Jesus Wept

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A

Jesus wept. John 11:35

The readings for this week include both the story of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones and the story of the raising of Lazarus. I’ve previously written about Ezekiel’s vision in a post titled “”When All Is Lost” . What stands out to me today in rereading these stories is the theme that “nothing is impossible with God.” When the world is falling apart around us and God seems so far away that we wonder if he’s really there, these stories remind us that even if we think all is lost, it really isn’t.

Why did Jesus weep at Lazarus’s tomb? Jesus, more than anyone, had faith to know that nothing is impossible with God. He knew, as did Martha, that death was not God’s final answer. He knew that Lazarus was going to walk out of that tomb, restored to health and wholeness, in just a few minutes. So why did he weep?

Luke records another time when Jesus wept. In Luke’s memory,this took place on the way to his triumphal arrival into Jerusalem, an event we remember each year on Palm Sunday.  “And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. Matthew records Jesus lamenting, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.” A short time later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells his friends that “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” as he wrestles with the knowledge of what is to come.

Jesus was not immune to being overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and fear. As Isaiah had foreseen, “He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest griefSince Christians believe that Jesus was without sin, it follows that sadness isn’t sin, despite what some people with faulty theologies may say. We aren’t sad because of a lack of faith; we are sad because we are human.  Faith isn’t a spiritual mood-altering drug that blunts the affect. It is the assurance that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.

Feelings aren’t wrong or sinful; it’s what we do with those feelings that counts. For example, courage doesn’t mean not being afraid; it means acknowledging those fears and doing the right thing anyway. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, there’s a nice little side story about Thomas, who is my favorite disciple. Unlike some of the other disciples, Thomas was a realist who understood pretty clearly that things were not going to go well for Jesus or his followers in the short term. While James and John were planning seating arrangements for an imminent messianic victory, Thomas has his eyes wide open, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.

It is not contradictory to affirm that “with God, all things are possible” and to also know that very difficult days may lie ahead. One may be convinced that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” while accepting that not all things that happen are good, or from God. God didn’t cause Lazarus to get sick and die, and God didn’t cause the current coronavirus pandemic either. Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, and he wept over the suffering he saw coming for Jerusalem. And I believe Jesus still weeps over all the pain and suffering in the world.

As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance“. It was okay for Jesus to weep, and it’s okay for us to weep too. It is entirely appropriate to mourn both those we have lost, and the loss of our way of life. Things will never be the same again. Perhaps some good can come out of this very bad time, but now is a time to weep. Let’s not make things worse for those who mourn by questioning their faith.

Born Again

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:1-17

Ye must be born again.”  Those of us who grew up in evangelical churches will be very familiar with Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus. I can remember multiple sermons on the subject, and John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” is one of the first Bible verses I was encouraged to memorize. Nicodemus generally got a bad rap in those sermons. He is castigated for coming to Jesus by night, seeking a secret meeting with Jesus so as not to risk the disapproval of his colleagues. And he’s mocked for taking the words of Jesus too literally and asking how someone could revert to a fetus and repeat their own birth.

Personally, I don’t agree with those understandings of Nicodemus. He certainly wasn’t a coward, for he stood up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin and later he and Joseph of Arimathea were responsible for getting permission from Pilate to take Jesus’s body down from the cross and give him a decent burial.  And I think he understood Jesus’ statement about being born again as being metaphorical, and his “how can this be” question was phrased in metaphorical terms as well. The whole conversation is rich with metaphors which transcend literal understanding.

Nicodemus raises a good question. How can a person start their life all over again, unmarked and unscarred by all the the environmental factors and experiences that have gone into making them who they are? Most people I know have had at least fleeting thoughts along the lines of “if I had my life to live over again”, I might have had different priorities and made better choices. It reminds me of the Doctor Who episode, “Boom Town“. In the story, the Ninth Doctor captures an alien who has caused the Doctor and his companions considerable distress, not to mention attempting to wreak general havoc on Earth. He plans to take her back to her home planet, but she tells him that would be a death sentence for her because of the choices she has made, some of which she appears to regret. The story ends when some timey-wimey hocus pocus causes her to revert to an egg, and the Doctor takes her back to her home planet to be adopted by a different family and grow up in a different environment. The Doctor is hopeful that her life will turn out differently the second time around.

I think that’s what Nicodemus was asking. Yes, I know I’ve made mistakes, but what can I do about them? It’s not possible to start all over again. Children are born fairly malleable, but as humans age, they become more and more “set in their ways”. For better or worse, our environments and experiences cause our personalities and ways of thinking and responding to become more and more entrenched. As we become older, it becomes harder and harder to change, even if we recognize the need to do so. Perhaps Nicodemus had heard Jesus say that “anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” and he was being completely honest about how difficult it would be for him to change his long-established ways of thinking about and relating to God. A major paradigm shift would be necessary before Nicodemus, or anyone else, would be able to really change.

