Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Seeing Through the Insanity

Seeing Through the Insanity--July 17, 2018

"Pilate entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, 'Where are you from?' But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, 'Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?' Jesus answered him, 'You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin'." [John 19:9-11]

Sometimes I forget that, in addition to loving Jesus and worshiping Jesus and praying to Jesus and all the other things Christians say we do, it is also "right and salutary" (as the old liturgy goes) to look up to Jesus... to learn from Jesus... to see how he handles the hardest situations one can face, and to learn from him.  It is true and right that we confess Jesus is Lord and God... but it is also right and true and good for us to say, "And look how Jesus offers us a way to face the upside-down insanity of the world around us!"

Because he does.

Jesus offers an alternative, in those times when it feels like everything in the world is coming unglued, an alternative to both the blustering, inflated shouting of voices like Pilate's, and an alternative to feeble, fearful despair.  Both of those are dead ends... and Jesus offers a third way.  Jesus offers a power that Rome and its successors simply cannot understand.  Jesus offers a hope that will not cower when Pilate makes his threats.  We can learn from that--we can learn from Jesus.   As much as we will also worship him, bend our knees to him, praise him, love him, and sing our hymns to him, we would also do well to actually pay attention to Jesus' posture in a moment of sheer lunacy like this trial scene before Pilate, and to see how Jesus charts a course for looking the madness in the eye without fear and without bitterness.

As John the narrator gives it to us, this is actually one of Jesus' most powerful moments--even though there is not a miracle performed, a drop of water turned to wine, or a leper healed.  And even though it certainly would appear that Jesus is powerless in this moment.  That is, of course, exactly how Pilate sees it.  He takes a look at his position, and he takes a look at the half-naked homeless rabbi before him whose hands are tied and whose back is bleeding and raw, and Pilate believes that this is all evidence that he wins.  He brags about his position. He boasts about his power.  He blusters and threatens about all that he could do to Jesus, and hints that he could also let Jesus go if the rabbi would just cut a good deal with him and the Empire.  Pilate wants to project the image of being "extremely strong and powerful," and talk like someone who believes he holds all the cards... and yet, there is something, something maybe just under the surface, that suggests he is deeply afraid and insecure.

That's the thing.  Even though Jesus is ostensibly the one on trial, Pilate is the one steadily coming unglued when Jesus doesn't break like Pilate expects him to.  Pilate gets increasingly anxious--running back and forth, in and out of his fortress, looking for allies in the religious leaders, looking for some cover from somewhere, looking for some way to wash his hands of responsibility and some way to shrug off responsibility for what is about to happen to Jesus.  Pilate is a downright coward, but he tries to hide it behind all of his talk about being strong and powerful and having the "authority to crucify" Jesus as well as the power to pardon him.  Pilate thinks this makes him seem intimidating... when in truth, it only makes him look weak and pathetic.

Jesus remains in control.

Jesus remains calm.

Jesus does not buckle under the power of fear, nor give into Pilate's way of doing things by threat and chest-thumping.

And with a single sentence, Jesus deflates Pilate completely.  For all of the Roman governor's talk of having "power," all of his insistence on being unquestionably in charge and having the authority to kill Jesus, Pilate is really just a puppet on a string.  He only has power that has been granted to him; he only can go as far as the leash that Caesar has put around his neck will let him to.  Pilate isn't really very intimidating at all--like my fluffy little dog barking fiercely at his own reflection in the cabinet glass, all Pilate can do is make noise... but he cannot really bring an end to Jesus and his movement.

Jesus doesn't bargain or plead.  He doesn't threaten back or strike Pilate dead on the spot (as he says in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus surely could have summon legions upon legions of angel armies to come to his defense, except that that is simply not how Jesus' power or God's Reign works).  Jesus simply tells Pilate that he can see right through him... and then he willingly endures the worst that Pilate can do to him.  Jesus, as he himself puts it earlier in John's Gospel, is the one laying down his own life, thank-you-very-much, and Jesus is the one with the power to take it back up again.  

Pilate simply doesn't know what to do with someone like that.  He knows how to deal with people who are ruled by fear or dominated by bitter anger.  You threaten them enough, and they either fold or lash out--and either way, you can crush them.  You break the spirits of the fearful, and you break the necks of the defiant.  That's Lesson One in Rome's book of Standard Operating Procedures.  But Jesus?  He is different--and not because he does something superhuman in this moment, not because he shoots lasers or fire from his eyes, and not because Jesus finally calls in those angelic armies.  Jesus does something utterly... human, something that any one of us could do in the face of such an insane moment, if we chose to.  Jesus speaks--without fear and without bitterness.  He just refuses to let Pilate's threats, or the chaos of the moment, or the bloodthirstiness of the crowd, or the jealousy of the Respectable Religious Gang set the rules.  Jesus speaks, revealing Pilate's impotence.  And then Jesus bears whatever the worst Pilate and his borrowed authority can muster... and he endures.

There are times in this life when it can feel like the whole world is coming undone.  There are times when we are tempted, or when it feels like our only choice will be, to buy into the brutality of Pilate and accept it as "just the way things are done" or to be crushed with despair when it looks like the inflated arrogance of Pilate is winning.  In those times, we who bend our knees to Jesus will need to remember also to look to the model and the path he gives us, so that we can practice the same kind of power as Jesus, the power to see through the insanity to real and solid cross-tested hope.

