Monday, 28 April 2014

The Transformation of Peter- Acts 2

Once in a while I see a documentary or read a book that I can’t help but recommend. We were recommended a book called the Highly Sensitive Child and we found it extremely useful when parenting one of our children. When we meet parents who are having a similar struggle as we were having we are very quick to recommend that particular book. It was helpful and even life-changing. So, out of a sense of compassion for the frustration we feel coming from the other parents we can’t help but tell them about the good news that was shared with us when we were struggling in a similar way.   
I saw a documentary called Forks over Knives and the research it presented seemed potentially life-changing, even culture changing, but also challenging. The information it presented about how North Americans eat and how that is connected to our health, especially the health of our hearts, could be revolutionary. So, when my father-in-law had a heart attack that documentary came to mind immediately and I wanted to recommend it to my family. Though I did hesitate because I thought it might present a path that would be too extreme for them. But, I believed that it had the potential to help.
For some reason many of us have a hard time talking about Jesus in the same kind of recommending way that we talk about WD-40, or a new app for our phone. There are a lot of reasons for that, but Peter does not seem to have this problem. He stands in front of a crowd and heartily recommends Jesus and retells his story. Peter’s transformation is amazing actually. When Jesus is betrayed Peter denies knowing him three times and seems to have slunk off somewhere and hid, ashamed of his disloyalty. With other disciples he hides behind locked doors afraid of who might be looking for them. Jesus’ death shook Peter to his very foundation. But, now in Acts Peter is standing before a crowd and telling them about Jesus. He went from fearfully hiding behind a locked door to fearlessly and openly talking about Jesus.
Peter could confidently recommend Jesus to the crowd because he was convinced of two things. First, he was convinced of the reality that Jesus was truly resurrected. Second, he was also convinced that this wasn’t just an oddity, but that this fact actually mattered for his life and the lives of his hearers.
When Peter stands before the crowd he describes Jesus as “a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know”. People knew stories about him and they may have been present at some point during the three years of Jesus’ ministry among them. They knew the stories about miracles. Maybe they knew people who were healed, or maybe they ate some of the bread or fish that was miraculously multiplied, or maybe they heard the story from their second cousin who was there. The people Peter was speaking to knew Jesus, or at least they knew of him. He was a real man. … And, God worked miracles through him.    
Peter also states what just about everyone there knew. Jesus was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed [him] by the hands of those outside the law.” Jesus was killed. He was handed over. He was betrayed by one of his own. He was given over into the hands of the authorities who wrongfully condemned him and who then gave him into the hands of the Romans (those outside the law) who crucified him. But, he also says that none of this was a shock to God. God knew and God could bring good out of the evil of human beings. Jesus’ death was something the people were aware of. When two disciples were walking to Emmaus and they come across a stranger who asks about the news from Jerusalem they respond, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ …  about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.” (Luke 24:18-20). As a controversial public figure, who Jesus was and how he died was common knowledge.  
Peter then moved from what was commonly known to what they didn’t know yet. “God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” God resurrected Jesus. They may have been aware that the tomb of Jesus was empty, but Peter tells them with confidence how it got that way.  Peter goes on to say “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’  This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” Peter declares to them that the disciples who are standing among them have experienced the risen Jesus and this is a fulfillment of prophecy. They are witnesses.  
Numerous people reported seeing the resurrected Jesus. Jesus’ followers and eventually even enemies like Paul experienced the resurrected Jesus. Individuals like Mary Magdalene and groups of disciples reported seeing him. About 20 years after Jesus' death, Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15) that Jesus "appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” The early disciples believed that they had experienced the risen Jesus in a very physical way and they became willing to die for their belief that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. ... Many of them did die for their belief.
If the resurrection didn’t happen it would be very difficult to understand how the disciples wouldn’t have dissolved and gone their own direction. … The early Jesus followers were strengthened. They went from a group of scared disciples huddled behind locked doors to proclaiming Jesus in public and across the known world.  They even grew in number. This just didn't happen with these kinds of groups when their leader was killed. Usually they scattered and the movement died. The followers of Jesus grew in courage and in numbers. The best explanation for this is the resurrection of Jesus.   
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the early church. Paul says that the resurrection is so foundational that, “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:13-19).
For the early Christians everything depended on the fact of the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus. This was essential and foundational from the beginning. It is essential to the creeds that have bound Christians together for 2000 years.
Peter stood before the crowd because he was sure that Jesus was actually resurrected. He experienced the risen Jesus and so had his friends. Peter was confident in that fact, but he was also confident that this wasn’t just an oddity like fish raining from the sky. It isn’t just a random paranormal event. This event had meaning for Peter, for the disciples, and for all those that were listening.
For Peter, if God raised Jesus that was an endorsement from God that Jesus speaks the truth. It is a confirmation that the miracles and healings were indeed from God and proof of God’s in-breaking kingdom. It confirms Jesus’ teachings as not just human teachings, but the revelation of divine authority on earth. It confirms that Jesus was not merely a good man, a wise teacher, or even a prophet. He was more. He was the fulfillment of the Old Testament.  Jesus has a connection to God like no one else ever did.
God’s endorsement now extends to his disciples. At this point in Acts Jesus has also ascended to heaven and has sent his Holy Spirit on the Disciples to empower them. The first action of the Holy Spirit among the disciples is that they start speaking about God’s deeds of power in multiple languages that they did not know. The Holy Spirit empowered them to proclaim and teach about Jesus with courage and to even work miracles. The same Spirit that was present with Jesus is now present with his disciples.  The preacher John Stott says a more accurate title for the book of Acts would be “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles”. There are two broad stages of the ministry of Jesus. The first stage we read about in the Gospels. There we read that Jesus as finished the work of atonement by his cross and resurrection, but his work continues, but now he is present in his followers in a new way.
His work continues in us. We are the body of Christ and the Spirit of Christ that was present with the early disciples is now present with us to empower us.  

