Sunday, November 28, 2010

Confonting the god-phantasm

Says Peter to Cornelius:
And we saw it, saw it all, everything he did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem where they killed him, hung him from a cross.  But in three days God had him up, alive and out where he could be seen. Not everyone saw him-- he wasn't put on public display.  Witnesses had been carefully handpicked by God beforehand-- us!  We were the ones, there to eat and drink with him after he came back from the dead.  He commissioned us to announce this to the public, to bear solemn witness that he is in fact the One whom God destined as Judge of the living and the dead.  Acts 10:39-43, The Message
This is part of a message that Peter brings to Cornelius and his family, the first Gentile believers. A shocker to Peter and the Jews present, who had assumed up to this point that the Gospel was for Israel exclusively.

But the question is, why did Jesus choose a certain few, the apostles, to eat and drink with, to do the things of everyday life with, having risen from the dead?   The risen Jesus obviously desires that the message of his Kingship, his conquering of sin and death, go throughout Galilee and Samaria and Judea and to all the nations, so why not appear intentionally to as many people as possible? Why just the few "apostles?"

It occurs to me that the "ends of the earth" to which his disciples are to take the Gospel includes the far reaches of time- the future.  So we're dealing with a message that is passed on, person to person, for thousands of years.  Long after Jesus has ascended and awaits his return, long after the apostles's bodies have turned into dust.  These future disciples (us) are going to be prone to a certain type of false thinking.  It goes something like this: people of Jesus' day were special because they had him walking and talking right in front of them. So of course their faith was stronger, better, different, more effective.  In fact, maybe we shouldn't really be that interested in Jesus at all, because he's so far in the past. Maybe we're supposed to look for a newer, more current version of God to worship, to follow.

Cornelius and the gentiles would've been faced with a similar issue: we're not "chosen." We're not God's special people, so we need to go get circumcised, start observing a bunch of dietary rules...or maybe we're outside the circle altogether and the Gospel isn't for us.

We seem to struggle with this. We seem to think that our faith is somehow different than those folks because Jesus was right around the corner from them. They actually saw Jesus. We don't, so we have to follow some invisible god-phantasm that we're left to imagine, since he's not visible.  And of course he ends up looking like whatever we want him to.

By including this point in Peter's message to the first Gentile disciples, Luke(the writer) is letting us know that we're no different than the people of Jesus' day, even people who saw him.  That Jesus is just as "present" with us, and in the exact same way, that he was in the world of the 1st century.  Meaning he's alive and reigning.  No need to invent a new faith, or recast it in the image of some other man, like the local god-guy who makes a lot of noise about visions and voices.  Jesus' life is still as relevant and relatable as...your children's lives, your spouse's, you're best friend's. He's here, he's alive, he's destroyed the power of sin and death, and he's knowable. Still.  Look nowhere else. Lord, one faith, one baptism...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

J. Lee Grady Gets Hungry For Jesus Content

There's hope for Charisma Magazine yet! From a recent J. Lee Grady article:
Many charismatics have developed the attitude that a simple focus on Christ isn’t enough. We’d rather go to a “prophetic encounter” to hear what Obama’s chances are in 2012, or experience some exotic spiritual manifestation (gold dust, gems falling out of the ceiling), or ask Rev. Flash-in-the-Pan to pray for us for the sixteenth time so we can receive yet another “special anointing” that we will probably never use.
In the midst of all this charismatic gobbledygook, where is Jesus? Am I the only one out there who is weary of this distraction?
No Lee, you're not. Thanks for this long-needed article.  The only problem is that he suggests Jesus-content is "back to the basics." Hopefully, we're recognizing that he's that, and everything else as well...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some Poetry

Found this fantastic poem at Faith, Fiction, Friends:

The Stoning of St. Stephen

He barely noticed the first,
hitting his left shoulder
at the arm,
face, shining.

He looks upward as the second
pointed, sharp, tears skin
on his neck,
voice, calling.

The third and fourth together
herald the rock torrent
piercing, tearing, ripping,
wind, rushing.

The fourteenth aimed precisely
smashes the right side of his face, 
absorbed in blood and light,
body, falling.

He murmurs forgiveness 
through broken teeth,
his spirit soaring into
sky, darkening.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

What's the deal with Jesus' baptism? I've never really heard much on why this actually happened, perhaps cause I haven't looked for it. But it doesn't seem to be something people talk about frequently, other than to say it happened.  But we're told about it in three of four gospels, and in the fourth, John, we're told a bunch about the Baptizer himself, if not the explicit news of Jesus being baptized. Sooo, evidently something important happened there. Not to mention we're told that the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended on him, and the audible voice of God drew serious attention to the man being baptized. Attention! All eyes on Jesus! This is my beloved Son!