Lord Jesus, give us your power to endure without despair or succumbing to the worst in us.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Jesus' Fiercest Insult

Jesus' Fiercest Insult--July 13, 2018

"At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.' He said to them, 'Go and tell that fox for me, Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem'." [Luke 13:31-33]

For a guy who is often referred to as the "Prince of Peace," Jesus sure knows how to wield sharp words like a sword.  In fact, I would suggest that this scene gives us the fiercest insult--what the cool kids these days would call a sick burn--we ever find on Jesus' lips in the Gospels.  And really, it's a doozy.

But hold on for a moment. It's not what we might expect. The real insult here in this episode isn't simply that Jesus calls Herod a "fox," although that would have surely been something of a slap in the face by itself.  (Foxes, after all, are unclean animals, and notorious for eating the chicks around the henhouse, whereas Jesus will describe himself in the next few verses as a mother hen who intends to gather those scared chicks under her wing.  The message was clear: Herod was the predator, and Jesus was the defender.)  But no, the fact that Jesus calls Herod a name isn't really the insult, and the name-calling isn't really much of a sign of Jesus' power. 

No, the real insult, the game-changer in these scene, is not that Herod is crafty or sneaky like a fox.  It is that, in Jesus' eyes, Herod is irrelevant.  That is utterly damning.

That is a gutsy thing to say on Jesus' part.  But truthfully, the real power of Jesus is that he is undeterred, unintimidated, unhindered by all the threats and bluster that come out of the mouth of the royal windbag named Herod.  Jesus hears the report from the Pharisees, a report surely intended to spook Jesus and make him go into hiding... and Jesus just keeps heading on course anyway.  Jesus treats Herod as a non-entity--because from the perspective of Jesus' mission to bring the Reign of God near, Herod is, quite simply, irrelevant.  

Herod, of course, didn't like this kind of talk at all.  This Herod would have been Herod Antipater, son of the famed king Herod the Great who renovated the Temple in Jerusalem and had tried to have the infant Jesus killed in Bethlehem (which then forced Joseph to take Mary and the baby and seek asylum in Egypt). Herod the Great, by the way, was so insecure and concerned that he be mourned as a great ruler when he died, that according to one Jewish historian of the time, he instructed that a large number of important Jewish citizens be rounded up and killed when he died, so that there would be displays of grief on the occasion of his death. The Herod family had been placed in power by the Romans, which made the Herod of Jesus' insult basically an installed puppet-rule. He wasn't even ethnically Jewish, either--Herod the Great's father had been Nabatean, and there was Idumean and Samaritan in the family line, but those were all neighboring groups.  So, right off the bat, this is a peach of a guy, in a family tree full of such peaches.

All of this is to say that Herod Antipas was a pretender--claiming to be more powerful than he really was, wishing to be more loved than he really was, and even faking a piety that was never really his.  He was an entitled, insecure, egomaniacal, blustering blowhard who was intimidated by the rumblings and rumors he had heard about a homeless itinerant rabbi named Jesus.  And so he did the only thing that entitled, insecure egomaniacal, blustering blowhards know how to do: he made big loud obnoxious threats.  And he was sure that he could make this troublemaking rabbi, this... Jesus of Nazareth, back down and be quiet without any more talk of the Kingdom of God (which undeniably would have sounded like a threat to the installed puppet-king).  Herod expected that he could make Jesus do what Herod himself would have done--go and hide like a coward somewhere.  Herod was sure that with enough big talk and loud bullying, he could make himself look "tough" and "great," while making this upstart rabbi look like a weak loser.  Standard bully playbook, right?

Except, here's the thing.  Jesus won't be intimidated.  Jesus won't be thwarted or turned aside.  Jesus won't let the blustering blowhard stop him from his mission, and Jesus says as much.  "Go and tell that fox," Jesus says, before getting to the real slap in the face: "Tell Herod that he doesn't scare me one bit, and I am not going to be stopped in my work healing the sick and casting out evil, no matter what he says he's gonna do.  You tell Herod for me that he is, in a word, irrelevant."

Jesus is not naïve.  That much is obvious, too.  Jesus doesn't just have an optimistic wish that everything will turn our fine and that he'll be safe.  He knows he is headed toward Jerusalem, and that there is a cross waiting for him.  But as all the Gospel writers make clear, Jesus isn't simply some helpless victim taken advantage of by the religious and political rulers of the day.  Jesus lays down his life knowing that is exactly where the story is headed.  But Herod won't make him afraid.  No, and that is at the heart of Jesus' power--not that Jesus is blind to the danger of the puppet king with an army at his disposal, but that Jesus sees it head on and just won't be stopped.  Jesus sees the danger... and he keeps on going anyway.  Jesus sees the way his presence infuriates the blustering bully tyrant... and he stays on course anyway.   Jesus sees the easy path he could take if he just chickened out and kept his mouth shut... and he refuses the easy path anyway.  That is Jesus' kind of power.

