What Makes a Miracle?

Season After Pentecost, Proper 9

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.  Mark 6:1-6

Like many people, I’ve been watching and waiting anxiously for the latest news on the fate of the trapped Thai soccer team. The good news that all were safely rescued finally came today, and this quote by the Thai Navy Seals who were responsible for their rescue caught my eye: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.

The popular understanding of “miracle” generally means a supernatural event that cannot be explained scientifically. But what if that’s not an accurate definition? What if miracles are less about the “how” and more about the “why”. People often seem to focus on the mechanism by which unexpected positive outcomes occur and make them some kind of talking point to argue for or against the existence of God. Personally, I think that God quite often uses people to accomplish God’s desired positive outcomes. That doesn’t make those outcomes any less miraculous. I am reminded of a song in Fiddler on the Roof, where Motel makes the ecstatic proclamation to Tzeitel that: But of all God’s miracles large and small,  The most miraculous one of all  Is the one I thought could never be:  God has given you to me.   Motel correctly understands that his ability to summon the courage to stand up to Tevye and say that “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness” is just as miraculous an event as the sacred stories of his people.

I think this week’s passage makes an interesting observation about miracles when it observes that “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” If miracles were primarily a matter of divine intervention, I really don’t see why Jesus should have had any trouble impressing his hometown fanboys. Perhaps the problem in Nazareth is that the people didn’t recognize a miracle when they saw it. After all, Jesus did cure some sick people, but apparently that was too ordinary a thing for his critics. It makes me wonder what it was that they were hoping to see. Showers of gold falling from the sky which would make everyone in Nazareth independently wealthy? Bolts of lightning coming down from heaven and striking all the Roman soldiers and their collaborators dead? Or maybe just something entertaining, like Jesus tap dancing across the Sea of Galilee while juggling the fish that leapt into his hands?

Perhaps the problem with belief in Nazareth was not that they didn’t believe in Jesus, but that they believed wrongly about Jesus. Those kind of wrong beliefs are still going on, aren’t they? Despite what proponents of the prosperity gospel may say, Jesus didn’t come to make his followers rich. In fact, he tended to say things like “it is more blessed to give than to receive” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” Despite what Constantine and his spiritual heirs have said, the sign of the cross isn’t about successful conquest, but about self-sacrifice. The kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus looks very different from the kingdoms of the world as proclaimed by the rich and powerful. The abundant life Jesus came to bring isn’t about owning or winning or having a good time, but having a meaningful life. Perhaps miracles shouldn’t be understood as the mysterious tapping into an unseen source of magic or science in order to get what we want. Perhaps miracles are best understood as God accomplishing what God desires to happen, and sometimes God does that with a little help from his friends. Perhaps one reason we don’t see miracles is that we aren’t looking for them, but maybe another  is that we aren’t cooperating with God in making them happen. Just as in Nazareth, it may be that our wrong attitudes get in the way of channelling God’s power and blessing to the intended recipients.

I think that the successful rescue of the Thai teenagers and their coach was a miracle, the kind of miracle we might witness more often if more human hearts and minds were oriented toward loving our neighbors as ourselves. I think of the selflessness of the Thai farmers whose crops were wiped out by the pumping operation that brought the water levels in the cave down. They surely took a financial hit, but news reports had them saying they could always replant their crops and that the value of human lives was a higher priority. I think about the self-sacrifice of the Thai Navy Seals, especially the one who laid down his life in an attempt to bring oxygen tanks in to the boys. I think about all the people who applied their minds to solving what seemed to be an insoluble problem, and their hearts to value someone else’s children as they valued their own. The rescue was costly in terms of money, time, and effort, but I never heard anyone count the cost and say that it wasn’t worth it.

The writer of the gospel of John uniquely used the word “sign” when referring to events the other gospel writers called “miracles”. For John, what happened and how it happened weren’t the main point of Jesus’s actions. Each “sign” was meant to convey something deeper, and I think the kind of things Jesus did show us a great deal about God’s idea about how the world ought to be.  For example. Jesus had compassion on people when he noticed they were hungry, and saw that they were fed. He had compassion on people who were sick, and healed them. We may not be able to multiply loaves and fishes or heal people with a word the way Jesus did, but sometimes I wonder if what prevents us from doing  “the works I have been doing, and  even greater things than these isn’t because we don’t have supernatural powers. It’s because we don’t care about people the way Jesus did, and therefore don’t want to spend the money, time, or effort that is needed. We count the cost, and decide it’s not worth it.