Jesus continues the metaphorical dialogue by saying that  “flesh gives birth to flesh and spirit to spirit.”   Human ways of living and relating to God and others are basically selfish and tribalistic. But that is not God’s desire for humanity, and not the way Jesus lived and taught. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” As Isaiah wrote, God’s ways are very different from human ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” The stark divide between human thinking and the mind of God is certainly evident in the Beatitudes, and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus structures a sentence by saying “you have heard it said (a,b,c) but I say to you (x,y,z) The Kingdom of God is sometimes called an “upside down kingdom” but it might be more accurate to say that the kingdom of God is right side up, and we’re the ones living in the Upside Down.

In yet another metaphor, Jesus compares God’s Spirit to the wind: it goes where it pleases and can’t be controlled by humans. That is as true today as it was in Jesus’s time. Jesus repeatedly got into trouble with religious people who wanted God to stay inside the boxes of their understanding of the scriptures. Jesus prioritized helping people over rigid rules, for example. and sadly there are religious people today who also have similar wrong priorities. Fortunately, God won’t stay put in the most carefully constructed biblical boxes. The Spirit often breaks out in the most surprising ways using the most surprising people. To paraphrase Malcolm in Jurassic Park, the Spirit will find a way.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”The reference Jesus makes to Moses and the snake can be found in Numbers.The Hebrew people have been wandering in the  wilderness for some time now and seem to spend most of it complaining about Moses and/or God. Their bad attitude leads to them being attacked by venomous snakes, but Moses constructs a bronze serpent, and those who gaze upon it are cured. (Fun fact: this may be part of the origin story of the medical symbol)

The bronze snake imagery is a powerful one, for it tells us that it is only by looking to Jesus that we can be spiritually healed and begin to experience the kind of life God intended for us. Looking to Jesus means far more than a one-time confession that we have failed and asking Jesus to save us from ourselves. Going back to the “born again” metaphor, birth is just the beginning of a new life. Looking to Jesus is not a one-and-done experience. It must be ongoing and continuous if our new birth is to result in us growing up into the kind of people God wants us to be. If it is tragic when developmental disabilities keep a person at an infantile stage of development, how much more tragic it is when a person remains spiritually infantile!

Jesus claims that he alone can show us what God is like and what God wants from us, because he alone comes from God. When we continually look to Jesus, study his life, meditate on his teachings, and try to practice them, then we will begin to experience real change. Our ingrained ways of thinking and behaving will be changed into Jesus’s ways of thinking and behaving. We will begin to experience the life God wants us to have, and not only us, but the whole world will begin to change through us. As we metamorphosize, God’s love will metastasize. Oh,  how different our world will be when Christlike behavior becomes the norm rather than the exception!

And that’s good news to me.

 

 

Devil’s Bargain

 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. Matthew 4:1-11

There are hundreds of stories about people who make deals with the devil, of which Faust is probably the most well known. Usually these stories end badly for the deal-makers, although some of the more modern variations on the story have the protagonist outwitting the devil in some way. There’s the short story of the devil and Daniel Webster, the musical Damn Yankees, and of course, the bluegrass song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis might say that when similar stories pop up again and again in different times and places, that’s because there’s an underlying truth to them.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus’s encounter with the devil took place right after his baptism and affirmation by God as “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Before beginning his public ministry, Jesus needed to decide exactly how he ought to go about that ministry. And so he goes into the wilderness alone, away from the distractions of everyday life, to think and to listen for God’s direction. But before he hears the voice of God, he hears another voice, a voice that is not from God.

The voice of the devil takes advantage of Jesus’s hunger and suggests that he use his superhuman power to turn rocks into food. Not only would that alleviate his immediate physical distress, it would assuredly yield great results if he duplicated the trick for others. And feeding hungry people is a good thing, right? And it would certainly get people’s attention quickly, and garner him a lot of followers. (That’s exactly what happened later when, out of compassion, Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes for a hungry crowd that had come to hear him)

But Jesus said no to this idea. Although he was deeply concerned about people’s physical needs (see Matthew 25) he knew that there was more to his mission than being a one-man food bank. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I’ve often heard it said that the purpose of this quote was to say that there are things in life that are more important than food, but I think there’s more to it than that. God’s words, as recorded again and again in both the Law and the Prophets, tell us that taking care of those marginalized by society is not an option, but an imperative. Those who have should share with those who have not. And it’s not just an individual, but a corporate responsibility. God will judge rulers and societies by how well they live by these words. Jesus knew that God had already told people how societies ought to function, but that they mostly ignored or disobeyed those instructions. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” A one-man, or even a one God-man relief operation wasn’t the answer. The hearts of many would need to be changed, the law “written on their hearts”  before the kingdom of God could begin to spread exponentially. Jesus foresaw a time when his followers would do even more in the way of helping people than he had been able to help during his short time on Earth.

The voice of the devil also suggested that Jesus could jump off a tall building in the middle of town, then supernaturally float to the ground and land unharmed. That would get the attention of a lot of people, right? They would pay attention to someone who could perform a stunt like that, yes?

