Handwriting on the Wall

But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared. Deuteronomy 18:15-22

“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” Jeremiah 23:16

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Matthew 7:15-20

“Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4

There have always been people who claim God has given them a special message about future events. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought more than the usual number of these people out of the woodwork and into the news. It’s natural to want to know for sure what is coming in order to be prepared and take whatever action you can, but a lot of the current crop of self-proclaimed modern prophets are speaking words not from God, but words from their own minds. Perhaps they really believe God is speaking to them, but that doesn’t mean God really is. It’s important to recognize that not all the voices in your head- or someone else’s- are from God.

Most of the earlier coronavirus-related prophecies seemed to promise that it would dissipate quickly and that we ought to go about our business as usual. These people have mostly gone quiet, but I still have a screen shot from Twitter of a person who said in early March that the Lord told him “I am removing the threat of this”  and that within a short time the virus will die out. Because of other things the tweeter said, it was obvious to me that the person was speaking from a place of strong political opinions. It echoed words the president was saying at that time, and blamed those who disagreed for sounding a politically motivated false alarm. I was reminded of the story of the prophets consulted by Ahab, who told him what they thought he wanted them to say.  Only Micaiah dared to speak the truth, likely at great risk to himself.

On the other extreme, there are people who see the pandemic as evidence that the end of the world is near. They pull together diverse Scripture passages, often pulling passages written in the apocalyptic genre out of their original context and applying them to our place in space and time. Sometimes they throw in ambiguous prophecies from Nostradamus, or more modern sources written by people who consider themselves to be clairvoyant and/or in possession of a listening bug in God’s throne room.

So who are we to believe? My answer is: likely not any of these people. I can’t remember where I first heard it put this way, but prophecy in the Bible is generally forth-telling, not fortune telling, and I agree. And I think the same criteria ought to be applied to modern prophets as well.

I’m a subscriber to Richard Rohr’s daily meditations, which generally center around a different theme each week. Last week’s theme was “Disciples, Prophets, and Mystics”. Guest writer Albert Nolan wrote, ” Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as people who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by focusing their attention on, and becoming fully aware of, the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading”.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Biblical prophets were men and women so in tune with God that they knew what was likely going to happen. Their minds and hearts were focused on God, not on the kings they may have served, or the societies in which they lived, which gave them the ability to decipher the handwriting on the wall.  Often their prophecies involved speaking truth to power, as Samuel did with Saul, Nathan with David, Elijah with Ahab, and Jeremiah with Jehoiakim. So I’m immediately suspicious of any “prophet” who has an obvious political affiliation. Prophets speak for God, not any human being or group of human beings.

Additionally, prophecies were not necessarily  “fixed points in time” that could not be altered, as Jonah was dismayed to find out. When prophets speak for God, it is because God hopes that people will change their behavior for the better, hopefully in time to mitigate the dire consequences that will otherwise ensue. Those consequences may sometimes come as a result of direct divine intervention, but I think more usually they are natural consequences.

For example, I do not think the current global pandemic is a direct punishment from God, but it may be the result of what some might call karma…a law of cause and effect God built into the fabric of the universe. As I understand it, novel viruses like this one are not the result of spontaneous generation, but of existing animal viruses that mutate enough to jump species. It’s possible that  the virus originated with our poor stewardship of the earth, which resulted in loss of habitat for many animal species, which resulted in animals encroaching into areas occupied by humans, which resulted in close enough contact for the virus to move from animal to human hosts.

I’m skeptical of those who claim to know God well enough to speak for God, especially if I don’t see much in the way of what Jesus called “good fruit” in their lives. I’m skeptical of people who claim to know God well enough to see the future, especially when they have repeatedly made incorrect predictions. I’m especially skeptical when someone claims to have a message from God that will personally benefit the “prophet”. That isn’t how these things usually work.  What I am convinced of is that there is a force for good in the universe, which I know as God, and that force is working to redeem all that is broken and sick and hurting in this world and in me.

“Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand, but I know who holds the future, and I know who holds my hand.” And that’s good news to me!

Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us

Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm is a favorite of mine, and one of the first scripture passages I memorized as a child. I learned it in the King James version, because that’s what everyone used back then, and although I prefer more modern translations for my everyday reading, when I hear the words of Psalm 23 in my head, they’re always in the KJV. It’s a comforting psalm for me, as it is for many, and perhaps there’s a psychological factor in going back to the poetic language I first heard as a child. In times of stress and anxiety, I will go back to this psalm time and time again. These days, I find myself reciting it on at least a daily basis. We are certainly living in “interesting times” with the coronavirus pandemic spreading exponentially and the resultant economic dominoes falling everywhere.

I ventured out to the grocery store today (during off-hours, wearing gloves, wiping down the cart handles with disinfectant wipes, and trying to stay at least six feet away from other customers). I saw for myself the empty shelves that have been endlessly featured on the news. As I understand it, people are buying in large quantities because they fear being up the proverbial creek without toilet paper. And it’s not just paper products and cleaning supplies…the cereal aisle, canned food aisle, and many others were cleaned out too! Everyone seems to be operating from a mentality of scarcity: there won’t be enough, so I’d better get mine while I still can. But the kingdom of God isn’t a zero-sum game. The kingdom of God doesn’t operate from a mentality of scarcity, but one of abundance, as Jesus tried to demonstrate when he fed the multitudes.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters“. The KJV is deceptive here, because “want” here doesn’t mean desire, but refers to having the necessities of life. Desire is never satisfied, and getting everything we want isn’t what God promises, despite the misuse by some of Psalm 37:4, “delight thyself in the Lord and he will give thee the desires of thine heart” Too often the focus is on the second part of the sentence rather than the first. Those who “delight themselves in the Lord” usually find that the desires of their hearts change significantly. They find themselves desiring less for themselves, being more grateful for what they have, and sharing more with others. The problem with a mentality of scarcity is that it encourages hoarding, which initiates a vicious cycle: more hoarding causes more scarcity, which causes more hoarding. As Gandhi observed, “the earth has enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” When the Lord is our shepherd, we will operate from a mentality of abundance, not one of scarcity, and there will be enough for all.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” In this time of disrupted routines and prescribed social distancing, I find myself having more time to spend with God, and finding it more meaningful. Spending time with God calms my fears about the future in a way I can’t explain, but to which I can attest. The problem with following news updates 24/7 is that it amplifies feelings of helplessness. It’s like being in the middle of one of one of those bad dreams where something is chasing you and when you try to run, you are moving in slow motion. Psychologists tell us that whenever so much seems out of our control, we need to concentrate on what we can control. We can’t control the course of this virus, nor its effect on the economy., or what other people do or don’t do. As Tolkien put it,  “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.” That sounds pretty close to what the psalmist is telling us here. Whenever the word “righteousness” is used in the Bible, it almost always has to do with how we treat other people. And that’s something we very much can control. When the Lord is our shepherd, we will treat others the way we would like to be treated: with respect, kindness, and generosity.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Note that God doesn’t promise us we won’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death; he promises us that we don’t have to fear it because he is with us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As I understand it, the rod and staff of ancient shepherds were primarily instruments of guidance and protection, not instruments of punishment. Otherwise why would the psalmist find their presence comforting? The word “comfort” is associated with giving strength. When the Lord is our shepherd, we are strengthened by the assurance that God is present with us, always.

Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” The banquet imagery here repeats the psalmist’s understanding of both the presence of God no matter what we have to face, and the mindset of abundance rather scarcity. I understand the overflowing cup of wine metaphorically rather than literally. Wine is often used in the Bible as a symbol of joy, and I think that is what the psalmist means to convey. The glass isn’t half-full or half-empty. When the Lord is our shepherd, our glass is overflowing.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever‘” I have quite a few friends who are atheist or agnostic. For some of them who grew up hearing stories of an angry god ready to rain down fire and brimstone on those who stick a toe over an arbitrary line, a non theistic worldview comes as a relief. But some of them also have a fear of the nothingness of death, and some of them wrestle with paralyzing existential angst. When God is our shepherd, we don’t have to fear the end of the world as we know it, or even death itself. When God is our shepherd, however long or short our lives may be, we can know meaning and purpose playing our small part in a greater story. When God is our shepherd, we can be assured that death will not be the end of our existence, nor will we remain separated from those we have loved and lost forever.

And that’s good news to me!