I hope and I pray that what transpired in the caves of Thailand will be a sign and an encouragement to many others to open their minds to God’s way of thinking and their hearts to God’s way of relating. What miracles then might happen! What good news that would be!

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Last Lecture of Jesus

Ascension Day

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach  until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1-9

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 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.” When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. Luke 24:45-53

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. Mark 16:15-20

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” John 21:15-19

According to the Acts passage, Jesus spent forty days following his resurrection being physically present with his followers. The gospel writers have somewhat differing accounts of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples, although the general message seems to be the same, especially insofar as Matthew and Luke/Acts are concerned. Jesus will no longer be around in human form, but he will always be with them in ways they don’t yet understand, and the disciples are commanded not only to follow his teachings, but to share them with others as well. The Markan passage, minus the snake handling and poison-drinking bits, is a little closer to what I was taught was the primary focus of the gospel: turn or burn.   However, the words attributed to Jesus by Mark do not occur in the earliest known copies of his gospel, and many scholars believe they may have been added some time later.  The last chapter of John doesn’t mention Jesus’s ascension, but a conversation with Peter where Jesus repeatedly tells Peter that the way to demonstrate his love and loyalty is by taking responsibility for the care of others. His final words to Peter, as John tells the story, are “Follow me”.

I grew up in the Baptist church, where we not only didn’t observe the liturgical calendar, we were somewhat proud of not doing so. So I don’t remember any special services or sermons commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven forty days after Easter. But oh boy, do I remember hearing about “the Great Commission”: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

In the Baptist understanding of the word, “witnessing” and the phrase “making disciples” were synonymous with what others might call “proselytizing”; that is, striving to convert people to our faith understanding. This often involved the spiritual equivalent of “cold calling”, starting a conversation along the lines of “If you were to die today do you know whether you would go to heaven or to hell?” If the person said no (and didn’t slam the actual or metaphorical door in your face) then you followed up with some version of the “Four Spiritual Laws” or used a Bible to point out the “Roman Road” ,hopefully leading the person to pray “the sinner’s prayer“, thus accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior”. But if Jesus were to physically walk among us today and observe what passes for “witnessing”, I think he might shake his head and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Jesus’s final instructions were to make disciples, which is not the same as getting someone to agree with a set of doctrinal statements or recite an incantation of magic words.  Following Jesus is a bit more demanding than that. It is a complete paradigm shift, a total change of orientation, a different way of seeing everything. For starters, it  means making an effort to act like Jesus in all our dealings with others. Jesus made it pretty clear that following him means consistently living the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. Jesus didn’t seem to be as concerned with correct beliefs as many people today seem to be, and in fact warned that people could profess all the seemingly “correct” things, but not be on the same team at all. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” In the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, the criteria God uses to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys is how they treated other people. There is no mention of belief in that parable, only behavior, and it seems that there are those on both sides who will be surprised by the final answer.

You will be my witnesses” isn’t a command, but a statement of fact. If Christians make the effort to “obey everything I have commanded you” (which is effectively summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) they are witnesses, and very compelling ones. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Conversely, when Christians do not make an attempt to obey the teachings of Jesus, yet claim association with him, they are not only uncompelling witnesses, but “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” because of their behavior. When it comes to “witnessing”, actions speak louder than words. Or, as the quote attributed to St. Francis goes, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” Or, as Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” The early Christians were first given that name because they had a reputation for acting…well, like Jesus.

In “The Day the Revolution Began”, N.T. Wright postulates that many modern expressions of Christianity have sadly missed the mark Jesus set for us. He uses the term “platonized eschatology” to refer to the tendency to make faith in Jesus more about going to an idealized heaven after death rather than being about a way of life that also has the power to transform the world we live in. The “revolution” Wright sees Jesus as having started was to begin the Kingdom of God “on earth, as it is in heaven” in the here-and-now. The Kingdom of God would grow as a tiny mustard seed into a great tree with many nurturing branches, where all might come and find shelter. Christ’s atonement and resurrection made it possible for humans to begin to faithfully reflect the image of God in which they were created and to realize their true vocation- to join God in the task of putting right everything that has gone wrong in this world, and to enjoy the company of God and each other both here and hereafter.

