Monday, June 7, 2010

People of Truth in an Adverse World

Preached Sunday, June 6, 2010

Scripture readings: 1 Kings 19:1-18; Acts 5:27-42

Instead of killing the apostles on the spot, the High Council let them off with a second warning; even though this was the second time they had stood on trial before the court. But, along with the warning, the High Council ordered a beating (a flogging or whipping) as punishment and, since that ancient world was not a gentle one, the whipping was probably the classic “forty lashes minus one”.

The forty lashes minus one was more than enough to do permanent damage. The apostles would bear the scars from that beating for the rest of their lives. They knew this. And so we read their mood as they left the council chamber. They left, “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (that is, for Jesus).”

They were badly hurt and yet they were glad. As Eugene Peterson says, in his paraphrase of this story, “They had been given the honor of being dishonored on account” of Christ.

The apostles went home happy. Most of the members of the High Council went home very unhappy. But maybe the members of the Council were the ones who went home feeling whipped. The apostles were whipped, but they went home convinced that they couldn’t be whipped.

The gladness of the apostles and the early church is a challenge to us. It is not that they were happy all the time. They were not on drugs. They were not hypnotized or in a trance. They were real people and they felt reality. In Romans chapter 12 (12:15) Paul says: “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.” By this he means: be real with other people. (Which is part of what it should mean to be a Christian: to be real.)

The whipped apostles were glad because they were being real. They knew what was really at stake. They knew what was really going on. They knew that no matter how badly they were hurt, they couldn’t be whipped.

Still, the happiness of the early Christians is a challenge to us. They seem to have a gift or an art of happiness that is a bigger and finer thing than ours.

I believe that the strength of their happiness grew out of their relationship with the truth: the truth of what they believed. The unhappiness of the Council members also grew out of their relationship with the truth: the truth that they knew was true and yet (knowing this) they could not listen to it, or obey it, or be changed by it.

Think about the relationship of the Council members to the truth when they complain that the apostles are trying to make them appear to be guilty of Jesus’ death. The reality is that they were guilty. Most of the members of that Council had been at that meeting, in the middle of the night, when they had condemned Jesus to death and took him away to the Roman Governor for sentencing and execution. Most of them had shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion.

They knew this was the truth, but they didn’t like the truth. They were mad at the apostles because the apostles kept on keeping reality real. They insisted on making the Council members look at themselves. The Council had killed Jesus for doing much the same thing.

Before they had ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth, the members of the Council and the apostles had generally believed the same core of faith: the predictions of the scriptures would be fulfilled; the messiah would appear and bring the justice and the mercy of the kingdom of God.

In a completely unexpected way Jesus had done just that. Even his birth fulfilled the predictions the prophets had made centuries beforehand. Over and over, Jesus had pronounced God’s justice upon the Pharisees and Sadducees, and brought God’s mercy to sinners and the outcast. Whole patterns in the scriptures came clear when Jesus died and rose from the dead.

For all of them (the council and the apostles) the truth of what they had always believed became reality in Jesus; but not necessarily in a form of reality that they liked.

Even the disciples had been uncomfortable about the reality that Jesus had brought home to them. They thought they were people of faith. They liked to think this was so; but, day after day, Jesus showed them how little they believed, and how little they understood.

They didn’t like this, but they stuck with it. Only Judas betrayed Jesus for this. The rest of them didn’t like it, but they loved Jesus, and they knew Jesus loved them, and so they followed him.

Jesus had made the truth real for them; and, now that Jesus had made the whole truth real, now that Jesus had risen from the dead, they received the gift of gladness that couldn’t be taken away. This is what happens when you find that the good news is the truth. This is what happens when you find that the good news of Jesus is the truth and you give that truth your love.

My faith, as a child, was an odd mixture of things: a sense of the real presence of God, an ongoing experience that Jesus loved me and helped me, an experience of Jesus as someone who died for my sins. But I tried to mix other things with it.

When I was a teenager I sort of developed my own version of Christianity that I thought was better than the kind of Christianity that was handed down over the centuries, better than the Christianity of the Bible. I created a version of Christianity where I could sort of set the terms and make it something I could manage.

But, when I was eighteen, my friend Danny Robertson had an experience of conversion to Christ that gave him great joy and happiness. The strangest thing for me was that his happiness made me unhappy. Danny was experiencing some things about the Lord that he had never experienced before. He was experiencing some of the things that I had experienced before, long ago, and had not followed.

