“God is in the House:” Religion and Morality Control

For more than 20 years, Nick Cave has been cranking out some fairly bleak punk-influenced music with his band “The Bad Seeds.”  The song you’re seeing performed live is on a more stripped-down, piano-based album called “No More Shall We Part.”

The lyrics are pretty straightforward – the community has created their own version of utopia.  “God is in the house” they affirm.  In the song Cave describes the way that in this suburban landscape, there’s no room for those who need the mercy of God.

Stereotypical?  Sure.  Harsh?  Definitely.  But behind it there’s some truth to the reality that religion can do more than merely cover over our personal stains – a subject we’ve discussed in previous posts – but actually neglect the care of others.  One of the criticisms Jesus levels at the religious community of His day was that they were doing more harm than good:

“For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers…you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:46, 52)

The issue is often this: we assume that morality is the real problem.  If morality is the problem, than society can be shaped and changed through behavioral modification.  This is, at least partially, the message of Cave’s song.

Michael Horton picks up on this general theme, in asking the question: “What would things look like if Satan really took control of a city?:”

Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio.

Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.” (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church)

Imagine a utopia where God’s mercy is simply not needed, where the greatest of joys is not Christ Himself, but being “good for goodness’ sake.”  God is in the house.  We’ve painted the fences white.  But this kind of stale, robotic way of living is wholly alien to the life that Jesus continues to offer.

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“Surface Shines, Inside Rots:” Pharisees on the Right, Pharisees on the Left

“We’re all ok, until the day we’re not.  The surface shines, while the inside rots.”  (Rise Against, “Audience of One”)

In the passage we read in Luke on Sunday (Luke 11:29-54), we saw Jesus encountering the Pharisees.  It’s true that the gospels do not portray the Pharisees all that favorably, but let’s not forget that of all the faith persuasions of Jesus’ day, these guys were the most conservative and most faithful to the Biblical text.  The problem, of course, was that they couldn’t stop adding their own traditions to those of the Bible, a practice that Jesus sharply condemns.

But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that we’re any different, lest we wrongly – and proudly – stand before God and say, “At least I’m not like one of those Pharisees.”  In the last post, we hinted that religious behavior might be one way of managing sin and covering shame.  The real question is what kind of religious person you are.

See, the myth of the suit-and-tie-wearing, uptight moralist is rapidly disappearing from the evangelical marketplace.  Yet the image remains as a convenient scapegoat.  After all, it’s become fun to pick on the ‘religious’ people of our day.  Jared Wilson writes:

“…it becomes clear what they mean is ‘traditional people’ or the uncool. My feeling is that the Bible-thumping, starched suit-wearing, hellfire and brimstone religious people taking the fun out of fundamentalism are becoming fewer and farther between, while the church is brimming with self-righteous hipsters and cooler-than-thous. The Pharisees look like Vampire Weekend now.”

Which means you can be a Pharisee in one of two ways:

(1)    A Pharisee on the “right,” embracing so-called “traditional” values (stereotypes?) associated with the religious person.

-OR-

(2)    A Pharisee on the “left,” embracing more “progressive values” that align with the culture of our own day.

Looking at their values, it’s easy to see the points of comparison:

Pharisees on the Right: Pharisees on the Left:
Respectability: Traditional religion emphasizes being “respectable.”  Good, upright behavior is what earns God’s approval –as well as the admiration of others. Authenticity: Today’s crowds are more likely to talk about an “authentic” life.  “It’s not a religion,” we insist.  “It’s a relationship.”  We want to be liked by others – so we distance ourselves from “those” types of Christians.
Necktie: Being respectable means looking the part: dress up to go to church. Skinny Jeans: Christians can be hip – it’s what separates us from those rigid fundamentalists, right?
Organ only: Hymns are the only way to worship God.  Other forms of music are sneered at for being both musically and morally wrong. Guitar only: We’ve evolved.  We threw away the stale traditions.  But now we insist on whole new ones: the guitar is the only acceptable way to worship.  Who needs John Newton when you have Chris Tomlin?
King James Bible: The only “real” way to understand God is in the good King’s English of seventeenth century Europe.  Because that makes a lot of sense. Blue Like Jazz: We want “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality.”  We want to know God personally and experientially.  So we elevate the experience of our own culture over the experience of 2,000 years of Christian thought.

And I’m not picking on Donald Miller or his fans with the Blue Like Jazz reference; the book truly is worth a read.  But the issue is that when we elevate experience over tradition we’re only narrowing our minds rather than broadening them.

The problem with the Pharisees on the left is that in the desire to kill the sacred cows of the past, whole new herds have been raised.  Today’s Pharisees are prone to using abstract concepts such as “social justice,” “mission,” “kingdom,” etc.  While these are all concepts the Bible teaches, they often fail to move beyond abstract theory to concrete practice.

So the Pharisees on the left and right really do have a lot in common:

Self-focused: Approval – man’s or God’s – is earned through one’s individual performance.

Need to be liked: We want others to think well of us.  We want God to think well of us.  Therefore we use our religious systems – whether on the left or right – to make ourselves acceptable.

Tradition-centric: Both sides say “My tradition is the only acceptable way to experience God.”  The Pharisees on the left sneer at the stale traditions of the past, and the Pharisees on the right shake their head at the laissez faire attitudes of rising generations.