And that is exactly what infuriates and perplexes Herod the most.  Jesus doesn't get violent back, and give Herod a reason to arrest him or have him killed yet.  Jesus doesn't sink to Herod's level and make threats back.  Jesus doesn't go making fun of Herod's wife, or family, or anything else.  No, Jesus does something that is at the same time less hateful and more devastating than any of those, something without bitterness at all, but with more of a blow to Herod's ego than the worst insult he could lob:  Jesus speaks and acts as though Herod, for all his threats and saber-rattling, simply don't matter.  They do not factor into his equations, and they do not enter into his calculations.  Herod is a non-entity.  And that is the one thing the Herods of the world cannot stand: having to see that their bluster and threats, their attempts to look "great" and "tough" are all irrelevant... and that they cannot thwart the real presence or power of the Reign of God. Herod bellows and rages... but Jesus remains calm and simply keeps on keeping on, not varying a lick from his course of action, because Herod simply does not have power over Jesus.  And that is the one thing a pompous puppet-king like Herod cannot bear.  Jesus exposes the truth--at most, that old fox Herod will be a footnote in history, remembered, if at all, for being the guy who couldn't stop an unarmed penniless traveling rabbi and his ragtag band of followers from turning the world upside down, even though Herod had riches and armies and the cultivated aura of "greatness," and Jesus was just "the carpenter's son."

This, dear friends and followers of Jesus, is our power as well.  Notice how utterly Jesus rattles Herod without so much as a sword or a spear.  Notice how completely Jesus exposes the empty, hollow husk who wears the crown, simply by not letting fear back Jesus into a corner.  Look at how impotent Herod is revealed to be, if he can't even get this bumpkin from Nazareth to lay off his preaching and healing.  It doesn't mean that there isn't still a cross waiting--it just means that we don't have to be ruled by fear of it.  To walk the way of Jesus doesn't mean we won't take on additional heartache, or share the pain of others, or have mean words lobbed at us by angry bellowing Herods--it just means that we are free from being ruled by their anger.  And in that freedom is a power that Herods past and present simply do not understand.

The power of Jesus--and the power given to his people--is the power to go on loving, even when the loudest voices in the room only know how to shout from their own fears, insecurities, and bitterness.

You are free, dear people of Jesus.  You are free from all that.  Free to keep on speaking life and embodying grace for the world.  Herod cannot stop you.  And here's the secret that even fox ol' Antipas knows: no power of the day, past or present, can stop the Reign of God unfolding.

Dear Jesus, give us the power of your courage and love in the face of bluster and bitterness.  Give us the power to keep on embodying your Reign.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

An Interruption of Grace

An Interruption of Grace--July 12, 2018

"Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids--blind, lame, and paralyzed.  One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?' The sick man answered him, 'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.' Jesus said to him, 'Stand up, take your mat and walk.' At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk." [John 5:2-9]

It could happen anywhere, apparently.  A sudden outbreak of divine power for life.  An interruption of grace.

Most notably, it could happen without asking... without looking in the right place for help... without even so much as a "Yes" when Jesus offers point-blank, "Do you want to be made well?"  Jesus' power for life comes without prerequisites... which means that his power is decidedly out of our control.

This is one of those miracle stories that ruins people's neat-and-tidy theological systems, because it defiantly depicts Jesus healing someone who didn't ask for him and hadn't even put his trust in Jesus at the time of his healing.  We have a way, don't we, we religious folk, of taking these untamed accounts of the miraculous and wanting to make them into morality tales illustrating how to get God to assist you.  We tend to want there to be a proper order, an official recipe for how to get access to Jesus' special powers.  And so we construct hoops that we assume Jesus will expect people to jump through in order to get divine help.  

For starters, we tend to assume that you have to make the first move with Jesus, that we have to ask him first for help, or else he'll sit up in heaven, forever sitting on his hands, unable to intervene because he hasn't been properly summoned.  We tend to say this, not because that is how the stories in the Bible actually go, but because we have this need to erect walls around access to Jesus.  And so you'll hear religious folks say things like, "You have to take the initiative to ask Jesus for help... to invite him into your heart... to give you your miracle... to save your soul... or else he can't help you.  You have to take the first step."  Never mind, of course, that this is not how the story actually goes.  No, not for this man at  Bethzatha just waiting around without seeking Jesus for help, not for Zacchaeus who is too afraid up his tree to invite Jesus over, and not for Lazarus... who was dead.  No, it turns out that Jesus is perfectly willing and able to take the first step, whether because, like Lazarus, we cannot, or because like this man on his mat, he has gotten so used to accepting being defined as "one of those helpless people panhandling at the edge of the water" that he doesn't think anything else is possible for him.  Jesus doesn't have to wait for our initiative to use his power to heal.

You don't even have to be looking at Jesus, for that matter. This guy at the pool of Bethzatha isn't, at least. Again, we have this way of assuming that a proper miracle requires people to at least show some signs of faith in Jesus, or to be at least turned toward him.  But here this man at the edge of the pool is so focused on getting his healing from the waters that he doesn't even hear the question Jesus has asked him.  Some ancient manuscripts of this passage include a line about an angel who would periodically touch the water, so that whoever touched the waters when they were stirred up would be made well.  But whether that was the reason for this man's hope in the waters or not, it's clear that this guy isn't even paying attention to Jesus here.  Jesus has offered him healing, and he goes into his rote speech about wanting to get to the water. This guy isn't even paying attention to Jesus... and yet the healing is given anyway.  It is an interruption of grace, right into the midst of the limbo-like routine to which this man had grown accustomed. 

