Jesus is a different kind of Messiah

Reading: John 10:22-30, Matthew 5:38-48

In my youth, I had no clue how difficult Jesus’ words on the sermon on the mount were. I had no clue how difficult it was love an enemy, or do good to one, or bless one who curses me. It is hard to get how difficult it is to love an enemy when you live in a world where there really are no enemies.

This past week, we remembered the attack on Perl Harbor; but as we remembered, we also knew that the nation of Japan is now an ally with the United States. I am old enough to remember us exchanging insults with the Soviets, but the cold war was definitely winding down; nobody had duck and cover drills anymore. Gorbachev is the only Soviet leader I can remember. In the time I lived in, Germany and Japan have always been allies, China is a trade partner, and when I think of the Russians, I hope that someday the Russian people will someday have a government that looks out for ordinary Russians. In my life, enemies have been far away. The closest things I had to enemies would be competitive playmates.

The world I live in has changed. I now know the vocabulary of enemies. Those who were born in 2001 are now 16 years old, we have a generation who do not remember a world without the threat of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. When people talk about political opponents, they talk about them as if they were traitors — not as if they were well meaning, but wrong. In a personal sense, I am married into a non-white family, and recently I’ve seen the KKK’s hoods come off. The nice place I was born into has changed quite a bit.

Now, I know it is possible that I was sheltered from the chaos in the world around me. I would have had a very different experience if I were born in central America. When I read recent history, I see that I really was not aware of what the world was like in the 1980’s. I grew up unaware of a violent crime rate much worse than we have now; I grew up unaware of the scandals of the day. It would be fair to say that I didn’t live in the adult’s world. I remember a time that only existed for me because I was a child.

These days, I see some serious anger and grievances; some that I understand, others that seem petty. People are angry with the justice system because punishment is too slow, too fast, too harsh, or too lenient. People are angry about tax laws, regulations, immigration policy — it seems like no matter what anybody does people will be angry. Now, I admit, I have interests in these things; I want a functioning and fair justice system. I have an interest in taxes and what the money is used for, I want sane regulations that protect us yet allow us to work live and profit. What I want most is to be able to believe that my government is made up of people who have good intentions for our nation and communities. Most of the time I believe this, if I can’t believe my leaders have good intentions I get a bit angry too.

Today, I have a hint of what enemies are. Today, I know that there are people who curse others, and wish them harm even if it is unclear why. I know the language of the culture war, I know about scapegoating, I know that is much more than the jealousy of schoolboys who honestly wish harm on nobody. I have lost enough innocence to realize that Jesus is telling me something that is difficult.

If I pay attention, I realize that I was very lucky, and that the people Jesus was talking to would not have the experience I had. Doubtlessly, even the children knew about the struggles of living in an occupied land. When I read John’s gospel, I see that Jesus went to Jerusalem for Hanukkah. You likely know that Hanukkah starts on Tuesday night and is a celebration of the re-dedication of the temple. After the Jews came back from Babylon and rebuilt the temple, the Greeks conquered Judea, tried to force the Jews to eat pork and they turned the temple in Jerusalem into a temple of Zeus. The story of Hanukkah was the story of a revolt that drove the Greeks out and created a new kingdom. It is a celebration of taking back the nation and the temple, and rededicating the temple to God.

This must have had a special meaning for the people who lived in Roman Judea. Jesus was there when the Romans were in power, and they were again under foreign rule. In the time of Jesus, we remember that the Jewish leaders were afraid that the Romans would take away the limited self rule that the occupying Romans allowed them.

As you might know, Hanukkah starts this Wednesday, or by our calendar when the sun sets on Tuesday. When Jesus was in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, he was approached and asked when he would reveal himself as the anointed one. John’s gospel tells us that it was when he was asked if he were the messiah, he answered that “I and my Father are one”, and that the response to this was to start throwing rocks at Jesus for claiming to be God.

They were looking for something different than God walking with them in human flesh. On a feast where they celebrated Judas Maccabees putting together an army and driving the Greeks out of Judea, and then creating a new kingdom, they asked Jesus to reveal himself as King — to set up a second revolt that drove out the Romans. I don’t know what it is to have enemies like this.

Jesus was more than what they were looking for; they were looking for a king to restore sovereignty to their kingdom, to kick out the Romans until the next time they were conquered. What came was a traveling preacher who told them to love their enemies, pay their taxes, and to work when pressed into service. They were looking for a king who would conquer — not God coming and suffering as they suffered.

The thing is, it is so easy for us to make the same mistake. We should know perfectly well that Jesus taught us that his Kingdom is not of this world. We should know that Christ calls us to love one another. We should know that Christ tears down the barriers that the world sets up — and that Christ gives life where the world gives death. We should know this, but I can see that have people calling for an Earthly kingdom, who feel Christianity depends on winning political battles. I see people who are confused as they treat the illusion of political power as more important than following Christ’s teaching; I see people who fear that the future of Christianity is dependent upon political influence.

