Monday, January 22, 2018

Hope and Living Water

Jeremiah 17:13, 50:7,  John 1:25

The Pharisees came to John in the Jordan River and asked him, “If you are not the Christ, the Messiah, or Elijah, or the foretold prophet, why are you baptizing?”

There is so much to unpack in this single question.

To understand the full import of what the Pharisees asked, we need to return to Israel before the forced exile to Babylon and the voluntary exile to Egypt, namely the time of Jeremiah the prophet.

During a time of famine, the Word of God came to Jeremiah.
Judah mourns
The cry of Jerusalem has gone up
The nobles have sent their little children to the watersprings
They find no water
They return with their bowls empty
Ashamed and confused
They cover their heads
The ground is beaten down, afraid
There is no rain
The plowmen are ashamed and confused
They cover their heads
The deer calve but find no grass
The wild asses snuff up the air like dragons
Their eyes search to the end but there is no grass
Oh Lord, our sins witness against us
We have turned away, turned back from You many times
For Your own Name’s sake,
Israel’s Hope and Pool of Living Water,
Rescuer and Savior in time of anguish and adversity,
Why are you a stranger and a wayfarer in the land,
One who stays only for the night?
Why are you stunned and confused
Like a champion who cannot rescue or save?
                                                                        From Jeremiah 14:1-9

And again:
Israel’s Hope and Pool of Living Water,
All who forsake you shall be ashamed and confused
Those who revolt from my words shall be recorded in the earth
Because they have forsaken YHWH, the LORD,
The wellspring of living water.
                                                                        From Jeremiah 17:7

Following the time when Jeremiah spoke and wrote these words, Israel’s people were divided and exiled. After their return to their homeland, they took great care to do whatever they could to avoid another exile and dispersal of their people. From this context, the Pharisees arose.

The Pharisees took Torah seriously and often literally. They followed its teachings in matters of belief and behavior. They were careful to observe religious rites and to perform acts of piety. They eagerly awaited Messiah, more so after their national humiliation first at the hands of the Greeks, defeated by the Maccabees, and now, in the time of John, at the hands of the Romans. They had not been exiled, but they were not the autonomous theocracy they believed God intended. So they were looking for the one God would send to rescue and save them, in part from sin, but in larger part from the Romans. They were the true believers, the true patriots.

One aspect of their belief is the necessity of ritual washing. Torah teaches that many life events cause uncleanness in the individual, who has then to wash and remain unclean until nightfall (see Leviticus, many places).  (It can be noted that these life events often have to do with the death of potential life or actual death, ultimately connected with sin by way of the Fall.) After the Babylonian exile, the devout constructed mikveh for this purpose, sacred individual baths, fed by “living water”—water from springs. Rainwater from a cistern that flowed by gravity into this mikveh was acceptable, but flowing rainwater cannot purify. Then as well as today, converts to Judaism must wash in a mikveh.[1]

The Jordan River, sourced by three smaller rivers all rising from springs, is living water for the purposes of washing away uncleanness. Thus it is the perfect spot for John to immerse those who are repenting of living wrongly.

The Pharisees who came hopefully to ask John his calling had already been through their daily washing, very likely. They wanted to please God so that their nation would be free from oppressors. They also wanted a Messiah who would help turn the nation toward God so that God would free them from Rome.

The Messiah Who Actually Came

The story is familiar about how Jesus arrived at the Jordan, John spoke prophetically of the Lamb of God who carries away the sins of the whole world, and then Jesus enters the purifying water and John baptizes him. John sees the Spirit of God descend on Jesus and witnesses that “this is the Son of God.” By the end of John 1, Jesus has identified himself as the same ladder Jacob saw between earth and heaven, with God’s messengers ascending and descending on it. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the natural birth and the water bath must be followed and superseded by a spiritual birth. In John 4, by Jacob’s Well, Jesus offers the Samaritan woman living water, even a well of water springing up in her to everlasting life. In John 5, Jesus heals a man waiting by healing waters, but the man does not, in fact, bathe either literally or figuratively in living water, and he turns Jesus in as a Sabbath-breaker.

In John 6, Jesus walks over the waters of the Sea of Galilee to join the fearful disciples in their boat.

In John 7, Jesus stands in the Temple and shouts,
All who thirst,
Come to me and drink
All who trust in me
Will have streams of living water
Within them
(He spoke thus of the Spirit of God)
                                                                        John 7:37-39

It would not have escaped the Pharisees in the crowd that Jesus was echoing the prophet Isaiah:
All who thirst
Come to the watersprings
                                                                        Isaiah 55:1

John 9 tells of Jesus healing a blind man by spitting in the dust, making a mud poultice, and then sending him to wash in the pool fed by the fountain of Siloam. This washing revisits the whole idea of the mikveh, the purifying bath that prepares for worship. Indeed, when the man sees Jesus again, he worships him.