Peter was transformed from afraid and hiding to fearlessly proclaiming Christ because he was convinced of two things. Jesus really and truly is alive. He is resurrected. And, Jesus’ resurrection leads to Peter living a life empowered by the Spirit of Jesus and that same Spirit would also mean death would not be the end of him, so he was free to declare who was sitting on the throne of the universe

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Easter Day

It's hard for us to understand how low the disciples must have felt after Jesus' Crucifixion. Just a week earlier Jesus was riding into Jerusalem. He came as their king. The people were singing and shouting, “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!”. Those who had been with Jesus for the last 3 years had been hoping and waiting for this day. Finally, Jesus will take his place as the people's true king- the Messiah. Can you imagine what that must have felt like? What was it like to be with Jesus entering the city, believing that this will change everything? Justice. Peace. A good King. No wonder they were waving branches and singing and laying their coats down on the road.     
          Suddenly things change. Jesus is betrayed. He is arrested. His followers are frightened. Jesus stands before the authorities under the weight of heavy accusations. Suddenly the man they had put their hopes in is being made to look like a criminal. The injustice, and cruelty, and corruption Jesus was to defeat as King, now have Jesus in their sights. The goodness of Jesus is being overshadowed by accusations of heresy, blasphemy, and treason. The true King is being mistreated by cruel leaders and a corrupt system. The sunny day has become dark. Jesus is whipped bloody and is nailed to a cross as an example to those who think there is hope against the powers.  His bloody body is hung like a flag, as a signal, against all hope of God bringing justice.
          The few disciples who haven't scattered and hid watch the strongest, and greatest man they have ever known die slowly and painfully- as a symbol of criminality. With him dies their hopes. With him dies their dreams. With him dies their future. …
          And that is where we meet Mary Magdalene. She is crushed. She goes to his tomb because... what else are you going to do? The choices are to sit and cry at home, or sit and cry at his tomb. When she gets there she sees that his body is gone. It is one more insult. It is salt in the wound. They can't even let him be dead in peace. They need to pull him out of his tomb and humiliate his memory even more. She goes for help and Peter and John come to investigate, but all they find is the burial shroud his body was wrapped in. They go back home, but Mary stays at the tomb. Cry at home or cry by the tomb. What difference does it make?
          Mary's tears drench her face. There is no consolation- seeing two angels doesn't seem to console her. "They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him". Put away all your images of Stoic grief. There is no stiff upper lip here. This is wailing- deep, profound, bottomless weeping.  …
          A mysterious thing happens. She doesn't register the angels in her grief. And now suddenly Jesus is standing in front of her and for some reason she doesn't see that it is him. Maybe it is the grief. Maybe it is that there is something about resurrection that transforms the body of Jesus. She doesn't see him until he says her name... "Mary". Then she sees him.
          Can you see her eyes- squinted, red, and puffy from crying for three days? Can you see the wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes? Suddenly she hears her name and she sees that it is him and her eyes widen in amazement. Her mouth transforms into a smile. Can you imagine a greater emotion than the one she was feeling? Do you think you have ever felt anything as amazing as what Mary was feeling the moment she saw Jesus alive?  Do you have anything in your life that can compare to what she was feeling?
          It's amazing. Jesus is alive. He is well. He hasn't just survived. He is not hobbling on crutches, or pulling himself along the ground. He is well. He has gone through death and has come out the other side. He is more alive than ever. The story hasn't ended. Her hopes and dreams for the future that died with Jesus, have now been resurrected with Jesus. …
          Before Mary saw Jesus resurrected the cross looked horrible. Could she even look at it without becoming angry? Or without tears welling up in her eyes? The cross was evil. It was horrible and ugly. It was created by a cruel empire that was very good at killing and humiliating. It was created as a torture device to show the people what happens if you don't behave and kneel before your Roman rulers. It was the most horrible and shameful thing they could think up. The Cross was a symbol of brutality, evil, and shame. It was a symbol of power and if you were on the cross that power wasn't yours.
          Something amazing happens on Easter morning. Despite expectations, the tomb is found empty. Despite it not fitting their worldview, people start saying that they have seen Jesus. We sometimes think that because they lived a long time ago that they are more likely to believe unbelievable things. These are not stupid people.  They know that people don't just come back from the dead.  ... They say they have conversations with him, and eat with him, and touch him. Large groups see him. Small groups see him. Individuals see him. Enemies see him. And suddenly instead of being scattered and scared the followers of Jesus become bold and confident. They go public saying that 'Jesus is alive'.  The reply from the hostile authorities isn't to exhume Jesus' body for everyone to see and to disprove the claim. They can't find his body. They actually accuse the disciples of stealing the body. However, the followers of Jesus continue to build in their boldness and confidence that Jesus really and truly is alive. Their fear and horror is transformed into joy.  
          Have you ever wondered how strange it is that we wear crosses around our necks, and put them on our walls? Have you ever considered wearing a gold electric chair around you neck? Or maybe a gold hangman's noose? Or, maybe a little silver guillotine? We have made an instrument of torture into jewelry. How did that happen? How did a symbol of death and shame become a symbol of hope and comfort? ... It is because of the resurrection.
          From the point of view of Good Friday the cross is brutal and horrible, but after the resurrection the cross becomes a symbol of Jesus' victory. In that act Jesus took on the world's evil. He took on the corrupt political system. He took on the injustice and cruelty. He took on evil itself. He took on death... and he won. He defeated it all. He took it all on and he won. After the resurrection the cross becomes a symbol of hope. It becomes a symbol we can wear around our necks to remember the victory of Christ over evil and death. The cross becomes a symbol to remind us that no matter how bad things seem, God will have the last word- and that last word will look like resurrection.
          Incredibly, Jesus has invited us into his resurrection life. He has invited us to be a part of his story.  In Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians (ch15) he says "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." Paul is saying that part of being wrapped up in Jesus' life and story means that you will have a resurrection like his. Jesus' resurrection is like the first apple of the season. It is a sign that more apples are to follow.
          There is something amazing and mysterious about the resurrection life that Jesus invites us into. Imagine the most horribly painful thing that has ever happened to you. What in your life symbolizes pain, shame, and cruelty? ... From the point of view of our resurrection we will look back on those things as symbols of our victory as children of God. Just as Jesus and his followers can look back on the cross as a symbol of victory and hope, so those hurtful events in our lives will become symbols of victory for us. Just as Mary's tears at the tomb are transformed into joy by Jesus' resurrection, so our horrors will be transformed into symbols of our victory.
          The incredible thing about this is that we don't have to wait until our resurrection to look at these moments with a sense of victory. Because of Jesus' resurrection we can approach those difficult times in our lives and have a sense of hope and victory as we are facing them. ...
          Some of you are thinking that this all sounds good but terribly impractical.  Let me give you an example. Athanasius lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries. He lived while Christians were being persecuted. So you might have heard about Christians being thrown to the lions to be devoured for the amusement of bloodthirsty crowds. This is when Athanasius lived. This is what he says of Christ's victory over death, " is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in his own disciples. For ... one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into Hades, but eager with soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ's sake electing to rush upon death ... [Christ] supplies and gives to each the victory over death ... For who that sees a lion, ... made sport of by children, fails to see that [death] is either dead or has lost all his power. (on the Incarnation, xxix.3-5) ... So weak has [death] become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed." (xxvii.3) "For man is by nature afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body; but there is this most startling fact, that he who has put on the faith of the Cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ's sake is not afraid of death" (xxviii.2).
          Athanasius is speaking about Christians who were tortured and killed because they were Jesus followers. These Jesus followers laughed at death. These people were not suicidal. They did not hate their lives, but they no longer feared death. Even their children didn't fear death and would make fun of the lions that were about to kill them. Athanasius is saying that this is another evidence that Jesus has defeated death- his followers no longer fear it. 
          We might make another mistake and think that these Christians were all about going to heaven when they die, but no. Their lack of fear meant that when a plague hit a city, instead of fleeing, many of them stayed to help the sick, even if that meant getting sick and dying themselves. It meant that they were willing to stand up for what was right and just even in the face of cruel kings and rulers. They knew that whatever they threw at them would become their cross and because of Jesus' resurrection, their torture - their very death- would become a symbol of their victory.  Jesus' resurrection allowed them to live amazing lives free from fear. These Christians saw the resurrection as having very real day to day application for how they lived their lives. They were able to live their lives free from fear.            
          We don't face lions, or persecution at the hands of cruel kings. Some Christians do face horrible deaths even now because of their belief in Jesus. There are places in our world where what we are doing right now is illegal, or even if it isn't illegal we might still worry about our safety being gathered together like this. We might not face persecution like this, but we have our own worries and fears. We fear cancer. We have disease. We have abuse and betrayal. We have the death of a loved one to face. We have financial issues to face. Some of us fear commitment, or rejection. ... What are you afraid of? … What horror or crisis have you faced? Or maybe you're facing it right now. Could it be that when you look back on this from the point of view of your future resurrection that this moment will be a symbol of victory in your life? ... Could you live believing that victory even now? Even in the midst of your pain? We need to celebrate every year, every Sunday even, because we need to be reminded that we don't have to be afraid. God will have the last word in our lives, and if we are followers of Jesus, that will be a word of victory. We know this isn't just wishful thinking because we have seen it happen to Jesus.      
          Mary's tears on that Easter morning were transformed. Her grief was transformed at the sight of Jesus. Her fear was released and replaced with joy. Jesus offers the same to us. Jesus asks us to be his followers. He asks us to give our lives over to him and truly find life. We are invited into a life free of fear- free of anxiety. We are invited into a life where our worst horrors are transformed into symbols of victory over evil, sin, and death. We are invited to look upon the cross and know that Christ invites us into his victory.  

