Tuesday, April 21, 2009
A man was remodeling his house, and he went to a big building supply warehouse to get some of the stuff he needed, and he took his eight year old son along with him. A guy on a forklift was moving pallets of boards, and other things, back and forth and, when he saw that forklift in action, the boy said, “Man, I’d love to have that thing.” His dad asked, “Why? What would you do with it?” And the boy said, “Anything I wanted!”
That is just a little bit scary, but it is (sort of) the way we all are. We do have our moments when we would love to have power at our fingertips, even if we are sure that we would use our powers only for good.
A couple things are clear about this love of power. One is that we can clearly see how this love ruins relationships: ruins marriages, and families, and communities, and organizations, and churches, and all kinds of relationships. This love of power and control tempts people to recklessness, and abuse, and trickery, and deception, and conspiracy, and fear, and anger, and conflict.
We see this dangerous love present in the church at its very start. The disciples competed for Jesus’ favor, even when they walked with Jesus on the paths of Galilee. (Matthew 20:20-28) They competed for the privilege of sitting on Jesus’ right and left, which meant heading the positions of Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.
This dangerous love was present after the resurrection too, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They thought that Jesus’ resurrection was the sign of the beginning of the kingdom of God, and the beginning of a new power.
They were right, but they were wrong about the nature of the kingdom of God. They still wanted to be people of power. They wanted the power to make decisions that would affect other people’s lives. And they still could not understand the nature of Jesus’ power. They still could not understand the nature of the power of the resurrection.
The resurrection is about power, but it is about spiritual power. And even here we humans go wrong. True spiritual power is not about control or about self-elevation or self-promotion; it is about transformation and the elevation and promotion of others. The only real spiritual power is the power of sharing, in love, something that does not actually belong to you, or come from you.
The power of the kingdom of God is about God giving life to us and to all creation; and then (when we have fallen and corrupted our powers) the power of the kingdom of God is about God coming down, in Christ, into a fallen and fearful and conflicted creation; in order to recreate it and make it a new creation. God’s greatest power is to share his life with us; and to share himself with us.
The power of the resurrection is about Jesus giving us the power to share him. It is the power to be his witnesses, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples who met the risen Jesus, on the first Easter, and clung to him during the next forty days, until he rose into heaven, could be witnesses in ways that we can never be.
They had touched Jesus. They had walked beside Jesus, and eaten with him. They had watched him work, and listened to him talk. They had stood and watched from a distance when Jesus was being crucified. They had, perhaps, helped take down his body, when he had died.
They now could see his risen body. They could be in a room in a house with locked doors, and have Jesus suddenly in the room with them, seemingly out of thin air. They could touch the nail holes in his hands and feet. They could watch the risen, living Jesus eat a piece of cold, grilled fish, and see that it didn’t just fall through Jesus, through his ghostly self, to the floor.
They saw that Jesus really was solid, and real, and alive. And they would watch him as he rose, before their eyes, and was taken upward, out of sight, into the heavens.
That was the kind of witnesses that they could be. We can never be witnesses like that.
But we are called to be witnesses too, with God’s help. And just as Jesus knew that it would be impossible for his friends to be witnesses to all the great things they knew, without the power of the Holy Spirit; just so Jesus knows that we need the power of the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses in our own way.
This thing that we call Christianity, or the Christian faith, or the Christian life, or the gospel (which means the good news) is a supernatural thing. And it is based on a supernatural reality.
The reality we have found, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is that God (who is the ultimate reality beyond all things) entered human history and became a human being (named Jesus), and lived a poor and humble life, and worked with his hands, and did amazing things with those hands, and was killed by crucifixion, and rose from the dead.
As Christians, we have met this same Jesus; this God who became a man, and was killed, and rose from the dead. We have been introduced to this Jesus by our families, or by friends, or by any combination of experiences; involving any combination of things; like words spoken, or kindness shown, or something in the Bible, or in a movie, or in a song, or anyhow. We have an experience of a supernatural reality.
This is not normal. Do you realize that this is not normal! It doesn’t just happen. And it doesn’t seem to happen to everyone. It doesn’t happen to us because we are good, or talented, or strong, or attractive. It doesn’t even happen to us because we are spiritual by nature. It isn’t something we can prove. It isn’t something that is easy to explain.
