Saturday, March 30, 2013

Believing in the Resurrection

Do you believe in the resurrection?  That’s a good question to ask on Easter Sunday, isn’t it?  Understand, however, that I'm not asking if you believe in the historical truth and accuracy of Jesus coming back to life after being dead for three days, although that is certainly something important to believe in.  The meaning of the resurrection is embedded in its reality, so it’s important to believe that it really happened.  But that’s not what I'm asking.
I'm also not asking if you believe in the doctrine of the resurrection, although that too is important.  The actuality of the resurrection has theological implications, and it’s important to understand the theology of resurrection, and to believe and accept it.  But, again, that’s not what I'm asking when I ask if you believe in the resurrection.
What I'm asking is if you are willing to roll the dice and stake your life on the resurrection—not just Jesus’ resurrection, but your own, as a future historical reality.  Now, to be clear, I'm not asking if you believe that you are going to heaven when you die.  Everyone believes that.  There are few people who believe in a heaven—or some place of reward or goodness in the afterlife—who don't also believe that they are going to end up there.  According to polls, you don’t even have to be particularly religious to believe that.
No, it really gets down to this: Jesus asks his followers—demands, really—to risk it all in following his program, because his program demands things that, quite honestly, most people don’t think work in the real world.
For instance, Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, not kill them.  And the truth is, most people, including most Christians, don’t believe that non-violent resistance works, not really.  Martin Luther King tried it, and a bullet ended things pretty decisively.  Sure, the assassin went to prison, and the civil rights movement largely succeeded, but dead is dead.  And it’s not like non-violent resistance became de rigueur as a means of achieving social change.  One look at King lying on that Memphis balcony and most people decided that no matter how effective it may be, better that someone else lead the way.  It’s always better to be on the other end of the rifle.  You know, be the good guy with the gun.  You have to meet violence with violence, that’s just the way the world works.
But Jesus met violence with a cross.  His own, that is.
It’s a risky strategy, this put-down-your-sword thing that Jesus talked about.  Are you willing to risk it?  Not without the promise of resurrection.  And for many of us, not even with the promise of resurrection.   We really don’t believe.
The resurrection is God’s vindication.  Jesus came preaching faith, love, and forgiveness, and he was sent by God to do so.  He claimed that this is the way God’s world actually worked.  The world disagreed, and nailed him to a cross.  It mocked Jesus, and mocked God at the same time.  Faith is nice, if you have the luxury to afford it, but stark realism works better.  Love is great, but it’s too weak in the face of evil.  Evil must be killed, executed, exterminated, nuked.   Everyone knows that, and to say anything different is to either to put your head in the sand or to live in an ivory tower far removed from the realities of this brutal world.  Forgiveness is good, but not at the expense of justice.  Justice must be served!  This is what the world was saying when it crucified Jesus.  It still says it.
And how did God answer these charges?  With inaction.  He just watched as Jesus died.  Could have rescued him, but didn’t.  And God answered with silence.  For three days, nary a word.  And then, resurrection!  God’s assertion that love does triumph over hatred, peace over chaos, forgiveness over bitterness, hope over cynicism, fidelity over despair, virtue over sin, conscience over callousness, life over death, and good over evil, always.   Do you believe that?  Do you believe in the resurrection?
That’s what I'm asking.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sweating Blood

