Sunday Meditations: Lover of Mankind

Last week, I was in Boston conducting a workshop for one of our clients.

Normally, I would have just flown in, done the workshop, and left, but the hotel they wanted me to stay at wouldn’t let me book for just one night.  So, I ended up having basically the morning free in Boston before my flight, and I headed downtown to see the two things everyone wants to see when they’re sightseeing: the public library and a very old church.

The Boston Public Library was unlike the public libraries in my own town, as was readily visible from the entrance.

public-library-front

We need more lanterns on our library!  Now, make them spikier!  Spikier, I say!

The library was full of art, sculpture, secluded alcoves, and tranquil courtyards.  I wandered aimlessly through both old and new sections.  There was a gallery of maps, several meeting rooms that would be terribly distracting simply due to the art and architecture, and a gift shop that I could observe through windows but never figured out the right path through the labyrinth to get there.

As I wandered, I walked up a flight of stairs to see this:

public-library-stairway-to-mural

I wasn’t really expecting this sort of thing in the library.  This was the entrance into the Sargent Gallery, where I spent a very long time.

The entire hall (including the vaulted ceiling) is covered in murals depicting various biblical and theological scenes, broken up only by doors or cases of very rare books.

Even the arrangement was striking, as one wall is occupied by the oppression of the Israelites just prior to the Exodus, and the other wall is occupied by the crucified Jesus Christ.

My favorite mural, however, was the Church, where she is depicted as a woman taking up the robe of the crucified Jesus.  What a striking visual representation of the Church and her mission.

All of this is probably due to the heavy, early Episcopalian influence on Boston, but you could also find traces of early American mysticism, such as the floor tiles with all the signs of the Zodiac or the occasional Masonic symbol.

The fusion of all these things struck me.  To some extent, it was all a physical embodiment of something I tried to express some weeks ago.  There is no reason a passionate pursuit of God and the refinement of the spirit in the way of Jesus Christ is antithetical to reason, knowledge, or inquiry.  And should we discover truths that shake our dogmatic certainty (dogmatic slumbers?), then we press into them, integrating and re-envisioning and re-evaluating.

Being at the library was a profoundly religious experience for me, confronted with both art and writing around every corner proclaiming the “sacred” and the “secular” without any awareness that a distinction should be made.  I spent a long time, there, just watching and thinking and praying and reading and meditating until I could no longer discern the difference.  It was definitely my kind of temple.

Speaking of spiritual experiences, I then grabbed a cold brew from the coffee shop in the library (why don’t all libraries have this?) and hiked across the square to visit Trinity Church.

trinity-church

An event truck, just as our spiritual forefathers had.

The church was like someone had magically taken the entirety of Episcopalian heritage and culture and made a building out of it.  Everywhere you turned was stained glass, lofty vaulted ceilings, and minute carvings and designs too numerous for the brain to take in at once.

trinity-church-sanctuary

I had gotten a little device that was supposed to give me an audio tour of the building, but since a gentleman was playing the pipe organ the entire time, I quickly abandoned the thing and just wandered around the building, myself.

I was particularly drawn to this panel – the Good Samaritan opposite Dorcas.

trinity-church-samaritan

As I left the building and was making my way around the outside to hike over to the Boston Common, I came across a statue of the church’s first rector, Phillips Brooks.  He’s probably most famous as the lyricist for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

trinity-church-philip-brooks

He was 6’4″ in real life, so this statue probably isn’t far off.

The plaque below the statue reads:

Preacher of the Word of God
Lover of Mankind

I didn’t know who Phillips Brooks was at the time I saw this plaque, but all I could think of was what a wonderful way for people to remember you.  I’m not a preacher by trade, but I hope people remember me this way.  Someone who shared the Word of God with them and was known as someone who loved their fellow man – not loved in some generic feeling of beneficence, but someone who actually valued, pursued, and was committed to the welfare of their fellow human beings.

What an amazing way to be remembered.  Surely, this is how we remember Jesus.

I was so stricken by the commemoration of this man in this way that I bought a couple of collections of sermons and letters by him.  I wanted to know what this man was like such that the people of Boston remembered him in this way.

As I began to read his sermons, it became clear.

I should note that Brooks and I would probably not agree on much about how to write a sermon.  He definitely comes from the “what does this verse make me think of” school of writing a sermon.  But unlike the unfocused meanderings or fiery rants against culture that such sermons often produce, Brooks’ sermons reveal someone who has spent a lot of time grappling with the larger truths of God and bringing them directly to bear into the struggles of his parishoners.

For example, his sermon on John 8:12 compares Jesus to the light of the sun that wakes up the world.  But he then presses on to drive the point home that Jesus, in his humanity, shows us the potential for what humans can be.  Humans are good, preaches Brooks, and evil is an intruder that, if we are to be saved, must be fought so that the goodness God has built into humans can shine forth.  Jesus is both our example and power that allows us to move closer to this, and we can see others moving closer to this as well, whether they are Christians or not.

In this way, Brooks says, all history is church history, because every advance humanity makes toward compassion and justice and away from selfishness and suffering is the advance of the victory of God in the world.  We are called to this mission and are indwelt with the power of Christ, should we choose to take it up, to follow.

I could easily see how even the most skeptical of Brooks’ religion could not deny that here was a man who was for mankind.  Here was a man who, by the Spirit, envisioned a world where mankind was ever reaching for its potential, and that potential was not just defined by technological advancement, but moral advancement in love for one another and ourselves.

Brooks didn’t see this humanism as eclipsing a love for God, but rather a very natural progression of it.  For him, there was no division between spiritual and social salvation.  The Jesus-ward life isn’t about escaping Hell, but embarking on a deliberate journey into a new way of life that results in a new world.  If that isn’t biblical eschatology, I don’t know what is.

I am not much in the world, but I hope I can be a man who is remembered as someone who preached the Word of God and loved mankind.

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Will Elijah Come Back Before the Second Coming?

Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor and a good friend about John the Baptist’s denial that he is Elijah in John 1:21.  It is sheer coincidence that this happened to dovetail with my latest devotional entry.

Although we had similar takes on why John the Baptist said “no,” he also offered that the actual Elijah will actually show up prior to the second coming of Jesus, citing Jesus in Matthew 17:11 saying that Elijah would come to “restore all things” (and John the Baptist did not do this) and Malachi’s prophecy in 4:5 stating that Elijah would come before the final judgment.

By contrast, I offered that the Gospels’ portrayals of John the Baptist and his ministry present him as the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophetic expectation, and there’s no Scriptural indicator that we should be looking for a future appearance of the actual Elijah.

What follows is my explanation to him of why I think the way I do with some minor edits for clarity.  While it is maybe more scholarly than 97% of the emails I send, it’s also not a scholarly paper and is meant to serve as an explanatory overview than a thorough defense of a hypothesis.


1. Malachi

Malachi is a revelation to Israel, and Chapter 1 begins with Israel’s election – preferred by God over her close relatives.  But Israel is accused of not showing the honor a son should show a parent, and this is illustrated mostly by the carelessness of their religious ceremonies.  It should be noted this reveals a heart condition, but it is illustrated in how little the priests and leaders care about how God is worshiped.  They use blemished sacrifices, etc.  In chapter 2, this gets into some very vivid imagery, such as God spreading the dung from the animals in the priests’ faces.

Malachi continues to show how good the covenant was and how God was faithful, but Israel continues to do evil, broadening the picture to include excusing evil behavior, adultery, accusing God of not keeping up His end of the bargain – a faithlessness that has made them a mockery even among pagan nations.

In chapter 3, God says he will send a messenger to prepare the way before Him, and this messenger will bring a refiner’s fire, judgement, etc.  This imagery is largely how John the Baptist depicts the coming Messiah in the synoptics.  The list of Israel’s crimes grows to include sorcery, oppression, and a variety of sins.  God notes that, if Israel will return to Him, He will return to them, but they seem to not know how to do that.  This chapter does note that the faithful few will be spared on this day of judgement.

In chapter 4, God describes this day as a terrible day of fire that will destroy the wicked, but those who are faithful will survive and rejoice and flourish in the aftermath.  God reminds them to remember their covenant, and there says that Elijah will come before this day, turning the hearts of the sons to the fathers so that God will not smite the land with herem – a total destruction.

So, the context throughout the book is Israel.  A day of judgement will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the faithful remnant of Israel will survive it.  Before this day comes, Elijah will appear to turn these descendants’ hearts back to their ancestors and vice-versa.  They will remember their covenant, and then God will not utterly destroy the land and everyone in it.

There is no textual indicator that anything in Malachi is talking about the end of history or a final judgement, and this bounding historical context is important.  If I say, “I’m going to drive to my office.  When I get there, I’m going to fire all the slackers,” the context sets the parameters.  No one would think I was going to fire every slacker everywhere, because I established that this was going to happen at my office.

This will be a judgement in history that will come to Israel where the wicked in Israel will be destroyed and the righteous will be liberated, and before that day comes, Elijah will be sent to turn people’s hearts to avoid a total destruction.

2. Jewish Views Before Christ

Perhaps the oldest view we have of the future role of Elijah is Sirach 48, which is an entire chapter on Elijah.  This would have been written around the 2nd century BC.  The key verse that talks about his future role is verse 10:

designated in the prophecies of doom to allay God’s wrath before the fury breaks, to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

This is very similar to the text in Malachi with the addition that Elijah will “restore the tribes of Jacob.”  In other words, restore Israel.  Indeed, the entirety of Sirach is concerned with the destiny of Israel and the troubles she is suffering because of her treatment of these holy men of God and failure to keep the Law.  The author looks for a time when God will fulfill these prophecies and clear out the wicked from Israel, restoring her to righteousness.  Later rabbinic writings seem to confirm this understanding,

Again, there are no textual indicators about the fate of other nations or the world or this being the end of history.

It is noteworthy that there are other expectations that crop up over time.  For instance, one popular view is that Elijah would put to rest all disputes about the Torah and explain it clearly to everyone to produce unity (thus turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and so on).  This view shows up in at least three early sources (such as the Mishnah’s Eduyot 8 (redacted in the 3rd century AD but contents are much, much older)) and the Zohar says that Elijah will be like Aaron was to Moses.

There was also a view that Elijah would change the minds of people and lead them to repentance, although this seems to be a later, minority view.  The earliest account of it I can find is a short passage in the Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer which would have been 8th or 9th century AD.

I could only find one reference to Elijah raising the dead, and this is in the Shir haShirim Zuta (10th century A.D.) which says that, in order to prove his identity, Elijah will raise the dead of people known to the people who see him.  Sort of like Jesus’ miracle with Lazarus.

So, when we see Jewish thoughts on Elijah that might have influenced Jesus or been “in the air” at the time, it seems like the understanding is that Elijah will come and turn Israel back to her covenant, thus restoring Israel.

3. Matthew 11:4

and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen

Here, Jesus directly identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who is to come.  The addition of the “He who has an ear, let him hear” language tells us that this is happening in a non-literal manner.  We have to spiritually discern Jesus’ meaning.  John the Baptist is not the literal Elijah everyone was expecting, but he was the Elijah who was to come all the same.

Also, John the Baptist is still alive when Jesus tells everyone this.

4. Matthew 17:10-13

And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This passage is fun from a translation standpoint because the “is indeed coming” is erchontai which is translated as “came” the vast majority of the time it appears.  Matthew 25:11 for instance.  It is most commonly translated to mean something happened in the past, but it is sometimes translated as present or future, depending on the context.

Here, it is probably translated in the future because “will restore” (apokatastesei) is in the future, although obviously Elijah can have come and cause a future effect.  “I showed up an hour ago, and I’m about to get some food.”  This verb means to “reconstitute.”  Something was broken up, and he will reform it.  The word for “all things” is panta which just means “all.”

This seems to fit Malachi’s picture and the early Jewish rabbinical understanding of what it meant for Elijah to return.  God is going to send a terrible day of calamity on Israel to remove the wicked, but He will save the faithful.  So, prior to that day, God will send Elijah to turn people’s hearts back to each other and their covenant, and by doing so will restore Israel (as Sirach has it).  This is what John the Baptist did.