But Jesus said no to this idea too. “Do not put the Lord your God to a test“. This scene reminds me of “King Herod’s Song” in “Jesus Christ Superstar” where Herod taunts Jesus to “prove to me that you’re no fool; walk across my swimming pool” Demanding signs from God is not only arrogant, it’s ultimately ineffective. In the stories of the Exodus, Moses found that to be true again and again. Pharaoh remained unconvinced by Moses’s staff turning into a snake and most of the plagues.The children of Israel seemed to have had extremely short attention spans, for in spite of witnessing multiple supernatural events, kept whining and complaining. As Jesus told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, even the most spectacular miracle is insufficient to overcome confirmation bias. People will deny any evidence that does not conform to what they want to believe is true.If (people) do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Paul made the same observation when he wrote to the Corinthians that “Jews demand signs and Greeks search for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

It’s also interesting to me that in this particular temptation, the devil quoted Scripture to try and get Jesus to go along with him. But Jesus knew Scripture well enough to recognize a passage taken out of context and used manipulatively , and Jesus responded with a Scripture passage of his own that was more relevant to his decision-making. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about trying to convince people to read and study the whole Bible is because I think Biblical ignorance is one of the best tools in the devil’s toolbox. Just to take one example…how long was slavery justified on “biblical” grounds? Did you know that there was once a “slave Bible” that contained passages like “slaves obey your masters but omitted all the passages that “might incite rebellion” such as Galatians 3:28 not to mention the entire book of Exodus? That was a devilish use of the Bible, and unfortunately there are many more examples of the Bible being used in devilish ways.

The voice of the devil then makes an offer he thinks Jesus won’t be able to refuse. If Jesus will pledge allegiance to the devil, then the devil will make Jesus king of the world. Then Jesus will have the power to control everybody and everything. That would be a good thing, right? Jesus could make all the laws, so everybody would have to behave themselves or else. Jesus could redistribute the world’s resources any way he saw fit. And being Jesus, all his decisions would be loving and just and fair. The world would be a much better place with Jesus in charge!

But Jesus said no to that tempting offer too, referring to the first commandment. Idolatry doesn’t always come in the form of a golden calf. Idolatry is anything in which you place your ultimate allegiance and trust. Now, as in Jesus’s time, the most common idols are money, power, and pleasure. “No man can serve two masters“, Jesus warned his disciples. In Matthew’s context, Jesus was speaking specifically of money, but the warning can be generalized to other idols too. The way of the cross- the way Jesus took- is diametrically opposed to the way of power and control.  (Jesus), “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!”  Counterintuitively, Jesus’s refusal to use his power and “come down from the cross” resulted in him becoming (as Obi-wan-Kenobi might put it) more powerful than anyone could imagine. “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The sayings “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “the ends don’t justify the means” don’t come from the Bible, but those concepts are at play here in the deals the devil tries to make with Jesus. Jesus said “no” to any kind of devil’s bargain, and I think it’s incumbent upon his followers to do likewise. Real, lasting change won’t come through the love of power, but the power of love. Jesus has shown us the way.  And that’s good news to me.

The Reason for the Rules

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. Luke 13:10-17

“We are a nation of laws”. How many times have you heard that statement, and in what context? Too often it is cited as justification for behavior that causes harm directly or indirectly to human beings created in God’s image. It’s against the law to cross the border without permission, even when fleeing persecution or famine. “Urban camping” is against the law, even if you are homeless and have nowhere else to go. In Arizona, members of a faith group are being prosecuted under littering laws for leaving jugs of water in the desert for travellers who might otherwise die of thirst.

The reason we have laws and rules is to serve and protect people. It’s against the law to murder, to rape, to steal, and to commit perjury, and for good reason. It’s against the law to run red lights, to speed, and to drive under the influence, and there is good reason for those too. But there are some laws and rules that are just pointless, silly, or outdated. Unfortunately there are some laws that are applied in ways that cause more harm than good, as the heartbreaking story of the death of Eric Garner attests. And also unfortunately, laws and rules are often applied unequally. Rich and powerful people get away with things that the poor and powerless are punished for doing, which is a pretty blatant violation of levitical law.

The passage from Luke above is just one of many where Jesus disputed with those who believed that people exist to serve and protect rules, rather than the other way around. God’s purpose in instituting the Sabbath was so that people and animals would not be worked to death. It was meant to be a blessing to people, not a burden, but over many years Sabbath-observation evolved into an absolute rule that must be followed regardless of the harm it might cause. Jesus believed that”The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” I don’t long for a return to the “blue laws” of the recent past, but I do long for a restoration of the principle of Sabbath. When people have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, when workers in poultry processing plants are forced to wear diapers because they aren’t allowed bathroom breaks, when factory and warehouse workers have their every move followed and critiqued for efficiency, there is something profoundly wrong.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who got into trouble with those who prioritize rules over people. Peter and the other first apostles did too. When they were commanded to stop telling others about Jesus, they responded “We must serve God rather than human authority.” Too often rules serve to protect those in power, rather than all people. Paul got into trouble in Ephesus for cutting into business profits by sharing the message of Jesus.”God’s Smuggler”, Brother Andrew, who famously smuggled Bibles across the Iron Curtain, followed the same rationale when he wrote “The Ethics of Smuggling

“The law” does not have ultimate moral priority. Once upon a time in Europe, Hitler’s “Final Solution” was the law of the land, and it was illegal to shelter Jews. Once upon a time in America, slavery was legal and harboring runaway slaves was illegal. Once upon a time in South Africa, apartheid was legal and racial mixing was illegal. Once upon a time in the fictional universe, Jean Valjean was relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert for stealing bread to feed his starving family. And in many places today, publicly identifying as a follower of Jesus is prohibited by law and violators are prosecuted and punished.