Surface shines, inside rots: In both cases, these attitudes can become masks to conceal the real issue of sin and shame.

Most will fall somewhere in between these extremes or, more likely, be some curious blend of the two.  But Jesus came neither to affirm religion nor reject it entirely: He came to redeem it, which is something different altogether.

One of the surest ways of knowing where you fall is simply this: when you encounter others, how do you measure them?  Do you measure them against Christ and His righteousness?  Or do you measure them against the standards of your own culture?  In other words, do you desire that others come to resemble Christ or come to resemble you?

If it is the latter, than God help us all.  But if it is the former, than we all fall short.

Which tells us that we don’t need the shallow, empty, hypocritical religiosity of the right or left.  What we need, then, is not less religion, but deeper, more vibrant, true religion.  And that – in at least one sense – is what Jesus came to offer.

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“The Lost World:” Winding our Way Toward Truth

If you’ve been following along, you know that these blog posts have all centered on the sermon series “The Dirt Under His Nails” at Tri-State Fellowship.  Following the message “How far is Heaven?,” we’ve looked at the way culture has a longing for “home.”

One of the ways people look for that sense of grounding, or “home” is to connect with the spiritual side of things.  And indeed, when we looked at the scene in Luke 11:18-20 on Sunday, we found Jesus standing in the middle of a place that was full of rival religious traditions.

C-SECTION

We know from the parallel texts that Jesus and His disciples were standing in a place known as Caeserea Philippi.  It contained one of the largest natural springs to feed the Jordan River, which made the whole region a very lush, beautiful place – you’d almost confuse it for a tropical vacation spot.

Though many gods were worshipped there (included variations of Ba’al in the Old Testament period), the site was best known for the worship of the Greek god “Pan.”

The spring emerged from the large cave which became the center of pagan worship.  Beginning in the 3rd century B.C., sacrifices were cast into the cave as offerings to the god Pan.  Pan was the half-man, half-goat god of fear or fright (where we get the word “panic”).  He is often depicted playing the flute.

Sacrifices were made to Pan, dating back roughly to the third century B.C.  The caves surrounding the lush region featured various “sacred niches” in which sacrifices were made, and many sculptures of Pan and his family were found.

And this was the setting in which Jesus turned to His disciples and asked: “Who do men say that I am?”  They stood not far from a tropical paradise, a place dominated by many rival religions.  Suddenly, what the disciples thought about Jesus really mattered.  Ultimately, what Jesus was most concerned with was not public opinion, but personal confession: “Who do you say that I am?”

21st CENTURY SACRED NICHES

Today’s world features many of its own “sacred niches.”  We live in a world of many different religious expressions.  We call it “pluralism.”  Positively, this means that we can celebrate the freedom for various ideas to be expressed.  Negatively, however, we must concede that this reflects a culture that says: “I reserve absolute authority to decide what I believe is true.”

But Jesus does not let us do this.  In this passage, Jesus wants priority not only over other religions, not only over the way we view other religions, but over our views toward Him personally.

FINDING GOD

This was something that the early church had to wrestle  with, especially as so many of its own members were being tortured and ripped apart by lions as a form of public spectacle.  What would possess so many to give their lives in this manner were it not true?  If all religions are superficially different yet fundamentally equal, why not take a simpler path, one that does not lead to the humiliation and agony of Christ’s cross?

When we speak of the way God communicates, we use the word “revelation.”  You most likely recognize the root word “reveal” in this word.  One of the ways that God reveals Himself is through nature: creation itself testifies to the presence of a Creator.

For some in the early church, such as the apostle Paul, the testimony of this so-called “natural revelation” was sufficient to give man responsibility toward his Creator.  Which ultimately meant that it was sufficient to condemn, but never to bring life.

But later we meet a man named Justin Martyr, a name he earned posthumously in the mid-second century.  Justin was a well-educated man.  In reading John’s account that Jesus was the logos, or “Word” of God, Justin came to believe in Jesus.  Justin believed that the logos of God, embodied in Jesus, was the same as the logos, or wisdom, of secular philosophy.

Which meant something different for Justin: contrary to some other writers of his day, Justin believed that man could not be saved through the testimony of nature but the revealed person of Christ.  And because Jesus was intimately connected to – nay, the embodiment of – logos and reason, anyone who lives according to reason (he listed Socrates as an example) was considered a Christian.  For Justin, Jesus is Jesus is “the Word of whom all humanity has a share, and those who live according to the Logos are therefore Christians..” (Justin Martyr, Apologia, I.xlvi. 1-3)

THE PATH OF BEAUTY

Justin was a brilliant man, whose focus on Jesus was admirable, though ultimately falls slightly short.  Yes, people come to saving faith in Jesus, but not merely through ideas about Him or through the principles of reason itself.  Justin presupposed a relationship based exclusively on rationality and participation in God’s gift of logic.

In recent years, the Pope has suggested that the via veritatis (“path of truth”) might be found in the via pulchritudinous (“path of beauty”).  That is, beauty leads us to truth.

This isn’t exactly new.  Jewish writings outside the record of the Bible hint at the possibility of learning God’s character through the testimony of beauty (Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-9).  Though such writings aren’t part of what the church affirmed to be God’s actual voice, they do reveal that many Jewish scholars believed that beauty draws man’s gaze heavenward.

But what about Jesus?