But it is real. This supernatural reality of Jesus is part of the story of our life. In Jesus, the God of the Bible has shared himself with us, and we would lose an essential part of ourselves if we lost our life with Jesus.
The reality that God would become a human being, and take part in human history, reveals the personal nature of God. In our personal relationship with this personal God we grow in that relationship. God speaks and we don’t always respond. We speak and God doesn’t always agree with us. We learn, and we grow in our understanding of God and our relationship with him; and we are witnesses of this great thing.
Even though a child asks his or her parents for many things, and does not get most of them; that child still lives surrounded by the environment of the parents’ love. So we want and ask for many things, and yet live in that environment of love. And sometimes God gives such a gift, in such a way, as to be so perfectly given that we know it was not an accidental gift. And even when we break a gift so perfectly given, as any child may do, we do not doubt that God’s love continues. And we are witnesses of all these things.
We become aware of our need, our embarrassment, our failure, our emptiness, our bitterness, our fear, our sin. Jesus shows us how that need is answered, and forgiven, and healed, and transformed by his suffering and death on the cross. We become witnesses of this.
We become aware of our frailty, and our insecurity, and our inability to make things happen, and our impermanence and our mortality. Jesus shows us how his resurrection will take care of us. Jesus shows us that his resurrection is our real hope. We become witnesses of this.
We become aware of the needs of the world around us: the violence, the injustice, the suffering, and the blindness of this world. Jesus shows us his own indignation, his servanthood, and his unconditional persistence, as he lived it in history. And Jesus shows us that he continues to be just the same; yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) We become witnesses of this.
Jesus makes us witnesses of all these things. They become part of our life.
Jesus said to his disciples: “You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised, but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:48-49) This is an eloquent way of saying that they needed Jesus to send them the presence of the Holy Spirit.
They needed power to be his witnesses. They needed the power of the Holy Spirit to share who Jesus is, and what Jesus has done (that is; who God is, and what God has done in Jesus).
They needed the Spirit’s power because it is not easy to be a witness. If it were easy to be a witness we would have nothing worth saying or hearing. The times when a person’s witness has the most authority are the times when the witnesses themselves are on trial, and things are hard, and life is not going well, and the world seems to be against them.
Even the witness of showing the love of Christ to others is not easy. Love only proves itself when loving is hard, when loving others seems impossible. The love of Jesus, after all, is a love that is faithful unto death, even death on the cross.
The first disciples needed that power, and so do we. Otherwise we will never succeed as witnesses, or as Christians.
Nothing is what it seems. Everything about our calling, everything about the Christian life and the church, is supernatural. But to anyone looking on, we could just be playacting. And there may be people who come among us, or even people who have been raised among us, who only know that we have a building, and we have by-laws, and we have meetings, and we talk, and we listen, and we sing songs, and we have a budget.
Even if we have the power of the Spirit to be the witnesses of Jesus, some people may not have the power of the Spirit in themselves to be aware of something supernatural that is a part of our lives. They may not have the power of the Spirit to be aware that we are the body of Christ who has died for the sins of the world and risen from the dead.
Or we may not have the power of the Holy Spirit to get it through our heads that we truly do need to open our own lives to the real power of God. We just meet, and we sing, and we talk, and we listen, and we do not hear what the Lord is telling us.
The question is: are we aware of this? Are we living in that power and in that reality? We cannot take the presence of the power of God for granted.
Jesus said, “Stay in the city.” For them, that meant Jerusalem. For us, it means, wherever we are. We are called to live in an attitude of continual watchfulness, and openness, and prayerfulness to the Holy Spirit as God’s presence of gracious power. Then, just as the resurrection of Jesus from the dead shows us: anything can happen. And, if anything can happen, then we can be his witnesses.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 24:13-35
Some college students were doing a study on how a person’s work affects their perception of reality. They interviewed an engineer, and asked this question: “What does two plus two make?” The engineer simply said, “in absolute terms: four.” Then the researchers interviewed a lawyer. They asked the same question: “What does two plus two make?” The lawyer looked around, went and closed the office door, and then leaned close to them and said: “Well, tell me; what would you like it to be?”