Again, there’s no reason to think Jesus is talking about the end of the world or a final judgement of the world.  Malachi isn’t, and no Jewish interpreter is either.  It is certainly possible that Jesus is bringing a new meaning to these ideas.  Wouldn’t be the first time Jesus did that with a traditional Jewish understanding.  But the burden would be to prove that’s what he’s doing.

Perhaps the greatest argument that this is what Malachi and Jesus had in mind is that this is what actually happened in history.  God’s judgement did fall on Israel and destroy their power structure, resulting in the deaths of an immense amount of Jewish people on that terrible day.  And yet, those who repented escaped.  Before this happened, God sent John to turn the hearts of the people so that they might repent and become the new Israel, and it was out of these people – the poor, the blind, the lame, and the sinners – that Israel was restored, while their priests and scribes and politicians and legalists were destroyed.

5. Mark 9:11-13

Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”

In Mark’s version, the English translation is very similar to Matthew, but the Greek is a little different.  Get to that in a moment.

It’s also interesting that, here, Jesus anticipates the objection that, if Elijah is coming / has come, then why will the Son of Man suffer?  This is interesting because it shows us that, in Jesus’ mind, the coming of Elijah is before the Son of Man and it will not fix everything.  Elijah comes, and the Son of Man will still be mistreated, and to prove his point, he highlights the fact that Elijah was mistreated “as is written about him.”

So, whatever it means for Elijah to “restore all things,” this act is not comprehensive enough to stop the mistreatment of the Son of Man.

When we look at the Greek, the “is indeed coming first” is elthon proton (in contrast to the tense the disciples use in their question – elthein proton).  Elthein is consistently translated as “to come,” whereas elthon is consistently translated as “came” or “having come” – past tense – even more consistently than the erchontai of Matthew.  The “restores” is apokathistanei which is present tense, not future.  Elijah, having come, restores all things (panta is the same).

6. Luke 1:16-17

He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke does not contain a story where Jesus says that John the Baptist was Elijah, but it does contain this prophecy of John’s birth, which has a hint of the Isaiah passage in it, but is obviously a direct reference to the Malachi prophecy.  I think Luke is the bridge that resolves the tension between John the Gospel and the other synoptics.  John is not literally Elijah come back.  But he has Elijah’s spirit and power and fulfills the prophetic expectation of what Elijah was supposed to accomplish.

7. The End (Finally)

Malachi prophecies a day of destruction that is about to come upon Israel where the righteous will be saved.  Prior to that day, Elijah will come to turn people’s hearts so that not everyone will be destroyed.

Sirach (and others) expect that this will be the restoration/reformation of Israel.

Jesus proclaims that Elijah has come and will restore all, but this will not stop the suffering of the Son of Man.  He identifies John the Baptist as the person who is doing this thing.

In history, the day of calamity falls on Israel, destroying many, but the repentant and faithful are saved.

To me, this all wraps up pretty neatly.

When we start with Malachi and move forward in history, this provides us a context for understanding Jesus’ teaching, and when we do this, we see that John the Baptist fits the bill and what God said would happen happened.  There’s no particular reason to expect that a literal Elijah will appear before another calamity.  This could happen, of course; there’s just no particular reason to look for it.  The things that God said would happen did happen.  Not necessarily in the exact way everyone expected, but that’s Jesus for you, and he explains to us that it did happen if we have ears to hear.

In my opinion, the only way to say that John the Baptist didn’t fulfill this role in prophecy is if we begin with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about – i.e. a final judgement of the whole world at the end of history and a restoration of everything in that world – and then carry that backwards through the texts.  Obviously, that did not happen and John the Baptist didn’t do that, so our only option with that understanding is that it must be happening at some point in the future.

But that direction seems less sound to me.  I don’t want to start with a preexisting idea of what Jesus must be talking about and then project that backwards.  I want to understand Jesus against the background of his context and the continuity of what God was doing at the time.  I don’t see anywhere in that chain of thought or history where a final judgement and restoration of the entire world is in view.

I do believe in a final judgement and restoration of the world from other passages.  Paul especially develops this idea as he begins to realize the ramifications of what Jesus did for the nations, and John himself describes this picture at the end of Revelation.  But I don’t think that’s what’s in view in Malachi and the subsequent passages that build on Malachi.

Elijah Must Come: Matthew 17:9-13

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Matthew 17:9-13 (NRSV)

The vision Jesus is referring to is what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, where some of the disciples saw a foreshadowing of the success of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus appeared to them as a glorified saint – a citizen of the victorious kingdom of God – discussing the exodus event he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem with the great prophets and deliverers from Israel’s history.

Jesus commands the disciples not to tell anyone about what they saw until after his resurrection, identifying himself as the Son of Man figure that Daniel’s visions look forward to: the one who will receive the kingdom from God on the day when God destroys His enemies.

This isn’t the first time in Matthew that Jesus has asked the witnesses to keep what they saw under wraps.  It’s not always clear why Jesus wants them to do this, but I think we can say, generally, that Jesus is concerned that he and his nascent movement don’t get snuffed out before it has a chance to take hold.  When you start telling everyone that you saw the man Jesus transform into a glorified deliverer promised by God, authorities are going to take notice.

Rome may not believe in Jesus’ claims, but she certainly believes in the effect these claims may have on an oppressed population, and the experience of Jesus and the disciples (and the faith communities established by their testimony) will look very different if there’s a contingent of soldiers waiting for them in Capernaum.

But the disciples have seen a vision of the imminent arrival of a victorious kingdom with Jesus as the leader.  They know what’s supposed to happen to the Son of Man.  And Jesus has made a shocking claim that he will die and rise from the dead – a claim so absurd that it seems like none of the disciples take it seriously until after it happens.

All these things point to the fact that the day of the Lord is at hand, and this raises a question for the disciples.  They have heard the scribes teaching that Elijah must appear before the day of the Lord can occur.

This may just be something that some of them have been taught as Jews.  It may also be that this is a specific apologetic the scribes are using to discredit the idea that Jesus is the Messiah and that the hoped-for kingdom of God is at hand.  Jesus can’t be the man and this can’t be the time because Elijah hasn’t appeared.

This expectation comes from a portion of Malachi:

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.

Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Malachi 4 (NRSV)

I once heard a really outlandish, but well-intentioned, sermon at an off-the-beaten-path Baptist church where the pastor said that the allusion to stubble, here, was beard stubble, and this showed us how important it was to keep up our cleanliness and grooming.  “The point is: you just can’t let yourself go,” he said.

Needless to say, that’s not really what Malachi is getting at.  What we’re seeing here is a prophesied day that will utterly wipe out the wicked so that the faithful will flourish.  Notice, also, the role of Moses in this day as the one who gave the Law to Israel.  But before this day comes, Elijah has to appear preaching repentance so that there is a faithful to flourish and all Israel doesn’t perish in the day of judgement.

Both Moses and Elijah appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, but when Jesus says that Elijah has already come, he’s talking about John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was doing the exact thing that Elijah was supposed to do before the day of the Lord.  He even dressed up like Elijah.  He was preaching repentance to Israel so that they might be saved in the day of judgement.  He baptized them, demonstrating the cleansing of their sin and entry into the renewed people of God.  He was preparing the way for the Messiah who would enact the judgement described in Malachi 4.  He was so committed to this vision that, when Jesus failed to start violently overthrowing the government and John ended up imprisoned by them, he questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah.

And that last bit is what makes it click for the disciples.  When Jesus says that Elijah wasn’t recognized but was instead persecuted and killed by the powers that be, they know right away who he must be talking about.

Jesus also slips in that the Son of Man will have the same experience.

When we look at the prophets God sent to Israel to proclaim a coming judgement (and encourage repentance in order to avoid it), we don’t see a whole lot of success.  What we see, instead, is an increasingly hostile leadership who isn’t keen on the criticism.  The prophets point out how Israel’s leaders fail to shepherd their people and practice righteousness.  They lay the blame for rampant oppression and corruption at the feet of the leaders.  The prophets say that Israel’s troubles (exile, rule by pagans) are the leadership’s fault, and their circumstances are only going to get worse, culminating in an eventual destruction.  The only way out is to repent of all of this madness and restore faithfulness, compassion, justice, and mercy.

But the leaders of Israel actually like things the way they are.  They are prospering off the backs of their people even in the midst of exile and pagan rule.  They ingratiate themselves with the political powers of their day and are rewarded with power and prosperity of their own.  They really want the prophets to quit stirring up the people.  They want them to shut up.  Their responses move from mockery and discrediting into flat out violence.

This happened to the prophets.  It happened to John the Baptist.  It will happen to Jesus.

This is a crazy juxtaposition with what the vision of glory and success that the disciples have just seen on the mountain.  How can Jesus successfully lead a deliverance of Israel and bring the kingdom of God to fruition if he will just follow the other prophets into imprisonment and death?

This is the value of that tantalizingly absurd claim: “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Consider This

  1. Jesus clearly indicates that the ministry of the John the Baptist is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Elijah returning.  What implications does this have for how we might understand Old Testament prophecy, especially the apocalyptic sort?
  2. The prophets all the way up through Jesus called people out of an old way of life and into a new one that marked a new membership in a new Israel.  What does this mean for you?

Someday Meditations: Intellectualism, Skepticism, and Mysticism

My journey through faith hasn’t always felt good.  It’s sometimes been terrifying.  It’s sometimes been profoundly sad.  But it’s never been boring.

The relationship of faith to doubt or critical thought is a troubled one, at least as far as American Evangelicalism is concerned.  It definitely hasn’t always been this way in church history, but it seems like it might be here, now.

You know as well as I do that the people on this campus who talk the most about theology have the most active spiritualities.

If you approach your faith with intellectual rigor, there is a danger of faith becoming a religion of the “head” rather than the “heart.”  While I understand this is a theoretical risk, I’ve almost never seen it play out this way.

I find that the people most drawn to intellectually examine their faith often have deep spiritual lives.  They can’t put it down.  It’s a topic of every conversation, the subject of the books they read, always on their minds.  It may not be a contented spiritual life, but it’s serious and ever present.

I’ve never met a group of people who would argue theological truths and their favorite scotch with equal passion – in an Irish pub.

In fact, I’d say an intellectual disinterest in the faith has a tendency to lead to a “head” religion.  American Evangelicalism is almost entirely about right belief, and the content of those right beliefs.  This is usually not due to some veneration of the intellect (although it can be that for certain individuals or congregations), but rather a definition of faith that involves being presented with cognitive content, assenting that content is true, and then never questioning it, again.

This is where the person with an intellectual interest in their faith starts to part ways.  It can’t be left alone, and if someone starts poking hard enough, eventually something happens that rocks the boat.

It doesn’t mean the boat capsizes or takes on irreparable damage, but you begin to realize that you’re not pointed in the same direction, and you can’t really go back.

For me, as a dyed in the wool fundamentalist Christian going to college, that moment was learning Greek.

When you learn Greek, you get exposed to the idea that we have competing manuscripts.  Nobody has the originals of the biblical texts.  We have copies of copies.  In most cases, we have quite a few to choose from.

So, let’s say you’re translating a verse, and you get to a point where our oldest copy says one thing, but almost all the other copies say something else.  Who wins?  Do you go with the oldest assuming that it’s the closest to the original?  Or do you go with the most numerous and assume the older text is an error?

And you’re translating into English.  What if there’s an idiom in the Greek that doesn’t exist in English?  Do you translate it into the literal equivalent and hope people will just figure out what it means, or do you pick a similar English idiom knowing that those words aren’t the translations of the Greek words?

Granted, some people have made a much bigger deal of this problem than it actually is.  If you read Ehrman when he’s on a roll, you might get the idea that biblical manuscripts are a Da Vinci Code-esque wasteland of irreconcilable differences, and that is not at all close to the reality.

But still, once you begin to realize that the text of your English Bible is to some extent based on judgement calls by translators, and even your “Greek New Testament” is the product of a selection process, you can’t really go back to where you’d been, before.

Now, some uncertainty has been introduced.  The chain of God’s mouth to the written page has been complicated, somewhat.

