Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Triumphal Entry

The Triumphal Entry--November 21, 2018
"Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever." [1 Thessalonians 4:17]
On some days during the week, if I get home first before my wife, when I hear her car pulling into the driveway, I will come outside to the driveway, meet her at her car to see if she's got anything to bring in--groceries or shopping bags or school work or the like--and will walk with her back into our house together.  Even though it might look at first like I am walking out of the house to leave, the whole ritual is really about welcoming her back in.  When she pulls into the driveway, I don't walk out the back door to get in the car with her and then leave our house behind, usually, but rather I go out to meet her to walk alongside her as she comes home for the day. She may not have been at the house for the whole day, but of course, it was her house already--she has just been at work.  When she comes home and I meet her in the driveway, it is to come back--with a certain sense of victory at having made it through another day--to the place that we share together.
You'll have your own particulars, of course, but I'm betting that kind of scene is pretty familiar to you.  Whether you are more frequently on the welcoming side or the being-welcomed side, I'm willing to be that at least the meaning of that moment makes sense to you, and that it is clear when I walk out the back door, it is not for my wife to whisk me off to some other location (unless we are, say, going out to eat straight from work), but for her to come home to the place that was already hers.  Well, keep that picture in mind to consider one other scene before we jump into the verse for today.  
In the ancient world, especially in the practice of the Roman empire, when the emperor was coming to visit a Roman city or colony, a very similar ceremony of welcome unfolded.  Citizens from the city--who understood the emperor to be their ruler--would go out through the city gates and walls and stand waiting to greet the emperor, who would then be escorted with this entourage back into the city.  The city was understood to already belong to the emperor, and he was the rightful ruler.  He was simply being welcomed back into what was his own, perhaps as he returned from some far off military campaign, or as he toured his territory.  But what always happened was that the loyal citizens of that city would gather outside the city so that they could meet the emperor and accompany him back into the city--the city, mind you, from which they had just left, in order immediately to come back in as part of a triumphal procession.  There was never a scene where the emperor would come near to one of his own cities, and then have the citizens standing outside like they were waiting for a bus to be picked up and taken somewhere else.  The emperor didn't take his own citizens out of their various cities (which were all under Roman rule) to bring them all to Rome.  No, the scene was always the other way around--the emperor is met by loyal crowds who welcome him into their city, which they all agree is under his authority already.  So this scene, which was played out again and again across the empire, was both a moment of celebration, but it was also a statement of allegiance.  Those who welcomed the emperor into their city were, in effect, saying that he was the rightful ruler of their city and that he was coming back to a place that was his own already.
Well, both of these scenes help make sense of what's going on in this passage from 1 Thessalonians (as well as some of what is going on in the triumphal entry in all four Gospels when Jesus comes into Jerusalem riding on a donkey on the day we call Palm Sunday--a day when the people of the city "took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him" (John 12:13) before escorting him back into Jerusalem.  On both Palm Sunday and here in 1 Thessalonians, the idea is that Jesus is being escorted into a place, and that people have come to welcome him--and by doing that, they are pledging their allegiance to his authority and lordship.  It turned out to be rather fickle allegiance on Palm Sunday, but the idea is the same.  Just as the emperor or other imperial dignitaries would have triumphal entries to Jerusalem as shows of their power, Jesus has a parallel entry, and it was a statement of a different reign than Caesar's.
This is the way Paul talks about what will happen at Jesus' return.  The whole scene here is of a triumphal entry, or a homecoming celebration--not a rescue mission to retrieve people and whisk them away somewhere else.  The same word Paul uses for "meeting" Jesus in the air is the same technical word used in Greek for that political procession of welcome when the emperor came to a Roman city. The idea is that Jesus, when he comes, will be met by his people, who will then accompany him back into the world that is rightfully his--the place that he shares with us, and where we will dwell together.  This idea of meeting Jesus in the air is all about a triumphal return to the world, not a secret rescue or rapture out of the world. 
That's because ultimately, God is not going to give up on his claim over this world.  Sure, now it looks like the world is not interested in God's rule, but that will not stop God.  To borrow one more image, when the Allies liberated France in the D-Day campaign to win World War II, the goal of the mission was not just to cut their losses, gather as many displaced French citizens and settle for rescuing them out of occupied France to give them new lives in England permanently.  The mission was to liberate and to restore the rightful rule of the country, because the Allies never gave up on the conviction that France did not really belong to the Nazis, but to the French.  The Allied invasion was, in many ways, about the rightful rulers returning to their own places.  This is the way Paul talks about Jesus' coming--except, for him, the victory is already won.  In Jesus' death and resurrection, the battle is fought, won, and over, and now what remains is for Jesus to be welcomed back home in triumphal procession back to what is his already.
What does any of this mean today for us?  For one, it means that God does not think this world is disposable or something he will give up on.  Jesus still claims this world of ours as his own rightful property.  Second, it means that our hope is not to be beamed out of trouble so that we do not have to face trials or suffering in this life--our hope is to welcome Jesus back to this world that has been his all along.  We are not only missing the point of this Bible passage if we insist that it is about a "secret rapture" where true Christians will disappear while the world goes to hell in a handbasket, but we are also settling for less than God is apparently willing to settle for.  The Allies would not give up on France and leave it to Nazi occupation--and God will not give up on the world and leave it to the rebellious, idolatrous emperors and Caesars of human arrogance.  God will not settle for plucking a few good people out of the world and then letting it fall apart--God is committed to restoring, reclaiming, and redeeming the whole thing.  That is what we wait for.  That is why we live our lives now with an eye out the window and on the driveway.  We are waiting to pledge our allegiance to our Lord in celebration of his triumphant homecoming.  We are waiting to welcome home our Beloved to the place where we will dwell together. 
Come, Lord Jesus.  Reclaim, restore, and redeem, and keep our eyes watching to greet you and welcome you home in the mean time

Monday, November 19, 2018

Playing Jesus' Tune


Playing Jesus' Tune--November 20, 2018

"When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 'Look,' he said, 'I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.' Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he died." [Acts 7:54-60]

If God's kind of victory looks like a cross for Jesus, then it shouldn't surprise us that God's kind of victory looks like this for Jesus' followers.  We are playing the same song--the tune Jesus taught us--each on our own instruments, but it is the same melody.

