Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Jesus Started It: Crazy Love

Preached on Sunday, May 12, 2013

Scripture readings: 2 Corinthians 11:16-33; Acts 9:19b-31 

Just before we catch up with Saul in the Book of Acts, the Lord had said this about Saul and about the strange kind of life he was going to live as a Christian. The Lord said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:16)

What if your life with Christ started on that note? What if you were called to love this new kind of life? Wouldn’t is seem like a crazy love?

Driving across "The Palouse" May 2013
And our author Luke holds nothing back. This turns out to be exactly the kind of life the Lord said it would be, right from the start. It seems crazy. Years later, Paul would try to explain this crazy love and he said, “I am out of my mind to talk like this.” (2 Corinthians 11:23)

There was no warm, fuzzy beginning to the Christian life, for Saul. It was hard from the start.

Saul had done his best to make this kind of life hard for other Christians from the start. He had been an accessory to the imprisoning and the killing of Christians.

But Saul (who was in the process of becoming our Apostle Paul) wasn’t really to blame for it. He hadn’t started the trouble. He only joined it with a passion. The real work of imprisoning and killing Christians had only just begun, and it went on long after Saul changed and quit.

The Christian life was already dangerous and scary when Saul joined it. He knew what it was. It’s true that he had once hated it with a passion. And now he joined it with a passion.

He was passionate about Jesus. He loved Jesus who turned out to be a completely different kind of Messiah; a completely different Son of God than he had expected or wanted.

Saul, like all his fellow believers, had so passionately loved a different expectation of who the Messiah would be. They loved the expectation of a great conquering king who would make Israel the only remaining superpower.

There would be no end or limit to the power of his armies and his government. And the kingdom would be rich! They would be rich! They would all live like kings in the kingdom of the Messiah of God. It was so hopeful; so attractive.

Now Saul was passionate about a completely different Messiah. Saul was passionate about proving that this different Messiah was the answer to all our deepest needs.

Saul was passionate about showing that the Messiah, the Son of God, would be bloody and defeated. This Messiah would not fight for himself, but die to himself. He would make himself a sacrifice for all the sins, the evils, the pains, and the injustices of this world by letting them have their way with him on the cross.

He would not punish sin with pain. Instead, he would die for sin under his own pain.

He would not give life to the world by ruling in righteousness through armies and laws and governments. He would give life to the world by dying, and by becoming someone who knew death from the inside, and who could overcome death by knowing it and working his way through it.

This King Jesus had allowed himself to be persecuted by Saul; meaning that he was present in the suffering of his disciples. Through them, Jesus had let Saul persecute him. Then this King Jesus blinded Saul; which seems completely appropriate. Then he gave Saul new sight. But along with the healing of his eye, Saul received a deeper sight than ever.

Now Saul could see the beauty of this completely different Messiah, and fall in love with him. He was smitten in love with this strange suffering King Jesus. Saul would never have understood or accepted this change before it happened.

Everything in life changed for Saul. Everything that he wanted to get out of life changed. All of his expectations changed.

In another sense, nothing had changed. He worshiped the same God; the God who delivers his people from slavery. He loved the same truth; but Jesus turned his understanding of God and truth upside down.

There are pictures that contain optical illusions. One type of illusion changes its subject when you change your focus. One way of focusing may show you a goblet or chalice. When you change your focus, you see twin profiles; two faces, in silhouette, nearly touching.

The Old Testament law is such a picture. Some people looked at that law with a focus that showed them a tool they could use to judge and punish others. They saw how this same tool also provided a technique for proving that they were better than others. Paul had had been one of many such people.

The other focus showed a beautiful goodness that has been lost to us. It showed a whole lost world of goodness that is unattainable by us. And this new focus leads those who see it into a hope that comes from the heart of God.

When we see God’s truth with this focus, we see our deep need for God to save us from the world, as we know it. We see that this world is an essential part of us and that we need to be changed and born again, in order to become people who can truly live in deep and loving fellowship with God. We find the salvation that makes this possible in Jesus. He is the dying king through whom we also die to ourselves. Through our dying with him we also rise through him into this new life.

So Jesus fulfills the law by making it into a life giving thing. But, in doing so, Jesus turns it upside down. He makes it into the gospel. The truth is that human beings had taken God’s laws turned them upside down. Jesus came and set it right, and set us right, as well.

Saul knew that one way of looking at his life with Jesus made no sense. The wrong focus made him look crazy, foolish, and unrespectable. It made him look like an example to be avoided at all cost. The wrong focus made it look as if he must be teaching the wrong things because he was not prospering. If Saul or Paul was truly faithful, things wouldn’t be so hard.

I think Paul found all his troubles not nearly as hard as trying to get the people who judged him to just change their focus. They would know that he served Jesus in all his hardships if they could only see the kind of Messiah Jesus really is.

The kind of Messiah Jesus is helps us get to the heart of what really matters in life. Jesus is the focus that helps us understand the most important callings in life. It certainly explains a lot that many Christians don’t understand about the Christian life. It explains a lot about the ministry, or the serving, of Christians within the church. It explains a lot about being parents; fathers and mothers.

I have seen charts about childhood development, but I have never seen any chart to show the nature of parental development. Obviously parenthood changes those who are parents over the years.

I heard a story about a teenage mother, and how she developed as a parent over a period of almost twenty years. Her expectations and her understanding changed almost infinitely.

This woman began her story, in her childhood, basically having no parents and no settled home. She ran away and became a mother because she wanted to be loved and to have someone to love. She thought of the warmth of holding a baby and caring for that baby; feeding, and bathing, and singing to that baby.