When people tell me that I don’t take the Bible seriously because I don’t believe in Hell, I tell them that I had to sit through a class on ancient Roman provinces.  That was the entire class subject.  I took that class because I wanted to understand the Bible better.  Did you sit through a class on Roman provinces?  You didn’t?  Maybe you don’t take the Bible seriously.

As you begin to make inquiries into biblical scholarship, historical studies, the history and current state of philosophy, the rise and fall of other religions, the mythologies of Israel’s neighbors, early Greek histories, the evidence progressively unearthed by the natural sciences, and so forth, you begin to realize that nothing is as simple as you thought it was.

You have to replace some old understandings or let some things go altogether.  You have to admit there are answers you don’t have.  That there are good counterpoints to which you cannot respond.  That some things have been offered to you as evidence that only holds together if you already believe the conclusions the evidence is supposed to support, and some of that evidence was never true to begin with.

And so, the intellectual pursuit of the faith begins to introduce uncertainty, criticism, skepticism, and doubt of a certain variety.

But the thing is – this is the byproduct of a passionate pursuit of the faith.  If you never went poking around, you’d never have found all that stuff.  You went poking around because you wanted to understand it better, because you loved it, because you couldn’t put it down.  The intellectual pursuit that ultimately led to greater uncertainty was a mark of a serious, passionate faith.

We should thank liberal Christians because they move the window of acceptability to include atheism.  And we have to be patient with this process.  Conservative Christians become liberal Christians who become agnostics who become atheists.  This is often how it goes.

This process is sometimes too much for people.  Once they are confronted with uncertainty or the uncomfortable fact that some of their beliefs are just flat out false, they can’t take it.  They give it up.  Their only choices were unshakable certainty in Christianity or unshakable certainty that Christianity is utterly false.

This is, of course, not at all the only reason Christians become atheists.  I’m not trying to make it sound like all former-Christian atheists were people who couldn’t hold a worldview together.

But for many of them, this was the choice we ourselves offered them.  We set them up for this.  They never learned to see the intellectual pursuit of their faith and the subsequent, unsettling uncertainty as spiritual growth and maturity.  They saw it as falling away.

And we do it right from the ground up with youth.  Do we teach them how to integrate an organic search for truth into faith that is genuinely their own, or do we teach them how to accept uncritically what they are taught and warn them of the dangers of getting too far outside the lines, or portray it as a waste of their time?

I mean, this just happened in a youth worship service I attended.  The casual contempt for learning and trivialization of knowledge, portraying these things as obstacles or at least irrelevant to true faith.

The paradigm for American evangelical faith is someone who believes all the right things unswervingly, never questioning.  Utterly credulous and intellectually disinterested.

That may be a way to have faith.  I’m certainly not trying to say my own journey is the only legitimate one or that the only way to be truly spiritual is to learn ancient languages or read controversial books all the time.

Certainly, knowledge for its own sake puffs up, as Paul warns us.  But static dogma is neither knowledge nor a remedy for pride.  It’s just assertions, typically tribal ones.

What I am saying is that our idea of what constitutes a passionate spiritual life may be backwards, or at least far too limited.

People learn all they can about something because they love it.  It’s a pursuit.  And when this gives rise to uncertainty, that’s love as well, because you love it for what it actually is.

To me, there’s always unexplored territory with no fences or signs telling me to keep out.  If we trust God, there’s no reason not to throw ourselves into the pursuit of our faith with all parts of our being.

It doesn’t always feel good.  Honestly, sometimes, it can feel pretty terrible.  But it’s always new.

Luke 19:11-28 – While You’re Waiting

Let me ask you folks a question: what are some things you like to do while you’re waiting?  Do you sit quietly with your thoughts?  Do you strike up conversations with the people around you?  Do you pull out your phone and start texting?  Do you call someone?  Which, incidentally, is kind of the same as talking to the people around you.  People seem to think some invisible sound shield surrounds them when they’re on their phone, but it doesn’t.  Everyone in the room knows all about your cyst or whatever you told your sister.

Most of the time, I read.  It used to be that I had to take a book with me everywhere I went, but thanks to technology, I have the Kindle app on my phone, which is great.  Now, if there’s a book I really want to read in ten-minute increments, I just fire up the app, and presto – five years later, I’ve read that book.

It’s a common part of our lives.  We show up for something, and then we have to wait.  Flights, doctor’s appointments – this is such a common phenomenon that we even have “waiting rooms.”  Isn’t that interesting?  That’s not very optimistic, is it?  We’re so confident that most people are going to have to wait that we built a special room for it.

In the military, we even had a special phrase for this.  Do you know what it is?  “Hurry up and wait.”  The idea is that it’s vitally important for you to arrive and be fully prepared as soon as you possibly can, but the military as a whole does not feel a similar obligation toward you, and you’re probably going to have to wait for the thing you were rushing to get to.  And then you play spades for the next three hours.

Our passage, today, is about something the disciples were sure was about to happen right away, but Jesus knew that they were going to have to wait, and how they spent that time was very important.

Please stand with me as we read the Word of God together:

As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.

He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’  And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ”

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Whenever Jesus talks in parables, he’s talking in a secret code.  Back in Luke chapter 8, when his disciples asked him why he didn’t speak more plainly, Jesus told them he taught the secrets of the kingdom in parables so that only the faithful would understand him and everyone else wouldn’t.

This is a very smart policy when you’re surrounded by the Roman Empire.  You can’t just walk around with a large group of people talking about a new kingdom overthrowing earthly kingdoms with yourself as the king.  Certain people will have feelings about that.  But if you’re walking around telling stories about seeds and sons and banquets and vineyards – nobody’s going to get into trouble for that.

But it’s a code.  It’s like those coded radio transmissions during World War II.  “The black cat sings by moonlight.  The turkey is on fire,” or whatever.  To the outside listener, that’s just someone saying random things about cats and turkeys.  To the people for whom the message is intended, however, secret and vital information is getting to them.

In fact, if you heard a spy say, “The black cat sings by moonlight,” and you went around looking for an actual cat, you would have missed the point, completely.  The message is not about cat noises.

In this parable, Jesus tells a story about a royal figure who is going away to receive a kingdom, but his own people don’t want him.  While he is away, he has servants invest some of his money.  When he comes back, he evaluates each of them on how well they did, and then destroys his enemies.

But this story is not about money management or the importance of investing or good ways to deal with your political opponents, and if we try to make this story about those literal things, then we’ve missed the point, just like the spy looking for a black cat.

So, I want to talk to you about the message that Jesus wanted his followers to hear, and then I want to talk about how that message might be useful for us, today.

First, what did Jesus want his followers to hear?

Luke tells us that Jesus has been traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s just been through Jericho where the event happens with Zacchaeus.  A big crowd is around Jesus, Zacchaeus repents of how he’s cheated his fellow Israelites – and the repentance is not just him being sorry, but he works to repair the damage, which is important for understanding biblical repentance – and Jesus announces that he will be saved.

As he continues toward Jerusalem, the people around Jesus begin to think that the kingdom of God is about to fully happen right then and there.  All the ingredients are here.  The true descendant of David is here, the city of the king is here – time for the true king to overthrow the impostors and take the throne and usher in a new era.  If you’re a Tolkien nerd like I am, you might think of Aragorn coming to Gondor in The Return of the King.  It’s time for Isildur’s true descendant to reign in the city of the king.  Tolkien was a Christian, and it’s no accident that many parts of his stories sound very much like Bible stories.

Jesus wants to correct this idea, but he can’t just come out in front of everyone and spell out his plans for the kingdom.  This would be crazy dangerous and… well… just crazy in general, really.  Nobody stands in front of the gates of the enemy and announces their strategy and timetable to everyone who happens to be standing around at the time.  So, instead, Jesus tells a story in secret code.  But as we interpret the code, we have to keep in mind the context: the issue that Jesus is talking about is the expectation that he is going to bring the kingdom of God right then and there.

In this story, the nobleman does not receive his kingdom right away – he has to travel far away, leaving his servants to manage things in his absence.  He receives his kingdom after his journey.

This is the first thing Jesus wants his true followers to know: the kingdom isn’t going to appear right this second.  It will come, and Jesus will receive it, but it will not be at that moment while he is with his disciples.  He will have to go away to receive it.

The disciples, by the way, never really do get keen on the idea that Jesus has to leave them in order for this kingdom plan to work.  They keep expecting and insisting that Jesus will stay with them, be victorious right then, and set them on thrones and so on.  This is an ongoing obstacle with Jesus’ disciples until after his resurrection and ascension.  At one point, Peter even rebukes Jesus for saying things like this, which is pretty gutsy, if you ask me.

The next thing the nobleman does in the story is give his servants some money and command them to conduct business for him while he’s away.

So, the second thing Jesus wants them to know is that, while he is gone, they will have to manage without him, and he expects they will take what he has given them and multiply it.  At the time, they don’t know what this will look like, but on this side of the book of Acts, we do.  The sharing of the gospel, the performing of Jesus’ miracles, the establishment of believing communities taking care of one another – these are things Jesus’ followers do in the days after he leaves them.

Then, in the story, our nobleman runs into a snag.  Some of his own people begin to subvert him.  They start telling these new kingdom people that they don’t want this man to be their king.

Jesus is telling his followers that this will happen to him as well.  Some of the very people who should be rejoicing that their king has come will be the same people who work to stop it, namely the political and religious leaders of Israel at that time, and they will seek to turn the people who would enter the kingdom against their prospective king.

We might expect, then, that this nobleman in the story is in a bad spot.  He’s away from his servants and some of his own people are working to turn everyone against him.  But that’s not at all what happens.  The nobleman receives his kingdom and comes back!  Safe and sound!  No trouble at all.  He’s got the kingdom, and he’s back with his servants.

Jesus wants his followers to know that even though he has to go away, and even though there will be opposition, that this cannot stop his plans.  It doesn’t hold them up at all, and these efforts to stop them amount to something like a bug trying to stop a van.  Jesus wants his followers to have hope and be comforted during that time.  He will receive his kingdom, and he will come back to them.

Then the nobleman asks how each of them did with his money, and the first couple of servants report successes.  Note that, in the story, he rewards them with authority over cities.  He has a kingdom, now, and can do these sorts of things.  The little of his money that they were entrusted with shows him that they can be trusted with much greater power and authority.  Because they were faithful with what they had been given, their lord can trust them with much, much more.

Jesus wants his followers to know that, when he returns, their faithfulness in his absence will show that they are worthy of receiving authority in his kingdom.  He expects that they will obey him while he is gone and do the things that he did in the world, and this will result in more and more people turning their hearts to him.  Because they are faithful with a little, great will be their reward.  Their stewardship of the gifts of the gospel and their spiritual gifts and the people under their care and leadership will result in them ruling the kingdom with Jesus.

And then we get to the next servant, and, I’m not going to lie, things get a little awkward.

This servant has done absolutely nothing with his lord’s investment.  He’s hidden it.  And why?  Because he was afraid.  He knew his master was a savvy investor, a hard-driving businessman, and a strict evaluator.  He was afraid that, if he did something with his master’s money, he would lose what he had and the master would be angry with him.

Makes some sense, right?  We’ve probably all had bosses like this.  Maybe you are a boss like this; I don’t know.

And if the lord’s instruction had been, “Make sure I don’t lose any money,” this line of reasoning might have worked out.  If he had said, “Please do what you can to hold on to what I gave you,” this plan might have been all right.  Unfortunately, the lord had asked his servants to risk the money – to put it out there like he did and see what happened.  This is the irony of this servant: by trying to protect his lord’s interests, he ended up completely disobeying him.

Let that sink in for a minute.  He tried to protect his lord’s interests, and he ended up not doing what the lord said he wanted.

The nobleman in the story does not take this well.  He tells the servant that, if he knew all those things about him, then he should have been motivated to multiply the money.  If he was so worried about losing the money, he could have at least put it in the bank to gather interest.  That at least would have been something!  That at least would have been obedient, even if it was in a cautious, small way.  His return may have been small, and perhaps his reward would not have been as great as the others, but he would have done what his master said to do.  Just putting out the barest amount of thought and effort on his part to do something – anything – that would have increased what the master entrusted to him.

This is an important truth for Jesus’ disciples.  The days are coming when they will have to risk what they’ve got, perhaps even their own lives.  The command is not to hide.  The command is not to keep safe until Jesus returns with the kingdom.  The command is to risk and grow what they have been given; even the smallest effort will be worth something.