We forget that Christ came for something bigger. Jesus didn’t come to take over the government, Jesus came to reform hearts and to change minds. Jesus didn’t come to make better laws — Jesus came to write the very center of justice on people’s hearts so that they would have a better law within them. Jesus came to teach us to speak the language of love to every person.

 

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Psalm 65 — Thanksgiving

Reading: Psalm 65

Today I want to talk about Thanksgiving. There are a large number of passages I could have chosen, and the one that I chose I might describe as an example of a genre. You might have heard Psalms described as the Hymnal of Israel — and it is an accurate enough description; the Psalms were sung. I wanted to focus on a Psalm, because there is something about singing that really gets the words inside of us. Songs stick in our head in a way nothing else does.

In any Hymnal, thanksgiving is a topic that demands a number of songs. A quick check in a concordance tells me that I had over 30 Psalms to choose from — and they were familiar to me because the Psalms thanking God are the Psalms that I was taught to sing when I was younger. When I think of something from the Psalms, I think of something like Psalm 100 in the King James version.

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

I grew up with Thanksgiving. When I was a child, I learned songs that were thankful, my parents taught me to say “Thank you,” and when I was taught to pray, the majority of the things I was taught to say was “Thank you Lord.” My family did everything they could to make gratefulness a habit — but, to tell the truth, it still takes some effort to be thankful. How is it that something that is so commonly taught to children seems forgotten as people become adults? How do I forget to be grateful when I was taught to stop and thank God before eating? One would think that the habit of giving thanks several times a day would teach gratitude.

Of course, when I think of all the stories I know of in scripture, I see that gratitude isn’t normal. Even though more than 1 out of every 5 Psalms is giving thanks, scripture is full of people who see miracles happening right in front of them, yet they have no gratitude. In Luke, when Jesus heals 10 lepers, only one comes back to say: “thank you.” When Moses leads the children of Israel out of Egypt, they do nothing but complain, forgetting to be grateful that they were given freedom, that they were given food and water, and that they were saved from the Egyptians.

The story of ingratitude over the Exodus truly stands out, because Passover is a time of celebration and thanksgiving. Whenever I think of Passover the traditional song daienu plays in my head. Daienu is one of those songs that can stick in your head — and is very much about thanksgiving. Daienu means: “it would have been enough.” The song names things where if God had only done that, it would have been enough. The song mentions being freed from slavery, the parting of the Red Sea, God feeding the people with manna, giving the people the Sabbath, giving them the law, leading them to Israel, and giving them the Temple. The song names a number of things where that thing alone should inspire gratitude. There is much is my life where I should be able to say ‘it would have been enough’, yet gratitude does not come easy.

In today’s Psalm, we owe God praise because of God forgave us and offered us salvation, and because the Earth is beautiful and it feeds us. This is a Psalm that thanks God for thanks that we often thing we either earned through our own work, or things that we feel that we don’t need. It is hard for us to be grateful for the things that we feel that we are entitled to what we have.

I think that this is likely one of our biggest problems feeling grateful — we don’t see how much we were given, instead we dwell on what we feel we are owed. It is hard to be grateful for what we have when we feel that somebody else has something that should be ours. Envy and jealousy take away our gratitude and replace it with anger. A sense of entitlement takes away our gratitude, and replaces it with frustration as we often find that we don’t get what we think we are owed. We are trained to be thankful when we are children, but as adults, it is very difficult to admit we have anything that we should be grateful for.

I think that the biggest enemy of gratitude is pride. It is humbling to say: “Thank you.” When we are grateful, we are admitting that we are not completely self-made, but instead somewhere, somebody did us a favor. When we are grateful, we are admitting that not everything that we have is something that we did all by ourselves. Gratitude is admitting that I am not a self made man — this is hard in a world filled with individualists.

One thing that caught my attention this week was that not only are we not grateful — but, when somebody expects a “Thank you”, that person might be offended if no thanks are given. It is easy to expect gratitude, and yet to be too proud to give it. Basically, we want credit where credit is due whenever that credit is due us — but, we are not so eager to give credit to others who deserve it. Because of pride, Thanksgiving can be hard work.

In a few days, families all over the United States will gather and give thanks. Many of them will practice traditions such as naming something that they are grateful for. We will practice thanksgiving — but, may we learn gratitude.

How would Paul respond to police brutality?

