The Stuff of Life: Getting Real

I really don’t like talking about money.  Mostly because I know it is a sensitive subject for people to talk about.  Finances command a lot of our attention.  Money is one of the most common topics for conflict in marriages.  Then add faith into the mix, and an ugly history of the church using all sorts of measures to squeeze contributions out of their members and, well, is it any wonder I wouldn’t like talking about this?

Today I want to bring this series on The Stuff of Life together, and even add to it some other dimensions of giving – like our time and talent.  But before I do, I want to get some things off my chest and hopefully put you (and me) more at ease.  First off, I hate guilt trips, and have no desire to use guilt or shame to motivate generosity.  The Church has used shame and guilt (as well as coercion) which is just simply counter to the Way of Jesus.  Sometimes the story of the Widow’s Mite is used for this purpose.:

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.” – Luke 21:1-4 (NLT)

This text has been used inappropriately to make those of us who don’t follow suit all feel like selfish losers!  In truth, while the widow deserves honor for her faithfulness, Jesus was not happy about the situation.  The fact that she had to give anything at all was abhorrent to him.  Taking what little this poor woman had to help fund a Temple that at that time was being run by leadership who lived lavishly on such offerings was – and is – disgusting.  If Jesus were in charge at that moment, he would not only tell the vulnerable widow to keep her pennies but would likely pull out a few bucks of his own to give her and advise the rich bystanders to do the same.  If you are like the widow, having barely enough to get food on the table and pay for the most basic expenses – keep your money!  Let us help you if we can with our Food Pantry.  Again, I am instructing you as your Pastor: don’t go hungry because you feel obligated to contribute a few of your limited shekels to CrossWalk – keep it!

Another thing I want you to know is that I think the whole notion of a transactional faith whereby we do our part to get God to do God’s part is false.  I know this challenges part of the heart of Christian orthodoxy, but that’s okay – it needs to be challenged and updated!  The following passage has been used for such coercive thinking:

Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! – Malachi 3:10 (NLT)

Is it a good idea to support the Temple/Church?  Yes!  Is the point of this text in its full context to do your part of the transaction?  No!  The context of the text is about fostering a healthy relationship with God.  A relationship that has as its foundation a contract of sorts is doomed to be shallow and cold.  No heart, no love required.  That kind of thinking lends itself to a poor relational paradigm for faith – you will always wonder if you’ve done enough to encourage God to do enough for you in return. 

So, where does that lead us, if coercion and guilt and transactional faith are off the table?

I think the whole point of the Good News Jesus came to share was that resurrection now and post-death are a reality.  We can experience a renewed life infused and empowered and directed by the very Spirit of God that is everywhere, all the time.  This invitation to new life is all a gift of grace. All of it.  It is already at work in our lives even if we don’t know it, and it is available in much greater ways if we learn to walk in it.  When we really begin to wake up to this and embrace it, we get a new lease on life.  It is truly transformative.  So much so that Jesus said it is like being born again.  This isn’t meant to be a once-and-done type of experience, either.  I have had many, many milestone moments in my life when I’ve had my eyes opened to new insights about the Way of Jesus.  When that happens, it is a day of renewal, and yet also a deepening of my roots and convictions that this God thing is real.  Living in that Spirit of God, walking to the beat of that Drummer is the point of everything.  Both of which are sometimes very different than that of the world in which we live and the systems that formed us.  As we experience ongoing renewal we realize with greater appreciation, as Paul noted,

…that God will empower you with inner strength through God’s Spirit. Then Christ will make God’s home in your hearts as you trust in God. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep God’s love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. – Ephesians 3:16-19 (NLT)

When we are immersed in that way of life, in that growing insight, all forms of transaction and legalism simply melt away and are replaced by a living relationship with the Divine.  Our motive and logic shifts from wondering what we have to do to what we get to do, from asking what is required to how can we best express our gratitude, from a minimal, guarded offering of select parts of our lives to wondering how we might entrust all of ourselves to God and see where that might lead.  We entrust everything to God and God’s Way of being.  We hold nothing back, confident that the Way of Love works, even if it is counterintuitive.

I honestly think that the more we meditate on the love of God for us that in time our ethics will change as we are changed.  But I think we can also speed up that process by studying the life of Jesus and learning the ethic he embraced, which was, of course, motivated from the same ethos we’re growing into.  Meditating on the love of God is a choice to not meditate on other things.  People worry a lot about money.  Lower-income people, middle income people, and wealthy people all worry.  Lower-income folks worry about having enough.  Wealthy people worry about losing it.  Middle income people worry about making it to the next level.  Worry is a form of meditation.  When we focus our attention on something, that’s a form of meditation.  You may not have realized it, but you meditate a lot, don’t you?  Jesus invited his followers to meditate differently:

I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing. Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds! Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

“Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

“And don’t be concerned about what to eat and what to drink. Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need.

“So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.

“Sell your possessions and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven never get old or develop holes. Your treasure will be safe; no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Luke 12:22-34 (NLT)

Trust that the Way of God works.  Trust in it.  And, very practically and in response to our holding on so tight, Jesus tells his followers to give to those in need.  We trust and we offer our whole selves to be used in response to the love of God.

So, brass tacks time: if we are in the flow, grateful for the love of God and wanting to express it tangibly through giving, what does that look like?  How much?  There is no one definitive answer that fits every situation.  You are going to have to pray and dream this up for your life.  Here are some ways that have been helpful to people in the past.  I hope they help you.

“Fair” share.  This, in my opinion, is the worst way to think about this subject for a range of reasons.  The idea here is that we take the total budget and divide it by the number of member households to determine what everyone’s fair share should be.  Some of us cannot afford the fair share – it’s not fair at all.  For some of us, the Fair Share is chump change – making that our number surely cannot adequately express generosity.  Besides, it doesn’t account for folks newer to the faith verses longer termers – maturity and generosity likely go hand in hand.  I think the only thing it might be good for is as a mere point of reference to break down a big number and help it become more relatable.

Baseball Diamond.  I learned this metaphor a few years ago.  It’s not too bad.  Think about hitting a single, double, triple, and a home run – what might that look like in terms of financial generosity?  A single is simply getting on base – you’re helping the team in the smallest way possible.  Think of this as just simply giving something.  Very helpful!  But likely not where you might like to be.  A double might be like covering our Fair Share for ourselves.  A triple might be covering Fair Share for our household.  A home run is when we think way beyond ourselves and contribute with people in mind that we don’t even know yet.  If you’re not in the game, you might consider starting with just getting on base.

Percentages.  The biblical percentage that gets tossed around a lot is 10%, which is what the word tithe literally means.  It refers to giving 10% off the top of your earnings to the Temple, which would then use those funds to serve those in need.  Later, the early church adopted the same percentage for the same purpose, except instead of the Temple, it was the community of Jesus followers.  Ten percent for most people seems like way too big a number for their budget.  Especially in the Napa area where housing costs command between 40%-50% of earnings, there isn’t a lot of margin.  I think there is genius in a bigger percentage than we would feel initially comfortable with, however.  For you, the stretch might be 5%.  Do you know what you would do if you decided to contribute that much?  You would watch your money like a hawk because you would be worried about not making it!  Do you know happens when we watch our money closely?  We are usually much better stewards.  We save more, spend less, and spend more wisely.  We feel blessed all around because we’re being smarter with our money because we sort of must.  A challenge for you might be to step up a percentage point or two.  And for some of you, 10% is a cake walk.  Maybe doubling or tripling that makes more sense?  Rick Warren, who was the founding pastor of a mega church in Orange County, had a best-selling book that made him a lot of royalties.  With his new wealth, he paid back the church his salary – for the entire duration he had been serving there!  His goal was to live on 10% and give 90% away.  Be aware that we usually think too low, not too high.  Work hard to stay focused on your ethos – your motive – and see what makes sense.

All In.  We have been focused on financial contributions, but we are not simply ATM’s for God.  While money will always fight to be priority in our culture and is very important to get in line, it’s just a part of us.  You also have time, talents, and prayer to offer.  All of them matter.  I hope you’ll pray a lot for CrossWalk.  Everybody can do that, and it makes a difference.  Some of your time and talent may be suited for some role at CrossWalk.  Very likely your time, talent and prayers can be used outside of CrossWalk to serve your neighbors in the fullest sense of the word.  Sometimes we tell ourselves that since we give time and talent, we can drop treasure off the list.  In most cases I think this is a bad idea.  Because money is such an alluring false God, giving financially is really important to keep its position in check.  And, CrossWalk needs financial support.  But the biggest reason is that when we compartmentalize our lives – allowing God access to some parts but not others – we are choosing to close off a huge part of our lives to the Spirit of God.  The hope is that as we are awakened, we will find ways to open ourselves evermore, not silo certain parts of ourselves off to God.  When we hold that piece back, we hurt ourselves, the church, and the people we are trying to serve.  Your offering matters to you!

Legacy Giving.  Not to be morbid, but we are all going to die someday.  When we do, we will truly discover that “you can’t take it with you.”  Will what you leave behind at death go toward the things you valued in life?  A tragic reality for many faithful people is that they give generously in life, but their kids never really got it for one reason or another.  The faithful folk naturally leave their estate to their kids, who are their top priority (which is wonderful).  But if the kids don’t give a rip about the faith, the faithful giving ends with you.  Why not set aside some portion of your estate to make a final or perpetual gift that embodies your values?  We’ve had this happen in different ways over the years.  Sometimes we get stock before a person dies – you get the full tax credit without taking the capital gains hit because you transfer the stock to us – win-win!  Sometimes we honor a loved one who has passed by making a significant donation toward a need in the church.  Our remodeled Kitchenette was funded in memory of Jay Corley, who founded Monticello Winery.  Our Youth Lounge and Rec Room were remodeled when a woman came into some unexpected money from an estate.  What might you consider dreaming about that could outlive you?

Consistency.  A great gift you can give to CrossWalk is to automate your giving.  I used to set this up on my bank’s side through their bill paying feature.  My bank would send checks every month.  I recently switched over to using the online Realm program we’ve been promoting.  It is really easy to set up.  I can dictate which funds I want to support, and I can use my credit card and build up points for a future vacation.  When you do this, you can rest assured that your values are taken care of – you are supporting your church even if you are not able to be here physically.  It also provides great stability for CrossWalk.  Our contributions can vary significantly month to month – automation helps the cause that helps so many!

I hope this has been helpful – I really want it to be.  Yes, CrossWalk needs support.  As the Pastor, that matters to me very personally (!) and because I am charged with keeping this place vital.  But way more than that, I hope I have helped you recognize that this is a really, really important faith issue.  This presents an opportunity to offer your whole self – and for many of us the most focused-on part – to God as an act of gratitude and faith.  May you get to that space in life where you can echo the Apostle Paul:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength…

At the moment I have all I need—and more! I am generously supplied with the gifts you sent me… They are a sweet-smelling sacrifice that is acceptable and pleasing to God. And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:10ff (NLT)

LGBTQ and the Church: WT*?! Why Most Churches Are NOT LGBTQ Friendly

CrossWalk is a Welcoming and Affirming church.  Recently I saw a Facebook post about a church that refused to baptize a woman unless she renounced her lesbianism and her marriage to her wife.  For the woman to get that far into engaging the church says that she felt pretty welcome, but when push came to shove, she definitely did not feel affirmed regarding her sexual orientation.  Why?  Why are most churches NOT LGBTQ friendly while others are?

Here are three reasons that I believe top the list.

Biblical Inspiration and Interpretation.  Most churches in the United States believe that the writing of the Bible was so inspired by God that it must be viewed as without error and incapable of being incorrect.  The related fancy words to look for in a church’s Belief Statement include plenary inspiration, inerrant, and infallible.  The words appear to make the Bible seem super-duper holy and final.  I do not believe that is how the Bible was viewed by the earliest rabbis (remember that Christianity comes from Jewish roots – Jesus was not a Christian, but rather a Jew).  The original handlers of the text viewed it as a living, breathing document that was meant to be wrestled with and interpreted in light of its original context as well as the context in which is was read, with all the available information from both contexts on the table to help in its interpretation.  Jesus and Paul, I am quite certain, would not sign off on the view held by the loudest churches and traditions that hold to the position formally adopted by Fundamentalist Christians in the late 1800’s (!) whereby literalism was affirmed as the only valid approach to the Bible and its interpretation.  In fact, if you did not adhere to this doctrinal position, your very Christianity was placed in doubt.  If a church hails from an Evangelical camp, this view of the Bible is baked into their cake, making it extremely challenging for them to be truly affirming of the LGBTQ community because there are a few texts – very few! – that condemn homosexuality.  For them, the original context is moot.  Their motto is: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  There is another way of approaching the Bible which I believe is more faithful to the approach Jesus and the Apostle Paul took, as did the scholars before them.  See the resources below.