One of the amazing things about the New Testament Gospels is their earthiness and honesty. They don’t treat the disciples as if they wore haloes. They don’t show the first Christians as superhuman heroes. The Gospels show the disciples as practical people who were almost dragged into faith against their will. The last thing they ever would have done was to create or invent something as strange as the resurrection of Jesus in order to make things fit the way they would have liked things to be.
The two disciples, who were on their way to their home in Emmaus, had been staying in Jerusalem for the Passover. They had heard of Jesus’ arrest. They had possibly watched the crucifixion themselves. They had heard for themselves the report of the women disciples who had found the tomb empty. They had heard Peter describe his own visit to the empty tomb, and Peter’s confusion about it. They would have been reminded of the many unpleasant predictions of Jesus; that he would be killed, and then rise from the dead on the third day.
They had never really listened when Jesus had talked about this. They had heard him, but they had not listened, because the idea of Jesus being betrayed and killed was simply unthinkable. And his resurrection was simply as unthinkable as his dying. Wishful thinking was not in their mind set. Disappointment was.
All they knew was that two things were real. The death of Jesus on the cross was real. The empty tomb was also real. But they could not add these up to Jesus being risen and alive. They could not make themselves make Jesus alive, no matter how much they would have liked to do so.
Sometime that late afternoon of the first day of the week they heard the slap, slap, slapping of sandals on the road behind them, and a man caught up with them and started asking them questions. They didn’t know who he was. He was a stranger to them.
He asked them leading questions. He told them they were foolish (a good way to get on the good side of anyone).
He showed them a pattern in the scriptures that they had not noticed before. Over and over there was some servant of God, or some group of servants, that was (or would be) imprisoned, or swallowed alive, or kept in a hole in the ground, or beaten and killed, who would come back, who would get up, who would arise somehow.
It was very exciting, but they still did not believe. They did not know who was talking to them even though they began to have feelings, as he spoke, like feelings that Jesus once gave to them.
These are people who believed in Jesus before, but they had believed wrongly. They thought he was a prophet and a liberator. They really had not known who Jesus was, or what he was about. None of them did.
Just at the moment we meet them on the road, they love Jesus, in their own way, but they no longer believe. They no longer have hope in Jesus. Little do they know what is coming, but they are people who are going to believe. They are going to be people who know the reason for living in hope. They are going to be people of faith who truly know the risen Jesus. But they don’t know that yet.
Even if we have known Jesus since we were little children, and even if we have known the important things about him for a very long time, we may need to relearn what we know. Or, we may need to let what is in our head get into our heart and life.
There is some persuading that needs to go on. There needs to be some work done; and we are not the ones who are capable of doing that work. Jesus has to be with us in a way we do not recognize in order to get us to know him, and see him, and hear him as he is; and how he really wants us to know him.
The two disciples from Emmaus were on a walk with Jesus without knowing it. And Jesus was working on them, all the time, while they walked.
Our life is a journey, and we don’t realize just how Jesus is also on our journey with us, going to work on us as we go. The things that happen, the things we see, and hear, and do, have another voice within them that is the voice of Jesus. And if we have suffered anything at all, we need to know that Jesus has something to tell us about his own suffering, just as he spoke about it to those two on that road.
Somewhere, on that journey, Jesus wants us to see him as he truly is. Somewhere, on that journey, Jesus wants us to know him in a way that we have not known him before. And if you think that Jesus showed himself to those two disciples at the very end of their journey you need to think again because, as soon as they recognized Jesus, they were no longer on a journey to Emmaus, they were on a journey to Jerusalem, the place where the great things about God are supposed to be celebrated.
In Jerusalem they would find brothers and sisters who had recognized the same Jesus, just as he showed himself to them. It was the crucified and risen Jesus. It was the victorious Jesus that they knew.
We don’t know for sure why they didn’t recognize him at first, or why they recognized him only when he blessed and broke the bread for the supper at their table. Maybe they were so focused on their grief and their fears that they never quite looked this man in the face. Or, when Jesus broke the bread, maybe they saw the nail holes in his hands.