Reading: Acts 16:16-39

When Karla last spoke here, she spoke of Nazis marching in the street, and of the passion people have over monuments. She also spoke about what it means that humans are the image of God. My understanding of Christian ethics is built on the teaching that humanity is God’s image — so, we should behave in a way that respects God’s image. My understanding of a just society is a society that respects human life and dignity.

Now, this has been a strange year for me. I never imagined who I’d see defending Nazis. I never who would defend murder, and openly call for murder. I never imagined that I’d see a high elected official calling for police officers to “rough up” people who have not only been convicted of a crime, but those who have not even been charged with a crime. I never imagined how many people would defend rapists, because they were in positions of power. Perhaps what surprised me the most is that I was accused of being a bad Christian for suggesting that we have laws that keep people in positions of authority accountable — and that police and elected officials are subject to our laws. I had Romans 13 quoted at me — and was told a pastor should know the Bible better.

13 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7 NRSV)

Of course, I didn’t see why this passage suggests that police brutality is perfectly fine nor why it meant that members of the government should not be held accountable to the law. What I saw is a suggestion that government is better than anarchy, and that we are all better off for being governed and policed; so we should pay our taxes, we should respect and follow the law.  I remember that when Peter was jailed, and forbid to preach Christ he said that we must: “Obey God rather than men”, so I could clearly see that this was not the last word on the matter.

One thing that bothers me about these arguments is how often people are unfair to Paul. Paul is the liberal who worked tirelessly to make sure that my ancestors would be fully accepted as members of the church. Whenever people quote Paul to talk about who should be excluded they miss that Paul always finishes by reminding those who wanted to exclude that they would also be excluded, if not for God’s grace. I find it unfair that when somebody finds a sentence fragment from Paul and tries to make it say the opposite of what he said, that the response is often: “well Paul was wrong.” Not only is it unfair, but, for those who consider Paul an authority it is losing the argument.

I started thinking about the question: “How would Paul respond to police brutality?” Somehow, it seems unlikely that his answer would be what he wrote in Romans 13. It definitely would not be the rather extreme interpretation that if a government official did it, it is right and moral because God put that person in power and if a policeman roughed you up, then you must have done something to deserve it. I somehow don’t think that Paul was saying that those with a badge should get away with assault, theft, racketeering and murder.

Reading Acts, I found my answer. Paul’s response to police violence is that he demanded that his rights as a citizen be respected. When Paul was arrested without a valid reason and roughed up without conviction, he protested to the point of waiting at the jail until the local authorities came and apologized to him. Paul made sure that authorities knew that they were under the law, and that they could not treat people the way they were treating him. Paul was a protester.

Another thing that stands out is that it wasn’t just this one incident. Paul was arrested again. I’d read it to you, but it would take quite a while; Acts chapters 21-28 detail the arrest, and how Paul dealt with it. In the first event, Paul might have been content with an apology, but the second incident took much longer. The second time, Paul was not content to leave it with the local government, but he asked to take his grievance all the way to Caesar.

Of course, the second incident was far more involved, which is why it covers 8 chapters. I will summarize: Paul was attacked by a mob in Jerusalem, because somebody believed that he had brought a gentile into the temple. The Roman authorities responded by arresting Paul, and Paul was ordered to be whipped. Paul, seeing what was about to happen protested that he had rights as a Roman citizen, and that he could not be whipped before he was condemned of a crime. The centurion who was asked to whip Paul went back to the Tribune to point out that Paul had rights, and he could not do that. When the Tribune realized that Paul was a citizen, with rights, he became afraid, because he didn’t respect Paul’s rights.

The tribune, Claudius Lysias, wrote a letter to governor of Judea saying that he `rescued’ Paul from a mob; leaving out some of the details about how he treated Paul, and was sending him to the governor so that the mob’s complaint against Paul could be heard, and it could be decided if Paul had committed any crime. After an initial hearing, Paul was held until the Claudius Lystra could testify.

Felix, however, kept things moving slowly because he was seeking a bribe, and he held Paul, without charges, for two years. After this two years ended, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. 3 days into Festus’s governorship, Paul’s enemies called for him to be tried in Jerusalem, and Paul refuses, because it has already been established that he didn’t commit any crime — Paul appeals to Caesar.

Festus, at this point realizes that his predecessor held Paul for 2 years, without charges, consults Agrippa about what to do, writing: “it seems unreasonable to send a prisoner without any charges against him.” Agrippa then examined Paul, and found that there was nothing to charge him with, and stated that he could have been set free. Paul was then shipped to Rome, and it ends with Paul living in his own house, waiting for an audience with Caesar, and, in his dialogue, it is clear that there are no charges against him, but Paul is the one with the grievance.

The lesson that I take from this is that Paul was not suggesting that people in positions of authority are always right, nor that holding them accountable is rebellious to God, nor that even demanding that personal rights, which have been clearly stated, must be honored by government authorities. Because I see how Paul worked within the system, I see that there is room for protest.