 

 

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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. Romans 13:9-10

The Chinese word for “crisis‘ is often referenced by various political figures and motivational speakers as being composed of the symbol for “danger” combined with the symbol for “opportunity”. While that translation may not be factually true in a linguistic sense, it is nevertheless a true observation of reality. And this particular crisis has brought into sharp focus two very different ways of seeing opportunity in the face of danger.

One way of seeing is “every man for himself”. In any crisis, there are some who will look for ways to enrich themselves, such as  this man who went around buying all the hand sanitizer he could find in order to resell it at exorbitant prices. People are hoarding toilet paper to such an extent that stores can’t keep it on shelves, and in some places actual fights have broken out over the last rolls. There are not enough face masks and gloves for medical personnel because those, too, are being stockpiled by fearful or profit-minded individuals. Gun and ammunition sales have also increased dramatically. And then there are those who ignore the advice to stay home whenever possible in an attempt to “flatten the curve“, perhaps because they see themselves as being young and therefore invulnerable.

The other way of seeing is “all for one, and one for all”. In any crisis, there are some who will look for ways to help others. They apply the admonition, “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.” to toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  There are some young, healthy people who will volunteer to go shopping for those who are older or have underlying health conditions which put them more at risk. There are those who will reach out to those who may be feeling lonely or isolated by making phone or video calls. There are those who will use social media not to spread rumors and fear, but accurate information and connection.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is pretty clear which way of seeing is preferred by God. Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the answer given by Moses, the prophets, and Jesus is a resounding yes. Jesus illustrates his understanding of God’s way of seeing in many parables: the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25; the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16; and the rich fool  in Luke 12. He used fruit trees as a metaphor to describe the differences in behavior that arise from the two ways of seeing:  “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.

Paul expounded further on the fruit metaphor in his letter to the Galatians, ” The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. I don’t see these as a laundry list of sins to avoid and virtues to cultivate, but as examples of actions that are the result of two different ways of seeing. All the things on Paul’s bad list are the result of seeing with self-centered eyes. All the things on Paul’s good list are the result of seeing with the eyes of love.

The writer of the letter of 1 John implores his readers to “love one another, because love comes from God” Like Jesus, John sees a clear dividing line between those who demonstrate love and those who demonstrate selfishness. “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love“.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that “with great power comes great responsibility”. Perhaps it is also true that “with great danger comes great opportunity”. The question is: what kind of opportunity will we see? If we see ways to help ourselves at the expense of others, we are seeing with eyes of selfishness. If we see ways to help our fellow humans, we are seeing with eyes of love.

With eyes of love, we will seek to “do no harm” by following “best practices” advice from the medical community, which currently includes social distancing as much as possible. With eyes of love, we will seek to “do good” in whatever ways we can. With eyes of love, we can use this crisis to deepen our relationship with God by spending more time in Bible study and prayer.

May we keep our gaze pointed in the right direction.

 

 

It is Well

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:6-9

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

In the summer of 1873, a Chicago lawyer named Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna planned a trip to Europe to visit family and friends, along with their four young daughters, ages 18 months to 12 years. But as the time for the trip approached, Spafford’s legal practice ran into some difficulties and he didn’t feel he could leave He didn’t want to spoil the vacation for the rest of his family, so he kissed them goodbye and they embarked on the trans-Atlantic journey alone. He planned to join them as soon as he got his business problems straightened out. But their ship collided without another ship off the coast of Newfoundland, and the damage was so severe that it sank in twenty minutes. If you ever saw the movie Titanic you can imagine what it must have been like for Anna and her children to try to hold onto each other as the waves swept over the decks, taking them into the frigid waters. Ten days later, the rescue boats reached land and Anna was able to telegraph her husband that she alone had been rescued. It was with this tragedy in mind that Spafford penned the words “When peace like a river attendeth my way; when sorrows like sea billows roll …Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul.”

To be able to honestly say “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well with my soul” is to experience “the peace that passes all understanding. It is a peace not as the world gives” that comes from God. Usually, when we hear the word “peace” we think of it in negative terms: absence of war, absence of interpersonal conflict, absence of personal trouble and loss. But that isn’t what Paul and Jesus are talking about here.

The Hebrew word translated as peace is “shalom” which is a positive word: it means overall well-being. It carries connotations of prosperity, health, and wholeness.
The Greek word “eirene” in biblical usage is understood in much the same way. When “peace be upon you” is used as a greeting in the Bible, it means “may your life be full of good things”.

