Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Ascension of Jesus

The Ascension of Jesus was recorded twice by St. Luke, both at the end of the Gospel of Luke and at the beginning of Acts. One could imagine him recording it in one or the other, but why both? The ascension also occurs in our creeds. So obviously it is a big deal. But it is still mysterious. we don't talk about it a lot in our churches and it wasn't actually unpacked much until the time of St. Augustine.  

The best image I've been able to come up to help me understand the Ascension has been a cell phone. 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 being 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. 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, 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 so 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. 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 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.

[2] “On the Incarnation”

Saturday, 20 May 2017

John 14- the offensive claims of Jesus

We live in a world full of so much diversity- many cultures and many religions- isn’t it arrogant for Christians to claim the only way to God? It’s offensive to say you know spiritual truth and imply that others don’t. 
We live in a world with an incredible amount of diversity among human beings. There are many different cultures and religions.  As globalization has its effect on us we bump into more of the varieties of cultures and religions in a way we wouldn’t have even 50 years ago.  
In the midst of this incredible diversity of cultures Christians claim to know the exclusive route to God.  Paul in Romans 5:19 says, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It is Jesus who fixed what was broken about the world. It is his medicine that was injected into the sick world that is bringing about a cure. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The Prophet Isaiah is speaking for God and in Isaiah 45:5 he says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” In Acts 4:12 Paul says about Jesus, “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  To the modern North American this all seems pretty intolerant and offensive. Christianity should change its tune if it doesn’t want to be considered bigoted and close-minded.
There is a detail that is worth teasing out in the Christian claim. Christians are saying that Jesus said of himself that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him]”. We aren’t making the claim about Christianity. We are saying Jesus made this claim about himself. We aren’t saying only Christians are saved. We aren’t claiming to know who populates heaven or hell. We are just saying that Jesus said he is the one who saves. If someone is saved it is because of Jesus. If an atheist, or a Hindu is saved it is not because of their atheism or Hinduism- it is because of Jesus.  That might still seem offensive to some, but that is where traditional Christianity takes its stand because of the words of Jesus.
We shouldn’t see this as unusual for religion though. I spent 4 years of university getting a bachelor’s degree in the study of world religions at a secular university. As I grew up at different times I considered myself a Wiccan, and experimented a lot as a Buddhist. I have spent a lot of time and energy looking at this thing we call religion. … All religions make claims about spiritual truth. For example, Buddhism teaches that you will not reach Nirvana without practicing Buddha’s 8-fold path, and the Buddhist worldview even includes a hell (just in case you thought Christians had the monopoly on that). So it’s not as if this problem goes away by getting rid of Christianity. All religions make claims about spiritual truth, not just Christianity. 
Some religions try to have a broader inclusion. So for example, some broad-minded Buddhists will try to see Jesus as a Boddhisatva (which is sort of a Buddhist saint). So the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reinterpreted the Eucharist saying, “[Jesus] knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life”.[1]  It seems open-minded, but really they are changing Jesus and making him into a Buddhist. He stops being the Jesus of the Bible and starts being a Buddhist. In a similar way Islam seems to embrace Jesus, but he is not the Son of God and he did not die on a cross and have a bodily resurrection. They reinterpret Jesus and make him into a Muslim prophet- he is not the Jesus of the Bible. Other religions might seem to embrace Jesus, but they won’t accept him on his own terms. All religions claim spiritual truth, which then implies that other claims are less true or false.     
There is a kind of parable that is sometimes told about the various religions of the world. They symbolically imagine spiritual truth as an elephant. Then they imagine these blind men approach the elephant and each attempt to understand and describe the elephant. One blind man approached the elephant’s leg and he says, “An elephant is like a tree”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s side and says, “An elephant is like a wall”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope”. This parable is often told to talk about how each of the religions mistakenly knows a part of the spiritual truth, but they don’t know the whole truth. Each of them only has a part of the truth and it is a mistake to think any one of them really understands an elephant by only knowing the elephant’s leg.
The story is often told to point out the foolishness of the blind men- and so the foolishness of the world religions. They are arrogant to claim they have knowledge that is superior to the other religions, just as it would be arrogant for each of the blind men to think they have the full understanding of the elephant. …
The problem is that there is another person in the parable. The person who is watching the blind men is the only one who sees the whole elephant. The observer is the only one with superior knowledge- the observer is the only one that is not blind. The one who thinks the other religions are arrogant and foolish for claiming knowledge superior to the other religions are themselves claiming to have superior knowledge over all the other religions- they hypocritically claim they have knowledge which they just made fun of the blind men for claiming to have. The observer is in the position of being right and all the other religions (or blind men) are wrong. They fall prey to the same arrogant stance they accuse the other religions of having.