In the story, what has been given to the servant is taken away and given to the one who had made a lot of money.  Not all the servants were ok with this, but the master reminded them of the principle: the one who is faithful with what they have been given will be rewarded accordingly.  If someone is unfaithful, even what they have been given will be taken away and, in this case, given to the servant who showed they could do something profitable with it.

Jesus wanted his followers to know that some who would call him Lord, today, would do absolutely zero about it.  They would blend into a pagan Roman Empire and live safe lives.  When people asked about following Jesus, they would say, “Well, yes, Jesus was pretty great, but the Emperor is pretty great, too.  Thank goodness he’s still in charge.  I’m voting for him next time, too.”  When sick people came to them, they would say, “You know, I’m not sure God still works in that way.  I hope you feel better!”  When poor people came to them, they wouldn’t give of their food or clothing, but they would say, “I hope God clothes you and feeds you!” and send them on their way.

In other words, they would hide their advance share of the kingdom, and when Jesus returned, he would take it from them and give it to those who were, frankly, more like him.

Now, some of you may wonder if I’m aware this is a Protestant church.  We believe in justification by faith alone, and not faith plus works.  That’s certainly true.  And it may be noteworthy in the story that the unfaithful servant does not suffer the same fate that the lord’s enemies do.

But let’s not theologize the teeth out of Jesus’ story, here.  The servant doesn’t get cities because he believed the right things about his lord (which he clearly did), and he doesn’t get cities for the intent of his heart being in the right place.  He doesn’t get cities because he didn’t do what the lord asked him to do with what he had been given.

And then we have the end of the parable: the nobleman’s enemies are brought before him to be executed.

And now we see why Jesus might be telling a parable, here, instead of speaking plainly.  He wants his disciples to know that everyone who subverts him, now, will get their comeuppance when he returns.  I admit, this is a side of Jesus that makes us uncomfortable, but it’s part of his story.  When the disciples don’t see the kingdom occurring right in front of them the way they want it to, Jesus wants them to know that it will not be put off forever.  They will have to wait, and there are expectations of what they do while they’re waiting, but their waiting will have an end.

And when that day comes, the opponents of king Jesus will receive a judgement from him, and on that day, the judgement will be their destruction.

We know from history, church, that this story is what played out.

Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the kingdom did not appear.  He was killed.  Then, God raised him from the dead and exalted him to His right hand.  The faithful followers of Jesus were given his Spirit, and they said the things he said and did the things he did, and the fire spread throughout the ancient world.

And those who subverted Jesus?  Herod?  The power structure of the Temple?  The high priest?  The Sanhedrin?  In 70 AD, they were destroyed by the Roman Empire while the followers of Jesus had left the city.  And the Roman Empire?  The gospel spread and spread until Christians brought the pagan powers of Rome to a close, put a stop to persecution, and declared that Jesus Christ was the Lord over the Empire.

This is not the end of the story, of course.  And that brings me to my closing point: what message does Jesus’ story have for us?

Well, at the personal level, this may have challenged you to think about what you’ve been given and what you’re doing with it.  What spiritual gifts do you have?  What resources have you been given?  What are you doing with your house or your car in Jesus’ name?  Your money?  Your time?  Your skills?

If you’re thinking about these things, don’t shut that down.  That’s likely the Spirit.  And the Spirit is not a spirit of shame.

But like a loving Father, we want to hear God’s encouragement to move from strength to strength, and maybe this is an area the Spirit is urging you to grow in.  Don’t shut that off!

And I will tell you this is a huge area for me.  When it comes to spending my time and money and skills on dumb stuff to make myself feel better, I’m not just in the boat with you, I’m the captain of that boat.  I am the captain of the S.S. Waste o’ Resources.

Along with however the Spirit is speaking to you personally, I also want us to give attention to how we might hear this story as the people of God in the world, collectively.  As a group.  That’s how the Bible was written, after all.

Christianity in the West is at a point it hasn’t been for a very long time.  For literally centuries, we have been used to being on top.  Political aspirants needed our approval.  Cultures and even laws were dictated by our practices and values.  Did you know you can’t buy alcohol in Kansas before noon?  Let’s not talk about how I know that.

We have had a very long run of dictating the pace of politics, education, laws, media, culture, public morality.  Not everyone has let this go unchallenged, and I’m not saying everything has always pandered to Christians, because that’s not true.  But our culturally dominant place in Western society is something that has just gone without saying for a long time.

But today is somewhat different, isn’t it?

We feel like we are losing our grasp everywhere and at an alarming pace.  For lack of a better word, secularism is on the rise in virtually every social institution you can imagine, and Christianity is seen as irrelevant at best and actively harmful to society at worst.  It’s a fairy tale.  It’s something that has no place in a world that should be run by empiricism and rationality.

And you can see every aspect of the culture throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity.  Heck, you can even see Christianity throwing off the longstanding yoke of Christianity, sometimes.

And, you know, not all of this is necessarily bad.  Love rules the world, and where Christians impede it, we should move out of the way.  We’re not growing as the people of God, or even being the people of God in new contexts, if we look exactly the same as we did in the first or fifth or fifteenth century.

When we see this happening around us, it’s a natural instinct to panic.  And panic we have.  There is a full court press in America to try to reclaim the social influence and power we used to have, and we’ve been very indiscriminate about whom we ally with to get it.

But maybe instead of asking ourselves what we can do to get back on top, maybe we should ask ourselves: what did we do when we were on top?  Were we a model of compassion, justice, and mercy for the rest of the world?  Were we a blessing to the nations?

Maybe, just maybe, the reason we’ve lost our status in the world is because we proved irresponsible with it.  Maybe we used our power for our own benefit.  Maybe we used it to get our way.  Maybe we didn’t think about anyone’s welfare but our own.

Were we Jesus in the world?  Did people in all nations marvel at how sacrificially Christians loved?  Or did we look like something very different?

You know, the whole reason Israel was under Roman rule in the first place was that, instead of being a model for the rest of the nations – instead of doing justice, being merciful, spreading compassion, dispensing wisdom, promoting peace and healing and forgiveness and restoration – instead of doing those things, her leaders oppressed the poor and the outsider, they forgot the widow and the orphan and the prisoner, they chased money and allied themselves with the political powers of their day.

And God through His prophets warned them.  He told them that their religious obedience was offensive to Him, because they had neglected the weightier matters of the Law.  He wanted them to be merciful, not their sacrifices.  Eventually, what they had was taken away from them.

It is because of Scripture that I can tell you that Sundays being sacred and singing worship songs and fighting for our moral values is all offensive to God if we are not being Jesus to each other and to the world.

If someone in a congregation is having trouble buying enough food and someone else is trying to decide what wood their new entertainment center should be made of.  If we cover up sexual abuse to avoid looking bad.  If people of color try to tell us their experiences and we tell them they are wrong and their feelings don’t matter.  We cannot expect to be prominent in the world if this is what we have to offer the world.  If we are not leading with love, justice, compassion, wisdom, and peace – incarnating those precious fruits of the Spirit – then what we have will be taken away from us.

God does not care about our numbers, our buildings, or our programs if we are not going to be what His people are supposed to be.  He does not care what legislation we defeat or what politicians we get elected if we are just another group looking for power in the world like every other group.  We are supposed to be a light.  We are supposed to be a new heavens and a new earth right now.  We are supposed to be a vision of Spirit-filled community that is so full of love and restoration and hope that people should be beating our doors down to get in.

Have we been that?  What did we do with power and influence when we had it?  What did we do with the resources the master gave us?  Did we do what he would have done?  What he asked us to do?

Well, none of us want to see the Church lose influence or credibility, but maybe there is a blessing to be found, here.  Maybe when we have lost our influence, we won’t invest so much in trying to secure it at all costs.  Maybe this period will turn our eyes back to who our Lord is and what he asked us to do in his name.  Maybe this is our chance to wait well and not waste this time.

This is how we begin to turn the ship around.  Get into healing hurts, both physical and emotional.  Get into bringing forgiveness to those tormented by their sins.  Get into bringing safety and care to people who live lives at risk.  Seek ways to increase the well-being of this city.  Bring family to people who don’t know what true family is like.  Know each other fully and love each other sacrificially.

And who knows?  With efforts like this that grow over time, who knows what the returns on that investment will be?  Who knows how the Church will be seen by the world ten, fifty, a hundred, or five hundred years from now?  Who knows what God will entrust to our care if we dedicate ourselves to being good stewards of the gospel and the Spirit?

I can tell you, from how God has dealt with His people in the past, that the road to victory is faithful obedience – being who we’re supposed to be no matter what our circumstances are.  Someday, this road will come to an end, and what wonders will wait for us in God’s hands when we turn over to Him what we have done with His gifts?

Sunday Meditations: Reality, Relativity, and Relationships

Back in the day when I was a licensed Baptist minister at the wizened age of seventeen, I was told that you should try to make all your sermon points start with the same letter, although I think the title of this blog post just did that because the words share common roots.

I was also told that it’s good to open with a story or an illustration, so….

Imagine, if you will, an empty glass.  I almost always have one at my desk; I drink the water while I do other things, go back upstairs to refill it, bring it back down – it’s the circle of life.

If you were to say, “This glass is empty,” it would be weird and pedantic to point out that the glass is not truly empty.  It would be accurate to do so, however.  Not only does the glass have little bits of dust and moisture in it, it’s full of air.  We do not perceive the air, and therefore we usually don’t take it into account in our language.  If two people are standing in an empty room, we say there is “nothing” separating them.  While this is true in a common usage sense, it’s not true in an ontological sense.

But there’s more that could be said about our glass full of air, because both the glass and the air consist of molecules.  The glass’ molecules are tightly packed together; the air molecules are more dispersed.  These molecules are made of atoms.  These atoms are made of subatomic particles.  We can keep drilling down until we get to Planck.  At some level, both the glass and the air are simply small particles, heat, motion and configuration.  The glass and the air are a specific event, in that sense.

None of this suggests that the glass and the air are not real or things we can’t distinguish.  If I throw the glass at your face, the effect will be markedly different than if I throw a handful of air at your face.  At our experienced level of reality – the reality-for-us level – there is a glass and there is air.

At the same time, though, we acknowledge that these distinctions largely come from what we do and don’t perceive.  If we were capable of seeing all matter at the subatomic level, we would not see a difference between the glass and the air.  Or, maybe a better way of putting it, we would see that the glass and the air were not different kinds of things but were rather differing configurations, movements, collections of the same thing.  At that level, there is no glass and there is no air; it’s only our coarse-grained perceptions that present them to us in this way.

Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

– Boy to Neo in The Matrix

In the movie The Matrix, the characters live in a world that is completely generated by their brains processing electrical signals.  I would like to point out that, for all practical purposes, I have described our world as well.

Inside the Matrix, we (the audience) know the world is a fictional construction because they tell us in the story.  This is the main conceit of the film.  People living in the Matrix would normally have no clue that they are hooked up to machines because their brains are being fed “perception signals” that makes them see what the robots want them to see.

At one point, Cypher is looking at a monitor streaming code, and he tells Neo that, when he looks at the code, he sees various people and objects.  At their most fundamental level, all of these objects are composed of the same stuff.  Cypher has the ability to see the “stuff” and also recognize the configurations.  At a later point in the movie, Neo develops this ability as well – to see the world around him as particular manifestations of the same raw materials (computer code, in this case).

On one level, there is a lady in a red dress in the Matrix.  There are dogs.  There are cats.  You can be cruel to people in the Matrix.  You can kill them.  You can jump from rooftop to rooftop.  There are cars.

On another level, there are none of these things.  All of them are simply configurations of code, and that same code could easily describe a completely different kind of object if arranged in a different way.

What makes this concept so compelling is how very much like the actual world this is.

Our perceptions enable us to deal with objects, animals, and other people in the world, which is a good thing because survival kind of depends on it.  Also, you might discover you have fewer friends if you decided to treat everyone and everything in your life as an arbitrary configuration of molecules that could just as easily have been something else.