She didn’t think about caring for a baby all day long and all night long without any relief. She didn’t think of the crying that wouldn’t stop. She didn’t think of childhood diseases. Her child turned out to have a learning disability. Motherhood was insanely hard, it demanded a crazy love.

I wonder if the Lord says of every earnest parent, “I will show her how much she must suffer for my name. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Probably there is a first stage of parenthood that looks for the self fulfillment that you find in a warm and fuzzy love. But that is the stage of parenthood that comes before the birth of a baby, and that stage ends when that baby is born.

Babies bring trouble. Parenthood only develops according the way you are willing to run into trouble.

The famous Mr. Rogers had a saying about looking for the helpers in time of trouble. The helpers are the people you see responding to trouble by running toward it in a knowing and resolute way. They do their work inspired by a crazy love.

Saul became who Jesus wanted him to be by having a passion for running into trouble in a knowing and resolute way. Good parents do this as well. What children remember as love is the mother or father who will not stop holding them no matter how long they cry and fuss. Children remember as love the mother or father who will find out the real reason why they don’t want to ride a bike or why they are having trouble in school. A child remembers the love of the mother or father who is fearless when the child is afraid and needs their help. Good parents always run into trouble.

This is foolish and crazy love. But they do it. They learn through the gift of marriage and parenthood the lessons that God wants all people to learn about a crazy love.

This world values personal achievement and parenthood kills our conventional idea of achievement. A parent’s greatest achievements belong to others: their children.

Some parents transfer the conventional idea of personal achievement to their children. They want their children to be doctors, or lawyers, or to become rocket scientists, or to come back to the farm.

Those are pretty wonderful achievements. But maybe a parent’s greatest boast would be in a foolish and crazy thing. Their greatest boast would be their children’s essential decency in life. Their greatest boast would be their children forming relationships of devotion, integrity, and faith. They would boast of the direction which their children’s faith gave to their lives and the strength and maturity that came from that faith.

There are cultures around the world that put a lot of importance on the dignity of parents. It reminds us of an important truth in loving others. We give other people dignity by honoring the fact that they are made in the image of God.

Barnabas gave Saul dignity because he saw that Saul would be a spiritual parent. He gave Saul dignity by trusting him and overcoming his reasons to be afraid. He helped others to overcome their doubts and fears of Saul. Barnabas ignored his own dignity by thinking and caring about others.

The way Barnabas gave dignity to Saul helped Saul to become a parent to new Christians. It actually would become a model that Saul imitated and tried to pass on to his churches.

In this way Barnabas was actually a parent to Saul. The secret to Barnabas’s parenthood of Saul depended on how he surrendered his own dignity by focusing on Saul’s need.

Barnabas got this idea from Jesus. Jesus was not dignified. The cross is the antidote to all dignity and pride for anyone who claims to love Jesus and the cross.

Saul found himself contending against competitors who had a strong sense of their own dignity, and who wanted to create a religion of dignity based on obeying the law. They focused on Saul’s obvious lack of dignity.

So Saul, our brother Paul, recalled his dignified escape from Damascus, being lowered from the city wall in a basket. He fought the attraction of dignity with the power of humility.

Parental development means knowing when to lower your own dignity for the sake of the love of others who need you. Good parents are good nose wipers, and wipers of other things, and their older children see their parents patiently doing this for their baby brothers and sisters. I watched my mother do this, and I hope I learned something from this in the way I serve as a pastor.

Good parents develop in such a way that their children understand this discipline of love. There may be another level in the discipline of Christian fellowship where love calls us to do some form of wiping for each other. It is so easy for any of us to revert to being babies, all the time. God help us!

We see a lot of fear in the story of Saul. We see fear at work around him all the time. We see how either Saul was fearless, or how he must have conquered his fears, or overruled them. We also see that Saul is not afraid to reveal his tender side; his fearful side. “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” He allowed the people who doubted him to see his fearfulness. (2 Corinthians 11:29)

Parents develop by showing their children courage, when the parents are actually feeling fear. Parents develop by showing their children their hearts (their tender side). They show their children that they do know fear. But they show their tender side fearlessly. They show their hearts. Children need to see their parents’ hearts and honest fears.

All of this isn’t just about parents and children. This is about being God’s person among other people who are also made in God’s image.

I think you probably have to die to yourself to be a really good parent. It is also the only way that anyone becomes good. This is hard, but we have been born into a world that has been created by the God we meet in Jesus. We live in a world made by a God who died to himself and we are all made in his image.

We are made for a love like his love. There is surely a grace built into the very world we live in that carries some of this humble, necessary courage.

This grace of dying to one’s self has been given to us, directly, by Jesus himself. This is what his humility is all about. It is the new life and the new world that he created for us: in becoming human, in becoming a servant to others, in dying on the cross, and in being buried in a tomb that he was going to leave empty tomb is all about.

The Lord’s Supper is a gift from this God who comes to us in Jesus. He is willing to make himself into a kind of meal for us, as humble as bread and grapes. His dying to himself is who he is and this is also what this meal is about.

On one hand parenthood might seem like a devouring honor, but it is also a discipline that feeds and nourishes others. This is a crazy sort of love. This is just a small part of the Lord’s parenthood toward us, and he passes the honor of it on to us whether we are parents or not. We are all called to be parents to each other in Christ.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting sermon to me, especially after Mother's Day.

    Also, your statements here about perception and focus reminds me of a book about a blind man who had his sight restored by surgery, it is "Crashing Through". Fascinating story.
    As always, a very good sermon.