Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Wednesday Word: All in the Family

Today we’re considering one thing Jesus said about how his followers were to relate to each other. And we’re exploring this subject to get at a deeper issue: how does Jesus think about the community of his disciples? What kind of community are they? I raise this question because many people in the church want to talk about “community” and “fellowship” and “relationship,” but very few people are actually clear about what they believe Jesus wanted for his followers.

We’re looking at this question of “community” today through the lens of Mark 3, in which we find Jesus at the outset of his ministry in Galilee, surrounded by significant crowds, and encountering a growing hostility from the respected leadership of Israel. (Also, there are some VERY interesting statements in this passage all kinds of things, but I’m going to focus on the community issue… feel free to send in questions though!)

Mark 3:19-35
Then he went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”


1. My brother and my sister and my mother.

The last line of this passage says a great deal. Jesus claims that all those who do the will of God (this would mean becoming a disciple of his!) are his family, and therefore are also family with each other. It is difficult to overstate the radical nature of this claim. In Jesus’ day family was the most important web of relationships anyone had. Extended families shared honor and status (the true currency of the age), they protected each other, they cared for each other in sickness and in old age, they provided a proper burial for one another, and they labored together for the economic welfare of the family. It is hard for us, as modern western individualists, to even conceive of the importance of the family in the ancient Mediterranean world. Loyalty to one’s family was the greatest obligation in the ancient world.

2. Family means solidarity.
The point of Jesus’ disciples being “family” then is not that they had a particular sentimental feeling for one another or that they lived in the same home or that they celebrated holidays together. The point is that they were supposed to live in solidarity. They were to protect and defend one another, they were to share their resources, to ensure everyone was cared for, to show loyalty to one another, and to work together in the “family business,” (helping other people join the family of disciples). Their loyalty to the family of disciples was now their number one priority, and note that it cannot be separated from their loyalty to Jesus. The other disciples (like them or not!) are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters and mothers,” so refusing them would be tantamount to refusing Jesus.

There’s much we could say about this point with regard to the church today. I will simply say this: we don’t even have this as an ideal or goal anymore. Yes, we promote community, but generally that just means social connection, friendship and potentially a little vulnerability in relationship. Furthermore, we usually promote community as something that we do for ourselves. And yes it is needed and beneficial. But that misses the point. Jesus doesn’t call people his family so that they get their needs met; he calls them into his family for the sake of others! At the very least, a step in the right direction would be to reclaim the language of "family" that we find all over the New Testament. Then we'd at least be acknowledging the goal. And my hope would be that if we're bold enough to say "family" about other disciples we might just be convicted enough to start living into it!

3. Jesus doesn’t reject his biological family.
When Jesus calls other people his “brother and sister and mother” he does not mean that he is no longer a member of his biological family. But he is saying that he is not beholden to them. He now has a much larger family who he is obligated to serve and show loyalty to. His biological family in the passage is probably looking out for him (they know he’s had conflicts with authorities and now people from Jerusalem are watching him… not good!) and also making sure he doesn’t hurt the family name. As we know from other scriptures, Jesus’ biological family will wind up being a part of his larger family, but undoubtedly it took them time to accept that Jesus’ loyalty to them was because they “did the will of God,” and not because they were his blood relatives.

Who do you live in solidarity with?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Wednesday Word: What's the good life?

What is the “good life?” What constitutes success in life? These are questions that all of us answer. Some of us answer these questions explicitly, by speaking of the things we most treasure in life, and some of us answer implicitly, by the way we live, or the people we envy or look up to. Our Wednesday Word this week deals with these issues of what constitutes success or blessing in this life. The speaker in this passage is Jesus, and he is speaking to his first disciples after their first foray into his ministry.

