Luke 4:1-13 — Temptation in the wilderness

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

The temptation of Christ must be one of the hardest stories for me to connect with in the gospels. I don’t really understand the three temptations. I don’t understand why they were temptations, and in the case of the temptation to create some food and eat, I don’t understand what would be wrong with Jesus meeting the needs of his own body in the same way He met the needs of many other bodies. I don’t understand why Christians and prophets went into the wilderness to meet God, but Jesus went into the wilderness to meet the devil. I don’t understand what the story adds to the gospel, nor why it is so important that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story.

There are three temptations: First, the devil tells the hungry Jesus to turn a stone into bread so that he has something to eat. Second, is to worship the devil and the devil will give him the kingdoms of this world. The third temptation is for Jesus to jump off the top of the temple, so that people will see the angels protect Jesus.

First, the devil sees that Jesus is hungry, and he tells him to turn the stones into bread and eat them. Jesus replies that “man does not live by bread alone”. This temptation is difficult for me to get because the miracle stories that I know best are ones where Jesus fed the multitudes with a single boy’s snack, or brought a miraculous catch to the disciples who had fished all night and caught nothing, or miraculously turned water into wine. If Jesus would create food from nothing so that those who listened to him preach would not go home hungry; or create wine so that the couple who were just married would not be embarrassed because they ran out of refreshments, why would it be wrong for him to create food so that he could break a forty day fast?

The second temptation makes little sense to me because if I believe that Jesus is God, then I have to believe that the devil has nothing to offer; it makes no sense for the Son of God to bow down to the devil and worship him in hope of gaining something that already does not belong to the devil. Why would Jesus bow to rule the kingdoms of the world when He is the God of the universe? Why bow down to receive what is already his?

The third temptation, again, makes little sense to me. I’m not exactly afraid of heights, but if I’m up high, I really like to have solid footing. I cannot imagine throwing myself off a perfectly good building, and definitely cannot imagine jumping off a roof to prove a point. While I’ve never fallen far enough to seriously injure myself, I’ve fallen far enough that I know that the landing is painful. The idea of jumping wouldn’t even be a temptation.

One traditional interpretation is that these three temptations show that Jesus has the virtues of fortitude, prudence, and temperance. You know that I have a traditional bias, but I really don’t like this interpretation. I have trouble seeing how the refusal to turn a stone into a loaf of bread shows fortitude. While it would be imprudent to jump off a high building, not jumping requires so little prudence that it can hardly be used as evidence of one’s character. The only one of these that makes sense is the idea that Jesus practiced temperance when he had no desire to worship the devil and rule the world.

A more modern interpretation, suggested by Mennonite theologian John Yoder, is that this is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry, and of the crowds who continually wanted to make Jesus king and wanted him to be the kind of Messiah who drove out the Romans. For Yoder, there is really only one temptation — to create a kingdom of Earth, but the bread and the temptation to jump off the temple are a reference to the feeding of the multitude, and the times that Jesus appeared at the temple. I like this interpretation: Luke tells us that the devil departed until a more opportune time — suggesting that perhaps temptations continued, but it it does sort of gloss over 2 of the three interpretations.

I’m not personally sure what the right interpretation is, but I’d like to suggest that Jesus was tempted with the same sorts of things that Christians, or the church is tempted with. Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread so that he would have something to eat; this is a temptation to do the miracle Jesus later did for the benefit of thousands in secret, in a way that only benefited him. The church likewise is tempted to feed itself in secret; hold onto the gospel in secret. To quote a parable Jesus told, there is a real temptation for the church to hide its light under a bushel basket.

One thing we know about the early church is that they didn’t grab onto the great commission right away, and proceed to send out missionaries; instead Jesus’ disciples largely were content to remain in Jerusalem until persecution scattered them. Instead of obeying the call to spread the gospel throughout the world, they would have been content to wait for Jesus to come back. One might say that the church fell into the first temptation, eating the bread of the gospel in secret without sharing it.