Isaiah’s prophecies, which ultimately point toward Jesus, tell us that Jesus “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2).  He worked as some sort of carpenter – could you tell whose furniture had been crafted by the Savior of the world, or was it all just sort of ordinary?

I’m really not quite sure.

But the beauty of Jesus was not in outward appearance any more than in His internal wisdom.  The beauty found in Jesus was the fact that He offered a way of grace.

Jesus asks each of us to stand with Him in Caeserea Philippi.  Jesus asks us to survey the spectrum of religious thought.  And finally, Jesus asks us to come to grips with what we believe about Him.  Every religious system – then and now – asks us to earn our place before God.  The beauty of Christianity is that it’s the only faith system where God comes down to us.

THE LONGING FOR UNITY

In his excellent book, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, Leslie Newbigin suggests that within humanity is a “longing for unity:”

“[U]nity offers the promise of peace.  The problem is that we want unity on our terms, and it is our rival programs for unity which tear us apart.  As Augustine said, all wars are fought for the sake of peace.  …It is not easy to resist the contemporary tide of thinking and feeling which seems to sweep us irresistibly in the direction of an acceptance of religious pluralism, and away from any confident affirmation of the absolute sovereignty of Jesus Christ …There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim …When the answer is ‘We want the unity of humankind so that we may be saved from disaster,’ the answer must be, ‘We also want that unity, and therefore seek the truth by which alone humankind can become one.’  That truth is not a doctrine or a worldview or even a religious experience; it is certainly not to be found by repeating abstract nouns like justice and love; it is the man Jesus Christ in whom God was reconciling the world.  The truth is personal, concrete, historical.”  (Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pp. 159-61, 168-70)

All that to say that Jesus’ message is deeply personal.  The religious terms and symbols that compose the Christian faith are hardly meaningless; they lead us to a deeper, truer understanding of who Jesus was, is, and shall be.

Which means that each of us has to ask the question of who we say that Jesus is – not only for our own sakes, but also for the sake of the world.

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The Gospel According to Ikea: Postsecular Soul Space and Versatile Solutions for Modern Living

Home is a universal human experience – most often in the context of leaving it and finding it again.  “Home is where the heart is,” we’re told, and ultimately I suspect the reverse to be true.  In either case, this old statement informs us that a commitment to one’s home is a commitment to one’s heart.

Enter “Ikea.”

If you’ve never been to Ikea, think of it as a cross between Wal-Mart and the airport.  It’s two floors of affordable, fashionable home furnishings.  In the film Fight Club, the lead character starts the film by confessing, “like so many others, I had become enslaved to the Ikea nesting instinct:”

 “HOME” AS IDENTITY FORMATION

In Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, he argues that man directs his energies toward forging an identity for himself:

“To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.”

Home is the horizon that so often gives voice to who we are.   In many ways, our struggle to “find ourselves” is a struggle to find our way back home again.  Our desire to create a “home” environment – stylish accents and all – only speaks of a desire to define ourselves and give us a sense of “place” and belonging.

So it’s no wonder that cable channels provide a panoply of programming geared toward home improvement.  Bob Villa’s “This Old House” has been far eclipsed by shows designed not just toward building and renovation, but decorating, improving curb appeal, and finding one’s “dream home.”

“[Where] do we derive identity today?” asks Barry Taylor, artist and professor:

“I contend that it is largely derived from our imagination. We shop for ‘ourselves’ in the marketplace of ever-expanding ideas brought to us when we enter cyberspace or media culture, or when we engage with the seemingly endless possibilities presented to us by a global consumer culture.” (Barry Taylor,Entertainment Theology, p. 46)

In his book Jesus in Disneyland, David Lyon speaks of the role of “consumer choice in identity construction:”

“people flitting like butterflies from store to store, and from symbol to symbol, constantly constructing themselves, trying on this fashion, this lifestyle. A sort of pastiche persona results, so the self – and life itself – becomes transient, ephemeral, episodic and apparently insignificant…flexible, amenable to infinite reshaping according to mood, whim, desire and imagination.” (quoted in Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 47)

 HOMESICK FOR EDEN

We live in a world that is not only post-Christian, but post-secular.  This means that for many, there is no longer a division between the sacred and the secular, between the heaven above and earthly matters below.  “There’s no line on the horizon,” as Bono intones.  Spirituality has now become a part of “a culture where personality rather than character is key” (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 110).

And because of this spiritual component, the idea of “home” has spiritual overtones.  We are looking not just for functional space, but soul space.  Home is more than just a habitat for our bodies, but a world inhabited by mind and soul.

This is why it’s no longer unusual for home-buyers to appeal to the spiritual principles of feng shui to find the perfect home (often following a long and seemingly arbitrary list of rules to find ways to direct the flow of energy in the home).  Barry Taylor suggests the recent appeal to oriental principles and design is found in “its ‘otherness,’ its difference.”

We are experimenting, you see, with trying to find just the right combination to find our sense of home again.  In the film Garden State, Zach Braff’s character returns home after the death of his mother.   He tells his new love interest:

“You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your [stuff], that idea of home is gone… You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”

In Christianity, this place is hardly imaginary.  Other religions say that the world is evil and that through some form of ritual or enlightenment we can escape it.  Others say that reality itself is an illusion.  But Christianity presents us with a story about a garden.  Eden was created good and perfect, yet has been defiled.  Ever since then, man has been “homesick for Eden,” longing to find his way home again.  Could it be that our obsession with Ikea, with feng shui, with home décor, all speak to a longing to return home again – to see Eden restored?