Matthew 4:23-5:16 (Kingdom New Testament Translation)
23He went on through the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing every disease and every illness among the people. 24Word about him went out around the whole of Syria. They brought to him all the people tormented with various kinds of diseases and ailments, demon-possessed people, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Ten Towns, Jerusalem, Judaea, and beyond the Jordan.
5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the hillside and sat down. His disciples came to him. 2He took a deep breath, and began his teaching:

3“Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.
4“Blessings on the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
5“Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
6“Blessings on people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
7“Blessings on the merciful! You’ll receive mercy yourselves.
8“Blessings on the pure in heart! You will see God.
9“Blessings on the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.
10“Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.

11“Blessings on you, when people slander you and persecute you, and say all kinds of wicked things about you falsely because of me! 12Celebrate and rejoice: there’s a great reward for you in heaven. That’s how they persecuted the prophets who went before you.

13“You’re the salt of the earth! But if the salt becomes tasteless, how is it going to get salty again? It’s no good for anything. You might as well throw it out and walk all over it. 14“You’re the light of the world! A city can’t be hidden if it’s on top of a hill. 15People don’t light a lamp and put it under a bucket; they put it on a lampstand. Then it gives light to everybody in the house. 16That’s how you must shine your light in front of people! Then they will see what wonderful things you do, and they’ll give glory to your father in heaven.


1. Life isn’t so easy for the disciples.
The passage above immediately follows Jesus calling his first disciples to follow him. Try and put yourself in their shoes for minute. You had a somewhat stable and comfortable life fishing for a living with your family. You weren’t rich, but you had a bed, and a roof and food and a reasonably normal social circle, and all that good stuff. Now you are on a spontaneous road trip in ancient Galilee: less food, some nights without a roof, potentially on the wrong side of civil authorities, and interacting with people with some pretty significant issues (demons, diseases, and destitution). At this point, you might wonder if you made the wrong decision to get out of that boat and follow this Jesus guy. You might think if he were really the Messiah things would be easier, you’d feel a little more “blessed,” your side would be winning, and life would be full of happiness and celebration and success and the like. You might think: this isn't the good life. Now, keeping the above train of thought in mind, Jesus turns to speak to the disciples and takes on the reality of their hardships… 

2. The "good life" can only be determined by how the story ends.
In order to understand Jesus’ words in 5:3-12 (the Beatitudes) we must ask what Jesus considers the greatest blessing to be. If we look at 5:3 and 5:10, the “blessings” that book-end this little section, we discover an answer: the greatest blessing is to participate in the “kingdom of heaven” (or kingdom of God). As a reminder, the kingdom of heaven does not mean “going to heaven” when we die. It means being a part of God’s people who live under his rule now and who will be resurrected when God steps definitively into history judge and renew the world. In Jesus’ opinion, this blessing is so great and so valuable that all the things that are considered “blessed” in the eyes of most people (i.e. being rich, powerful, happy, comfortable, dominating others, getting your way) are essentially rendered worthless when compared to the kingdom. In other words, it’s far better to be on the team that appears to be losing at the moment (and thus suffering) but will ultimately win the championship, than being on the team that appears to be winning but whose defeat is ultimately certain (even though they have it good now). The Beatitudes then are Jesus’ recognition of the struggle his disciples have stepped into, and his reminder to them that their sacrifice is worth the reward.

3. Sharing in Jesus’ mission means sharing in his struggle.
The goal of a disciple is not to make oneself fit the description of all of the Beatitudes. The goal is to imitate Jesus in being “salt” and “light.” However, if we are seeking to imitate Jesus with all our heart and to carry out his mission we will find ourselves conforming to Jesus’ words. We’ll find ourselves mourning the state of our world. We’ll get less comfortable with the standard injustices that surround us. We’ll find ourselves showing mercy, and trying to make peace, and throwing our weight around less, and perhaps even looked down upon or scorned for all these things. The condition of the “blessed” people in the Beatitudes is the condition of people who are sharing Jesus’ mission, because sharing in Jesus’ mission means sharing in his struggle. Conversely, if we find ourselves content with the world around us, confident in our own power, believing that we deserve God’s love and gifts, and not troubled by the pain of our neighbors then we are probably not sharing in Jesus’ mission. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Wednesday Word: Before the Valentines and Ashes