As Jesus taught us to pray, God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in the alternate universe we call heaven. As Handel envisioned in words and music, the kingdom of this world (power, money, and self-gratification) will become the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ. (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control). And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

When Worldviews Collide

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Matthew 10:34-36

I remember reading a rather disturbing science fiction book called “When Worlds Collide many years ago. In the book, a pair of rogue planets enter the solar system and the first one crashes into Earth in a spectacular example of mutually assured destruction. Written in 1933, the story is suitable for the mother of all disaster movies.  A remnant of humanity escapes in a rocket and travels to the second planet, which has assumed Earth’s place in the solar system, and find it hospitable to human habitation. Life, it would seem,  finds a way.

When opposing worldviews collide, it isn’t pretty either. Jesus knew that was true, and warned that there would be a high personal cost to those who would follow him. It’s interesting that Matthew places this saying of Jesus, along with other similar warnings, in the context of the sending out of the Twelve. ” As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” At first that placement seems a bit odd. The Twelve are proclaiming good news. The long-awaited Kingdom of God is near! As proof, Jesus gives his disciples the ability  “to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” Why wouldn’t such good news be welcomed by everyone? Sadly, through the hindsight of centuries, we know that it wasn’t.

The trouble was that the worldview of a Kingdom of God as seen and proclaimed by Jesus was in direct conflict with several other opposing worldviews. The Pax Romana envisioned peace through strength, including violent coercion whenever it was deemed necessary. Might makes right. The legalistic worldview of most of the Pharisees believed that God’s blessings were reserved for those who strictly observed what they understood to be God’s laws, and that God’s punishment would invariably fall upon those who did not. Bad things did not happen to good people, so the poor and the sick had only themselves to blame for their condition. The Sadducees seemed to have been Mosaic originalists, rejecting the many years of oral tradition that elaborated on and interpreted the scriptures, as well as pragmatists when it came to doing what was necessary to get along with the Romans in order to acquire material wealth. The revolutionary Zealots, channeling their Maccabee ancestors, were ready to instigate a war against the Romans for Jewish independence. And the Essenes threw their hands up at a world not worth saving, withdrew into the desert, and prepared themselves for God to intervene in an epic final battle between the Sons of Light (the Essenes) and the Sons of Darkness (everybody else).

Even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mount should convince the reader that the worldview of Jesus was quite different from all of the above. He eschewed all means of violence, even in pursuit of peaceful ends. He taught that material wealth was more of an impediment than a blessing. He repeatedly broke the letter of the law in order to keep its spirit. And unlike his ascetic (and possibly Essene) cousin John the Baptist, he seemed to have enjoyed eating and drinking and having a good time. The worldview Jesus presented as the Kingdom of God, and his prioritizing of it (a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, “seek ye first the Kingdom of God” was on a collision course with all the other worldviews of his time. It is no wonder that by the end of his short ministry he had come into conflict with his family, friends, community, synagogue, and society.

I am sorry to say that the centuries haven’t changed the nature or intensity of the major worldviews Jesus confronted in the first century. There are still those who live according to the pursuit of power and control, who believe that only the strong should survive. There are still legalists who insist that the only way to God is by strict observance to (their understanding of) the rules.  There are still materialists who believe the worth of human beings is determined by whether they are “makers” or “takers”, or think that “he who dies with the most toys wins”. There are still those who think that violence is a reasonable tactic when it’s done for a good cause. And there are still those who withdraw from the world rather than work to transform it.