Denominational Constraints.  Most Evangelical traditions will not allow their churches or pastors to affirm the LGBTQ community, which in many cases means that membership is off the table, as is becoming a leader at any significant level.  Forget about marriage.  In their view, homosexuality is a sin, and therefore must be renounced as such before being truly welcomed.  Baptists comprise the largest swath of Evangelicals in the United States, but Assembly of God and most “Independent” churches are not going to be open.  Some “Mainline” denominations make room for the LGBTQ community.  United Church of Christ (UCC) are boldly open and affirming (not to be confused with the very conservative Church of Christ). United Methodists are struggling with this as you’ve seen in the news.  Some Presbyterians are cool with this.  CrossWalk is an American Baptist Church (ABC-USA) which is divided on this issue.  So long as we have a place at the table, we will remain at the table and offer our perspective and encouragement to become increasingly inclusive.  Heads up on this: the constraints are real. Because CrossWalk’s tribe does not dictate what we do locally, we can do whatever we please.  Other traditions are not in the same boat, and their LGBTQ-affirming pastors are caught in a very tough spot.  Another heads up: nearly all churches that are attractional (often large with really impressive production value in their services – great band, staging, multimedia) are Evangelical and therefore not LGBTQ affirming.  Catholics as a whole are not affirming of LGBTQ or gender equality.

Homophobia.  Let’s not underestimate prejudice.  What we don’t know or understand scares us.  That’s operating here.  I do have a few friends who hold to their Evangelical position who I believe are not homophobic.  But most of my Evangelical friends have not spent much time getting to the know people behind the label.  The Bible, in their view, supports their prejudice and the discrimination it fosters and therefore justifies their attitudes and behaviors that hurt so many.  It sucks.

To the LGBTQ community at large: I am so sorry if you have been hurt by the church in some way.  It is almost certain that you have on some level.  This does not reflect the heart of Jesus who was a rebellious reformer in his day (which got him killed).  Coming to new ways of thinking – changing our paradigms – is a very difficult process.  Throw deeply-entrenched faith perspectives into the mix and it only gets harder.  I know – I shifted.  There was a time when I did not approach the Bible in the same way I do now.  Expect the process to be clunky at best.

In spite of the hatred (which is real), know that there is cause for hope.  We live in a time when the conversation can be had in the daylight, and the law of the land allows for marriage!  What a time to be alive!  And there are churches right here in Napa that will truly welcome you and affirm who you are as created in the image of God.  CrossWalk is one of them, and I am proud to be her pastor.

Resources:

Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton

How the Bible Actually Works by Pete Enns

Jesus and Homosexuality, a teaching by Pete Shaw at CrossWalk

 

The Stuff of Life: Working What Works

First, read the context for the Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable from Luke 10:25ff (The Message):

An Excellent Question on Stewardship

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. "Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?"
     He answered, "What's written in God's Law? How do you interpret it?"
     He said, "That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself."
     "Good answer!" said Jesus. "Do it and you'll live."
     Looking for a loophole, he asked, "And just how would you define 'neighbor'?"

The religious man here was someone of significance and power as one of the “elite” working for the Temple.  He was surely one of the most educated people in Israel.  He knew the law and worked to interpret it for the Temple priests – think Supreme Court Justice.  Hear the tone of a lawyer asking about who qualifies as “neighbor”.  Given what we know about the tone of the Temple leadership at that time (early First Century C.E.), he is trying to get as narrow a focus as possible.  Perhaps he is hoping to only need to consider well qualified, practicing faithful Jews?

This raises an interesting question or two.  Are we any different than this religious lawyer?  How do we qualify who we choose to help and who we don’t?  What is our decision-making process on whether or not to help?  We can easily judge this guy because we know he’s about to get schooled by Jesus.  But we might want to slow down on that front, because he is no more or less human than any one of us.

The Good Samaritan Parable…

     Jesus answered by telling a story. "There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
     "A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man's condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I'll pay you on my way back.'
     "What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?"
     "The one who treated him kindly," the religion scholar responded.
     Jesus said, "Go and do the same."

Jesus turned everything on its head with this parable, which is why it has been a subject of dialogue ever since.  Below are some things happening for the original audience that might be worth having conversation about.

Jews hated Samaritans.  The origins of the hatred between the two groups (both of which hailed from early Judaism) went back centuries.  The Samaritans first thought the rest of the Jews were a bunch of liberals who wanted to add to the sacred scriptures texts that were not suitable.  Generations later, Jews hated Samaritans for intermarrying with people from other cultures which opened the door to new influences that infiltrated the Jewish faith.  Samaritans refused to honor the Temple as the true residence of the Presence of God – because it was on the wrong mountain (of course).  Every Jewish person hearing this story would have assumed that the Samaritan may have been the robber – not the hero!  Furthermore, Jewish people would be very uncomfortable with the idea of a Samaritan tending to their needs and being dependent upon them for survival.

Questions. In our personal life, who would we imagine to be the most likely person to be the thug, and the least likely to be the hero?  How would we feel about that person taking care of us?

Samaritans hated Jews.  We usually make a good case for why we hate other people, yet I wonder if we are open to hearing about the case made against us by those who hate us?  In my experience, for instance, I have heard people make strong cases for their prejudice against people of color, other religions, other nations, and the LGBTQ community.  They feel justified.  Yet when we/they begin to hear about how these same group members feel about us, we get really indignant and defensive.  Because we look down on others, there may even be a part of us who, like some in the original Jewish audience, would almost think it a privilege for the Samaritan to serve the Jew.  But I doubt that’s how the Samaritan felt (or the POC, non-Christian, non-US, LGBTQ person about doing anything lovely for us).

Questions.  Think of people who feel oppressed in our culture today.  How do you suppose they feel about feeling oppressed?  How interested do you suppose they might be in generously providing for our needs?  What do you think must have gone through the Samaritan’s head and heart that led him to serve a Jew so prodigiously?

One commentator summed Jesus’ point very succinctly regarding the question of who we help:

Do not think as much about who THEY are; focus on who YOU are.

Being a giving person is deeper than simply following a rule or law or ethic.  It is driven by something deep within us – an identity, a way of being, an ethos – that guides our heads, hearts, and hands.   Long before we begin deciding where we choose to be helpful, we need to check our motive.  I believe that if we are doing things mostly out of fear of retribution or as part of a transaction to get God to do God’s part of the deal, we’ve missed Jesus’ message entirely.  It seems to me that Jesus’ Way was altogether differently.  Jesus’ Way – which was driven by the Spirit of God – was one of being at complete home in the grace and love of God for ourselves and everyone else, and living as if both were true.  We give generously because it’s who we are not because of who they are.  Once we’ve settled that, we can move to questions of stewardship – how will our generosity make the most difference with those ventures with which we are most aligned?  How do we prioritize the causes we believe in?

A glimpse into my thought process.  This will come as no surprise, but CrossWalk is – by far – the largest recipient of Lynne and I’s charitable giving.  The reason is simple: it is most aligned with what is most core for us.  We are Jesus followers, and want to support a church that promotes the Jesus Way well.  We think CrossWalk does this in so many ways.  Also, there are national and global projects that CrossWalk supports.  For instance, we give to Furaha and Deborah’s House through CrossWalk instead of directly, since there is no extra administrative cost to do so.  We know that supporting CrossWalk supports all who CrossWalk supports with her campus and voice – not just paying the bills.  We are proud of CrossWalk and are proud to contribute.  After that, there are a range of things we contribute to, but it’s pretty sporadic and usually tied to relationship with friends who have invited us to a fund raiser.  I like doing this because it supports our friendship and the cause all at the same time.  One other thing to mention has to do with prioritization.  There are a very limited number of people who help support CrossWalk financially compared to much larger causes.  Your generosity is really, truly felt at CrossWalk because there just aren’t that many people supporting us.  Also, CrossWalk is, by comparison, crazy efficient.  The number of people we serve is staggering given how little we bring in.  Sometimes we are so close to it we can’t appreciate it.  But having been up close and personal with other non-profits and congregations has helped me see ourselves for the incredibly potent group we are.  I can feel really good about supporting CrossWalk because we get a ton done on a dime. 

As Pastor of CrossWalk, and as a contributing fan, I invite you to support her, too. If you’ve never supported CrossWalk, I invite you to begin. For those of you who already support, I thank you and applaud you.  And I ask you to consider increasing what you are giving so that CrossWalk can confidently move forward with bolder strides instead of being held back by limited funds.  There are areas we must improve – brick and mortar as well as helpful support – and we need funds to do it.  Out of a place of generosity, will you consider being a Good Samaritan for CrossWalk?

The Stuff of Life | Ancient Wisdom: Ethics and Ethos

As I mentioned last week, I was challenged in a good way by a CrossWalker who wondered if any or all of our talk about giving was simply based on self-interest from a business perspective.  Since we have bills to pay and we count on contributions to cover those bills, do we therefore offer courses on financial management so that our people will be better equipped to donate to the church?  This didn’t sit well with him – it sounded suspect, I think, and it should.  It’s not that we don’t have needs as a church – we obviously do.  But if our asking for donations is simply about keeping the place open, we actually violate our core purpose as a church.  We exist, first and foremost, to bring about resurrection, restoration, and renewal in our members and in our world with the power of God witnessed in Jesus.  We work hard to invite people to choose to live in ways that facilitate a relationship with God that will allow that resurrection/renewal to happen in their lives and in the lives of those they serve.  Another way to put it: we exist to help people Walk with God, Walk with others, and Go Be Jesus – because this trifold motto serves the greater purpose of resurrection.

The core motivation for talking about our relationship with the stuff of life – our material possessions – is directly related to our capacity to our experience of God.  How we relate to money and material possessions is one of the greatest threats or greatest tools relating to our faith.  The verses I’ll share will give you some clear instruction on the ethical front.  But the ethic alone isn’t really the point.  The ethic points to the ethos, the Way of Being that, once embraced, works from within us to fulfill the ethic.  This is why Jesus said that the greatest commandments, when honored, fulfill all of the commandments.

Sometimes we run into a problem, however.  We tend toward very mechanical thinking at times.  We might look at this giving thing as a simple transaction – I give what God mandates so that God will bless me in return.  We may get the ethic right but miss the ethos where the real life happens.  The ethics will surely help protect us in many ways from much harm, but the Law is not the point or goal. The Spirit is.  The whole faith thing is about finding ourselves in rhythm with God and letting that do it’s thing.  Our ethics give us a structure to more likely get there, but “clean living” alone isn’t the point.  In fact, sometimes that creates judgmental monsters.

Jesus ran into this one day while he was teaching:

Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
     “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.’”
     The man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
     When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
     But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.
     When Jesus saw this, he said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God! In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
    Those who heard this said, “Then who in the world can be saved?”
     He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.”
     Peter said, “We’ve left our homes to follow you.”
     “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.” – Luke 18:18-30 (NLT)

Generosity is written into the ethical code that became Jewish law.  In one of the early books detailing what the ethic looks like, there is clear instruction about being generous:

“But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.” – Deuteronomy 15:7-11 (NLT)

Not only did this include issues of cash flow, it also included how crops were to be harvested with the poor in mind:

“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 9:9-10 (NLT)

Some is left behind for those who struggle, and it is left for them to pick – I think this may be a nod toward the dignity of work.

Being generous – and with the right attitude – was a core ethic to be embraced by our ancestors in faith.

One word you may have heard used in relation to money and stuff is “tithe.”  The word literally translates as “tenth” and has been used to refer to a standard for giving in churches for a very long time.  Here is one of the most oft-quoted verses about tithing:

“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! “But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!” – Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT)

The Rich Religious Leader knew all of this, and I imagine he kept to the letter of the Law pretty well.  He had the ethical living down, but he was missing the ethos.  The funny thing about this ethic-ethos reality is that you could line people up, side by side, one being all about the ethics and the other all about the ethos, and on the outside, they might look very much the same.  Yet there can be a world of difference between the two.  Think of it in relation to two couples.  Both can be similar in ethic: doing a lot of basic couple behaviors that are good.  And yet one couple can have a vibrant, growing connection with each other while the other feels like they are just going through the motions.  So it is with the faith.  The point and goal of the Way of Jesus is the embracing of the ethos, the heart, the Spirit, which includes the ethic but is not about the ethic. 