While I don’t think of the temptation to jump off the temple as much of a temptation — it was a temptation to be spectacular and make a name for oneself. I don’t know about the ancient world, but I live in a place that makes a big deal out of its celebrities. Christian culture is a lot like secular culture in this; we have Christian celebrities who are placed in such high regard that their words seem to be held in higher esteem than those of Jesus Himself. It sometimes appears that people seek to become famous — we fall to the temptation to be publicly spectacular missing that this is not the mission of the church.

The biggest temptation I think the church falls to is the temptation of falling to worship Satan in order to rule kingdoms of the Earth. I know that we don’t come to that extreme, but I have noticed a strong tendency for some Christians to act as if there is a political savior, and that their faith requires loyalty to this savior. Sometimes it is a party, some times it is a person. In recent days, I’ve seen people compromise in order to maintain this loyalty to the point where they will argue against scripture. It seems that the promise of political influence is enough to compromise just about everything a person claims to believe in. Sometimes it feels like people are bowing to Satan to sit on a temporary throne.

The thing is, Jesus teaches that His kingdom isn’t of this Earth. There are things that are done here that are unthinkable in the Kingdom of Heaven. Every time people tried to put Jesus on an Earthly throne, he refused. Christianity is not about beating the secular government — it is about living in obedience to God no matter who is in power. Christianity recognizes that people are not very successful at building a Godly government. In the roughly 1,000 years that Israel and Judah ruled themselves as God’s people, with few exceptions their leaders managed to ignore God’s law and rule unjustly. Pagan Rome, having no interest in God’s law, of course was not going to do any better. Christianity has never intended to rule a nation — it’s always been about changing hearts and minds of individuals so that they can live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven — no matter what country they live on in this Earth.

If Christ was tempted in the place where people go to meet God, we can expect the same for ourselves. It is easy to fall into these temptations; often we don’t think twice about them. I know we have not lived out the gospel perfectly. I know that many do not receive what they see from Christians as good news. I know that whenever I see the word ‘evangelical’ on the news, they are talking about a political voting block and nothing to do with Christ or the gospel. We are now living in the consequences of falling into temptation. I pray that we truly repent and return to Christ.

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Why does the gospel start with John the Baptist?

Reading: Luke 3:1-18

When the gospels tell us about Jesus as an adult, they introduce us to John the Baptist first. If you recall, Mark’s introduction is a quote from Isaiah, and the narrative begins with a description of John in the wilderness. In the gospel of John, the introduction includes in John 1:6 “There was a man sent from God, his name was John”, and when the story begins it again begins with John. Matthew and Luke are different, both Matthew and Luke begin with a birth narrative and some items about the early childhood of Jesus — but, when it comes time to see Jesus as an adult, John appears first. We don’t meet Jesus by ourselves — John introduces Jesus to us.

This seems somewhat strange to me; John isn’t exactly a major character; he holds little purpose in the story beyond introducing Jesus to the crowds. John is sort of an extra that is part of the introduction, and then is either never mentioned again, or there is a little scene that ends his rather brief side story. My editorial hand almost wants to suggest that the writer let John diminish, and begin the story with Jesus.

Of course, even if I were able to sit and talk with the original Evangelists, I would not dare offer my opinion on how to make the story flow better. I am confident that they knew what they were doing — and that anything we notice when we hear the story of the gospel is something that we were supposed to notice; so I’m sure that I’m supposed to notice that John is introduced, and then John introduces Jesus — what I don’t know is why — all I can offer is guesses.

One guess that I have is that we are being told the Gospel the way that we hear the gospel. I don’t know about you, but my introduction to Jesus didn’t start by meeting Jesus randomly in a crowd. I was born into a Christian home, and my parents told me about Jesus — so my path to the Christian faith started by somebody pointing me in the right direction. John serves as the Evangelist in the story — telling the crowds, and by extension those hearing the Gospel story, who Jesus is, and then introducing them to Jesus at the time of the Baptism. John might be there so that we all see that we need an evangelist to point us to Jesus, because we really don’t know what we are looking for.