The statement that all religions are basically the same is a claim to know the truth. It also implies that the Buddhist who says the 8-fold path is the way to nirvana is wrong- and the Muslim who says there is only one God and Muhamad is his prophet is wrong- and the Christian who says Jesus is the only way to the Father is wrong.
You can’t get away from making claims about truth. We all do it. And when we claim something is true, we are automatically implying something else is false. We all have a way we view the world that includes a specific kind of belief system. 
          I heard a pastor named Timothy Keller once describe a conversation he had on a university campus with a student. As they were talking the topic moved to religion, as often happens with pastors. Eventually the student realized what was happening and said, “Hey! You’re trying to evangelize me. You’re trying to convert me to Christianity. You are trying to convince me that your way of looking at the world is better than mine. You are trying to say your belief system is right and mine is wrong. That is offensive!” … Timothy Keller responded, “Wait, so you think my way of thinking is wrong (trying to convert people to Christianity and saying Christianity is true) and that I should convert to your belief system (that of broad inclusivism where somehow no religion is more right than any other)? That’s offensive”.  …. The student was making claims about the right way to think and act. You can’t get away from making claims about what is true. And when you say something is true you automatically exclude other claims. …  When you find someone offended at these kinds of religious truth claims, if you look just beneath the surface, you will find they believe in their own truth claims and are just as guilty of stating others are wrong. It is usually a hypocritical stance, though they usually don’t see it.
Some people say all religions are paths that lead up the mountain to God. They are different paths, but they have the same destination. … Well, what is it that we arrive at when we get to the top? Is it the Triune God of Christianity? Is it the one (non-Trinitarian) God of the Koran? Are there thousands of Gods as Hindus believe? Or is the mountaintop empty because Buddhism doesn’t believe in God? Or is there a new age idea of the Force?
I’m not saying that we don’t have similarities. We do. There are tremendous similarities among religions in some areas. Especially when it comes to morality. Usually the various religions of the world will agree on most moral cases. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to morality.  Jesus used positive examples of Samaritans who were considered heretics in his own time (John 4; Luke 10; Luke 17). Jesus had mercy and healed non-Jews (Gentiles), who were usually Pagan. He didn’t come to them with condemnation.  We read about Paul in Athens and he quotes some of their pagan authors and praises them for how religious they are (Acts 17).  I think we too should follow the examples of Jesus and Paul and recognize what is true and beautiful in other religions. We should be willing to applaud the deep insights of other religions. We should be willing to recognize where we overlap in our moral convictions and be willing to work together in those areas.    
If you think the whole goal of religion is morality, then you might be led to say things like “all religions are pretty much the same”. But that is really a surface issue. Most deeply religious people will see morality as a side effect of what they believe, but not the end point, or even the central point. Saying all religions are basically the same shows you haven’t spent much time with the various religions of the world. We should recognize our similarities, but we should also recognize our differences. We should also recognize that at times we will think each other are wrong.  To use an extreme example, I don’t think any of us want to support the beliefs of someone who would crash a plane into a building killing thousands of people and say it is the work of God; or beliefs that would require child sacrifice (as some ancient cultures practiced). I hope we would all consider those beliefs as mistaken, regardless of the sincerity of the practitioners.  The desire to be kind and gracious to those who believe differently than us is a good instinct. That doesn’t mean we have to give up what we believe to be true.
I think we have a trickier job as religious people in our age. 100 years ago we didn’t bump into such a variety of religious people. God gave us a brain and God expects us to use it. In the mix of beliefs we find ourselves in, we have to work hard to figure out which claims about God, human nature, and spiritual reality are true and which are false. What is life all about? What is the most important thing we should spend our time doing? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong, and why?  We have to base our life on some answer to those questions. We cannot function without some kind of belief structure.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). We have to decide what we are going to do with that. Are we going to accept what Jesus says about himself? Is he right or is he wrong? Or are we going to choose some other truth to believe in (like ‘all religions are true’) and say Jesus is wrong? Either way we are committing ourselves to some truth, and we are therefore rejecting the alternative.  The motivation behind the statement ‘all religions are equally true’ is good. It is a desire for peace and understanding between the various cultures of the world.  I think Christianity values both peace and a desire to build relationships with those that are different from us. Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. Jesus died praying for the forgiveness of those that were killing him. I believe his teachings are a powerful force for good in our world. And probably much more helpful than a vague inconsistent belief about everyone being right. AMEN