The rich guy thought he was nailing it based on his ethical living.  And yet he was missing the heart of everything – the relationship with God, walking in the Spirit, ongoing resurrection and renewal.  This is what I really believe people are after.  They long for a deep spiritual connection.  Unfortunately, the Church as a whole has focused so much on do’s and don’ts and the self-righteous legalism born from it that many people have left the building – because they sense that the Spirit left a long time ago. 

I would go even further to suggest that if we look at ethics as a way to in some way manipulate God into fulfilling God’s part of the equation, we have stepped away from the very ethos which gives birth to the ethic and thereby undermine the spiritual connection we so crave.  The fundamental defining character of God is love.  Love is bigger than a contract or transaction.  Don’t settle for ethic when ethos is within your grasp.

Lynne and I really didn’t know that we were being indoctrinated from the moment we drew our first breaths.  During elementary school, we both likely could pick up subtle clues that we had been brainwashed, but we really couldn’t see it until our later high school years and early adulthood.  Now having raised our own children through their teens into adulthood, and as we make new friends and acquaintances, the depths and complexity of our respective parents’ dogma drilled into us has become incredibly clear as we contrast the ethics and ethos we unwittingly adopted with competing ways of living and being around us.  In short, we were raised in the Way of Jesus.  Frankly, I am pretty sure neither of us appropriately appreciated this training program that was in session all day, everyday of our lives.  Now, however, we could not be more grateful.

Things that we didn’t know were somewhat different were normal for us.  Like families that were loving and supportive, where conflict certainly happened yet healthy resolution and reconciliation were just as common.  Neither one of us have any truly Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that can have the capacity to increase the likelihood of addiction, heart disease, obesity, and lifespan.  Neither one of us have any idea what it would be like to live in a household where emotional, physical, or sexual abuse took place, or physical or emotional neglect. We both grew up in households with long marriages – our respective parents are all still alive in their 80’s and all apparently happily married – both sets over 60 years now.  As far as we know, none of four parental units were incarcerated (at least not for very long – but I suspect my mother-in-law just never got caught…).  No immediate family members or parents struggled with mental illness, addiction, or domestic violence.  Out of ten potential ACE’s, we both come up with goose eggs.  Zilch.  Our households were places of peace, love, support, encouragement, hope, warmth, grace, and respect, as well as structure, expectations, consequences, and accountability.  Our parents and family members were all very human, mind you, but all living by the same ethic (rules for life) and ethos (way of being) which is the Way of Jesus.  Note: I use “Way of Jesus” instead of “Christian” because in our culture, the former gets at the ethic/ethos and the latter is more about religious orthodoxy.

One of the areas of ethics and ethos we were unwittingly taught had to do with the subject of this series – our stuff, our material possessions, our money.  Last week I told you about Lawrence Wheaton, my wife’s grandpa on her mother’s side.  I painted a picture of him as a man who was very thrifty – which is entirely true.  Yet he and his wife, Fern, were also generous.  They believed in the work of the church in particular, and faithfully supported it throughout their adult lives.  Lawrence and Fern’s thriftiness allowed them to walk into a car dealership and pay cash for whatever Ford they wanted.  Their being tight with a nickel also meant that they saved enough that when the church needed a roof, Fern wrote a check to cover it.  Pretty impressive for a couple whose primary income was from his wages driving a Rainbow Bread delivery truck!  The same basic thing could be said of both of my grandparents as well – a wisdom about money that included a conservativism on the one hand, and an ethic of generosity on the other.  This ethic was passed down to the next generation, which was also handed down to my siblings and Lynne’s, too.  It’s a wisdom that extends generations back.

When it comes to money, there are ethical behaviors which help us guard against greed and self-centeredness while providing for those in need – behaviors most people struggle to keep.  We need to learn them.  But we need to keep in mind that the point of it all is not to simply obey commands, but to connect to Life.  Because we live and breathe money, this has great potential to control everything else.  Learn the ethic of generosity, the freedom it brings and the good that it does.  Learn more, however, the Christ that is behind the ethic, which is ever and always generous as a key descriptor of the ethos of God.  The God who is represented by the shepherd who throws a party when he finds his 1-out-of-100 lost sheep, the woman who finds her 1-of-10 coins and invites everyone over to celebrate, and the father who welcomes his lost 1-of-2 sons home and hosts a feast to beat all feasts.  This is just simply the heartbeat of God.  When we choose to have our hearts beat in the same rhythm, we find ourselves deeply connected to the Spirit of God.  And when we don’t, we don’t.

The rich religious leader also knew – but perhaps forgot – about a key verse that I am certain Jesus knew and lived out fully.  I offer two versions here:

O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
    and this is what he requires of you:
        to do what is right, to love mercy,
             and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 (NLT)

God has already made it plain how to live, what to do,
  what God is looking for in men and women.
    It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
       be compassionate and loyal in your love,
          And don't take yourself too seriously—
             take God seriously. – Micah 6:8 (The Message)

This verse is right in line with Jesus take on the most important thing to remember about life and faith:

Love the Lord your Godwith all your heart, soul, mind & strength.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love like I loved. – Jesus

The ethic and ethos together – which includes giving – leads us into deep spirituality, personal maturation, and global transformation. This is an invitation to choose a different way of life.  This is a “get to” thing, not a “you better or else.”  Love invites you into life abundant.  This both/and approach to ethics and ethos delivers beautiful results for everybody if we’ll have it.  Of course, you are free to walk away as well.  The love of God is, after all, unconditional and uncontrolling. What do you choose?

The Stuff of Life: A Big Old Problem

Luke 12:13-21 (The Message)

Someone out of the crowd said, "Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance."
     He replied, "Mister, what makes you think it's any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?"
     Speaking to the people, he went on, "Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot."
     Then he told them this story: "The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest.' Then he said, 'Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself, Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!'
     "Just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?'
     "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God."

Notes from Gail O’Day, NIB

As suggestive as this parable is, it does not specifically answer the crucial question: What was the rich man’s folly? Actually, his follies are many and allow the parable to be viewed from several angles of moral reflection.

1. Preoccupation with Possessions. Until the voice of God interrupts the fool’s reverie, there is nothing in the story but the man and his possessions. His goods and prosperity have become the sole pursuit of his life, until finally the poverty of his abundance is exposed. Thus the parable plunges the hearer into a searching reflection on the meaning of life. We may declare, “Whoever has the most toys when he dies wins,” but the parable exposes the emptiness of such a materialistic life-style.

2. Security in Self-sufficiency. The parable sketches the figure of a man who does not need anyone else. He can provide for himself, and his provisions will take care of him for many years. He needs the security of the love of neither family nor faithful friends. He does not feel the need of a community of support or the security of God’s love. In an extreme case, the parable allows us to see the ultimate extension of the common, prideful inclination to think that we can make it on our own and that we don’t need anyone else.

3. The Grasp of Greed. Greed is the moral antithesis of generosity. The thought of what he might be able to do for those in need never enters the rich fool’s mind. His innermost thoughts reveal that he has no sense of responsibility to use his abundance for the welfare of persons less fortunate than he. Greed has eaten away any compassion he may once have had.

4. The Hollowness of Hedonism. The rich fool revels in his prosperity because he envisions that because of it he can “eat, drink, and be merry.” His daydream is to spend his future indulging his whims and desires. The greatest good he can imagine is a life of maximizing his own pleasure. Leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work—the rich man’s vision of the future sounds uncomfortably like one that most of us have for our retirement years. Are we really planning prudently? What gives our life meaning now, and what will give it meaning then?

5. Practical Atheism. This is Peter Rhea Jones’s provocative term for the rich fool’s approach to life. The rich fool may protest that he has always believed in God, but when it comes to managing his life, dealing with possessions and planning for the future, he lives as though there were no God. The parable, therefore, probes our basic commitments. What difference should our faith in God make in the practical matters of life?

A televised interview with a man who had lost his house and all his possessions to a raging brush fire driven by Santa Anna winds in California provides a striking contrast to the rich fool. Recalling that his brother had recently mused that they should be careful not to allow their possessions to possess them, this man who had just seen everything he owned but the shirt on his back go up in smoke announced to the reporter with a note of unexpected triumph: “I am a free man now!”

 

Atomic: Easter Odyssey

Today I offer thoughts related to a post-Easter passage found in John 21:1-22.

Brand New Odyssey.  We bought our 2003 Honda Odyssey brand new in May of that year.  It was a really funny experience.  We were actually upgrading from another minivan – the only family car my kids had known.  My daughter, Laiken, was not ready to make the change.  Even though it was a better ride in every possible way – complete with a DVD system and automatic sliding doors – two things Noah thought were especially cool as a six-year-old.  Laiken spent a total of 15 seconds examining the new van, then promptly took her place in our old van we were going to trade in, plopped herself in her car seat, buckled up, and began to cry, mourning the potential loss of the only van she ever loved up to that point.  She didn’t win the case that day, and eventually got over it.

From New to Used to Denial.  We still own the van.  Upon close inspection, you might come to realize that it is no longer brand new.  The odometer reads almost 185,000 miles.  The floor mats are worn, and some of the stains are reminders of juice boxes once enjoyed. The stereo includes a CD and cassette player (!), but Bluetooth didn’t exist yet, so that only works through an aftermarket gizmo using the auxiliary input.  One rear window doesn’t open anymore, either. The exterior is showing some signs of wear.  The sun has revealed that the paint used for the trim wasn’t quite on the money.  Every handle is just a bit off – can we now call it a two-tone car?  And if you happen to look at either the front or rear bumper, you might notice – actually, you can’t miss – the fact that the car has been in a fender bender.  The front bumper is cracked.  The rear bumper is wrinkled.  I’m not going to fix it.  We’ve had it for sixteen years, and it looks like it.  Yet it is filled with stories that represent our little family’s history.  We all grew up in that van.  The stains and scratches are there, and are easily seen.  To try and ignore them is an effort in futility.  The evidence of life belongs in a sixteen-year-old van.  The van lived up to its name – our family memories are interwoven in the odyssey of our Odyssey. Our odyssey is us, and our Odyssey has been our ride all along the way.

Peter’s Backstory.  Peter was a 2003 Odyssey, but he kind of thought he was still brand new.  It was a Thursday night.  Jesus and his closest followers were having their last supper together when Peter confessed his undying devotion to Jesus, to which he replied, “Pete, I know you mean what you say with all of your heart, but the truth is that before dawn tomorrow, you’re going to deny even knowing me.  Three times!”  Peter was undoubtedly defensive (even if only inwardly).  But Jesus was correct.  After he was arrested, Peter was asked three times if he was one of Jesus’ disciples, and each time Peter denied any association with him.

Jesus’ Approach to Seeing Clearly. Some time after Easter, Jesus knew that he was going to have a genuine “come to Jesus” meeting with Peter where they would address his denials, resolve the issue, and hopefully resulting in his restoration.  In light of what was to unfold, Jesus quite literally set the table for a healthy encounter.  He gave the fisherman the catch of a lifetime which meant full bellies and full bank accounts.  He had a fantastic campfire breakfast ready for these hungry men.  Everyone was welcome to eat and be together.  What started out as a lousy day turned into a great day. 

Notice what he didn’t do.  He didn’t exclude Peter even though there was a mess yet to clean up.  He didn’t exclude any of the disciples who harbored bad feelings toward Peter, either.  These are significant things to notice, because Christians have been infamous for excluding people who are wounded while including people who have scorned them. For all of us who will one day be in conflict with someone else, we can learn a lot from Jesus’ approach here, choosing to do everything he could to foster an environment that would make the difficult talk more likely to end well. 

We can also take heart from this passage if we have any fear at all about facing God after death.  The popular vision is of a judge ready to cast his verdict.  Even though we may be confident about the grace of God being enough in various ways, the image is still a judge.   How about we upgrade our image to what we see here?  What if the heart of God is just as we see reflected in Jesus?  Not a judge, but a deeply trusted, loving friend with whom we can let our guard down. If we really believe that God was fully manifested in Jesus, then let that give you great hope if you are worried about being judged.  Everything is couched in love.

Seeing Continuum: From Self-Loathing to Self-Aggrandizement.  It is no coincidence that Jesus asked Peter three times whether or not he loved him.  Once the third round came, Peter connected the dots.  He saw himself clearly.  No more denial.  My guess is we’re all somewhere on the self-awareness continuum.  Some of us are more on the self-loathing extreme, and some of us are more on the self-aggrandizement extreme – I guess we’re all morons one way or another!  In either case – and for everyone in between – I think the Spirit of God works with us as it did through Jesus with Peter.  For the self-loather, I think the Spirit whispers words of encouragement, affirmation, worth.  For the Peter type, I think the Spirit calls them back to reality. 