The good news that Jesus offers is that paradise is not lost, but simply awaits reconstruction.

FINDING HOME AGAIN

A recent article in the New York Times observes the way that the word “random” “has morphed from a precise statistical term to an all-purpose phrase that stresses the illogic and coincidence of life.”  The author is concerned over the recent trend of young people not taking risks in travel and relocation.  His concern is that this emphasis on “randomness” suggests that young people are inclined to think that life and its success is based on chance occurrence.

But theology tells us that we are more than the flotsam and jetsam of an arbitrary universe.  In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis writes:

 “The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret…the promise of glory…becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. …The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last…At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” (C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)

“How far is Heaven?” we asked recently.  Our attempts to recreate Eden, re-create heaven through “versatile solutions for modern living” only foreshadows the day when Lewis’ door is finally open, and we find our way home at last.

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“How far is Heaven?”: Study Guide

For those who missed yesterday’s sermon, “How far is Heaven?”, you can click the link below to download a printable study guide for small groups, personal reading or to share with friends and coworkers:

Dirt Under His Nails Handout 3

Be checking back this week for more updates on this series, and be here at Tri-State Fellowship this Sunday for the message: “Party Crashers” from Luke 11.

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How far is Heaven?: The Pluralistic Challenge to Jesus

The above video is “Yahweh,” by the band U2.  The name “Yahweh” is one of the primary names for God in Hebrew.  It was a deeply personal name, so much so that when the name “Yahweh” was printed, the Hebrews used to switch to the name “Adonai” (analogous to “Lord”) out of reverential fear.

In U2’s video, however, the name “Yahweh” is invoked in the context of a wide variety of religious symbols.  We live in a culture that advocates pluralism.  Author Leslie Newbigin says that pluralism comes in two forms.  In its descriptive form, pluralism simply means that we live in a nation whose first amendment rights allow for the worship of a wide range of different faiths.  In its prescriptive form, pluralism means that all belief systems are superficially different yet fundamentally the same in their advocacy of peace, love, and moral behavior.

Christianity has long affirmed that in contrast to prescriptive pluralism, Jesus is the only way to connect with God.  The sermon “How far is Heaven?” describes the way that Jesus stands in contrast to other religious systems, of both His day and our own.

But we catch an earlier glimpse of this in Luke 7:1-10.  A centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant.  A centurion was a Gentile – though we’re told that this man held loyalty to God.  The elders of the Jews pleaded with Jesus that this man is “worthy.”  But when Jesus agrees, the man denies his own worthiness before Christ, instead affirming Jesus’ ability to heal from a distance.

The scene is significant, especially since Luke was a Gentile, writing to his Gentile friend Theophilus.  God’s blessing is poured out on someone other than God’s chosen race: I tell you,” Jesus says, “not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

The man knew two things: (1) his own lack of worth and (2) Jesus’ supreme worth.  And the fact that the centurion came from a background other than Judaism reveals God’s plan for all people:

“Whether it is a Jew whose tradition is fulfilled or a pagan whose appropriate response to the light available is completed, the way to Jesus involves some discontinuity with the past (hence the sense of unworthiness of sin) and a submission to a new authority (the lordship of Jesus).

For Luke, Jesus is the ultimate revelation toward which all others point.  Whether Jesus is related to other religious traditions primarily as judge or primarily as the fulfillment or completion depends upon the degree of discontinuity or continuity between the other traditions and the revelation in Jesus.  Even those religious traditions with the greatest continuity to Jesus still stand before him ‘unworthy’ and in need of submission to his ultimate authority.”  (Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke, p. 86)

The next posts will focus on the question, “How far is Heaven?” and the interaction between Jesus and the various beliefs of our own day.

If you’re interested in learning more about pluralism and Christianity, you can read a series of posts I did regarding the Brit Hume scandal a few years ago:

Intro: Tiger Woods, Brit Hume: Who Should “Repent?”

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 1)

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 2): Religion and All His Friends

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 3): Coexist or Else

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 4): The Problem with Pluralism

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 5): Christianity’s Exclusive Claim

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 6): Building Bridges

Christianity and Religious Diversity (Part 7): Recommended Reading

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The Contagious Gospel: Jesus as a Friend to Sinners

To finally put the last piece on this week’s series of posts, we need to go back to Luke 5.  It’s right after Jesus heals the paralyzed man who’d been lowered through the window.  And, as we saw, Jesus calls Levi away from his life as a tax collector to be a disciple of Jesus – and the “establishment” is a bit concerned about the company that Jesus seems to be keeping.

If your memory is really good, you’ll remember that we learned in Luke 4 (when Jesus read the selections from Isaiah) that Luke’s gospel intertwines the ideas of forgiveness and healing.  It’s what Wright calls “the gift of shalom:” restoring God’s original goodness, or shalom, to each individual, both physically and spiritually.

CONTAGION

But the metaphor of healing can be taken another way, too, can’t it?   You could easily see how sin might be viewed as a contagion – something “dirty” in that culture.  That was the attitude of the Pharisees.  They’d already started whispering rumors about Jesus behind His back.  Jesus even picks up on it: The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34)

See, the central lie of religion is this: when the sacred encounters the profane, the profane always wins.  Jesus spent time with some people religion tended to frown upon.  The religious leaders assumed that if Jesus spent time with these people, He must be one of “them.”