Another guess is that John is one of a line of people who received a messianic prophecy. The Christmas story is full of people who heard some sort of message from God about the Baby Jesus, and responded to it. Luke’s gospel has Gabriel’s message to Mary, and Mary’s response. Matthew’s gospel has the angel’s message to Joseph, and Joseph’s response. Shepherds and Magi somehow heard the message about Christ, and responded by coming to worship him. Luke’s Gospel also tells us about the prophets Simeon and Anna, who recognized the 8 day old Jesus as the Messiah. The Gospels quote long dead prophets to tell us that they expected Jesus, though they did not see what they were waiting for. It is quite possible that the gospel writers are connecting with the prophetic tradition by telling the stories of the contemporary prophets who actually lived to see what they were waiting for, and as Luke tells us of multiple contemporary prophetic visions, I feel pretty good about this guess.

Another possibility is the one that I suggested in my introduction to our study of Mark; I suggested that the small things that were said about John were there to give hints to the listeners about what would happen to Jesus — Mark tells us that John was arrested because what he said offended the leaders, and that later he was killed; so John gives the listeners a hint. I like this theory for Mark much better than I like it for Luke; it is reasonable to listen to Mark recited, in full, by a storyteller; Luke is much longer and needs to be broken into several chunks — but Luke really assembled his Gospel from sources more than wrote it. 42% of Luke is recognizably Mark’s gospel, and Luke quotes (or paraphrases) 79% of the content of Mark. If Mark used John to foreshadow what happened to Jesus, then Luke would have followed Mark because Mark was Luke’s most used source.

Another possibility was suggested to me by my friend, and fellow pastor Charity Sandstrom was than nobody announces themselves. She said:

I think there’s a theme or thread that no teacher stands on their own in rabbinical circles. That was why everyone was quoting, this rabbi says this and that rabbi says that, who do you agree with and walked away stunned because Jesus have his own answer. Standing on your own is suspect, even today.

We all need credentials; whether that is a degree, or a letter of recommendation, or just a trusted person offering an introduction — wise people don’t listen to random nobodies. There is a saying about those who listen to people who believe people based only on how confident they seem: “A fool and his money are soon parted.” When we see somebody appear out of nowhere, with no verifiable credentials or references claiming to be some expert, I know it’s time to lock up my wallet and hide the key. A person who speaks for himself, and has nothing to back it up is almost certainly a con-man — and I know enough people who have been taken in by con-men. There is a reason that Jesus was introduced by prophets who had nothing to gain by the introduction. John’s prophecy, along with the others are Jesus’ credentials.

As I said, I’m really not sure why the gospel writers always seem to start with John when they tell the story of Jesus’ ministry. I do know that the evangelists had their reasons, and it is one of those things that I sometimes think about when I read the gospels. What I do know is that every possibility that I mentioned rings true for me. Jesus didn’t just appear to me, somebody introduced me to Jesus, just as John introduced Jesus to the crowds. Not only did the people consider John to be a prophet, but John was a prophet. John not only told people that Jesus was coming, but he also spoke to them about their sins, and how they should live their lives in a Roman world while being faithful to God’s law; and, Jesus did that too. John was, in many ways, a foreshadowing of Jesus.

I assume most of you have heard of Lewis’s trilemma, which is an argument for the divinity of Christ given by C.S. Lewis in a Radio lecture which later became part of Mere Christianity — I will read it as C.S. Lewis states it.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.  (C.S. Lewis — Book 2 Chapter 3, Mere Christianity) 

C.S. Lewis makes the point quite well — the claims of Jesus and the claims of Christianity are rather hard to believe. If just Jesus were speaking with nobody and nothing to back up what he said, one would consider it to be insane, dangerous, and likely blasphemous. If we went into the story cold, we might very well think we were being told the story of a madman; and then when the story hits Easter, be filled with confusion. We desperately need to be told at the start that Jesus is God with us, because if we expect him to be a normal, like us, we won’t understand the story. Because John introduces Jesus we know from the start the answer of the question: “liar, lunatic or Lord” — and knowing, we can start to hear the story of Jesus.

James 5:7-20

Reading: James 5:7-20

As hard as it is to imagine what it was like to wait for Christ’s first coming — we are, in many ways in the same boat as we wait for Christ’s second coming. Christians are, at the same time, a community of Christ’s continuing presence, and a community waiting because Christ has left and will come again. Like so many things, this isn’t something where we choose which one is true, because both pictures are true in our lives and our beliefs.