By John 10, Jesus has completed a circle and returned to the spot where John baptized him. In John 13, Jesus washes feet, saying to Peter, “If I don’t wash you, you hold no part in me….Whoever has bathed is clean, and needs only to wash the feet. And you are clean.” Jesus himself is the living water that purifies, and to be part of him requires immersion in that mikveh as well as the specific washing of whatever is dusty. This becomes more vivid when the Roman soldier pierces Jesus’s side and blood and water flow out (John 19:34)—blood symbolizing life, human life, and water symbolizing the living water of spirit, first referenced in John 1:12-13:
But to as many who held onto him,
Who committed themselves to his character and authority,
To them he gave the strength and freedom
To become children of God:
Born not of human blood nor human pleasure nor human will,
But of God’s blood, God’s pleasure and God’s will.

John identifies Jesus with the purifying and healing water of the mikveh, and this is not entirely new information. But the most exciting insight comes out of the passages in Jeremiah, where the mikveh bath is a sacred pun for hope, one of the three central Christian virtues.

When Jesus is our cleansing bath, we enter into his being, we take hold of him and become one with him and one like him. This is our ground for hope. Hope is not an insubstantial wish for things to improve, but our hope, who is Jesus, anchors us. We may need daily to have Jesus clean us, but no one can take away from us that immersion in the water of life, which Jesus has also placed within us and provided for us. As the apostle says in 1 John 3:2-3:
Beloved, we are now the children of God
What we will be has not yet appeared
But we do know that when God appears
We will be like God
For God will allow us to see God
As God really is

And all who have this hope in God
Cleanse themselves
Even as God is clean

Here is a picture of that cleansing, healing bath from the fiction of George MacDonald. In The Princess and Curdie, Irene has had a terrifying adventure underground in goblins’ tunnels, and has found her way back to her magical grandmother. Here is the scene:

“You are very tired, my child,” the lady went on. “Your hands are hurt with the stones, and I have counted nine bruises on you. Just look what you are like.”

And she held up to her a little mirror which she had brought from the cabinet. The princess burst into a merry laugh at the sight. She was so draggled with the stream, and dirty with creeping through narrow places…The lady laughed too, and lifting her again upon her knee, took off her cloak and night-gown. Then she carried her to the side of the room. Irene…[started] a little when she found that she was going to lay her in the large silver bath; for as she looked into it, again she saw no bottom, but the stars shining miles away…in a great blue gulf. Her hands closed involuntarily on the beautiful arms that held her, and that was all.

The lady pressed her once more to her bosom, saying: “Do not be afraid, my child.”

“No, grandmother,” answered [Irene], with a little gasp: and the next instant she sank in the clear cool water.

When she opened her eyes, she saw nothing but a strange lovely blue over and beneath and all about her. … she seemed nearly alone. But instead of being afraid, she felt more than happy—perfectly blissful. And from somewhere came the voice of the lady singing…

How long she lay in the water she did not know. It seemed a long time—not from weariness but from pleasure. But at last she felt the beautiful hands lay hold of her, and through the gurgling water she was lifted out into the lovely room. …When she stood up on the floor she felt as if she had been made over again. Every bruise and all weariness were gone, and her hands were soft and whole as ever.

And here is another lovely picture of the truth of this living water:
And he showed me a clean river
Of the water of life
Crystal clear
Proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb
And on either side of the river was the Tree of Life
Yielding twelve kinds of fruit
One each month
And its leaves were for the healing of the nations
                                                                        Rev. 21:1-2

The first gathering of water referred to as mikveh is Genesis 1:10, where God gathers together the waters called Seas. The mikveh bath is a place where drops of water collect together. Many small drops of water springing from the earth or falling from the sky gather together in one significant community of water. This occurs because the separate drops abide together, or in the case of a river, they are continuous with one another.

Let us take to heart these truths. Jesus washes us clean, Jesus is the living water which springs up in us, Jesus is the living water in which we bathe ourselves, Jesus is our hope. As we gather together, we too can be living water for each other, and our hope bonds us together to be living water and hope—mikveh—for the healing of whole world.