My goodness!  This poor schlub doesn't ask for Jesus' help, doesn't pay attention to Jesus when he talks to him, and doesn't even have the faith to look to Jesus for healing rather than a wading pool.  All of our conditional thinking comes undone here.  We would prefer, honestly, a kind of vending machine religion, where the proper prayer, or acceptable offering, or adequate demonstration of faith become the currency for getting miracles dispensed.  And we Respectable Religious folks bicker and argue about what the currency is--do you have to have "invited Jesus into your heart" first, or done some number of good deeds first?  Do you have to believe hard enough, or walk down an aisle in church when the preacher invites?  See, whatever the precise price, we all still assume that there is some first step, some requirement we have to bring first, in order to activate or access Jesus' power.

This, however, is simply not how Jesus operates.  His power is reckless and wild, unrestricted and unbound.  He initiates healings for people who haven't asked for them.  He gives grace to people who don't trust in him yet.  He speaks life into the lives of people who have not called on his name.  The power of Jesus is wonderfully (and frustratingly, from our perspective) free that way.  Wonderfully, in the sense that Jesus can and does help people who don't know what they need or are still looking the other way.  And frustratingly, in the sense that we will have to confess that we cannot control or limit where Jesus' power is set loose.  Jesus reserves the right to heal people we do not think are on the "approved" list.  Jesus reserves the right to interrupt the routines we had grown accustomed to.  Jesus reserves the right to bring answers to people who hadn't figured out the questions yet, to bring help for people who didn't know they were in trouble yet, and to bring life to dead people who couldn't even ask for a resurrection.

Whatever else it means to talk about Jesus as "powerful," remember today that it means Jesus is free to act for good, free to bring life for all, beyond the bounds of what we think is allowable.  

Be on the lookout, today, for the power of Jesus to be unleashed... especially in places and among people you don't think respectable messiahs are supposed to show up.

Lord Jesus, show up as you will, among whom you will, as you will, to bring life where we least expect it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Exhausting Their Ammunition

Exhausting Their Ammunition--July 11, 2018

"May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from [Christ's] glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light." [Colossians 1:11-12]

Let's skip right to the bottom line: the power of love--which is the power of Jesus--is the power to endure.

At first, that might not sound like much of a power.  Praising "the power to endure" could sound like signing up for being a punching bag and taking a lot of hits in the ring.  The power to endure sounds like it might involve a lot of pain, a lot of suffering, and a lot of waiting.  And yes, all of that is correct.

But in a very important sense, it is what makes love powerful, and it is what makes love… love

After all, you can try to use your power, your influence, your intimidating personality, or the force of threats or rewards, to make people fall in line and do what you want... but the moment you relent just the tiniest little bit or turn your head just for a second, the jig is up, and the curtain is pulled back.  You can try and spend all your energy trying to threaten your way into getting what you want, but fear just doesn't get as good mileage as genuine love, and eventually intimidation sputters out.  Eventually fear and coercion and hatred turn on themselves and eat themselves alive like the old mythical ouroboros, the snake that consumes its own tail.  

But the power of Christ is the strength to endure, as the letter to the Colossians says, and that is an entirely different kind of power.  The power to endure--in particular, the power of love to endure--makes the unconditional promise: "No matter what you do, I will not give up on you.  No matter what other threats or dangers there are to be faced, I will not bail out.  No matter what harm or fear or risk or suffering, I will not let you go."  That is how Christ wins, in the end--that is the nature of Jesus' power: he outlasts all the angry, hateful outbursts of the crowd that shouts, "Crucify!", all the ruthlessly efficient imperial violence of Pilate and Caesar, and even all the empty void of death itself.  He outlasts it all.  And when the angry lynch-mob, and the Respectable Religious Crowd, and the idolatrous Empire have all done their worst, Jesus still remains. The hilarity of the Gospel is Jesus' rope-a-dope strategy over against the lesser powers of fear, of hatred, of avarice, and even of death. Love's power to endure looks like--resurrection.

I am reminded of a line from the latest Star Wars, which is quickly becoming a favorite of mine.  Near the climactic showdown at the end, my new favorite character Rose Tico crashes her vehicle to save her friend Finn, and she utters a word of Gospel: "That's how we're going to win--not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love."  It is love's power to endure that makes it ultimately victorious.  Jesus' power is his willing ability to exhaust all the ammunition that death and hatred and evil have to fire, to absorb it into himself, and then to come through out the other side of death, alive, scarred, and triumphant.

And this is the power that the New Testament invokes over us as well.  Pay close attention there, dear ones: when the writer of Colossians describes the kind of strength that comes from God, it is clearly and unequivocally the power to endure with patience whatever else life throws at us.  It is decidedly not the power to force people to do what we wish.  It is emphatically not the power to get rid of people who are different and who make us uncomfortably by their difference.  It is most certainly not the power to protect ourselves from danger or risk or harm, or to avoid suffering--even suffering at the hands of others.  Jesus' kind of power is not about giving ourselves a special status, or keeping others down, or hoarding more good things for ourselves, or keeping ourselves comfortably insulated from trouble.  It is, like Ali against Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle, about letting the powers of the day exhaust themselves while they do their worst, while we endure.

Today, our power will not come from returning mean and crude words back at the folks who have used mean and nasty words first.  It is to endure and let them tire themselves out while we return blessing for curse.

Today, our power will not seek to put our own interests first, but to put ourselves between the danger and the lives of others--even if it means we put ourselves at risk of pain in the process. 

Today, our power will not try to frighten or intimidate or cajole or bluster at others in order to get our way.  

Our power--the power of the living God bestowed up on us--is the power to endure.  And when the dust settles, love will remain, scarred but standing.  

