Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Graceless Faith

In reading the New Testament it’s easy to be cynical with regard to the Pharisees and Sadducees, to think that they liked being at the center of anything religious, that they were nothing but a bunch of hypocrites.  Well, OK, C’mon, we’re all hypocrites.  None of us live the lives we confess to.  That doesn’t mean that we aren’t trying, but we’ve set a pretty high bar and we fall short constantly.  That doesn’t mean we’re not sincere.  Most of the Pharisees and Sadducees were sincerely religious and sincerely wanted to follow God.  They were people of faith.  

Wait a minute, they were people of faith?  I thought they were caught up in a legalistic religion in which they thought they had to earn their way into heaven through good works rather than through faith.  That they depended on following the Law rather than simply having faith.  Well, first of all, the most recent biblical scholarship calls into question that characterization of 1st century Judaism as a legalistic, works-oriented religion void of faith.  When we look at not only the Old Testament but also the actual practice of 1st century Jews we see that it is less a characterization than a caricature.  The Jews understood that they were in covenant with God not because they earned it but because God, acting on his own, chose their forefather Abram.  But that’s another discussion for another time.  For now, let’s accept that legalism can be found in all religions, Judaism and Christianity included.  

Now, legalism can be faithless, but the problem with legalism is not that it’s a denial of faith—even the most legalistic of religions, whether Jewish legalism or Christian legalism, asserts the need for a person to have faith in God.  The problem with legalism is its denial of grace.  Legalism says you have to earn God’s favor; grace says you’ve already got it.  Legalism views God a tyrant who is easily ticked-off if his laws are not followed.  Grace views God as a parent who loves unconditionally and bestows his favor upon his children because that’s his nature.  

It would disturb me greatly to find that my children think they have to earn my love, that they have to earn my goodwill towards them.  The fact is that  before they were born, I loved them, and there is nothing that they can do that can change that.  Nothing.  

If you don’t get anything else out of this, I want you to get this: there is nothing you can do that will cause God to love you any less than he already does.  You are completely loved, completely accepted, completely embraced right here, right now.  Period.  Because that’s who God is.  God loved you so much that he died for you.  That says it all right there.  

The other side of it is that there is nothing you can do that can cause God to love you any more than he already does.  That’s the part of grace that may be hard for some people to believe.  Surely God is impressed with my years of service, of teaching Sunday School, of reading my Bible every day, of witnessing to my co-workers, of my condemning the immorality in society!  Surely these things count for something!  Surely this makes God more pleased with me than if I weren’t doing these things.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?  But don’t you see how that is grace-less as well, and legalistic, thinking there is something you can do that can cause God to love you more than he already does, that there is something you can do that can earn more of God’s pleasure?  

But watch, because here’s the danger: if you accept that God is impressed with your years of service, of teaching Sunday School, reading your Bible every day, witnessing to your co-workers, condemning  the immorality in society, that doing these things makes God more pleased than if you weren’t doing these things, then it’s just a small step to thinking that God is more pleased with you doing these things than he is with others who don’t do them.  That you have a higher standing with God than those who don’t serve God, who won’t teach Sunday School, who don’t read their Bibles every day, who won’t witness to their co-workers, who won’t condemn the immorality in society.

If you won’t accept this aspect of God’s grace, then you won’t show much grace to others.  And graceless faith makes for mean religion.  See, the problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees wasn’t that they practiced a faithless religion, but that they practiced a graceless religion—they didn’t accept God’s grace, and they didn’t show grace toward others. 
And, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees in their day, a person who doesn’t show grace is mean.   

They may not realize it, and it may not even look like it, but they are and it is.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A New Kind of King