Let me take that a step further: Jesus' death on a cross isn't just one more in a line of countless rushed Roman executions.  There were innumerable crucifixions carried out under the authority of the Empire, after all, and yet Christians are convinced that there is something unique and powerful about the death of their particular homeless, penniless rabbi, Jesus.  For one, Jesus did not meet death fearfully bargaining, cursing his God or his executioners in a fit of rage, or despairing and despondent.  He died, Luke told us (see Luke 23), at complete peace with God, praying from the psalms, "Into your hands I commend my spirit," and calling on God to forgive those who were holding the hammer that had put nails in his hands.  Jesus' victory begins there--before we even get to Easter glory--because Jesus would not be broken by Empire. He would not give into the violence, hatred, and fear that Rome and all the other powers of history have used to get their way.  And this is his victory. Jesus would not lash out to kill his enemies, and he refused to give himself over to their tactics.  Before we even get to the stone rolled away on Sunday morning, Rome's power has been exposed as smoke and mirrors, and the power of death itself is already hamstrung, simply by virtue of Jesus' complete and utter faithfulness to the way of God rather than to the way of Rome, of self-centeredness, of fear, and of power.  

And then second of all, of course, the New Testament would have us believe that Jesus' cannot be held in even by the grave.  Resurrection breaks out, and Jesus rises beyond the power of Roman centurions, and even beyond the grip of death itself.  The cross is a double victory, then, both because of how Jesus remains faithful to the way of God even all the way to death, and how Jesus rises from death after the cross.

So if that is true for Jesus, then here is something wonderful and awesome: the followers of Jesus share in that same victory.  That's how Luke--the same guy who wrote the Gospel we call by his name--wants us to understand the stoning and death of Stephen (no relation).  Luke wants us to see that when an angry mob got stirred up to kill this early servant-leader in the church, Jesus' kind of victory was visible again.  Stephen has learned to die victoriously, and he has learned it from Jesus himself.  He has learned to sing the same tune Jesus sang, to play the same melody with his own life.

Look at the last words on Stephen's lips here as Luke gives us the story.  He is echoing Jesus!  "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," he asks, seeing the risen Jesus while the angry crowd roars to drown out a message it cannot comprehend.  "Lord, do not no hold this sin against them," he prays, seeking forgiveness for the lynch-mob that has encircled him.  Where do you suppose Stephen gets these ideas from?  Who taught him this kind of response to this kind of hatred, this kind of ignorance that yells louder so it doesn't have to listen to what it doesn't agree with?  Where of course, but Jesus?  Stephen's death--the first time someone died for faith in Jesus, according to Luke's storytelling--is a witness that the early church got it.  The first followers of Jesus understood that Jesus' kind of victory isn't won by overpowering an enemy with bigger guns and more ammo, or more centurions and spears--it is won by suffering love that will not bend to the power of hatred, of fear, or of death.  Stephen dies pointing to and echoing the tune, so to speak, of Jesus.

And that means evil's defeat continued into the community of Jesus' followers--it couldn't corrupt Jesus, and it couldn't corrupt his disciples into returning evil for evil.  Much like Kipling describes in his poem "If," Jesus and his community "being lied about, don't deal in lies...or being hated, don't give way to hating." The powers of death, hatred, and evil couldn't get Stephen to go to his death cursing the ones hurling rocks at him, and in that, Stephen participated again in Jesus' victory.  And that wasn't all--as Luke subtly notes, there was a young man named Saul watching all of this unfolding, holding the coats for the rock-throwers, nodding approvingly as they killed Stephen.  But we know this Saul better by his Greek name: Paul.  This same young man would be transformed before long (it takes another chapter of the book of Acts) to become a follower of the same Jesus, and Paul/Saul brought a message to the world that declared God in Christ loved his enemies and died for their forgiveness in order to save them.  The angry mob intended to silence this Jesus and his movement when they stoned Stephen to death, but in fact, they only gave it more power to witness authentically to the love that lays down its life even for the enemy in order to save them.  Jesus' strange kind of victory strikes again, even for the young man named Saul holding the coats at a stoning.

If you are looking for some scene in the Bible where Stephen gets to come back from the dead and get revenge on his killers in a final act of "victory" over them, I'm sorry.  That never happens.  That is not how Jesus' kind of victory works, and that is not the kind of victory his followers seek after. Jesus' kind of victory reconciles enemies, forgives sins, and gives up on attempts at revenge or "saving face."  Jesus' kind of victory is bigger than all of that, and he calls us to be bigger than that as well.