Easter Vigil

       I’m sure many of you have heard the term “postmodern”. It is a term to describe the age we are living in right now. It basically describes a cultural shift. It is a way of saying we think differently than people did 200 years ago, or even 75 years ago. One of the markers of being postmodern in North America is that we don’t have a shared story anymore. We don’t really have a big over-arching story that gives our lives meaning that we all rely on and can look at for hope and direction. We don’t have a story that tells us where human history is heading.  For example, not too many years ago we had a story that told us technology would save us. Eventually these really smart scientists would invent things that would solve all our problems, but then we saw the invention of the atom bomb, napalm, and smart missiles. So there is a growing feeling that we are not heading in a positive direction and that technology will not ultimately save us.
  Instead we have a jumble of stories and we aren’t really sure which story is right, or if any of them are right. We don’t even like the concept that one story might be right, we’d like to think they are all right, in some way. Part of us doesn’t really buy that they could all be right because they all have parts that are very different, so what we are really hoping for is a story behind the stories.
The biggest story in our lives tells us that the universe is meaningless and random. The universe is a big soup of chemicals and energies that are all reacting against each other according to the laws of physics. The fact we are here at all is a happy accident. The wish for anything more is just wishful hoping and fantasy and a resistance to “growing up”. In this story there is no real meaning in the universe. Ultimately it is all about a soup of particles and energy.     
       That big story is what usually has a grip on us. Because there is no real meaning, we find meaning in our own lives with hobbies and special interests and friends and family. They give life meaning from day to day, but in the back of our minds we know that there is an all-consuming darkness that will swallow it all up. People we care about will die. The things we care about will eventually be forgotten as the times change. We hope for life after death, but we don’t usually live like it. We might hope for God, but we usually don’t live like He is King over our lives, let alone over the universe.    
Most of us, day to day, live this way. Our bank accounts show it by the way we spend our money. Our lives show it by the way we spend our time. Time spent in prayer, bible study, watching TV,  YouTube, on Facebook.  What books do we read? The way we spend our time shows us what we actually believe about the universe. How do we treat people? How do we treat cashiers, and servers, and coffee baristas? How do we treat our children?  Do we care about our character? Do we exert effort to become good people? The way we answer these questions reveals what we actually believe about the universe we live in and who rules it, or if anyone rules it. What we believe has less to do with what we say we believe and has more to do with how we live.  What story governs our lives?
    The disciples had their story taken away from them. They believed Jesus was the messiah. They saw him perform powerful acts. He healed people. He walked on water. He took on the authorities of his day. He taught people profound truths and challenged them to trust in him. He came into Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed as the new King. For the disciples the rest of the story meant cleansing the temple from all hypocrisy and restoring true worship and then taking over the government and ridding the country of corrupt rulers and foreign armies and ruling forever as a benevolent king who is filled with God’s power. ….
That’s not how the story went though. Jesus did come into Jerusalem and was welcomed as a king.  And he did cleanse the temple by running out those who were turning the temple into a market instead of a place of prayer. Then blind and sick people came to him and he cured them and he started teaching the people about God and his Kingdom. He challenged the corruption of the leadership. … But, then things didn’t go according to the story the disciples were expecting. Jesus was taken by the authorities and Jesus didn’t even try to escape or avoid being arrested. He was taken, tortured, and nailed to a cross as a criminal. Then his body was laid in a tomb. The first Good Friday was not good at all. The first Holy Saturday didn’t feel holy at all. It was a day of darkness. Their story was taken from them. Their story died with Jesus.  
That first Holy Saturday they were left in a world without a story that made sense of the world. They thought Jesus was the one to trust, but now he was gone and besides that, he wasn’t who they expected him to be.  They didn’t know where to turn. They didn’t know what would direct their life. They had given their life to him for three years. Now what? They have been scattered? One of their own betrayed him and hung himself. The chief disciple, Peter, denied him. They were huddled in hopeless darkness wondering if a cross was waiting for each of them in the coming days. Their lives for the last three years must have seemed meaningless. Jesus is dead.       
           But… Jesus doesn’t stay dead. While the sky is just starting to brighten with morning light Mary Magdalene and the other Mary come to the tomb. Guards tremble and faint at the sight of an angel who moved the large stone that covered the entrance to the tomb. The women soon realize they have underestimated the power of God. Their whole world is shaken again as they are told that Jesus is alive again. Their hopes are reignited and their story has come back to life.  They are filled with fear and great joy.
The fear that they felt was an overwhelming sense of God’s power. It is the feeling that would come over you if you could see the angels that I believe are present here among us. It is the feeling that would come over you if you saw the power present in the bread and wine and the nonchalance with which we often receive it. That awe is the feeling that would come over us if suddenly people present here were being healed from their illnesses. Awe, or fear, is the feeling that would come over you when you suddenly realize you are really in God’s presence and He sees you and he really is the powerful being that created the universe. It is the feeling that comes over you when you realize you are in God’s story and didn’t fully realize it.  
That awe is what comes over you when you realize suddenly that we don’t live in a universe that is full of particles and energies randomly interacting. We live in a universe created and sustained by an intelligent being and that Being has come to show us who He is through Jesus Christ. And more than that, He invites you to be a part of his life- to be immersed in his life as you are covered with waters of baptism. He invites you into a life where your death will not be the end of your life. He invites you into a life that will never end. He invites you into a life free from Sin, and a life where you actually do know Him and hear from Him and interact with Him.  He invites you into His Story.