But even that doesn’t get the whole meaning of the “peace that transcends all understanding” The peace that God promises is not about the absence of conflict, but about the presence of God. It is not about having a life unmarked by pain, but by having the perspective of God. It is not a Pax Romana, a peace enforced by power and control, but a Pax Christos, a peace that comes by surrendering to God.

In the 23rd Psalm we read “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me It doesn’t say we will be able to avoid the valley of the shadow of death, but that we don’t have to be afraid because God is with us.
It is inevitable that bad things will happen to us. But God promises that we don’t have to go it alone, and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Paul wrote to the Romans, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. ”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There’s a meme of a quote by Frederick Buechner that goes “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” There’s certainly plenty to worry about in today’s world, but there was in Paul’s too. And much of it is completely out of our control, just as it was in Paul’s time. Remember he was in prison awaiting execution when he wrote this letter.

So how do we get to this place of peace that transcends all understanding? Paul advised the Philippians“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”   I think Paul must have been a good psychologist as well as a theologian, because much of what Paul told the Philippians is right in line with what mental health practitioners today will tell you about coping with anxiety.

First, pray. When you are worried about something, it’s usually not helpful to keep it to yourself, so therapists will suggest that you talk with a trusted friend. That’s good advice, but with God you have a trusted friend who is always available. Tell God what you are thinking and how you are feeling. You can tell God anything- he’s heard it all.

It’s okay to tell God what you’d like to have happen but remember the purpose of prayer isn’t to get God to do what you want. The purpose of prayer is to connect with God. I think of it as kind of like the mind melds in Star Trek. When you are connected to God in prayer, you begin to see things from God’s perspective and not just your own. Your wants and desires become synchronized with God’s. Or as Mother Teresa put it, “I used to think prayer changes things but now I know that prayer changes us.”

Second, be thankful. There’s a reason why so many self-help materials recommend keeping a gratitude journal. It’s easy to get caught in a downward spiral of negative emotions when you ruminate about all that is going wrong or could go wrong. Writing down things you are thankful forces you to change your focus. There are some studies that indicate that practicing gratitude actually rewires your brain to be happier by creating new neural pathways and changing your brain chemistry.

Or as the old gospel hymn goes, “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed, When you are discouraged thinking all is lost. Count your many blessings, name them one by one. And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

Third, watch what you feed your mind. Paul goes on to say, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” How much of what you read, watch, listen to, or talk about is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admiral, excellent, praiseworthy? And how much might be best described by using other adjectives? A diet composed of junk food may give you a sugar high, but when it wears off you’re left feeling worse than you were before.

As computer programmers remind us, “garbage in, garbage out”. This applies not only for the kind of entertainment options you consume, but also for how you consume the news.  It’s way too easy to get sucked into a black hole on social media, TV, or radio and consume stuff that is sensationalistic, inflammatory, and distorted, not to mention dangerously polarizing. If what you are reading, watching, or hearing is resulting in increasing feelings of fear and/or anger, you can be sure your amygdala is in control of your mind, not your cerebral cortex, and certainly not God. Why not turn off the TV, log out of Facebook, and practice loving your neighbor?

I’m not saying we should stick our collective heads in the sand. We need to know what is going on in the world in order to make good decisions, and to do what we can to improve it. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth is credited with saying “take your Bible in one hand and your newspaper in the other.” What’s often left out in this quote is “But interpret your newspaper from your Bible.”  Barth goes on to say, “Indeed the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart. Never! There is still someone who reigns, not in Washington or Moscow or Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That is why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, hope for all the nations of the world. God does not let us fall, not a single one of us, and not all of us together. Someone reigns!

Fourth, get busy. Paul tells the Philippians to put into practice what they have learned from him about being a follower of Jesus. St. Francis instructed the first friars, “You only know as much as you do”.  Psychologists tell us that it is easier to act your way into a new way of feeling than to feel your way into a new way of acting. Some even prescribe volunteer work as therapy, for when you help someone else you are also helping yourself. “It’s blessed to be a blessing .”

If we practice what Paul preached to the Philippians, we will become more aware of the presence of God. We will see more clearly from the perspective of God. And in doing so we will begin to realize the promise that God’s “peace which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”We will know that “whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say it is well; it is well with my soul”.