So for us on this day, sharing in Jesus' kind of victory will mean looking like Jesus--the way he lays down his life forgiving his enemies, the way he asks for God's mercy on his persecutors, the way he can confidently commend his life into God's hands, the way he is at total peace with the way of God.  And we have to know now, in advance, that the world will look at that and will not recognize it as victory. The world will see it and think it has won, just like the angry mob thought it had won over Stephen when the last rock was thrown, and just like the Respectable Religious Leaders and the Romans thought they had won when they nailed Jesus to a cross. They did not understand--how could they?--that they had actually sown the very seeds of God's kind of victory, a victory so large and wide and deep that it even swept up the very enemies of God in its embrace.  They did not realize that their attempts to stamp out the movement of Jesus actually scattered seed into the whole world to make the Kingdom grow.  They did not understand that Jesus' victory comes through giving yourself away.

But we are invited to see that, to understand it, and to stake our lives on it.  

Today, let us share in Jesus' kind of victory--not giving into the hatred, the lies, the violence, the bitterness, and the greed of the world's way of doing things.

Today, let us surrender our old need for getting even or looking tough, and discover the great power that lies in refusing to sing the world's song, but rather playing Jesus' melody in our own key.

Today, let us look for ways to embody a love so big and wide that it defeats enemies by embracing them and transforming them into friends.

This is Jesus' victory song.  It is our tune today, too.

Lord Jesus, let us reflect your kind of victory in the ways we lay down our lives today, too.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The New Lincoln


The New Lincoln--November 19, 2018

"The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end'." [Luke 1:30-33]

Everybody is supposed to like Abraham Lincoln.  

Well, nowadays, anyway.

When people are surveyed for their answer regarding who the greatest U.S. president was, Lincoln is regularly at the top of the list.  Over Washington. Over Jefferson.  Over JFK and FDR, too.  Above all, Lincoln is remembered for having a certain kind of character that guided his leadership--he kept a level head as the nation was torn apart by its original sin of slavery, he refused to seek revenge against the defeated Confederacy, he stood his ground and sought to bring about abolition with a clear message, and he was humble enough to know he needed the wisdom and guidance of good advisers and the support of his people. So when people cite Abraham Lincoln as the greatest American president, this is the sort of thing they have in mind.

No one claims that Lincoln made the country richer (going to war with your own country has a way of depleting resources and destroying your own infrastructure, after all), and no one would suggest that the size of our territory expanded during the Lincoln presidency (for a while, of course, the territory of the Union appeared to be a risk of greatly shrinking when the Confederate States seceded).  

No, it seems that when it comes to historical surveys and such, we get our priorities clear: greatness lies in character, graciousness, moral clarity and leadership, and the humility that keeps someone grounded.  And so, with good reason, Lincoln tops the lists year after year.

I mention this because something like this is a big piece of Israel's collective memory, too, when the people asked themselves who their greatest king had been.  And without a doubt, every survey back in Jesus' day listed king David at the top of the list.  His name keeps showing up in the prophets and psalms, as later generations looked back to this figure of David as the quintessential "good" king, someone who got it right--or at least got it right more than anybody else who wore the crown ever did.

But what's striking to me in all that storytelling about good ol' King David is that, like Lincoln, David's "greatness" didn't really have to do with money or land or power or primacy.  David wasn't the first king of Israel--he doesn't get the "George Washington bump" for being first.  He didn't preside over the largest amount of territory for his country during his reign--that credit would actually go to his son, Solomon, and during much of David's reign, his own nation was fighting a bloody civil war with itself when another son, Absalom, launched a revolt.  And David wasn't remembered as the richest king, or even for making Israel the richest it ever would be; again, those marks go to Solomon, and the Bible is rather ambivalent about whether it was or was not a good thing for the nation to celebrate its wealth like that.

The usual markers, in other words, that people today use to measure the "greatness" of nations and their leaders--territory size, money and wealth, power and influence, and such--these things were not what the people of Judea in Jesus' day had in mind when they remembered David.  At his best, he was someone who knew he was meant to be a servant for God and for God's people--a shepherd for lost sheep, and a protector of those on the margins of Israelite society.  David was remembered for coming back around to seeking God's will for him, even after his worst moments and gravest lapses in judgment (poor choices which wreaked havoc with the lives of others, and which had consequences that haunted David for the rest of his life, and which troubled his nation for centuries after).  

In other words, when later generations of Israelites and Judeans looked back on their historical hero, David, they did not celebrate what was usually counted as "greatness"--greatest national wealth or personal fortunes, largest territory, or biggest military.  Instead, Israel came to see that David's greatness came from being--or at least trying to be--good.  If you only cared about who made the country the most money or who built up the largest number of fortresses and armies, other kings would get the title.  But when Israel looked back to David, it was, like we do with Lincoln, making a statement about the character of their best leaders.  And David, when he was not being a murderous, adulterous coward trying to cover up a scandal, could listen to the voices of advisors and prophets who called him on it when he messed up.  He could listen; he could admit his failures; he could seek forgiveness from a God who was known for mercy for stinkers.

The reason we need to have this little history lesson about good ol' King David and Honest Abe is that the New Testament regularly talks about Jesus as being a new David, or someone who would reign victoriously like his ancestor David.  And that means that at least for the writers of the New Testament--and the angel Gabriel here in Luke, as well--we need to ask what ways Jesus is supposed to be "like" David.  

How, in other words, was David really "great," and how is Jesus even "greater" as well by comparison?  Because seriously, if we were judging by wealth, territory, influence, and military prowess, Jesus is laughable compared to David on all those counts, and David wasn't even the gold-medal winner on any of those himself.  By the usual measures of victory and greatness, a homeless, penniless rabbi dependent on the provision of a cadre of women who subsidized his ministry, who owned no land and carried no weapons doesn't look like a triumphant king sitting on his ancestral throne.  He looks like a drifter you wouldn't let sleep on your park bench.  And yet the Gospels say that Jesus shares a certain "greatness" with his ancestor David--and in fact that Jesus even outdoes Davey on the greatness that counts.