“Jesus is King.”  That’s not a phrase we are used to, though few would disagree with the statement.  “Jesus is Lord” is more familiar.  More familiar still is “Jesus Christ.”  But it’s easy to miss the fact that “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus Christ” are both saying the same thing: Jesus is King.
It’s easy to miss that, given the “Lord” has come to mean “divine” and Christ has essentially become Jesus’ surname, like Jones or Smith.  But in Jesus’ day, no one missed the meaning of these two words.  The first, “Jesus is Lord,” was a statement explicitly countering the declaration used throughout the Roman empire that “Caesar is Lord.”  Though it did have connotations of divinity as the Roman emperors began to claim divine aspects, it was mainly an assertion of kingly dominion, especially in the conquered territories.  It was a demand for obeisance, subservience, and obedience.
Similarly, “Christ” is often taken by Christians as referring to Jesus’ divine nature, sometimes in contrast to his “human” name Jesus.  But “Christ” is simply the Greek word for the Hebrew word “messiah,” which means “anointed one.”  Though the Jews in Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah, not one expected that he would be divine.  They weren’t looking for a god, they were looking for a human king who would lead them to independence from Rome and establish God’s kingdom.  To call Jesus the messiah—or the Christ—was to declare that he was king.  He was the one Israel had been waiting for, and it was to him, not Caesar, that allegiance, loyalty, and faithfulness was due. 
But he’s a different kind of king than anyone’s used to.  "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but...the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."  The rulers of this age find ways to enrich themselves and the expense of the average person, even at (especially at?) the expense of the poorest and weakest of people, the ones least likely to be able to defend themselves, but Jesus’s rule actually serves the poor, the weak, and the defenseless.
It’s a weird kind of kingdom, a weird way to rule.  Really, it is.
The Sermon on the Mount is often read as a set of rules that no one can really keep, that are unrealistic in the real world, that will only be realized in Heaven.  Some have even said that the only purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to show us how impossible it is to earn God’s favor so that we’ll stop trying and simply accept God’s grace.  Once we’ve gotten over our legalism and depend on God’s grace for our salvation, the Sermon’s work is done.  Jesus doesn’t actually expect you to do that turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemy stuff.
Really?  Whew, what a relief!
The Sermon on the Mount is a description of the kind of rule that Jesus wields on earth and is therefore the kingdom agenda for his followers through whom he is establishing and maintaining his kingdom.  The Sermon opens with the Beatitudes, the first of which is, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  Jesus isn’t merely providing an ethic for his followers or some formula for getting into heaven when you die.  He is rather stating the kind of people through whom he will be working so that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  “When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the mourners, those who are hungry and thirsty for God’s justice, the peacemakers, and so on.”  (Wright, N. T., Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (pp. 218), Harper Collins, Inc. Kindle Edition.)  Jesus rules the world through those who launch new initiatives that radically challenge the accepted ways of doing things.
Jesus is a new kind of king doing a new kind of thing in a new kind of way.  His followers are to be a new kind of people doing new kinds of things in new kinds of ways.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Heroically Ordinary

When I was young, we not only had heroes, we had super-heroes, and chief among them was Superman, the original superhero.  Superman was cool because he didn’t need anything like web shooters or a shield or an iron suit.  It was just him—faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Bullets just bounced off his chest like they were nothing.  Was there any boy who watched Superman who didn’t get their mom to pin a towel around their neck like a cape and run around like Superman? 
And it was particularly cool that all he had to do to disguise himself was put on a pair of glasses.  One time I found an pair of old black-rimmed glasses, and I thought, “Cool!  I’ll put these on, walk out of my room and my family would be like, ‘Hey, who’s this new kid walking around the house?’”  So I put them on, walked out of the bedroom, and my older brother said, “Hey, Stupid, where’d you get the dumb glasses?”  And I thought, “Hmm, maybe I need to get a suit too.”
The thing about Superman, though, is that as cool as he was and as much as we’d like to be him, there was no way.  He was just too together.  I think animators caught on, and they started closing the gap between normal humans and superheroes.  They came up with Mighty Mouse.  I mean, come on, he may be a superhero, but he’s a still a mouse.  That closes the gap, right?  Yeah, but he flies and takes cats six times larger than he is and twirls them around and throws them into the atmosphere.  I can’t do that, can you? 
Probably the ultimate regular guy superhero ever invented was Underdog.  His name says it all, right?  Anybody remember how the show started?  “Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a frog.”   “A frog?”  Then Underdog would say, “Neither bird nor plane nor even a frog, it’s just little ol’ me, Underdog.”  And in real life, when he wasn’t Underdog, he was  Shoe Shine Boy.  Just a little ol’ shoe shine boy.  And who did the voice for Underdog?  Wallly Cox, the original T.V. wimp.  They even made Shoe Shine Boy to look like Wally Cox.
And Underdog spoke in verse, like only a wimp would: "When Polly's in trouble I am not slow, it's Hip, Hip, Hip and away I go !"   "There's no need to fear, Underdog is here!"
As I grew up, my heroes became more mortal.  Brooks Robinson of the Orioles became my new hero, and the thing I liked about Brooks was that, even though he was a great baseball player, he was otherwise just so ordinary.  Skinny arms, skinny legs, just playing a kid’s game and loving it.
Now, we all admire heroes. But not the cartoon, comic book kind of hero, and not the Hollywood terminator kind of hero, but the everyday, ordinary, common variety heroes. The kind of heroes that rise to the occasions when they find themselves in impossible, life-threatening situations, like firemen rushing into burning buildings on 9/11 or jumping into flaming forests in California.  We find these people appealing not because they are able to do what we aren’t, but just the opposite: they are ordinary people just like us, ordinary people who do extraordinary things.  And they inspire us to think that we would do the same thing if we were in the same situation.
And this is how I feel when I read the story of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7. Stephen was a real hero.  He was also the first martyr of the Christian church. And when you read his story, it moves you to the edge of your seat for all the reasons that the modern day stories of heroes move us to the edge of our seat. Because he is just a regular guy. Just like one of us. He wasn’t Jesus. He wasn’t an apostle. He was just a layman. A regular guy with a heroic faith.
Or Abraham.  He was a man of great faith—and one who got in trouble because he got scared and tried to pass his wife off as his sister.  And even though he got in trouble for that, he did it again no much later!  He repeated his mistake, just like a regular guy.
Even David, who was called “a man after God’s own heart,” was pretty ordinary—if you call being an adulterer and a murderer “ordinary.’  His own son rebelled against him. What’s more ordinary than that?  Granted, his son literally rebelled against him, raising and army going to battle against his father, but that’s my point: if David could be that ordinary, mess up in ways that I never have, and still be called a man after God’s own heart—well, there’s hope for me.
Hope that even in my ordinary life, I can be heroic.  I can have a heroic faith, show a heroic love, display a heroic devotion, follow in heroic obedience, even in my ordinary life.
If it’s going to happen, it’s going to be in my ordinary life, because an ordinary life is all I’ve got.  And I guess that’s enough, isn’t it?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Exclamation Point