What Love has to do with it: Core paradigm. With great grace on display yet again, Jesus pulled Peter aside, alone near the water where the fishing boats were beached (he wasn’t interested in publicly humiliating the guy) and led him into the crux of the issue.  They weren’t going to get into a debate about context – there were reasonable reasons for Peter’s fear the night he denied knowing Jesus.  The issue then and going forward for Peter was about the centrality of Christ in his life.  Did he really, truly love Jesus above all else?  Asking him three times in a row was extremely strategic.  By the third time, Jesus didn’t have to even bring up what the conversation was all about – Peter woke up by the third round – his thrice denial.  Peter, now humbled, confessed his love and devotion, and Jesus told him that there were going to be tough days ahead because of it that would mimic his own journey of suffering.  That was helpful, in case he ever thought that difficulties somehow meant the absence of God. In fact, in his case difficulties stemmed from his intimacy with God.   

Life is like my old Honda.  Life is an odyssey, a series of journeys that take us here and there and help us pile up memories with every stain and scratch.  But the very relevant news of Easter is that there is a greater possibility in deep relationship with God – a different odyssey – than the one we’ve lived from a more casual acquaintance relationship with God.  A ride that conjures a different kind of pride than before, that celebrates the scratches and stains, knowing that they belong, but that they aren’t the end of the story and actually serve to provide a different value.  What could be an embarrassing dent is now a reminder of grace that restored us for a few more miles.  Peter could say, “Even though I denied three times, God still cleaned me up and used me in ways I could not have imagined.”

What Resurrection Looks Like: More than a Renovated 2003 Odyssey…    Another three rounds of questions would come up within a few years and Peter kept his devotion intact, even though it went against everything he had ever thought (see Acts 10).  His faithfulness opened the door for every non-Jewish person to be included in the Jesus movement.  The “yes” would lead to inclusion (let that sink in and apply it broadly).  Peter’s life would never be the same.  In many ways, his new life was so different, it was almost like he was resurrected – his old life was dead and buried, his new life in God moved forward.  He only got there, however, because he addressed his shadowy side and chose to move forward.

What does the new model look like?  I don’t think it’s a fully restored 2003 Honda Odyssey (maybe, though – who knows?).  I think it’s much more profound than that.  There is a reason that one popular image of Easter is the metamorphosis of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly – from where we currently are we cannot fathom what we might become.  Our current consciousness, as Einstein noted, cannot offer different solutions – we need a new consciousness. That’s what Jesus lived and proclaimed as very Good News, and what he was inviting Peter to embrace.  Maybe the upgrade is from a clunker van to a sports car, or shiny SUV.  But maybe it’s a Space X rocket, or a hospital ship, or a helicopter, or a dump truck, or a school bus, or a snow plow, or a dune buggy, or all of the above, transforming as needed.  The point is that Easter proclaims the hope that new life is upon us, that it will be ours post-grave in surprising ways, and can be realized now.  In acknowledging our odyssey/Odyssey, we allow it to continue in very surprising, new ways.

Our Turn.  The Spirit of God continues to speak and invite us to see clearly and decide where we want to go next, all related to our relationship with God.  What are you sensing today?  How is God providing a mirror for you today?  What might resurrection mean for you as you walk forward from this Easter?  Where has your odyssey/Odyssey taken you so far?  Where might it take you next?

Atomic: One

When I was maybe 6 years old or so, I did a “cute” thing.  After a bath I went to dry my hair in my mom’s hairdryer –  one of those bee-hive beauties you see in old movies, where the thing drops over your head and dries your hair in place (and also reads your mind).  When you’re in one of those things, you can’t hear anything going on around you.  I assumed nobody could hear me, either, so I started belting out some of my favorite songs in my personal rotunda.  I was in there so long I may have burned out the motor.  Unfortunately, even though I couldn’t hear anything outside the metal dome, everybody could hear my heartfelt rendition of whatever song a six-year-old sings.  My sister Ann decided it would be worth recording, so she got her cassette player to capture it all.  When I had had enough and finally emerged, I was greeted with lots of laughs as my sister hit “Play”. I was humiliated and felt like my privacy had been hacked, like someone had been reading my diary (if I kept one).  I’m almost over it.

When we read chapter 17 in John’s Gospel, we need to approach it as if we were eavesdropping on Jesus as he poured out his heartfelt prayer to God.  Intimate.  Personal. Passionate.  The content of the prayer is pretty clear – Jesus prays for his disciples and future followers to stay close to God like Jesus did, and not get pulled back into the incredibly strong forces of culture that they would invariably face.  I’ll unpack that in a minute, but before we do, we need to tap into the deep emotional state Jesus surely was in as he prayed. 

I want to take you there in a way you might not normally associate with Jesus in relationship with the disciples, but I think it’s fair.  Imagine a healthy parent praying for their child, dreaming only the best for them.

I still well up when I think about it.  Lynne and I created a routing with our kids when they were little.  After their bath they could each pick out a book for us to read to them, then it was off to bed.  But that wasn’t the end.  Lynne and I would take turns tucking them in, which included a couple of songs to wind them down to sleep.  When I just sing it now, it has limited affect on me.  When I put myself back in my kids’ rooms – especially when they were babies and we would sing it to them while holding them in our arms – I fall apart.  I can still see my kids’ eyes looking back into mine as I sing a song reminding them of my love for them.  I think there is a part of Jesus that thinks this way about his disciples.  They are his kids, in a way.  They were completely reliant on him when they decided to follow.  Of course he feels deep love for them!  I remember buying Billy Joel’s last album in 1993, which featured the song, Lullabye, that he wrote for his own kids.  I loved it immediately, and dreamt of the day I could sing such a song to my own kids (it would be a four year wait).  Take a few minutes and listen to it to get your ears and heart in the right frame of mind.  Here’s the song.  Cry a little if you want – it’s really sweet.

But the disciples weren’t babies, they were adults who had pledged their lives to following Jesus wherever that might lead.  Recall that the night Jesus uttered this prayer was the night he would be arrested.  He would go through a torturous hell, and his disciples would be rocked.  That’s why his prayer was so filled with passion.  He was deeply concerned about the wellbeing of his followers in light of hard times to come (and they did).  The closest I can come to this is dropping my kids off at college 400 miles away.  We had great faith in our kids and in the university they were attending, yet we could no longer immediately swoop in and save the day.  We couldn’t take a hit intended for them.  We couldn’t be there to save them.  We knew they would face lots of different challenges and would have to figure things out on their own.  Letting go is heart wrenching.  They were in a safe place of learning, designed for their well-being.  I can only imagine the struggle of military parents and spouses who say goodbye to their loved ones who are heading into truly hostile environments.  That is what the disciples were going to face, and Jesus knew it.  Parents are generally fine taking pain for their kids, but when they see their kids suffer or face great threat, that’s unbearable.  It reminds me of a scene from Les Miserable, where Jean Valjean is worried about a young man he loves like a son.  Here is the song, sung by Josh Groban.  Let it move you.  Cry some more.  That’s what Jesus was feeling as he prayed.

Jesus’ great hope was that his disciples and future followers would recognize the great, Good News he was proclaiming, that there is a God-rooted way of living and being that is very different in form and practice that yields an incredibly rich life experience.  Jesus’ life was extraordinary because he was so in lock step with God, so unified that one couldn’t determine where Jesus ended and the Father began.  Their mindset and ethos and drive and vision were one and the same.  That’s what Jesus longed for in his followers. 

He was realistic, however.  Judas was choosing to tap out, after all, and Peter’s conviction was going to be shaken to the core.  The pressure they would face was unimaginable – the Roman Empire had no problem executing them, the Temple leaders proved they were not beyond murder – how much would they be able to take?  This threat is not our threat today in our Napa context.  Honestly, nobody gives much of a rip about our faith perspective unless we’re hateful toward people.  Faithful, fruitful Christians are in the minority, but our lives are not threatened.  At least not in the same way.  More likely, we will be tempted to succumb to the cultural pressure that dominates our culture to be consumed with ourselves, with status, wealth, material possessions, and self-protection.  In the United States, our faith may even be used to validate a range of “isms” that seem biblical but do not reflect the ethos of Jesus: racism and white supremacy, sexism, discrimination against foreigners (undocumented immigrants), the LGBTQ community, the poor, other religions, etc.  If we are not wise to this phenomenon, we will most likely fall victim to it.  Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  He is right.  If we are not vigilant and focused, there is no way we will stay true to our deepest convictions.  Recalling Jesus’ words about the vine and branches, we remember that the point is staying on the Way of Jesus which keeps us connected to God.  This means we choose in myriad ways to be close to God and, especially in our radically individualistic culture, we do it in community.  Without community, we are like a red-hot ember pulled away from a fire.  It will stay hot for a while, but without the community of other embers it will die out pretty quickly.

Jesus knew his time was essentially up.  He could no longer be with them. His prayer released his loved ones into God’s care alone, asking – even demanding – that God care for them.  There comes a point for us when we have to do this for those we love, because we never had control anyway, right?!  When we do that, our relationship with them changes.  They are allowed to be responsible people and our relationship equalizes.  Plus, God answers the prayer.  God will always be faithful to be with us at all times in powerful ways if we will see it.  God will work through all the circumstances for good ends, even if the circumstance results in suffering and death.  God is that powerful.

The disciples by this time had spent a number of years with Jesus, watching him, listening to him, soaking up everything that was at work in him.  Sometimes they learned the hard way, after challenging Jesus directly or having their worldview challenged.  In the end, they stayed faithful, most of them even when faced with martyrdom.  I think that if asked, they would unequivocably state that even if their lives ended in death because of their association with Jesus, it was worth it.  Being with Jesus changed them for good.  I can state this for myself, and every devoted Jesus follower I’ve ever known would say the same thing.  Even if the Way of Jesus leads us to personal sacrifice in myriad ways, the Way is worth it.  Being in relationship with God isn’t easy.  If we’re paying attention at all we will realize that we are invited into deeper and deeper levels of wellbeing, wholeness, shalom.  We usually only realize this when something grabs our attention – our prejudice, mistakes, ego – and the Spirit of God invites us to choose the Way yet again.

There is one final song I encourage you to experience.  The song, For Good, from the Broadway show Wicked, is a song of blessing from two characters who were not always aligned, yet in the end loved and respected each other enough to say to each other that their relationship changed them for good.  I hope it resonates with some of you who have walked great distances on the Jesus path and are so much better for it.  I hope it is a song of prophetic hope for some of you who are considering getting on (or back on) the Jesus path, because it is true. 

Jesus prayed for you.  He loved you enough to pray that you would remain committed, even in the face of great cultural pressure to the contrary.  God loves you like a daddy rocking his baby to sleep, like a worried father concerned for his son facing battle, and as a friend who, like you, is shaped by relationship with you even as you are shaped by the relationship.  Hear the love, feel the love, remain united because of this deep love.  And go ahead and cry a little, too.

Questions to think about…

1.       Have you ever had a “Bee Hive Hair Dryer” experience?

2.       How does Jesus’ prayer change in significance when you understand the passion behind it?

3.       How do you relate to the image of Jesus as a daddy rocking their baby to sleep with a lulabye?

4.       How do you relate to the image of Jesus as a father worried about his son going into battle?

5.       How do you relate to the image of Jesus as a friend who changes for good with you?

6.       How do you stay “one” with the Father?  How do you do your part not to be swayed by the World?

Atomic: Connected

Atomic: Connected

We are living in-between two times – the one we’ve known which is fading, and the one to come.  Church historian Phyllis Tickle notes that about every 500 years or so, the Church has a yard sale where they do some Spring cleaning and let go of some things that are not as useful as they once were.  It’s been 500 years since the Protestant Reformation began – the last major Church yard sale. We’re in another right now.  How do we know?  Not because the Church as a whole is proactively seeking to get rid of junk, but because the people the Church is trying to serve are doing it on their own.  Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who is credited with beginning the Reformation, did not get permission to split the Church from his superiors.  The yard sale – as yard sales usually are – was messy, chaotic, time consuming, and taxing.  The physical and emotional toll this major change took is incalculable.  Think how hard it can be to decide whether or not to part with some family artifact that everybody else knows if a tacky piece of junk.  You’ll probably have to pay somebody to take it away, yet for you it is priceless.  Yard sales are had in this regard.  The Reformation was a long lasting, very complex, excruciatingly painful yard sale that set all sorts of new thoughts and behaviors in motion which are still impacting the world today.