QUARANTINE

Religious moralism is so concerned with keeping up appearance that it avoids broken people at all costs.  The problem, as Jesus identifies it, is that healthy people don’t need doctors; sick people do.

Which means that when we look at Jesus, we don’t find a guy who’s actively trying to pursue the “wrong crowd.”  He had a message of hope and healing, and that naturally drew people to Him.  Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, writes:

“Jesus thus defies the conventions of his world by his intimate association with a group of people deemed traitorous and corrupt in his society.  Still, he does not condone their sinful lifestyles but calls them to repentance, transformation and discipleship.”  (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 102)

There is no “quarantine” procedure for Jesus.  He gets right in and heals their brokenness.  And He does so not by overlooking their sin, but by absorbing it.

JOHN COFFEY: ABSORBING EVIL

Most are familiar with the film The Green Mile, the film based on Stephen King’s serial novel.  The main character is John Coffey, a death row inmate who proves to have an extraordinary power to heal.  When the prison guards discover this power, they sneak Coffey from prison temporarily to see if his power can heal the warden’s wife, who is dying of terminal brain cancer in her home:

The clip shows an unexpected healer, bringing a shocking level of intimacy to this broken woman’s home.  The fracture of the clock, the shaking ground – these things almost seem to call to mind the events of the cross: the earthquake, the tearing of the temple curtain.  John Coffey’s initials are no accident, allowing the film to present us an unlikely Christ figure who absorbs the evil around him, bringing wholeness and purity.

We don’t have time to analyze all of the films themes (including where the film ceases to harmonize with Christianity), but Jesus does something like this: He can offer healing only because He takes evil on Himself through His sacrificial death on the cross.  “The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote St. Augustine.  “On Him is the punishment that brought us shalom, [wholeness, goodness, peace].” Isaiah wrote.  “By His wounds, we are healed.”

HOW GREAT A DEBT

This is something that no other religious system before was capable of.  Even the various sacrifices of the Jewish legal system were meant only to point to the day when Christ would be sacrificed once-for-all.

In Luke 7, we see Jesus interacting with a “sinful woman.”  The scene is right after Jesus’ complaint that the Pharisees think Him a “drunkard.”  Luke places the story here because he has a point to make: the lie of religion is not always right.  The Jewish laws stipulated that certain people were clean and unclean, just as we saw yesterday.  But when the profane encounters that which is most sacred, the sacred wins.  Jesus brings cleanliness through forgiveness of sins: He is the true and better sacrifice who can do this.

So it’s actually quite shocking when a woman of a “sinful” reputation (many believe her to have been some sort of prostitute) is associating with Jesus.  She anoints Jesus’ feet not only with expensive perfume, but her own tears.  But here’s where it gets messy: she lets her hair down.  In Jewish culture, this was a level of intimacy that was potentially scandalous:

“The woman’s actions…need not be viewed as inherently erotic, but the observers would have viewed that at best as culturally inappropriate…and at worst as so sexually suggestive as to be shameful.  [One commentary writer] points out that loose hair did not in and of itself link a woman with prostitution, and if she were unmarried it produced no stigma at all.  But Simon’s response…clearly implies that her behavior here gave the assembly reason to disapprove of it.”  (Craig Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, p. 133)

When questioned, Jesus tells a story about the magnitude of forgiveness.  Two men owe a great debt: one owes just over two months worth of wages.  The other owes two years.  Obviously the one who had been forgiven the greater debt was the one who showed greater love.  Jesus acknowledged the woman’s “many” sins (7:47).  But because of this great relief she could show love in a way that the Pharisees could not.

INFECTING WITH LIFE

In chapter 8 we see this pattern continue, and Luke gives us two stories back to back in Luke 8:40-56.  One is a woman with some type of bleeding disorder – apparently some type of menstrual issue.  The other is a young girl, only 12, who dies before Jesus can even get there.

Both women remain nameless.  Both are ceremonially unclean: the woman because of her menstrual bleeding, the daughter because she is dead.  And notice in verse 43 that the woman had been bleeding for 12 years, the same amount of time the little girl had been alive.

But despite her uncleanliness, she reaches out and touches Jesus’ robe.  And that’s when the miracle happens.   Jesus does not become unclean from her touch, but by touching Jesus she becomes clean.  When she confesses what she had done, Jesus tenderly calls her “daughter.”

Jesus’ healing does not stop there.  When he gets to the little girl’s home, she has already passed on.  But a touch of Jesus’ hand and the command of His voice lift her from the dead.

The Pharisees were worried that the unclean would infect the clean.  Jesus infects everyone around Him with life.

SPREADING THE CONTAGION

This means that we have a whole new paradigm to look through.  We don’t have to be like the Pharisees, sneering at others while we perform our quarantine procedures.  The gospel teaches us that there is no division between the “good” people and “bad” people, only a division between the proud and humble, the forgiven and the broken.

This is a powerful theme of Luke’s gospel, one that is central to his entire portrait of Jesus.  It is a message that Jesus’ followers are to carry out in their own day and age – to spread Jesus’ message of hope and healing in our own communities.