Luke has  a detail in his description of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane that none of the other gospel writers include, and it has always intrigued me.  “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  For the longest time I never knew what to make of that statement.  In high school I read a physicians description of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the writer said that in times of extreme stress capillaries in the forehead can rupture and the blood can mix with sweat, so I just assumed that it was a physical description of what happened.
Except that isn’t what Luke says.  He says that his sweat became like great drops of blood.  As a simile that never worked for me.   In what way does “great drops of blood” describe sweat?  Are drops of blood larger than drops of sweat?  Does one bleed more profusely than one sweats?  What exactly is Luke describing?
In The Passion of Christ, Mel Gibson played up the physical agony of Jesus, showing in graphic detail the lashing, the beating, the nailing, etc., but the gospel writers don’t really make much of Jesus’ physical suffering.  Mark just says, “And they crucified him.”  What the gospel writers emphasize is Jesus’ emotional anguish; he is betrayed, denied, abandoned, mocked, and reviled.  This is what Luke records: it’s in his anguish that he sweats blood.
And if you have ever loved someone so much that they are a part of you, you understand the simile.  Keeping the marriage vow, for instance, will make you sweat drops of blood.  There have been many, many happy times in my marriage to Pam, but after 31 1/2 years I can tell you that there have been times when both of us sweated drops of blood.  Truth is, it didn’t take that long.  Pam is a wonderful woman, but she is also a wonderfully complex woman, just as I am a complicated man.  We all are.  I don’t fully understand her, and she doesn’t fully understand me, and that was especially true those first few years when I was in seminary and working part-time jobs while she was working full-time in low-man-on-the-totem-pole jobs.  There were times when each of us wondered privately, “What in the world did I get myself into?”  And through the years there were times when we each thought that life would be so much easier if we weren’t tied to the alien being we call “the opposite sex.”  Keeping the marriage commitment requires sweating blood.  It’s not easy, and I don’t reckon it’s supposed to be.  But it’s worth it.  And it’s gotten easier as we have learned to accept each other and forgive each other.  We have grown closer together over those 31+ years so that we truly understand the “one flesh” concept.  And that means that there will be even more times when we will sweat blood, because when she hurts, I hurt, and when I hurt, she hurts.  There is a cost that comes with being faithful, but it is a cost gladly paid, even if in blood.
Being a father is a wonderful thing as well, but having raised two kids through the teenage years and into young adulthood, I understand what sweating blood means.  All of the joy that I have had with Angela and Austin didn’t come without the cost of some blood, sweat and tears.  Growing up is hard, and its not easy for a parent to watch a child struggle, knowing that there is really nothing you can do about it.  Some struggles they just have to figure out for themselves.  Commitment and faithfulness sometimes means not getting involved, not rescuing them.  And the watching can be tough.
The blood Jesus was sweating, albeit figuratively, is the price of being faithful in love.  “Father,  I don’t want to do this, but if you say I must, then I will.”  And he did.   Biblical love—faithful, consistent love, unconditional love, not the  dreamy kind of love of movies and novels, but love in the grit and grime of the real world—sometimes demands that we enter a loneliness of duty, of fidelity, of giving up life so that we can find it.  Unconditional love and absolute faithfulness will sometimes drive us to our knees in anguish, praying for steadfastness, yes, but also seeking some easier way to have the joy that we want but at a lesser cost. 
And if that is true of our relationships with spouses and children, it is no less true of our relationship with God.  It's popular to call people to a relationship with God through Christ with promises of abundant life here on earth and eternal life in heaven, with assurances that faith in Christ will help your marriage and undergird the raising of children--and these things are true, I've experienced them.  But loving the Lord will all your heart, strength, and soul comes at a cost as well, and we would do well to speak plainly about that.  In his relationship with God Jesus experienced love's joy, but he also experienced love's anguishHe sweated blood because of his relationship with God, and we shouldn't expect anything different either.  He calls us to minister to a world that thinks upside down is rightside up, which means that we have to renounce upside down living.  But living rightside up in an upside down world is tough, especially when those who profit from the upside down world feel threatened.  But it's our calling.  It's what it takes if we are to follow a savior who was faithful unto death.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Moving in Opposite Directions

“Rules are made to be broken” the old saying goes. Well, no, they aren’t, they are made to be followed, but there is just something within us that wants to break them.  Unless we are the rule-makers,  of course.  But most of the rules we are forced to follow we do so reluctantly, usually under the threat of some consequence we wish to avoid.  The doctor tells us to stop eating greasy food, but we can’t give up a juicy hamburger and some fries.  The sign says that the speed limit is 55, and we automatically calculate how much over the speed limit we can go and not get pulled over.  Is it five mph?  Seven?  Ten?
Here’s another old saying that relates: “Christianity isn’t about rules, it’s about a relationship.”  Well, OK, it is about a relationship with God through Jesus.  But it’s about rules as well.  Jesus didn’t throw the Ten Commandments out, did he?  No, he didn’t.  The main reason we don’t still follow the rules and laws found in Exodus and Leviticus is not because they were bad rules and laws but because they don’t culturally fit anymore.  We know how to cook pork and shellfish now so that they are safe to eat, we no longer need rules for the just treatment of bond-servants and slaves, and we certainly don’t need the rules regarding sacrifices at the Temple.  But the spirit of the laws, what they were trying to address—the proper worship of God and the just treatment of the weaker members of society—are still very much needed.
Some Christians like to claim that the purpose of the OT Law was to show us how we can’t save ourselves through legalism and awaken us to the need for a Savior who will save us by grace, but that’s a straw man.  While it’s true that we aren’t saved through legalism but through grace, that was never the purpose of the Law.  It was, once again, to teach us the proper worship of God and the just treatment of the weaker members of society, and if you look past the particulars of the different laws and look for what they were trying to address and accomplish with the laws, you’ll be able to see that.
But the rules are there, and some, like the Ten Commandments (of which the rest of the laws were further explications), transcend time and culture.  Jesus not only expects us to keep them, he goes farther than anyone else ever did.  “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
What’s interesting is that we always go in the opposite direction of Jesus with rules.  Instead of intensifying the rule, we look for exceptions.  “But if someone is breaking into your house with a gun, you are allowed to kill him, right?”  “The Hebrew word really means ‘murder’; it’s OK to kill someone if it will prevent further killing, like killing terrorists.”  And all that sounds perfectly reasonable—except, as I’ve said, it’s moving in the opposite direction of Jesus with regard to the law.  While we’re looking for exceptions to the law, trying to make it say less than it does, Jesus is making it say more than it does.  Jesus is pointing out that killing another person begins with an insult, a cursing, a fire of anger over a real or perceived injustice.  Killing is not just a brute external act; it is, in its more common form, a subtle internal thing.  All of us break the fifth commandment in countless ways.  Paranoia, false suspicion, harsh judgment, cynicism, and negativity, whether in word or attitude, also killIn our criticism of others we kill their enthusiasm; with our suspicions we kill trust; with our cynicism we kill the capacity of the community to build; in our broken commitments we kill relationships; in our infidelities we kill the bond that makes for family; and in our constant habit of first depreciating before appreciating, we kill the very goodness with which God surrounded creation, we kill the original blessing of God.
      The commandments are there to give us life.  In seeking exceptions to the them, we’re inadvertently seeking  exceptions to life to make room for death.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Hell is never a surprise waiting for a happy person, it's the full-flowering of a life that rejects love, forgiveness, and community.”
—John Shea