How do we know we’re in yard sale season?  Not because Church leadership is proactive, but because a growing number of folks who are not the authorities are cleaning house, starting with themselves.  People are voting with their feet and their finances in our country today.  While we may be fooled by a few signs of what appears to be growth in the American Church, the reality is that people are leaving it at an unprecedented rate.  Far more churches close every year than are being started.  Why?  The reports from those who have left have difficulty articulating it en mass, but the collective voice is saying that they feel the Church has lost its way, that it does not seem reflective of the loving Jesus it claims to model itself after, but has become in many ways the opposite: judgmental, dogmatic, rigid, unwelcoming, and more about politics than people.  The group that has left has good reason.  One of the catch phrases that speaks volumes is a very common phrase that has been shared many times by countless people when asked about faith, and more particularly about why they have left the church:
“I am spiritual, not religious.”

We’ve talked about the phenomenon a lot here at CrossWalk because we’re a church that recognizes and applauds the yard sale in Napa.  We are in process here: we discover and grow and recognize what needs to be hauled out to the lawn, and we do.  Over the last 20 years we have done a lot of deconstruction work, and have also been engaged in constructing what seems to make more sense biblically and theologically, what appears to be more aligned with the character and nature of Jesus, who was so clearly tied into the presence of God.  On this subject of spirituality we have a lot to say that I think will be helpful to a lot of folks who want to cultivate their spirituality.  Jesus certainly lived with a healthy spirituality, and he had some words to say about it to his disciples recorded in John 15: 1-17.

As I reflect on his words, I think of my Grandfather, Pieter Smit.  I am named after him.  He was a pastor for decades, serving in Kansas, Iowa, California, and Minnesota.  He was sharp as a tack, reading the latest books from popular Christian leaders right up until he died in his sleep at 95 years old.  One thing that he did which was incredible had to do with prayer.  He would rise every morning at 5:00 for coffee (of course) and prayer.  He had a personal prayer list he worked through every day which included every member of his family (including me) as well as friends near and far.  I think it took him an hour a day to pray through the list, which is a great exercise for connecting with God and loving people.  When you’re praying for someone, you’re thinking about them in helpful, supportive ways.  That’s a loving thing to do.  He would pray throughout the day, too, as the Apostle Paul instructed when he encouraged his readers to pray without ceasing.  There are a lot of spiritual activities – formally called spiritual disciplines – that foster an ongoing, growing personal relationship with God.  Utilizing contemplation, meditation, worship music, walking in nature, offering acts of service, reading spiritually-oriented materials, fasting, etc., are all examples of such disciplines.  Whatever you’re into that works for you, it only works if you actually work it into your life.  Put it in your calendar.  Make it a habit.  Lots of research has shown the connection between integrating spiritual disciplines and a higher quality of life.

Jesus was talking well beyond personal devotional time, however.  He was telling us to remain in him and be fruitful.  What does it look like to remain in the footsteps of Jesus?  I think it looks a lot like Jesus.  At CrossWalk, we are building our ministries around what we believe to be the ethos of Jesus, particularly as witnessed in the Gospel of John.  He was a lifelong learner, so we choose to stretch in our understanding of Jesus and God throughout our lives.  What are you doing to stretch your faith?  He was often engaged in serving people’s needs, so we choose to kneel in service of others.  How are you choosing to be engaged in the service of others?  He was a leader who proclaimed God to be loving and forgiving, so we choose to act as agents of grace in an often hyper-critical world.  How do you choose to be graceful toward others? Ever have a moment like Jesus had standing up for the woman caught in adultery and mistreated by the authorities?  He was also deeply rooted and motivated by his awareness of God’s Spirit working in and through him.  We choose to be incarnate similarly, allowing it to lead us to come alongside others in ways Jesus came alongside all he met.  How are you living this idea out of being truly infused with the Spirit?  He also chose to connect with God, which is what we’re looking at today, which is about all of this (plus one massive thing yet to come).  If we actually engage this stuff, I think we will also experience results similar to those Jesus experienced, which is what he was talking about when he mentioned the need to be fruitful.  He didn’t say that we’d be deemed healthy by how much inner peace we can muster in isolation.  It was about fruitfulness that was a byproduct of doing what Jesus did, of following the lead of the Spirit within.

The final big piece that I think we need to see in this text is easily missed in our culture because we are so oriented toward radical individualism.  To really be connected to God by following Jesus’ footsteps, we need to be in community.  This faith thing isn’t about the Gospel and me; it’s really about the Gospel and “we”.  You really can’t obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another unless there is another to love.  You can’t do this alone.  And, the command was to love one another the way Jesus loved, which is very likely somewhat different than the way you naturally express love.  You cannot learn this key piece alone – you need practice.  Others need you to practice on.  I know a man in his later years who is one of the most devoted men you could meet when it comes to knowing his Bible.  He works very hard to study it daily and live a moral life.  Because the Bible says we are to make disciples, he offers a Gospel message and invitation whenever he gets the chance, including his 90th birthday party which was attended entirely by Christians! That’s commitment!  He has also attended church faithfully most of his life.  I am confident that he can quote lots of scripture and tie it all together with a well-articulate theology which he has honed over the years.  Furthermore, he feels very confident about how he has lived his life of faith.  Yet he missed this last, most important commandment from Jesus to love one another the way Jesus loves.  Decades ago, this man’s son came out of the closet.  He was immediately shown to the door and essentially told that he was no longer his son so long as he was gay.  We think the son lives in Palm Springs.  They haven’t communicated at all for decades.  He had theological differences with his daughter, and now they are estranged.  This guy does not know how to love, and definitely doesn’t know how to love like Jesus.  When we are truly in community, however, we place ourselves in an environment where we can learn to be loved, learn how to love, be taught, be corrected, become the love of Jesus.

Nicolas Herman, on the other hand, was deeply devoted to God and to the church.  After serving in the military where he was injured, he joined a monastery out of his love for the Church.  He worked in the kitchen.  Over time he came to a provocative realization: he felt closer to God peeling potatoes and washing dishes than he did in chapel services.  Walking in the woods brought him more intimacy with God than Bible studies or prayer services.  He began to commune with God throughout the day, and because he did, his understanding and wisdom set him apart.  He would later put his thoughts down in the form of a short book (among many other writings he produced).  The book was named Practicing the Presence of God.  You may be more familiar with the name Nicolas took when he took his vows at the Carmelite monastery: Brother Lawrence.  In our radically individualistic American culture, this idea of finding God anywhere but church is music to our ears.  But that’s not what really took place for Lawrence.  It was his community that gave him a context in which to process his thoughts. It was his community that encouraged him to write. It was his community that invited others to come learn from him.  It was his community that helped him learn to love.  I would go so far as to say his capacity to know and experience the love of God was only possible because he was in a community that helped him know what love looked like.  The same is true for us.

Want to feel connected to God?  Personal spiritual disciplines are key.  So is modeling your life after Jesus.  And so is true community, because you can’t learn to love one another like Jesus loved if there’s no other to love.

Questions…

What spiritual practices are currently working for you?  How did you learn about them?  When/how do you practice these disciplines?

How are you doing staying connected with God by following in the footsteps of Jesus?  Which of the following come easily to you, and which ones are more difficult?  Stretch (lifelong learning), Kneel (service), Grace (spreading love and forgiveness), Incarnate (embodying the presence of God with everyone unconditionally), and Connect (making a concerted effort to stay with God).

How does community play a role in your connectedness to God?  How have you learned about your areas for transformation from community?  Why is “going solo” a bad idea for faith?

 

John 15:1-17 (The Message):

The Vine and the Branches

15 1-3 “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

9-10 “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.

11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

17 “But remember the root command: Love one another.

 

Notes from Gail O’Day (New Interpreters Bible Commentary):

When one turns to Judaism, one finds vineyard symbolism that is consonant with the use of the symbol in John 15. In Sir 24:16–17, for example, Wisdom compares herself to a vine: “Like the vine I bud forth delights,/ and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit” (NRSV). The song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1–7) offers the parade example of “vine” as a symbol for the people of God. In this text, “the house of Israel and the people of Judah” are explicitly identified as “the vineyard of the Lord” (v. 7). The failure of Judah to live in justice and righteousness is expressed through the metaphor of yielding fruit: God, the planter, expected grapes, but Judah produced only wild grapes (vv. 2, 4). These verses also make use of the language of clearing away (v. 5) and pruning (v. 6) to describe God’s actions toward the vineyard. Similar imagery reappears in Jer 2:21; Ezek 19:10–14; and Hos 10:1 (cf. Ps 80:8–19; Isa 27:2–6; Ezek 15:1–8; 17:7–8). Vine imagery remained a symbol for Israel in rabbinic Scripture interpretation, as well as in the synoptic Gospels (Matt 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–16). The vine imagery in John 15:1–17 should thus be read in the context of the rich use of this symbol in Jewish Scriptures and tradition.

\\\\\

The unproductive branches of which v. 2 speaks are those people within the Christian faith community who do not bear fruit in love. This verse is not a polemic against Jewish apostasy, nor does it point back to Judas’s betrayal.515 Its concern is with those people who are already in relationship with Jesus (“every branch in me”).

\\\\\

John 15:1–17 poses challenging questions to the contemporary Christian community about its self-identity. What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ the vine? What would “church” look like if it embraced this model for its corporate life?

1. First, the image of community that emerges from John 15:1–17 is one of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling. To get the full sense of this interrelationship, it is helpful to visualize what the branches of a vine actually look like. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine. What this vine image suggests about community, then, is that there are no free-standing individuals in community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else. What matters for John is that each individual is rooted in Jesus and hence gives up individual status to become one of many encircling branches.

The communal life envisioned in the vine metaphor raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. At the heart of the Johannine model is social interrelationship and corporate accountability. The vine and branches metaphor exhorts the community to steadfastness in its relationship to Jesus, a steadfastness that is measured by the community’s fruits (vv. 4–5). To bear fruit—that is, to act in love—is a decidedly corporate act. It is “rooted” in Jesus’ love for the community (v. 9) and issues in the community’s embrace of that love as the central commandment of its own life (vv. 10, 12, 17). To live as the branches of the vine is to belong to an organic unity shaped by the love of Jesus. The individual branch is subsumed into the communal work of bearing fruit, of living in love and so revealing itself to be one of Jesus’ disciples (vv. 8, 16). To live according to this model, then, the church would be a community in which members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members. It would not be a community built around individual accomplishments, choices, or rights, but around the corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and corporate enactment of the love of God and Jesus.

2. Second, the metaphor of the vine suggests a radically non-hierarchical model for the church. As the description of a vine and its branches suggests, no branch has pride of place; no one branch can claim precedence or privilege over any other. The descriptions of the cutting and pruning of the branches in 15:2 and 6 underscore this point. Fruitfulness is the only differentiation among branches, and the discernment of fruitfulness falls to the gardener (God) alone, not to any of the branches. It is the gardener’s role to prune and shape the vine to enhance fruitfulness. All branches are thus the same before God, distinguishable only by their fruit. There is neither status nor rank among the branches. Hierarchy among the branches of the vine is precluded, because all members grow out of the one central vine and are tended equally by the one gardener.

This dimension of John’s metaphor also poses some serious challenges to the ways in which institutional church life is understood and maintained. For the Fourth Gospel, there is only one measure of one’s place in the faith community—to love as Jesus has loved—and all, great and small, ordained and lay, young and old, male and female are equally accountable to that one standard. Were the church to shape itself according to the Johannine metaphor, it would be a community in which decisions about power and governance would be made in the light of the radical egalitarian love of the vine image.

3. Third, this metaphor is stark in its anonymity. That is, the visual image of the branches lacks any and all distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts. The anonymity of this image is brought into sharp relief when compared with another NT ecclesial metaphor, the Pauline metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12 is irresistible in the anatomical fantasy it puts before the Corinthians: talking feet and ears, entire bodies composed exclusively of ears or eyes or noses. Unlike the Johannine metaphor, the Pauline image does not remove the differences among the various members of the body, but actually points to those differences as definitional of what it means to be a body. Each member is able to see the place that his or her individual gifts occupies in the corporate body (1 Cor 12:12–13, 27–30). Paul holds together the oneness of Christ and the diversity of gifts and members in the body metaphor.