I would like to end with an observation by the theologian Karl Barth taken from his 1930’s treatise on Church and State: “Can serious prayer… continue without corresponding work? Can we ask God for something which we are not… determined and prepared to bring about?” Barth’s question to German Christians in the early 1930’s applies to us today: We both pray and work for a more peaceful and just society.

Acts 1:1-11

Reading: Acts 1:1-11

The last couple weeks, I’ve been focusing on the Acts section of our Sunday school lesson. In our study of Acts, I’ve learned that the first half of Acts is about the New Church learning the scope of what the church is called to be. Spending a few years under Jesus’ teaching was not enough for the disciples to learn the scope of their call. Somehow, they heard the great commission, and missed the implications of being called to the ends of the Earth. Somehow, they heard all the parables that told them what the kingdom of heaven was like, and they still made judgments in their hearts about who was worthy of God’s grace. It took some time before Peter and the others were able to get the message of the Gospel.

Acts 1 starts when Jesus is still with the disciples. Jesus was already crucified and already raised from the dead. Jesus had already gathered those who were scattered so that there was a community of hundreds of his disciples in Jerusalem. Everybody was able to see that Jesus was much more than he originally appeared; even the might of Rome could not bury him.

Is it surprising that one of the disciples asked Jesus: “Is it yet time to restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus just showed them that he had something the Emperor could never have — the power to give life that had been taken. I’m not sure who might have asked the question — Simon the Zealot comes to mind — if you call a member of your group a terrorist, it seems likely he’s the one calling for revolution and kicking out the Romans.

What stands out to me is that the last thing Jesus did before being taken up to heaven is to listen to somebody show that he still didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said that his kingdom was not of this world. Jesus had a far larger vision than simply pushing the Romans out of Judea’s borders, and re-establishing David’s throne. Jesus was not looking for a dynasty, but to change the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. Jesus was not looking to change only the bureaucracy, but the whole people.

As I read Acts, especially the first Chapter, I start to think that the birthday of the Church is when Christ was taken up to heaven. The Church really could not become the Church while Jesus was walking around with the disciples. As long as Jesus was there, everybody would be where Jesus would be, and everything would be up to him to complete the church’s mission. As long as people saw Jesus as a person they could make king of Judea, their vision would be limited, and they could not embrace, nor work for the vision of Christ’s church. While Jesus walked the Earth, the disciples could not become the apostles, because as long as there was a physical king, there would be a desire to create a physical Kingdom.

The thing is, even though the disciples needed pushed to get it — they were brave, and they were as faithful as they knew how to be. We look back at the these, and they inspire our faith. These were the people who lived the Christian life first and the stories that Christians have always told about Peter, Paul, and the others are stories that shape our understanding of the Christian life.

One thing that really strikes me is the stories that they tell on themselves. In the gospels, if Peter was going to say or do something, it was almost always spectacularly wrong. Even after Pentecost, we see Peter falling short of the vision Christ gave him; and no matter how much we like Paul, we can clearly see that he was not always gracious — and that he did not always show others the same grace they showed him. Paul’s harshness caused Barnabas to leave Paul, and travel with Mark instead.

When we read the stories of the heroes of our faith, they are flawed characters. Our saints are far from perfect — like us they need God’s grace; and there is not a time in their life where this need for grace suddenly ends. The faith journey isn’t something that is accomplished quickly. As important as it is to seek holiness, we have to be gracious with ourselves and others when we are not there yet, and remember that God’s grace is bigger than our capacity to mess things up.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this is that last week, an old friend of mine had a rather odd experience. My friend is a fairly outspoken Christian writer who has written about 20 light novels. She has also been a speaker at various independent author conferences, and has been active within the Christian writer community.

Last week, she got an email from a concerned Christian who wanted to know what she believed because he was concerned about her writing. It seems that the promotional book that he picked up did not include a detailed soteriology, nor a comprehensive statement of faith — because that’s what you look for when you read a murder-mystery by a Christian author.

My friend, for some reason, chose to engage with this discussion, and was rather frustrated that a stranger would be so concerned that she didn’t “Christian” right, and that he almost expected her to be grateful for his rudeness. Obviously, she was not able to win such a discussion. There are some games where the only winning move is not to play — and there are some email addresses that deserve to be blocked.

When I saw my friend complained that she didn’t want to prove to other Christians that she Christians right, I felt I needed to offer an answer; I know the pastoral thing is listening — that our ability to fix things is limited; but, I decided to say something. My response was:

None of us Christian right. If we believe Paul, Peter didn’t Christian right, even after Pentecost. I’m not convinced Paul Christianed right when he was so harsh with John Mark that Barnabas would no longer work with him. The gospels and Acts have so many examples of people who should know better not Christianing right that I think the apostles were telling stories on themselves to help all of us realize that Christ’s grace is greater than our ability to mess things up.