[1] Much of this information comes from the Wikipedia article on mikveh.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Jesus, Privilege, Victims, and Empathy

John 8:1-16

Recently, an old friend said, “We are all victims.” A young queer acquaintance of mine wrote, “everyone is not a victim. everyone does not experience harm in the same way.” So I spoke to my old friend and said, “Your words were hurtful.” He reiterated his belief that we are all victims. And I said, “Until you are willing to say publicly why you are a victim, how you’ve been victimized, you don’t get to say, ‘we.’”

The #metoo campaign startled a lot of my (male) friends. Surely it isn’t true that so many (all?) the women they know have been sexually harassed or abused. Surely the women who said #metoo need to publicly say how they were victimized. Otherwise, how can people know if the women are telling the truth or are exaggerating the harm or even making things up? So said (some of) my (male) friends.

As an aside, I really liked the idea someone put forward that men should ask themselves, “Would I treat Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson like this?” If the answer is no, then don’t treat the woman or girl like that either. If you wouldn’t extend a hug past 2-3 seconds for “The Rock,” then don’t do so for a female friend or acquaintance. If you wouldn’t spread into Dwayne’s space, don’t spread into hers. If you wouldn’t ask Mr. Johnson for a kiss—or just plant one on his lips—don’t try it with a woman. (Interestingly, women will need a different image to deter them from sexually harassing a man—maybe they need to envision a giant toad or a cobra or a python. This might also help women know when we can say “no.”)

So, back to the main story. I said on my FaceBook page, “Me too,” and I didn’t publish there why I posted it. I estimate at least ten percent of my FB friends know part of my reason for joining in, but not one of them knows all the reasons. And I don’t plan to put my life history in the public eye to justify my use of the phrase.

So we have a conundrum here. I want my old friend (white, male) to ante up his story of victimization before he can join in with #metoo, before he can say, “We are all victims,” but I can hardly bear to tell my counselor—sworn as she is to confidentiality—all the ways I’ve been victimized. Shame, self-blame—these cause me to withhold many experiences. And then there’s fear—the fear that if I share, the response will be, “What did you do to cause him to treat you like that?” And a new harm will be added to my collection. Or the response will be, “You need to forgive,” as if forgiveness erased pain, shame, self-loathing, fear. The lack of empathy for the seven year old I was (and inside still am) is a failure of imagination.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but religion may be the first, judging from my experiences. As a Christian child and woman, it pains and angers me to say that nearly all my victim experiences have been perpetrated by Christian men. The main exception is bullying/abuse by bigger kids, though these were in Christian school.

The way it works, as I see it, is this: a person of privilege has to drag out the story of victimization in order to show that he or she has the standing to speak to/with other victims. Those with less privilege can say #metoo, and they do not have to drag all the shaming things that have happened to them into the light. But when these things are dragged into the light, privilege may have something to answer for.

We can see the torture—perhaps even unmentionable rape by Roman soldiers—and crucifixion as evidence Jesus knows what we experience when we are harassed or abused. And these end-life events were not his only moments of rejection, shame, and threat of personal harm.

When he publicly claimed that God was sending him, that he was the one, his hometown folk tried to kill him, to push him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). Jerusalem folks threatened to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31). He evaded these physical harms, but the rejection fueled many of his hot statements condemning faithlessness and hypocrisy. The long-term result of Jesus’s victimization is the deconstruction of privilege everywhere.

A story found in John’s Gospel shows us this.

As a Jewish male—and one often recognized as a rabbi—Jesus had some of the marks of privilege in his culture. At the same time, his country was occupied by Roman soldiers, some of whom, it appears from John the Baptizer, extorted money from the citizenry and bullied unprotected Jews. Jesus’s privilege was also bounded by his status as illegitimate, which limited his ability to marry and made him a target for malicious ridicule (John 8:41).

Jesus used his privilege to welcome (Zaccheus the taxman, the sinful woman and her tears, the hemorrhaging woman, the children) and to confront (the rich young ruler, the religious elites, his own disciples, the Syro-Phoenician woman). He gave away privilege to talk as equal human beings with the Samaritan woman, with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb, with his mother Mary at the Cana wedding.

So Jesus’s behavior chronicled elsewhere in the Gospels is in line with what we see in the story of the woman taken in adultery and brought to him for judgment. The men in this story have all the privilege. The absence of the male adulterer speaks to this fact. The crowd speak to Jesus as a person of privilege—male, Jewish, a rabbi—and test him to see if he belongs with them. Will he uphold the system that privileges him?