But wait- there’s more! Part of seeing things from God’s perspective means glimpsing a bigger picture than our short-sighted vision allows. Martin Luther King intuited this when he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leads toward justice. The big picture is that God will bring about not only justice, but the final realization of shalom in all its fullness. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but someday earth and heaven will be one, and Jesus is going to put right everything that once went wrong. That promise is found all through the Bible. I like the way  Isaiah envisioned it: No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

There’s a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr which has come to be known as the “Serenity Prayer.” Most people are familiar with the first part of it because of its association with Twelve Step programs, but not the second part, which is overtly Christian, and I think even more meaningful.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen, and peace be with you.

Jesus’s Unanswered Prayer

Third Sunday After Epiphany, Year A

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

As John remembers it, one of the last prayers Jesus prayed as he prepared himself to go to the cross was for the unity of all believers. “My prayer is not for them [the original disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

It didn’t take long for the realization to sink in that we haven’t done so well in that regard. And yes, I say “we”, because I believe the purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind about something, but to change our minds so that they are in tune with God’s. The purpose of prayer is not to get God to do something for us, but for us to become so connected to God that we serve as extensions of God’s will. We become God’s hands, feet, and mouth. So, if Jesus’s prayer for his followers was not answered, it’s not because God wasn’t listening to Jesus. It’s because we’re not listening to God, and as Paul warned the Corinthians, that has serious consequences.

Since the time of Jesus and of Paul, the followers of Jesus have continued to have disagreements about doctrine and practice that have caused Christianity to splinter exponentially into thousands of denominations and sects., many of whom are convinced that their adherents alone hold the keys to the kingdom. In his prayer, Jesus postulated that if his followers were as closely connected to each other as he was to God, others would come to believe that Jesus was who he said he was and that God loved them too. Paul knew that the converse was also true, which is why he warned the squabbling Corinthians that their behavior might result in a loss of credibility. He begged them to be united in mind and purpose so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

That certainly appears to be what has happened, and is still happening. And not only that, terrible- I would say “unChristian”- things have occured due to arguments over doctrine and practice. History is bloody with accounts of people being tortured and killed over theological differences.  Although I do not agree with them, I certainly understand the thinking of my atheist friends who think the world would be better off without theology of any kind. I don’t know if Jesus and/or Paul were “I told you so” types, but as a matter of fact, they did warn us.

What’s the solution? It might help if we who identify ourselves as followers of Christ would get back to basics…that is the message of the cross. The earliest Christian confession seems to have simply been “Jesus is Lord“, although Paul elaborates on what that means a little more in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans.

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, (Corinthians)

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.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,  for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.(Romans)

Note what’s not included. And that would be….most of the stuff that has caused, and is still causing arguments about who’s in and who’s out of the kingdom of God. That goes for both doctrine and practice. As I understand it, the only doctrinal absolute is “Jesus is Lord” and the only practical absolute is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.United in mind and purpose” does not mean it is necessary for all Christians to interpret the Bible in exactly the same way, nor even to adhere to the same set of inflexible rules of behavior. ” It means we are united in a commitment to Jesus as Lord, and it means we are united in the purpose of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Jesus is Lord” that means I am not, and neither is anybody else. I may not have all the correct answers, but neither does any other human being. God alone has all the answers, and Jesus is the only one qualified to judge human motivation and behaviors. Paul advised believers to “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good purpose” Although “fear and trembling” here might be better understood as “respect and awe”, it still carries the meaning that saying “Jesus is Lord” is a serious and personal commitment, one that cannot be taken lightly, nor left to the interpretation of others. Exactly how God “works in you to will and to act on behalf of his good purpose” is different for every person. God didn’t create us to be Cybermen, automatons marching in lockstep and devoid of individuality. Many gifts, one Spirit, but united in one purpose: love.

Jesus is Lord” is not a magical phrase, the spiritual equivalent of saying “open sesame” to open the entrance to the kingdom of God. “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.” In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Jesus elaborates on this idea by saying that “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” Those who commit to Jesus as Lord put their faith into action by continually asking themselves “what would Jesus do” if he lived in my place in space, time, and culture.

I think all who identify as Christians can agree on the core belief “Jesus is Lord” and the core behavior “do unto others as you would have them do unto you“. That’s good news to me, and I think it is the news a broken and hurting world needs to hear.