Our common conception of hell is interesting.  Undoubtedly the most common  image of hell is a place of eternal fire, perhaps a lake of fire as described in the book of Revelation.  Jesus sometimes referred to people being cast into Gehenna, the garbage dump in a valley outside Jerusalem where people burned their trash and—perhaps more to his point—conquering armies threw Israelites corpses.  These images are certainly biblical, but they are not the only biblical images of hell.
The truth is that the predominant image of the afterlife in the Bible has nothing to do with reward or punishment.  Sheol in the Old Testament, of which the Greek Hades is a companion concept, were not places of punishment but simply the place of the underworld where all dead went.
       But the biblical writers do use images that showed the consequences of rejecting God and his path of Life, and not all of them have to do with fire.  Images of being on the outside, of exclusion and exile, are every bit as common as images of burning, perhaps more so, and that really isn’t surprising when you consider that the result of Israel’s idolatry and injustice in the Old Testament was exile from the land and from God’s presence.  And the state of exile continued into Jesus’ days.  Even though the Jews had returned to their land a few hundred years before, the conditions of the Exile continued—there was no Davidic king on the throne, the land had been almost continually occupied by foreign armies for the entire time, and most importantly, Yahweh had not forgiven his people and returned to Zion.  Exile is the predominant image for the consequences of the people’s sin, and so it’s not surprising that was still used in the New Testament.
       Among other things, Jesus speaks of the consequences of rejecting God as being outside the wedding and the dance, as mourning and weeping and grinding our teeth,  as missing out on the banquet, as being outside the kingdom, as living inside a bitter and warped heart, and as missing out on life.  These are images of exile and exclusion, continuing the theme of the Old Testament.
The parable of the Prodigal Son presents this image in all its facets.  The younger son rejects his father’s care and sets out on his own, only to find himself in a distant land, broke and broken, hungry and lonely, lower than the swine he feeds.  Upon his return home and his father’s acceptance of him back into the family, his older brother remains outside, seething with resentment and self-righteousness, while everyone else is inside partying and celebrating.
In both cases the father’s posture is waiting and welcoming.  He did not send his youngest son off into exile, and was ever waiting and watching for his return.  And he did not exclude his oldest son from the party—indeed, he leaves the party and exhorts his son to join them.  In both instances the sons imposed exile on themselves, one because he flaunted his father’s generosity and grace and his own freedom without considering that there are consequences to his actions, the other because he mistook his obedience as somehow obligating his father to regard him more favorably than his brother, failing to realize that he always had his father’s favor.  They both found themselves in a hell of their own choosing—and a hell that their father never would have chosen for them but was forced to allow.
And that’s the reality of hell, regardless of what image you use to describe it.  God doesn’t choose hell for any us;  whenever we use God’s grace as license to pursue our own will or think that our religiosity raises us above the pack of humanity, we find ourselves outside, living in a hell of our own creation, conniving to steal a pig’s meal or burning with the eternal fire of resentment.  
       Meanwhile, the party goes on with an empty seat at the table, waiting for us to come to our  senses.