We’ll close with the testimony of Brian “Head” Welch, former guitarist for the band Korn, now a follower of Christ:

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From Leper to Love

His whole life had been defined by distance.  He was an “outsider,” they told him; a Samaritan.  To this day he still couldn’t remember all the reasons why he and the Jews would never really get along.   “Unclean,” they said, not because of anything he’d done, but simply because he’d been born that way.

Still, he loved God.  He found himself faithfully in the temple in Jerusalem for worship.  At least, he found himself in the part of the temple he was allowed in.  As a Samaritan, he would never be as close to God as the Jews.  He was condemned to stay in the outer courts.  He could remember the inscription in the temple: “No foreigners allowed beyond this point.”  Foreigner.  Allogenes, the sign read.  He knew that if you broke it down, it meant that he came from somewhere else.  Somewhere from which he would never be truly accepted, and could only close enough to see the Jews enter into the inner courts of the temple, hearing their derisive whispers as they passed by this…this…outcast.

And that was when he could come close enough to hear anything at all.  He still remembers the stern faces of the priests as they examined the sickness spreading up his arm.  They muttered words that he didn’t fully understand: sara’at.  Lapra.  “Leprosy.”  Which meant that he now found himself on the outside looking in: his fellow diseased wanderers the only community he’d ever know for the rest of his life.

Warning sign in the temple, meant to keep out "outsiders."

DISEASE

The story of the man in Luke 17:11-19 might have been a surprisingly common one: leprosy covered a wide range of disease, and since it was the Jewish priests who pronounced people “clean” or “unclean” they had the authority to determine who belonged inside and who belonged outside.

So when we meet these ten lepers, they are at a distance from God.  Many today feel distant from God for a whole host of reasons, most commonly from some sense of guilt.  The punk rock band Rise Against sings, “If there’s no war inside my head why are we losing?”  We may not understand or believe in “sin,” but we sure feel its sting.

So it was understandable that they might have expected Jesus to perform one of the miracles He’d now gained a reputation for.  In the last post, we looked at the way that people often come to Jesus or religion because they want or need something.  The same is true here, and Jesus delivers.

The men are sent to the priests: it was the priests who would examine them and determine whether they were, in fact, clean.

PUBLIC HEALTH HAZARD

This was no easy task: Rabbis regarded curing leprosy to be as “difficult as raising a person from the dead.”  The community had strong regulations about disease such as this, especially because contagion posed such a public health hazard.

But it really was more than this; it wasn’t just a concern of hygiene, but a concern of the soul.  In Mary Douglas’ excellent book Purity and Danger, she argues that purity rituals are not, as was apparently believed, linked to matters of hygiene, but instead were directly related to cultural perceptions of clean versus unclean.  As a present-day example, Douglas cites that even before bacteria were scientifically discovered, people intrinsically avoided certain “unclean” objects, persons or behaviors.

Which meant that the real concern was not merely physical contamination, but spiritual as well.  So you can understand why even if these men were, in fact, disease-free, the law stipulated that they could not be declared “clean” unless a ritual sacrifice was made.

Don’t miss that: A declaration of purity required a sacrifice. 

ONLY THE OUTCAST

Now, Jesus knew what He was doing.  He knew that nine lepers had gotten what they wanted.

But let’s do some math.  These nine lepers were unclean, so they were forced to keep distant.  Now they were clean, and could take part in temple worship.

The text makes a specific point to tell us that this man was a Samaritan.  He might have been declared clean, but in terms of temple worship he still was not allowed to draw near – at least not like the Jewish worshippers.  He was the only one who would be declared “clean” from the external stain of disease, but still “unclean” because of his birth.

The scene is breathtaking bold: the man couldn’t draw near to God’s temple, so he throws Himself at God’s feet.  See, unlike others, Jesus was more than just a means to an end: his greatest treasure was not his health, but Jesus Himself.

Jesus commends him in a way that drives the point home: “Has no one returned,” He asks, “except this foreigner?”  If you’re reading that in the Greek, it’s a point that hits you between the eyes.  The word Jesus uses here is allogenes, the same word appearing on the sign in the temple that had kept this man out all his life.  Jesus replaces a lifetime of distance with a future of intimate faith.

CLEAN

In the movie glory, Denzel Washington plays a slave-turned soldier who describes the culture of racism as being “dirty.”  “We all covered up in it too,” he says.  “Ain’t nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.”

Each of us is, in one way or another, aware that we are “unclean.”  Lady Gaga sang about this in her song “Judas,” where she talked about using music as a means of “going back and forth between the darkness and the light in order to understand who I am.” Author Lee Strobel says that before he decided to follow Jesus, he felt what he called a “free-floating sense of guilt.”

But remember the earlier lesson from the temple: a declaration of purity requires a sacrifice.

And so this story brings us to the necessity of the cross.  It’s easy to read this and think, “What’s the big deal about all these cleanliness codes?”  It’s easy to think that Jesus tosses them aside as if they’re no big deal.  But they are a big deal.  Jesus doesn’t abolish them; He fulfills them.

He is the true and better high priest who declares us clean.  He is the true and better sacrifice that allows this declaration to take place.  He is the true and better temple that invites even the outcasts to draw near.  Because He is all these things, He alone possesses the authority to declare the impure things pure again.