My friend was being subjected to a graceless Christianity, one that was based in shame and a sense that one did not do enough for God. The truth is religion can be oppressive and can break a person’s spirit. Religion can steal joy out of life. It shouldn’t do these things, but it most certainly can. When I see what bad theology can do, I can tell why the apostles told these stories on themselves.

Imagine if Peter never fell to moral cowardliness. Imagine if he never denied Christ, and there was no reason for Christ to restore him. Imagine if after Pentecost, Peter was always consistent — if he never snubbed the Gentile Christians in Antioch, and Paul never had to correct him to his face.

If we never had the stories of how Christ showed grace and mercy to the disciples — and how they were both flawed characters, and heroes of the story of the church, we might look at Christianity as nothing but a group of rules and behaviors. We might not be able to accept grace when we need it, nor give it when somebody else needs it.

This is one thing I like about scripture; when we hear it, it challenges our beliefs — and I know that we have beliefs that need challenged; I know that need mine challenged from time to time. The Christianity that challenged an author because of a lack of a clear gospel message in a murder mystery is one that I’m familiar with. It is one that I see around me, and it is one that I was part of — though, I hope I would never had been that rude. I know that the question: “Will I ever be good enough” is a question of hopelessness. I am thankful for scripture, because I read the stories that the church passes down, I learn that I don’t have to be good enough for grace — instead grace is big enough for me, and I find hope in Christ.

Acts 9: Saul and Ananias

Reading: Acts 9

I cannot imagine that I could have any understanding of the gospel without Paul. Paul wrote about a quarter of the New Testament — only Luke’s wrote more than Paul did. Luke told the story of Jesus and the early church, while Paul attempted to explain Christianity and talk about how live it out. One thing that I’ve been learning, however, is a real appreciation for the narrative. While it is true that I can learn a lot about Christianity from a theological epistle, such as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I really am learning quite a bit from Luke’s description of Paul in the book of Acts.

I guess you might say that I went through a phase where I thought that I outgrew the stories, and could work directly from abstract thought — you know, the silly adolescent idea that one is for children, and the other is for adults. It took me a bit of time to appreciate how much there is to learn from the stories; and how not only the stories we tell, but the way that they are told is important. Another thing that I had to learn is that ultimately, Paul’s letters are part of his story. He talks about theological principles, and living consistently with ow you believe — but, its so easy to read Paul looking for a few short quotes. The problem with digging for quotes that I like is that I end using Paul to say what I already think — knowing Paul’s story helps keep me honest.

My favorite of Paul’s epistles was the epistle to the Ephesians — and, I must admit that I like it specifically because it is not situational. Ephesians is not answering any problems in the church; and it appears to be written to Christians everywhere. It is a teaching epistle that focuses on abstract theology — or, as I might point out, things that are relevant to us today. Ephesians 2 talks about salvation through Christ, and Christ sacrifice. The first part of the chapter tells us that we were dead in our sins, and we have been raised with Christ. The second part talks about the dividing walls that our societies have built to keep people out — but, that that Christ brings in those who were in the outside and gives them a place. Ephesians 2:13-14 says:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (NRSV)

And in verse 19 Paul continues: “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (NRSV)

I read this many times trying to spiritualize it. Its odd how I went to church every week, but and yet read this letter to a group of people as if it were speaking to the individual’s condition. My understanding of salvation was strictly personal — and I somehow didn’t seem to get that not only do individuals need saved, but the communities that we belong to need healed and saved as well. If only I realized that the story was important, and had thought of the story in Acts — I’d realize that Paul was being very literal — people that Christ came to save were being excluded from the community, and part of Christ’s saving work was to change the hearts of the community leaders so that they would be included as well.

This was very important to Paul for two reasons: The reason that is most obvious is that Paul was explicitly an apostle to the Gentiles. The second reason is that part of the story of Paul is that he was more than just outside the Christian community — he was an enemy to all Christians. When Acts starts, Paul is one of the villains.

Paul is first introduced at the stoning of Stephen — Paul is not one of the people throwing the rocks, but instead, he watches their coats, so they can be unencumbered in their task. Scripture tells us that Paul approved of Stephen’s death. After the Stoning of Stephen, while the church started reaching out to Samaritans and Gentiles, Paul became a real enemy of the church, going from city to city to have Christians killed and arrested.