He is great, in other words, much like Lincoln is remember as great: not for raking in more land or more bucks or more soldiers, but for being the kind of servant leader who used his power to set people free and mend wounds between people.

This is the only way to really make sense of what is going on in Luke's Gospel, too, by the way.  When the angel brings the message about the baby Mary will have, this is really our first introduction of what to expect from the child she will name Jesus.  If Luke really wanted us to think that Jesus was going to amass armies and lands and wealth like the old kings had once done, he is setting us up for complete disappointment with Jesus, because none of that ever happens.  So unless Luke is a total idiot giving wildly inaccurate expectations of what Jesus was supposed to do and be, only to have us be utterly disappointed when the actual Jesus turns up to be that homeless rabbi, then Luke can't have meant that David's "greatness" was about money and power and land and armies, either.  Luke wants us to get, right from the outset, that the only greatness, and the only victory that God has ever really cared about has been the kind of greatness that lifts up the bowed down, gathers in the outcast, does justice, and practices mercy.  

Jesus' greatness surpasses even King David's in that Jesus doesn't ever slide into the egocentric power-abusing cowardice that David wrestled with (see especially the Bathsheba-and-Uriah-gate scandal), and Jesus truly was willing to lay down his life for his people.  This is his victory. 

Every so often it really is worth asking, "What do we really think makes Jesus so great after all?" and "Why do we talk about Jesus being victorious when he never led an army into battle once?"  These passages that call to mind the memory of David help us out--they help us to see Jesus as the fullest embodiment of all that David strived to be in his best moments, and that Jesus' kind of victory was never about money, land, political power, or armies, but about the strength it takes to lay down your life for the sake of healing and freeing your people.

We don't rank Lincoln the highest because of the stock market levels in 1865, and the Biblical writers didn't look back to David for making Israel into an empire.  

It has always been--as the prophets are quick to remind us, too--about justice, mercy, and walking humbly with God, and having the courage and clarity to keep at all of those, regardless of what anyone else said or did.  That is Jesus' kind of victory, too.

All hail, King Jesus, the homeless penniless rabbi you wouldn't let sleep on a park bench... who sits on the throne of his ancestor David the great.

Lord Jesus, help us to see how you reign, and to share in that kind of greatness as well.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

We Are Included

We Are Included--November 15, 2018

"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children or God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." [Romans 8:19-23]

The victory is so much bigger than we dared imagine.  The victory of Jesus, that is.  It includes you, and it includes me... but it is so much wider and deeper and taller and bigger than just me or you.  We sometimes forget that.

We would do well to remember.

I remember two years ago when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the national championship title for the NBA.  Now, as a child of the Cleveland suburbs, even living across a state line now for more than a decade, I was of course happy for my old hometown team.  I had caught headlines and online news stories about the team, led at the time by LeBron James, and was glad to see them advancing through the playoffs.  It brought back to my mind the memories of being a kid and going to Cavs games in the old Richfield Coliseum, in the days when Brad Daugherty and Mark Price ran up and down the court in the blue, white, and orange uniforms.  I remembered seeing them play and seeing playoff hopes dashed year after year... which was not really much of a disappointment, given it was Cleveland, after all, and the other teams to root for were the Indians and the Browns.  So for most of my formative years, every professional sports team around me excelled at flirting with success, and then abruptly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory before the last round of the post-season arrived.

So I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction when the Cavs, my old hometown team, finally won the championship in 2016.  And I can remember thinking to myself, even if just for a minute or two, "Ahh.... now I feel satisfied.  I am vindicated.  My team won."

Oh. Come.  On.

It is embarrassing to confess it now, and I am glad at least that I got over myself eventually.  But yeah, at first, my thought was that the news about the Cavaliers' championship was first and foremost about me and my victory.  Me and my team won.  But... in actuality, it was The-Team-That-Happened-To-Be-Geographically-Closest-To-The-Town-Where-I-Grew-Up that won.  I hadn't made it happen.  I hadn't won any games.  I hadn't supported the team waving a banner at any games.  I hadn't shelled out any money to buy a jersey or so much as a ball cap to identify with my team.  I hadn't even bothered to watch a whole game live on television.  I could be happy that my old home team won the title, sure--but it was the utmost arrogance for me, even for a moment, to think that the championship was really about vindication for me, one random former semi-fan who hadn't lived in Ohio for ten years and couldn't name the entire starting line-up without help.

The victory of that year was bigger than just me.  I needed to know that.  It needed to sink in.  The victory included me--but not in the sense that I had made it happen because of my own athletic prowess (ha!) or deep dedication as a fan (spit out your water with laughter here).  No, the victory was won by the actual players, and I could celebrate with them wherever I was, but it was always bigger than just me.

Truthfully, it wasn't just me eavesdropping from western Pennsylvania that was happy for the Cavs' big win.  The city was overjoyed--it was the team's first title ever.  Ever!  They had waited and hoped.  They had seen their star player lead them, then leave to go to Miami for a few years, and then come back to them to bring them the title and their championship rigs.  They had waited and supported and lived through disappointments and departures, and after all of it, their team came through for them.  The city was celebrating.  It was a victory so much bigger than me.  In fact, my role in that victory was this tiny little marginal piece of a celebration that stretched all across northern Ohio and all the way back for decades of fans who had hoped, but had never seen, an NBA title come to Cleveland.