[1]  Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 22.

Acts 2- life lived under the shepherd

We are in the season after Easter and so we are living in the glow of the resurrection of Jesus, and watching his early disciples live in that glow as well. In some churches today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because there is a theme of shepherding in our readings.

Today, I would like to look at the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. By this point in our reading there is no longer any doubt about Jesus being the messiah. This company of disciples knows who Jesus is. They are on the other side of the resurrection and have spent time with Jesus after he came back from the dead. Our reading from Acts tells us how to live as a people with a resurrected Lord shepherding us. What should the Christian community be like?

We read in Acts that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42). These are marks that were essential and basic to the early church, and they are also essential and basic for the modern church and we would do well to pay attention to these.

First, when these early believers gathered they dedicated themselves to the teaching of the Apostles. The Apostles were those who spent time with Jesus while he was teaching before his crucifixion and resurrection. The Apostles were the ones who wandered the roads with Jesus as he went from town to town teaching and healing. They were the ones that were with him for the three years of his ministry, and their souls were shaped by being in his presence. After the resurrection we read in Acts that Jesus spent 40 more days teaching them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). We also read that many miracles were done through the Apostles (2:43), which also authenticated them by showing that the power of God was active and alive in them just as the power of God had been active in Jesus.

These Apostles were those that were most formed by Jesus, and so the teaching of the Apostles is the teaching that is most formed by Jesus. As the new Christian community met they devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, which is to say the Apostles’ teaching about Jesus and his teachings. The first thing they dedicated themselves to was to be a learning community. All Christians are disciples, and a disciple is an “apprentice” or a “student”.

Today the teaching of the Apostles comes to us in the New Testament. That was one of the tests for how a writing would end up in the New Testament- it was connected to an Apostle. The ancient Christian devotion to the teaching of the Apostles is paralleled by our devotion to the teachings we find in the New Testament. We are called to have our lives shaped by the Bible. The New Testament because it is the teaching of Jesus’ Apostles, and the Old Testament because it was the Bible of Jesus and his Apostles.

Second, we read that they devoted themselves to fellowship. The word translated “fellowship” (koinonia) comes from the root for “common” (koinos). This means they had a “common” life, not in the sense of “ordinary”, but in the sense of “together” or “shared”. It was a shared life in that they shared in the life of God, but it was also a shared life because they shared their lives with one another. This was a community that was dedicated to one another.

We read that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:44-46). I don’t think this is proof that they were communists or that no one had any personal property, but I think they cared about each other deeply. They spent a lot of time together and when they saw need in the community they were willing to meet that need with their resources even if it meant selling their new car or a rental property. This doesn’t mean that they sold everything they owned and lived together, but they were unwilling to see someone in need when they had the resources to meet their needs. It’s what you would do for someone you love. It’s what you would do for your children or your parents (if you have a healthy loving relationship with them). You respond to the needs of those you love in the best way you can. But, their common life wasn’t just about meeting each other’s needs. They met in each other’s homes. They ate together. They enjoyed each other and they were generous with each other.

This is probably what the prophets of the Old Testament were talking about when they criticized the people for abandoning the widow and orphan to their poverty. They became unwelcome in the community of love, otherwise their needs would have been met. The prophets weren’t criticizing their lack of charitable giving- they were criticizing their lack of love. Their lack of help for the widow and orphan was evidence of their lack of love. … This issue was solved in the early church. The community the prophets yearned for was present in those early disciples.