Easter is the biggest, most celebrated day in Christianity, and everybody approaches it differently.  If the different approaches  to Easter were punctuation marks, some people would be commas—a brief pause in their regular schedule, and then they move on.  Some people be periods: a full stop, marking the end.  For them Easter is a ritual, and an empty one at that.  If they go to church it’s because it feels wrong not to be in church on Easter, or because it makes mom and dad happy, but it doesn’t really mean anything.  Some would be question marks— they are perplexed, perhaps doubtful, not sure what it’s all about, but they are also curious, seeking, wanting to know more about this resurrection and eternal life and Jesus.  Some people are exclamation points—loud and excited about everything that resurrection Sunday is about.  And some are semi-colons—anticipating what comes next.
For the followers of Jesus, that first Easter Sunday was a period.  The end.  The last three years of their life a waste, the future holding no promise.   Take Mary Magdalene, for instance.  She didn’t go to the tomb to meet a resurrected Lord, she went to anoint the body of a dead man.  When she saw that the rock covering the entrance had been rolled away, she didn’t even go in, because she knew what had happened—someone had stolen his body.  Having made him suffer such a shameful death, would they now prevent him from having a proper burial?  In despair she ran to tell Peter and John.
They were upset also, but they had to go see for themselves.  Maybe they would find some clues as to who took him and where they took him.  So they ran to go see.  John got there first, but for some reason didn’t go in the tomb, perhaps out of respect, or fear, or just not wanting to believe that it was true.  Peter, always one to act first and think later, pushed past John and went in.  But instead of an exclamation point, there were only question marks for Peter.  Luke 24:25 says that Peter went away wondering to himself what had happened. 
Later on, when Thomas heard the news, his reaction was one of doubt and disbelief.  In some ways there reactions were similar—there was doubt, disbelief, and despair.  But each was starting from a different point.  What’s interesting to me is that, when Jesus finally appears to them, he doesn’t really chastise them for their reactions.  Even when Thomas finally gets to see him, Jesus gently says, “Peace be with you.” 
God understands where you are.  He just doesn’t want you to stay there.
Seeing-and-believing is not usually a one-time event.  It’s more a process.  We all need time before we can see and understand spiritual events.  Different things speak to us.  Take Mary again.  After she returns to the tomb, she looks in and sees two angels, but obviously doesn’t recognize them as angels.  I guess in her confusion it didn’t strike her as funny that two guys would be sitting in Jesus’ tomb asking her why she’s crying.  Then she meets Jesus but doesn’t recognize him just yet.  She thinks he’s the gardener—which is just full of meaning, being that Paul describes Jesus as the second Adam, the original gardener, man in perfect relationship with the Father.  So she’s getting it, but she doesn’t realize that she’s getting it.  Sometimes faith comes to a person like that.  We start connecting the dots, maybe even subconsciously, and gradually a picture emerges that makes sense. 
But for most of them this wasn’t the case.  They couldn’t make sense of the things that they saw and heard—and who could blame them?  It’s all so extraordinary, completely out of their experience.  They had never seen anything like it and so they couldn’t expect it.  It took a personal encounter with Jesus.  They had to meet him.  Mary talked with angels and didn’t understand, but when Jesus called her by name, she recognized him.  Can you imagine what it must have been like for her?  She wanted to throw her arms around him, as we would have also.  Peter went from denying Jesus to being such a bold witness to the resurrection that he was willing to die for the cause of Christ.  What caused the change?  He had a personal encounter with Jesus.
All of Thomas’ doubts went away when Jesus showed him his nail prints and the scar in his side.  And then Jesus said something that is for us today: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  He’s speaking to us.  We don’t have the privilege of actually seeing with our own eyes the risen savior; we live by faith, not by sight. 
Can you have a personal encounter with Jesus now, today?  Of course.  After all, what good is a risen savior if he’s absent from our personal experiences?  Jesus is alive, he’s real, and he wants to have a personal relationship with you that is based on love and grace—and obedience.  And that is Easter with an exclamation point.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Forty and Oh!