Jesus resists their manipulations. He takes his own sweet time to sketch in the dirt. He knows he is inside a hostile circle. He knows a stray rock—or many stray rocks—may hit him as they punish the sinful woman. He knows that the only way to retain privilege and to stay personally safe is to step away from the woman and join those holding stones. But he stays beside her and challenges the crowd. He raises the double standard which privilege makes the norm when he says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”

As the members drop their stones and slink away, he speaks to the woman. I have always seen her in my imagination as cowering in terror, but perhaps she was defiant, loud, shouting to the crowd that she knew things about them, that she might hurt them if she got a chance. Either way, as the members drop the rocks and edge away, Jesus speaks to the woman, cowering or shouting obscenities, inviting her to be calm, to look around, to go without shame or blame, to go forward as a responsible human being.

So what can we learn from Jesus about privilege, about #metoo, about “we are all victims”?

1.     What Jesus does is to stand by the least powerful person and against the crowd. As the only one on the scene with the qualifications to act as judge and jury, Jesus chooses to be with the accused and to share her fate.
2.     What Jesus exposes, at the same time, is that all are sinners. All have erred, strayed, avoided obeying, disobeyed, bent what is true, and so on. No one has superior status, either social or moral. We have to confront personally and seriously our own carelessness or cruelty as part of learning how to be humane, to be kind rather than victimizers. Not one of us gets to be judge and jury for another.
3.     To say “We are all sinners” is not the same as saying, “We are all victims.” It is saying “We have all done harm to others, we are all complicit in making others into victims.”
4.     So whenever we find ourselves in a crowd with rocks in our hands, we will find Jesus standing beside the person who is about to die, whose shame and fear are leaking out everywhere, who feels completely alone.
5.     Jesus told us, “Just as you have acted toward the least—the powerless, the alien, the despised other—you have acted toward me. When you assert your privilege to exclude, silence, shame, blame, diminish, even destroy another person, you are doing the same to me.”

William Blake pointed out that it is natural for those who have experienced tyranny to rebel against it and to overthrow it. It is also natural for the former rebels to become tyrants in their turn. We who have privilege can break this cycle. We must recognize who the outsider is, whom the present system victimizes, and stand beside them against the powers that be. The tide can turn, and those who previously stood above in the place of privilege can find themselves in the center of the circle, threatened with stoning. In that moment, Jesus stands inside the circle again, drawing in the dirt, facing the accusers with the same challenge. “Let those among you without sin cast the first stone.”

"You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry"--Bob Dylan

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Our Daily Bread

Preached at Lynwood Friends Church
July 30, 2017

On Friday, I started hearing this verse march through my head: whoever comes to me, I will never send away. And I thought, maybe this is for my friends at Lynwood and some who find this on the internet.  It comes from the last part of John 6.

The context:
Jesus has gone to the sea of Galilee, and a lot of people have followed him because they saw the miracles of healing he worked in Jerusalem. Jesus goes away from the crowd with his disciples, and when he does take notice of the size of the crowd, he and the disciples feed them, perhaps three times the recorded five thousand. It’s pretty spectacular. The crowd wants to make this bread-giver king. But he hides from them on the mountain. Then the disciples leave in a boat during the night and a storm blows up. Jesus walks to them on the water, scaring them to death until he identifies himself and says, “Be not afraid.” They sail together across the sea of Galilee. When the crowd wakes up and sees the boat gone, and that neither Jesus nor his disciples are there, they all get into boats and cross the sea looking for them. When the crowd finds Jesus, they ask him when he crossed over, and he does not answer that question. Instead, he provokes a confrontation.

 John 6:26-48

"You seek me because I gave you food and your bellies were filled.  But don’t work for the food that rots, but for the food that lasts into everlasting life, which the Son of humanity, whom God the Father has authenticated, will give to you." And they replied, "What shall we do so that we are working the works of God?" Jesus answered, "This is the work of God, so that you might commit your trust and entrust yourselves to the one he has sent."

They said, "What miracle will you work so that we may see and may trust you and entrust ourselves to you? What wonder will you do for us? The Book of the Exodus tells us that Moses gave his followers bread from heaven in the desert, day after day." (Notice that they did not acknowledge the stupendousness of Jesus's feeding them just the day before.)

Jesus said, "What I am about to say to you is true: Moses did not give your ancestors that bread from heaven.  But my father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread from God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

And Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall never hunger, and whoever trusts me will never thirst.

However, I said to you that you have seen me and have not trusted me.

All those the Father gives me shall come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never send away. For I came down from heaven not to do what I want but to do what pleases my Father, my Father who sent me here. And this is what pleases my Father, who sent me: Of all those my Father has given me, I should lose not one self, but should raise them all up at the last day. This is the will of God who sent me: all who perceive the Son and entrust themselves to him, believe on him, may have life forever and I will raise them up at the last day."