Tonight we are invited to re-commit ourselves to the story we are a part of, and to once again place ourselves under the rule of our servant-king who washes our feet and died to save us from sin and death.  Jesus Christ is the ruler of the universe and he invites to into his story. 

"Good" Friday


      TGIF- Thank God it’s Friday. That’s what most people are saying today. To many people “Good” Friday is “good” because it begins a long weekend. So what are we strange people doing here? … It is good that we are here. We are here for a funeral. And like a funeral we gather to be together. We are here to support one another in a difficult time. We are here to remember a death. Our Lord, our teacher, and our friend has been crucified. But, that in itself is not extraordinary. There are plenty of people who have been crucified.
          There was a slave rebellion between 73 and 71 BC called the Third Servile War. About 120,000 rebel slaves were led by a man named Spartacus in revolt against the Roman republic. This led to about 6000 of his followers being crucified along the 200km stretch of road between Capua and Rome as a warning to those who would oppose Rome’s power.  
            Josephus tells us that after the death of King Herod in 4BC there were revolts which were put down by Rome. This led to the crucifixion of two thousand. This was another warning to those who would oppose Rome’s power.
          Judas the Galilean led a revolt in the year 6 AD over the issue of taxes to Rome. Judas’ three Son’s were crucified. Yet, another warning against opposing Rome.
          Josephus also tells us during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD many were crucified before the walls of Jerusalem to terrorize those inside and to get them to surrender the city. Josephus states that they crucified 500 people a day until they ran out of wood for making crosses. Do not oppose the power of Rome
          There are other examples, but I think we get the point.
          Most of these people we don’t have names for. They join the masses of people through out the ages that have come up against the powers of this world and lost. They join those in unmarked mass graves. They join the masses who died by the hands of the Nazis. These people die because the powers of this world cannot stand to be challenged.
          We gather today to remember one of these deaths. To the powers he was a nobody. It was expected that he would disappear into the nameless grave the way so many others have before him.
          The Theologian David Bentley Hart in his book the Atheist Delusion imagines what it was like when Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate. Pilate is responsible for imposing the Pax Romana- the Roman Peace. This is a peace enforced by a very large stick. Pilate is responsible for imposing the Roman Peace on a barbarous population that was often given to religious fanaticism in the region of Palestine.
          Pilate sees before him a poor and possibly demented man. When asked questions he gives “vague and enigmatic invocations of a kingdom not of this world and some mysterious truth to which he is called to bear witness.
          Hart continues, “In the great cosmic hierarchy of rational powers- descending from the Highest God down to the lowest of slaves- Pilate’s is a particularly exalted place, a little nearer to heaven than to earth, and imbued with something of the splendor of the gods. Christ, by contrast, has no natural claim whatsoever upon Pilate’s clemency, nor any chartered rights upon which he might call; Simply said, he has no person before the law. One figure in this picture, then, enjoys perfect sway over life and death, while the other no longer belongs even to himself.” 
          Christ is then scourged and is mockingly dressed in a cloak with a crown of thorns pressed into his scalp by bored soldiers. He stands before Pilate having been humiliated and Pilate asks him- “where do you come from?” Hart continues, this question “would almost certainly have sounded like a perfectly pertinent, if obviously sardonic, inquiry into Christ’s pedigrees, and a pointed reminder that, in comparison to Pilate, Christ is no one at all.” Pilate continues, “I have the power to crucify you.” “ Christ’s claim, on the other hand, that Pilate possesses no powers not given him from above would have sounded like only the comical impudence of a lunatic.”
          In the order of the ancient world “Pilate’s verdict is essentially a just one: Not because the penalty it imposes is somehow proportionate to the “crime” [which means nothing in this world], but because it affirms the natural and divine order of reality, by consigning a worthless man to an appropriately undignified death, and by restoring order through the destruction of the agent of disorder. For, in the end, the gods love order above all else”
          In the second chapter of Philippians Paul quotes an ancient hymn of the early church:
6[Christ] Who, being in very nature God,
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
 7but made himself nothing,
      taking the very nature of a servant,
      being made in human likeness.
 8And being found in appearance as a man,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to death—
         even death on a cross!                     

