Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Ascension- why didn't he stay?

The cell phone is an amazing invention. I can speak or whisper into a little microphone in my cell phone and it will transform my speech into a radio wave that can be sent to my brother’s phone in Vancouver, or just about anywhere else on the planet. When my brother lived in London, England, I could speak to him as if he was standing right in front of me. But there is a strange transformation that has to happen to my voice in order for my brother to hear it. My voice, which is audible to those standing near me, has to be transformed into radio waves, which are invisible and inaudible. In fact my voice becomes completely imperceptible when it is transformed into radio waves. If you came from the past and saw me speaking into my cell phone you might think I was crazy. And I would not help them to think I was sane by explaining that my voice was being transformed into invisible radio waves and sent half-way across the planet to someone else with a little plastic rectangle who would then be able to transform it back into sound waves and hear me. If my brother in Vancouver wants to hear my voice it ironically has to be transformed into a state that can’t be heard.

I think about that when I think about the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus was visible and audible. He was with his disciples for 40 days after he was resurrected from the dead. He met with them, they touched him. They ate with him. They heard him teaching. Then we read in Acts “… as [the disciples] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). At that point they didn’t see him, they didn’t touch him, and they didn’t hear him (at least not by way of his vocal chords). Judging by the usual human senses, Jesus was gone. I remember the first time I read about the Ascension and being really quite confused by it. I couldn’t understand why Jesus left. Why wouldn’t he stay with us? The world is such a mess, why wouldn’t he stay and help?

What I didn’t get was that the Ascension isn’t about Jesus leaving, but about him becoming much more present to us. Just as my voice is limited by my volume, so experiencing Jesus was limited by his physical presence. And as my voice is able to extend across the world when it is transformed to radio waves, so Jesus is able to be much more present when he transcends the physical world and enters the dimension of heaven. 
As Jesus enters into transcendence he becomes more immanent. “Transcendence” means out there, beyond, and other. “Immanence” means close, intimate, and experienced. When Jesus enters into heaven he becomes more “transcendent”- we can’t see him, we can’t hear the vibrations of his vocal chords, and we can’t touch him. … But, because of his “transcendence” he is now “immanent”. Before his Ascension only those physically around Jesus could experience him. If he was with his disciples in Jerusalem he wasn’t in Nazareth, or China. But after his Ascension, after entering into the dimension of heaven, he was no longer limited by time or space and so was able to be present by his Spirit to disciples in Jerusalem, Nazareth, China, or wherever. And so Jesus’ ascension was not about Jesus leaving, but about Jesus being with us in a more intimate way, and being with us no matter where we are. So if you were a disciple watching Jesus be enveloped by the cloud of God’s glory as he entered heaven you would have seen less and less of him. But, from Jesus’ point of view, as he was enveloped by heaven, he would have seen more and more of humanity.

As Jesus entered heaven, he brought something with him that he didn’t have before he was born to Mary. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said, “The ascension of Jesus in this context becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life”.[1] On the heavenly throne of the universe sits a human being. When Jesus entered heaven he did not cease to be human- Jesus took his human body with him. It has been said that there are five man-made things in heaven- the wounds on the body of Jesus- his hands, feet, and side. Jesus brought his physical body, scars and all, into the very heart of God. The human at the heart of God is one who understands what it is like to live as a human being- to know hunger, and sadness, grief, and loss, betrayal, and temptation. The one sitting on the throne of the universe knows our problems.

The ascension is, in a way, the flip side of the incarnation. In the incarnation God became human- He became a little baby. In the Ascension, human flesh was made divine- human flesh exists in the very heart of God. And the more you think about that the more amazing it seems. It is not just the glorification of Jesus, but the glorification of human nature. The end point of human development has been reached in Jesus. And, in a sense, God wants us to be like him. We are to become like the ascended Jesus. The 3rd century church father, Athanasius, once said, “God became man that man might become God”.[2] Certainly the statement has to be understood rightly and read in context. We are not to become God as Jesus is God, but he does mean that in the adoption of human flesh into God’s self, that the way is opened for human beings to follow him and reflect God's image more fully than before the Ascension. There is a long tradition of human beings desiring and learning to be more and more like him- a process that is often called “theosis”. “Theosis” means becoming like God, or coming into union with God. When we are baptized the goal that is spoken over us is to mature into the “fullness of Christ” this is what is meant, and so this is God’s goal for all baptized Christians.