Love already bears scars for us today.

Lord Jesus, give us your strength to endure--the strength that bears a cross without hatred, and the breaks free from the tomb without fear.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Neither Brand Nor Bat

Neither Brand Nor Bat--July 10, 2018 

"When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?' Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
   it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ " [Acts 4:7-12]

I have seen kids at the grocery store pausing with impish smiles at the display of walking sticks and canes near the pharmacy aisle and muttering, "This would make a great sword!"  

I have seen it, because I have that kid... and because I used to be that kid.

It's harmless enough, I suppose, the creative impulse we often have in childhood to see every possible way to turn ordinary household objects--even ones intended for healing and helping people to walk again--into makeshift weapons.  It is, perhaps, an unavoidable element of childhood imagination to see a world full of swords (walking sticks), spears (brooms), and ray guns (spray hose nozzles) everywhere.

But outside of the realm of play, it is a sad and bitterly ironic thing when we grown-ups--especially we religious grown-ups--take things  that were meant to bring healing and life and use them as weapons to beat people up with.  It is especially tragic--not to mention wrongheaded and quite nearly blasphemous--to do it with the power that belongs to the name of Jesus.

This is one of those stories where such power is evident, practically bursting from the page, and yet we are so very easily led to imagine the walking stick is a sword--to (mis)use something intended to bring life, and to use it to smack other people down.

The power is brought out in the open in that familiar last verse of this scene.  Peter says of Jesus' name, "There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."  Those are, to be sure, good words to lean on. And indeed Jesus has power--power for life, power for healing, power for overcoming the rottenness in our hearts with self-giving, cross-shaped love. So, without a doubt, there is confident trust in Jesus' powerful name spoken in this verse.  What is funny-but-really-sad to me is the way this verse is so often taken out of its context and then used to beat people like a religious stick, when that's not how it enters the conversation in Acts at all.  Here's a whirlwind tour through what's going on:

First, we need to remember that this sentence about salvation only in Jesus comes at the end (or rather the middle) of a conversation. For those of us who learned Bible verses apart from the stories in which they come, we might think that this was how Peter started his small talk, or that the disciples went running down the streets of town shouting, "You're all going to burn in hell!"  These followers of Jesus aren't afraid to talk about hell, but it's not used as a threat to scare people into faith, and it's certainly never the only thing they have to say.  We religious folk sometimes hear this line, "There is no other name..." and assume that it gives us license to dangle heaven in front of people like a big divine carrot and to threaten with hell behind people like a big stick of self-righteousness.  But this sentence of Peter's comes within a larger conversation. And this particular conversation had started with the question, "By what name did you do this?"—as in, on whose authority, and with whose power, are you able to heal people? 

So to be clear, let's remember that it's the religious authorities who open the can of worms with the "name" issue.  Peter doesn't use the speech about "no other name" as a crude recruiting tool—he speaks the truth that the only name which speaks for the living God and carries the authority of the living God is that of Jesus, the one who shows that authority by dying!  This isn't a matter of promoting a brand, like someone saying, "There's no refreshment like the refreshment you'll get from a glass of Pepsi--don't try that Coke stuff!"  This is about saying, "Here is water that brings the parched and dying back to life!"

At the start of this whole episode in Acts (which starts a whole chapter earlier), the crowds marvel that Peter and John were able to heal this man. And they immediately point away from themselves and ask the gathered people, "Why are you worked up about this event, as though we did this by our own power?"  The point for Peter is clear--it's not by his own authority or power or ability that anybody was healed.  In fact, any time you find folks pointing to their own greatness or putting their own name up in giant gold letters or chiseling their titles in impressive granite blocks, it's generally a sign they are out of step with the character of the living God who actually does have the power to restore life.

Peter has been pointing away from himself to Jesus the whole time, from the moment of healing right up through this scene with the police and the religious authorities who have imprisoned him for continuing to talk about Jesus. He's not trying to put himself above the religious authorities by insisting his religion is better than theirs, he's making it clear to them that it was never in his own power to heal in the first place—it is the power of Jesus, not Peter, and not John, and not anyone else.

Second, we have a language issue: the same word in Greek, sōzō, means both "save" and "heal."  These are related ideas in the Greek mind (think of the word "salve," for example, and you can see it is related to our word "salvation") even though in our day, we tend to isolate healing, which we usually think of as strictly physical (as in, "I had a cut on my arm, but it healed"), and keep it miles away from salvation, which we usually think of as strictly spiritual (as in, "When did you get saved and learn that you'll go to heaven when you die?").  But for Peter, to talk about healing IS to talk about saving, and the other way around—being "saved" is not about being yanked out of this world to float around in heaven as a disembodied ghost playing a harp.  Being "saved" is about being made whole again, being rescued, being brought through danger, and being pulled into a new reality.  

Put this back into the story, and all of a sudden, Peter's final sentence sounds a lot less like a weapon to beat people with and a lot more like a lens for making sense of the events they had all just lived through.  The question put to Peter is, "By what name did you heal/save this person?"  And Peter answers the only way he knows how—"Certainly not by my own ability, but in the name of Jesus, which is the only name that has any power to heal/save."  Now, Luke, who is telling us this whole story, knows that more is going on than just a single man's physical healing from paralysis—he knows that "salvation" is a bigger reality than just physical healing.  And surely our message to the world about Jesus as "savior" is not that Jesus will fix all your bruises and diseases and wounds with a wish and a magic invocation of his name.  