And those who heard him whispered to each other: "We know his father and mother, so how can he claim to have come down from heaven?"

Jesus replied to their whispers: "No one can come to me except those drawn, led, impelled, dragged to me by the Father who sent me.  And I will raise them up at the last day. The prophets wrote, 'God shall teach them all'; therefore, all who hear and learn from the Father come to me. (Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is of God.) I tell you faithfully, All who entrust themselves to me have unending life. I am the bread of life."

This is what Jesus says above, paraphrased with more emotional content:

"You are just looking for more bread; you aren’t satisfied with one or two miracles. Your work is only to fill your bellies; instead you should work to gain the unending limitless life the Son of humanity gives you, because the Father has authenticated him, has placed his seal of approval on him."

The crowd asks, “Suppose we were to work for this unending and limitless life, what do we need to do?” (This construction acknowledges that this is not what they are working for at present.)

Jesus replies, “The work God wants from you is this: have confidence in the one God has sent—put your trust in that one, entrust yourselves to that one, believe on that one.”

The crowd understands that he is talking about himself. They want some guarantees.  “Do something spectacular so we can see it and believe on you—so we know we can trust in you. How about bread every day? Moses did that.”

Jesus replies, “Moses never did that. That wasn’t Moses’s gift to your ancestors. My Father gives you the true bread from heaven every day. The bread from heaven is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

So they said, “OK, then, give us this bread every day for ever and ever.”

I remember well a time in my life when my hopes for my career had been frustrated—worse, my understanding of my call from God had been negated. I was broken-hearted and angry. I was angry with people, sure, but mostly with God. God had opened door after door and then finally shut one in my face. Like the crowd tracking Jesus down in order to get more bread, I wanted God to miraculously open all the doors for me. And perhaps I would never have been satisfied, even if I had achieved that goal, if I had been able to fulfill what I thought was God’s call.

I have so much to learn from this part of John’s story. Specifically, miracles aren’t a successful strategy to cause people to trust in Jesus. Instead, they create an expectation that Jesus’s main purpose is to do miracles that will make life easier. I want more miracles, and I want them now.  I am hungry for wonders, even insatiable. It’s like the folk tale about the talking flounder who could grant wishes.

A poor fisherman and his wife lived in a hovel, a simple hut. One day, he pulled his net in, and it had a huge flounder in it. He was delighted, thinking of the meal he could have with fish left over to sell. But he heard a voice saying, "If you throw me back in I will grant your every wish." The fisherman was astounded to hear a fish talk and in respect threw it back into the ocean. Then he went home and told his wife. She said, “Look around you. Where do we live? You fool, go back and ask for a cottage.” So he did. “Flounder, flounder, noble fish, my wife would have me ask a wish. She wants a cottage, clean and bright.” “Go home, she has her wish tonight.” (I had this on a record when I was a kid.) Every granted wish upped the ante for the next request—first a cottage, then a palace, then “I want to rule the moon and sun”—“you want too many things, now you have none.” If this were a Christian story, this would be the happiest ending possible, because now, having had her wishes frustrated, she is ready to want the best thing.

Jesus tells us, when we hunger and thirst for righteousness—for being who we ought to be in relationship to God, namely being humans who do every day what God says every day, rather than humans who try to be God, who try to earn our place with God by our good works, our virtues. When we hunger and thirst to be in this right relationship with God, then we are blessed and our deepest hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

Miracles do not satisfy, only obedience does. Only affirming our humanness before God and our doing what God tells us—that satisfies. Remember that those who had actual bread from heaven every day in the desert, those who had a miracle done for them daily, got tired of it and complained.

So what does God want me—us—to do? Trust in the character and work of Jesus, and follow Jesus’s example in doing what God says to do. This is Jesus’s food—he says, "My food is to do the will of God who sent me, he says. I do nothing but what I hear from my Father." A daily bread indeed—every day listening for what God asks from us and every day doing that because we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus, the one sent from heaven. It’s not my responsibility to fulfill some long-term goal, even if I think it is God’s call. It’s my responsibility to entrust myself to Jesus, to listen, and to obey. Daily.

This is also the eye of the needle for us. Many of us are rich in virtues like self-control or generosity or kindness, and we have possessions and intelligence and education, and yet we can trust in none of these things instead of or in addition to Jesus. Further, all of these things have to be entrusted to Jesus, and Jesus may or may not value them the same way we do. Going through the eye of the needle strips us down to where all we have is our trust in the work and character of Jesus.