Ultimate moral priority is of divine, not human origin, and I agree with Jesus and Paul’s interpretation of God’s moral priorities: In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets” and ” For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our ultimate loyalty should be to serve God’s moral priorities, not human ones. “But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD ” Depending on the time and place in which one lives, that kind of loyalty can be scary or even dangerous.

Good news? That’s where faith comes in. I believe that by following God’s moral priorities, God’s followers have the power to transform the world into the kind of place God intended when he created it. And that is good news to me.

Don’t Blink

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.“Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 24: 42-51

This week’s post isn’t from the lectionary, but from some thoughts I’ve had in the wake of a recent personal experience.

My husband and I were driving home on the last leg of a vacation trip to visit with my family, and my mother had given me several boxes of old family photos and other memorabilia for me to sort through. We were almost home when suddenly a car veered into our lane and hit us, sending our car into a cable barrier separating traffic moving in the opposite direction. It all happened very quickly, and there was nothing I could have done that would have prevented the accident. We were very fortunate in many respects; there were no injuries to people, only to vehicles. The seat belts, air bags, and cable barrier all did what they were designed to do, absorbing much of the force of the collision and preventing our vehicle from being forced into oncoming traffic moving at freeway speeds. Unpleasant as the experience was, it could have been much, much worse. We could have easily found ourselves in the direct presence of God much sooner than we expected, with our children left to sort through all we left behind.

In the passage above (see a slightly different take in Mark here) Jesus was responding to questions about when the world as we know it would end. As I wrote in last week’s post on the parable of the Good Samaritan, he responds by telling his hearers they are asking the wrong question. It’s not important to know when the world will end, or when Jesus will return. What is important is what you are doing in the meantime. Are you living the way he taught, or aren’t you?

Growing up in the Baptist church, I heard many sermons on this passage, but as I recall, they all centered around the necessity of a personal conversion experience. You might die at any moment, and if you weren’t right with God when that happened, you would find yourself in a place hotter than Phoenix in the summer for all eternity. I was so traumatized by a sermon I heard as a young child about a boy who was bitten by a rattlesnake in his sleep that I had problems with insomnia and ophidiophobia for years. Then there were the ones which made a dramatic show of imitating the sounds of a heart beating, then stopping, all the while warning us that God could likewise stop our hearts at any second, so we’d better scurry down the aisle on the first verse of the invitational hymn, if not sooner.

But as I read and think about this passage now, I think those sermons were missing the point Jesus was trying to make. Yes, your life could end at at any moment, and you have as little control over it as I did over my auto accident. But in the judgement scene described by Jesus here, those who were commended and those who were condemned were both described as servants, so the criteria doesn’t seem to be based on different theological beliefs. The difference between the two groups was that the servants in the first group were taking care of their fellow servants, while those in the second group were taking advantage of them. The parable of the sheep and the goats in the next chapter is a variation on the same theme, but goes even further. You don’t have to be actively abusing others to find yourself on God’s bad side, just ignoring them.

None of us knows how much time we have left on planet Earth, but what we do know is that we’re supposed to make the most of whatever time we have. And if we are following in the way of Jesus, we have a pretty good idea of what that entails. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or, as L R Knost has written, “Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”

Make it count.

Mourning Tabitha

Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year C

Quick Bible trivia question: Who was Tabitha?
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In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. Acts 9:36-43

We have an ancient (well, 1984 is practically ancient) edition of a board game, which is labeled “Bible Trivia:Where the Trivia is Not Trivial” Some of the “correct” answers given are debatable. What was your answer to my question about Tabitha? Did you answer “a woman Peter raised from the dead”, or did you answer “a woman known for doing good and helping those in need?

At least in the Southern Baptist culture in which I grew up, the answer would have definitely been the former. The emphasis would have been on Peter, and how he demonstrated the power of God by performing the same kinds of miracles as Jesus did. Great emphasis would have also been placed on the evangelistic results of the miracle. In most sermons I heard dealing with this event, Tabitha herself seemed to be a mere prop in the story, a cipher of a woman important mainly for the role she played in advancing the message of the gospel.

But Tabitha wasn’t a cipher. She was doing exactly what all followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: using the talents and resources that she had to help others. She was greatly loved and greatly missed by all those she had helped. Had she not made such an impact on others, had their grief at her passing not been so vocal, would Peter have even been there to to perform his show-stopping miracle? Why is it that when most people remember the story, they remember Peter more than Tabitha?