After Paul’s conversion, he described his life before in these words:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. 4 I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. (Acts 22:3-5 NRSV)

Paul’s speech goes on to describe his experience on the Damascus road, and how he was brought into the Christian community by Ananias. As you can imagine, it was not easy to bring Paul into the Christian community — his name was known; Paul was the first great persecutor of the church — not exactly the resume you’d expect for the worlds best known evangelist. Paul’s resume should have disqualified him from the position; and it would have disqualified him if God had not stepped in, and miraculously told the early Christians to accept him anyways; and of course, the first response, even with a divine vision was — but God, “you can’t mean we should accept the person who works so hard to kill us?”a

C.S. Lewis gave a series of Radio lectures on Christianity between 1941 and 1944, and these lectures were collected as the book Mere Christianity.

Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. “That sort of talk makes them sick,” they say. And half of you already want to ask me, “I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?” (C.S. Lewis — Mere Christianity)

C.S. Lewis, talking about what forgiveness means during the war, shows how counter-cultural this part of the Christian message is. If we were told to forgive the Germans back in the early 1940’s, we might think that the person saying this was less than patriotic. What Lewis observed about mid 20th century Westerners was also true for first century Christians: forgiveness and love sounds very nice, until suddenly you find that the man who was persecuting the church now wishes to join it, and not only to attend services, but he ends up aspiring to be a leader. Personally, I can’t blame Ananias for saying: “But, he’s Saul, he kills us.” when God tells him to invite Paul. I’m not sure I have the strength of faith to have let God win this argument if I were in Ananias’ shoes.

One thing that stands out to me is that the first few chapters of Acts are a continued story of accepting the people who have always been treated as `other’ into society. Acts brings Samaritans into the Christian community; Acts invites Gentiles to join with Christianity without asking them to become Jews first; Acts invites people into Christian worship who would be excluded from the religious life of Jews.

Paul’s conversion and acceptance by Christians is, for me a climax. The first part, where the sect accepts people who are at the fringes of society, or people who are simply from another group, though a group that has not caused any real grievances is, for many people, being too radical in inviting people into the Christian community; the second part, the part where they bring a malicious enemy into the community, and trust that God can and did change his heart; the part where a community that was sorely injured by this man welcomes him, is a real picture of what the christian community is called to be.

Without Acts, I would miss the depth of Ephesians 2, where I read how God tears down the dividing wall, how in Christ, there is no longer an us, and a them. Without Acts, I might try to explain away all those things that Jesus could not really mean in the gospels; but with Acts, I see that Jesus really did mean what he said — love and forgiveness, no matter how offensive we may find them, are central to the Christian faith and central to the salvation of not only ourselves but also our communities.

Acts 8:26-40 Philip’s adventure in including the excluded

Reading: Acts 8:26-40

Philip knew that he needed to be somewhere else, and he went; I know that this is something that leads to memorable adventures, good stories, and sometimes more. When Philip felt the need to get on the road to Gaza, he didn’t know what would happen — but walked. Gaza was at the extreme southern limit of Judea at the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This is about a 90 mile walk from where he started, so following this road to the end would take two days of walking from sunrise to sunset. Likely one would plan to take 4 days on this journey.

I love these kinds of adventures. I don’t know how far Philip walked, but I do know what he found on the way; on the way, he saw an Ethiopian court official in a chariot on his way home from Jerusalem, reading from Isaiah. When Philip saw the man in the chariot, he knew why he was moved to walk this road; the reason he started on this path was to talk to this man. Now, the Ethiopian was, just then, looking for somebody to explain the passage to him — this court official was impressed with the truth, and he was straight away baptized into the Christian faith.

Acts does tell us this African’s name, only where he comes from and what he was doing. Tradition tells us that his name was Simeon Bachos, that he was an Ethiopian Jew, and that he brought Christianity back to Ethiopia. Of course, other than the name, these little details can be guessed from the text. Who, other than a Jew, would travel to Jerusalem to worship? Who other than a Jew would be reading from the prophets as he returns home — and if he makes it back, how could he not take his new-found faith in Jesus with him?

This passage stands out to me, in context, because I notice a pattern in Philip’s mission. If you read the whole of Acts 8, you find that Philip is in the city of Samaria, preaching the gospel. We all know that the people of Judea hated Samaritans, and they were not welcome in Jewish society; but, in spite of this, there was already an apostle preaching there. Philip was reaching out to people who were considered outsiders to the Jewish community — and he was doing this before Peter was given a vision telling him to accept Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been an outsider in Jerusalem for several reasons. The first reason is that he was a Eunuch. What this means is that after his long journey to worship God, Deuteronomy 23 explicitly excluded him from the “assembly of the Lord”. I am not sure what this means, but, I do know that it means he could not enter the temple, and that he was excluded from much of Jewish society. The second reason he would have been an outsider is that he was by all definitions except one a foreigner — and, everything about his appearance would say that he wasn’t from around there. The third reason is, oddly enough, that he would have more in common with the Samaritans than the Jews. The Ethiopian “House of Israel” claim that their ancestors are of the tribe of Dan, which are part of the Northern Kingdom, one merely has to look at them to realize that they intermarried with the Gentile population — and the customs that formed there are different than the customs that formed by those who faced the Babylonian captivity. The Ethiopian Eunuch went to worship God, but everything about him said that he would leave disappointed.