As humbling as it is now for me to admit that I had, for even a little while, thought the victory was about me, I need that reminder and that lesson in humility, when I think about God's victory in Christ.  Because again, my temptation--as it is for all of us in our little myopic views of the world--is to see God's victory as all about...me.  It is tempting to think that Jesus' resurrection from the dead is primarily aimed at giving me, as the center of attention, life after death.  It is tempting to think that the entirety of the Christian faith is about getting me, and other people like me, into heaven, when the real picture is so much wider and deeper and bigger and more beautiful.

Paul sees it in cosmic scope--God's victory isn't just about me.  It includes me, yes (there, now you can settle down, Steve's ego!).  And it includes you.  But it also includes all of creation, a creation that is waiting, not to be destroyed, but to be renewed and set free.  My picture of God's victory is laughably incomplete if I think it is only about snatching me up into heaven, rather than about a gracious God's rightful reign and restorative work to mend of all the universe and dethrone all the pompous pretenders.  It is literally universal in scope--that is to say, God's victory is about the entire universe.

So often, we religious folk make the conversation all about me, and we act like halfhearted out-of-state basketball fans casually catching up on the sports headlines on the online news, thinking that the victory is meant to be vindication for "me" as an individual fan (and a fair-weather one at that).  We sometimes talk, we church folks, like the Christian faith is simply a matter of me rather selfishly getting a heavenly insurance policy to cover where I go when I die.  We sometimes act, we religious people, as though Jesus came primarily to get people to pray a specific set of words to him like a magic incantation so that our reservations will be confirmed for the afterlife.  And we sometimes believe, we who name the name of Jesus, that God doesn't much care for the rest of the universe--only about getting more butts into seats up into heaven after they die.

And here the New Testament itself wants us remember that it has always been bigger than just me and my interests after I die.  Paul wants us to see that God's victory is good news for all of creation, and not just me.  Paul wants us to see that the world God made once upon a time is the world God still loves and God is redeeming.  And right now, part of how we witness to the sheer wideness of that redemption is to take care of all that is around us--not because God cannot or will not take care of it without us, but precisely as a witness to what matters to God.  We take care of each other, of people far away, of people we have not met yet, of people who cannot do any favors for us in return, and for God's world all around us, as an act of faith to show the world that it matters to God as the world, and not just as the backdrop for plucking up souls.  God loves the world, and so all the world--the "whole creation" as Paul says--is what God has it in mind to restore.  It has always been that wide.  It has always been that deep.

Looking back on the 2016 NBA Championship, I was a pretty pathetic fan.  I wanted to make the victory all about me, despite the fact that I was a pretty lackluster supporter.  But recognizing that the victory of the Cleveland Cavaliers was about the whole city didn't mean I was excluded--it just helped me to put the whole thing into the right perspective.  The victory included me... but it was always bigger than just me.

This is the perspective that the followers of Jesus are dared to take up right here and now:

My prayer life can certainly include me and my wishes and wants... but it is always about more than just God having to give me whatever I call religious "dibs" on.  Praying is meant to be bigger than just me.

My energy isn't meant to be spent for just me and my interests. Yes, God wills for the well being of all, and yes, I am included in the well-being of all.  But my energy is not meant to be spent just on "Me and My Group First," because God's intention is to make all of life bigger than just me.

My hope isn't meant to be focused on my immediate future and my immediate wants but is always aimed wider and taller, at the God who gives victory.  Hope is meant to be bigger than what I can see at the moment.

So today, friends, let's allow the scope of God's victory to spread out and unfurl all around us.  Let's give up on all the ways we shortsightedly make it about just Me and My Group First.  And let's instead let the Scriptures themselves stretch our vision, our hope, and our lives.

Lord Jesus, allow our voices to be added to all the rest of creation at your victory... and allow us to remember how wide and deep your love really is.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

God's Rebellion

God's Rebellion--November 14, 2018

"For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." [1 Corinthians 15:21-26]

You know, it's not really a surprise that the first Christians kept getting rounded up by the Empire and then thrown in jail or fed to lions.  At least if any of the rest of them sounded like Paul here.  Paul is downright subversive--the Romans were right to see his voice as a threat to their unquestioned rule... even if he was never looking to launch a violent coup or lead an army.  We just don't often consider the real weight to the apostle's words here.

Paul clearly says that Jesus' victory is not riding the coattails of Rome, or through an endorsement of Caesar.  Paul says that at the last, every ruler, every supposed "authority," and everyone who wields "power" will finally give way to the Risen Jesus.  And to first century ears, that was a direct assault on the claims of Rome, which insisted  that it would last forever in an eternal dominion (personified for the Empire by its worship of the goddess "Roma Aeterna," who was a sort of embodiment of the nation-state of Rome).  

Let me say that again so that we do not miss the point: in Paul's day, the official policy of the Empire was that the nation-state of Rome was to be worshipped as divine, and official messaging from the Empire was that Rome's rule would last forever.  So when Paul comes along and says that Christ will ultimately be victorious over every ruler and authority and power, it cannot have been heard as anything less than a protest against the supremacy of the dominant nation-state of his day, and against the ruler at the top who boasted so much about its greatness.

This is a really decisive move for Paul, because he doesn't just say that God reigns "through" Rome, like a behind-the-scenes puppet-master pulling the strings.  Paul doesn't say here that everything Rome does gets God's endorsement, nor does he say that criticism of Rome is criticism of God's appointed ruler.  (We can spend time on another day with Paul's comments in Romans 13 about the governing authorities being used by God to restrain evil and limit the dangerous of chaos, but at least here in 1 Corinthians, Paul is not afraid to say clearly that no authority or ruler carries equal ultimacy with Christ.)  Instead, Paul says that no matter how the letterhead changes from one empire to another, as the power of one nation-state after another goes into the dustbin of history, no matter who came on the scene yesterday or who comes on the scene tomorrow, none of these powers deserve our ultimate allegiance, and none of them will outlast the crucified-and-risen Christ.

