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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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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“Vertigo:” Half-Price Messiah

The song is “Vertigo” by U2, from their album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.  You’ll notice the obvious mixture of sacred and secular imagery, including the story of the girl wearing some type of cross necklace.  Commenting on the origin of the song, Bono tells fans:

“In the case of ‘Vertigo,’ I was thinking about this awful nightclub we’ve all been to. You’re supposed to be having a great time and everything’s extraordinary around you and the drinks are the price of buying a bar in a Third World country. …you’re just looking around and you see big, fat Capitalism at the top of its mountain, just about to topple. It’s that woozy, sick feeling of realizing that here we are, drinking, eating, polluting, robbing ourselves to death. And in the middle of the club, there’s this girl. She has crimson nails. I don’t even know if she’s beautiful, it doesn’t matter but she has a cross around her neck, and the character in this stares at the cross just to steady himself.” (Bono, U2 By U2)

But you’ll also notice the line: “All of this can be yours; just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.  The lyric is an allusion to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

THE SHOWDOWN

In Luke’s gospel, one of the very first things to happen in Jesus’ adult life is the showdown in the wilderness.  If you read the story in Luke 1:1-14, you see that the entire account is bookended by talking about the Holy Spirit.  It is God’s Spirit that leads Him into the wilderness, it is God’s Spirit that leads Him through the time of temptation, and it is God’s Spirit that leads Him out of the wilderness after Satan leaves Him.

And it is Satan who resides in the other corner of this showdown.  The ancient mind saw Satan as something of a prosecuting attorney for the nation of Israel.  In today’s world, we often see Satan as something of a myth; a holdover from a bygone era where evil was described in superstitious terms, and a myth that endured only inasmuch as it allowed members of one religion to demonize (literally, in this case) all others.

But if we believe in one supernatural being (God), why not another?

And further, even if we treat the existence of Satan and moral evil as symbols or ancient superstitions, we can’t get around the suffering that exists.  In other words, even if evil is in the eye of the beholder, suffering certainly is felt by everyone:

“The moral order is absolute, woven into the very fabric of creation.  Personal sin, therefore, is never merely a private psychological event; owing to ignorance or stupidity or an idiotized upbringing, the sinner may be subjectively without blame, but the sin itself has objective consequences that claw at the well-being of the sinner and of others around him and of still others yet to be after him.”  (John R. Dunlap, “Identity Crisis,” see catholiceducation.org)

So what’s happening here is that Jesus is stepping into a world in which He might Himself abandon His Father’s vision for the sake of a lesser kingdom.

Jesus is presented with three tests: to cure His physical hunger by turning stones to bread, to consolidate power by exchanging the worship of Satan for a worldly empire, and to engineer the security of God’s protection by throwing Himself from the temple.

And what a temptation that last one must have been.  Since Jesus’ biographers were unconcerned with chronological sequence, Luke places the temptation of the temple in Jerusalem last.  Jerusalem would later be where Jesus would collide with the religious hegemony of His day, and eventually be crucified.  Now would be the best time to seek protection, and avoid the suffering that awaited Him.

This is why some have heard the song “Vertigo” and thought it to refer to the dizzying sensation that must accompany the height of Jerusalem temple.

HOW TO KNEEL

But Jesus would have none of this.  “Your love is teaching me how to kneel,” Bono writes, and indeed it is love that prompts Jesus to submit to the Father’s will and not His own.  Satan is said to leave Jesus until another time, culminating ultimately in another garden, that of Gethsemane prior to His arrest and execution.

And because of all of this, Jesus proves Himself to be something other than the “half-price Messiah” we’ve made Him out to be in our minds: His soul “can’t be bought.”

C.S. Lewis writes: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast – the breaker and destroyer of images.  Jesus is the supreme example; he leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”

Jesus passes the showdown not through clever gimmicks, not through compromise, but through submission.  And, as we saw in the last post, His victory can be our victory.  But this victory also means something very significant for you and me.

STEERING THE ELEPHANT

Classic writers have turned to a whole host of metaphors to describe the relationship between desire and intellect.  Most recently, the Heath brothers borrow the metaphor of the elephant and the rider in their book Switch. 

Here, the rider represents the intellect.  The elephant represents desire.  But steering the elephant is a colossal task: you may as well ask a mountain to move.

But what if the elephant can be differently motivated? What if the elephant could be motivated not by the lust of pleasure, power and glory, but motivated by God’s inestimable love?