But, something remarkable happened — God sent Philip to explain Isaiah 53 and tell the story of Jesus right when our Ethiopian friend was asking what it meant. Acts goes on to send Philip back to Samaria and Peter’s vision of the sheet. The message that I get reading this is that God welcomes those who are not always welcome. There is no exclusion based on race, national origin. At the same time, Acts tells us the story of Paul, how he was the enemy of the Christians, how he converted, and God’s call to the Christians to accept their enemy. The first half of Acts is the story of radical acceptance. Christians are called to accept those who have been excluded into their community.

The call that God gave to the early church isn’t an easy one, and it took divine intervention to teach the church to accept the unacceptable people. God led Philip to a man who was excluded from the assembly because of what had been done to his body, and he led Philip to baptize him, and invite him into the Christian community. God gave Peter a vision which commanded him not to call what God made clean unclean just before having Peter meet with the gentile Cornelius and shared the gospel with him. When God sent Paul to a Ananias of Damascus, again, God needed to send a vision to this Syrian Christian in order to tell him to accept Paul; because nothing is harder than forgiveness when there is something major to forgive.

We know that the church wasn’t persecuted because Jesus and the apostles taught them to pay their taxes, to do good to their neighbors, to work hard, and to obey the authorities in all things that did not stand opposed to God’s law. Some of the earliest literature of the church was arguing that Christians were good people to have around, because they worked hard, paid their taxes, and generally avoided trouble.

What did the church do that the state might want to suppress? What did the church do that countered the authoritarian culture that surrounded it? The church forgave, the church invited those who were excluded to join them, the church created community for those who were pushed away from community. When there is good news for the poor, the wealthy fear that it may be bad news for them. When we welcome those who are the culture’s scapegoats, the culture reacts in fear and anger. It is really no different today than it has always been; there still is a tendency to pass blame, and to stir up fear and hatred. The call of the church is also the same: We are the community of good news for the poor and the marginalized. We are a community of salvation made up of those who need saved. We are a community that offers hope to those who have given up on hope. We are a community built on the good news that God loves you, and your life matters.

I Kings 5:1-14 — healing requires humility

Reading: 1 Kings 5:1-14

Of all the passages we read today, I’d like to focus on the one that tells the story of Naaman. All of these stories are familiar, as they are stories that we were told since we were children. These also tell what happened in a way that we can picture some details; we can, I might say, imagine what it is like to be soaking wet from river water.

The reason I want to focus on the 2 Kings passage is of the three, it is the one that has the most context to understand. We know that the baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of his public ministry, and the story is told both in full, and in context of the wider story. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is isolated; and scripture tells very little about him outside his position and that he was reading Isaiah.

In the story of Naaman, we know so much more. We know that Elisha was the successor to Elijah. We know that the king of Israel was Jehoram, son of Ahab. We know that Jehoram was an evil king, and we know that Jehoram had problems with his neighbors.

Israel was, for all its problems, an important power. At the time Jehoram became king of Israel, neighboring kingdoms paid tribute to Israel; but his reign was marked by a revolt of a client kingdom; Moab revolted, Jehoram asked for Judah’s help and Jehoshaphat of Judah sent their armies — and they defeated Moab.

Jehoram had every reason to feel distressed that Aram was trying to pick a fight with him. Verse 2 tells us that the Arameans had raided the land of Israel, and captured people as slaves, Israel was struggling to maintain their regional influence, and even after this miraculous healing, they would find themselves at war with Aram, and Samaria would suffer under siege during that war.

One more thing that stands out about the wider context of this passage is that Jesus mentions it as he preaches in the Synagogue of Nazareth. In Luke 4, Jesus reads from Isaiah, and the congregation’s response was: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Jesus then responded with the observation that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown, and tells the people that when Elisha healed a man with Leprosy, he didn’t heal any of the numerous people suffering this illness in Israel, but only Namaan the Syrian. Upon hearing this, the congregation was so angry, they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

When I consider this wider context, I see a story of desperation. I am not sure what illness leprosy is; I believe that it is a fairly generic term for illnesses that are chronic and disfiguring — that there are a number of illnesses that would be called leprosy, ranging from mostly harmless and non-contagious to deadly. What we do know is that there was a social stigma attached to it, and it is fair to assume that this stigma was not limited to the Hebrew people.