One answer might be that Peter is a man, doing manly things like public preaching, and Tabitha is a woman, doing womanly things like sewing. and of course, most of the Bible was written by men. I’m afraid there is some truth in that. There were women who traveled with Jesus and provided financial support for his ministry, yet not nearly so many stories about them as there are about Jesus’s male disciples. There were women at the foot of the cross who watched Jesus die, while most of his male disciples had scattered into hiding. The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women who had gone to Jesus’s tomb to perform a last (womanly?) service of caring for his body. In general, there are not nearly as many stories in the Bible of women of faith as there are of men of faith, and those we do have are often lacking in detail. Not only that, but in some cases the gender identity of prominent female disciples has been erased (Junia became Junias in some translations), or their moral character impugned.(Mary Magdalene) I’m sorry that we don’t know more about Phillip’s four daughters who prophesied, Phoebe , Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla (who some think may have written Hebrews) or the anonymous “chosen lady” in 2 John.

There’s another answer, and that’s that the human mind is naturally drawn to the novel, the unusual, and the showy, overlooking the ordinary moments which make up the bulk of our lives. “Man bites dog” makes the newspaper; “dog bites man” doesn’t. Raising someone from the dead definitely falls into the “man bites dog” category. It’s just not something you see every day. And although the human mind works that way, I think the mind of God sees things somewhat differently.

Jesus repeatedly taught variations on the theme of “the last shall be first, and the first last“. When he observes a poor widow putting her last two cents into the offering plate, he tells his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.” He tells his squabbling disciples that the way to greatness lies in servanthood. and that ” it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” The hero of his story about the Good Samaritan is not the expected religious leaders who play important roles in the life of God’s people, but a nobody, an outsider, a cipher. During his last night on earth, Jesus assumed the role of the lowliest of servants, washed his disciples’ feet, and told his disciples to go and do likewise, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. He bluntly warns that God’s idea of what is most important isn’t necessarily what tends to catch human attention. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

God isn’t more interested in man-bites-dog stories than in dog-bites-man stories. In fact, I doubt God is pleased with stories about biting anybody or anything. I think God would prefer stories about dogs that help humans, or humans that help dogs. God wants us to do good wherever and whenever we can, and God is more concerned about the intent behind our actions than how big or small it might be. Yes, God was pleased by what Peter was able to do, but God was equally pleased by what Tabitha was able to do. Both Peter and Tabitha were channels of God’s spirit of healing and love.

I mourn for all the Tabithas, those who are overlooked and their stories forgotten, whether it is because of their gender or because their acts of kindness are considered ordinary. But God doesn’t overlook or forget anyone. We are all important and beloved by God, and God notices the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And that’s good news to me.

New Wine, Great Sheets of Animals, and the General Conference

No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
Luke 5:36-39 (also Matthew 9:16-20 and Mark 2:21-22

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
Acts 10:9-16

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the recent special general conference of the UMC, which has been my adopted church home since leaving the SBC. The conference was specifically called to discuss what rules, if any, the UMC ought to impose on its member churches with regard to same-sex relationships. There were two main proposals, the One Church Plan, and the Traditional Plan. The One Church plan would have allowed individual congregations to decide how to handle requests to perform same-sex marriages and/or whether to allow GLBTQ people to become pastors of Methodist churches. The Traditional Plan would forbid these in all UMC churches. By a narrow vote, the Traditional Plan was approved, but its constitutionality and enforcement protocol remain in question.
I live in the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC, which is overall more inclined to take an inclusive view on this divisive subject than some of the other geographic jurisdictions. Following the vote, there was great rejoicing on the part of those who believe same-sex relationships are a mortal sin, and great sorrow on the part of those who believe GLBTQ people are part of God’s good and diverse creation.

I fall into the sorrowful camp on this, not only for reasons of science and empathy, but also for theological reasons. And I came to an inclusive perspective not because I don’t read the Bible, but because I do. I’m aware of the Bible verses usually cited to forbid same-sex relationships, but I’m also aware that translation and context matter in Biblical interpretation. What “the Bible clearly says” depends a great deal on what translation you are using, as well as the bias of the translator. And there are many things that “the Bible clearly says” that are widely ignored (like working on the Sabbath) or thought to be obsolete cultural mores (like wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) Why is this particular taboo given such relative importance?

Some will cite Genesis 1:27, where God creates mankind male and female in his own image, and commands them to be fruitful and multiply. If procreation is the criteria for a valid, God-approved marriage, what of those who cannot have children? Barring some miracle along the lines of the Sarah and Abraham story, my childbearing days have been over for quite a while now. Is my marriage still valid? Should postmenopausal women be forbidden to marry? How does the elevation of procreation as an imperative for marriage fit in with the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Jesus quotes the Genesis passage, but he does so in the context of forbidding divorce to heterosexual couples. When I read the Genesis passage, I don’t understand it as being about the primacy of binary sexuality, but about the equality of men and women created in the image of a God who can’t be understood in an anthropomorphological way. When I read Jesus’s application of the Genesis passage to first-century divorce practices, I don’t understand him to be talking so much about sex, but about the misuse of power by men against women.