I'm going to try to make some sense of this, though I don't pretend that this is all why it happened. Beyond having attention drawn to him by supernatural events, an obvious, unmistakable fact that is not dependent on cultural context(I mean, a time traveller from a completely unevangelized culture would find that interesting), we also have John baptizing him. Now, if I were to read this without any sort of context or knowledge of Hebrew history, I would say that John's baptism signifies a sort of “group effort.” I would say that God has lots of folks walking around, agents if you will, and there happen to be two of them here doing...holy things. Like God's people do. You know, baptizing, wearing robes, saying “thee” and “thou” a lot, that kind of stuff. Jesus and John were some real good guys. And that's what history is- some bad people, some good ones, and you choose whether you wanna be good or bad, and hopefully you'll choose right. Or something wretched like that.

Two things. First, John says what's obvious to us, but not perhaps to the people watching, or someone who's never heard of Jesus: “You're better than me. I shouldn't be baptizing you, you should be baptizing me. I'm not worthy of you.”

Second, the people watching are Jews, temple-going, Torah-reading, tradition-saturated, children of Abraham. Of their history, practice, heritage, and corporate dealings with God, they are richly aware. John is one of these people God sends, one of these prophets that is given the mantle of speaking for God. To people. Of acting and speaking in such a way that displays God's opinions, his plans, his character, his judgments, etc. These are God's mouthpieces to Israel. John, a full-on, prophet in the style of the good old days and the mold of Elijah is here to preach repentance, baptize, and perhaps do some of what prophets do best: call attention to sin.

So we have a man who is dubbed(later) the “greatest man born of women” by Jesus. In his time the greatest prophet, the last Old Covenant “mouthpiece” the one who has, evidently, the “spirit of Elijah,” which I take to mean something like, “he's cut from the same cloth” or “he has a calling that is as great or greater than Elijah's.” It's a superlative, which would be something like saying “so-and-so is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.” And here he is baptizing Jesus. Calling himself unworthy to tie Jesus' shoes.

What I think God intends to happen in the minds of Jewish onlookers, and by extension in us who are reading about it, is something like this: “Our Fathers, our Law, our sacrifices, our prophets, our entire testimony of God's work among us has come down to this: Jesus. Here is John baptizing him- it's as if the entire canon of saints from Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, all are being drawn towards the baptized one as iron filings are to a magnet. The entire divine revelation up to this point is commending Jesus as superior than itself, more worthy, a greater King, Prophet, Judge, Priest, Law, and Temple, through the Baptist. Indeed the Baptist himself is greater than everyone up to this point for this reason-- he's the one who gets to step aside and “diminish” in Jesus' presence, having prepared the way for him and made his path straight. The baptism of John is God's way of witnessing to Jews that the mantle of all that has happened up to now is being placed on Jesus' shoulders. Through John, the entire Old Testament is baptizing Jesus.

This baptism is to “fulfill all righteousness(Matt 3:15).” That is: 1) inaugurate Jesus' earthly ministry which will lead to the Cross and through it the Resurrection(which is his righteousness), and 2) give this whole event a wide “viewership,” a kick-off that will get people's attention, so that hopefully, they'll still be paying attention when he gets crucified and they'll first “believe” and then “abide”(which is the the Church's righteousness). God wants the watching Jews to get this, that Jesus is the one for whom the Old Covenant has been “preparing the way.” He wants these people to continue to read their Bibles, the Law and the Prophets. And he wants them to read it correctly. He wants the history of the Kingdom of God- the Hebrew nation- to be understood as having one purpose- to make a straight path for Jesus. So that when Jesus does what he's about to do, namely gets crucified, they won't be stumbling around in the dark trying to figure out how to reconcile this supposed “son of God” with all that they already know. They'll see the Cross to which his ministry led as the centerpiece of their own history, and they'll have new prophets explaining to them(with words and actions, as prophets always do) “all that the (old) prophets have spoken.”

Of course a whole bunch of them don't listen anyway. But if we listen, we can probably be rooted in a historic salvation rather than just a theoretical one. After all, that's why this whole thing took place.

To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

C.S. Lewis on Forgiveness

Glad to see this C.S. Lewis passage over at Trevin Wax's page. I read this passage awhile back and it really reoriented my thinking about sin:
There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.”But excusing says “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites....
Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it. 

There's much more at his blog.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

WWJD? sung by Brad Yoder

Discovered this song this weekend, written and sung by the incomparable Brad Yoder:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

If We Don't Find The Gospel Interesting...'s not the Gospel's fault.  Jesus is certainly enough to make short work of the relentless temptation to make various self-helpisms, moral standards, and abstract God-concepts the object of our attention.  Honestly, I don't see what is so cool about a bunch of mental gymnastics that are supposed to lead to self-improvement.  The only good thing they seem to do is show me that I'm really inadequate, and cause me to find someone else's performance sufficiently fascinating. That is if I'm on my toes and recognize it for what it is. Now this, for instance, is fasincating:
It has been testified somewhere, "What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet."  Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus,  crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death  for everyone.[Heb 2:6-8]
The submission of Jewish Scripture(and everything else!) to Jesus, the humanity of Jesus and his kinship with us through the experience of death. He's accessible- there's no way to mistake Jesus for some vague cloud of God-ness or some such.  Which is essentially what's behind all this "taking advantage of the grace of God," or whatever it is that people warn about when you preach the Gospel like it matters.  Remember the snakes in the wilderness? The people complained against the Lord, and so he sent fiery snakes to bite them and kill them. And then God said to Moses: 
"Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live."[Num 21:8]
When he sees it, he shall live. Behold! That's really all it takes to be fascinated by it.  Yep, if that doesn't do the trick, well that's just a sign of my screwed up priorities, not of the Gospel's weakness.  Just remember this- Jesus found the Gospel fascinating:
And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:25-27] 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Humanity of the Truth

First of all, go and read this.