So, these objects are real.  There is nothing wrong with talking about glasses, air, basketballs, spouses, kittens, etc.  But we also know and relate to these things due to the limits of our perception.  Again, if we could see all these things at the subatomic level, it would all seem like a frenzied dance of particles to us.  We would realize, then, that our empty glass is simply how I as a perceiver observe and relate to that particular configuration of all molecules.  Molecules which, I might add, will one day belong to other objects and not this glass.

Because this idea of an empty glass is so tied to my perception of it, there’s a degree of relativity involved.  If I called my neighbor on the phone and said, “Hey, make sure you don’t knock over my glass,” they’d have no idea what I was talking about.  They do not perceive my glass.  My glass is over here.  This does not put the reality of the glass into question, but it does mean that I can’t talk to my neighbor as though they are experiencing my glass.

To make the relativity clearer, imagine a race of giants so enormous that our entire solar system would fit on the tip of one of their nose hairs.  Is my glass anything to them?  Or is it a particle so small that it would never enter into their perception?  When one of them says, “I trimmed my nose hair,” that’s an act of hygiene to them.  To me, it’s destroying galaxies.

When you brush your skin with your fingertips, you are raining food from heaven down upon an innumerable host of microorganisms.

Speaking of, imagine a being so tiny that they moved between the empty spaces between molecules.  Would they know about my glass?  Would it seem glass-ish to them?  Well, no, they live among the molecules and would be blissfully unaware that their entire universe ultimately coalesced into my empty glass.

If you’re still reading, you’re probably quite rightly wondering where I’m going with all of this.  Bear with me for a bit more road.

I have talked about how the nature of space is made up of tiny particles in varying configurations agitated by heat and transferring heat.  This is a fundamental idea underlying physics.

What you may not be aware of is that this isn’t just a property of space, but also of time.

Although it may see counter to our intuition of time, time (or more accurately, spacetime) is composed of particles that, agitated by the transfer of heat, are arranged in certain configurations.  We do not perceive these particles; we only perceive the configurations at a very coarse-grained level.  This is where our perception of events comes from.

I admit this can sound a little weird at first.  It’s one thing to say that this inch of road is a certain configuration of particles, while that inch of road is another, and so on and so on for miles and miles and miles.  It’s another thing to say that this present instance is composed of a certain configuration of particles and so is the next on and on for billions of years.  As you can see, it would also be virtually impossible to talk about this “instant” without being able to talk about the materials that exist in this “instant,” and that’s another way of seeing that talking about space and talking about time are getting close to pretty much talking about the same thing, just experienced differently.

As heat transfers occur between these particles, new “events” are generated.  The fundamental fabric of the universe, as far as we can tell today, appears to be an endless succession of heat-catalyzed changes, moving from lower entropy to higher entropy.

The raw, subatomic materials of the time of my birth and my death and me typing this blog all exist in the universe right now, and there’s no inherent, objective reason why I shouldn’t have died before I was born or why I don’t age backwards Benjamin Button style.  All we know is that the particles do not tend to configure themselves in that way.

There are theoretically possible universes where that sort of thing is exactly what happens.  There are theoretically possible universes that are devoid of heat and time stands still.  There is no equation of physics (with the possible exception of heat transfer itself) that doesn’t work just as well if time “flows” in the opposite direction.

The kicker is that our experience of time, just like our experience of space, is completely controlled by what we can and cannot perceive.  If we could see space at its most granular level, we would see that there is no difference between objects.  If we could see time at its most granular level, we see that there is no difference between events; there is no past, no present, no future – not at the fundamental, building-block level.

This does not mean that time is an illusion.  My glass is not an illusion; it’s real.  It’s real, however, only within the context of my perception of it.  I operate at a level of perception where glasses are things, but our little molecule man living in the empty spaces between a couple of silicon dioxide molecules doesn’t.

What experiments we can do with time bear this out.  Time moves faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.  Time moves slower on trains that it does on bicycles.  Time is slower around more massive objects than less massive objects.  I could fly through space for a few years and come back to Earth many years into its future.

Time is relative to your point of reference.  Time is relative to your experience of it.

“But that’s ridiculous,” you might counter.  “Cause and effect happen.  Things happen after other things.  I can remember the past, but I cannot perceive the future.”

Yes, all those things are true and real (maybe even the part about me being ridiculous), but they are true and real according to the way human beings perceive time.  You and every other human is a human perceiving time the way humans perceive time, and we deal with it at that level.  But that’s not the only level.  It seems silly to think of my glass as a seething mass of particles, too, when it’s so clearly a solid, continuous object.  But at another level, it’s not at all.

So, again, where am I going with all this?

I want to say at the first that the relativity of time and space is A) not new, and B) not an excuse to throw the doors open wide to making all claims credible.

At the same time, it does make one wonder if some of the powerful themes and intuitions captured by religion aren’t turning out to say more than perhaps anyone thought at the time.

Some of these are more direct.  For example, St. Augustine in Confessions boldly declares that the only view of time that makes sense is a human being’s mental activity of holding together instances of the past and imagining the future.

But consider this: the Judeo-Christian tradition has, theologically, grown into two ideas of a judgement.  One judgement, you experience immediately after death.  Another judgement is at the end of all history.  So, which is it?  Is a person judged when they die or at the end of history?  Or do you get sent somewhere when you die only to be yanked out and sent back there after being judged, again?

Or, is it possible that we can talk about what happens to us after we die according to the way we would reckon it with the way we might currently perceive it, but there’s a level of perception at which those are no longer two, separate events?

Come to the topic of death, should I fear death?  Because, apparently, I’m already dead.  My death is already etched into the raw materials of the universe right now, and we’re just waiting for my (and all the rest of humanity’s) perception to discern it.  Waiting for that configuration to emerge before us.

When viewed that way, I understand that I can’t really be afraid of death.  What I fear is loss, and although that hurts, it also shows me that I love and am connected to those relationships whose loss I prospectively mourn.

But at the same time, those relationships are etched into the raw materials of the universe, too.  My sons being infants is not a brief flash in the pan of history that has gone forever; that stuff of that time is actually still out there, reconfiguring into new designs and, theoretically, still reproducible – just like the atomic configuration that makes up my glass and the one that made up St. Augustine.  I have not and cannot lose anything forever.  Perhaps the notion some religions have of reincarnation, past lives, etc. are theological ways of portraying the raw notion that no instance of time ever dies; it simply gets reconfigured.

And, if there is a Being out there who could either by direct control, indirect influence, or by simply allowing the seemingly-random patterns inherent in the fundamental design to play out and configure and reconfigure the raw materials of time and matter… well….

Who knows what worlds are possible?

Sunday Meditations: What’s the Bible Got to Do with Me?

Depending on your background, the question, “What’s the Bible got to do with me?” may seem silly.

If you’ve had any encounters with church at all, this isn’t a question that gets asked a whole lot.  There’s a fundamental assumption that the Bible speaks directly to you and to your situation as if it were a letter God wrote to you.  Metaphors for the Bible abound that capture this idea: the Bible is God’s love letter to you, the Bible is God’s instruction manual for life, etc.  The idea is that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, read it, and get information that is directly relevant to their lives right off the page.

If that’s where you’re coming from, then the rest of this post is probably not going to be very interesting.

I have taken a view of the Bible that the writings in it were produced at specific times for specific purposes primarily for the audience who received those writings at that time.  As such, the writings rely on the events, worldviews, theologies, and concerns of the people at the time, and that becomes our primary reference point when determining what the Scriptures meant.

When this approach is taken, the content of the Scriptures can seem somewhat limited compared to our evangelical theology, especially when we look at the gospels.  Instead of a Jesus engaged in a cosmic battle against the forces of darkness or a Jesus focused on the spiritual condition of every individual, we have a Jesus who is concerned about the state of Israel in his day, has prophetic warnings for them, works to restore them to wholeness, dies so that they might be saved, and is exalted to God’s right hand so that their fortunes in the world might be reversed.

As we read further in the New Testament, we see that what happened with Israel begins to roll out to the nations.  A great overturning of fortunes is seen for the whole Empire, and the Gentiles who believe in what God has done in and for Jesus, and specifically believe that Jesus has been exalted to lordship by God, receive the same Spirit of God that faithful Israel has.  Their sins, too, are forgiven, and they, too, have hope of being saved from a coming judgement that, on the other side, will result in the reign of the saints both dead and alive.  Again, this is viewed as an imminent event.

Historically, however, we are long past this time frame.

Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman Empire and the Temple destroyed, bringing an end to the Israel-specific religious and political power structures of the day.  Through the ridiculously rapid spread of Christianity in the Empire, Roman paganism was overthrown, bringing an end to persecution of Christians, and Jesus was declared Lord over the same Empire that executed him.

And then time went on.  The Temple was never rebuilt.  The Roman Empire declined and faded.  These were the key scenarios anticipated by the Scriptures, and they happened.

So, that raises the legitimate question: what does the Bible have to do with us, today?  Or, maybe more to the point, what relationship do these truths, teachings, narratives, and observations have to us, today, who are living so long after the main concerns have come and gone?

One answer is that everything I wrote above is pretty much wrong.  The biblical writings are not primarily concerned with their proximate historical situation and, instead, are focused on timeless, trans-historical truths that speak equally to everyone everywhere.  This is a well-established position and, if it is yours, you are in good company.  It’s not the purpose of this post to argue against it, and as I said, you’ll probably find the rest of this a little boring because you’ve already rejected a key assumption of it.

But if you’re me or someone who thinks somewhat about the Bible like I do, then this is an important issue, and I’d like to address it in a few ways.

This Has Always Been an Issue

Because we have had a closed canon for so long, we can sometimes forget that the writings in the Bible were produced over a very long period of time – even longer if we consider the stories and traditions that came before writing them down.

Our Jewish forefathers in the faith produced Scripture at a given point in time, and generations much later had to discern the significance for them at a later time.  Yet, at no point did anyone think these Scriptures were no longer relevant.

For instance, we read in 1 Maccabees of the persecution and paganism forced upon the Jewish people by Antiochus Epiphanes.  In the early chapters of 1 Maccabees, we read of faithful Israel being urged to keep the covenant of her ancestors, and in 2:49-70, Matthias on his deathbed recites the faithfulness of various figures from the Old Testament and uses them as examples to his audience.  They are examples because they are Israel’s forefathers.  If Israel remains faithful in her hour of trial, then God will preserve them even as the pagan empires around them pass away.

Not a single one of those Old Testament episodes were written to address Matthias’ current situation, nor were they written to establish a timeless principle of how God deals with people being persecuted – like that’s the “moral of the story” or what have you.

Yet, Matthias turns to these narratives to offer guidance in Israel’s present (to Matthias) situation.  This happens in two ways:

  1. What has happened in the past has ramifications for the present.
  2. What we see happening in the past can be transposed into our present situation for understanding and guidance.

Note, I am not condoning how Matthias specifically chose to apply the Old Testament to his present situation (which was, basically, let’s take revenge on the Gentiles), but rather to demonstrate that this is something the believing community has always had to do – take Scriptures that focused on past history and concerns and use them in a later context.

What Has Happened in the Past Has Ramifications for the Present

It seems like this is so obvious that it goes without saying: narrative about the past is vital for understanding your present situation.

How did we get here?  Where did we go wrong?  What did we do right?  How did people deal with this in the past?  How did it go?  Are there keys in here for undoing the present ills the past has produced?  Are we headed in a direction where we are doomed to repeat this fate?  Have past events imposed obligations on us in the present?  Are we, who are far removed from the original participants in historical events, still experiencing the effects and ramifications of them?

For example, I live in the United States.  If someone said that the Revolutionary War or the Constitution or slavery were all irrelevant to the present experience of the United States simply because they occurred in a historical scope that is long past, everyone would consider that person profoundly ignorant.

These events, stories, and documents are formative for the United States and continue to “live on” in values, practices, and institutions both for good and ill.  An ignorance of them only leaves us at the mercy of the trajectory they have set us on.

We learn them so that we can understand who we are and how we got here, hold to the things that serve us well, undo the things that have plagued us, avoid the errors (ideally) of our past and pursue the virtues and victories.

This is not really different from the role the narratives of Israel’s past played in their present experience over time, and you can see it in the biblical writings themselves, as later stories draw from figures, images, and outcomes of older ones.