In other words, Jesus resisted temptation not because He was trying to “steer the elephant,” or control His desires.  He resisted because His desire was for something far greater.  For us, this means that our affections should be so wrapped up in the love of God and His Son, that our prayer should not be “help me avoid this temptation,” but “give me more of you.”

It is then that life in God’s kingdom begins to fully take shape.  We’ll see how that shape take further form as Jesus begins His ministry.

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Restoring the Image: Jesus the New Adam

Sin.

Christianity continues to hold out a solution to what a culture continues to deny.

In the video above, we see various portraits of people holding signs that reveal something about their character.  They are, in some sense, marked by their actions and attitudes.

The Scriptures describe God’s plan in terms of God’s character, His shalom, to borrow the Hebrew term, which refers to His peace, His goodness, and His great desire for the wholeness of the created world, including you and me.

And yet we’re so very broken.  We don’t have that wholeness.  Sin is, according to one author, the “vandalism of God’s shalom.”  God’s shalom was most fully violated in the breakdown of God’s image.  Adam bore that image, but ruined it.  All of Adam’s sons and daughters are now forced to bear the weight of that broken image.

So Scripture offers us so many different metaphors for what’s happened.  The Hebrew texts describe it in terms of rebellion (pesha), infidelity (meshubah), trespass (ma’al),transgression (‘abar, parabaino), becoming dirty (tum’ah), wandering (‘avon), failure (chatta’t), and disloyalty (beged).  The Greek texts describe it in terms of a fall (paraptoma), being unjust, unrighteous (adikeo), rebellious (asebeo), defeat (etao), ignorance (agnoeo), and missing the mark (hamartia).

CULTURE SHIFT

What’s happened in our world is that we moved away from these understandings. In his book Whatever Became of Sin?, the writer Karl Menninger observes the way that sin has been redefined in western culture:

(1)     Originally, sin was defined by violation of God’s standards as revealed in the text of scripture.  Western culture built its laws and ethical foundations around the character of God.

(2)    As time progressed, the law courts began to be seen as the embodiment of morality.  Yet still, within this system, shame existed for the individual for violating an unchanging standard.  Punishments in colonial times and beyond included such things as the stockades, where criminals would be publicly shamed for their crimes.

(3)    As time went further, sin began to be seen more and more through the lens of psychology.  Sin was not a violation of an absolute standard, but the result of aberrant psychological patterns and maladaptive behavior.  We are not sinful people, we are diseased.  We no longer need to point to the curse of Eden, but instead at unhappy childhoods and past traumas that have shaped our psyche into the twistedness that they now have become.

(4)    Finally, sin has begun to be seen through a sociological lens.  It’s not even the individual’s psychology that makes man sinful: it is the shaping of an entire community.  It is not unusual, after tragedies such as that of Columbine or Virginia Tech, to hear public officials make statements such as ‘We are all to blame.’  The message is clear: the family, neighborhood and society in which you are raised has a large bearing on your moral development.

THE TEST IN THE GARDEN

Luke’s gospel is deeply concerned with situating Jesus in the context of secular history.  The stories of Jesus’ birth are embedded right in the center of a hostile political environment, and in an era where whole families had become divided by sectarian religious beliefs.

When we first meet the adult Jesus, it is at His baptism.  John the Baptizer was His cousin.  He’d grown up as a preacher’s kid, but at some time or another he’d moved to the “wilderness,” some sort of Palestinian desert.  So we can imagine people took notice when he finally returned, looking like Grizzly Adams but with a mouth like a rock star.  He preached a message of repentance and justice.

So Jesus was baptized by His weird cousin – and it was here that the Spirit descended “like a dove,” and the Father said, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  This is the first time in Jesus’ adult life that He is called “the Son of God,” connecting Jesus to the prophecies about His miraculous birth.

But then Luke does something odd: He gives us Jesus’ family tree.  Which wasn’t uncommon for writings of that era; it’s just odd to find it right smack in the middle of the story like this.  But if you read all the way through, you find that John traces Jesus all the way back to the very beginning, to Adam, who is also called “a son of God.”

Which means that we have two “sons of God:” Adam and Jesus.  Adam was tempted in the garden by Satan.  In the next section, Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  Both lived in the shadow of a tree: for Adam it was the tree of knowledge, for Jesus it was the cross.