My theology comes not so much from individual Bible verses, but from the Bible taken as a whole, and particularly the Bible as it seems to be understood by Jesus. And it seems to me that quite a lot of what Jesus had to say and do was in the direction of inclusion, not exclusion; of principles rather than rules. What “the Bible clearly said” to Jesus was often quite different from what “the Bible clearly said” to religious people who opposed him. That’s how I understand the parable of the wineskins. The rules-based religion Jesus’s opponents promoted had become ossified, like the hardened, inflexible wineskins of the parable. Jesus wanted to bring the people of God to a better understanding of what God expects from humans in terms of their behavior. Jesus understood God’s Prime Directive to be “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and like new wine this principle cannot be confined by a set of rules.

Take Sabbath-keeping for example. “Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is actually one of the Ten Commandments, unlike prohibitions against same-sex marriage or gay clergy. It’s a good commandment, and I think the principle behind it is still valid today, even if it is widely ignored. It isn’t good for anyone to work 24/7. We might call it “down time” instead of “rest”, but that’s the idea behind it. Unfortunately people have always had a nasty tendency of idolizing rules while forgetting the reason the rule was created. Hezekiah had to destroy the bronze serpent Moses had created to cure a plague of snakes, because the people of God had started worshipping it rather than remembering why Moses created it in the first place. By the time of Jesus, Sabbath-keeping had become more of a burden than a welcome respite to people. Jesus’s attention to the principle rather than the rule of law often caused him to come into conflict with those who believed the rule was inflexible. If Jesus could help somebody, he would, and it didn’t matter what day of the week it was. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Like the Sabbath, I think marriage meets a human need- the need for intimacy and companionship. The creation story in Genesis 2 includes a statement by God that “it is not good for the man to be alone. I will create a suitable partner for him“. Yes, I know the first couple was heterosexual, but there wasn’t exactly a large human population at the time from which to make generalizations. When large populations are considered, the majority of people will preferentially seek partners of the opposite sex, but some will be attracted to partners of the same sex, or not feel much in the way of sexual attraction at all. (It’s sadly interesting, although logically consistent, that some in the no-exceptions-to-binary sexuality camp even look askance at asexual, celibate people as being deviant in some way. I find that attitude very strange from both a Biblical and an early church history viewpoint.)

In the Acts passage cited above we read of Peter’s hunger-induced dream of the great sheet filled with items on his potential dinner menu, including, I assume, shrimp and bacon as well as steak and lamb chops. “Do not call unclean anything God has called clean“. This had to have been extremely difficult for Peter to accept, as it was a monumental change of the rules for an observant first-century orthodox Jew. The books of Moses clearly prohibited him from eating non-kosher foods. Peter understood the meaning of the dream to be that the good news Jesus brings is for everyone, not just for Mosaic law-abiding descendents of Abraham. In response, he goes to the home of a Gentile God-seeker named Cornelius and says, You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Peter then shares the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection with Cornelius and his family. God shows up in a dramatic way, demonstrating his approval of both Peter, who broke what he thought were the rules by coming under Cornelius’s roof, and Cornelius, who was already considered to be an uncircumcised rulebreaker.

Of course, nothing is truly settled, then or now. There were some believers who held to a more rules-oriented criteria for inclusion in the family of God, and some who held to a less rules-oriented criteria. Later in Acts, we read of the Jerusalem Council which was convened to decide which, if any, rules Gentile converts were required to follow. Paul’s letters seem to indicate that he repeatedly had to deal with the same problem in the nascent Christian churches. (for example, his sarcastic suggestion to some of the Galatians here) On the other hand, while the Philippians and Galatians erred on the side of rules-for-the-sake-of-rules, Paul had to rein in the “if it feels good, do it” Corinthians. There’s a difference between breaking rules in order to do good to people, and breaking rules in order to please yourself, without thought of how your behavior might cause harm to someone else. Both “the rules are the rules” and “anything goes” are incompatible with the principle of the One Rule to Rule Them All that we call the Golden Rule or the Royal Law.

Does God sometimes change the rules? And if so, which ones? Or does the Bible show an evolving human understanding of God, and how God expects people to behave? My bet is on the latter. The books of Moses contain quite a few rules that are questioned by some of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, as well as by Jesus and Paul. So I think that I’m in good company when I question the rule that only heterosexual marriages are valid, or that God only calls heterosexual males to be pastors. I’ve seen those rules hurt too many people. I’ve seen those rules cause too many people to turn away from God. And I don’t think God is too happy when we use rules in ways that harm rather than help people, or cause people to turn away from God.

To those who ask me, “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I will answer “What if I’m right and you’re wrong?” I would rather err on the side of inclusivity than exclusivity, because it seems to me that’s what Jesus did. He was continually criticizing those who threw up insurmountable barriers of religious rules that kept people away from God, and he was often criticized for the company he kept.

I think that God’s grace can’t be limited. God pitches a bigger tent and invites more people to the table than we think. And that’s good news to me!