Back to the story:

Jesus tells the crowd: "Here’s what I have heard from my Father, and what I am doing: I am taking in every person God sends me. I am accepting all the Father places in my care. I will lose none of it, not a single soul. I am giving life to the whole world. All who perceive the Son and trust themselves to me, to them I am giving unending, limitless life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

"No one comes to me without being drawn, impelled, dragged to me by my Father. Everyone who hears and learns from God comes to me. All who trust in me will participate in eternal life."

When I was so angry and frustrated that God did not make a way for me to do what I thought was God’s call on my life, big C Call, I was sitting in church. I had my head down on the pew in front of me, and I was crying hot angry tears. And God said, “Look at me.” I stubbornly kept my head down, but I felt this—a finger under my chin, raising my face up, so that I could see. And when I looked into God’s eyes, all I saw was love.  This is what happens when God draws us, impels, drags us to Jesus.

That’s why I am so eager today to ask you to be honest with God. If God has let you down, be angry, be open. Don’t run and hide in the trees like Adam, don’t wall in your hurt and disappointment within your heart, don’t pretend. God knows where you are hiding, what you are hiding. And as Job says to God, “Can you not look away from me for an instant, long enough for me to swallow my spit?” As the Psalmist says, “Where can I go to get away from your presence? If I make my bed in Sheol, in the grave, you are there.” God is always on our trail, God always has an eye on us. Anne Lamott’s metaphor is the stray cat you just can’t get rid of. We run from God, and our running makes us afraid of God, afraid of judgment, but God already knows us. God knows when we get up in the morning, when we go to bed at night, what we do in between, what we dream of. God wants us to turn around, to lift our faces, to look God in the eyes. God is on our side.

And then what? Sometime around then, God told me, “You don’t have to do anything more to fulfill that Call. You’ve done enough.” God never said, “And now I have nothing more for you to do” because God’s call is daily, God’s teaching is daily, our obedience is daily, our trusting is daily. And the trusting is all that God really looks for.

I am talking to myself, and I hope this resonates with you as well. We can trust Jesus, the person God sent to give us unending and limitless life. We can confide in Jesus. Jesus will not lose us, will not reject us, will not cast us out. Instead, Jesus will give us Himself as our daily bread from heaven, and he will raise us up at the last day.

Query: How much am I trying to squeeze through the needle’s eye? Am I ready to trust Jesus, to entrust myself to Jesus, and let that be enough today?

Monday, May 29, 2017

No Peace but a Sword

Preached at South Salem Friends Church
May 28, 2017

I previously posted a sermon about the Biblical teaching that Jesus took the Law to the cross. It was nailed there with him, and it was not resurrected. We live in grace. Paul taught that the Law was a schoolmaster to bring us to Jesus, and that once we trust Jesus’s character and work on our behalf, we are set free to live in and by the Spirit, focusing our energies on what James calls “the law of liberty,” the necessity of living out love to God and to our neighbors. But this doesn’t mean that life is easier. In fact, we lose the comfort of a network of rules that we can obey in order to remain safe, and life becomes more of an adventure, more listening and obeying in each moment.

The Born Again Life

In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.” Being born again means being born “of the Spirit.” And then Jesus adds, “The wind blows where it wills, and you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. The Spirit is like the wind; it breathes or blows where the Spirit wills; you cannot tell where the person who is born of the Spirit comes from or where that person is going.” These are unsettling words; notice that Jesus spoke them to a person already believing in God and interested in God’s kingdom. Jesus calls Nicodemus, and us, to a life of uncertainty about what comes next, of moment to moment listening and obeying, based on our trust in the work and character of Jesus Christ.

When the messenger of God came to Mary and promised her she would give birth to the chosen one, the Messiah, she stepped into a world of trust. And a world of trouble. Simeon prophesied to Mary over the infant Jesus: “This child will cause tumult—falling and rising again—in Israel and many will speak against him, revealing their inner selves. And a sword will pierce your own heart.” This last is usually understood to refer to her grief over Jesus’s death, but we are told that God’s word is a sword that reveals our innermost selves, and remember that Mary was put in her place by Jesus at least once (“who is my mother? Who is my brother or sister? Whoever hears and obeys God”), and that she and the rest of her family thought Jesus might be crazy. Even Mary’s inner self found it hard to trust that this man and the way he ministered and the death he endured were the salvation promised to Israel and to the world. He wasn’t what she expected. Moved by God’s Spirit, he said and did things that worried her, that caused her pain as a mother and as a human being.