Or, maybe, Jesus knew that he had done enough. Jesus knew the time was right for their faith. Maybe there is a wrong time to come to faith, and there is a right time to finally see Jesus clearly. The history of our life is a history of the Lord’s timing, when he brings us to certain conditions when the time is right for something new; something higher, and deeper, and stronger, and better.
I feed the birds. Sometimes, I imagine that, when the birds are singing in the branches in the morning in the spring, and I go out my door with of birdseed to scatter and to fill the feeders, I do imagine that the birds sing louder when they see me. They recognize that the living feeder has arrived.
Jesus is our feeder. Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. (John 6:51) As the bread of life, Jesus is our life giver. He is our nurturer.
This must have come through to them so many times; not just in the feeding of the crowds, or that last supper during the Passover. Jesus must have taken the bread for the meal in his hands and blessed it many times, at many, many meals with his disciples. It was simply Jesus’ nature to do that job.
Jesus had filled the minds of the two disciples, on their journey to Emmaus, with the ideas of who he is, and what he has done for us. But, when he played the host at the meal in their house, Jesus was no longer just in the ideas that filled their heads. Jesus was there, in all his fullness; and he came into their hearts.
The cross and the empty grave are like food for us. This is who Jesus is and this is what he is like; a suffering servant and a victorious king. He gives us this meal, at this communion table, as the place for us to meet him, and recognize him, and be fed by him.
Easter, is the day of the resurrection. It is a day of power, and that makes this meal worth eating.
It was a world where almost everyone woke up at dawn, but dawn found the women already taking the road through the city and out the gate on the northwest side. They passed a low, barren hill; almost a mound, like the top of a skull (which is what Golgotha and Calvary mean). Many firmly planted upright beams stood on that hill, ready for new cross beams for the next batch of crucifixions.
The complete shock, and the loss, and the grief from the death of Jesus had kept all the disciples from sleeping soundly. And the task for the women, that dawning, made them wake up before anyone else.
Because Jesus died in the late afternoon, before the beginning of the Sabbath, that Friday evening, there had been no time to properly prepare his body for burial. There was only time to wrap the body.
Now that it was the dawn and the first day of the week, and the Sabbath was over, they would take the time to do the women’s work: the last act of caring and nurturing of others, because caring and nurturing defined their identity as women. They would carefully wash the dead body of Jesus. They would anoint it with oil, and pack the shroud with sweet herbs.
And they had not slept because they were in danger. They were all in danger, either from the authorities, or from self-appointed vigilantes and bullies on the street. The men, being men, were in more danger than the women who, being women, would not be noticed. Men were not supposed to notice women.
So the women went alone, even though the men should have gone with them to move the huge stone door of the tomb. It would have to be rolled aside. But there were more than four or five of them and, together, they would manage.
Most of them had stood at a distance from Jesus, as he was dying. They had all come close when the guards let them, in the end. They had all followed and watched Joseph of Arimathea, and his friends, take the body to the tomb.
They all knew exactly where they were going. They knew exactly what they would find there, and what they would do. They were hurting inside, but they were prepared.
They were prepared for almost anything but the resurrection.
They found the door was open, and the wrappings around the body were empty. Our translation of the Bible says that the women “wondered” but the real word, in the Greek, describes a state of confusion, and being at a loss. They weren’t thinking straight anyway. Now they were at a total loss for what to think and what to do.
What it meant for Jesus to die, and for Jesus to be buried, was like adding two plus two. The sum was that they should find the body there, unless it had been stolen. But there were strict imperial laws against bodysnatching. The friends of Jesus would never dishonor his body by stealing it. And the enemies of Jesus would surely want the body to stay put as a sign of their victory over him.
Two plus two meant they should find the body wrapped, and in its niche in the tomb where they had left it. Nothing else would make sense. Anything else would sound insane; just as the men thought when the women brought them the news.
Oh, they saw the angels and heard their message, but that hardly settled their minds. It only scared them, except for this: the angels reminded them that Jesus had explained all of this to them, many times before. And now they remembered: yes, Jesus had explained it all before. “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified, and on the third day be raised from the dead.” (Luke 24:7)
They had simply not listened to this. Look at yourselves; is it surprising that even the first disciples didn’t listen to everything that Jesus said? Even the first disciples didn’t take everything that Jesus said seriously. Even they tried to explain away the things they didn’t understand, or didn’t like, or made them uncomfortable.