We are called to a life of fellowship. This goes well beyond coffee after church. We are to learn to care about each other deeply. That means we are to learn to be vulnerable with each other. We will have people in the fellowship who we can be real with, who we can cry with and laugh with, who we can call at 2:00 in the morning when we go to the emergency room. We will have people in the fellowship we spend time with outside the walls of the church building. We will know their stories- their joys and their pains- and they will know our stories. Their joy will cause us joy and their pain will cause us pain. And when their lives fall apart we are willing to make sacrifices to pull them back up. This is the kind of fellowship we are called to.

Thirdly, we read that they dedicated themselves to “the breaking of bread” and to “the prayers”. The way the phrase is worded in the original language shows us that they weren’t just meeting to break bread together as we might say when we share a meal (though they certainly did do that). We read that they were dedicated to “the” breaking of “the” bread and to “the” prayers. It is very likely that this is a reference to the Eucharist and to some sort of shared times of prayer.

We worship to express our love and appreciation to God. We have lots of ways of doing that, but we should never forget that whatever else worship is, it is a focus on God, and we should try to not let anything else distract us from that. From the time we walk in the door of the church we should keep God in our mind’s eye. As we pray, we should speak to God as someone standing in front of us. As we sing, we should make ourselves aware of God’s presence with us. As we approach the altar we should see Jesus welcoming us to his table and offering us his life.

We are called together to worship. In our individualistic society I might be tempted to say, “I can pray at home and read my Bible at home, or go for a walk and meet God. Why do I need to come to Church?” The first answer to that question would be that this is what Christians have always done. It is a part of the tradition of the community of the Apostles and we should always be wary of tossing that aside. Our base assumption should be that they had a good reason.

Beyond that, we are shaped and formed by our common worship. We are meant to encourage each other. We learn from each other and we challenge each other. Off on our own we might convince ourselves that we are doing quite well and that we are people full of love and compassion, but when we are together worshipping we can be shocked by our impatience and the hurt and judgementalism that rises up within us.

In our common worship we come together as God has always called His people to gather before Him. God has called us into community and being shaped as his people means learning to stand before him as a gathered people and to be shaped by being together. We are called to worship together.

The preacher John Stott sees a forth mark of the church in the statement “day by day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47). He says this forth mark of the early church is evangelism. That word tends to freak us out a bit. We imagine someone knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, or a televangelist crying into the camera.

Evangelism means a number of things. It means not hiding what you have found to be so helpful to you. It means the early disciples welcomed others among them, they were not shy about sharing their story, and they acted with compassion for those around them. Evangelism isn’t about hitting people over the head with your Bible or cramming your beliefs down someone else’s throat. It can be as simple as asking someone else what they believe about spirituality and being willing to share what you believe if they happen to ask you. Evangelism can be welcoming new faces and being willing to make them feel at home. It means being willing to invite new friends out for coffee and inviting them into the hospitality of the fellowship we spoke about. We are called to be a community that cares about the spiritual lives of others and we make the effort to welcome those who are not already a part of us.

We have to admit that this isn’t always who we are. We don’t always make the teaching of the Apostles the center of our lives. We don’t always commit ourselves to deeper fellowship with other Christians. We have to admit that we can sometimes worship in a way that we don’t focus ourselves on God. We sometimes hide our faith because it have become unpopular. When we see these in ourselves that is a call to repent, which is to adjust our minds- To turn away from what has been keeping us from fulling embracing the life of a disciple, and refocus on the joyous life God wants for His people.

May we be a community that is shaped deeply by the spiritual teaching of the Apostles- a people filled with the wisdom of Christ. In shared lives of deep fellowship, may we love each other deeply and live lives of vulnerability and availability with one another. Showing our love for God, may we worship together, being nourished by the Body of Christ that we might be the body of Christ in the world. AMEN


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. (They symbol of a saint is sometimes a representation of the way they were martyred). 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. (Just look at our brothers and sisters that suffer under ISIS.) 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 (How comfortable would you feel coming to church in Egypt after the bombings we heard about there?) 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.