Happy Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday faithful readers! Today we’re looking at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew, and picking up immediately following Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and his period of temptation in the wilderness… I am aware that today folks usually blog about love or Ash Wednesday, but I'm going to do something a little different here. I figure that since the mission of Jesus revealed the content of God's love, and since that mission gives hope and direction to our short lives (a la Ash Wednesday) it's probably okay to blog about it today!

Matthew 4:12-25
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.


1. Go, Reveal, Invite

This story provides us with the paradigm for Jesus’ ministry: he goes to a place (here he moves to Capernaum), he reveals the Kingdom of God, and then he invites people to join the community that is centered on the Kingdom. Then of course the process repeats! And notice that as soon as the community grows, it’s “new members” (i.e. the disciples) join into the work of going and revealing and inviting. Now, if this story does present a paradigm for disciples of Jesus, and if we claim to be disciples of Jesus, it begs a question: who are we going to? This is a vital question for us to answer if we are to be faithful to our calling. Can you articulate who you are going to? If not, now is a great time to start working on an answer to that question!

2.  What’s the job of a disciple anyway? 
It’s easy to get tripped up on this “disciple” thing. Is that a follower? A believer? Something else? What makes someone a “disciple?” Here’s a simple way to think about it: a disciple is someone trying to imitate the master. If the disciple is successful, he or she will look like/be like the master, and can help other people imitate the master as well (as in, make new disciples). So being a disciple isn’t just doing something, nor is it just believing something, although it involves both of those. Rather, it is willing something. To be a disciple is to will (to strive, seek, etc.) to become like the master. Note here also that the call of the disciples is linked to the Kingdom of God. Jesus announces the Kingdom and lives a life completely aligned to the Kingdom. Therefore his disciples are learning to align themselves to the Kingdom too… which will in turn allow them to do that “go, reveal, invite” thing we discussed above. To align others to the kingdom is to “fish for people.”

No romantic images please!
Sorry for bursting the Valentine’s Day bubble here, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of romanticizing the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Please note that this whole story begins with the arrest of John the Baptist. Remember, John was the guy who basically handed over the baton to Jesus. Not good! Most of us would not be super excited about taking a new job when the last guy got arrested for doing his job so well. And it seems pretty reasonable to believe that in fact Jesus is moving to Capernaum (which is in the far north of Galilee) in this story to get some breathing room from Herod Antipas, the ruler who arrested and eventually killed John.

The point is that the ministry of Jesus was difficult and dangerous from the very beginning. His work began in the shadow of oppression and in the face of opposition, and his call from the start was a call to face real troubles. Jesus was not a popular guy who blazed a path of glory and then had a bad week in Jerusalem. His ministry was filled with conflict from day one. And here’s why that matters to us: starting new things and trying to “go, reveal and invite” is really hard work. Sometimes we think that because it’s hard, because there’s conflict or danger or trouble that we’re doing something wrong. But if we’re trying to do Jesus’ work we should know that the hardship comes with the territory. So if you’re in this boat, be encouraged today, because you have the best possible company (Jesus!). If it’s an easy and trouble-free journey then it’s not a journey with the Master.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Wednesday Word: Seeds and Weeds

For today’s Wednesday Word we’re looking at the Parable of the Sower, which is one of Jesus’ most well known parables… enjoy!

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


1. The “word of the Kingdom”

In 13:19 Jesus explains that the “seed” which the sower is sowing is the “word of the kingdom.” So what does that mean? What is the word of the kingdom? Most likely this is a reference to the proclamation that Matthew records at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Mt. 4:17). In other words, God’s reign, his power, his justice and his redeeming love (that which the faithful in Israel have been waiting for) are being newly manifested in the world in powerful ways and God’s kingship over the earth is on its way to being fully realized The point is, what Jesus is preaching is not about how to be a good person or how to go to heaven when you die or about having the right interior faith and beliefs. Jesus is preaching about what God was doing in the world right at that moment.