This process of becoming like God is possible because Jesus ascended and then sent the Spirit to guide us and empower us. Through the Spirit he can guide and teach us. When you compare the Apostle Peter in the gospels to Peter in the book of Acts when he is empowered by the Spirit the transformation is obvious- they hardly seem like the same person. Peter is healing people and whereas he once denied Jesus because of fear of the authorities, now he is boldly proclaiming the message of Jesus even to those authorities. The Spirit empowered them to spread his message across the known world. Paul speaks about going to Spain, though we don’t know if he got there. We do know he made it to Rome and proclaimed the message of Jesus right in the heart of the Roman Empire. Thomas is said to have gone to India to share the gospel. Despite the danger, the disciples of Jesus were boldly going to the ends of the earth to proclaim the message of Jesus- that he is Lord and sits on the throne of the universe. The Spirit transformed the disciples from a frightened group hiding behind closed doors, to openly proclaiming Jesus as the true king of the world and performing miracles in his name. They proclaim this message despite the danger of competing with the claims of Caesar, who was also considered “Lord” and even in some way “divine”. The Ascension was the enthronement of Jesus. The disciples boldly proclaimed that Jesus was sitting on the throne of the universe, not Caesar.

That same Spirit is available and active within us. Jesus is still reigning over the universe. The Kingdom of God is still present and growing. And we are still called to be agents of Jesus, showing his love and proclaiming his reign. He engages the world often through us. His reign over situations is often expressed through us. When we see injustice we stand against it as representatives of a kingdom that is reclaiming territory against the chaos that has temporarily and destructively taken control. In taking a stand for our King and his kingdom we may endure hardship and suffering, but our king can sympathize with us and has also endured human suffering. The suffering will have an end, and the ultimate end will be a world where Christ reigns in love. In every area of our lives, we are invited to live like Jesus is on the throne of the universe, and we are empowered to mature to be more and more like our king as his kingdom is proclaimed and grows.

[1] http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/883/a-sermon-by-the-archbishop-of-canterbury-at-the-ascension-day-sung-eucharist
[2] “On the Incarnation”

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Love and Obedience- 1 John 5:1-6

We have been spending the last number of weeks dwelling in the first letter of John. It’s not the easiest letter to read. There is a lot of repetition and it can be complex, so we really need to slow down to be able to read it. We almost have to read it like poetry- letting each line soak in before moving on to the next, and then reading it over again and allowing the last line to shed light on the first line.

This letter uses a lot of the same themes as the Gospel of John, which is at least one of the reasons the letter is associated with John. It seems to be written by a wise elder to those who were under his care and guidance- in other words it was written to his spiritual children.

In the letter the elder gives a number of insights into common topics that marked the Christian community. In particular, the elder is concerned with teaching about love. The elder teaches us in the letter that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), and “If anyone says, ‘I love God’, but hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 Jn 4:21). He defines love not merely as a feeling or as words saying, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). There is a unity between loving God and loving your fellow Christian (and we would extend that out to our neighbour and enemy as well). And “loving” includes action, and the elder might say loving action is even more important than loving words or feelings.

In the part of the letter we are looking at today the elder is dealing with what it means to love God. We have already learned from earlier parts of the letter that our love for God is intimately connected to our love for one another if it is to be authentic. The elder continues saying that to be a child of God- to be born of God- means believing that Jesus is the messiah. To love God means to love the Son of God. If you love me you will love my children. Essentially the elder is defining which God we are talking about. We are not talking about a vague divine “force” out there. We are also not talking about Zeus. No, we are talking about God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The elder goes on saying that to love God also means to be obedient to God’s commandments. This part might surprise us because we don’t usually define love this way. The elder is saying that to love God means to allow yourself to be led by His guidance. To love God is to keep his commandments. We see this teaching in the Gospel of John too. In Chapter 14 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15), and “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (Jn 14:21). Jesus gives a similar teaching in the Gospel of Matthew where he says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:21). This teaching is also found earlier in the letter we are studying. In the second chapter of John’s first letter we read, “And by this we know that we have come to know him [God/Jesus], if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3-6). Just as love for our fellow Christian has to have an action involved to be authentic, so love for God has to have an action involved for it to be authentic- love of God should be observable by the way we live.

The commandments we are to obey are the teachings of Jesus and his interpretation of the Law. Specifically his command to love each other as he loved us (John 15) and using that love as a lens to read the rest of the bible. We find them especially in places like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but also throughout Jesus’ words in the Gospels. The elder is suggesting that we need to not only read and study Jesus’ teaching, and the scripture that Jesus himself learned, but we need to also put those teachings into action if we hope to know God. The elder is teaching that until we have put those teachings into action we don’t really know God. If we get a PhD in Koine Greek and New Testament theology and teach in a seminary we will still not know God until we put what God says into action.  