The Johannine metaphor undercuts any celebration of individual gifts, and this, too, challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression. Were the church to live as the branches of Christ, individual distinctiveness would give way to the common embodiment of love. The distinctiveness of the community would derive solely from its relationship to God and Jesus, not the characteristics or even gifts of its members. The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members. There is only one gift, to bear fruit, and any branch can do that if it remains with Jesus.

 

Atomic: With

The fancy word “incarnation” might be new to some, and depending on how much church background you have, might be so confusing that it might as well be new.  In Christian orthodoxy, the incarnation of Christ is the way the divine nature is expressed as it relates to Jesus.  If you’ve ever heard Jesus described as fully human and fully God, that’s incarnation.  The Word of God made flesh is a very powerful image when applied to a particular person – Jesus – and commands respect immediately. 

Unfortunately, our Christian ancestors who worked very hard to understand this dynamic relationship happening in the person of Jesus could not have realized that in their attempt to clearly explain, quantify, and codify what this means, they unwittingly turned Jesus into a demigod.  That’s a problem on two levels.  First, the Jewish tradition never would have signed off on the notion of their messiah being a demigod – the result of copulation between a mortal and a god.  The demigod notion is anathema to their theology and cosmology.  Second, the demigod position, while it certainly made sense to the non-Jewish audience who were familiar and comfortable with this way of thinking, automatically created a necessary distance between everyday people like you and me and Jesus (the demigod).  Our tradition essentially merged two theologies as they were trying to clarify and codify their belief in Jesus.

Jesus didn’t like the title Son of God (too demi-gaudy – see what I did there?).  His favorite title for himself was Son of Man, or, using our language, “every man.”  If he saw himself as truly human like the rest of us, the demigod denotation didn’t and doesn’t fit.  I don’t think Jesus was a demigod, and I don’t think he thought so, either.  Jesus is not Word made flesh in that way, which creates distance and exclusivity (one reason it’s popular).  Jesus is Word made flesh in an inclusive way that provides a guide and example for all of us, for every man and woman to learn from and follow.  I don’t think Jesus was anymore infused with God than anybody else in human history.  Take a deep breath – on its face it’s heretical (but it isn’t).  I do believe that Jesus at some point began believing in the divine presence within him, learned to cultivate it, leaned into it in ways that were deeply profound and incredibly powerful, impacting him and the world ever since. Instead of creating distance, his message was to share this very Good News with everyone: the divine breath in me is no less in you – see where that takes you.  This idea is what shows up at the very beginning of the Bible in the poetic metaphors of the creation stories.  The disciples-turned-apostles got it and lived it.  You and I are invited to get it and live it, too.

With this foundation – that you and I are no less divine than Jesus(!) but aren’t as aware or tied into it yet – we will take a look at what this sort of incarnation looks like lived out in a handful of scenarios.  What does it mean to be fully engaged when we are faced with times of loving adoration and celebration, betrayal, suffering, and even new beginnings?  Let’s look at three scenes – all including food and/or drink – because we live meal to meal.

Anointing the Anointed.  Not long after Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave, Lazarus threw a dinner party.  The disciples were there, along with Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary (see John 12).  During the course of the meal Mary got out what was likely her dowry: very expensive perfume packaged in a fancy vase – easily portable and also easy to hide.  She dumped it on his feet and wiped it with her hair.  The place was filled with more fragrance than a Middle School Boy’s bathroom at a Homecoming Dance (I think we all bathed in Polo back in the day…).  Judas, the Treasurer, threw a fit: “What a waste!  We could have sold it and paved CrossWalk’s parking lot with that kind of money!”  Jesus, unphased and filled with the love of her gesture, put Judas in his place and chose to elevate and celebrate Mary’s gift. Allowing our indwelling divinity to guide and direct us leads us to really savor the moment for what it is.  In this case to really be in the joy of the moment, which some of us have a hard time doing.

Recently, someone was trying to give me a compliment about the number of lives I touch directly or indirectly (I don’t like writing this…).  I wasn’t going to have any of it.  I was hemming and hawing trying to wriggle away from a very loving gesture when someone else present broke in and said, “Just accept the compliment already!”  So I did.  Am I the only one who struggles to accept someone else’s gift of love and joy?  Jesus, fully embracing his divine nature and human nature together gave us a model: accept it and savor it.

That gift, by the way, was going to be so helpful in the days ahead.  Jesus would soon be arrested, tortured, and executed by crucifixion.  All the way through however, he would still smell the gift lingering in the air.  So would others around him.  So would Mary as she wept at the sight of it all.  How well do you allow the Spirit of God within you to let you embrace love and joy, and also to express love and joy?  In honor of Mary’s beautiful gift, go get a fancy, expensive piece of chocolate.  Smell it, letting it fill our senses.  Take and eat in remembrance of them both.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  The Last Supper (John 13) features Jesus and the gang enjoying what we think is a Passover meal (the different Gospel accounts muddy this up a bit).  The fully human, fully divine Jesus notes a few things through the course of the evening.  First, since they couldn’t hire a foot-washer (nasty job) and nobody was willing to do it, Jesus took care of business personally, to the chagrin of all his pride-filled disciples.  How dumb they must have felt…  Second, he was fully aware that the disciple who was going to help orchestrate his arrest later that night was at the table.  Jesus never excused him from the fellowship, from the communion that was to come. Third, Jesus was also aware that there was another disciple present who was unwittingly not as committed or courageous as he claimed.  Jesus let him know, yet again, kept him at the communion table.  I find this to be incredibly profound, deeply moving, and really challenging.

There have been some funerals I chose not to attend.  I wanted to because of shared relationship.  But I didn’t because I reckoned that if the deceased were throwing a going away party, I would not be invited.  Mainly because at one time I was their pastor who they walked away from because my way of thinking was just too much for them to take, or I had the audacity to promote changing the name of the church from First Baptist to CrossWalk, or in a few cases, because I held them accountable.  While I may have wanted to pay my respects, I deemed it selfish, and chose not to go so as not to in any way take anything away from the deceased’s memorial.  I most cases, I think I was right.  Because that’s how human beings are, which is totally fine.  Why would you invite uncaring people, or your enemies, or people who claimed to be friends until things got too hot?  We wouldn’t.  Which is totally appropriate.

Sometimes, however, we don’t have that choice.  We are simply at table with those who are rude, selfish, duplicitous, and fair-weather fans.  Jesus showed us how to handle ourselves in such contexts.  In a word, he was graceful.  He doesn’t rip on the disciples for putting their stinky, manure-under-their-unkempt-toenails too near the food or faces.  He simply and lovingly served.  He didn’t kill Judas with his hands or words – he knew to do either would only hurt the situation and change nothing.  He didn’t roast Peter for an hour recalling all of his previous blunders to assure him that he would do so yet again before dawn.  They were all allowed around the table.  Toward them all, Jesus responded with grace.

Everybody wears their trail, you know? Where we’ve been is in us and on us all the time.  The sooner we realize this is true of ourselves and everyone else, the better.  Got a big attitude about someone?  Respect the trail they’ve been on and are on.  Choose to be graceful instead of perpetuating the problem.  (This does not mean we put up with abuse.  If that’s happening, get out!  Run for your life!)  What I’m saying is that we should model our lives on Jesus more than our federal politicians.  Hurtful, undignified rhetoric is horribly destructive and has served to increase hateful expression.  It works for them as it strengthens their relationship with their base.  You are not them, so don’t be.  If you call yourself a Jesus follower, a Christian, then realize that such designation is one that is higher than your political affiliation.  Don’t model your lives after them, but rather Jesus.  And, by the way, how about, from a Jesus position, you speak words of graceful accountability when you hear your party leaders go all Middle School…

In honor of Jesus’ willingness to be with those whose trails were clearly evident in and on their persons, find yourself some trail mix or a trail mix granola bar.  Take and eat as a remembrance of Jesus and his inclusivity, all born from his incarnation.

Welcome Wine.  The next scene worth looking at is one of horror: Jesus dying on the cross (John 19).  Very near his last breath, someone had the decency to give him some alcohol to ease his pain. Delivered through a sponge, Jesus welcomed it.  He was surely in agony.  To have that eased would have been entirely welcome.  Three things are happening here: First, Jesus expressed his need, second, Jesus’ mother, sisters, and two followers were especially helpful, and third, Jesus accepted their help.  How many of us try to tough it out when there are people who love us who would love to help?  Jesus, fully divine and fully human, said he was thirsty – that’s stating what he needed.  How well do you do that?  Family and friends present heard him and immediately met his need in the most helpful way.  Sometimes we are really dumb in painful, awkward moments when people right in front of us are struggling.  We often opt for expressing sympathy instead of empathy.  Check out this video to see the difference.  Finally, Jesus accepted the help offered.  Some of us get all prideful at this point, choosing self-imposed martyrdom of sorts instead.  Some of you need to take medication to help you survive and thrive but you are too prideful to accept it.  Follow Jesus and take the help that is offered.

Find some grape juice or wine, put some in a glass, and add a touch of vinegar.  In remembrance of the need expressed, the help offered, and the offer accepted, take and drink.

There is one more meal we’ll look at, but not yet.  Come back on Easter.

Questions to think about…

How are you at honoring others with words, gifts, acts of service, time, etc.?  How are you at receiving honor?  Which is easier?  Why?  How does our understanding of our own incarnation impact both of these?

What’s your MO when it comes to reacting or responding to rude people, people who you know betray you, or friends who don’t really have your back?  Are you passive?  Do you get in their face?  How does this line up with Jesus?  How does out understanding of our own incarnation – and everyone else’s – mess with the way we respond?

How good are you at asking for help?  When you hear of someone’s struggle, do you lean more toward sympathy or empathy?  How are you at receiving offers of help?  How does our understanding of our own incarnation – and that of others – shape your capacity to ask for help, offer empathy, and accept help?

Our coming to grips with our own inherent incarnation – and everyone else’s – can be an incredibly powerful influence in our lives.  How does knowing the Spirit of God is within us and those with whom we interact shapes our mindset, mouth, and motor skills?

Atomic: Death

Atomic: Death (John 11)

 

They were terrified.  They had a right to be.  It was nearing the end of the First Century C.E. and the Romans were cracking down on insurrectionists – people who were rounded up and killed due to their loyalties that competed with Rome.  Jesus-following Jews in Ephesus were no strangers to such persecution.  They remembered the horror of Emperor Nero; their current Caesar, Domitian, so believed himself to be divinely imbued that he demanded to be addressed as “Lord and God”.  One can only imagine this size of his ego and correlated tyranny aimed at those he felt were against him.  This left the early Christian community looking over their shoulders – they only had each other and their deep-seated belief that the faith that was causing them their trouble was true.

The original characters remembered in the Gospel of John were no strangers to terror, either.  Roman oppression was real and often resulted in torture and/or execution.  Jesus and his followers knew of this danger, which is why they kept their distance from Jerusalem, where Rome was especially present and where the Jewish leadership – who were increasingly at odds with Jesus – ruled ancient Judaism.  In John 11 we find the story of the raising of Lazarus, which inspired faithful action on the part of those who experienced it and heard about it.  Martha and her sister, Mary, lost their brother to some form of illness and were in their deepest grief when Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus drew his last breath.  Jesus had similar exchanges with both as they heard of his arrival and went to be with him.  Jesus offered comfort and words of hope that would have been akin to “he’s in a better place” sort of talk.  But that wasn’t common at that time – there wasn’t a lot to go on to support such hopeful talk.  Death was quite final according to the ruling Jewish Sadducees.  Day four marked the moment – the day when all hope in resuscitation was lost. Jesus was known for healing and miracles and had even brought some folk back to life – but four days in?  Unheard of. Unhoped for.

Meadow Pollack was one of seventeen people killed in the Parkland shooting at a Florida high school on February 14, 2018.  Her loved ones who have survived without her for a little over a year now have been forced to walk in the awful space of loss, much like Napa’s Housley family is doing right now.  One of Meadow’s best friends, Sydney Aiello, was at school that terrible day but not in the building where her dear friend was gunned down.  Since that day she had grieved deeply, struggled with survivor’s guilt, and was also diagnosed with PTSD which kept her from moving forward toward a college education – she quite naturally felt too vulnerable in classroom environments.  Grief sometimes is too much to bear, messing with our brain chemicals so much that our despair leads to hopeless acts.  Such was the case for Sydney, who took her own life this weekend.  The feeling of “I can’t go on” was so great that she chose not to.  Her loss is to be deeply mourned, but do not fall victim to some Christian doctrine that would have us judge and condemn her.  God’s grace is not in any way, shape, or form conditioned by our various expressions of pain.  Sydney, I fully believe, is in the arms of a loving God who empathized with her and loves her completely and eternally.