Because they did not listen, or remember what Jesus said, they looked at the empty tomb with confusion. They did not know what it meant. They had to remember, first.
The world has its own arithmetic. The world has its ways of adding things up. But God’s arithmetic is different. Sometimes it is the wisest thing to say that we really don’t understand anything at all, no matter how well we can explain it. But God’s explanations tell us the real meaning of things, even when it takes our whole life to listen and understand.
Here is the different arithmetic of God. Jesus explains the real meaning of sorrow and mourning: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus explains the real meaning of meekness and gentleness: “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:4,5) Jesus explains the real meaning of self preservation and self sacrifice: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)
God has a different arithmetic. When we meet the Lord and listen to his explanation of life, and of himself, then we understand the real meaning and importance of things.
This world will give us a different explanation of life, as it will even give us a different explanation for what happened, or what didn’t happen, at the tomb where Jesus had been buried. The women went to the tomb expecting the world’s arithmetic and the world’s explanations to be true.
They were completely surprised, and they came back changed. No! The change wasn’t only in them. They found that the resurrection of Jesus changed their world.
Jesus’ surprising explanation of what would happen fit what they saw. Jesus had told them how things would be, and what he said was now confirmed. Evil had failed, and death was defeated, and the power of this world was powerless. The resurrection changed the way things added up, and they would never be the same again.
When I was a little boy, we lived in Southern California, not far from where Disneyland was built, but I remember it from the time before Disneyland existed. And that might tell you how old I am.
The living room window in our house faced north and you could see the mountains through that window almost every day. In the winter they would be covered with snow, and they were beautiful.
Then they built the freeways through Orange County, and that might tell you how old I am. And the mountains disappeared. Oh, they were still there but we hardly ever saw them again, because the smog hid them. We seldom ever saw those mountains again, except by driving to them, and that took some time.
In our world God’s arithmetic, and Jesus’ explanations of life and the world we live in, and the ways of the kingdom of God, are like those mountains. For most of the people who live down there, the smog is their daily reality. But those mountains are the real truth, and they are not true only once in a while, when the smog blows away. They are true every day, even when we do not see them, even when we do not listen or remember.
The Resurrection of Jesus is true like that.
Monday, April 13, 2009
It is a mystery how these things happen, and there seems to be a pattern that develops around some people; a holding pattern, a whirlpool-holding-pattern that goes on and on. I see a person or a family who seem to live for years and years in such a pattern. I watch them with amazement, and heartache, and prayer.
But, for the rest of his short life, the dying thief was a forgiven man. He experienced what an unimaginable thing it is to live a new life because of the love and forgiveness of God. We, too, can live a forgiven life, because Christ, on the cross, hangs with us, and hangs for us.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
You know that scientists are studying the various species of animals that live north of the Arctic Circle. Well, they have noticed a particular set of big white bears that act very odd. One day these bears will show a whole lot of energy and playfulness. The next day they will all be moping around, and snarling when another bear gets too close. These bears are either really up or really down. So the scientists have decided to name these strange bears “bi-polar bears.”
But God is also passionate about goodness, or the lack thereof. God in his love and passion for goodness is outraged by sin, and evil, and suffering, wherever he finds it. God is outraged by injustice, and hypocrisy, wherever he finds it. And God even hates death: perfectly, and completely, and all the time.
Sometimes we don’t know what to expect from God, because we do not see clearly what we need, or what the world around us needs. And this can be confusing.
The person we show ourselves to be, in any given situation may be a deception. There is, often, something untrue about us that makes having faith in God confusing. Can we trust the Lord to be what he is perfectly, and completely, all the time?
Even if we are the friends of Jesus we may be tempted by this world’s standards and rules for success. Success is good, and comfortable, and desirable. I like success; but sometimes success is superficial.
We do not see this. But this way of the Lord, of working through crosses, is typical, and maybe it is right for it to take us completely by surprise.