our life in Jesus as arguments, convincing others that we are right and they are wrong.  But the heart of Jesus is relationship: love, mercy and forgiveness from Him and from His people.  To whittle Jesus down to the intellect is to make him far too small: a weak and petty thing.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Jesus Revealed

Jesus had just revealed to his disciples his most important secret—that he was the coming king that had been promised, but that he would be killed before the end.  At this point the disciples might doubt that he really is the king.  But he gave them convincing proofs that he really was the king, the coming Messiah.   Jesus had said to the disciples and the crowd, “There are some of you standing here that will not die before you see the kingdom coming with power.”  This excited people, because they thought he meant that the end would come before the end of their lifetimes.  But Jesus meant something different than what they thought.

            Six days after Jesus declared to the disciples his plan to conquer by death, he told his three closest disciples—Simon Peter, James and John—to follow him while the rest stay behind.  The three followed him up a steep hill, where there was no one else.  The three looked around, and they saw Moses and Elijah there, waiting for Jesus.  They looked at Jesus and saw that his whole appearance had changed—he was shining and his clothes were brilliant, whiter than anyone could clean it.  They realized that they weren’t seeing Jesus on earth, but Jesus as he really is in heaven.

            The three were so stunned that they couldn’t speak.  Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah about the coming events to happen in Jerusalem.  Simon then felt that someone ought to say something, so he stammered out, “Uh… it’s great that we’re here.”  Feeling that his words weren’t adequate to the situation, Simon added, “Well, I suppose we should get ready for the night.  Um… how about if we set up three tents—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?” 

Suddenly, the Father’s voice came out of heaven and spoke to Simon, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him!”  In an instant, Moses and Elijah was gone and Jesus was alone with them and he looked like his usual self.  Jesus then told them that they should tell no one about this experience until he had risen from the dead.

As they were walking toward the rest of the twelve, they noticed that there was some commotion around them.  As Jesus drew near, some people ran up to him, saying, “Master, we are glad you’re here.  A man brought his son to the disciples to be healed and they couldn’t do it.”  The disciples were having a discussion with some scribes about the matter.  Jesus came up to them and asked, “What’s going on?”  They said that there was a boy with a demonic spirit, but they couldn’t cast it out.

Jesus went to the father and said, “What’s wrong with him?”  The man replied, “My son has been attacked by an evil spirit for years.  He is mute and will have seizures.  But the seizures aren’t just arbitrary.  They would throw him into fire, or into water to drown him.  If it is possible, please heal him.”  Jesus said, “If it is possible?  Everything is possible to one who believes.”  The man replied, “I do believe, but please help me in my unbelief.”

Jesus would have talked to him more, but a large crowd was coming, so Jesus acted quickly in order to keep the matter private.  He commanded the demon to be gone, and the boy began having a seizure.  Suddenly, he stopped and he lay still, as if dead.  Everyone stared at the boy, waiting to see if anything would happen.  Then, slowly, the boy got up normally, and he was fine.

The disciples later came to Jesus and asked, “Why couldn’t we heal him?”  Jesus said, “Well, that demon was especially difficult.  It could only come out by prayer.  But, like I said, anything is possible to the one who is faithful to God.  If you have only as much faith as a mustard seed, you can say to a mountain, ‘Be thrown into the sea’ and it would happen.  So pray and have faith and whatever you ask for will be granted to you.

“And one more thing, if you want your prayers to be heard, forgive.  You have all sinned before the Father, and you want him to forgive you.  But if you don’t forgive others from your heart, then the Father will not hear you.  Once there was a slave who owed his king a huge debt—over a hundred thousand dollars.  The slave asked the king for mercy, and the king forgave him the debt.  But that same slave had another slave who owed him twenty bucks and he insisted that his fellow slave pay him.  His fellow slave asked for mercy and more time to pay.  The first slave refused and put him in prison.  When the king heard about this, he withdrew his mercy on his slave and said, ‘If you were to show gratitude to me for my mercy, you should have forgiven your fellow slave.’ The king had the first slave thrown in jail until he paid his whole debt.  Even so, if you do not forgive those around you, the Father will not forgive you.”

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Listening Not Fretting

Jesus and his disciples traveled through a village and a woman named Martha offered them hospitality.  Martha's sister Mary didn't help Martha at all, but instead sat at Jesus feet as he taught his disciples, listening.  Martha, of course, was busy with all the preparations one must make to host thirteen people.