Even in stories we have of these events, a concern that later generations will remember the story and draw meaning from it is present.  For example, in Exodus 12, the story of the Passover establishes it as a perpetual practice – one where children might well ask, “Why do we celebrate this?”  Their parents are to respond that this celebrates when the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, striking the Egyptians but sparing Israel.

This event, long in Israel’s primordial past, is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder of who their God is, what He has done for them, and the special relationship they have with Him that the other nations do not.  This complex of truths undergirds the entirety of Israel’s experience as narrated through the Scriptures.  Even the Ten Commandments begin with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.  You shall have no other gods before Me.”

By the time we get to Jesus, we find a Jesus who is not at odds with the narrative tradition behind him but continuous with it.  He sees himself as the last of a line of messengers sent by God to turn Israel from her path and holds out the prophetic possibility of restoration that repentance can bring – restoration from a specific situation that has been brought about by Israel’s past history, not some generic spiritual condition that has plagued mankind since Eden.

See, there is a reason Jesus has to arrive in the first century.

Even when we see shocking events in the New Testament like Pentecost, Peter sees this as a progression of the Old Testament narrative.  Stephen explains his martyrdom and the exaltation of Jesus in terms of Israel’s past story.  Paul sees the inclusion of Gentiles as an outcome of the covenant made with Abraham, who is the spiritual forefather of both Jews and Gentiles and whose promise will bring them together.

They have to understand past events because they have ramifications for the present.

So, when we talk about the Bible’s relevance for our present experience, this is one way: we understand what happened in the past to understand our present.

God has made a way of justification apart from the Israel-specific Torah: it is faith in Jesus Christ.  This is what God has done in the past.  Today, we join His people by believing in what He has done in Jesus in the past, and when we do this, we receive His Spirit.  We know this by what we know of the past.  Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand in the past and this explains his current lordship over the church.  The observation of God’s faithfulness to His promises and the survival and fortunes of His people give us comfort and hope in our own circumstances as the church.  God’s past operations beyond the grave have ramifications for our own future.

The destruction of the Temple has ramifications for our present.  The rise and fall of Rome has ramifications for our present.

In the name of Jesus, I can offer all people forgiveness of their sins, the promise of the Spirit, new life in a new community with a new mission that will restore everything that is broken, and I can offer them this on the strength of what God has done in the past.

Just like the study of America’s formative documents, stories, and events – these things tell us how we got here, help us understand our present, and give us tools for navigating it.

I have told people before that, if I were financially independent, I would like to spend my time going to churches and telling them, from history, what God has done in Jesus, who they are, and what that means for their hope and mission.  This identity-forming practice of sharing stories is something that has strong roots in our tribal past but isn’t terribly common these days.  In fact, a “timeless truths” approach to Scripture can sometimes undermine this.  The story of David and Goliath is no longer part of who we are or how we got here and is, instead, basically a fable like the Fox and the Grapes – a story whose particulars are unimportant that serves to teach a general, moral lesson.

Transposing the Past

He might not have been the first person to put it this way, but Andrew Perriman was the person who introduced me to the image of transposing the biblical narrative.

“Transposing” is a musical term.  See, a given piece of music is written in a certain “key.”  A key is basically the boundaries of the notes used in a piece of music.

Well, once you bring singers into the mix, you sometimes have a problem.  What if the notes are too high or too low for your singers?

Then you can move the notes into a higher or lower key.  You still get the same song because the relationship between all the notes is exactly the same, but they now run in a higher or lower range.  Moving the same notes into a different key is called “transposition.”

In other words, you have taken the exact same musical structure, but you have moved it into a range that fits your current singers.

The gospel writers are experts at this.  Maybe even a little overzealous at times.

For example, Matthew’s gospel portrays Herod as ordering the execution of infants in Bethlehem because he is afraid a child has been born that will overthrow him.  In reference to this event, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 about Ramah weeping over her lost children.

Jeremiah 31 is not at all a prophecy about Herod.  It’s about Israelite sons being taken captive into Babylon.  It even specifically says Ramah, not Bethlehem.

So, was Matthew written by a total idiot or what?

No, Matthew is transposing Jeremiah 31.  Jeremiah posits that Israel is weeping because her children are being taken from her by an oppressor, but God will hear the grief of His people and will restore their fortunes, returning their children from exile and delivering them from oppressors.

Matthew is saying, in essence, “Israel under Herod is like Israel under Babylon.  And just as God removed Babylon and brought Israel back to her land, so God is about to accomplish another deliverance of Israel in Jesus Christ.  God is about to overturn this oppressor, who is so much worse, with a salvation that is so much greater in scope.”

Matthew is using a text bounded by specific historical circumstances and significant in the past to explain present circumstances and offer both explanation and hope to his readers.

This is, I believe, the kind of thing that needs to happen, today, and is in large part what my blog is about – trying to do this (and screwing it up a lot) better and better.

In this way, we use past history to serve the present, but not by stripping it of its historical significance.  Rather, its historical significance is exactly what allows it to have value in the present.

It has been my experience that the most powerful forms of preaching and proclamation are the ones where the present voice of God is brought forward from the original voice and the two are strongly connected.

Joe Frazier was a professional boxer who had a particular habit.  When he punched people at head level, he turned his fist vertically instead of horizontally.  He called this the “power line,” because it brought his fist, wrist, and arm into better alignment when punching at that height.  You can actually test this for yourself without punching anyone.  Stand next to a wall and press your fist against it at the height of your face and look at your alignment, then turn your fist vertical and do the same thing.

The point is that the greater alignment of all the parts involved delivered a much more powerful punch, and I have discovered this to be the case when preaching or even talking about the Bible.  It’s not as though you can’t have a powerful punch without connecting the meaning of the past with your present proclamation; you can.  But I have seen powerful things happen when all the pieces are in alignment.

In this way, transposing the past into our present circumstances gives the Bible a new and powerful voice.

When I talk about the story of Jesus casting out Legion, it is no longer simply a tale of spiritual power or a model for dealing with demons; it is the story of Jesus taking on a complete world system – all the powers working together that have oppressed this man.  There is no bifurcation in this story between the spiritual forces of darkness and the political oppression of the Roman Empire.  One is a physical embodiment of the other, and Jesus, with the power of God, confronts them simultaneously.

What a holistic call to mission this is, and what assurance we have of the victory of God when we act in His name.  I do not have to choose between “saving souls,” addressing people’s psychological needs, addressing their material needs, or working for the betterment of the structures that people have to live under.  All of it is a war against darkness, all of it is subject to Jesus’ power and authority, and there is nothing the Church needs to fear from any principality or power whatever form it takes, and there is no limit to the deliverance we have to offer suffering people.

The historical confrontation of Jesus and Rome is in our past – and Jesus won it.  Go to Rome, today, and tell me who won that confrontation.  We have our own oppressors, our own manifestations of darkness, our own people afflicted with all kinds of holistic suffering, and we have the commission and power to bring deliverance to them and every hope from the historical success of Jesus that we, too, ultimately, will be successful in ridding this world of everything that oppresses and afflicts, culminating ultimately in a new heavens and earth that are the product of God Himself.

If that doesn’t motivate you to fight, if that doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what would.  Compare that to a story about demonic possession where the point is, essentially, that Jesus really cares about even crazy people, and since he’s God, he can send demons away.  I mean, not that those things aren’t necessarily true, but you see how anemic it can become when we strip away the historical significance of the story where Jesus faces the Legio Romana.

Imagine, if you will, going to an underground Chinese congregation in China and telling them that at least their hearts are right so they’ll go to heaven when the government persecutes them.  Now, imagine showing that same congregation the historical commitment God has demonstrated to the survival of His people, the steadfastness of His promise, the goal He has for His people to be a witness and agents to the world which no power of Hell or man can snuff out, and for those that do fall in the cause of love, death is answered in resurrection.  Do you see the difference in those two messages?  Do you see the difference in power and hope and mission?

What invitation do I have to offer the world based on what God has done in history?  I invite you to leave lives behind that are full of dysfunction, guilt, and dissipation to return to a God who keeps His promises.  A God who has for you the promise of the Spirit, filling you with His presence and bringing you into fellowship with a community of people who are also full of the Spirit and bearing healing fruits of all kinds as a result.  And you will become part of the mission to push back the darkness that plagues the world in all its forms with this Spirit under the guidance and protective care of Jesus, your living king.  And when this world has been made new and the last enemy of it has been subdued, the One who created all things will see you safely into it.

The Present Experience of the Church

It should be noted that, given that God has poured out the Spirit onto those who believe in Jesus and confess him as Lord, the present experience of the Church in the Spirit is something that absolutely must be taken into account alongside of our Bible reading.

The earliest church didn’t even have Bibles, at least not as we know them.  They had the proclamation of the Apostles and the demonstrative life of the Spirit among them.  Eventually, this produced letters and gospels and at least one apocalypse that was canonized, but the believing community did not live their lives buried in the pages of a book but in the lived out experience of the Spirit.

Sometimes, this experience manifested itself in drastic, crazy, remarkable ways.  Sometimes, it manifested simply in the extremes to which people would love and sacrifice for one another in the midst of a world that did not understand why you would want to do that.  And everything in between.

This is why I don’t go around telling people to stop getting meanings out of their Bibles that I think are ill-founded (as long as they stop short of telling me that’s what the Bible “means” or use their insight to bludgeon others).  The Spirit speaks and works, and the Bible is one of the vehicles through which this happens.  If someone reads a passage about Zacchaeus and it makes them think about whether or not their pricing is just at their workplace, I’m all for it.  Who knows but that it isn’t the Spirit speaking to that person, working with them to create a more just and compassionate world?

People draw comfort and insight for their lives from the Bible who don’t know anything about the Bible.  Who am I to say that is not the Spirit working with them through those pages?  Heck, some people even have a theology that makes it impossible for the Spirit to speak to them, so how else is it going to get done?

Regardless of what we think about the Bible or history or interpretation, good, amazing stuff is happening in the Church.  When we go out in faith and do Jesus things, Jesus things happen – often small, mundane stories, sometimes spectacular, but always about healing and reconciliation.  Always bringing the new creation into the here and now by the power of the Spirit.

Does this mean that Bible knowledge isn’t important?  No, although it might be less important than the position we’ve elevated it to in the West.  Still, as I’ve noted, the importance of understanding who we are, where we came from, how we got here, and what guidance all that can give us in our present circumstances is not incidental to the Church, but vital.

But we were never meant for our lives to be stuck in the pages of a book.  The story of God and His acts and His people does not stop with the maps in the back of your Bible.  It keeps going.  We aren’t supposed to be the first century church; we’re the twenty-first century church.  We have oppressors of our own.  We have struggles of our own.  We have issues of our own.  We have crises of our own.  And God is with us, now, speaking and acting and moving.

We need our prophets to call us to renewal and chart the way forward.  We need apostles to take the proclamation of what God has done to new places and start new faith communities.  We need pastors to care for communities that exist.  We need teachers to tell us who we are and who God is and disciple us in His ways.  We need healers to heal the sick.  We need givers to heal the poor.  We need helpers to care for widows and orphans – those who society has bypassed.  We need counselors with knowledge and wisdom to help people with their deep struggles and addictions and dysfunctions and broken relationships.  We need leaders who can challenge the anti-gospel of the powers that be with new ways of leading in the world, being a servant of love to all.  We need prayers who will draw forth the attention and power of God to all these needs and join His heart for the world.

There is no aspect of life into which God has not equipped and gifted people to bring the presence of Jesus and bring holiness to His name in the world.  Wouldn’t it be great if instead of being famous as the people who don’t want gay people to get married or who want schools to teach Genesis in science classes that we were known as the people who were steadfast warriors for the welfare of the world and everyone in it – compassionate servants to all who brought love and healing and forgiveness to everyone in the name of the God who loved them so much?

I did not invent these things, and neither did my contemporaries.  These are the things that are present in the Word.

Sunday Meditations: The State of the Kingdom

Something I’ve observed over the past decade or two is a growing awareness in American evangelicalism and Christianity as a whole about the kingdom-centric, lordship-centric nature of Jesus’ message and the early church’s proclamation.