2. Responses
Because Jesus was preaching about God’s activity in the world, he wasn’t just looking for people to believe him. Of course belief was necessary, but it wasn’t sufficient. Jesus was looking for people who would both believe his word and then put it to work. Jesus expected that people who really understood the word of the kingdom to participate in the work of the kingdom. Note that nobody is commended in this parable for simply believing or accepting the word, just as no soil is commended for simply receiving the seed. If the seed doesn’t grow and bear fruit then the project fails!

3. Weed Control
It is my belief that the vast majority of American Christians fall into the third category in Jesus’ parable: the seeds that fell among thorns. The hard reality is that given the amount of self-professing Christians in our nation we have an embarrassingly small amount of kingdom fruit. It is well documented that our lifestyles are only marginally different than our non-Christian neighbors, and the declining attendance and membership in churches bears witness to this “fruit problem.” The purpose of this blog entry however is not to criticize, but to offer a very brief analysis of one of our many thorns.

While materialism is (I believe) the greatest threat to the work of the kingdom in our culture, I have found that it is not the obstacle that holds back many sincere Christians from bearing fruit. I believe busyness ("the cares of the world") is the thorn-bush that keeps the majority of us from bearing fruit. I never had to convince anyone in the church that seeking money before God was a sin. But when it came to our time, and how it was spent, there were a million justifications offered as to why there was time for other things but not for God. There were workouts, extra hours at work voluntarily taken, kids sports, music lessons, fishing, golfing, gaming, and of course tv time. None of those things are bad, but when you are telling me you can’t read scripture or pray or get to know your neighbors or serve once a month in the community then we’ve got a big problem. The truth is that there was plenty of time, but spiritual growth and mission were not priorities.

Time is something all of us, myself included, would do well to track closely. In fact, we should track it closer than our money, as it is the most valuable thing apart from God’s love and grace that we possess. So here’s a challenge for you: track all your time use for one week. Or if you really want to step up, track it for a month. Just make a daily log; it doesn’t need to be complicated. Then, break down the numbers, and see how your priorities look according to the time you give them. And make sure to note how much time you spend on your phone and in front of the tv! There’s no golden number we’re looking for, and we don’t want to be legalistic, but the picture you get should tell you something about how much you are putting into growing that kingdom seed you’ve been given.       

Monday, February 5, 2018

Goodbye Art

Art and I ready to head out a few months back.
Last Thursday morning I got word that my friend and Good Samaritan Cycling Team volunteer Art Baker died. While Art had some significant health issues it was a not a phone call I was expecting in the least, and, if you've gotten those sorts of calls before, it takes a few minutes before the reality of it even really hits you.

Art loved Jesus and he loved people. He had a big heart, and he was one of the humblest men I've ever met. Art was always willing to help you if it was at all possible, and Art was one of the few people who I've seen treat desperately poor and homeless people as if they were his friends and family, in a totally natural way. The way he interacted with and spoke of the people who we served through GSCT was truly beautiful; it was as if Art had known them his whole life. Watching him serve and love them was a blessing to me. 

Art was a fighter. During the years I knew him he fought desperately against alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and a host of issues from his past. When I worked at EUMC (where he was a member and volunteer) he and I would drink coffee and talk about God and life and grief, and I watched him fight day after day with all his might to keep moving forward.

My deepest hope for Art was for him to conquer those demons in this life, and to live in the freedom God desired for him. He didn't quite make it there. But I'm proud of Art. You see, as a distance runner, I know that in some runs and races you don't get to cross the line triumphantly. In some races things don't go according to plan: you get hurt, dehydrated, demoralized, the weather gets you, you're sick... many things can go wrong. In these moments the goal is not a triumphant sprint to the line and a victory lap, but simply to limp to the finish line.