Now, what we see of Naaman is that when he hears that there is a cure for his skin disease, he goes to his king, and his king responds by putting together a significant gift for Israel, about 6 million dollars worth of gold and silver and a letter and sending Naaman to the king of Israel with a letter asking him to cure it.

Jehoram’s was reasonably afraid, because he didn’t have the power to cure leprosy, and this rather large payment and what he was paid to do made him think that the Arameans were looking for an excuse to start a war, and he went into mourning.

Elisha sent a message to King Jeroram telling him to send Naaman to him. Naaman went to Elisha’s house with an armed honor guard and Elisha told him to wash himself in the Jordan 7 times.

Naaman became angry, because he expected the prophet to do something — to wave his hands, or call on God for healing, but instead all he did was told him to wash in the Jordan river. Naaman protested that the rivers in Syria were better rivers, and that he could take a bath in one of those.

His servants responded by reminding him that bathing in a river was something easy — and that he would have gladly done any difficult task in order to be cured, and that he would do it without complaint. Bathing in the nearest river really was no hard task at all.

Of course Naaman did so, he washed himself seven times just as Elisha told him; and the text tells us that when he had washed, his skin was completely restored, just as the skin of a young boy. Whatever disfigurement the illness caused was gone, whatever scars may have come from skin ulcers were replaced with clean flesh — not only was the illness cured, but there was no signs that he was ever sick. The miracle was complete.

There are several things that I notice about this story — but the first thing that I notice is that Namaan had to humble himself to be healed. First thing he had to do was to listen to his wife’s slave who told him there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him. For a man of privilege to listen to a foreign slave girl takes either humility, or perhaps some desperation.

When Namaan went to Israel, he didn’t go to the prophet, but instead went to the king. When he was sent to the prophet, he came with an honor guard, showing how important he was; but the prophet, when he came in, humbled Namaan by sending him away without any ceremony, and telling him to do a simple and mundane task. Namaan’s servant observed correctly that he would have done anything, no matter how difficult, to find a cure — but, the mundaneness of the task was humbling. The fact that he came with an honor guard, and was sent away without so much as a prayer.

When I think about Naaman, I think about what might have happened. The man took a journey with an honor guard, 6 million dollars as a gift, and all the pomp and circumstance that one might expect from a state dignitary — and, whatever he expected he didn’t get it. Elisha didn’t go to the royal palace, but instead Naaman had to be sent to the house of a commoner. When he arrived, with his honor guard, Elisha didn’t even go thorough the level of ceremony one would expect him to give a common person — he saw that somebody important came, and sent him away to do something mundane. Naaman was angry, because he was sent off like Elisha wanted to get rid of him. There was no reason to believe that go bathe in the river Jordan would do anything more to clear up skin than telling somebody to go jump in a lake.

Our Salvation is much the same. It is humbling to admit that we need saved from anything. It is humbling to admit that we don’t have the resources to save ourselves, that our money can’t buy salvation, and that there is nothing we can do to make it so that we deserve it. What God asks of us really isn’t something that is hard, or extreme. Naaman simply was asked to wash himself in a nearby river. We are asked to repent and trust God to take care of everything else. Repenting is easy; it is no harder than regretting what we’ve said or done and considering how we could do better. Trusting God to take care of everything else is easy as well — so little is asked of us.

The hardest thing about Salvation is that we have to humble ourselves, and admit that there is something we need saved from, that we can’t take care of it ourselves, and that we don’t have the resources necessary to buy it. When I think of the doctrine of salvation, sometimes I think about Church as a Sinners Anonymous group. When I see the 12 steps, it reminds me of part of my experience as a Christian.

  1. Admit I am powerless over my sin, and that my life has become unmanageable
  2. Believe that a greater power can restore sanity
  3. Make a decision to turn over my life to God’s care
  4. Take a personal moral inventory
  5. Confess my sins
  6. Be ready for God to remove my sins
  7. Humbly ask God to remove my shortcomings
  8. List those people I harmed, and be willing to make amends
  9. Make amends, unless trying would bring harm
  10. Continue to take a personal moral inventory
  11. Pray that I may know God’s will and have the strength to obey it
  12. Evangelize others

This thought is humbling. When I think of church this way, every day that I go to church I’m remembering that I need God; I’m not a perfect person, and that without God’s help I really could make a mess of things, likely destroying what is precious to me like my relationships. It is also a humbling analogy, because it means by staying in church I’m admitting that I still need God. It is humbling to admit we need anything — and it is equally humbling to realize that when we get what we need, it really is not our accomplishment. We are like Naaman, who’s servant had to tell him — `you’d do something hard, so go do something easy.’ We swallowed our pride, and we are still here praying to know God’s will and for the strength to do it.