The worldview of Jesus calls us to give up striving for the power to control others, and instead serve others. “He being in very nature God, did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross” and “He who would be first must be last, and the servant of all.” The kingdom of God is not a zero-sum game, where in order for some to be winners, others must be losers. It does not divide humanity, elevating “makers” over “takers”, but exhorts all to be “givers”. “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The Kingdom of God isn’t about rules, but relationships. “He has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” In the Kingdom of God, the ends never justify the means. “He that lives by the sword will die by the sword.” And we are not supposed to withdraw from the world; we are supposed to engage it and transform it. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Like the worlds colliding in the science fiction story, when strongly held worldviews collide, the consequences won’t be pleasant or pretty. The worldview of Jesus was not compatible with many of the worldviews of his time, and it isn’t compatible with many of the worldviews of our time either. Those who strive to put the teachings of Jesus into practice often find themselves in conflict with others who have different ideas about the way the world works. Sometimes these people are members of our own families or close friends, causing the sharp sword of division to pierce our hearts with grief. And sadly churches aren’t immune to conflicts caused by colliding worldviews. There are too many doctrinal purists on both ends of the conservative/liberal spectrum who are so busy throwing stones at each other they have buried the message of Jesus in a pile of jagged rocks.

But no matter how discouraged I feel because of the “interesting times” in which we live, my faith tells me it is the worldview Jesus called the Kingdom of God that will emerge triumphant in the end. God’s love is the irresistible force that can move mountains. And that’s good news to me.

 

By Whose Authority?

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 
The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”  News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. Mark 1:21-28

As I’ve mentioned previously, Mark doesn’t waste any time. His sense of urgency is palpable, and his writing is densely packed. We’re only about halfway through the first chapter in today’s reading, and Mark has already covered John the Baptist’s entire career, Jesus’s baptism and temptation, as well as the core teaching of his message and the calling of his first disciples. In the rest of the chapter, Mark details some of the things Jesus became known for doing: teaching, healing, and praying. Today’s passage is concerned with two of these. Most people will tend to fixate on Mark’s account of a successful exorcism, while overlooking the part describing Jesus as an extraordinary teacher. The exorcism is certainly spectacular, but I think the description of Jesus as one who taught “with authority, not as the teachers of the law” is perhaps more significant.

I might as well get what I think about the exorcism out of the way first, because Jesus’s ability to drive out demons seems to be one of the things that attracted people to him, and the synoptic gospels have many other references to demons and demon possession. In most cases, the symptoms described seem to indicate the person suffered from epilepsy or mental illness, and I can certainly see how ancient peoples might have attributed strange behaviors caused by brain dysfunction to demons. The important thing to me is not what caused the sufferers such distress, but that Jesus healed them. He didn’t ostracize or blame them or declare them particularly sinful for falling prey to powers beyond their control. He helped them to the full extent of his abilities.

We know a little more about brain chemistry today than they did in the first century, but there are certainly still many cases of people who suffer from what pre-scientific societies might have called demon possession. They are not in control of their own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, and they may endanger themselves or others. People with mental illnesses often suffer greatly and may cause great suffering to those around them. Certainly anyone who has ever dealt with an addiction, or an addicted family member, can identify with the concept of someone being controlled by something they are powerless to resist. The question we should ask ourselves is not why are they like this, but what can we do to help? We may not be able to effect instantaneous cures in the way that Jesus did, but I think we ought to have the same attitude Jesus had. We ought to see them as suffering human beings to be healed, not lawbreakers deserving of further punishment. And I am afraid that, unlike Jesus, we are not doing all that is within our power to help. Too often our jails become holding pens for mentally ill people whose behavior spirals out of control, where they do not receive the medication or treatment that might help them. We have learned a great deal about addiction, even developing medications which work to effectively suppress the desire to get high, but instead of viewing addiction as a sickness to be cured, we see it as a crime to be punished.

That’s all I have to say about that right now. If we focus too much on demons and whether they are literal or metaphorical, we miss Mark’s very important statement that “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” There was something about the way Jesus taught that was really different from the rest of the Bible teachers of his time. In addition to the written Law and Prophets with which we are familiar in our Old Testament, there was a large body of oral commentary on it, After the destruction of the Second Temple, these commentaries came to be written down in what came to be known as the Mishnah.  The predominant Bible teaching methodology of the time seemed to have heavily relied on quoting from these oral-traditions; that is, quoting what other religious scholars thought about a particular passage. Instead of quoting a respected authority to make his points known, Jesus says what he himself thinks. He is his own authority, and often puts a completely different spin on a familiar passage. “You have heard it said…..but I say unto you…”

I don’t think that it’s an accident that Mark juxtaposes a story about an exorcism with an observation about Jesus’s unique nature. “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” Mark wanted to offer proof of Jesus’s authority to his readers, and for those readers, being able to cast out demons was pretty convincing proof that Jesus was not just your average itinerant rabbi. Of course, if you’re familiar with the rest of the story, you know that what was proof to his followers didn’t prove anything to his opponents, some of whom accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon himself! And in the very pointed parable Luke records of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus observes that some people won’t be convinced of the truth by even the most spectacular of miraculous events.