But it is important for us to recover the background of the story here, otherwise, it seems as though we are invited to use the name of Jesus as a weapon to attack others, rather than the name that has the authority to bless and heal and welcome people.  And that's just it: a walking stick is a tool intended to help someone walk again--to restore health and renew life, and it is a childish game to take what was intended to give life and use it as a weapon to beat someone else up with.  Jesus' name is the same--Peter is not peddling a brand. He is pointing to the power beyond himself... a power that doesn't need to put its name on things in giant letters to attract attention or take credit.

In a religious atmosphere where so many are quick to use Jesus' name as a stick to bludgeon people with, and in a wider culture where success is sometimes defined as putting your own name up on a building in giant gold letters, we have an alternative message to speak.  We point to a power and a name beyond our own, a power for life, rather than a weapon to smack people down with. But Jesus is neither a brand nor a bat. So like Peter, we will not peddle Jesus with sales pitches, and we will not swing a big religious stick in Jesus' name to threaten others, but we will do acts in his name, and when we are asked about it, we will say, "Certainly we have not done these things by our own ability, but in the name and authority of Jesus."  

The word we have to offer is not merely the shallow message that people can buy their ticket to heaven if only they will speak the name, "Jesus," but that lives can be made whole again, even now, and we can be a part of the healing and saving of others as the community gathered in the strong name of Jesus.  That is an invitation worth making.

Lord Jesus, we will name you boldly today as our Savior and Lord, and we will name you alone as your Savior and Lord.  But teach us what it means to name you by these titles, and teach us how to live in your name, too, so that we will no longer slander your name by our pettiness, our egotism, and our self-righteousness, nor misrepresent your name by treating you as a deal or a scheme or a weapon.  Train our lips to speak your name rightly, and our hands to live your name for the world faithfully.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Help Our Unbelief

“Help Our Unbelief”—Mark 9:19-24
“[Jesus] answered them ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked the father, ‘How long as this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’” [Mark 9:19-24]
This man, this father’s, name was Steve.  I am sure of it.  I am him.  
And he bears your name, too.  
Each of us has been in that place of tension in between doubt and faith, of belief and unbelief at the same time.  Maybe, to be honest, we live most of our lives there, in that space of believing unbelief in the power of God.
That’s what this man’s exclamation really is, too—a statement of utter honesty.  “I believe; help my unbelief!”  It could be our daily prayer each morning, except that most of the time we are too chicken to be so honest and forthright with God.
We believe—we do—in the living God.  We believe that this God we have come to know is faithful, and good, and generous, and merciful, and gracious, and truthful, and powerful.  We have a long list of other adjectives to describe what we believe about God, and we have an even longer list of facts and propositions we have been taught about God: that God created the universe, or that God freed a nation of slaves from Pharaoh, or that God came among us in Jesus, or that God can raise the dead.  And we really do believe these things about God.
But we also struggle, too.  
We believe (so we say) that God made the universe and made it good… while at the same time acting like we own it all, and that all of creation is there for our exploitation, and we have a way of refusing to see the image of God in whatever subset of human beings we don't happen to like.
We believe (so we say) that God set the slaves free in Egypt… while at the same time finding it hard to believe that God really does care about other injustices that seem to go uncorrected, since we see so much wrong with the world and so many people stepped on in life. Or worse yet, we refuse to even acknowledge the ongoing injustices in the world around us, because we are complicit in so much rottenness, and we don't want to have to hear the truth about ourselves.
We believe (so we say) that God came among us in Jesus, and classically, Christians have believed it is right to call Jesus as "Lord"… and yet we listen more closely sometimes to the voice of our other lords: the loud voice of Caesar, the tea-leaves to be read about the market, the bank balance, the television commercials and internet ads telling us we need more.  
We believe (so we say) that God can raise the dead… and yet we let our spirits be paralyzed with the fear of dying, and we allow that fear to make us see others around us as enemies to be fought and threats to be stopped, rather than neighbors whom God has sent across our path.
We believe, and we doubt.  
We trust, and we question.  Let us just be honest about that, at least as honest as the father in these verses.
We can dare to be so honest because—as we are learning from this story, and will see even more clearly by its conclusion—it is safe to tell the truth around Jesus.  Even when the truth means admitting we have had flimsy faith.  Doubt does not stop Jesus.  His miracle-working power is not fueled by our faith like gasoline, and he does not need a certain percentage of pure faith, of high-octane belief, in order to complete his divine mission. 
Jesus--and we must be absolutely clear about this--is not Tinker Bell.  He does not need us to clap and say, “I do believe in pixies!” in order for his abilities to be effective.  He is not an engine that runs on our faith. Jesus' power doesn't come from us--not from our believing hard enough or correctly enough, not from our achievements or charitable donations, and not from selling out for more political influence or campaign contributions. If anything, Jesus is a generator that makes our trusting him possible.  And that means Jesus is not waiting around for us to believe hard enough, or strongly enough, or well enough, or accurately enough in order to then unleash his divine healing.  Jesus can work with doubt-and-faith.  Jesus can handle someone who comes to him saying, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  Jesus can work with that kind of honesty—it’s the self-deceived religious pretenders who don’t give Jesus anything he can work with.
Today, let us be honest with Jesus… and with ourselves.  We come before Jesus—as we always do—with faith that is still fearful, with belief that is still bashful, with courage that is still more than a little cowardly.  We are fickle trusters, and we are often half-hearted beleivers. But because Jesus is supremely faithful to us and does not flake out on us, despite our doubting, we have hope.  The moment we start looking at ourselves, and at the quality (or lack thereof) of our faith in God, we are going to be disappointed.  But the moment we are looking at Jesus, even with a look of caution and doubt in our eyes when we do it, there is hope, because Jesus is faithful, no matter what we bring to the table.  
The power is in Jesus. It does not hang on our contributions, which also means that Jesus is not beholden to us for the favors we do for him, the prayers we offer him, or the things we offer him.
The more we come to experience that unrelenting, unwavering trust-worthiness of Jesus, the more we may discover our unbelief giving way to an honest and sturdy trust in him.
Today, what if we did not spend energy or time thinking we could hide our doubts from God, and instead, if we dared to trust that God is strong enough to take them, and gracious enough to bear with them? What would happen if we realized that we do not factor into the equation for where Jesus' power comes from?
What if we let the father’s words about his son be our prayer?  Let us find out.
Lord Jesus, we believe.  Help our unbelief.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Great... AND Good