The whole point is this: where Adam failed, where we fail, Jesus is victorious.  And His victory can be our victory.  The point of this story is not that if we “try harder” we can do what Jesus did.  The point is that we can’t do what Jesus did unless we trust in what Jesus achieved through His death on the cross.

And the most beautiful thing of all is this: when we trust in Him, God sees us the same way He views His Son;  the Bible even uses the word “adoption”(Romans 8:15).  Which means because of what Jesus did in the wilderness and on the cross, we can hear God say to us: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

 WHAT IT MEANS

Of course we know that “sin” is an archaic word that means nothing to a culture shaped by the sophistication of charismatic authority structures and rational thought.

But that seems awfully academic.  Especially to the faces in the video.

Could it be that we each know that we’ve been marked in some way?  See, in this life you will be marked by one of three things:

(1)    What I’ve done

(2)    What others have done to me

(3)    What Jesus has done for me.

Jesus achieved victory in a Garden where you only achieved failure.  The image of God that was broken by Adam – and us – was restored by Jesus, the second Adam:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself…” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, III.14)

Tomorrow, we’ll look deeper at the actual showdown between the Son of God and Satan.

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Cool Hand Luke: From Icon to Meme (and back again)

16th C work showing Luke creating icon of Mary

When most think of Luke, they think of the ancient physician who wrote a biography about Jesus.  But most don’t think of Luke as an artist.  In fact, Luke is counted as the patron saint of artists.

According to the writings of the early church, Luke was one of the first people to paint an “icon” of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  What is an “icon?”  The Latin word eikon simply means “image.”  The early church didn’t have cameras.  They didn’t have photograph albums, and they couldn’t “tag” Jesus on Facebook.  Icons were simple, stylized portraits used for Christian worship.  They mostly were portraits of Jesus and related saints, as well as painting narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

They were also highly symbolic: the color red, for example, was usually used to convey

"Pantocrator," 6th C. portrait of Jesus. Note the two fingers representing His two natures

humanity.  Jesus’ two fingers were meant to indicate His two natures: fully God, fully human.  So if you had a basic understanding of the symbols and traditions of ancient iconography, you could find a rich meaning in the symbols of the early Church.

FROM ICON TO MEME

I say “if,” because as we fast forward to the present day, we realize that the concept of “image” has become completely unglued.  Beauty is assumed to be in the eye of the beholder, and along with it come goodness and truth.

We have replaced the icons of old with the memes of the temporary.  A “meme,” for those not tech-savvy, is basically a cultural fad.  It can refer to a viral video, a cartoon, a picture, a phrase, or anything else that can easily be passed around Facebook and the blogosphere.

In his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the arrival of television, the combination of sound and image, as contributing to a breakdown in critical reasoning.  And so, too, memes have shaped the way we view and interpret the world around us.

A simply contrast between an “icon” and a “meme” shows us the way that our way of using image to make sense of the world has shifted radically:

Icon Meme
Static/unchanging Fluid/constantly changing
Communicate truth Interpret truth
Convey purpose Promote play
Reverence Sarcasm

THE JESUS MEME: WHY HE’S STILL COOL

Author and professor Barry Taylor writes:

“People would rather be perceived as cool than good; it is a postmodern virtue…Surprisingly, or not so perhaps, Jesus remains cool.  It’s just his official earthly representation – the church – that has been deemed ‘uncool.’…The perception that in spite of any ‘religious affiliations’ Jesus remains cool and is a subject of interest in the postmodern matrix extends to a continuing number of publications, books, and magazines devoted to wresting Jesus away from the authority and confines of the Christian church.…This is theology with a larger populist intention, the ultimate goal being the ‘saving’ of Jesus, to quote a recent title.  Saving Jesus from what exactly?  The stultifying, smothering confines of the church, and particularly the fundamentalists or conservatives, who, the consensus seems to say, have done Jesus a grave injustice by making him out to be just like them – uptight, overly religious in the pejorative sense, lacking a sense of humor, and disconnected from the way things really are.”  (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 153)

The end result?  A steady stream of cultural representations of Jesus.  While the icons of old conveyed Jesus as He was, the memes of today say more about the person who created them.  Some are serious, some are intended to just be jokes.

We have Madonna, who “crucified” herself for one of her concert performances, saying later that “we all need to be Jesus in our time.”

The song “Personal Jesus,” originally by Depeche Mode, has been covered by several other artists, including the dark imagery of Marilyn Manson’s video.