Life as a disciple of Jesus, in this regard, is often similar to running. As Debra Hirsch says, many of us will limp into heaven. In this life we will carry wounds, scars, trauma, flaws, and God knows what else all the way to the end. The key then is not about how fast we run or how pretty our stride is. The key is to simply keep moving- keep limping- until we cross that line.

Art Baker never stopped, and I'm proud and I'm thankful I got to share some of my race with him.

Philippians 3:12-14
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Until that Day, goodbye Art, you will be dearly missed!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Acts 2: Gospel Complications

Have you every heard a “gospel presentation?”

I’ve heard “the gospel” presented numerous times in my life by all kinds of people: pastors, teachers, friends, missionaries, peers… all kinds of people. The vast majority of these presentations- if we’re honest- are all pretty complicated. Those of us who were raised Christians or have lived in the bible belt think of them as simple, but only because they’re so familiar to us. The usual gospel presentation goes something like this:

- God created the world perfect.
- People rebelled and sin entered the world, messed it up, and now people had to die.
- Not only did they have to die, but they’d be judged by God and if nothing was done with their sin  they’d be consigned to hell for eternity.
- Everyone sins, so you, listener, are unfortunately in this boat.
- But God loved people, so he sent his son Jesus in the flesh to die for the sins of the world.
- Because Jesus’ death pays the penalty for sin he can forgive all those who put their trust or belief or faith in him.
- If you do that then you can escape hell/judgement and you’ll go to heaven when you die.
- Sometimes we then end this with more about church, holy spirit, the bible, etc. depending on the background of the person presenting.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I think this standard presentation of the gospel misses the mark on many counts, and is not actually found presented in this manner in scripture. But I’m not going to go into that in this blog. I just want to point out how complex this formula is. I mean, if you don’t believe or have questions about or don’t understand any of the planks in this long argument then you have a problem. This sort of presentation worked when basically everyone believed in a God who created the world perfectly and in heaven and hell. But frankly, in the eyes of a typical, modern, nonChristian this presentation is full of questionable ideas and confusing theological assumptions, such as:

God made the world perfect? Isn’t there very substantial evidence for death preceding human life?
What about evolution?
If God loves people so much why is there hell in the first place? What is hell and how do you know about it?
What does it mean that God sent his son (God incarnate?) to earth? How many gods are there or forms of God? How can God also be a person?
How could Jesus’ death deal with my sins?
If God’s trying to fix things what about the created world? What is heaven, anyway?

The point here isn’t that there aren’t good answers to these questions or that these discussions would not be valuable. They are immensely valuable! The point is that this is super complicated. Now, with that in mind, I want us to compare the end of the Apostle Peter’s speech after Pentecost in Acts 2 and his call for faith. Note that in this speech Peter has explained where the Holy Spirit came from, and that Jesus was resurrected… and that brings us to his punchline- his “gospel presentation”:

Acts 2:32-36
32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear… 36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

So let’s sum this up… Jesus was resurrected, so he’s the King. That’s pretty simple.

Does it mean that it’s an easy message for moderns to accept? Heavens no. But, it doesn’t ask them to believe seven or eight debated theological points up front; it only asks for faith in two, the resurrection and the lordship of Jesus. Along those lines, the appropriate response to this “presentation” is allegiance (i.e. surrender) and not simply belief.

Are there more points that I make when I share what I believe with others? Absolutely. And I think that all valid faith sharing must be contextualized to the people who we’re sharing with. My point is simply to make us think about this issue, and to remind us that what is often spoken about as “THE GOSPEL” isn’t what we find on the lips of the first disciples.

Baby Steps into Mission: Presence, Part 2

Faithful readers, I apologize for the long delay in getting this blog up. Between summer vacation, official cross country practices starting...