Great... AND Good--July 6, 2018

"When the days drew near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village." [Luke 9:51-56]

When I was a kid, I don't think I appreciated the deep theology of our standard table grace. Most of the time in the Bond house growing up , the default dinner-time meal prayer was this well-known couplet:

"God is great; God is good.
 Let us thank him for our food.  Amen"

To be honest, as a kid, I pretty much dismissed this poem-prayer.  And not just because of the forced not-quite-rhyme of "good" and "food" which looks more like a rhyme on paper than it is when you actually speak the words.  It seemed like the word "good" was just there to be one half of a bad rhyme--I assumed it wasn't saying anything that wasn't already covered by the first phrase, "God is GREAT."  If anything, saying God is "good" after already saying God is "great" seemed to my childhood ears like a letdown.  Children have a way of hearing "great" as meaning just about the same as "good," but in all capital letters.  A mom might ask her children how their days were, and if one answers, "Good..." it's practically like saying, "Eh, so-so;" but if the kids answer, "Great!" well then, that's like the same as "good" but cranked up to eleven on the dial.  At least for me as a kid, I assumed that "great" and "good" were like "run" and "walk"--one was just the more intense version of the other.

I don't think that any more.  And I don't think the composer of that dinner time prayer meant it that way, either.

To say God is "great" is usually a statement about God's power, God's might, God's ability, or God's "big-ness."  The One who speaks to the chaos and calls out "Let there be light!" is, in a word, "great."  The One who parts seas, defeats Pharaoh, stretches out the sky like an artist's canvas, and commands lightning, fire, and whirlwind--these are the calling cards of a deity who is "great."  

But Christians are convinced that God is not just big, not just powerful, not just strong... but that God is also compassionate, also merciful, also just, also generous.  That is to say, from the perspective of the New Testament, one cannot say that God is "great" without also saying that God is "good."  We do not simply worship power for the sake of power, and we do not praise powerful things in God's universe simply because they are powerful. "Greatness" in the sense of divine power is never fully realized without "goodness" in this God's character--a character that uses power to raise up the lowly, to embrace the outcast, to welcome the lonely, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to fill the hungry with good things.  My childhood table prayer was trying to tell me all along that God is both--not just powerful enough to make a world that brings forth life that sustains other life, but that God is kind enough to continue to feed stinkers like me with daily bread as part of a vast creation of abundance for all.  God is not only great--God is also good.  We might even go as far as to say that without that goodness, great isn't great--it is terrible and terrifying.

Well, I've been ruminating on my old table prayer because of this scene with Jesus and his disciples in Luke's Gospel.  It's barely even a story--it's notable, really, for what doesn't happen, rather than for what does transpire between verses 51 and 56.  Jesus and his disciples are on the way toward the cross that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem, and on the way, they are going to look for a room for the night in a Samaritan village.  That by itself would have been the scandalous headline for anybody in first century Judea--right off the bat, Jesus is violating a whole mess of rules by entering the territory of "those people."  And making it even more shocking is that Jesus casts himself as the traveler, the stranger needing assistance, by entering into Samaritan territory.  He makes himself vulnerable to whatever sneers, mistreatment, and shunning the locals would show to a Judean like him.  Jesus puts himself at risk, making himself open their inevitable questions, "Who said you were allowed to cross into OUR territory?" "What official permission do you have to be in OUR land, you... foreigner?"  If we nowadays have a hard enough time hearing Jesus' teaching that we should welcome the stranger and the foreigner into our midst, how much harder is it for us to take it in that Jesus made himself the foreigner in this episode, asking for welcome and vulnerable enough to bear being turned away?  That by itself is enough to rile us up, I suspect.

But that's really just the beginning.  Because once Jesus is rejected by this village of Samaritans (who seem to be upset that Jesus doesn't want to just blend in to their Samaritan culture while he is staying with them, but insists on holding on to his Jewish heritage and its orientation toward Jerusalem), the scene unfolds as a question of "greatness" versus "goodness."