And Jesus is not comforting to the rest of us. He says, “Whoever openly agrees with me and publicly aligns with me, I will openly agree with and align myself with before my Father. Whoever openly contradicts me and refuses what I offer, I will contradict and refuse before my Father. Do not get the idea that I bring peace on earth, if peace is the absence of conflict, the ever-present tranquility and harmony. I did not come to send peace on earth but a sword that divides family members from each other, making them enemies to each other. All who love family more than they love me are not worthy of me, are not comparable to me; all who refuse to take up their cross and follow me are not worthy of me. All who work to find their lives will lose them, and all who throw their lives away for my sake will find them.” (Matthew 10:32-39)

“I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”

I think we can put these passages together and understand some of what causes divisions in denominations, in congregations, in families, even when all are Christians who want to do what’s right. God does not promise that the Spirit will move all believers at the same pace and at the same time. So when some are moved differently or faster than others, conflict results.

We can see this repeatedly in the book of Acts, particularly around the new understanding of the kingdom of God that Peter and Paul brought back to the church in Jerusalem, all of whom were Jewish. Were Gentiles to be a part of the universal church? Would they need to become Jews as well? How was this going to work out?

Complicating the problem was the fact that while Jews thought of Gentiles as dogs and idolaters, Gentiles also thought of Jews as less than nothing. Gentiles were winners with rich mythologies, after all, and Jews were a conquered people whose one god had failed to protect them. Two superiority complexes.

Only Jesus brought them together, and the brew was always ready to explode. Thus all of Paul’s letters to Gentile churches that rail against Jewish Christians teaching the necessity of circumcision. Thus Paul’s advice to Gentile Christians to be gentle with Jewish Christians around the eating of meat offered in idol temples.  (In this day, we Gentile Christians can hardly understand the repulsion, the nausea Jews would have felt about eating these idol sacrifices.) Thus Peter’s witness to the Spirit falling on the Gentile Cornelius and his household as a sign of their inclusion in the kingdom of God. And thus Paul’s rebuke of Peter for being two-faced, behaving with freedom around the Gentile Christians but acting like an observant Jew around Jewish Christians.  It just is not easy.

The history of Christianity is filled with conflict. Creeds are written to contain change. Some prophets follow the Spirit and then confuse their own spirit with God’s. Some renewal movements are thrown out and become a force for spreading the Gospel in new worlds or among new peoples. Some groups are so offended by others’ views that they go to war with actual swords or guns or bombs in order to enforce their vision of God’s will.

Jesus’s own words about bringing a sword are intensified by his comment that “I came to light a fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” And John the Baptist foretold that one would come who would baptize with the Spirit and with fire.

So what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection was not only our salvation, but the release of the Holy Spirit of God onto the world. This Spirit, the Spirit who breathed God’s word into prophets and poets, is a sword that divides joint from marrow, as the book of Hebrews says, and lays bare our innermost selves, but also divides families and congregations and denominations, and lays bare how much or little we actually love each other, lays bare how much or little we trust the character and work of Jesus in each of us and in all of us. So conflict ought not to surprise us.

Nonetheless, I think we ought to be disappointed in ourselves when we allow differences of understanding about how the Spirit is leading to cause us to take up swords against each other, whether literal or metaphorical. Remember that Jesus also said that whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword, and he told his followers at the moment of his approaching arrest and death to put away their swords. We need to approach each other in our differences without weapons or armor.

Persisting in Community

Jesus told us that we would know people by their fruit—by their words and deeds, both of which come out of their inner selves. Paul contrasted humans’ natural fruit  with that which God’s Spirit brings forth in people. For church conflicts, the most pertinent contrast is between hatred, strife, wrangling, indignation, wrath, factions, divisiveness, hardened opinions—all of which arise out of natural human fear of change, fear of God’s judgment, fear of loss, and the resulting self-protectiveness—and love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control—all of which arise out of God’s grace that draws us to trust in Jesus’s work and character.

So how can we live together in the Spirit when we are not led by the Spirit at the same pace or at the same time?

Paul spends some time on this around the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Remember first that the Council of Jerusalem had issued guidelines for all Christians everywhere, one of which was, “abstain from meats offered to idols” (Acts 15:29). Apparently, this was not taken by Gentile Christians as an absolute prohibition, because we find Paul addressing it as a source of division in Corinth (1 Cor. 8 and 10).

Paul says that all things are lawful for him. This reminds us that Paul has repeatedly taught that the law does not apply to those redeemed by Jesus. He also adds that just because he can doesn’t mean he will. He must decide if an action is helpful, if it is  profitable to his main calling of spreading the Good News. He asks himself not only if he wants to do something, but is that action good for those around him as well. This is right in line with the fruit of God’s Spirit.

So there are two issues to think about. What does my own conscience tell me I am free to do? And will my action harm the person or persons I am with?