Twenty or perhaps even ten years ago, many congregation members would look at you funny if you said that the core conviction of the early church was that, “Jesus is lord,” or that the good news of the gospel was that the kingdom had arrived.  Those concepts seem only loosely connected to a narrative about accepting Jesus into your heart so that you would go to heaven when you died and cleaning up your personal morality.

I’m speaking purely from my own opinion, but looking at this movement in Christianity as a whole, I’m going to lay almost entirely at the feet of N.T. Wright.  Not that he’s the first or most prolific person to talk about these things, but his popular reach is unmatched by any other scholar dealing with these topics.  Your average Christian in the American pew is probably not reading Schweitzer or Sanders or Dunn, but they might very well have a copy of John for Everyone.

Just this morning, I was reading a book written by a Charismatic (referring to the theology, not necessarily personality) pastor in a relatively small hyper-Charismatic denomination who cited N.T. Wright.  The idea that an Anglican theologian’s scholarship is making its way into small, Pentecostal churches is somewhat astounding to me.

Specifically in the realm of conservative Protestant evangelicalism, Scot McKnight has been running with this ball.  Books like The King Jesus Gospel and Kingdom Conspiracy bring these ideas powerfully home at a popular level and, I might add, he’s maybe even a bit more radical in communicating the ramifications of all this than N.T. Wright, which I greatly appreciate.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for an excellent personal or small-group devotional resource on bringing awareness of the message of the kingdom into your understanding of the gospel and mission, I recommend Following King Jesus, which Scot McKnight wrote with Becky Castle Miller.  I’m working my way through it, and even though there are things I might understand a bit differently, it’s solid and devotional and delivers the goods in a way that is almost guaranteed to generate some lively discussion in your standard evangelical small group or Sunday School class.

So, yes, the move is on in America to be reevaluating our understanding of the biblical story in light of the prominence of the theme of “kingdom” and the obsession of those earliest churches with the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to authority at God’s right hand, and this is healthy and good and I’m happy about it and will be happy to gush about it with little provocation if you see me at church or at the bus stop or in the waiting room for the dentist.

As the (old) new wine comes into contact with old (new) wineskins, some growing pains and transitional stages are to be expected.

One of these stages has been at the center of several of my conversations, recently, and that is a concept of the kingdom (and subsequently, the lordship of Jesus) that is primarily individual and spiritual in nature.

In some ways, this is a perfectly natural attempt at trying to synthesize these insights into an existing set of perceptions.  We have this narrative that we are to accept Jesus as lord in our hearts, and this means a transformation of our personal morality, and our mission is to get other people to do this as well.  When we hear about things like the theme of “kingdom,” then there can be a tendency to use it as a backdrop and a context for what we already think, and ironically, provide a securer anchor for finding this in the Bible since now we’re actually incorporating strong, biblical ideas.

“We’ve always been right, but we didn’t know how right we were!  Turns out our rightness is in even more of the Bible than we thought!”

(NOTE: This is the implicit subtitle of nearly every book on Reformed theology.  Go on, read one.  You’ll see what I mean.)

When we have created this synthesis, it’s then easy for us to project our situation back into those first century writings.  Because we understand the kingdom in terms of a purely spiritual entity that exists in the personal allegiances of Christians, it’s easy to see this as the emphasis and experience and eschatological hope of the early church.  They’re basically saying the same things we are, and now we’ve provided the narrative bridge to produce an unbroken doctrinal line between us and the Apostles.

(NOTE: This is an implicit teaching of nearly every book on Ref… you know what?  Maybe I should just write my own book on how to write a bestselling Reformed theology book.)

As you can see, when we do this, we’ve sort of flipped the direction in which the thought is supposed to move.  Rather than suspend our own theologies and controversies and concerns and read those writings against the first century world, then bring those ideas forward into our context, we are instead taking our framework and putting it in the minds and pens of the first century.

Now, in our minds, we have a first century church that had been reoriented from their earthly, political concerns (those are Old Testament sentiments) to the realm of spiritual realities (New Testament).  Their understanding was now that they would continue to live under an oppressive Roman regime, but they could endure this because they were now citizens of a spiritual kingdom that existed in heaven, to which they would enter upon death, and this kingdom would one day be realized as an earthly reality at the end of all time.

And, if you’ve got a bit of a progressive edge to you and/or are a millennial, the present experience of this kingdom is also an impetus for social action.  If you’re not progressive and/or old, it’s an impetus for avoiding social action.  It works out for everyone.

I want to say that this concept is not a bad summary of the experience of the church in the present day and age.  There is no single city or country that proclaims that Jesus is their king.  You can’t cross the borders of the kingdom of God.  And if we understand Jesus to be “lord of the nations” or God to rule the world, we have to understand it in some sense that doesn’t clash with the empirical reality that most of the world isn’t even Christian, much less actual political entities confessing this reality and living under this reality.

It makes sense for us to understand our corporate identity as being scattered throughout all nations but ruling none of them, and our unity is produced by the Spirit given to us by the Son who is lord over his people and whose will and goals are being accomplished through his people.  Furthermore, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is a decent summary of the spiritual component of the early church’s experiences.

What I would take issue with, however, is this being the sum of the expectations of those first century followers, the Apostles, or Jesus himself.

The picture I outlined above is only a kingdom in an abstract sense – a virtually metaphorical sense.  We could just as easily describe the situation as being an exodus through the wilderness, or being in exile/diaspora.  The idea of a kingdom describes some elements of our present situation but kind of fizzles in others.

And if we take this concept of the kingdom to consist of high-level concepts like “wherever the reign of God is present,” then it’s a little hard to understand why the Gospels would be so preoccupied with the announcement that the kingdom of God was impending or had arrived.

There were still faithful Israelites (and God-fearing Gentiles, for that matter) serving God before Jesus arrived, both in the kingdom of Israel, in Babylon, under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes, and in the Roman Empire.  How is it that they were not the kingdom of God?  How could Jesus announce the good news of the arrival of the longed-for kingdom when the longed-for kingdom was simply faithful people acting in obedience to God in their land?

Furthermore, how would this be a challenge to the Empire?  People “getting saved” and doing good for one another is just fine with Caesar.  He remains firmly ensconced in his rule and his flunkies remain firmly ensconced in their positions.  The rich remain rich and the poor remain poor and everything is as it was.  Oh, he might not care for seditious-sounding talk about another king, but by and large, a purely spiritual concept of the kingdom is no threat to him.  In fact, Eusebius records that, when Domitian rounded up Jesus’ great-nephews, they avoided persecution by insisting that the kingdom was purely spiritual in nature (Church History, 3:20).  Eusebius tells us that, from that day forward, Domitian did not persecute Christians and treated them contemptuously as if they were too insignificant to do anything about.

Did you catch that?  When Christians insist that the kingdom is purely a spiritual matter, the powers of the present age assume they are too insignificant to persecute.

Old Testament Israel was once a kingdom.  They weren’t always a kingdom, but they became one.  In time, they also had an individual as their king.  They didn’t always have good kings, and even their good kings illustrated fatal flaws, but when the system worked, it worked very well for them.  They were at peace, prosperous, and other nations came to learn from them.

The picture we have of the new Jerusalem at the end of Revelation is an idealized portrayal of what the earthly Jerusalem was supposed to be – the center of wisdom, peace, forgiveness, healing, and restoration, and the other rulers of the other nations would come in and out, looking to her as a model and a mediator as they, too, worshiped the true God and lived out His will in their nations.

Obviously, this did not work out.

The politico-religious leadership of Israel, instead of being a model for other nations, learned from them and became like them.  Their rulers became despots and their priests became wealthy off the backs of the people.  They worshiped God in form, but not in truth, and instead placed their faith in a gamut of ever-shifting political alliances.

This path took them into exile.  Babylon.  Persia.  Greece.  Rome.  Other kingdoms ruled them.  They no longer ruled anything, not even in their own land.  What sovereignty they enjoyed, they did at the suffrage of the true rulers of the land who could snuff them out at any time.

When people hear an apocalyptic prophet telling them to prepare themselves because the kingdom of God is on their doorstep, not a single person is thinking of the continuance of their present experience with a healthy dollop of spiritual improvement.  They are thinking of the radical restructuring of the powers of the present age.

And did this happen?  Oh, yes, it did.

First in Israel, then out to the nations.  The power structures of Jesus’ day were removed, sometimes with the sword, always with the sword of the Spirit.  The path through all this was the path of faithful suffering, but it was suffering that could be endured in light of the knowledge that the kingdom of God was right around the corner and salvation was nearer each day.  Swiftly, the Temple fell, and then many years after, the Empire bowed the knee.

Was this spiritual?  Definitely.  Was this earthly, physical, political, and concrete?  Absolutely.

Is this, then, where we find ourselves today?  Hoping for an imminent disruption of the world’s political powers?

Maybe such things will happen; maybe not.  That’s the province of prophets.

We find ourselves in a sort of post-kingdom scenario.  The Roman Empire is gone, and Christendom as a cultural principle and authority is also exiting the stage.  We still have the Spirit.  We still have our Lord Jesus who isn’t any less alive than he was in 70 A.D.

But our context is very different, isn’t it?  Perhaps a context that the authors of the New Testament themselves didn’t even foresee except in powerful images toward the end of the Apocalypse.  Our story of the kingdom can continue to inform our lives in the here and now and give us hope, but we also have to reckon with what the kingdom-in-principle looks like on the world stage of today.

We aren’t looking at the same immediate horizon Jesus and the Apostles were looking at.  We are not hoping in the imminent overthrow of our existing political powers (well, I kind of am, but not because the Spirit has revealed the times to me) as they did, as they predicted, and as they received.

Our mission, I would contend, is now to be the people of God throughout a bigger world than the Apostles’ imagined – a world in which we do not have a specific land or a specific city.  But we still have a calling to be a blessing to the nations and prophets and priests of a new creation – a story that preceded kingdom and will go on long after it.

And in the interim, there will still be threats.  We still need saving.  We still need guidance.  We still need our shepherd, and this is why it is still good news that Jesus, and not anybody else, is our Lord.

The Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-8

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

Matthew 17:1-8 (NRSV)

Six days after Jesus affirms to his disciples that he is the Son of God, their hoped for Messiah, and that this entails his suffering, death, and resurrection, he takes a few of them to the top of a mountain (perhaps the few that seem to be struggling with this idea, if Peter is any indicator).

Mountains, of course, have significance in many religions, including Judaism.  Mountains are where gods live, and if you want to commune with them, that’s where you go.  They are a point of earth that ascends into heaven.

It is here that what we call the Transfiguration occurs: Jesus’ face and clothes become dazzling, Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Jesus, and God speaks from heaven announcing that Jesus is His beloved son.

This is all kind of weird, and better theologians than I have unpacked what it could all mean.

It was perhaps Origen (who should have been sainted, not declared a heretic) who firstly connected the Transfiguration with resurrection.  The glorification of Jesus, the conversation with saints who have died – these things present a picture to the disciples of the resurrection awaiting Jesus and, ultimately, all of his followers.

I think this train of thought is generally correct, but I’d like to look at how this ties back to history, the Old Testament, and how that meaning will help us understand what this event is trying to communicate to the disciples (and Matthew’s readers).

The idea that resurrected saints will be gloriously dazzling goes back to an important book for Jesus: Daniel.

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, keep the words secret and the book sealed until the time of the end. Many shall be running back and forth, and evil shall increase.”

Daniel 12:1-4 (NRSV)

This is part of a prophecy about Antiochus Epiphanes – a Selucid king who ruled their empire, including Judea.  Although the rulers prior to Antiochus had been generally tolerant of Judean practices, Antiochus would have none of this.  He declared himself to be a god, ordered the Jews to worship Zeus, and exercised all kinds of tyrannical predations against the Jewish people.  His persecutions sparked the Maccabean Revolt and led to his destruction of Jerusalem.

Interestingly, Antiochus was not without Jewish support – specifically, he reached out to groups of non-observant Hellenized Jews to solidify his power base.  So, we see in Antiochus’ reign a sort of dividing line between the Jews in Judea, with some who do not care much about observing the Jewish faith getting in bed with whoever is in power and others whose faith leads them to a collision course with Antiochus, resulting in their persecution and martyrdom.