Paul later writes to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” and both are tripped up by the foolishness of the cross. Faith can’t be proved; it has to be lived, and the best way to live it, then as now, is to follow Jesus in our attitudes and actions. And we often find that in the living we have all the proof we need. And that’s good news to me.

 

What is the Good News?

Third Sunday After Epiphany

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Mark 1:14-15

“What we have here is a failure to communicate” Cool Hand Luke

What is the gospel, or the good news? In Greek, the word is “euaggelion“, from which we get our word “evangelism” But I’m afraid that when most people hear the word “evangelism” or “evangelistic” today, the associations that comes to mind are certainly more in line with the “turn or burn” fire and fury of John the Baptist than the way Jesus seemed to have understood the word.

Although the New Testament uses the word translated as “gospel” 76 times, its use in the ancient world wasn’t restricted to religious applications. It was a general term used in a variety of contexts, and was commonly used (by the victors, of course) to announce a military victory. There’s a very interesting reference to Augustus Caesar which says in part, “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him” So at least for some first century readers, the association with the word “gospel” might have been to the Pax Romana! If you’re interested, here’s a link to a lengthy, but fascinating article about the use of the word, as well as information about emperor worship, in the time of Jesus.

First-century Jewish people had been looking forward to the coming reign of God for a long time. Although their forced exile in Babylon was over, they were still a subjugated people at the mercy of both their Roman overlords and collaborators like Herod. The glory days of Israel during the time of David and Solomon had long passed into legend. Where was the promised new David, who would free them from captivity and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity, where everyone could sit unafraid under their own vine and fig tree? Of course, the “good news” that the first century Jews were longing to hear would be bad news for the Romans, who would be defeated and stripped of their power. Israel would be restored under the leadership of a wise and good king, and take Rome’s place as the dominant superpower, respected by all the other nations of the world.

Into this eclectic mix of cultural expectations and longings came Jesus, who used the same announcement of “good news”, but seemed to have understood the meaning of the word very differently. Luke gives a few more details than Mark about the content of Jesus’s initial proclamation. In his home synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus quoted the words of Isaiah, but added a twist of his own:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.

It’s interesting to read the whole passage from Isaiah 61 and note what Jesus chooses to include in his selection, and what he leaves out. He ends his reading with proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, but leaves out the next line equating that time with God’s vengeance on Israel’s oppressors. God’s reign on earth begins not with a powerful military leader like David crushing his enemies, but with Jesus, who went about doing good” and “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Furthermore, Jesus goes on to say that the good news of the kingdom of God (kingdom of Heaven in Matthew) isn’t just something that will happen in the future.  It is here, beginning now. Time and time again, Jesus tries to explain both the immanence of the kingdom of God and how it differs from preconceived ideas about it. The Kingdom of God is found not by looking for easily identifiable external realities but is within you. Often Jesus resorts to metaphor: the kingdom of God works  like yeast in bread dough and grows slowly like a mustard seed. Like treasure hidden in a field, it may not be readily apparent to the casual onlooker.