Martha came up to Jesus and said, "Lord, why have you let my sister leave me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to get off her butt and help me."

Jesus answered, shaking his head, "Martha, Martha. You fret and worry about so many things.  Only one thing is really necessary and Mary has chosen the better part.  This will never be taken from her."

(Paraphrase of Luke 10:38-42)

It is amazing how much time I spend worrying about the mundane.  As the head of a church for the homeless, I want to make sure that I have enough food for everyone, and to make sure that we have enough money to pay the rent and the bills.  And I want to make sure that there's enough toilet paper and groceries for the house... and on and on.  Half my life is spend being concerned on whether there is "enough" to go around.

Jesus tells me clearly that I should stop focusing on if I have "enough."  There are bigger fish to fry.  Just like Jesus told Martha "You are concerned about many things, but Mary has chosen the better part."  The better part isn't doctrine, and Jesus is not rejecting service or hospitality.

The point is this: Jesus wants me to spend more time with Him and less time on fretting.  I need to do what I can do and let the rest go.  And if I stop fretting, perhaps I can spend more time in prayer and let the world turn without me tonight. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Cross 101

The disciples did not understand Jesus’ way or his purposes.  They were committed to him, but they didn’t really know who they were following.  Jesus tried to build their faith, again and again, but they just didn’t understand.  Sometimes they understood a bit, and then they would show that they didn’t understand at all.  Finally, Jesus told him the most important message of all—and they showed that they understood that least of all.

Another day, another crowd.  This day it was four thousand men, not counting the women and children.  They had followed Jesus far away from any community, and they were hungry.  Jesus said to his disciples, “This crowd is hungry and I feel sorry for them.  If I sent them home, they would collapse before they ever got there.  What do you think we should do?”  
Jesus was saying this to test the disciples.  Unfortunately, they didn’t even know there was a pop quiz. “Who could possibly get enough bread for this huge crowd,” they responded.  
Jesus asked, “How many loaves of bread do you have?”  
They replied, “Seven.”  
Again, Jesus told the disciples to sit the crowd down.  Again, Jesus gave thanks for and divided the bread.  Again, there was enough for everyone to eat, and seven baskets of bread leftover—one basket for each loaf there was to begin with.

            Immediately after this, some of the Pharisees came up to Jesus and demanded, “Give us a sign in the heavens to let us know you really have authority.”  Jesus looked straight at them and said, “This rebellious generation doesn’t deserve a sign.  You don’t believe even with what you have—you will get nothing more.”

            A little later that day, Jesus was in the boat with his disciples, and they were going across the lake.  Jesus told his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.”  The disciples, though, weren’t really listening—they were concerned with how much bread they had.  “We’ve only got one loaf,” they said, “That won’t be enough for all of us.  Perhaps Jesus is mad because we don’t have enough bread.”

            Jesus heard this and was extremely frustrated with them—“Why are you always concerned that we don’t have enough bread?  Are you pursuing stupidity?  How is it that you don’t understand?  Look, remember the first time I fed the five thousand—how many loaves were there?”  
      They shyly said, “Five.”  
      “And how many baskets did you pick up?”  
     “And when I fed the four thousand, how many loaves were there then?”  
     They sheepishly replied, “Seven.”  
     “And how many baskets were left over?”  
     “Why don’t you get it?  Haven’t you learned the lesson yet?”

            A couple days later, Jesus and his disciples were in the villages surrounding Ceseria-Phillipi.  As they were going along the way, Jesus asked the disciples, “So, you’ve been listening to the crowds.  Who do they think I am?”  One replied, “Some think you are John the Baptist risen from the dead.  They think that’s why you can do the miracles you do.”  Another disciple said, “Some think you are Elijah, just as Malachi promised that he would return before the day of the Lord.”  Another disciple said, “Most people think you are just another of the prophets.” 

Jesus said, “That’s interesting.  What about you?  What do you think about me?”  All of the disciples were silent.  They didn’t know what to say—and they were afraid to say the wrong thing.  Simon, however, opened his mouth and said, “You are the Messiah—the King of Jerusalem and the Son of God.”  Jesus smiled and said, “You are blessed by God, Simon.  For you didn’t figure that out in your thick skull—you learned that from God himself!”