Three Funerals and a Divorce

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone, and our children sift thru all we’ve left behind, may the clues that they discover, and the mem’ries they uncover, become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.
-from “Find Us Faithful, by Steve Green, inspired by the Hebrews passage

In the past few weeks I’ve attended three memorial services, all for people who lived long lives of service to God and their fellow human beings. All three services were held in United Methodist churches, which is my adopted denominational affiliation, at least for now. All three services were packed with people who couldn’t seem to stop talking about the positive influence of their departed loved ones. Some stories that were shared were funny, some were inspiring, and some revealed things about the person I hadn’t previously known. These were people that made a difference in the lives of those around them, and they did so for decades. They persevered. They did not lose heart, or grow weary in doing good to others. They were faithful. I imagine them now, along with others I have known, as part of that great heavenly cloud of witnesses to the power of lives transformed by Christ.

At the end of life, what is it that causes a person to be remembered in a positive way, like these three people who have recently “transferred their membership” from a congregation on earth to one in heaven? The stories I heard at the memorial services were less about the person’s doctrinal beliefs than about what the person did, and how that impacted others. As the writer of the book of James puts it, faith is best shown by means of loving actions. “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” Being “found faithful” isn’t a matter of getting all your doctrinal ducks in a row, which is good thing considering how many variations on that theme there are. “Trusting Jesus” isn’t a one-and-done event. It is a lifelong commitment that results in the continuing transformation of a person to think and act more and more like Jesus as the years go by. That commitment was clearly seen in the lives of these three people.

Sad as it is to attend the funeral of a loved one, it’s much sadder to witness a divorce. And I’m afraid that my adopted United Methodist Church is in the process of going through a very messy one. There seem to be irreconcilable doctrinal differences between those who believe being gay is a deadly sin, and those who believe being gay is part of the infinite diversity of God’s good creation. The recent General Conference special session centering on this issue has made national news, and not in a good way. Paul laid out “Jesus is Lord” as the core of Christianity “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” I think that when we attempt to amend this core doctrine by adding other requirements, we are creating stumbling blocks that drive people away from God. Paul was considered a radical by his fellow Jews because he dropped the circumcision requirement for Gentile believers, along with the rest of the Mosaic law. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Madeline l’Engle has written, “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.” There’s also a quote attributed to St. Francis that says “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The gospel in a word is love, the love God has for us, and the love we show to others. We each must find our own road that leads to loving God and others. And I think that, at the end of life, whether or not we will be “found faithful” in the eyes of God or humans will be based on how we treat those around us.

And that’s good news to me.

Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness: Be Careful, Little Lips, What You Say

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Exodus 20:16

“Be careful, little lips, what you say. Be careful, little lips, what you say. For the Father up above is looking down in love. Oh, be careful, little lips what you say”
Children’s song; author unknown

It seems that “fake news” and accusations of fake news are ubiquitous these days, especially on social media. People see items on their news feeds and pass them on  without thinking about whether they are true, whether they are helpful, whether they are kind. Sometimes these are silly, entertaining, and innocent fun (cute pet videos anyone?) but other times they are a form of character assassination that can have very harmful consequences.

“Bearing false witness” is not really synonymous with “lying”, as I was taught as a child. In some translations, it reads “give false testimony”. Essentially, the commandment is prohibiting perjury. It is accusing someone of a crime they did not commit, and it was treated very seriously in Mosaic law. “If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime,  the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time.  The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite,  then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.  The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.  Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Both bearing false witness and lying in general are listed as abominations, right up there with murder, in this proverb:  “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.”

Jesus often broadened the meaning of the commandments rather than applying them in a strict legalistic sense. For example, the commandment against adultery didn’t just mean having sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse: it meant thinking about it. The commandment against murder didn’t just mean lying in wait and killing someone; it meant harboring hatred against someone. Jesus looked beyond overt behaviors to the attitudes that led to them. As another proverb goes,  “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”  Jesus wasn’t too impressed when people used legalistic interpretations of the commandments to get away with doing something that was counter to the intent of the commandment. For example, he condemned the practice of declaring something “corban” so as to avoid responsibility for caring for parents. He condemned the practice of using verbal technicalities to get out of keeping one’s promises. Rather than specific rules that could be cleverly twisted to one’s advantage, Jesus taught principles. For Jesus, the principle underlying all the commandments was what we know as the “Golden Rule:” In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you. For this is the essence of the Law and the prophets.”

Paul echoed the same principle when he wrote to the Romans, “The commandments “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and any other commandments, are summed up in this one decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. If you apply the principle “love does no wrong to its neighbor” to the rule “thou shalt not bear false witnesss”, you will realize that its meaning goes far beyond refraining from perjury. Propaganda, gossip and spreading rumors also violate the spirit of “thou shalt not bear false witness”. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,  “Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

James had some strong words to say about the power of the words we say about others: Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

I can’t help but think of how well James’ words describe the harm caused when social media is used to spread lies, rumors, and gossip. It is a forest fire indeed.  In India, there have been several incidents of mob killings of people who were falsely accused of crimes against children. In the United States, there have also been incidents of people being misidentified as perpetrators of terrorist attacks or other horrible crimes. Young people who have been targeted by bullying peers on social media have committed suicide.