In a healthy parent-child relationship there will be a level of trust and obedience. When we talk about obedience, we don’t mean blind and unthinking obedience. That’s not what God is after. In chapter 4 of the letter we are studying we read, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1). So we are not to have a blind obedience, but a discerning obedience- an obedience tempered by wisdom. This is the kind of obedience wise parents want for their children. Parents want their children to have strong wills, but they also want their wills to be directed. They want them to have strong wills because it takes a strong will to stand up against peer pressure. Parents want their children to be able to stand up for themselves and for others even if it is against the flow of their peers. But, wise parents also want their children to follow their direction because they have more experience and understanding and want to guide them both into good and away from evil. Parents hope that their children will be obedient, but not mindless.

The first thing the elder says after saying that loving God is obeying His commandments is, “And his commandments are not burdensome” (vs. 3). Why does he say this? … it is a funny things to say, isn't it? .... It's likely because many of us felt the burden when we heard him teach that loving God is obeying His commandments. That’s why he brings up feeling burdened.

There are a few reasons we might feel this way. For example, we might be overly-literal when reading Jesus’ commands and we might think that we are failing unless we visit the sick, and the homeless, and those in prison, every week. Meanwhile, you also have 3 children and a sick parent in hospital. So we might over-burden ourselves by not applying the teachings of Jesus with wisdom and the leading of the Spirit. (This is actually a subtle version of what I'm about to talk about next).

But, I think the main reason we feel this way is because we have competing idols. Our love for our idols competes with our love for God and it creates a tension in us that weighs us down and feels like a burden. The author and pastor Timothy Keller defines an idol this way, 
“[an idol is] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give… An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’ There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship”.[1] 
When we love something more than God it will become obvious when we are asked to follow the teachings of Jesus and we suddenly we feel an incredible tension in us and have to decide if we will follow it or not. When we try to follow Jesus and an incredible tension arises in us we should pay attention because an idol might be competing with our love for God. The Pharisees felt the tension between following Jesus and following their traditions. The rich young ruler felt the tension between following Jesus and serving his wealth. Pontius Pilate felt the tension when he had to decide between not killing Jesus and pleasing the crowds and the ideology of the empire. The love of an idol and trying to obey God at the same time will fill us with tension. We will struggle to make a decision between our love for _____ and our love for God. It might be wealth, or physical pleasures, or power, or a job, or a relationship, or any number of things. The ancient world was full of statues to the gods of money, love, war, and you name it. We aren’t so obvious as to name these things “gods”, but that doesn’t mean we don’t act like they are gods. These things have become gods when they move into the center of our lives and we begin serving them rather than placing them in our lives properly so that they serve us as we serve God.

We would be wise if we would take account of the idols that might be competing for our love and worship. In our world idols function best when they are secret. We can gain some power over them if we can name them and recognize them when they rear their head. If we are aware of them, we are more likely to be able to make wise decisions when the tension arises while obeying God.

We are not alone in this task. We have the Spirit present with us to help us discern the way to go. The Spirit’s power active in us will show us the joy of following the teachings of Christ. In John 15 we actually see that the end goal is joy, for Jesus and for us.  We will eventually see that following these teachings is not a burden, but as the elder says, it is “conquering the world” (1 Jn 5:4). So we don’t have to worry about dropping our idols. Ultimately they cannot save us. They make false promises that they ultimately can’t fulfill. If we can drop them, even destroy them, then we will know the freedom of obedience to God. And the elder teaches us that in obedience we will know God, and will then know love of God.

[1] (pages xvii and xviii of Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters)

Monday, 4 May 2015

God is Love- 1 John 4

Since around the time I became a Christian our reading from John’s first letter has been very important to me. I’ve told my story before, but maybe there are a few who haven’t heard it before. As a teenager I didn’t like Christians or Christianity much as all. In fact, I was very negative about it all. I felt pretty sure that there was something out there that we might call “God” or “the Force” or the “Divine”, but I was also pretty sure that the church didn’t get it and didn’t really have anything to offer in terms of getting to know that “something out there”. I actually suspected Christians and the Church might have been in the way of getting to know that “something out there”. I did search. The idea of life being only what we see was not really all that attractive to me. I believed we were more than just molecules and DNA trying to replicate. I believed there was something more to reality than what we normally saw and felt.