          We are told that God became human, but not an emperor, a child born to a young woman in a stable. He was born into poverty. God was born into a family that would have disappeared with many other unnamed and forgotten families into the mists of time. God became one of the nameless ones. God became one of the petals resting on the surface of the water powerless against the waves and ripples. He became one of the powerless people. Jesus stands before Pilate, a representative of the greatest power of the day- the Roman Empire. His cry will be the cry of the abandoned and rejected nobodies of the world- “My God, why have you forsaken me”. God, in His humanity, will be abandoned by himself. His cry is Job’s cry- “My God, why have you forsaken me”.
           But not only did Jesus become one of the nobodies, he also took on those parts of us that we don’t want to let into the light. The dark, selfish, slithering, hissing, corrupted parts of us. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says, “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Here Paul highlights why God has done such a thing.           
          If Christ was to absorb the evil and corrupt powers that influence this world, he could not be a bearer of those powers. It would not do to be an emperor. The moment Jesus uses the powers of this world to defend himself he enters into their game and loses the battle. As soon as he plays on their terms, with their powers of violence, then he has lost. Jesus has to stand on the outside of those powers and be a recipient the way that the majority of humankind has been. He joins the nameless and faceless masses to endure the powers of sin and death that have been oppressing them since before anyone can remember. 
          Jigoro Kano was the founder of Judo and it has been said that wrestling him was like wrestling an empty jacket. He just went with whatever force was being used on him. If you wanted to push him, he could use that force. If you wanted to pull him, well, he can use that force too. He would just go with it, absorb it, and use it to his advantage.
          Whatever evil wanted to throw at Jesus, he was willing to take it and use it. Whatever evil force was thrown at him, he could absorb it and flip it to his own advantage.   
          This is what theologians normally call the atonement. There are many theories about how this works. Some have tended to think of the atonement as a victory, and surely it was. In this view Jesus takes on the powers of evil, sin, and death. He defeats them and we share in his victory. Some theologians will imagine Jesus’ humanity as a bit of bait on the end of a fishhook. The Devil, being unwilling to resist the tempting bait grabs hold and is hooked and destroyed by Christ’s Divinity. Others have imagined that that we have been held hostage, and Christ offered himself as a ransom payment to have us released.
          There are other theories of atonement called substitution. In this theory Jesus takes our place in death, and does what we are powerless to do. Sometimes we imagine substitution as satisfying the honour of God that we have offended through our disobedience. Sometimes Jesus is thought to take our place when we are on trial for our sins. He takes the punishment in our place. It is a punishment we would not be able to survive.      
          C.S. Lewis puts it this way, Who is better at repenting- a perfect person, or a corrupt and selfish person? (…) The corrupt and selfish person may not want to repent, they might rather drown their sorrows in a bottle to forget about the wrong they’ve done rather that try to right them. Even if they wanted to, their repentance might become a subtle selfish manipulation of the one approached for forgiveness. Repentance is hard for a corrupt and selfish person. On the other hand, a perfect person is perfectly able to repent. There is nothing to stand in their way of being truly repentant. There is no selfishness or corruption to manipulate the action. So, only a perfect person can repent perfectly. The paradox is that a perfect person does not need to repent. It is the corrupt person who needs to repent, but only the perfect person can repent perfectly. The more you need to repent the less you are able to do it because of your corruption. So Christ, the perfect person steps in and endures the cross as our repentance that we are unable to do for ourselves.
           There is also the example form of atonement. In this view Christ’s action on the cross is a demonstration of God’s love for us.
          There are numerous varieties of each of these theories. There are different forms that have different emphases, but the thing that matters is not the theory. C.S. Lewis says that people were eating and digesting food quite well before theories of nutrition and theories of digestion came about. What matters is eating food, not understanding the theory of nutrition. Eating food will keep you alive, the theory will not. The important thing is that Christ died for us- and that makes this a Good Friday. The important thing is that what Jesus did was atonement. Christ’s work on the cross brings us to a state of at-one-ment with God.

          It is important to attempt to understand this, but what is more important is that we are overwhelmed with gratitude for what God has done for us through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thank God it’s Friday 

Maundy Thursday- Jesus washes feet

The disciples have been together with Jesus for three years, but things have begun to change. After Jesus raised Lazarus, the waters have begun to separate. People either fell in love with Jesus, or they became hostile to him. There were fewer and fewer in the middle.
           The air is electric. There is a sense of anticipation. It is nearly the celebration of freedom from Egypt in the festival of Passover. Something has changed. Jesus has begun to focus more on the disciples than on the crowds. He is spending more time with those who are closest to him.      
          They arrive at a home and are eating supper when Jesus suddenly gets up, takes off his outer clothing, and wraps a towel around his waste. He gets a basin of water and begins washing the disciples' feet. Jesus gets up and dresses like a servant, then he begins doing the work of a servant. Footwashing was among the lowest of all jobs that could be done. It wasn't just any servant do did the footwashing. It was the least ranking servant who did the footwashing. It was the job even the servants didn't want, so it was the duty of the lowest ranking servant. I can imagine that each time a servant did the footwashing they were reminded that they were the lowest of the low. The reason they were doing this task is because there is no one lower than them to be found.
          The fact that Jesus gets up to do this task is shocking. Here is the Lord of the universe washing the feet of fishermen and tax collectors. The way the world understands power and authority has just been turned on its head. In this footwashing Jesus is enacting the ancient hymn we find in Philippians ch 2

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
Jesus places himself in the lowest possible position.  It is a position of service to his disciples- his students.

Peter can't accept Jesus in this role. His mind is still working in the way of the world. Some of us felt a little bit of Peter in us when we consider having our feet washed. It is too strange an act of service, it is too personal, it is embarrassing. Peter cannot put Jesus in that role. It is like the queen of England offering to clean your toilet, but amplified infinitely. Peter has a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that power and authority in the kingdom work differently. The ways of the world are not the ways of the kingdom. Peter needs to understand this, and so do we.
          Judas was also present among the disciples during the footwashing. Jesus moved the basin and knelt at Judas' feet. And Jesus knew. He knew what was going through Judas' mind. We can't even guess as to the reasons, but Jesus knew. He knew the betrayal he was planning. He knew that Judas would set in motion a political machine that would result in his agonizing torture and death. And Jesus kneels at his feet and pours water over the feet that have walked with him for three years of dusty roads.  He washes the feet that will shortly walk away from the light into the darkness of the night to betray Jesus to those who will kill him. The love he shows Judas is not comprehendible in any kind of human way. When we move from the footwashing back to the meal we are surprised to find Judas again at a place of honour. He is close enough to Jesus for him to serve him by giving him bread. He is close enough for Jesus to whisper to him without anyone else hearing. At the meal Judas was at a place of honour close to Jesus. Even those within the church whose hearts are set on betrayal are treated with loving service by Jesus. When we are at our darkest, we still find Jesus lovingly washing our feet and feeding us bread.

          Jesus is the embodiment of the God who is love. God's love is not something we earn or work for. It doesn't matter if we are a traitor like Judas, or a zealous follower like Peter. Jesus loves us and serves us because that's who he is. It's not really about who we are, it's about who he is.

          Jesus' whole life is an integrated act of loving service to us and to his Father.     His  birth, baptism, teaching, healing, exorcism, cross, resurrection, and ascension are all about Jesus' loving service. They all work together. The life of Jesus is an integrated whole. This footwashing teaches us about the cross. The cross is a loving act of service. It is Jesus taking the lowest position. Jesus takes the most despised position as an act of loving service. His whole life is offered to us in love. His life-force is poured out so that it can pour into us.

          His life living in us transforms us. As we feed on him we become more like him. The Lord of the universe washes our feet, and in return he doesn't ask that we wash his, He asks instead that we wash eachother's feet. Our service and love to him is shown in our love and service to eachother. And this is how we become known- it is by our love. We aren't shown to be followers of Jesus by the way we dress, or what we eat or don't eat. We aren't shown to be followers of Jesus based or our rituals, or our rule following. We are shown to be followers of Jesus by our love for one another- by our willingness to serve eachother and even give our lives for one another. It is demanding, but Jesus doesn't ask anything of us that he hasn't done for us.