We interrupt the normal biblical/theological musings to talk about some really important stuff.

Basketball.  Baylor University Basketball.  Oh yeah.

Last night the Baylor women won their second national championship (first was in 2005), concluding an undefeated season.  For the first time ever, an NCAA basketball team finished 40-0.  No team--men's or women's, had ever done that.

What a year this has been for Baylor sports.  The men's team reached the Elite Eight for the second time in three years with a final ranking of 8th.  The football team was one of the most exciting in the nation, finishing 12th in the nation and producing their first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin, III--RG3, who will probably end up being the next Redskins quarterback.  That's in the major sports.  Baylor athletics is one of the top programs in the nation, producing nationally ranked teams--and some national champions--in a number of lesser-known sports.  (Their track team, which has been one of the best in the nation for decades, is now coached by a friend of mine from college days, Todd Harbour.)

But back to the women.  It's remarkable how women's basketball has changed since I was in college.  I remember playing some pick-up games with some of the starters on the women's team.  I'll never forget the first time I played against Faith Cedarholm, the team's best player.  She was about 6' 1", about the tallest on the team, and we ended up guarding each other.  I wasn't sure where to put my hand when I was guarding her with her back to me.  If my hand accidentally went too low, would she turn around and slap me?

She got the ball, put her shoulder into me, and scored.  Oh, OK, if that's how it is, I'm guarding you like I would anyone.  Which I shouldn't have even questioned.  Faith was good, and she held her own against us guys--but we weren't playing Division 1 basketball for a major university.

Today's woman's game has changed.  The women are bigger, for one thing.  Baylor's best player is Brittney Griner, who is 6' 8", but that's an anomaly.  But as the other players were announced last night, I paid attention to their heights: Baylor's starters went 5' 7", 5' 11", 6' 2", 6' 2", and 6' 8", Notre Dame's 5' 9", 5' 10", 5' 11", 5' 11", and 6' 2".  Those are tall women; the guards would have been forwards or centers in my day.  And they are skilled--they are great ball-handlers and great shooters.  My 20-yr.-old self couldn't last five minutes on the court with them.  They are really good.

And fun to watch.  Baylor returns their best players next year, including Player of the Year Griner, and they have a great recruiting class coming in.  Another 40-0  season is too much to ask.

But it's not outside the realm of possibility either.  Sic'em Bears!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wright's Right: Our Contemporary Muddles

The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, that is implemented through his cross, is emphatically for this world. The four gospels together demand a complete reappraisal of the various avoidance tactics Western Christianity has employed rather than face this challenge head-on. It simply won’t do to line up the options, as has normally been done, into either a form of “Christendom,” by which people normally mean the capitulation of the gospel to the world’s way of power, or a form of sectarian withdrawal. Life is more complex, more interesting, and more challenging than that. The gospels are there, waiting to inform a new generation for holistic mission, to embody, explain, and advocate new ways of ordering communities, nations, and the world. The church belongs at the very heart of the world, to be the place of prayer and holiness at the point where the world is in pain—not to be a somewhat “religious” version of the world, on the one hand, or a detached, heavenly minded enclave, on the other. It is a measure of our contemporary muddles that we find it very difficult to articulate, let alone to live out, a vision of church, kingdom, and world that is neither of these.

Wright, N. T. (2012-03-13). How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Kindle Locations 3900-3909). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.