Bearing false witness extends to stereotyping entire groups of people in harmful ways too, such as saying that all Muslims are terrorists, all homosexuals are pedophiles, all undocumented immigrants are violent criminals, all gun owners are irresponsible, all Christians are anti-science. All Republicans do not despise the poor. All Democrats are not atheists. Such blanket statements are very harmful and sometimes deadly.  In Arizona, shortly after 9/11, a Sikh man was killed by a stranger who saw his turban and beard, assumed he was a terrorist, and shot him. 

If this principle of causing no harm is applied to the commandment against false witness, it’s not enough to avoid committing perjury. Don’t deliberately spread misinformation with the intent of harming someone. Be very, very careful when sharing derogatory “information” about someone on social media, especially when you do not personally know the person and did not witness the purported act. Pictures can be photoshopped. Videos can be selectively edited. Memes are almost always simplistic. Prefacing something with “if this is true” does not get you off the hook. I’m aware that many people who share such items believe they are being helpful, warning others of danger like a modern-day Paul Revere. But the actual results too often turn out to be more like the instigator of a figurative or (heaven forbid, actual) lynch mob.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” It’s still good advice today.

 

 

 

 

 

Know Jesus, Know God

First Sunday After Epiphany

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” -Luke 3:21-22

In the Western church, Epiphany is associated with the coming of the Wise Men to visit baby Jesus, but in the Eastern church, Epiphany is associated most closely with the baptism of Jesus. I think the Eastern church has the correct focus. While it is certainly an important epiphany to realize that God is God for all people, not just a select few who happened to have been born in the right place from the right parents, the greatest epiphany of all is that if you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus.

NT Wright relates that in his role as a college chaplain, some of the incoming students would tell him. “You won’t be seeing much of me, because I don’t believe in God”. to which Wright replied, “That’s interesting. Which god is it that you don’t believe in?”  The student’s responses were usually along the lines of what Wright describes as “spy in the sky”, a celestial Santa Claus that watches you all the time, knows when you’ve been naughty or nice, and doles out candy or lumps of coal accordingly. Wright would then say, “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god; I don’t believe in that god either.”

I’ve had similar experiences with some of my former students, many of whom were professing Christians as high school students but are now professing atheists. I tell them I don’t believe in the “angry sky god” of the new atheist writers, either. God is not a cosmic policeman, a celestial Santa Claus, or Thor for that matter. The God in whom I trust (which is, by the way, a better word choice than “believe”) can best be seen in the person of Jesus. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus- what he taught, how he lived, how he treated people.

The story of Jesus’s baptism affirms Jesus as God’s special representative. “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased“. The same phrase is repeated toward the end of Jesus’s ministry at the Transfiguration.  I like the way the writer of Hebrews phrases it,

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

In my mind, this passage expresses the thought that people have often had wrong, or at least incomplete, ideas about God. That includes not just those opposed to the idea of God, or nominal believers, but some very devout believers. Even Biblical characters are not exempt from having wrong ideas about God. For example Jephthah apparently thought God was okay with human sacrifice; otherwise why would he have made the foolish vow to sacrifice “whatever first comes out of my house to greet me should God give me victory” Jeremiah hears God saying of human sacrifice, “I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing!” Even John the Baptist, who recognized Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, didn’t have a complete picture. The Gospel reading for today includes excerpts from John’s sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God sermons about winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. When Jesus didn’t turn out to behave in the ways John had expected, John wondered if he’d been mistaken. Jesus’s response was, “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard–the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

During his ministry on earth, Jesus attempted to clarify what God was like and what God asks of the people of God. He compared God to a loving father, not an angry, capricious dictator. He instructed his disciples to address God as “father” in what we call the Lord’s prayer. The story we know as the parable of the Prodigal Son could better be titled the parable of the Loving Father. When he instructed his disciples to love their enemies, he equated that to behaving like God: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” The God revealed by Jesus is not an “angry sky god”.

Jesus repeatedly condemned the kind of bad theology that harms other people. He hinted that some traditions which were considered of paramount importance by the people of God in his time were not so much God’s commands as traditions of human origin.He often used the phrase “you have heard it said….but I say to you to elaborate on or even change the meaning of the rules that should govern the lives of God’s people. For example, “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.” The God revealed by Jesus is not a cosmic policeman setting up a speed trap in order to punish violators.

Unlike some of the most religious people of his time, Jesus didn’t equate health and wealth as God’s reward for good behavior and sickness and poverty as God’s punishment for bad behavior.  John relates a story in which Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who was born blind. “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.  As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”The God revealed by Jesus is not a celestial Santa Claus doling out rewards to rule followers and punishments to rule breakers.

Jesus lived what he taught. He fed people who were hungry and healed people who were sick, without regard to whether they were worthy or not. He went to the cross for our sake, where some of his last words were “Father, forgive them.” If Jesus is the beloved son in whom God is pleased, if Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of  God’s being, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then Jesus’s words and actions are what shows us what God is really like.

Theology matters, and mistaken ideas about God have been the cause of some very terrible things throughout history. If you want to have the right ideas about God, and about how God expects humans to behave, look to Jesus. God is like Jesus.

And that’s good news to me.