THE GREAT EXCHANGE

Practically, what this means is this: you can never truly be pure any more easily than this man could stop being a Samaritan.  But because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, you and I can be declared pure in God’s eyes, meaning that while Jesus absorbs our uncleanliness on the cross, He also gives us the gift of His righteousness so that God would not see our diseased heritage but His Son’s supreme worth.

This is the joy of the gospel.  In tomorrow’s post, we’ll see what that means for Jesus’ followers, and that living purely in an unclean world is more than mere avoidance.

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Occupy: The Religion of the Pharisees and the Religion(s) of the World

In case I’ve neglected to make this clear, this series of posts is intended to be an extension of the sermon series “The Dirt Under His Nails” at Tri-State Fellowship.

In our last post, we looked at the question of the paralytic from Luke 5.   Today we’ll look at how Jesus’ response was received by the Pharisees who were gathered there.

WHO WERE THE PHARISEES?

The Pharisees were some of Jesus’ most fierce opponents.  They appear in every gospel, and rarely in a positive light.  The word “Pharisee” didn’t refer to an occupation – it referred to an ideology or a set of beliefs, like the way we might use “republican” or “democrat.”  But the word “Pharisee” was used to describe a people with a particular religious system.

Though the exact origin of the name “Pharisee” is debated, it seems to be related to the word paras which means “to divide” or “separate.”  Some ancient writers tell a story of a time when a king gathered the religious leaders together and asked them to hold him morally accountable.  But when one of them made the insinuation that the king was conceived through his mother being raped, he was outraged.  What was worse was that the Pharisees only suggested that the accuser be given a slap on the wrist.  From then on the Pharisees were indeed separate from the political establishment.

But there’s another reason, a deeper, more spiritual reason.  In the years before Jesus there was a man named Antiochus IV, who was among the successors to Alexander the Great.  The problem with Antiochus was simple: pride.  He changed his name to Antiochus Epiphanes, which meant “God manifest.”   He slapped the Jews in the face by not only abolishing their religion, but by sacrificing a pig (an unclean animal) in their temple and putting up a statue of Zeus (which some literature reports as bearing an eerie resemblance to Antiochus himself…).  The problem was only set right in 165 B.C. following a revolt – it’s actually where the story of Hanukah comes from.

So, despite the negative picture we’re given of the Pharisees, we can see that there is a sense in which we can identify with their motives: no one wants to see their religion corrupted again.  Too much was at stake.  And so the Pharisees became known as the people who upheld the law, and where the text of scripture was silent they added their own oral traditions, of which there were…many. 

So when Jesus tells this man “Your sins are forgiven,” they’re understandably shocked.  Why?  Let’s say a husband wrongs his wife.  Their pastor or marriage counselor sits down with both of them, looks at the husband and says, “I forgive you.”  The wife is outraged.  The counselor has no right to offer forgiveness: she was the one who had been hurt!  The only person who can offer true forgiveness is the person who had been hurt by the wrongdoing.  Sin was an offense against God.  Therefore only God could forgive sin.  For Jesus to offer forgiveness meant that He was God in the flesh.

FUNDAMENTALLY SPEAKING

In our present day, it’s common to compare the Pharisees with the religious crowd we encounter.

In the last century, we saw a group of people who had seen the Christian faith becoming increasingly adapted to the world.  The famous Scopes “monkey trial,” rightly or wrongly, called into question to trustworthiness of the Bible.  Maybe this was no pig-in-the-temple kind of scenario, but Christians now longed for safety.  They wanted a means to safeguard the faith.

The answer was to articulate their faith through a series of works called “The Fundamentals.”  It was actually just a series of pamphlets designed to articulate the basic, secure principles of Christianity.

But here was the problem: like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, these “fundamentalists” could not stop themselves from adding to this list of rules and demands.  The desire to safeguard the faith had turned into an unholy project of itself.

Which means if you have any church background, you’ve probably run across many-a-pastor who offers gentle yet condescending advice on not dancing, playing cards, listening to rock-n-roll or attending certain kinds of movies.

This also means that Jesus’ message of forgiveness is something you’re more likely to roll your eyes at than take all that seriously.  After all, what is sin if it’s just some violation of a stupid rule in some stupid fundamentalist handbook?

CREATING YOUR OWN RELIGION

Our culture truly is at an impasse: the next election season only reveals just how far apart our nation is getting.

On the one hand we have the TEA Party, who complains of Government corruption and sees a solution through fiscal responsibility.  On the other hand we have Occupy Wall Street, who complains of Corporate corruption and sees a solution through redistribution of wealth and social programming.

Which means we have a nation where some are saying that occupying Wall Street is a really good idea but occupying Iraq was a really bad idea.  Or vice versa.

But both are ultimately religious systems in their own right: both identify what they believe is the fundamental problem with humanity and offer a means to fix it.  So it doesn’t matter if it’s a Jesus fish or a “Coexist” sticker on the bumper of your Prius, you have a means to a better end.

Now, please understand: politics are important.  But (at best) they offer immediate improvements without ultimate salvation.

See, the problem with both is that both assume the problem is external.  Both assume you can draw a line between the good and bad, and both assume that they’re the truly good ones.  The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn so famously wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago)

Jesus came to replace that line – not by covering over it with religious activity, but by paying for the debt of sin through His cross.  He authenticates His ability to offer such forgiveness by healing the sick, including this man.  Though it would have been far easier to simply say “your sins are forgiven,” Jesus proves His authority by having the man walk home.