James and John are upset that Jesus has been treated so disrespectfully.  After all, if their rabbi is insulted and his reputation is besmirched, well, their social standing as his followers is lowered, too.  They can't let this insult stand!  They must get back! They must get revenge!  They must call down heavenly retribution--commanding fire to come down from heaven to smite and punish these unworthy, inhospitable no-good Samarians!  The moment feeds their world impulses--James and John get to indulge their prejudices against "those Samaritans," to nurse their bloodthirsty grudge-keeping, and to focus all on their own social standing, all at once.  So of course, asking Jesus permission to summon divine wrath on the village that will not welcome the foreigner (Jesus), James and John think they are doing Jesus a favor and also boosting their own credibility and reputations, too, at the same time.  

You and I know perfectly well what is going on in James and John's minds.  They are convinced that they must respond to this slight against their rabbi with a show of their--whoops, they meant to say, of Jesus'--greatness.  They think that this is a moment to intimidate and threaten and punish, because they think that's what "greatness" is.  They think that the way to make people respect you is to make them fear you first.  They think of power only in terms of firepower to destroy, and they can only assume that Jesus will not allow these stingy, unwelcoming Samaritans to go unpunished.  You and I can tell all of that is going on inside James and John's heads, because the same undercurrent is there in our heads, too.  

Ours is a time when James and John's attitude is upheld as an example--more than that, it is often seen as the only choice!  Someone has insulted or slighted you?  Well, you must not only do the same back to them, but with more firepower!  They said something you didn't like?  Or worse yet--they said something critical of what you think?  Well then--it's an all-out war!  We respond with both barrels blazing, and before long, we tell ourselves that for the sake of our honor, our reputation, and the name of our own "greatness", they must be stopped!  Before long, we are itching to call down fire from the sky, too, to zap everyone we think has insulted us, criticized us, or poked a hole in the little bubble we were living in.  Yeah, ours is a time and place where the default assumption seems to be that a reputation of "greatness" is all that matters, and God forbid anybody else ever laugh at you, belittle you, or not be impressed by you.  James and John and their wish to call down an impressive show of "great" and furious fire from heaven for the sake of their reputations would fit in right at home among us, wouldn't they?

But, as you can see from Jesus' response, Jesus himself is always wonderfully, blessedly, out of step with the prevailing attitudes of the day, whether James and John or their 21st century counterparts.  Jesus is not nearly so concerned with his reputation, or whether others have treated him respectfully or even kindly.  Jesus will not return their evil back at them.  And so as if it were not scandalous enough that Jesus has allowed himself to be placed in the role of needy foreigner asking--and being denied!--permission to stay, on top of that, Jesus refuses to retaliate with heavenly fire as punishment.  He lets himself be rejected, because Jesus is not simply "great" in terms of power--he is "good" as well.  And Jesus' goodness means the refusal to respond to unkindness with more unkindness. He will not give in to nursing a grudge or perpetuating hostility.  He doesn't answer a slight with even so much as crude name-calling, much less divine wrath.  That is because Jesus is good.  Even if James and John are right that the Samaritans have insulted Jesus with their rejection, even if they have the biblical precedent of Elijah calling down fire and Elisha unleashing violent powers on those who insulted him (see the story of the she-bears in 2 Kings 2:23-25), and even if James and John are right that Jesus will look like a laughingstock for not zapping "those Samaritans," Jesus will not give in to their needy impulse to be feared or intimidating.  

To me, this episode is one of those moments that reveals both Jesus' greatness and his goodness, and how they are woven together as one.  The way Luke tells it, it's not that Jesus couldn't call down fire from heaven to zap the people who refuse to welcome him when he is the foreigner who is turned away.  It's that Jesus could but will not use firepower to return evil for evil.  It's that Jesus is less concerned with "saving face" or "getting even" or "looking smart and tough" than he is with the well-being, even of the very people who wouldn't give him the time of day.  Jesus doesn't need to call down fire on those who have declared themselves his enemies to show his greatness. His greatness is intertwined with his goodness, and his goodness is poured out even on the people who refused to take him in when he crossed into their territory as a foreigner.  This is how Jesus' power works--in the world-turning strength of love that is more concerned for the other, even the hostile other, than for its own reputation.

Ultimately, what all of the writers of the New Testament are trying to say about Jesus is that he is worth our worship, devotion, and allegiance, not because he has made us afraid of getting zapped, but because he is willing to bear being rejected himself with grace rather than bitterness.  Jesus is great, and there is no doubt about that--the stories of Lazarus walking from the tomb, the hungry thousands fed, and the storm stilled, all speak to Jesus' powerful greatness.  But the biblical writers don't think greatness by itself is all that great in the end.  Being "great"--in the sense of having power--isn't worthy of giving your life to unless it also includes being "good" in the sense of love that sacrifices its own reputation for the well-being of the other.  

In this life, it is not the truly "great" who worry and fuss and mutter about being seen as a laughingstock or weak in anybody else's eyes.  True greatness and true power simply do not waste their energy or attention on impressing anybody.  In this life, the only real greatness and the only power worth pursuing are caught up inseparably with being genuinely good--with a love that pours itself out even for the stingy stinkers who won't open their doors for a travelling foreigner rabbi passing through their midst.

My family's childhood dinner prayer was trying to teach me that all along, and I just blew it off as a forced rhyme.  But no, no, no--the Gospel hangs on the truth that Jesus is not simply "great" in terms of raw power, but he is "good" in terms of love that refuses to return evil for evil, snub for snub, hate for hate.

All hail king Jesus, who is not merely great... but also good.

Dear Jesus, grant us the courage to love as you do, without regard for whether anybody else thinks we are great, but only for reflecting the goodness we have known in you.