And then, in what I am coming to see is Paul's greatest slap in the face to "Eternal Rome" and its Caesar, he undercuts all of Rome's propaganda by saying that the real kingpin to be dealt with at the last is death itself.  Paul realizes that Jesus' victory is not simply to replace one empire (Rome) with another (even though Christians tried to do that with what they called "Christendom" or in things like "the Holy Roman Empire").  Jesus' victory goes deeper than just picking off Caesar.  The empires of history, and the emperors who have ruled them, are really just the henchmen of the real heavy-hitting Power to be dealt with--death itself.  Rome, Babylon, Assyria, Pharaoh's Egypt, and all the rest...they have just been the hired muscle that Death has used throughout history.  But make no mistake about it--death has been the real Power underneath all of them.  Death gave those empires--and every other empire since--their ability to threaten and coerce.  After all, what Rome, Babylon, and the rest did was to intimidate their subjects into obedience on pain of death--do what the centurions say, or else they can string you up on a cross!  And every empire and dominant system ever since has basically made the same threat.  But death has been the real enemy all along.  Without the underlying power of threatening death, no one would listen to Caesar or Pharaoh.  But with that power, empires spread, and people get stepped on.

So Paul cuts through to the real contest--not between Christ and Caesar, but between Christ and Death Itself.  That's got to be humbling if you are Caesar getting wind of this letter--it's almost like Paul is saying, "Christ isn't even going to waste his time taking out Caesar; he has bigger fish to fry, and Caesar is just too small a guppy to worry about."  Paul knows that Caesar and his reign will come to an end, and that Rome and its boasts as a nation-state and empire will fade away in time, too.  But the real power to be reckoned with is the power of death--and that, Paul says, is precisely what Jesus has come to deal with.

Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of the end of every other claim of ultimate power, because Jesus' resurrection shows that every empire and every emperor who makes the threat, "Do what I say, or else..." cannot stop or silence Jesus.  The resurrection is a defiant "No!" to Rome's insistence that Jesus stay in the grave, and it is also a shot across the bow to death itself, warning that the power of death is coming unraveled, too.  As Jurgen Moltmann wrote, "Christ's resurrection is the beginning of God's rebellion. That rebellion is still going on in the Spirit of hope, and will be complete when, together with death, 'every ruler and every authority and power' is at last abolished....Easter is at one and the same time God's protest against death, and the feast of freedom from death."

All these centuries later after Rome, it is tempting to think we are smarter, wiser, more pious, or otherwise different from the Empire of Paul's day.  But the temptation to worship our own national power is just as real, just as alluring, and just as strong.  The letterheads, change, but it is the same old impulse to bow down to "Roma Aeterna" in a different outfit and to worship the nation-state.  Paul reminds us here that history's empires and nations come and go, and none of them is ever really as permanent as it imagines itself to be.  But that is because death is a fickle and cruel mob boss who always turns on its henchmen.  And then Paul tells us that the real power to be worried about--death itself--has its days numbered, too.  And that the victory in which we hope is not merely Jesus over Rome, but rather Jesus over death itself.  

That notion is potent stuff.  If we took it seriously, we Christians might just become anew the world-changing, love-embodying, truth-telling movement that the Romans thought we were at the beginning.  We are a part of God's rebellion against the tyranny of death and all of its minions.  We are a part of God's protest against death.

Go.  Now.  Tell the world that death does not get the final say.

Lord Jesus, let us take confidence and courage from your resurrection, and give us strength in our voices to remind the powers of death they do not get the last word... ever.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Emperor Has No Clothes



The Emperor Has No Clothes--November 13, 2018

For whatever is born of God conquers the world.  And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? [1 John 5:4-5]

Come on, John.  Really?  Can we be serious and realistic for a moment here?  The thing that conquers the world is our faith--really? The one who conquers the world is the one who believes in Jesus?  That just seems either patently false or hopelessly, quixotically out of touch.  Saying that faith conquers the world seems like the sort of thing you can do only with your eyes closed and the windows shut--especially for John, living in the first century AD.  All he has to do is open his eyes and look out the front door to see the presence of the Romans everywhere--they sure look the part of world conquerors.  The Romans ruled the known world in John's day--at least the world that John lived in.  The Romans had established their conquest and built it on military victories over decades.  And to the ordinary man-on-the-street in the 1st century territory of the empire, it was obvious that "the one who conquers the world" was none other than Caesar, the man at the top of the whole Roman war machine. In the first century AD, Rome saw itself as the picture of "greatness," and Caesar saw himself as the "greatest of the great" at the top of the heap. So if you would have asked John's rhetorical question, "Who is it that conquers the world?" to an actual person at random in the first century, their first response would likely have been, "The Emperor, of course!"

Now, I am going to go out on a limb for a moment and make an assumption--that our author here, John, was not a stupid man.  Even bracketing out for a moment the inspiration of the Holy Spirit speaking as John wrote, John himself seems like a bright enough guy to know that the Empire was all around them.  And he doesn't seem to be so thick-headed as to miss the presence of centurions marching through the streets carrying their banners with the Roman motto and images of Caesar to remind everybody just who it was that called the shots. 