 

 

 

 

 

God is Still Creating

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. Jeremiah 18:1-11

Some understand the Bible as teaching that God created the world and/or the universe in seven days, and that was it. The heavens and the earth were complete, finished, so God rested from all his labors. There was nothing more that needed to be done.

But I think that kind of thinking has more in common with the watchmaker God of the eighteenth century Deists than it does with the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. There are many other metaphors in the Bible where God is shown to be continuously, actively, intimately involved in shaping the universe into what God wants it to be. Isaiah pictured God as a gardener clearing, digging, planting, and pruning. “I will sing for my beloved, a song of his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it up and cleared the stones and planted the finest vines. He built a watchtower in the middle and dug out a winepress as well. He waited for the vineyard to yield good grapes, but the fruit it produced was sour!” Paul, along with many of the prophets, uses childbirth as a metaphor for the struggle of creation to become all that God intends. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In today’s passage, Jeremiah compares God to a potter at his wheel.

It’s a beautiful, intimate picture. God is not some remote observer, waiting to see what will become of his creation, as the Deists (or Zager and Evans) imagined. God is willing to get God’s hands dirty in shaping reality into God’s intended design. In most of the sermons and songs I’ve heard, the potter metaphor is applied on an individual level. Humans are urged to yield their will to God in order to be part of God’s design. For example, Have Thine Own Way is an older hymn and The Potter’s Hand a more contemporary interpretation of this understanding of the metaphor.

But the passage as written in Jeremiah clearly applies not only to individuals, but to governments and entire nations, and not only to the nation of Israel. Of course, the Hebrew Bible is written from Israel’s point of view, but as I understand it God planned for Israel to be a light to the nations in order that God might bless the rest of the world. For that reason God seems to have held Israel to a higher standard than the surrounding nations. Although the other nations weren’t required to observe the holiness code of Israel, or even to understand God in the same way, God still had certain behavioral expectations of them. Governments are meant to serve their people, not enrich their rulers. Rulers are supposed to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society: the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants. People should be kind, not cruel to others. If governments and people could not follow these simple rules, God would intervene, and it might not be pretty. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

The potter metaphor teaches me that God isn’t passively observing us “from a distance“, but is still actively, creatively involved in bending the arc of the moral universe to specifications. As the children’s song goes, God’s still working on me, and God’s still working on the world as well. And that’s good news to me.

Won’t You Be a Neighbor?

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

This week’s lectionary reading includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I am afraid is so overly familiar that it has lost much of its original impact. As is usual in Jesus’s storytelling, he takes an ordinary tale and adds a startling twist.

The ordinary tale was that of a man who was the victim of a vicious mugging. Then, as now, was distressingly common enough to perhaps not even make the evening news. The character of the injured man is, I think deliberately, not fleshed out. Was he a citizen or an immigrant? Did he take unnecessary risks in traveling alone down a road known to have been frequented by robbers? Was he unarmed, or armed yet overwhelmed by his assailants? Could he have been drinking and thus wasn’t paying sufficient attention to his surroundings? We don’t know his ethnicity or religion, or whether he was rich or poor. None of these things is important to the story. What is important is that he is a person who needed help.

The injured man was ignored by a priest and a Levite, who like the lawyer who asked Jesus the question that occasioned this story, would have been among the educated, religious elite of the day. (Lawyer in this context is an expert in the Torah, a religious academic) The two men who crossed the road to avoid the victim should have known the Torah well enough to be aware that it was their moral responsibility to help the injured man. Why didn’t they? What excuse did they come up with to convince themselves to cross the road and leave the man to die? Like the priest and the Levite, the Bible scholar who questioned Jesus would have known the scriptures well enough to know there was no good justification for their actions. Again, Jesus doesn’t mention anything about what might be going on in their heads, and I think that was also deliberate. Jesus wanted those listening to the story, including us, to fill in the blanks with our own possible excuses for failing to help when it is within our power to do so.

The story takes an unexpected turn when a Samaritan, a despised outsider, stops to help the man and becomes the hero of Jesus’s story. Since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Samaritans had been spurned by the stringent religiously observant because their bloodlines were thought to be impure. Not all the people of Israel were deported to Assyria or Babylon at the time of the exile; some of “the poorer people of the land” were allowed to remain. When the exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they refused help from the locals because it was suspected that they might have intermarried with people who could not trace their ancestry back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Bad feelings between the two groups of God-worshipers intensified in the centuries between the time of Ezra and the time of Jesus. Talk about polarization! Truly, there is “nothing new under the sun“.