Friday, 19 May 2017

at one ment- Good Friday

‘Atonement’ has been the word used to describe what happened on the cross. The word “atonement” means to bring two things into unity. We are told that what happened on the cross brought what was divided (God and humanity), into unity.

There are a variety of ways to understand the Atonement. I also want to remind you of what C. S. Lewis has said about the atonement- That understanding how it works is less important than understanding that it works. He says it is like nutrition. People were eating food and drinking long before there were any theories of how the body broke down food to nourish cells. When you are hungry it is enough to eat, and it works. Jesus’ work on the cross is like this. We don’t have to dedicate ourselves to one particular theory about how this works. What we are assured of in Scripture and the experience of the Church is that it does work.

That being said, the many ways of understanding the Atonement fall into three basic categories. They answer the question “where was the work of Christ on the cross directed?” Was it directed to human beings? Was it directed to God? Or was it directed to Evil?

First, the view that Jesus’ actions on the cross were directed towards humanity. Throughout the Bible Sin is described as a kind of sickness. In the Old Testament we read that over and over again the people wander off the path set for them. As they walk away from the safety of God’s path they encounter all kinds of suffering and corruption. The work of Jesus on the cross resulted in healing humanity, providing an example for them to follow, and expressing God’s amazing and unending love that draws alienated humanity back to Himself. The actions of Christ heals the relationship between human beings and God, by healing the sin that separates us. The lifeblood of the God-Man has been offered to heal our sin sick souls. And the cross is a beacon of love- showing us the profound lengths God is willing to go in order to show His love for us, and by the power of his resurrection, He empowers us to imitate his never ending and inexhaustible love. By drawing us to himself, the great Physician, we are drawn into a relationship of ongoing healing.

I heard a true story recently that might help to illustrate this. There was a pastor whose son had "gone off the rails". He was doing drugs. He was constantly in trouble with the law. And very estranged from his family. He was now living in a crack house in a shady part of town. One night, at around 3am, this pastor and his wife were awoken by the telephone. The person on the other end of the phone told them their son was in prison in the police station and they should come get him. They let out a sigh and the pastor got on his coat. He drove down to the station, but when he inquired they said they didn't have his son, nor did they call him. He told them that both he and his wife heard the call and could they please check with the other stations. The person behind the desk checked and said, "I'm sorry but we don't have him anywhere in our system". 
Confused, the man decided to drive to the house his son had been living on just to make sure he's okay. He drove up to the dilapidated house, garbage everywhere, the lawn not cared for. He opened the door and looked inside. He stepped over sleeping bodies and bottles until he found his son sleeping on the couch. He leaned over and kissed him on the head, thankful that he was okay and not in a jail cell.      

Six months later he gets a call from his son, who asks him to go out for lunch. He meets with him and he had gotten his life together. he had a job. He wasn't using. He found a place to live. He started attending church. He asked his dad, "don't you want to know what happened?" The father listened with a thankful heart. "I wasn't asleep when you kissed me". 

There was something about the father coming into the darkness to show his love that inspires us to chase after his love- it transforms us.  

We can also see the cross as directed towards God. Viewed this way the actions of Jesus can be seen as the actions of a representative or a substitute for humanity that stands before a profoundly mysterious and holy God that is unable to have the corruption of sin in His presence. Jesus pays a debt we owe God, or receives a punishment we deserve as a part of offending a very holy justice. 

This is the basic idea: Humanity’s sin is basically the failure to give God what He deserves. It is the responsibility of humanity to give God what is owed Him, as well as the necessary back payment for what we have robbed him of. As a good judge, God’s justice demands this restoration. For God to overlook this would make God a bad judge without a sense of justice. The problem is that humanity us unable to repay this debt. Even if we stopped sinning entirely we would only be giving God what we owe Him already. The debt could not be paid down. And we continue to sin continuing to build a greater debt to God each time we deny God what we owe Him, which is our complete and utter love and service. God is left with two options- punish humanity as they deserve, or accept payment on their behalf. The tricky bit is that only a human being can make the payment because it is humanity that owes the debt. No human is able to make this kind of payment on behalf of humanity. The solution is found in Jesus Christ, who is both God and human. As a human being he belongs to humanity who needs to make payment. As God, he has resources to make the payment.