          We do not serve and love those around us because they are anything special. We serve and love because God has poured his love into us. We serve and love because that is who we have become because of Jesus' love. We serve and love because Jesus who is our Lord and God has served us first.      

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Questions from a friend who is not a Christian

Questions from a friend who is not a Christian

I found an old letter I wrote to a friend and I thought I would share it. I took out anything that would specifically identify this person, but I thought a few of you might be interested is reading it. I wrote the letter in response to a number of questions that arose for my friend after having a discussion with a few Christians. This was a few years ago, so I think I would have a bit of a discussion with myself around a few of the answers. 

First off, I want to say that we are all on a journey. Don’t think that just because I have found my path that I am not continuing to be challenged and not asking questions.
In terms of religions, while they can teach some good and wonderful things, they can teach horrible things too. In Denmark there was a discovery of (what was believed to be) remnants of a Druid ritual. This discovery was of a body in a bog, he became known as “Tollund man”. This man was believed to have died as the result of a “Pagan” religious rite that involved feeding him poison, hanging him, and drowning him. The druids were described by the Romans as being very wise, but also “bathed up to their elbows in blood”. I admire their connection to nature, but can’t admire their sacrifices.  But, this wasn’t all that uncommon is many earlier religions. In the Middle East, There were religions that asked you to kill your baby.  Some religions had temple prostitutes who were boys and girls that would be forced to perform sexual acts as part of fertility rituals. Most religions demanded animal sacrifices. There were also violent extremist forms of religion like the ancient Jewish sect known as the “Zealots”, who were very much like the modern violent terrorists. But, surely we can’t consider these as acceptable ways to commune with God. (This is where everyone brings up the crusades, etc., but can you really imagine Jesus on a horse swinging a sword and killing people?)  Obviously, this isn’t to say that there aren’t good and beautiful things in religions as well.  (The above might make me sound a bit harsh, but religions in the past had a real violent side and were not fluffy as some romanticize them.)
Honestly, all modern religions have problems within them (including Christianity, for me that’s actually part of the fun, I grow more spiritually as I try to understand these things). For example, within Buddhism it is hard to understand the ideas of “no self/soul” and reincarnation or ancestor veneration existing together.  Religion is sometimes about growing into it rather than finding one that matches what we already believe. If what we already believe is already correct, then why follow a religion? If we are to learn from it, then it can’t match our beliefs 100%. We should also look seriously at where our beliefs and assumptions about spirituality have come from. 
Personally, I believe that Jesus is the path to God, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus can’t also exist in other religions. If truth is true then it all has the same source. Anything good comes from that one source.  I think that the truth and goodness of Jesus lives in Buddhist compassion as well. As the 1st letter of John says,
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
So truly “knowing” love is knowing God. I believe in the possibility that Gandhi and the Dalai Lama know this love.  God is universal.  I think that everyone has some sort of relationship with God.  It might be a neglected relationship, or a flourishing relationship, or anywhere in between. But, a relationship exists between people and their maker and sustainer.  
(Of course a Buddhist might say that the seed of Buddha nature exists in the teachings of Christ, so it depends which lens you look through)  
C.S. Lewis (children’s author and theologian), in “The Last Battle” (I think), describes a soldier who worships a false God named “Tash”.  The soldier dies and finds out that Aslan is the true king and thinks he is lost because he followed a false god.  Aslan says to him that he and Tash are not one and the same- they are actually opposites.  Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know not, and it is I who reward him.”
All this is to say that everyone is born in different places, with different surroundings, with a different upbringing, and with different abilities.  God is merciful and loving and takes all of this into account. (If you want to have a discussion around heaven and hell, and the afterlife I’m up for that too) I believe that religions are human attempts to reach towards God. I really do think that God honors the reaching.  I have a personal bias here, but I think that Christianity is God reaching back.  
                The reason I became a Christian was because of certain things that Jesus said that rang true in the deepest part of my being- I’ll keep it short-
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
These are the verses that rang true to me and made me start taking Jesus seriously.  He emphasized love so much- love for everyone, even those nailing him to the cross. I just thought that if his message is Love and it feels that true to me, then I think I can trust him with the other things he taught. This isn’t to say “BING” all of a sudden I’m a Christian.  I grew into it, slowly.  At first I didn’t accept a lot of what was written (I still have a hard time with some things), but my belief in the emphasis on Love was enough for me to override what I didn’t believe in Christianity.  Slowly more of it made sense, but in a deeper way than the way I first understood it.
                The comment was made that feelings are unreliable. I don’t think we should push that too far.  Feelings are part of who we are, but they have to be given their place.  Emotions are good servants, but bad masters.  My feelings are part of what brought me to Christianity, but when confronted with whether the battle of waterloo was fought on June 18th, 1885, and was Napoleon’s last battle, I can’t rely on my emotions. I can’t say I feel like it was 1887. There are certain things emotions can’t be used for.    
As for joining a church- originally there wasn’t really a “church” as we understand it now. (A building people go to in order to do “Christian stuff”). It was a group of people that believed in what Jesus taught and that he was raised from the dead.  These first Christians gathered to pray, worship, give thanks, organize to help the poor, learn to be more like Jesus, and basically hang out and support each other. This is really what “Church” was originally.
As far as God being male- I don’t think God has a penis, so I’m not all that tied to God being male. So if someone wanted to call God “Mother”, I wouldn’t have a big problem with it. (God is even described in the scriptures as a mother hen gathering Her chicks under her wing.) I am against calling God “It”, mostly because it is very impersonal and God is a very personal God.  So I usually resort to the historical “Him/Father”, just because there is no personal neuter pronoun in English.
I know this is all over the place, and I probably didn’t answer some of the questions you have (maybe you have more now), but I hope this can turn into a dialogue. Just so I don’t write a book and bore you to death I’ll stop here, but please write me back concerning what you’re thinking.

Second Letter
I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussion you sent me, and I realized that there were quite a few questions I didn’t reply to.  I hope you don’t mind, but I edited your posts so I can reply to them a bit at a time.  I know I’m literally taking your questions out of contexts, but I’ll try to keep the broader context of the discussion board in mind.

I liked what was said about children/people who had not had a chance to learn about Christianity on the other thread. But that still leaves people like "us" going to Hell or purgatory or I don't know, wherever. Here's the thing. I have given Christianity a chance. I don't think it is bad. It just did not feel true to me. Why do you think that was (I'm asking more the Christians here)? I mean, if any religion (not just Christianity) is true, shouldn't anyone who learns of it feel the truth? Why do some, and not others? I have studied a LOT on many different religions and found pieces that felt true in all different places. But would it be better to choose to follow Christianity even though it doesn't feel true to me, based on the claim that it will "save" me? What about alllllll the other religions which claim to be the one true religion? I think it is wonderful when a person finds a religion that feels true to them (or are raised in one), but what about those of us to whom none of them feel true?