Daniel describes these things, and at the peak, offers the vision we see in Daniel 12:1-4.  These things will come to an end, and when they do, some will be raised from the dead to be held in shame and contempt, but others who were wise and led people into righteousness will shine like stars.

It is possible that the prophetic imagination, here, is simply describing the people who survive the calamitous events around the persecution and eventual downfall of Antiochus Epiphanes into the next age.  Once God brings an end to this tribulation, the people who supported it will be objects of scorn while the people who maintained their faith and encouraged others to do so will be heroes.

I do think, though, it is likely that Daniel is contemplating an actual, future resurrection, especially given how closely tied the idea of resurrection is to the Jewish idea of justice for the faithful and the oppressors as well as the restoration of Israel.

But in either case, the meaning is clear.  Currently, Israel is under the thumb of a tyrannical oppressor who considers themselves to be a deity and demands that Israel acknowledge this.  Some in Israel are getting behind this power, while others faithfully refuse to be complicit even if it means being imprisoned or killed.  At the end of this will come a resurrection where there will be a clear, eschatological division between these groups, and one will be held up to scorn while the others will radiantly shine.

It is, in fact, this same idea and image that Jesus uses in his parable about the wheat and the tares.  Currently, wheat and tares grow together in the kingdom because destroying the tares would also cause damage to the wheat.  But there is coming a day when God and His angels will do some harvesting, and those who belong to the enemy will be destroyed, but the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matt. 13:43)

So, yes, the Transfiguration does give us a picture of resurrection, but not resurrection as a theological abstraction or a generic statement on what happens when we die.

The Transfiguration puts Jesus and his disciples on the eschatological map.

They, too, live under an oppressive regime whose leader declares themselves to be a god.  They, too, are pressured to conform to Rome’s religious and political structures, and they struggle to faithfully maintain a Jewish identity in the midst of this – sometimes suffering imprisonment or death for it (and this will only get worse as time goes on).

Furthermore, some in Israel have allied with this oppressive structure, hoping that they will be protected and comfortable, even at the expense of their own people.

But Jesus and his followers are on the cusp of God intervening in this situation in a powerful way.  The day is soon coming when the oppressor will come against Jerusalem for her rebellion and destroy her.  On that day, some will live through it, and others will fall – but either through survival or resurrection, it will be revealed whose side God was on.  One group will be objects of scorn and derision; another group will be held up as faithful and righteous heroes – shining in the kingdom of their Father.  The resurrection will justify them and, in turn, glorify them.

And this wheat and tare gathering will not simply be limited to Israel, but will in time roll out to cover the entire Empire.  The Caesar who today is declared a living god by Herod will give way to a Caesar who will declare Jesus Christ as lord of the Roman Empire.  Oppressors will be removed from office and put in prison, while the faithful will be exalted to positions of power.  Pagan temples will give way to churches.  The faithful who currently suffer under Rome will one day rule it under the authority of King Jesus.

Later in this same chapter, Jesus will tell the disciples not to share the vision until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” thus taking the apocalyptic title that Daniel uses for the individual in his vision who represents faithful Israel.

I’ll address the appearance of Elijah a little later, but this connection is, perhaps, why Moses is one of the people who shows up.  Moses, who confronted the pagan oppressors who ruled Israel in his day, led his people out from under them, and destroyed the pursuing armies.

Luke makes this connection explicit in his account of the Transfiguration:

Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his exodon, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Luke 9:30-31 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek insertion mine)

This brings us to good ol’ Peter.  Is there any disciple that people relate to more than Peter?  Full of good intentions, lacking much understanding, possessed of zeal, and giving in to weakness at critical moments.

Here, Peter wants to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.

We aren’t told why, but most theologians believe Peter is trying to make this moment last longer.  As if this moment is an end unto itself.

It’s not hard to imagine what Peter might be thinking.  How different would Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem be if he came in this dazzling, glorified state with Moses and Elijah by his side?  Surely all of Israel would throw their support behind this figure, and probably a decent amount of Rome as well!  There could be no confusion who the chosen ruler of the gods are when one of them is literally shining radiance and he is accompanied by the risen bodies of two of some of the most noted prophets in Israel’s history.

But, as he often does, Jesus points out this is not how the kingdom will come.  It will come through the faithful suffering and death of the Messiah, not a glorious enthronement of the god-king by earthly powers.

See, that’s the thing.  To get to the resurrection, you have to die.

It is the resurrection from the dead that will justify Jesus, and it is his exaltation from God that will establish him as Lord and Christ.  The road to this is faithfulness unto death, not using his rights and powers and political machinations to avoid it.  The latter is the wide road much of the powerful in Israel have taken, but that road leads to destruction.  The narrow road – the road of faithful suffering – the road Jesus calls faithful Israel to follow him on – this is the road that leads to justification and glorification.  This is the road that will see you safely to the other side of this present evil age.

God has to forgive Israel to deliver her.  God has to move in an unmistakable way to overthrow a very entrenched power structure.  God has to do all this.  Anything that happens by way of the help of the earthly powers that be simply extends the cycle.  More curse under new rulers.

The thing that will move God’s heart, though – the thing that will ignite the supernova – is the obedient death of His faithful, beloved Son.  And so His Son will stand for all Israel.  And, by the power of the Spirit, so he stands for all of us.

If the Transfiguration is only a picture of these things, though, why bother?  Why even create this display for the disciples?  What is the point of seeing an initial foretaste of what is to come if that foretaste is fleeting, soon to pass under the layers of history?

My guess is the most vital and elusive of all reasons – to give hope.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:20-26 (NRSV)

Consider This

  1. Now that we are on the other side of the political situations described in the Old Testament and the book of Matthew, what hope does the Transfiguration give you as a follower of Jesus?  What truths does it communicate about God, His people, and their future?
  2. The Bible presents resurrection not as a generic answer to the question, “What happens to us after we die?” but rather, “What will happen to God’s people?”  Have you ever thought about your journey with God in the context of being part of the story of a larger group of people?  What other parts of your individual spirituality could be informed by thinking of them as part of the experience of God’s people as a whole?

Sunday Meditations: The Final Judgement

Near death experiences (NDEs) are interesting collections of data.  We might debate over whether there is actually something transcendent about them or whether they only occur entirely within the realm of human subjectivity, but regardless of which side you take, we have to agree that widespread commonalities reflect something that is intrinsic to human experience on the threshold of death.

One of these commonalities is the experience of someone’s life flashing before their eyes.

Transcending history, culture, geographic location, and religion (or lack thereof) is the phenomenon of someone experiencing their entire life paraded before them in a brief instant.  This is such a common experience that there are even collections of data of mountain climbers experiencing this while falling (and ultimately surviving, obviously).

In most cases, the experiencers report that they watch this show not only from their standpoint, but also feeling the impact from the other people involved.  In addition, they also experience a “detached” view as if they are a third party watching this play out (in some cases, people only report the “detached” view).  In other words, they simultaneously experience:

  • What it was like when they lived that moment
  • What it was like for the other people who shared that moment
  • What it was like to see that moment through the eyes of an objective party

Often in these experiences are memories that the observer has long since forgotten (in one case, someone found a contract they had hidden and forgotten where it was until they had this experience).  In all, the viewer reports that it is as if every moment of their lives – big and small – played out before them, yet this obviously happens in seconds or less of real time.  In many of these experiences, the experiencer cites that their expressions of love or lack thereof in those situations was the primary criterion running through their heads as they watched.

Virtually all religions have captured this idea in some form or another.  At the end of life, all your deeds are replayed and the impact assessed.  Both the Old and New Testaments also present this idea – that everyone, when they die, will have their deeds trotted out before them to be weighed.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:14 (NRSV)

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 4:5 (NRSV)

Nobody likes the sound of those verses or the verses like them.

When we think of judgement, we automatically think of something negative.  We tell each other not to judge or refer to people as “judgey” if they are very critical of us.  For all kinds of reasons, when we think of the idea of judgement, and especially judgement that comes from God, we think of floods, locusts, hellfire, brimstone, and condemnation.

Therefore, “judgement” passages invoke a sort of terror.  We read them and picture a God sitting on a throne who cannot abide even the slightest of errors, frowning down on mankind in general and ourselves in specific for our many failures, both typical and especially grievous.

This impulse is not new; it’s largely been used as a lever for control of the general populace, especially as we see in the political machinations of the medieval European church.  In a much more decentralized way, it’s used to maintain control of congregations and individuals.  Don’t screw up, folks, not even a little, or God will f* you up.  So, live right, come to my church, give in the offering, get more people to come to my church, vote for the right people, and try not to touch yourselves, lest the foundations of Heaven quake with the wrath of the Almighty.

I grew up in a fundamentalist upbringing, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say this was the theme of about 95% of the sermons.  And it does something to you as a child (heck, it does something to you as an adult) and what you think about God, parents, and authority in general.

Retribution, fear, and constant displeasure.  These are the gears in the machine of how religion works, yes?

Even as I got older and began to understand concepts like “grace,” this stayed with me.  Now, God was constantly and vaguely displeased with me all the time, but grudgingly put up with me because of Jesus.  But God really wanted me to be good, not the person I was.  He really wanted someone else, truth be told.  But He had me, instead, and lived a life in Heaven of constant aggravation.

“Why can’t you be more like your older brother, Jesus?”

I know I’m not alone in this.  If you read any books by the Puritans (who were not nearly as dour and joyless as our popular mythology makes them out to be), the basic thesis of many of them is, “You think you love God? HA!”  Very introspective group, the Puritans, and very aware of their shortcomings, the shortcomings of humanity, and what it meant to be sinners in the hands of an angry god.

But the interesting thing about judgement is that judgement on its own is neither bad nor terrifying.  Judgement is also how mercy is bestowed, wisdom and discernment find the right answer, justice is accomplished, wrongs are righted, and benefits awarded.  Christ’s resurrection was the result of judgment, after all.

So, if the final judgement is meant to punish us for our many shortcomings, it is something to be feared.  But what if the purpose of the final judgement is to right all the wrongs?

What if the judge knows you intimately?  They know your genetic constraints and dispositions.  They know what your parents were like and what your upbringing contained.  They know what strategies you chose as a child to defend yourself and navigate through life and how those shaped your personality.  They know what traumas you experienced.  They know about your desires for good things that went unfulfilled.  Your needs that went unmet.  Your longing for someone to be looking for you.

They know the pull of temptations and the powers that surround you like winds buffeting a ship.  They know the chaotic and deterministic factors that go into your every action.  They know not only everything you’ve done, but why you did it from your own point of view as well as theirs, and they know everything that was done to you.

What if this judge, looking through every event of our lives, sees them not only as a detached third party, but from our perspective and the perspective of everyone who experienced the same things?

What if this judge knew what it was like to be me with even more depth, thoroughness, and clarity than I knew what it was like to be me?

Is that a judge to be feared?  Is this a judge who will hold me up to the stone cold tablets of Law and find me wanting like some kind of cosmic ethical calculator?  Is this a judge who, at the end, will abandon all pretense of compassion and mercy and forgiveness of enemies only to embrace the cold calculus of violations and penalties?

Or is this a judge who is radically biased in my favor?

Is this judge a father who, because He is my father, cannot leave me to act in selfishness and self-destruction or harm other children, but is nevertheless delighted with my presence?  I am a father; I know what it is like to see your children in that way.  Would God be less so than I?

Perhaps that final experience of seeing my life before my eyes is finally to see my life from God’s perspective – the good, the bad, the noble, the ignoble – so that I may know myself the way He knows me, and I will at last be transfigured with that knowledge.

Did you know that some people who have NDEs are so changed by the experience that they long for death?  I’m not entirely sure that’s healthy, but they do not fear the final judgement.  They were confronted with their virtues and vices and were not condemned but transformed.

Perhaps we, then, can endeavor all the more earnestly to always act out love in all of our actions, big and small.  Not because we fear punishment or exposure, but because the knowledge that we will give an accounting transforms us.  It calls us to a day when we will review our lives and want to find there an abundance of love for ourselves, for God, and for every person we come into contact with – friend or foe.

Because that is the state of God, Himself.