Then Jesus got serious.  “Look, starting the kingdom of God is more difficult than anyone thought.  Some thought it would start if the Messiah gets the agreement of all the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  Some thought that if they got an army blessed by God that the Messiah would conquer Jerusalem.  Let me tell you the biggest secret— the Son of Man is the Messiah, and he will go to Jerusalem.  The Son of Man will be rejected by the chief priests and Sanhedrin, and they will condemn him to death.  Then they will hand him over to the Romans and he will be killed.  And on the third day, he will be risen from the dead. This is how we will win Jerusalem.”

Simon took Jesus aside, where the rest of the disciples couldn’t hear him and said, “Look Jesus, this simply can’t be true.  A dead man can’t rule Jerusalem.  We won’t let such a thing happen to you.  All you have to do is to convince the Sanhedrin that you are on their side, then we can gather up an army…”  “Shut up!”  Jesus yelled.  “Get away from me, Satan!  You are tempting me with pleasing words—but you do not know God’s will, only what man desires!”  Jesus stomped away, over to where a crowd was gathering to listen to him.

“Listen to me, all of you,” Jesus announced.  “If you want to follow me, recognize that I am leading a revolution.  If you want what I have—my healing, my salvation—then set aside your dreams and ideals and get ready to be executed! 

“If you want to save the life you have—get ready to lose it.  But if you are willing to lose everything you have and everything you are for my sake and for the teaching of God’s coming kingdom—that’s the only way you will gain any life!  What good is it for anyone if they have their present life, but throw away any future they have!  What will you trade for an eternal future?  A few dollars, a house, some land?  What about your whole life—that’s what I’m offering.  Trade in the life you now live for an eternal future.  If anyone is ashamed of me or of my words before men, then I will be ashamed of them before the Father on the final day.  
"Make your choice—choose me and lose your life, or choose your present life and lose your future!”

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Live a Miracle

Jesus did an amazing number of miracles.  Feeding 5000 people with fives loaves and two fish, that was pretty good.  Walking on water is classic.  Water into wine is famous.  Calming a storm is excellent.  Healing people born blind, healing lepers, raising the dead... all of them amazing works.

Most people see the miracles of Jesus as something that he did to prove his divinity.  He is the Son of God, so he could do all of these amazing works that no one else could do.  This is indicated by the popular bumper sticker, "Next time you think you're perfect, try walking on water!"  Jesus was perfect, Jesus could walk on water, you can't therefore you aren't.

But Jesus would weep at how we see his miracles.  He didn't see them as signs of divinity at all.  He fully expected his disciples to do miracles as well.  When the 5000 were hungry he said, "YOU feed them!"  When he calmed the storm, he yelled at the disciples for their lack of faith, as if they should have been able to do it themselves.  He sent his apostles out to heal and even to raise the dead.

The deciding factor is this:  Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father." (John 14:12)

Jesus didn't do miracles to show he was divine.  He did miracles to teach others how to do them.  Heck, even imperfect Peter walked on water.

So how do we do miracles?

1. We need the right situation.  God doesn't do miracles for everyone or for every situation.  But he will do a miracle when the poor are in need or when a person who was far from God begins seeking Him.  God will also do a miracle when His name is on the line. The miracle is not for ourselves, but it is an extension of us loving others or loving God.

2. We need faith.  Or the balls to ask (or demand) a miracle.  We need to stand up and declare that the miracle will occur.  And we need to have faith in Jesus.  It is Jesus' power that does the miracle, not our own, and so declaring one in Jesus' name works wonders (literally).

3. We need prayer.  We need to declare a miracle and ask for it.  This is so we remember that it is not our power that does a miracle but God's.  Any miracle that is done is God's grace alone, like a present.  He doesn't have to give it, but He will, if we are gracious and give thanks.

Finally, some of the greatest works that are done are not technically "miracles" at all, but are works of community.  We can feed 5000 people and more.  Every day.  We can heal the sick, and make the blind see and help people weather out storms and do greater works than Jesus was ever able to do, on a broader scale.  All because we have Jesus' love in our hearts.

Let us never think that we cannot do Jesus' work.  We must, and we will.

A Really Busy Day

In everything he did, Jesus was showing his authority—his ability to command the spirit world.  He commanded demons to leave his presence, he commanded fevers to disappear.  He pulled a little girl out of the power of Death, an evil spirit.  This authority was given to him by the Father, and the disciples were constantly amazed at his abilities.  He also showed that he could pass this authority on to his disciples, for they also were able to heal and cast out demons by using Jesus’ authority.  But they were still to be amazed by him.