That level of despair and hopelessness was clearly evident four days into Lazarus’ death as crowds of people came to pay their respects with deep, expressive mourning.  A handful of translations get it right when they describe Jesus’ anger at the scene of such agony.  He wasn’t angry at the people.  He was angry that the reality of death was so powerful that it robbed these mourners of the larger reality of the ongoing, never-ending presence of God that was the animating force behind Jesus’ teaching and miracles.  He had seen and experienced what was there the whole time – and was articulated in the Jewish tradition but neglected – God was fully present during this life and well into the next experience of life post-death.  Such a perspective has the power to change the atmosphere at times of suffering as was present on the fourth day.  He knew why he waited to get there on that particular day, and it was time to play his biggest card yet.  He called to a grave he ordered unsealed, “Lazarus, come out!”, and Lazarus walked out.  I don’t know what exactly happened or how we can get our brains around such a miracle.  This we know: a guy was presumed dead and then lived again because of the power of God working through Jesus on that day.  He would eventually die again, of course, but I think it’s safe to assume that the second funeral had a much different feel than the first.  Death lost its sting.  There was life beyond the grave.

The original hearers of this story for whom the Gospel of John was written never knew Jesus or Lazarus, yet this story undoubtedly gave them confidence to hang their hat and hope on.  No matter what this life held in store for them, something better awaited them beyond the grave.

What does this do for you, by the way?  I don’t think John was fabricating the story.  I think something happened here that resulted in Lazarus’ resuscitation. It was compelling enough for early believers to embrace.  What about you?  Do you believe in the reality of God and the hope beyond the grave?  I do.  Aside: I’ve learned that when I open myself up to the reality of the presence of God that permeates this life and necessarily extends into what’s next that I am infused with more and more hope.  It has to be cultivated and managed, of course, because our cultural biases want to use the scientific method on absolutely everything, even though the method itself is not suited for everything.  Curiosity within the scientific community is growing, which is good, but it is slow to trickle down.  Relationship with God is a real relationship that requires ongoing care and feeding – when we don’t, it suffers and sometimes dies.  When it does, hope often dies along with it.

As you can imagine, many of the original characters in the story believed in Jesus as a clearly anointed servant of God.  They let their belief in the finality of death die so that something new cold be born in its place.  Yet others saw the same thing as a threat to snuff out – this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Jewish leadership, who ramped up their plot to kill Jesus after hearing of Lazarus’ return to life.  They maintained their belief in the finality of death and never allowed anything to be born anew in their thinking and perspective.  The new idea was a threat to be reckoned with, which they did.  This happens all the time.

Hundreds and hundreds of years after John’s Gospel was written, there was significant difference of opinion regarding how to interpret the Bible and apply it to life and faith.  The Protestant Reformation was an obvious example of this, ignited by Martin Luther.  This led to new theological insights and practices.  New leaders emerged to guide the new expressions of the Church into maturity.  John Calvin is one name with which you might be familiar.  Huldrych Zwingli was another.  These two served as leaders over Geneva and Zurich, Switzerland, respectively, creating a social order that was no longer controlled by Catholicism.  A new day of freedom had dawned.  Things were different now.  Until Felix Manz began reading the Bible for himself and came to a “new” insight about baptism: it was never meant to be performed in infancy, but rather for only those who confessed their belief in Jesus and his message.  He and others thought it would be cool to be baptized as believers, so they went for it.  Unfortunately, their actions were seen as challenges to the new order.  Manz became the first anabaptist to be martyred – drowned in the same waters he was baptized in.  Many more would follow, including his wife.

Michael Servetus, a brilliant scientist from Spain (he discovered the circulation of blood) was also a well known and highly respected Protestant theologian.  He was especially disturbed by the doctrine of the Trinity and infant baptism promoted by the Catholic Church, which wanted him dead because of it.  Fleeing for his life, he went to find refuge in Geneva, hoping to find support for his free thinking from John Calvin.  He was not aware, however, that Calvin was in favor of infant baptism and the doctrine of the Trinity.  After Servetus attended a church service to hear Calvin, he was arrested.  Shortly thereafter he was burned at the stake in Geneva on a pire of his own books and green wood to prolong his suffering.

What an interesting mix of responses to the Good News!  Some take it to a certain point and then find themselves deciding with the Sadducees, hands bloodied with martyrs of their own choosing.  Some, like Servetus and Manz, choose to build their lives on new insight that seems aligned with the grace of God even if it opposes the orthodoxy of the day.  They did so because they saw beyond the power structures that ruled the day and instead focused their attention on the true source of the greatest power – God – who was guiding their thoughts and steps.  It was reported that they both calmly and with faith suffered their death, confidently looking beyond the grave for their hope.  Faith for them wasn’t simply finding a good theological reason for feeling inner peace.  The power of God changed the way they thought about life, their timeline – everything.

A year ago our church lost a saint – Debbie Fatherree – who succumbed to a brain tumor that we knew from the outset would likely result in her much-too-soon death.  Her spirit to the very end of her painful journey was filled with hope, love, and resolve.  She was curious about what was beyond death’s door, but confident that is was going to be good.  She lived her last 18 months fighting for her life and yet living fully – working to inspire others toward their health all along the way.  She lived with such hopefulness because she experienced the raising of Lazarus herself.  She was once Lazarus.  She was once dead.  Through the power of God working through Alcoholics Anonymous she was dead and lived again.  That power was proof enough to her that there was more going on in the world than just flesh and blood.  She allowed that hope to change her orientation to life itself.

One thing that is surely true – death comes before resurrection.  Lazarus was dead before he was brought back to new life.  You may get some foretastes of the presence of God in part in this life, but the banquet doesn’t come until we go through the door of death.  Experiencing more and more of those foretastes requires death as well.  As was the case with the notable Protestant martyrs and with Debbie Fatherree, embracing the reality of life after the grave deeply impacts how we understand our lives now.

Growing up, my family liked to get out on the water for water skiing and inner tubing.  We had a boat we bought used that had a little sign next to the steering wheel which said, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.”  When we don’t take Jesus and his message seriously, this is the dominant idea in our culture.  Others who hold the same values will celebrate your accumulation of wealth and stuff.  But can I tell you something from my perspective as one who is very familiar with death and what happens to your wealth and stuff?  You really don’t take it with you.  Most of your stuff will quickly be donated or sold, and your accumulated wealth will lose your direct influence immediately.  Your legacy will die quickly if you lived primarily with yourself and your own creature comforts in mind.  When Jesus was confronted with people with this sign next to the steering wheel of their lives, he flat out challenged them to rethink everything, because their focus on wealth was killing them and others unbeknownst to them.

When we take Jesus’ message seriously about life extending beyond the grave, our vision changes.  We realize that our goal for life must be bigger than our few decades, and our scope must be bigger than our own little circle.  When we take Jesus’ message seriously, we are born anew to a different worldview that sees with God’s eyes.  We see beyond our own needs alone and begin to see the needs of those around us near and far.  Realizing that they are as much God’s children as we are, we are – and must be – moved.  This changes our dreams, our calendars, and our budgets to include them because they are included in God’s.  We don’t do it out of coercion but rather love, as we come to grips that God’s love for us is the same for them.  Our love for God changes our hearts to love what God loves and put our lives behind it.  This is ultimately why Manz and Servetus made their claims in spite of opposition that would threaten their lives – they knew they had a proclamation to make for the freedom of many more beyond them.  This is why Debbie Fatherree invested so much time in the lives of others – she had all the time in the world even with a brain tumor that would end her life – her timeline was eternal, not temporal.  We are invited thusly.

Do you believe in Jesus and his message that we see proclaimed in the story of the raising of Lazarus?

So what?

Study Notes (Gail O’Day, New Interpreter’s Bible)

As a first step in reflecting on this text, it is important to acknowledge the question that many hearers of the story of the raising of Lazarus will ask: Did this really happen? As the Overview discussed, there is no more reason to reject this story on tradition-historical grounds than there is to reject any of the other Gospel stories of Jesus raising someone from the dead or, indeed, of any of the accounts of Jesus’ miracles. Yet the question of whether it happened is usually not merely a question about the historicity of the event; beneath it lies a question about the very metaphysical possibility of the event. That is, the question that lingers in many hearers’ minds is “Can we really believe that something like this happened?”

For some people, even those who are eyewitnesses of events that others around them attribute to the miraculous, it is simply impossible to accept that the supernatural can overlap with the natural, that anything can occur for which there is no rational explanation. It is always a matter of reason over faith, of the known over the “might be.” Yet for many people, the experiences of their lives have led them to accept that there is genuine mystery in the world, that the world is full of evidence that the supernatural does overlap with the natural, that the line between the two is permeable. For religious people, this mystery, the overlap between the natural and the supernatural, is seen as evidence of God’s transcendence of the categories by which God’s creatures understand the world to be ordered and of God’s intervention in the workings of creation. It is thus a question of faith whether one can acknowledge the possibility and, indeed, reality of God’s miraculous intervention in creation.

It is against this background that the question, “Could it happen?” of the Lazarus story can be engaged. There is no way to prove the “facts” of this miracle. Rather, the Fourth Evangelist (and all the Gospel writers) confronts his readers with the ultimate clash between views of historical and metaphysical reality in order to lead them to make a decision about how they understand the world to be ordered. The only answer to the question of whether this miracle could have occurred is another question: Can we believe that God, acting through Jesus, has power over the course of life and death?

The Fourth Evangelist engages this question head on in John 11:1–44. As noted in the Commentary, the theological heart of this story is in vv. 25–26, because these verses explain the meaning and import of the miracle of vv. 43–44. The miracle of the raising of Lazarus from the dead concretely illustrates the truths that Jesus declares in vv. 25–26, but it is these truths, not the miracle, that have the lasting significance for the life of faith.

What truths do these verses offer the reader? First, they offer the truth of the identity of Jesus. When Jesus identifies himself with the images of the resurrection and the life (v. 25a), he uses those metaphors to give concrete expression to his unity with the Father, to show what it means that Jesus and God are one. Even though this “I am” saying has a predicate nominative supplied, it is closer in meaning to the absolute “I am” sayings (those without a predicate nominative; see also Fig. 10, “The ‘I AM’ Sayings in John,” 602), because Jesus’ self-revelation as the resurrection and the life points to his sharing fully in the power of God. The magnitude of this claim cannot be overstated, because it announces that God’s power over life and death, a central belief of OT faith (e.g., 2 Kgs 5:7; Ezek 39:3–12) is now shared with Jesus (see Commentary on 5:21–29). When one sees and hears Jesus, one does not see and hear God in some static sense (as frequently seems to be communicated in doctrinal formulations), but one sees God’s will for the salvation of the world at work in the world.

Jesus’ self-revelation as the resurrection and the life is the decisive eschatological announcement of this Gospel. His full share in God’s power over life and death marks the beginning of God’s new age, the age in which God’s hope for the world becomes a reality. What God wills and hopes for the life of the world is now available in Jesus—that is, the defeat of death’s power to remove people from life with God. Who Jesus is, not only what Jesus does (i.e., the works of God as in John 9), marks this decisive shift in God’s relationship with the world. As the resurrection and the life, Jesus defeats death in the future and in the present. The power of death to separate people from God is reduced to nothing by the presence of the power of God in Jesus. This defeat is no longer merely eschatological promise; it is eschatological reality.

Jesus defeats the power of death because in him the world meets the power of the love of God incarnate (cf. Rom 8:35–39). God’s full sharing of power over life and death with Jesus is an expression of God’s love for Jesus and for the world. Because God loves Jesus, God has given all things to him (3:35), culminating in the power over life and death. Because God loves Jesus, God has given him the glory that is revealed in the raising of Lazarus, in the defeat of death (11:4; 17:24). Because God loves the world, God gives Jesus to the world for its salvation (3:16–17), so that the world might come to know fully God’s love for it and live grounded in that love (17:23). Jesus’ own death is a measure of this love (10:17; 15:12), because in it Jesus’ power as the resurrection and the life comes to fullest expression.

Yet this decisive christological announcement is only half of the truth that vv. 25–26 offers the Gospel reader. These verses also offer readers the opportunity to claim that truth for their own lives. Significantly, then, who Jesus is in relationship to God is linked with who Jesus is for believers. As noted in the commentary, the hinge of the parallel phrases in vv. 25b and 26a is the expression “the one who believes in me.” Jesus’ words point to the “So what?” of his identity for the life of the believer.