When the story ends, Jesus delivers a zinger. The lawyer had begun by asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus changes the focus of the question by asking, “Who acted like a neighbor?” I don’t know if Jesus had ever studied the Socratic method of teaching, but he had it down pat. There was only one answer the lawyer could give: the Samaritan. Luke doesn’t tell us how this very serious student of the Bible reacted, but the inevitable answer must have felt like a punch to the gut. The Samaritans were despised by the lawyer and other “purebloods” for not obeying what they understood to be God’s clear command forbidding intermarriage with non-Israelites lest they fall into idolatry. Yet in this story it is not the priest, not the Levite, not the Torah scholar, but the Samaritan who understands the heart of the Torah best.

Who is my neighbor” is the wrong question. “Who is my neighbor” seeks to limit neighborly behavior to those who somehow deserve it. The question we should be asking ourselves instead is “am I being a neighbor?” If I am being a neighbor, I am not limiting my compassion to those who I think deserve it. If I am being a neighbor, I will try to help whoever I can whenever I have the opportunity to do so. My actions should not be dependent on what is in the heart of the other, but what is in my own heart.

God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God pours out his blessings on all of us freely, without regard for whether we deserve them our not. God showed his great love for us when Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God is continually asking us “Won’t you be my neighbor?” even when we run away from God and behave in very un-neighborly ways to each other. God invites us to “go and do likewise“and be a neighbor to everyone we meet on this road of life.

And that’s good news to me.

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.

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.

 

Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ

 

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests!” Luke 2:13-14

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27

On the second Sunday of Advent we light the candle of peace. It is interesting to note that the assurance of peace is a motif that appeared both at the beginning of Jesus’s earthly life and at the end of it. The angels proclaimed peace when Jesus was born, and Jesus reassured his disciples that his peace would remain with them, even when he was no longer physically present with them. But, as Jesus said, God’s definition of peace means something different than the way we usually understand the meaning of the word. 

The Pax Romana was a period of about two hundred years, during which the known world was relatively free from war, and which enjoyed relative domestic tranquility. This was accomplished through the power of the Roman Empire, which had had no serious international rivals since Augustus defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. Domestic tranquility was assured through a heavy-handed law-and-order approach which brooked no dissent and offenders were severely punished. (Remember “Spartacus“?) 

When Jesus offered his peace to his followers, he wasn’t talking about the absence of conflict. In fact, he predicted that his coming would inevitably cause conflict between citizens of the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. It did, and it still does, because the two realms are incompatible. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Citizens of the Kingdom of God have pledged allegiance to God, not to Caesar.  Citizens of the kingdoms of the world place their trust primarily in Mammon (money; capitalism unrestrained by ethics) or Ares (war; power achieved through force or coercion) 

Citizens of the Kingdom of God know that it is God alone who saves, and that salvation is not always a physical thing. As Victor Frankl expressed it in Man’s Search for Meaning. “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.” Jesus put it this way, “For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?One can be a billionaire and lead an empty, meaningless life. I think that’s one reason behind the substance addiction that seems so widespread in the families of celebrities, who are often very rich. And Alexander the Great reportedly wept after learning there were no more worlds for him to conquer. 

The Pax Romana eventually failed, as did the Pax Britannica centuries later, and as will the Pax Americana sooner or later. Many people have very different ideas about what causes the enforced peace of empires to crumble, but I think it’s because the idea that peace can be accomplished by force is innately wrong. That isn’t how God designed the moral universe to work. Lasting peace will come only through the Pax Christus, the peace of Christ.

So what is “the peace of Christ”? I think a clue can be found in the context of the Johannine passage, which promises the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the presence of God within in us, and it doesn’t depend on external circumstances. It can’t be bought with money, or taken away by external force. As Paul expressed it,Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The peace of Christ is available to all who follow Jesus. When a person begins to do that...not just “believe”, but behave accordingly…they will begin to experience this kind of peace. This peace is not necessarily an absence of trouble or even anxiety, but an assurance that you are in good hands and on the right side of history. If enough people would begin to emulate Jesus in everything they say and do, how different…how peaceful….our world would be!

And that’s good news to me.