This one can be a bit hard for us to stomach because the idea of the bloody sacrifice of a life is very strange to us, but I want to also remind us that it is most likely because of the influence of Christianity that we feel this way. Throughout most of human history sacrifice has been a regular part of human life in cultures all over the world. The teaching of Christianity was that Christ was the last sacrifice needed and so in Christianity sacrifice stopped. That gives us the privilege to feel strange about sacrifice.

The third way to view the atonement is as directed towards the Evil powers. In this view the work of Christ on the cross is about going to battle on our behalf to destroy the powers of Evil and rescue humanity that has been captured and oppressed. This is the view of the atonement that dominated the church for the first 1000 years. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God defeated the devil and the power that enslave humanity. Jesus goes to battle on our behalf. He confronts the supernatural invisible evils- the Devil, demons, and evil spirits. He confronts the evil powers of this world that manifest in the form of corrupt social structures and economic systems that take advantage of people and create injustice and cruelty, and marginalize people to the outskirts of society saying there is no place for them. And Jesus also confronts the Power of Sin that enslaves us and makes us something like addicts, slowly taking away our free will to choose the good, or to even want to choose good. The ministry of Jesus is about releasing us from these powers. From the unseen demonic powers, from the systemic evil of cultures that oppresses people, and from the power of Sin that lives within us.

In this view of the atonement, what we see in the gospels is Jesus rescuing people from the kingdom of darkness and bringing them into the kingdom of God. Jesus saves us from the power of Evil, and the inevitable destruction that is coming to the kingdom of darkness and sin. Being freed from that evil empire we are freed from the inability to live in right relationship with God, and we become free to participate in all the joy and abundance that comes with life in the eternal kingdom of God.

We, by our sin, have placed ourselves under the power of Evil, which means a life subject to sin, fear, and death. But, God will not leave us enslaved to Evil and comes to us as Jesus. Jesus offers himself to these powers in exchange for humanity. They think they can destroy him. But the power of the sinless and divine Christ bursts from the clutches of evil and death. His humanity was the tempting bait that drew the evil power to destroy him, but his holy divinity and his self-sacrificial love was the hook that snagged the devil and defeated him. The devil’s plan backfired. When Christ snuck behind enemy lines he rescued humanity from the clutches of death. Having entered the kingdom of God we have a new power working in us calling us to act out of the kind of self-sacrificial love we see in Christ. In this way God’s army expands and transforms the world with the power of His love.

Palm Sunday

Jesus enters the great city of Jerusalem and it leaves some asking, “Who is this?” It is a question that comes up a lot in the Gospels. Jesus calms the storm, “Who is this?” (Matt 8). Jesus declares a man’s sins forgiven and then heals him and the religious leaders ask, “who is this?” (Luke 7). Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?” When people answer this question they often get it wrong, or only part right. Some of the religious leaders thought Jesus’ power came from demons and so he was some kind of dark magician. Some called him a prophet, which is getting closer. At least he’s playing for the right team. Peter declared that Jesus is, “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mat 16:16). But even then Peter didn’t quite have it because right after he declared this about Jesus he pulled him aside and began to scold him for saying that he was going to be killed.

“Who is this?” This is the question all the Gospels are answering. They want us to know who this man is.

Jesus received the welcome of a king. I don’t know if you have ever seen royalty be welcomed. There are people lined up all along the streets. They are waving flags. Some bring flowers to give. There are barricades to keep the crowds back.

They welcome Jesus in as royalty. But this is even bigger. To understand the excitement of the crowd we have to understand a little bit of what was happening at the time. The Roman Empire was occupying their land. They felt the boot of Rome on their necks. Their influence seemed to poison everything. The king was a kind of puppet king put in power by Rome. They used their own people to collect Roman taxes and line the tax-collectors would pocket whatever extra they could squeeze out of the people. There was a broad feeling that the temple leadership had become corrupt as well. Jesus turning over the tables was a judgement on the leadership of the temple and how they were creating an environment for taking advantage of those who came to the temple to worship.

The people had a sense of who the messiah was supposed to be.