So for John to say, so matter-of-factly, that obviously it is "our faith" that conquers the world, it's not that he's temporarily forgotten about the Empire.  If you whispered politely to John, "Pssst--what about Caesar?  Isn't he the one who has conquered the world?" he wouldn't blush and say, "Oh, dear, well, I'd forgotten about him--obviously he's really the one who has conquered the world."  No, John makes his statement in full view of the Emperor and all of his soldiers, with his eyes open and the curtains on the windows pulled back wide.  And John says, anyway, with a certain holy defiance, as a detachment of soldiers walks by out past his front porch, "Nope--it's not them or their swords and spears that conquer the world. Nope--it's not the Empire with its banners and imperial propaganda in big gold letters and memorable slogans.  Nope--it's not the man with the crown whose face in on all the coins who calls the shots.  It's Jesus, and because it's Jesus who conquers the world, so do all those who trust him."

John says this plainly, like it's the most obvious thing in the world to him, knowing that to any bystander he must sound like he's crazy. "Nope, it's not the armies outside the door who run the show.  It's Jesus, and it's by the strange power of faith that we share his victory, too," he says. The Christian community does that, too.  While everybody else is sure that the United States is the last great superpower, or worries about the growing specter of Chinese power and influence across the Pacific, or of the looming influence of Iran or Saudi Arabia or North Korea, or the leverage that oil-producing countries who are not friendly to the U.S. have over us, we Christians believe (or at least, we should, if we believe half of what we say every Sunday morning) that Jesus really is victorious over them all and has conquered the world already in his death and resurrection.  We do not believe that the one with the biggest stockpile of weapons wins the day, or that the one with the most gold makes the rules.  We do not need to worry, at least in the big picture, about whether our country is losing its influence around the world or whether there will have to be room in the public square for more voices than there were before.  We do not belong, in the end, to this country or this society.  Our "home team" that we cheer for is not the U.S.A., but rather the Reign of God and its scar-wearing King.  And we have been given the assurance that Jesus has already overcome the other forces in the world that rage against him--and he has done it, not by marching armies in anywhere, but through the self-giving suffering love of a cross and the surprising power of the resurrection.

That's the message we announce to the world, knowing full well ahead of time that it will sound absurd to many around who can only see the centurions and images of Caesar around us.  We are people who live as though the whole world has been reclaimed by its Creator, and that the Creator has done in through the execution (albeit, an ultimately unsuccessful one) of an unarmed rabbi at the hands of the ones who pretended that they really ruled the world.  He is the one we cling to, and the grip by which we hold on to him and share in his victory is called faith.  That's what it means for us to be victorious, despite all the other forces out there, over the world by faith in Jesus, the Son of God.

For all of Caesar's self-important bluster, he is naked, even if nobody else has the guts to say it out loud.  Jesus has already overcome the world clothed in reckless self-giving love.

Lord Jesus, let us trust that you do really reign, even when it doesn't look like it in the eyes of the surrounding world.  And let us be willing to stake our lives on that reign, and so share in the victory that is already yours.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Lack of Capes and Lions

A Lack of Capes and Lions—November 12, 2018

“And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne.” [Revelation 5:4-7]

What if you called for Superman, and nobody in a cape arrived, but only a bespectacled news reporter named Clark Kent?

What if the Bat-signal went out, but you only ever saw Bruce Wayne in a suit and tie at your doorstep?

We probably don’t often think of the Bible as a book known for its plot twists or surprise character reveals, but this is a big one.  Maybe THE Big One.  And it’s a big twist precisely for what doesn’t happen, and for who doesn’t appear.

You don’t have to spend much time in American pop culture to know that Superman’s alter-ego is the sheepish glasses-wearing reporter for the Daily Planet, Clark Kent (who never seems to be around when trouble rears its head because he slips into a phone booth and emerges as the blue-and-red-clad flying hero just in time to save the day).  And you probably knew as well that Bruce Wayne is the given name for the Caped Crusader known to the residents of Gotham City as Batman.  When the police shine the Bat-signal’s spotlight up into the sky, Wayne sneaks off to his Bat-Cave, dons his cape and cowl, and then speeds into the night in the Batmobile to fight a whole rogues’ gallery of villains.

And in your standard Batman movie or Superman comic, the introduction of the hero onto the scene is pretty standard.  There’s a need—say, a speeding train about to go off the tracks, or a hijacked armored truck careening toward some schoolchildren—and it becomes clear that ordinary police officers, or even the SWAT Team, will not be enough to save the day.  And so, the call goes out: “This looks like a job for Superman!”  And then, the next thing you know, someone points up at a red-and-blue flash in the sky and exclaims, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!  No—it’s Superman!”  Same with Batman—the police commissioner realizes the Joker’s threat is too big for the Gotham City police force to handle, and once the Bat-signal is lit, we all wait for a dramatic nighttime entrance from the Dark Knight himself.  (And in the Adam West days, a catchy theme song, “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na—Batman!” would play, to remind us who was on his way!)

But what if the call went out for Superman, and the only one who appeared was a mild-mannered reporter named Clark?  What if it was just ordinary-looking Bruce Wayne who showed up when the Bat-Signal went off?  You’d be confused.  You’d be disappointed.  You’d be thinking that something strange was happening.  Even if you knew that Bruce Wayne is really Batman, and even if you knew that Clark Kent is the alter-ego for Superman, if they didn’t show up with clenched fists and billowing capes, you’d think something was wrong.  You expect some fireworks in a superhero story, after all—don’t you?  You expect special effects, explosions, karate chopping, kicking, some bat-a-rangs whizzing through the air, or some Kryptonian heat-vision blasting the bad guys.  In other words, you expect someone who looks the part of a hero, who shows power and strength and who revels in the glory of being a hero, and you expect that hero to start punching things to show they mean business.  If you had all the build-up but only got Clark and Bruce, I’ll bet you would feel more than a little taken aback. Maybe even a little bit cheated at the lack of capes.