I’m a little interested to hear what was said that left you thinking that you were going to “hell, purgatory, or whatever”. There are a few ways to understand how one gets “saved”.  (C.S. Lewis has a good book on this called “the Great Divorce”). Some views are exclusive (only those chosen, or who choose a particular path willfully, get into to heaven). Some are inclusive (those who embrace the truth, as far as they are able, get into heaven). Some are universalistic (Everyone eventually gets into heaven).  Origen (an ancient Christian 185-254 AD) even believed that the devil would eventually be saved and brought into oneness with God. Of course, there are debates regarding which of these makes the most sense regarding rationality, scripture, experience, and tradition.
Regarding not “feeling it”- I really think it depends on who you are, what your circumstances are, what message is being displayed, etc.  For example, say you have never been to a church and didn’t know anything about Christianity, then a relative died and you go to that person’s funeral, which is held in a Christian church (also depending on which style of church).  That person, in that state of mind is going to have a very different perception of what “Christian” is, as opposed to someone who walks into a cathedral for a candle-lit Christmas Eve service. 
Also, people have different personalities.  This comes out in the different churches as well.  Some people are very emotional and like to physically express their belief.  So, for this person, a Pentecostal church, where some people wave their arms in the air and run up and down the aisles, might be perfect.  Or, they might like a Catholic, high-Anglican, or Eastern Orthodox, church which involves kneeling, bowing, crossing yourself, standing, incense, and traveling to the altar to receive the bread and wine. Some people might be more inwardly driven, so they might like a Quaker church, which is filled with silence and meditation, and “waiting” for God.  Some might like to sing, so a Christian Reformed Church or other evangelical church might be what they are looking for. All these churches (there are also many more) represent a different emphasis, style, and personality which is also present in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples had different personalities too. Thomas was an “I need to see it to believe it” kind of guy, while Peter was headstrong and tended to leap before he looked sometimes. Mary liked to sit and learn, while Martha liked to serve. 
Besides church styles there are also devotional styles.  There are many kinds of prayer ranging from walking labyrinths, to imagining yourself in the biblical stories, to asking for things, to sitting quietly waiting for God to speak, to repetitive prayer (like the rosary or the “Jesus prayer”) to other forms of creative prayer (some people paint, write poetry, journal, etc). Some people like history, so they get right into the archeology of the first century. Others are more inclined to like mysticism, so they read Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or Thomas Merton.  Some like philosophy so they read C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or William Lane Craig. Many focus on social Christianity (all should to some degree) so they work in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, raise money to help with the aids crisis, protest wars, etc.  
An encounter with any of these flavors of Christianity can be positive or negative depending on who you are.  Because of my personality, there are churches that I have gone to and not really “felt it” either.  I still respect what they do, and I think they are doing something that some people need, but I’m not one of those people.  Like TV evangelists- I just can’t watch them (I actually don’t understand how anyone can).  So given the variety of churches and flavors of Christianity I’m not surprised that a particular church, or “flavor” didn’t work for them.      
Regarding other religions- I have a great respect for other religions, but I do have a bias. If God is love, then the degree to which those religions teach, express, embody, love is the degree to which they are true. The degree to which they don’t embody love is the degree to which they are false.   I have been all over the religious map myself (I even got a degree in religious studies), but I found the purest form of that love expressed in Christ. Of course this doesn’t mean Christians are perfect, or that some Christians aren’t assholes, but Christianity at its best (I’m thinking of Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi) expresses a very pure love.        
So, as someone who has basically NO religious background (while my parents took me to a church for about 6 months when I was very young, we did not have any strong, set religious background in our house but rather a looser set of moral rules), how would I find the TRUE religion?
                That’s a really good question. My first reaction is that you have to feel some sort of draw to it. That draw should then be backed up by history, and some sort of consistent philosophy. 
                Initially the draw can be either positive or negative.  It can be like a calling, or it can be the feeling that something isn’t right or something is missing.
So, if I use myself as an example. After much searching (through Neo-paganism, Wicca, and Buddhism, mostly) I began to feel a draw towards Christianity (this is the Coles notes version). After I felt that draw/curiosity, I began to read the New Testament (back half of the Bible). It began to show me ideas that strengthened that draw.  After a while I began looking at history and asking questions- Was there actually a person named “Jesus” living in the first century?  How can I trust the writings that have been handed down to us?  Is there a place called Israel? Who were other Christians and how did they live (dessert fathers, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, the crusaders, Thomas Merton, Theresa of Avila, and William Wilberforce)?  I also started asking philosophical questions- Can you prove that God exists? Can you prove that God doesn’t exist? Can you prove that there is an afterlife? Is Christian belief consistent, does it make sense? Where did the universe come from? I asked these questions to God in prayer, too. I answered these questions the best I could (it doesn’t mean I answered them all, but I spent time seriously looking) and in this search the draw kept getting stronger and stronger, eventually I just said, “I think this stuff is real”.
There was other weirdness along the way too, strange dreams and experiences, which helped strengthen the draw as well.
So my short answer is- I don’t know how you find “True Religion”, but chances are that if the history supports it, then there is a better chance that it wasn’t made up 50 years ago by someone down the street who was high on PCP.  I know that probably doesn’t help all that much, sorry.