You know that I love James — I love James because it is so simply written, and the advice that it gives needs little if any commentary. When I read James next to the sermon on the Mount, I see that James and Jesus sound very much alike; of course, nobody should be surprised that the earliest Christian writing was filled with saying that sound a lot like the recorded things that Jesus says — the community flows from the One that began it.

What does James tell us? James tells us that we need to be patient until Christ returns — just as the farmer is patient. He tells us that we must be careful not to grumble against each other, not to swear, but instead to always be honest, and to respond to illness and suffering with prayer, to respond to joy with song, to respond to sinfulness with confession, and to bring back those who fall away. James tells us a list of things that are clear, and the application seems obvious. I like James very much — but, I am always left asking myself if there is anything left to say after reading him. Every sentence of this passage is something that we can act on, and something that would make the world better if we acted on it.

As we wait for Jesus to come back — let us reflect on the advice that we are given. I know we pray for the sick; I know we are a community that loves music and singing together, and I don’t think I’ve heard any lies told here. I really think this is the best Christian community I’ve been part of; you all really do care for each other and pray for each other.

Now, I don’t know about you — but my greatest difficulty is combining not grumbling against one another with the need to bring back those who have wandered away from the truth. Most of my friends are Christian, and a good number of them can be found in Church on Sunday morning. Those who wander away from the truth are, by definition Church people — people who have been in the Truth so that they can wander away from it.

When I think about the advice to bring people back into Truth, I have to reflect a little bit on what it might mean to wander out of Truth. I could make it pretty simple for myself, and work very hard on what church growth consultants call ‘closing the back door’ — that is, recognize that if I can prevent people from leaving my congregation, it would be larger. The advice to bring back those who wanders from the Truth then could be a strategy for maintaining the institution.

I have to admit, I don’t think that this is what James was talking about. Our souls are not saved through building and preserving institutions. I’m also perfectly aware that institutions are perfectly able to wander away from Truth. The history of the church shows us how entire communities can wander away from Truth, and how after splits happen, both sides argue that the other side was the one that walked away.

And, therein lies the problem — how do I bring people back to the Truth? When I know somebody who has wandered away from the Truth, they are convinced that they know the Truth and are solidly there; if I try to bring somebody back into the Truth, they are convinced that I am the one who had wandered away from it. Leading people back to the Truth is hard when they don’t realize that I’m right and they are not.

I’m of course being silly — but, having been in this position I’ve learned that it is rather challenging not to grumble against other people in the wider church. There are times that, being convinced that somebody is outside of the Truth, and leading others into error, that I do grumble — not only my heart grumbles, but my mouth grumbles as well. There are even times when I say of another preacher: “He knows — he has to know this isn’t what Jesus taught,” and when I say that I can assure you that my thoughts are far from kind. The thing is, if I try to bring people back to the Truth — especially preachers, they have no idea they left it, and make the same attempt to me.

When I see all of these advices together, I realize that I really do need to accept the challenge of trying to accomplish both of these at the same time. I grumble against others because I know that I’m right and they are stubborn — doubtless, if they give me a second thought at all, they grumble against me for exactly the same reason. One thing that I can say with some confidence; people think they are right about those things that they believe in. When something or somebody challenges our beliefs, we are quite slow to examine what we believe. I need a lot of humility to ask if I might be the one who is mistaken. Those times when I grumble are times when it might be good for me to ask if I might be a little off base; I think I’m right — but, God is far bigger and greater than I can know or understand. Perhaps if I admit I don’t know it all, I can be taken a little closer to the Truth myself.

I guess that the thing that stands true for all these bits of advice is the very first one — that we need to be patient. Bringing somebody back to the Truth isn’t about who wins an argument, the metaphor that is used here is of cultivating a crop. We grow in the Truth. As long as I’m and the other person are grumbling against each other, and our study is intended to win an argument, neither one of us will accomplish much of anything. Bringing somebody who wanders back isn’t easy, because when we wander away from Truth, we rarely know we are lost — so, lets be patient, keep praying, and try to avoid grumbling.

 

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.

 

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.