I’m afraid that in today’s world, the “good news” has become misunderstood as much as it was in Jesus’s time, and the message of Jesus has been distorted just as much as it was in the Middle Ages prior to the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Franciscan renewal. As NT Wright puts it in “The Day the Revolution Began“, we have “platonized our eschatology, moralized our anthropology, and paganized our soteriology” to the point where we no longer really understand what Jesus was trying to tell us. Most of  today’s “evangelism” is geared toward convincing people to make a one-time choice between spending an eternity in heaven or hell. That choice is made by intellectually accepting certain theological principles, saying the right words in prayer, and then presumably (although those being evangelized are not generally told this) adhering to a behavioral code heavily dependent on “thou shalt nots” which may vary depending on the group doing the evangelizing. Not surprisingly, many recipients of this kind of proselytizing do not think what they are being told is “good news”, and they never really hear the radical message Jesus proclaimed.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is not just some future apocalyptic dream, nor is it primarily about what happens in the afterlife. The kingdom of God is among us, and like the mustard seed in the parable, has the potential to grow into a great sheltering, nurturing tree. But as Jesus said, we have to change our hearts and lives to make it so. The kingdom of God will not come if we keep on thinking that life is a zero-sum game and behaving accordingly.  We have to give up self-centered ways of thinking and behaving and start acting more like Jesus. We have to make Jesus our Lord in practice, not just in words. If Jesus is really Lord, then we ought to be putting a great deal more time, money, and effort into loving other people and a great deal less indulging our self-centered desires for more pleasure, wealth, and power.

Imagine what the world might be like if everyone in it who identifies as a Christian actually acted more like Christ. Imagine the majority of the human race treating everyone with whom they come into contact with the same kindness and compassion they would want for themselves. Imagine if more humans understood themselves to be caretakers and stewards of God’s creation, rather than viewing it as as something to be exploited, used up, and discarded like a broken toy. Imagine if most humans put their minds to work in positive rather than negative ways, finding ways to heal rather than harm, to create rather than destroy, to help rather than hurt, to make the world a little better because they were here. Imagine…

Jesus said, Don’t just imagine. Change your hearts and lives. Trust the good news. The time is always now, and (quoting N T Wright again) the revolution has begun. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Epiphany: God is Still Speaking

First Sunday after Epiphany

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11

On many past occasions and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers through the prophets. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3

The dictionary definition of “epiphany” is “an appearance or manifestation.” It can refer to a God-sighting, but it can also mean a sudden new understanding of reality, of seeing something in a way it has not been seen before. In Western Christian tradition, Epiphany usually commemorates the visit of the Magi to see the infant Jesus. The epiphany here is that God is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews. But in Eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany focuses on the baptism of Jesus, as God spoke in affirmation of his pride in and relationship to Jesus. So the occasion of Jesus’s baptism could also be described as a theophany , a visible manifestation of deity.

All four gospels describe this event, which marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. It’s interesting to me that Mark’s gospel doesn’t waste any time getting down to business.  Unlike the other synoptic writers, Mark includes no long genealogies, no stories about Jesus’s conception, birth, infancy, or childhood.  Mark gives a brief summary of who John the Baptist was and what he was doing, devotes only  a couple of sentences to Jesus’s baptism, and unlike Matthew or Luke, doesn’t try to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized. There’s some question about exactly who was able to hear God’s voice. In the Markan passage, it seems to be only Jesus who hears God speak, but in the gospel according to John, both Jesus and John the Baptist hear it.  Matthew and Luke don’t specify an audience for the theophany.

I believe that God is still speaking, although not in the ways that some people think. I don’t think God tells any politician to run for office, and I don’t think God tells any popular religious figure to extort money from their followers either as a proof of faith or as an investment opportunity. I don’t think God favors a particular team at a sporting event, not even when it comes to Alabama football. Not all the voices in your head are from God. Just because a thought comes into your mind does not mean it is God speaking, and just because someone says they’ve heard from God doesn’t mean they actually have. The writer of 1 John warns his readers  “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God“. John goes on to say that Jesus is the criteria for determining whether a “spirit” (which I understand as a thought or idea, not a phantasmic entity) is from God. As I understand John’s words, “confessing Jesus has come in the flesh” means more than intellectual assent to a particular creed. It means that a person has had an epiphany about the nature of God: God is like Jesus. God is not what some atheists like to call “an angry sky god” out to punish anyone who steps a toe outside an arbitrary line. God is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out presents to good little boys and girls while the bad ones get lumps of coal. God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing blessings when the right prayers or offerings are properly inserted. Rather, God is a force of love, love that is woven into the very fabric of the universe, and if you want to see what that love is like, look at Jesus. If you want to hear the voice of God, listen to what Jesus has to say…the “red letters” in some Bibles. And since actions usually speaker louder and more clearly than words, look at what Jesus did. He healed people. He fed people. He brought hope to people who felt they had no hope, especially those rejected by the religious establishment and oppressed by the civil government.