I guess one thing that I'm wondering is, since I believe that I already have a relationship with God; I seek guidance from different religious sources to become a better person; and I am very cogniscent of how my actions affect others and the world around me - what reason is there to join a church? I have never understood how accepting God into my life through the form of a ritual, when I have had had "him" in my life always, and that is well-understood between he and I, would "save" me. Doesn't God know that I accept him? Even if I don't specifically pray to Jesus?
I think there are a lot of reasons to join a church, but there are a lot of reasons to stay away.  When one really gets involved in a church it is an amazing sense of community (if it’s a good church, and once you’ve been there for a while). So they will come together to support you if you need them.  For example, after I decided I was moving out to Toronto on the last Sunday we were at church, they gave me cake and people were crying and they ended up giving me funds to help us get settled out here. They were giving me numbers of their friends and family that live out this way.  It really became a family to me. 
                Another reason to join is to grow spiritually (if it’s a good church) there are spiritual mentors who can help you learn to pray, to meditate, to think about God and the world, and to wrestle with hard questions. They recommend good books to read, and we would discuss them (it’s hard to wade through the horrible religious books out there; for every good one that’s published there are 50 awful ones). And, if I was having a bad day, they always knew how to pick me up if I was down.  It’s amazingly supportive (if it’s a good church), and I also had a lot of fun with them.  The church would have Christmas dinners and harvest dinners and we would laugh, dance, and I would get teased by old guys.    
                But, this doesn’t mean that my church was perfect. This might sound strange, but I found that I’ve had to learn to be more open minded to exist in a church.  There are a lot of different personalities, styles, and philosophies held by the people in any particular church.  So I’ve had to learn to be tolerant of people who believe differently than me (some just have a personality that clashes with mine). But, I’ve not only had to learn to tolerate them, I’ve learned to love them.  I’ve learned to widen my idea of family and community to include those I’d rather hide from. So just having to be there every Sunday with some people that I don’t get along with has helped me grow spiritually into a more tolerant and loving person (I hope).
                You’ve also probably noticed that I said, “If it’s a good church” many many times.  That’s because there are bad ones out there that try to close your mind, control you, make you feel guilty all the time, etc.  Churches like this aren’t living in the love that Jesus taught, and it’s not worth “toughing it out” in these churches. Where there are humans there is error, so don’t expect to find a “perfect” church either. A famous quote is “if you find a perfect church don’t join it because you’ll wreck it”. None of us are perfect so if you get a bunch of imperfect people in one place you will have an imperfect group of people.
                Ritual is something that I have come to love.  It really is a way to bring creation into our religious life.  Burning sweet-grass is a ritual, so is communion and baptism.  It keeps us from over-spiritualizing to the point that we start to think that the world is evil.  So God enters the bread and wine, and this reminds us that God is here, real, as real as this bread and wine. The rituals are signs of a deeper (spiritual-physical) reality.  The ritual breaks down the dichotomy between spiritual and physical.  The bread becomes both spiritual and physical. The ritual also gets our whole selves involved. Rather than only practicing our religion in our heads it reminds us that our taste-buds have to get involved too. There are even seasons in the church so the seasons of fall, winter, spring and summer, are related to church seasons.  This helps us see our world as part of our religion.  So, the season when we specifically remember that Jesus rose from the dead (Easter) is in spring, which is when we watch new plants growing out of the soil after a long winter.   
                Church also gets us to practice our religion even when we might not feel like it.  God isn’t any less real because we don’t feel him.  Church lets us come back to ourselves and remember to be aware of God’s presence.                 
I think it’s awesome that you have a relationship with God. I guess you’re referring to the formal act of “Accepting Jesus into my life as my personal savior”.  Sometimes this is used as a magic spell that saves one from the fires of hell, but I think salvation is a bit deeper than saying a few words. It has to do with your whole being, your actions and your beliefs- who you are.  Christ is said to be God incarnate.  God came to earth in Jesus.  Through his teachings and following his love (and accepting his love), a love that continues to love those who are killing you (nailing you to a cross), we become closer connected to God.  We are made in the image of God, but that image is smudged. As we follow the love Jesus taught, that smudge gets cleaned up so that we can better reflect God. This brings us closer to God.  I don’t think it is a matter of knowing God or not knowing God. I think it’s a matter of degree of closeness.  We are to continue to move closer and closer until we find our union with Him (I described my pronoun use in the other email I sent, I believe).

 why, if I have made a commitment to my God (let's say this could be any God of any religion), and my God represents the same morals as another God, what is the difference? Do you see what I'm getting at? I guess my issue is that because I believe all religions are right, and there is only one God that has been given different names by different peoples, then it shouldn't actually matter which one you follow as long as you're moving toward the truth.
So your question is why chose one religion over another one?  That’s a hard one to answer.  I guess I can only really describe what the difference is for me. When I was searching I would practice a little from this and a little from that, but once I got bored with it I would move on.  It was a big field and I had a lot of stuff I wanted to try out.  So I imagine it like a big desert with shovels scattered everywhere.  Some shovels might be better than others and some shovels might be in better places than others.  When I was searching I was trying out shovels, digging holes here and there.  But, because I was all over the place digging little holes, I didn’t get very deep, even though I was doing a lot of digging.  Eventually, I picked a shovel I liked and kept digging and digging and digging, eventually I found water.  That is how it felt for me.  I don’t know if there is water where the other shovels are, and I don’t know how good the shovels are, but this one works for me and I found the water I was looking for.  
                Now, I’m not saying that this is the experience of everyone, and I’m not saying that other religions are wrong, I really don’t know.  I think they all have elements of love in them.  I have a great respect for Zen, which in practice is similar to centering prayer that I practice, so I don’t want you to think I’m coming down on other religions.  I’m just saying that this was my experience. 

 But it kind of seems like people would be enticed to become Christian because it seems like an easy ride. You know, accept Jesus, and that's it, you're saved. You never have to be a good person (don't worry, I realize that Christianity isn't about encouraging people to be lazy, I totally get that), because you're already set. The way I am living now, I do feel a power within me that drives me to be a better person, and empowers me to be such. I am NOT saying that Christianity is wrong, I absolutely promise you. I really don't want this to come out the wrong way. But isn't there something good about self effort?
The bible actually refers to the Christian path as taking up your cross and following Christ.  So yes, the Christian life is supposed to be filled with effort, but a joyful effort.  The letter of James says that “faith without works is dead”.  Basically, if you say you love but don’t show it in real genuine ways, then you’re pretty much a liar. If you really believe it then it would just come out of you.  Like if someone says they love playing basketball but never play (even though they have the opportunity), do they really love playing basketball? So the effort to do good because of love is drastically important.  Jesus said that there are two commandments you have to follow- Love God, and love everyone else.  Both of these are two sides of the same coin.  You can’t love God unless you love your neighbor, and you can’t really love you neighbor unless you act in loving ways towards them (as long as you’re able). I have come to understand Christianity as an eternal growth. I believe we will eternally be drawn closer and closer to God. That involves practices and discipline. For 2000 years of Christianity there were very specific practices and disciplines that were a part of Christian training. These were supposed to train the soul to become more holy- to look and act more like Jesus would act. Ideally, we are to become saints.  When people experience us we hope and pray to be the kind of people that Christ’s life is experienced through us. It is a bold goal, but I think that is what the Christian life is supposed to be. Eternal growth of our soul.  
So do you think that what happens to you after death is based on your own personal beliefs? I've been wondering if that could be. Maybe Christians go to what they perceive to be a Christian Heaven, other religions accordingly, and I'll merge with the collective consciousness?
I believe that there is God and distance from God. So, it’s like it’s a spectrum CS Lewis said that hell is not full of people who want to get out.  Hell is locked from the inside.  They have made themselves into hellish people, who even if they were in the physical place of heaven would be experiencing hell. So hell is really a distancing from God and from other people because they choose to be that way.  Heaven is closeness to God.  A continual closeness that gets closer and closer into eternity. It is where we become more whole and real, and because God is infinite, there is always something new.  It is a place of growth and eternal newness.  Or, so I believe.

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