Verses 25b and 26a are the most far-reaching promise anywhere in the Gospel of what relationship with Jesus offers those who embrace it. They are of a piece with the promises of living water (4:10, 14; 7:37–38), living bread (6:33, 35, 51), and even eternal life (3:15; 6:47; 10:28), but they supersede all those earlier promises by confronting head on the question of death. They are not idle words of hope, because they name the greatest threat to full relationship with God: death. They offer a vision of life to the believer in which his or her days do not need to be reckoned by the inevitable power of death, but instead by the irrevocable promise of life with God. The two parts of vv. 25b and 26a invite the believer to a vision of life in which one remains in the full presence of God during life and after death. The physical reality of death is denied power over one’s life with God, as is the metaphysical reality of death.

This promise is also an invitation, made explicit in Jesus’ question in v. 26b. The way to experience the power of God’s love for the world that defeats death, to receive the promises of God as the reality of God, is to believe in Jesus. When Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” he asks her to believe both that he is the resurrection and the life and that as the resurrection and the life he defeats the power of death. That is, he asks her whether she believes in the fullness of his relationship with God and the effects of that relationship on the life of the world.

Faith, therefore, is not assent to a series of faith statements, but assent to the truth of Jesus’ relationship with God and the decisive change that relationship means for the lives of those who believe. Schnackenburg has eloquently expressed what it means to answer yes to Jesus’ question of v. 26b: “The content [of faith] is what Jesus means for believers, and therefore faith is fundamentally an attachment to this messenger of God.… The relevance of faith lies not in the power of faith as such, but in the fact that faith creates communion with Jesus and that through Jesus believers receive the gift of life.”

Jesus’ claim in vv. 25–26, the claim to which he invites Martha’s (and the church’s) assent, is that the eschatological reality of God that is present in Jesus has decisively altered human experience of life and death. Martha confesses her faith in Jesus as the Son of God (v. 27), yet v. 39 shows that she is not really convinced about the “So what?” of her christological confession. Martha’s attempt to stop Jesus from opening Lazarus’s tomb (v. 39) shows that the full impact of that eschatological claim is beyond her comprehension (see Commentary). Martha serves as a mirror for the contemporary Christian, because the church responds to Jesus’ claims of vv. 25–26 in ways that often are as hesitant as Martha’s words in v. 39.

For example, Jesus’ “I am” statement of v. 25a, one of the christological high points of the Gospel, loses much of its eschatological and soteriological significance if the only time the church engages it is at Easter or funerals. The church preaches about death and resurrection at the time of death, but shies away from such topics in the midst of life. Yet it is in the everyday rhythms of life that the church most needs to talk about Jesus’ power as the resurrection and the life, so that death can indeed lose its sting. To proclaim the power of resurrection only at the time of death is both to impoverish the proclamation and to weaken the power of its witness in the face of death. There is thus a critical need to include conversations about death and the theological significance of Jesus as the resurrection and the life in the ongoing theological reflection of the church, not just in its reflection about death.

In the moment of crisis, at the funeral of a loved one, the immediate need is for pastoral care and reassurance about the power of the resurrection. Indeed, funerals do provide gospel witness to the power of God in Jesus. But a funeral is not the moment for believers to reassess their lives in the light of the new eschatological reality in which the incarnation enables the church to live, because the power of grief and loss is so palpable. Why, then, does the church so often save its most powerful proclamation about death and resurrection for funerals?

Jesus’ powerful announcement to Martha suggests that the church needs to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not only at times of death, but also in the daily moments of human lives, because these moments, too, whether one names them so or not, are also lived in the face of death. John 11 asks the church to reflect that Jesus is the resurrection and the life not just for the crisis moment of death, but for all moments in life. Jesus as the resurrection and the life is the decisive eschatological announcement, because he announces that the world is now definitively under God’s care and power. John 11:25–26 invites the church to claim that death is indeed an inescapable part of the believer’s life, but that it also belongs to the ongoing, life-giving power of God in Jesus (“even though they die, will live,” v. 25b). And Jesus’ words here invite the church to claim that God’s life-giving power in Jesus is the power that determines the believer’s existence, not the power of death (“everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”). John 11 thus offers a promise about how those who believe in Jesus will live their lives, not just about how they will end them.

It is the church’s responsibility to reintegrate death into the mainstream of its theological and pastoral reflection and experience. The goal of such a reintegration is not to eliminate the pain at the death of those we love—that would be a gnostic exercise in denial—but to help the church experience the life of faith grounded in the affirmation that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The promises of God in Jesus offered in the face of death can equip the church to understand the promises of God in Jesus offered in the midst of life.

The Commentary on 11:45–54 noted the repeated instances of irony in the Fourth Evangelist’s presentation of the Sanhedrin’s decision to kill Jesus. This use of irony raises two important issues for the Gospel interpreter. First, it confronts the interpreter with the paradox of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus as the catalyst for his death sentence. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is the catalyst for his death sentence (see Commentary on 2:13–21), but by explicitly naming the Lazarus miracle as the precipitating cause of the Sanhedrin meeting, the Evangelist expands the arena of Jesus’ threat to the Jewish authorities’ power. That is, Jesus’ challenge is not interpreted simply as his challenge to the political power of the religious establishment; it is presented as a challenge to the very way in which the presence of God is known and approached in the world. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus demonstrated that all of Jesus’ claims about his unity with God are true: He does share God’s power for life; he does embody the fulfillment of God’s promises (see Commentary on 11:1–44).

The governing irony of the juxtaposition of the Lazarus miracle and the Sanhedrin decision is that even as the authorities resolve to kill Jesus, they are powerless in the presence of the one who is the resurrection and the life. Before performing the miracle, Jesus explicitly stated that Lazarus’s illness was not for death, but for the glory of God (11:4). Faced with that glory, the religious leadership nonetheless resorts to planning his death. Jesus’ gift of life is the most radical and dangerous threat to the authorities’ power, yet all of their political machinations will only enhance Jesus’ power for life, not impede it. The truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus gives exceeds all hopes and anticipations, and because Jesus’ gift of life redefines the power of death, all agents of death are rendered impotent in his presence. The Fourth Evangelist’s ironic commentary tells the reader that this decision for death contains the seeds of life for those who believe. It is a brilliant way of reinforcing the bold message of 11:1–44: Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life, death has lost its sting.

Yet this thoroughly ironic treatment of Jesus’ death sentence confronts the interpreter with a second issue: How is the relationship between “history” and “interpretation” to be negotiated in this text? The Evangelist’s interpretive work is undisguised in this passage; he provides explicit narrative commentary on the theological meaning of the event he is recounting (vv. 51–52); he arranges details of the story to highlight his ironic reading. Yet as the Commentary on these verses has shown, they also offer glimpses of the workings of the Sanhedrin that stand up well next to other sources about life in first-century Palestine under Roman rule.

It is critical that the interpreter of the Fourth Gospel not fall into the anachronistic trap, shaped by Enlightenment understandings of science and history, of drawing a line between history and interpretation. The Fourth Evangelist did not separate recounting the story from interpreting the story, and that unity of purpose shapes all aspects of the Gospel. Details that give the reader a glimpse into the religious life of early and mid-first-century Palestine, stories that come from common traditions about Jesus, find their way into this Gospel, but they do so through the Fourth Evangelist’s literary and theological lens. The irony with which the account of Caiaphas’s pronouncement is laced is evidence not that the Fourth Evangelist had no regard for history, or even that he made the story up, but rather that he understood God’s purposes to be at work even in history and constructed his narrative so that his readers could see that, too.

 

More notes from other scholars…

q  Jesus did not refrain from setting out in order for Lazarus to die.  He was likely dead by the time the messenger arrived.  One day for the messenger to get to Jesus, two days wherever Jesus was ministering, and one day for Jesus to travel to Lazarus equals four days. 188

q  Disciples don’t understand Jesus’ insistence on going to Lazarus, since shortly before the Jewish opponents had tried to stone him.  Also, since Jesus is saying the illness will not end in death, why risk it? 188

q  Walking in darkness and light.  Jesus had only a limited widow of time to do his ministry.  This is a challenge to the disciples to continue walking with him, even into the darkness, since he is the Light of the world. 188

q  “Sleep” was a common reference to death.  Jesus waking Lazarus up from this sleep is a teaching for believers: we are to view death as a sleep from which we shall be awakened through Jesus. 189

q  A common belief was that the soul would return to the body every day for three days hoping to return to it.  After three days, the soul could recognize that as the color in the face has disappeared, so the soul would never reenter.  The fourth day, then, represented certain death. 190

q  Martha’s reaction is not critical of Jesus – just an expression of her grief.  Her statement of faith is significant: even her brother’s death will not reduce her faith in Jesus. 190

q  Jesus’ revelation is an assurance to Martha of the resurrection to the kingdom of God in its consummation through him who is the Resurrection, and of life in the kingdom of God in the present time through him who is the Life.  191

q  Deeply moved/anger and tears suggest Jesus’ upset over the human condition of sin and death which he would soon prove to overcome. The tears were not, however, for Lazarus. 194

 

Borchert

q  Four day period significant.  Jewish belief was that the soul would hover around the body for three days hoping to reenter.  By the fourth day, the body’s color would leave and the soul would be shut out and force it to go to Sheol.  Hope would be lost at that point.  354

q  Jesus’ statement that Lazarus would rise indicates that Jesus’ power extends even to Sheol.  356

q  Martha’s confession was not one of genuine understanding, for when they came to the tomb, Martha’s statement about Lazarus’ stench indicates she was only thinking on the eternal level of the resurrection.  357

q  Evangelicals need to be reminded by this account that verbal confessions are not to be synonymous with life commitment.  Lip service is not the goal.  “Verbal confessions and life commitments are not always partners with each other.”  357

 

Brown

q  Lazarus.  A man deeply loved by Jesus; brother to Mary and Martha.

q  Not end in death.  An allusion to a greater principle Jesus was stating: with belief in him, a person’s story never ends in death.

q  God’s Son glorified.  Jesus clearly identifies himself as the Son of God, and indicates that the ensuing events will serve to validate the claim.

q  Going back to Judea.  The disciples’ allegiance indicated that their belief was more than intellectual – this represented a volitional component.

q  Martha.  Lazarus’ sister was stricken with grief.  She already had a significant level of intellectual and volitional belief in Jesus.  All three dimensions were about to experience growth, especially the emotional dimension.

q  Resurrection.  Pharisaic teaching represented the popularly held belief that the Messiah would raise the dead at the last day.

q  I am.  These two words of self-identification speak volumes to Jews – Jesus was declaring himself to be God incarnate.

q  Resurrection and the life.  Jesus was stating that not only is he the one who will provide for the resurrection on that last day, but that, as the author of life, he offers a qualitative experience of eternal life in the present for those who believe.

q  Martha’s confession and contradiction.  She confessed an intellectual belief, but her emotional belief was weak, as her lack of trust in Jesus to bring about Lazarus’ resurrection is evidenced by her declaration that her brother now stinks as a result of being dead for days and not having been embalmed.

q  Jesus, deeply moved and troubled, wept.  Jesus’ upset is related not only to compassion felt toward those in mourning, but also to their desperation resulting from their lack of faith regarding the resurrection.

q  Four days.  Jewish belief held that a deceased person’s soul would attempt for three days to reenter the body, and that when color would leave the person’s body, this symbolized the door’s closing, at which point the soul would enter Sheol, the place of the dead.

q  Jesus’ prayer.  Not PR, but a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God.

q  Take away the stone… take off the grave clothes.  God chooses to use willing people in his plan of redemption.  Both of these requests were directed toward bystanders.

q  Lazarus, come out!  Jesus’ word has authority even over certain death.  All who witnessed this no longer only believed intellectually in Jesus – they felt certain that Jesus was able to deliver salvation even from death, which signifies the emotional dimension of belief.

 

O’Day

q  Believes in me yet dies emphasizes Jesus’ impact on our view of death.  For Jesus to be the life means that the believer’s present  is also determined by Jesus’ power for life.  689

q  “Unless one believes in Jesus and his word, the transformed life he offers is rendered void.” 689

q  “Faith is not assent to a series of faith statements, but assent to the truth of Jesus’ relationship with God and the decisive change that relationship means for the lives of those who believe.” 694 

q  “Jesus’ words invite the church to claim that God’s life-giving power in Jesus is the power that determines the believer’s existence, not the power of death.  John 11 thus offers a promise about how those who believe in Jesus will live their lives, not just about how they will end them.”  695