This is what stories do: bring humanity to the Truth.  Because people who think they know the truth, but don't hear of it in terms of happenings, are incapable of seeing.

Jesus happened.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Search for Significance?

This election day, my vote is going to Mark Galli, for this excellent article.  From Insignificant is Beautiful:
I have a good friend who has been caring for his elderly mother. She sits in a wheel chair, complains a lot, and requires constant attention — to the point of cleaning her up after regular bouts of diarrhea. What my friend and his wife are doing is heroic, virtue with a capital V. But it is hard to see how it is "world changing" as we normally think about such things. Such an act doesn't even change the mother's life, only makes it less miserable. It's not even "significant," by our usual calculation, but "merely" an act of love.
When we think of making a difference, we think about making the world a better place for the next generation, not taking care of people who have no future....As usual, Jesus turns this whole conversation on its head....His is an ethic that glorifies giving a mere cup of water to a thirsty soul (Matt. 10:42), praises the relatively worthless donation of an indigent widow (Mark 12:41-44), visits those who have disappeared from history, and honors the one who changes the diapers of the incontinent. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Cocoon Reality: I'm Awesome

Michael Horton relates this one in an interview with Christianity Today(via Mockingbird blog):
Someone asked Martin Luther what we contribute to salvation, and he said, 'Sin and resistance!'
I also pretty much concur with Jeff Weddle on this one:
Christians are not very well-informed on their church history, which is why we keep falling into the same stupid beliefs and heresies.
And they are stupid.  I might be the culprit[hand raised].  Every once in a while something I once said to someone comes to mind and cringe, thinking "I said that?"  But then, we're all growing into maturity I suppose, not yet mature. Michael Spencer once related how he would revisit recordings of his old sermons, lamenting that sometimes, he put his head in his hands. 

Anyway, here's one particular stupid belief that has been rearing it's ugly head lately:  I'm awesome, and that's why I'm so committed to _________.

In reality, we stink at ________, and it's an amazing mercy of God that he hasn't stripped it away from us altogether.  Jesus did it much better, and it really is more satisfying to look at his achievement of  _________ than anyone else's.  But then, if you're grid for judging something's quality is you're own feelings, or what you've experienced, or what you see around you, instead of the holiness of Jesus, then naturally you'll spend more time gazing at your own achievements.  Someone said that anytime we use Scripture to justify ourselves instead of convict ourselves and display Jesus as better, than we're misusing it.  Ditto for the Holy Spirit.   Compare the "I'm awesome" message to John the Baptist(who was decidedly more awesome than you) "He must increase, but I must decrease." 

On that note, the reason I'm posting today is because I was able to be part of a phenomenal gathering  of believers yesterday in which a very normal guy sat with a group of people and, without pretending to be awesome or creating glitz and fanfare, taught about Jesus from the Scriptures.  He used the book of Jonah.  It was an experience unlike I've had in awhile, sadly, (and I blame at least half of that on my own lack of intentionality); the Holy Spirit spoke very clearly to me as he hasn't in a long time.   What did he say? Well, the same general thing as he always does- in so many words "You're not awesome, Jesus is."  I've realized, I'm starving for this.  And despite the fact that I live in a town where there are approximately 8 zillion churches(seriously, I hear about a new church plant almost every week), most of them church plants of youngish people with some kinda ambition, often stated as such, to "be a different kind of church,"(a silly pursuit I'm now convinced), despite this, the jury's still out on whether Jesus is a major figure in the minds of these zealous folks.  In fact, my default judgment is basically that, until proven otherwise, churches/Christians I run into are probably in the "I'm awesome" category, rather than the "I must decrease, He must increase" category.  Just experience speaking.

Anyway, back to this gentleman who was teaching Jesus from Jonah.  
 Something he said whirled around in my mind for the remainder of the day after he said it.  Paraphrasing: "We're all trying to create this cocoon of reality around us in which we are able to say 'God's not here.'  There's just so much we wouldn't say or do if Jesus was sitting right next to us."  I can't tell you how much this statement is borne out by my experience.  

Jonah. Running from God's call, refusing to obey, assuming his fear and hatred for Ninevites are qualities more suited to judging right than the command of a holy God.  Hoping that God will simply find someone else.  That's us.  "God's not here," is the ultimate mantra of those who are convinced they're awesome.  And why would we want him here? We're awesome, that's all that's necessary.  Jesus, on the other hand, points the finger at people again and again and displays to them why they are not awesome.  And why he has come, which is to be awesome for us.  In light of Jonah, he comes to be the truer and better minister of Yahweh to the lost, brutal, pagans(us).  

Jonah and I will occupy the same space in the history books.  Jesus isn't remaking me in his image so I can gaze on myself.  He's doing it so I can gaze upon him.