Who are they expecting? They are welcoming him as the messiah. In the minds of most people the messiah was a king like King David who would replace the corrupt leadership, unify the country, and free them from oppression. To welcome him they lay their cloaks on the ground (2 Kings 9:13), which is a sign of loyalty and dedication. They wave tree branches in celebration and lay them on the ground making a kind of red carpet (or green carpet) welcome (1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7). They shout “Hosanna” which means “save us” (Ps 118:25). It had become a kind of shout of joy and adoration.

So they welcome him as a king, but oddly he comes on a donkey. We might expect a war horse. A donkey is so undignified. It is like the queen riding a Vespa. There are a few reasons for this. One is that Jesus is very purposely fulfilling a prophesy about the messiah (Zech 9:9). Through this action Jesus is declaring that he is the messiah. The Messiah was also called the Son of David and another son of David, Solomon, came to the city on a donkey when he was anointed king to succeed his father (1 Kings 1:32-40). … But it is also a symbol of humility. This King is for the people. This king is humble before God and is willing to be led by Him. Jesus embodied that humility and we read about that In Philippians 2 today. He was willing to be emptied in obedience and humility to God.

There is a dramatic shift today. It is not only Palm Sunday, but it is also Passion Sunday. We can get spiritual whiplash today. The crowds shift from shouting “hosanna” to “crucify”. Jesus is betrayed by one of his own disciples. The rest scatter. Peter denies knowing Jesus. The justice system is manipulated to create injustice to convict him.

How could such a dramatic shift happen in such a short time? Part of the reason why is that Jesus was not the messiah they wanted. Jesus was the messiah God wanted. They wanted a nationalist hero who would wave their country’s flag. They wanted someone to kick out the Romans and be their King.

The messiah God wanted was going to battle with Sin and death, not the Romans. This messiah was for all of humanity, not just Israel. He wasn’t raising an army of soldiers, but of saints. He was to fulfill the original blessing of Abraham that he would be blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the world (Gen 12:3).

I wonder how often we do this? We try to make Jesus into who we want him to be. We want a Jesus to forgive my sin. I want a Jesus to secure an afterlife for me when I die.

But there are lots of things about Jesus that make me uncomfortable. He tells me to love my enemies. He tells me to turn the other cheek when struck. He tells me that if I don’t deal with my anger I might as well be a murderer. If I don’t deal with my lust I might as well be an adulterer. He tells me to pick up my cross and follow him. There are things Jesus does that make me uncomfortable. Maybe I want the Jesus that just makes me feel warm and fuzzy and not the Jesus who challenges me to be transformed. If I do that I’m crying “crucify” with the crowd.

C.S. Lewis once said that when he was a child he would have a toothache. But, he wouldn’t want to tell his mother. All he really wanted was a Tylenol to alleviate the pain, but he knew that if he told his mother he had a toothache, she would bring him to the dentist. He just wanted the pain to go away, but the dentist would drill into his tooth to fix it. Not only that, but he would poke around in his mouth to look at teeth that weren’t even bothering him yet.

For Lewis, God is like the dentist. We want parts of God, but not other parts. We might turn to God because we want Him to deal with our loneliness, or sadness, cowardice, bad temper, or addiction. He will likely cure it, but he won’t stop there. He will start poking around and start fixing other bits, even if you don’t think it’s broken and don’t really want it fixed. You can resist him, of course, but if you don’t he is going to complete the job he started. He wants to make you into something new. There is a cost to becoming Christian- It has to change you. The Messiah is coming to fix the world, but he will fix you along with it. Jesus presents himself to us. He may not be exactly what we think we want or expect, but Jesus gives us what we actually need.

Our Messiah is humble enough to allow us to accept him or deny him. He won’t force himself on us. He will present himself to us, and we are free to accept him or deny him. We can welcome him as king, or crucify him as a fraud. God was willing to gently ride a donkey and ask for our acceptance, not command it. Jesus teaches us the depth of God’s love for us by allowing us to kill him on a cross. He was so gentle that he even allowed us to reject him, and crucify him. And even after all that, he wouldn’t let it stop him. He will not give up on us. He used even our rejection of him, his own crucifixion, to show the unbelievable depth of his love for us. We would love to forget about Good Friday- it’s not a part of the story that feels nice, but if we are going to accept Jesus we need to walk into Good Friday with him as well.         
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