So now imagine if you were a first-century reader of Revelation, which is the closest thing you’ll find in the Bible to a graphic novel, with all of its outlandish visuals and cosmic conflict.  Imagine if you were reading a story where the need was dire—“We need someone who is worthy of opening up this scroll!”—and the voice of the narrator said that there’s no one around who is worthy to open up the scroll.  This is like Commissioner Gordon realizing the Penguin’s scheme requires outside help and turning on the Bat-Signal.  This is the book of Revelation’s moment to say, “This looks like a job for—Superman!”  Except in this scene, they all expect a Lion.  “Do not weep,” says one of the heavenly bystanders, “Look here—the Lion of the tribe of Judah is coming.  He has conquered.  He is worthy.  He will do what no one else can and open the scroll!” 

So all eyes turn to look toward the heavenly throne, awaiting the hero that has been announced, expecting to see the conquering Lion, and—there isn’t one.

Not at this moment in Revelation, and in fact, never.  There ain’t a Lion to be found in the rest of the book of Revelation.  Never appears.  Never shows.  Never mentioned again. 

Instead of the conquering Lion, we get the slaughtered Lamb.  Instead of the fearsome predator, the so-called “King of the Jungle,” we get the diminutive little “lambykins” (seriously, the Greek here for “Lamb” is in the diminutive form, like we would say, “lamby” for “lamb,” or “kitty cat” for a little cat, or “doggy” for dog).  And not just a Lamb, but a dead one that is somehow alive again.  This Lamb ain’t stalking prey—he bears the wounds of having been killed himself.

And, mind you, this is not simply a dramatic buildup for an even later appearance of the Lion.  He just never shows up.  Or rather, we are supposed to understand that the Lion we were expecting has really all along been the Lamb.  And apparently, all we have ever really needed is the Lamb.

If you were expecting punching, clawing, or roaring, you will be disappointed.  There is none.  But if you were hoping for the victorious savior we need, even if it is not the hero we expected, then the Lamb is enough.  Sufficient.  All-sufficient, it turns out. But it does have the unmistakable feeling of surprise, with the same kind of punch for first-century readers as it would be for us to get all excited to see Superman, only to have Clark Kent arrive on scene for the rest of the story.  Somehow we assume we need punching for anything heroic to get done.

And that, of course, is the whole point that John of the Revelation is trying to make:  the way our God wins the victory in the end, is not by punching anyone, but by dying for everyone.  All the build-up about the Lion who turns out to be a Lamb isn’t false advertising—it’s a corrective to our misunderstood picture of what we really need. And the core message of the Book of Revelation is that even though it looks like the powers of the day are winning because they have more weapons and armies and wealth, the living God has won the victory already by dying at the hands of the empire.  We don’t really need a Lion, or a tiger, or a bear, after all—there are some things in this world that cannot be healed by clawing at them, after all.  What we need—what we have always needed all along, even if we could not recognize it—has been the Slaughtered-but-Living Lamb.  We need the kind of power that defeats death by getting swallowed up by it and then breaking it open from the inside.  We need the kind of power that comes from self-giving love that will not flinch in the face of death or run away to seek shelter when it starts to rain.

If you turned on the Bat-Signal and only got Bruce Wayne on your doorstep, even knowing that they are one and the same, you might at last realize that whatever your problem was, it couldn’t be solved by a masked vigilante with a fetish for flying rodents and beating up burglars.  You might realize the real problem was something that couldn’t be solved by punching.  Like the Joker famously says in the movie The Dark Knight, while a frustrated Batman tries to pummel the Joker into giving up information, “You have nothing! Nothing to threaten me with! Nothing to do with all your strength!”  And of course, in that instance, the Joker was dead right—there are some things that punching cannot fix, and some times when Kryptonian heat-vision cannot save the day.  Sometimes you need a victory that looks like loss, and a Lord who looks like a victim. 

For all of our culture’s assumption that “winning” looks like a regal lion with sharp claws, the Bible itself yet again yanks the carpet out from under. And all of a sudden, it will dawn on us that God was perfectly capable of sending a Lion and instead only chooses to send a Lamb, and only a Lamb… that God was perfectly capable of sending us Superman and instead sends the crucified-and-risen Jesus… that God was perfectly capable of coming down with guns blazing and fists flying, but instead shows his strength with open hands that take nails and offer blessing even to those who have strung him up on a cursed Roman death stake. Because that is what we most need—because what we need to be saved from is our own impulse to destroy ourselves.

Now if this is God’s kind of victory, the question for us will be, “How can I be a part of God’s victory in this day?”  And if we are looking at the Lamb for our picture of victory, then all of our tired lion-like attempts to intimidate, threaten, bully, and overpower others will come up short.  And instead, every act of self-giving love, every instance of faithful endurance in the face of hatred, and every moment of unmasked vulnerable honesty will be a witness to the real victory already accomplished, not by a son of Krypton, but by a crucified Son.

That may catch the world off guard, since the world still expects lions and Caped Crusaders… but maybe the world needs the surprise of ordinary faces and a slain Lamb.

Lord Jesus, our Triumphant Lamb, redefine our picture of victory in light of your suffering love, and let our lives witness to your way of winning.