Two things happened to me that dramatically affected me. The first was an encounter in a bar and the second was a dream. First, I had just arrived at a bar and had gone to get drinks for me and my friends. When I was walking back to the table where my friends were I was overcome with what I can only call “love”, but I want to capitalize it- “Love”. It was love of a different kind. It was intense and I had the sense that the love I knew was a kind of shadow of this love I was experiencing. I felt like it was part of the foundation of reality. It was a self-forgetting love, and it was directed to all equally. I didn’t love my friends more than the strangers in the bar. On reflection I felt like it wasn’t coming from me. It was like I was caught up in it- like I was floating down a river. I don’t know how long I was standing there. It could have been 5 minutes or 10 minutes or more. Time seemed to vanish. I was left feeling like I had to somehow understand what that was, and if it was possible, I wanted to learn to live in it. I knew that I would be happy if I could find a way to live in that love.

The second thing that happened to me was a dream. It felt like more than an ordinary dream. It involved the Dalai Lama- who is the leader of the Tibetan people and the Tibetan Buddhist religion. In my dream I told the Dalai Lama that I wanted to become a Buddhist, which I was taking quite seriously. The Dalai Lama laughed at me and told me I was a Christian. I woke up annoyed, but I had this strange feeling that I couldn’t shake.

I eventually picked up a Bible and for some reason started reading in the gospel of Matthew. By the time I got through the Sermon on the Mount, which ends in chapter 7, I was blown away. This was not the Jesus or the Christianity I thought I knew and thought I was rejecting. I was very taken by Jesus and his teachings. I tried to imagine what the world would be like if everyone lived his teachings- not judging, loving our enemies, dealing with our anger and lust in healthy ways, If we considered our treasure to be with God rather than on earth (so we didn't have to horde it or protect it), lived in faith rather than fear, treating others the way we wanted to be treated, etc.. What kind of a world would that make? That thought blew me away. Later on I read about Jesus praying for the forgiveness of those that were killing him on the cross.

As I kept reading I eventually came to John’s first letter that we heard read today. Verse 8 blew me away, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). For me, this made sense of the love that I felt. I came to believe that what I experienced in the bar was God’s love. It flowed out towards everyone equally, regardless of who they were, or what they had done. It wasn’t dependent on them, it wasn’t earned, and it wasn’t deserved. It flowed to them because that’s who God is. That’s how it flowed towards those who were crucifying Jesus- it didn’t depend on them. In 1st John we read that, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins“ (4:10). “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (4:9). God sent his son and loved us while we were still sinners. We didn’t earn it, and it wasn’t deserved. God loves this way because it isn’t just something He does but it is because “God is love” (4:8). It is in His very nature. The way cold goes with ice. And curves go with a sphere. And that means whatever God does it is done from that center- creating, saving, even judging. It is all ultimately an expression of His love (which means we haven't understood it if we don't see love in His actions).

But it also made sense to me that being connected to God would mean that this incredible love would flow through you towards others. That love expressed towards others was what I sensed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. John’s letter says, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:7-8). “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (4:19-20), and “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21). The love of God and the love of brother/sister/neighbour are not really two separate things. They are deeply interrelated.

This letter is dripping with the word “love”. In 14 verses our reading says love 28 times. This is even more intense when we look at the original Greek. In our reading we see that the word “beloved” appears twice. The Greek word being translated is “Ἀγαπητοί” (agapetoi). The word used for love is “ἀγάπη” (agape). So the letter is addressed to the “agapetoi” (Ἀγαπητοί) and it is about “agape” (ἀγάπη). “Beloved” is a good translation in the sense that “love” is contained within the word.

In normal human relationships it’s like we have concentric rings of love. Closest to the center, in the innermost ring, we usually have our immediate family. Then, the next ring contains our friends. Then in the next ring we have acquaintances. And in the next ring we have strangers, maybe strangers that live close to you. And the next ring might have strangers that live far from you. At the very outer ring would be those who have betrayed us- those who are dangerous- Those we don’t trust and don’t like- enemies.

In this letter John is primarily speaking about love to fellow Christians in the church. What I think is happening is that the church is the place where we are to learn love. We learn to love people that are different than us, who make different decisions than us- people from different levels of income and different ethnicities. I don’t think the letter is saying that we should only love our fellow Christians. I think we learn love in the church- in our close relationships- with others who want to learn this love as well. Some of the Saints called the church a "school of love". As we deepen in this love we allow it to penetrate into to those other circles- to acquaintances- strangers- then even to enemies. At that point we begin to imitate God’s love, that doesn’t depend on whether the person has earned your love. We learn that God doesn't have concentric circles that define loving people in one ring more than another. When we are swept up in this love it changes who you are. The core of who you are- the very center of your being- is love. If God is love and you “abide” (4:12,16) in God then the core of who you are will be love. This is what it means to be perfected in God’s love (4:12). It is a love that is more than just warm feelings towards a person. It is a self-sacrificial love. It is a cross-shaped love. It is a love that is willing to go to extraordinary lengths for the benefit of the other.
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