PRIORITY

This is why the next section is about the call of Levi.  In those days, tax collectors had a reputation for corruption, essentially government-sanctioned extortionists.  So when Levi throws a party in Jesus’ honor, the Pharisees are again outraged that Jesus would maintain such associations.

But Jesus’ call to “follow” Him means that He wants priority over all things in our life: career, health, family, even our own lives, as we’ll see further into Luke’s gospel.  Jesus wants priority over Levi’s irreligion, but He also wants priority over the religion of the Pharisees.

Which finally raises the question of priority for each of us.  Religion – whether through moral behavior or political strategies – will always take priority over Jesus’ gospel so long as we see our problem as external behavior rather than internal affliction.

We’ll see how that plays out tomorrow, as we look at the story of the ten lepers.

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“Would that really make you happy?” Jesus and the Paralytic

If you were with us on Sunday, you heard the story of the paralytic.  In that culture, paralysis rendered you wholly dependent on others for…well, everything.  So you can imagine that even family and friends were weary of having to tend to his needs, and would have jumped at hearing that this gifted healer named Jesus was teaching nearby.

But when they got there, they realized they should have called ahead for a reservation.  It was a packed house.  But in those days, the roof of a house was flat, composed of layers of ceiling tiles that were sturdy enough to walk on, yet could be lifted off without too much effort.

And that’s what they did: they pulled back the tiles to lower this paralyzed man in front of Jesus.   You can imagine the room going quiet for a moment, then murmuring in confusion at this bizarre scene.  The man’s problems were obvious before he even opened his mouth: to walk again, he’d need the amazing power of Jesus.

But instead, he hears this: “Your sins are forgiven.”

YOUR GREATEST WISH

The man’s greatest wish is met with a perplexing statement about forgiveness.  Such a statement is simply not helpful if the man’s greatest need is physical restoration.

If you were there on Sunday, I compared this to going to the doctor with a headache and not expecting him to address the harpoon lodged in your ribs.  What good does it do to heal the body but not address the infection of sin that brews inside?

Many people approach Jesus with a list of wishes they expect Him to grant, and often approach religion as a means to a personal end.  If I follow Jesus, can I expect my mother to be healed?  Will Christianity help me if I choose to make a career move?  I struggle with issues of self-esteem – will Christianity make me feel accepted or condemned?

The list could go on, of course, with an endless list of wants or needs.  And, to be fair, like the desire to walk again, not all our requests are trivial or selfish.  But to each of these questions and needs, Jesus responds in the same way: “Your sins are forgiven.”

HUNGRY HEART

“Everybody’s got a hungry heart,” writes Bruce Springsteen, who’s writing some theology without even realizing it.

People want things.  People have priorities.  But we should never be so foolish as to assume that such desires are universal.  The following chart shows the way that priorities have shifted even in the last century.  Credit should go to my friend Glenn Lucke for finding the article on Graphic Sociology the following chart comes from.

See?

We assume that there is a set list of things that will make us happy.  In all likelihood, these things will make us happy.  At least, for now.

The Atlantic Wire featured a recent article which included some provocative statements made by exceedingly wealthy people:

“I feel stuck,” [director of marketing for broker-dealer Euro Pacific Capital Inc. Andrew] Schiff said. “The New York that I wanted to have is still just beyond my reach.” How so? “Paid a lower bonus, he said the $350,000 he earns, enough to put him in the country’s top 1 percent by income, doesn’t cover his family’s private-school tuition, a Kent, Connecticut, summer rental and the upgrade they would like from their 1,200-square- foot Brooklyn duplex.”

“People who don’t have money don’t understand the stress,” said Alan Dlugash, a partner at accounting firm Marks Paneth & Shron LLP in New York who specializes in financial planning for the wealthy. “Could you imagine what it’s like to say I got three kids in private school, I have to think about pulling them out? How do you do that?”

“It’s a disaster,” said Ilana Weinstein, chief executive officer of New York-based search firm IDW Group LLC. “The entire construct of compensation has changed.”

Everybody’s got a hungry heart; the problem is that so few things can satisfy this hunger.

AN INCH AND AN ELL

Many give up on Jesus because they have turned him into a means to an end.  Part of this is the fact that “sin” is viewed, at best, as a form of personal trauma, which means Jesus is some sort of therapist.  So of course healing someone’s paralysis makes sense because that’s more serious than some past psychological abuse.  Of course offering forgiveness of sin is weird when there are more pressing matters to be concerned with.

But the message here is that Jesus could grant your wish, but you’d be just as unhappy and unsettled as before.   Jesus is trying to go deeper than that: you don’t just need someone who can heal your heart, but who can rip it from your chest and replace it with what actually works.

And to do that, Jesus had to offer this man something that he could not find even if his physical health was totally restored.

“When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother—at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch they took an ell.

Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of…. Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.… ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for.…Whatever suffering it may cost you…whatever it costs Me, I will never rest…until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.’” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 201-202)

Jesus is no more interested in granting the man’s immediate wishes than He is in granting ours.  Instead, He is interested in getting to the deeper problems of sin, a problem that is far deeper than any physical ailment or childhood scar.

If this man represents the things people expect from religion, tomorrow we will explore what people believe religion expects from them.

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