My Freedom vs. Another’s Conscience

In 1 Cor. 8, Paul says: “The overarching principle is this: We make nothing of idols, because we have one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ; we belong to and live in our Father and our Lord.

“However, not everyone understands this fully, and thus their consciences worry them about meat offered to idols, whereas we who understand this know that eating meat earns neither approval or disapproval from God. So we are free to eat all meat.

“Nevertheless, suppose someone sees us enjoy this liberty by sitting down to eat meat in an idol’s temple. That someone’s conscience forbids them this freedom, but because they respect or admire us, they go ahead and join in the meal. Then they suffer from having ignored their own consciences, and perhaps this will lead to their destruction. We can’t have that happen.

“So be careful how you use your freedom. Do not use it to harm a weaker fellow believer who doesn’t yet understand how we are free. This is like hurting a child, and it hurts Jesus. Better to give up eating meat than let my freedom come between someone and their efforts to obey, even when those efforts are based on a lack of understanding. “

There is a difference between a person who goes against conscience to copy the one who is enjoying the freedom of living in God’s Spirit and the person who imposes his or her conscience on those who are enjoying the freedom of living in God’s Spirit. It is a question of the use of power. I am not bound by your conscience, nor are you bound by mine, and in God’s Spirit, we are gentle with each other and take care to help each other obey God.

In 1 Cor. 10, Paul says first, “Just buy meat, don’t ask where it’s from. The whole earth belongs to God.

“Second, if you’re invited to someone’s house, don’t ask where the meat is from. Just eat what is set before you with thankfulness.

“But if the host advises you that it was offered to idols, this reveals something about the host, that the host is afraid it is not acceptable for you to eat it. In that case, don’t eat it so that you will set the host’s mind at ease. Again, remember that the whole earth belongs to God.

“In this you are deferring to another’s conscience. But why should your liberty be infringed on by another’s conscience? Why should your enjoying of grace by eating freely and thankfully be judged as evil?

Ultimately, when you eat and drink, and in all you do, bring glory to God.”  

Enhancing God’s Reputation

So our concern is “How can we enhance God’s reputation in order to draw people to relationship with God?”

Paul says, “Make a smooth road for the Jews, who avoid idol meat, and for the Gentiles, who eat it without scruple, and for the gathered congregation as well as the far-flung universal church,” just as Paul works hard to accommodate himself to all others rather than seeking to please himself or do what is good for himself. He does this so that others may be rescued and healed, saved from danger and destruction.

The long game here is what is ultimately good for others who are presently in danger and are being destroyed. This is why Paul rails against the Judaizing legalists—legalism itself is a danger because it destroys the relationship of trust. Paul wants them not to turn their back on the free gift of God. Paul obviously did not work too hard to please those who promoted the Law from within the church. Nor did he go out of his way to make their lives miserable. He used good judgment and followed the leading of the Spirit.

(Aside about the limits of conscience: It is possible for human beings to have a diseased conscience, one which plagues us with guilt and shame for many things in a day. We live in fear of judgment and cannot enjoy the freedom Jesus died to bring us. Even in the example from Paul, the conscience that forbids eating meat offered to idols is a sign of weakness, not strength.

We can look at the facts of our lives when our conscience torments us. John tells us in 1 John 3:18-23, “Let us not talk about love, but let us live out love in our actions and in our efforts for others’ well-being. This lived-out love assures us that we are acting out of truth, confident that God sees us. If our hearts accuse and condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. Though our hearts accuse us, our confidence is in God, and whatever we ask, God gives because we do what God tells us to, those things that we know please God.” It takes courage to live into God’s freedom.)

So how do we move through these tangled times, times when it seems our enemies are those we love, members of our own faith community, perhaps even members of our own household.

1) Keep our eyes on the long game—bringing those heading for destruction to understand the work and character of Jesus in which they can trust.

2) Be unsurprised by conflict: a religion characterized by obedience to a living Spirit of God that moves where the Spirit wills, not where we expect, will unavoidably lead to disagreement.

3) Be tender toward those who have not yet understood the grace of God and the freedom to live out love; don’t put them in positions where they feel they must disobey their consciences.

4) Be careful not to impose your own conscience, which may accuse out of weak faith rather than strong, on someone who is trying to obey the Spirit and live out love.

5) For evidence of belonging to and living in God, evidence that can stand against the accusations of an overactive and fearful conscience, look to your motives and actions in order to live out love yourself.

And don’t be afraid. God is greater than we are, and when we miss the mark, God promises to forgive and clean us up to try again.  Look to the example of Jesus, who gave himself in life and death to rescue those who are perishing.