That experience of the reality of the good news of Jesus had not disappeared from my life, but I was holding it off at arms length. And that is something you cannot do and succeed. If you love God but don’t want to do what he wants, you will never be happy.

And that is what was wrong with me. I had created a Christianity (or a Christian spirituality) that allowed me to avoid what God wanted from me.

The Council members had been raised with a faith that Jesus could have made real; but allowing Jesus to make himself real to them would have required them to let go of their being in charge. They would have had to put Jesus in charge; and then they would have known how real all the things were that they believed.

Because of Jesus, the apostles were no longer in charge of their lives; and they were definitely not in charge of the risks and dangers and frustrations that came from following Jesus. When told to stop, they said, “We must obey God.”

Talk to kids about obedience, and they say, “Do I have to?” But the apostles were glad to obey a God who had become a reality as never before. This is what Jesus had done for them. He had made the truth too real to refuse.

We need to remember that the truth they were teaching (the truth that the High Council was trying to ignore) was about Jesus’ dying on the cross, and rising from the dead to give forgiveness and new life to those who believed. The cross and the resurrection are literally death and life. It means the death of our old life and the beginning of a new life; given to us by Jesus who has died and risen from the dead.

Teaching in the name of Jesus, as the apostles did (and as we must do) is more than a matter of words. It is a matter of dying to ourselves and living in Christ. Teaching that cannot be just a matter of words. It is a matter of coming to Jesus, and receiving that life, and living that life. Jesus makes us into living lessons. We are either living lessons, or we are nothing.

So there the apostles stood, on trial for the second time. At the first trial they had gotten off with just a warning. At the second trial they got a warning plus the forty lashes minus one. They got scars that would last. And what would happen next?
They would certainly come back for more, wouldn’t they, if they had to? Were they crazy? Does God expect us to be crazy?

The poet Wendell Berry has a poem in which he writes, “Every day do something that won’t compute….Practice resurrection.” (Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front) The apostles taught the resurrection of Jesus by practicing it themselves. But they could only practice it because they had received that life from Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what we are called to do. “Every day do something that won’t compute….Practice resurrection.” Come back, again and again, in the same way as the apostles came before the authorities. But remember you can never do this properly (in the proper spirit) unless you receive this life from Jesus and keep coming back to him for more.

The story, toward the end of the life of the prophet Elijah, tells us about coming back for more, again and again. Elijah is an important example because, even though he was a prophet who was full of the Spirit, he got depressed.

He forgot the power of the God he believed in; the God who had made him part of some pretty amazing things. Elijah was so depressed that he wanted to die, until a still small voice from God sent him back to the world; and back to faith and life again.

I have told you about the annual football game at my seminary, at the start of every school year, between the married and unmarried students. I think the married students thought this up, because they knew that they must be higher up in the gene pool than us single students were. We played it on one of the practice fields at the university. It was a serious game, but without padding or helmets. This annual slaughter had been practiced from time immemorial.

One of my good friends, on the married side, was David Ulum, and he had played college football at one of the many small liberal arts colleges in Iowa. Dave was about six inches taller than me and he was fit. He wasn’t heavy, but he was pumped. My captain, Fred Halde (who also claimed to be my friend), kept putting me in the line opposite David, over and over again. At each play David would hit me, and I would fly through the air in the wrong direction, and land flat on my back.

The single students were a small team. I couldn’t leave the game. Over and over I flew like a bird through the air and landed on my back.

As the game wore on, and the married students got farther and farther ahead, it got to be almost more than David could stand. He begged me, “Dennis, please go somewhere else!” And I said, “I can’t. I have to be here.” My friend David had to do his duty, and so did I.

Things like this have happened to me other times in my life; even outside the world of football. Sometime, somewhere, you will find yourself being hit and flying through the air in the wrong direction, and landing flat on your back.

This is what it means to be a living lesson in the name of Jesus. This is how you teach in the name of Jesus. This is how you teach the truth in an adverse world; in a world that often stands against you. You keep coming back.

You may find yourself coming back for more, again and again; as a faithful Christian, as a human being on whom others depend, as a person who is faithful in your relationships, as a person of integrity. Sometimes you have to obey God and keep coming back for more. You have to practice resurrection.

But remember you can’t do this properly or gladly without Jesus. You also have to keep coming back to Jesus for more. No matter how you feel. Jesus will be with you, and in you, and you will rise again. You will find that the resurrection is (just as Jesus is) within you.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Pastor Dennis,
    I'm just passing by to read your inspirational words, and I have to say that this post is a great start to my day :)
    Have a wonderful Thursday!