It is unfortunate that people use portions of the Bible to justify wrong ideas they have developed about God, and then claim that they are speaking for God. I like the way the writer of the Hebrews passage above puts it: the Bible contains the testimony of many different people living in many different times, who tried to put what they heard God saying into words. But it is Jesus, not Moses, David, or the prophets, who is “the exact representation” of God’s nature, meaning Jesus has the last, most complete words. When it comes to understanding God, Jesus is the lodestone and the North Star. “What would Jesus do?” ought to be more than an outdated bumper sticker. It’s a question anyone who really wants to hear the voice of God, and not just the echoes of their own minds, ought to ask.

God is not at all like the way he is portrayed by some of the people who claim they have heard his voice. God is like Jesus, who personified self-giving love. And that’s good news to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Years and Second Winds

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”  He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’
JRR Tolkien, in The Fellowship of The Ring

This story about Elijah has always been one of my favorites,  probably because I can identify with his feelings of aloneness and despair over the state of the world as he sees it. To be completely honest, I’ve always been rather prone to bouts of existential depression and angst, and those feelings have been exacerbated over the past year by what I see to be a broken political and economic system, aided and abetted by broken theological systems masquerading as Christianity. So I’ve had trouble finding the motivation to sit down and write, that is at least until I was confronted by today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Office. When I get like this, I probably ought to write more, not less, because when I read, ponder, and attempt to put my thoughts about a Bible passage into words, I invariably find that God is speaking to me. And invariably, what I hear God saying is good news.

In the chapters preceding this one, Elijah had just come down from a major spiritual victory in a showdown with Ahab’s prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. Initially so elated by his success in proving that Yahweh was more powerful than Baal that he briefly turns into a Bronze Age version of the Flash, he soon finds that in reality nothing has really changed. Queen Jezebel is still determined to make Baal-worship the official religion of Israel by any means necessary. He feels that there is no use even trying, that he is the last man standing, and that he’s had all that he can take. He prays to die, then collapses in sheer exhaustion. That’s when God shows up, and Elijah finds his second wind.  He journeys for forty days (a highly symbolic number) to Mt. Horeb, known as “the mountain of God” and which is probably the same mountain Moses called Mt. Sinai.  There Elijah has a profound encounter with God, who reveals himself not in dramatic showings of earthquake, wind, or fire, but in the sound of silence. Here the Hebrew is usually translated “still small voice” or “gentle whisper” but it could also be translated “sheer silence” In a manner reminiscent of a reality therapy script, God twice asks Elijah “What are you doing here?” Elijah says that although he has worked very hard, he thinks his efforts to educate people about God have been fruitless, and he feels despondent and alone. God tells Elijah that he is not a failure, nor is he alone, and that there are still ways he can make a difference.

Like Elijah, we long for God to reveal himself in dramatic and spectacular ways. That isn’t usually how God works, nor is it even particularly successful.  Jesus, who often had to deal with requests for signs and wonders from those with ulterior motives, told a story about a poor man who died unnoticed and uncared for on the doorstep of a rich man intent only on pursuing his own pleasure. When the rich man died, he found that their positions were reversed in the afterlife. While the poor man reclined in Abraham’s bosom, the rich man suffered in Hades. The rich man wanted to send someone back from the dead to warn his family lest they share his fate, only to be told that ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” That, of course, paralleled the reactions of most of the religious leaders to Jesus, and was probably the main point of the story. People who have their minds made up won’t be convinced to change them by facts, logic, or even miracles. In Elijah’s time, some weren’t convinced by fire coming down out of heaven. In Jesus’s time, some weren’t convinced by Jesus’ resurrection. Why should we expect people to react any differently today?

God still asks, “What are you doing here?” As Gandalf observed, there is much going on in the world that we cannot control. What we can control is our own behavior. We don’t need giant letters in the sky or a booming voice from heaven telling us to be kind, to advocate for justice, or to treat other people the way we would like to be treated. And if we listen, we can still hear God saying, “You are not alone. All is not lost. You can make a difference.”

And that’s good news to me.