After the disciples had returned to Capernum from one of their missions Jesus sent them out on, he looked at them and said, “You look worn out.  Let’s get away from the crowds and get some rest.”  That sounded good to the disciples, so they all piled into a boat and traveled to another part of the sea. 

            As they were leaving, there were many crowds watching them go, all of them hoping that they would be able to be helped by Jesus—some wanted healing, some wanted to hear his teaching.  They were all disappointed to see that they were going away, and they watched them drift to the middle of the lake.  One of the crowd said, “Hey, I see where they are going—come on, let’s follow them!”

            The disciples and Jesus arrived at a secluded place and was prepared for some well-deserved rest.  But no sooner had they arrived than the crowd they had left behind them in Capernum arrived, waiting for assistance.  The disciples groaned, but Jesus saw how desperate these people were.  They were without anyone to help them, without anyone to lead them to God.  Because Jesus had compassion on them, he began to teach them.

            After a few hours of teaching, the disciples went to Jesus and said, “Well, these people must be hungry.  They’ve walked all this way, without food, so please send them home.”  Jesus just looked at the disciples and said, “You feed them.”  The disciples were stunned and replied, “Even if we worked for six months, it wouldn’t be enough to feed this huge crowd,” for there were more than five thousand people.  So Jesus said, “Well, how much food do we have?”  A disciple found a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish, “But that’s all we have,” the disciple whined.  Jesus said, “That will have to do.”

            Jesus took the food they had, and blessed it by offering thanks to God for it.  Then he told the disciples to organize the crowd into groups of 50.  Then he broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to distribute to all the people.  He gave it to the disciples, more and more—and the five loaves of bread and two fish didn’t  stop coming.  Jesus kept giving and giving, until all of the five thousand had enough to eat, and more.  After everyone had eaten, Jesus sent the crowds away, and the disciples picked up the leftovers—and there were twelve baskets of bread left over.

            Jesus was exhausted by then, and felt that he needed to pray.  So he told the disciples to get into the boat and to go back to Capernum, and he would catch up with them later.  They left, and Jesus went up a hill to pray.  In the midst of the sea, however, a great wind came up and the waves were strong against them.  The disciples recognized that a spirit of the waters came against them, to attack them.  They didn’t know what to do, and they were afraid they were lost.  The strained against the oars, trying to get to shore, but nothing could be done.

            Jesus saw them struggling, and he determined to help them.  Using his authority over the spirits of the sea, Jesus walked on the water, to the middle of the sea where the disciples were.  The disciples weren’t expecting anyone, of course, so they thought that Jesus was a spirit coming to attack them, and they yelled out in horror.  Jesus yelled back, over the wind, “Don’t be afraid.  It’s me.”

            Peter yelled back, “Is it really you, Lord?  If it is, tell me to come out to the water with you.”  Jesus smiled at his brashness and said, “Come on out.”  So Peter climbed over the side of the boat and was walking on the water to Jesus.  Suddenly, Peter noticed the waves again, and he became afraid and began to sink.  Peter immediately called out, “Lord, help me!”  Jesus grabbed Peter and they both climbed into the boat. 
            Immediately, the wind died down and the sea was calm.  The disciples all stared at Jesus and said to each other, “What kind of man could he be, to have authority over the winds and sea?”  Suddenly, they were at Capernum.  Later, the crowds that had followed them also came to Capernum.  They saw Jesus and the disciples there and asked, “How did you get here ahead of us?  We left first.” 

            Jesus said to the crowds, “Why are you seeking me?  For me, or for some more food?  Work for the food of heaven, not of earth.”  They replied, “What shall we do to work for God?”  Jesus replied, “This is the work of God: to have faith in the one whom God has sent.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Living the Future

In the teaching of Jesus, the secret to living a right life here is to constantly be considering the future, especially one's future with God.  Jesus' ethical teaching is constantly referring to the future state-- not necessarily "heaven", but the final judgment of God and one's eternal state.  There are three basic principles he refers to:

    a. How we treat others is how God will treat us
    "Judge not lest you be judged" "Forgive and you will be forgiven" "By whatever measure you measure, by that measure you will be measured."  "Enter into the kingdom prepared for you... for when I was a stranger you invited me in."

    b. Whatever we take for ourselves, we will be given the opposite
    "Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted."

    c.  Whatever kind of suffering/comfort we find ourselves in now, we will be living the opposite
     "In your life you received good things and Lazarus evil; even so, now he is comforted and you are in agony."  "Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted." "Woe to you who are rich for you have already received your comfort; woe to you who laugh now for you shall mourn and weep."

In the end, Jesus' recommendation for us to live beyond the present is to remember the future.  He told us clearly what the future holds (in general terms), if we can remember the future, it will actively change the present.  And this is the most important thing: the point of looking beyond the here and now is to change the here and now.  Because if we do not change the here and now, then our "beyond" will always look the same.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jesus Not Making Sense

Jesus had been harshly judged by the officials from Jerusalem.  Until this point, there might have been a possibility that the politicians in Jerusalem might have accepted him as King.  But not now.  Jesus recognized this, and was prepared for this—saying ahead of time that God’s people would be rejected and persecuted.  Because of their rejection of his clear message, the Father determined that they must be judged. 
However, the judgment was not one of destruction—rather, it was one of ignorance.  Now they would not be allowed to understand the message Jesus came to teach.  It is at this point that Jesus began to teach everything in parables—to keep people ignorant of God’s truth.  Those who truly desired to understand Jesus would come and ask him, or be his disciple, to whom Jesus explained all things.  But to everyone else, these would just be stories and the truth would be hidden.

Jesus told this parable: “A farmer took his seed and scattered it everywhere.  Some of the seed landed on the hard road, beside the field that never planted properly and birds came and ate it all up.  Some of the seed grew up among thorns, and as they grew the thorns sucked all of the seeds’ water, and they died.  Some of the seed grew up among the rocks, and the plants had shallow roots, and so when the days grew hot, the plants withered.  But some seed was planted in good soil and it grew up and produced abundant fruit.”

            Jesus told another parable: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  It is only a tiny seed, but after it is grown, it becomes huge and all the birds will rest under its branches.  The kingdom of God is also like a man who plants a field and waters it.  He waits, and the plants grow up—but he does not know how.”

            The crowds were completely confused now, so Jesus told one more: “A man planted a vast field.  In the middle of the night, his enemy planted weeds that look just like the grain in the midst of the field.  As the plants grew, the man’s slaves came to the man and said, ‘There are weeds among the grain! Should we pull them up?’  The man replied, ‘My enemy has done this.  Let the plants grow up, because if you pull the weeds up now, you will also pull up some of the grain.  When they are all grown, then I will have you pull them all up and we will separate them.  The weeds we will burn, but the wheat we will bring into the barn.’”

            Jesus’ disciples were also confused, so when they were alone with Jesus they asked, “Could you please explain these parables?”  Jesus replied, “The crowds aren’t supposed to understand them, but you are given the meaning of the parables. 

            “This is the meaning of the parable of the soils:  The seed is the word of God about the kingdom, and the farmer is the evangelist.  Some people hear the word and reject it immediately—these are like the seed on the road.  Satan comes and steals the word out of their hearts.  The seed in thorny ground are those who hear the word and receive it, but they are too concerned with the things of this world—possessions and concerns and money—and so they do not abide in the word.  The seed among the rocky soil are those who accept the word, but then they are rejected and persecuted and so do not continue in it.  The seed in good soil are those who abide through all the difficulties and worries to remain in the word to bear abundant fruit.

            “This is the meaning of the mustard seed: The kingdom of God begins very small, but in the end, it will be the ruler of all the nations of the world.  Also, the kingdom of God is going to grow huge—but it will do so by the power of God.  Although I send you out to spread the word, you will not cause the kingdom to grow, only God will.

            “This is the meaning of the parable of the weeds: The field is God’s people, and the owner is the Father.  Satan has placed false worshippers of God in the midst of God’s people.  But the Father is not judging them all now.  Rather, he will wait until the end of the age, and then he will send out his angels to separate the good from the evil.  The evil will be punished in eternal fire, but the righteous will come into the kingdom of God and live in blessing forever.”

            Jesus also placed a riddle around himself.  He called himself “Son of Man” which no one knew what it meant.  Most thought he was just calling himself a prophet, like Ezekiel did.  One day, Jesus told the crowds, “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they all died.  But I am the bread of life that comes from heaven.  Whoever eats my flesh will never die.”  The crowd wondered, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?”  Then Jesus said aloud, “Truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life.” 

Many of his disciples heard this and said, “Who can abide this kind of teaching?”  Some of his disciples ceased following Jesus at this point.  Jesus then looked at the twelve and said, “Are you going to leave too?”  Peter answered, “Who else can we go to?”  And they remained.