Kanye West did not one, but three different music videos for “Jesus Walks,” where classic imagery was blended with various settings of human need and depravity.

Urban outfitters has made quite a profit selling “Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts.

South Park portrays Jesus as a kind but typically ineffective character on a call-in advice show.

The film Dogma gave birth to the “Buddy Christ” image, used by the church in the film to make Jesus more appealing to the masses.

And if anyone is looking to get their pastor a gift, look no further than the Jesus action figure.

THE POINT

The point is that we live in a world of great spiritual confusion.  Like Theophilus, people have a basic idea about who Jesus was, but are unsure of their feelings toward the church.

In our world, the church has unfortunately shied away from clear teaching on Jesus in the name of political correctness.  We prefer teachings on social activism, happy marriages, and financial advice.  The result is that Jesus is increasingly being defined by those outside the walls rather than within them.

Icons were born from the idea that just as God became man, so too could truth became solid reality through artistic expression.  But even after Jesus returned to the Father after the resurrection, the Body of Christ was still present on earth in the form of His followers.  The Church has the great privilege of showing the world who Jesus is in both word and deed.

LUKE’S PORTRAIT

I like Luke because as both physician and painter, he possessed both the sharp mind of a scientist and the tender heart of an artist.  The magnificence of this series is that as we move through Luke’s gospel, we’ll see him paint a new and incredible picture of Jesus, watching his brush move across the canvas as we turn each page of his account.

So we hope you enjoy this series.  Be sure to check back frequently to interact more as we grow together.

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“Half-Price Messiah:” Discussion Guide

If you were here at Tri-State Fellowship this past Sunday, then you know the series “The Dirt Under His Nails” is off to an excellent start with Randy speaking on “Half-Price Messiah.”

To facilitate discussion, we’ve put together some resources for you to use as you follow along with us in this series.

So click the link to download the first handout of our series:

The Dirt Under His Nails Resource 1

WHERE TO USE IT

This might make a good resource for small groups or simply discussion among your church friends.

But it also might be a great way to connect the sermon material with your friends and neighbors.  And I know most people cringe at the idea of handing out “tracts.”  That’s not what this is.  The purpose here is to help you process the sermon in such a way that you can have dialogue with people in your social circles each week:

“What’d you do this weekend?”

“Well, we had a great time at Church; we even started a new sermon series.  Mind if I share some things?”

And there’s an open door.  Now, maybe you’re not going to go through every point in there, but having a pamphlet lets you be equipped to dialogue about your faith with others.

 HOW TO USE IT

These guides will be available in print on Sunday mornings, but also online.  If you’re downloading online, here’s how to use it:

(1)    Print it out.

(2)    Lay it so that the middle “Join our Dialogue” section is facing up:

(3)    Fold Column 3 over inward, over Column 2.

(4)    Fold Column 1 inward, so that the main image becomes the cover.

Keep checking the blog for more posts on this series, and be sure to come back next week for “No Reservations.”

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Coffee with Theophilus

The following story is, obviously, fiction.  It’s a conversation that might have happened if the events of the early church had happened in our culture.  Luke was the author of one of the four gospels, which tell the story of Jesus, and the sequel book called Acts.  Both were written to his friend Theophilus, as well as to the surrounding community.  Not much is really known about Theophilus, but this short interchange reflects the parallels between his world and our own. 

 

The buzz of my phone ranked somewhere below the din and clatter of the busy coffee shop.  I glanced at the screen to see the name “Theophilus” in my list of text messages.   “on my way” he wrote, though knowing him that meant he hadn’t left the meeting yet.  I’d made it through the first third of my latte before he walked through the door, dressed in his usual finest.  I waited to greet him until after he’d ordered and sat down.

“Most excellent Theophilus!  How’s life in the rat races.”

He shook his head and smiled, stirring his caramel double-shot whatever concoction he was undoubtedly addicted to.  “Oh, you know how it is, Luke.  Blow this next contract with Rome and heads are gonna roll.”  I honestly didn’t know if his laughter was nervous or not.  “What about you?  Given any more thought to heading back into medicine?”

I shook my head, suddenly a bit far-off.  I remember what people said when I took off to travel with Paul to be a missionary.  Most thought it a bit strange, especially since the word “Christian” was still unknown to so many.  “No, no.”  I replied.  “I’m sure there’s something else God has planned for me.”

Theophilus furrowed his brow a bit.  “Yeah, I guess maybe.”  He didn’t quite make eye contact.

“Still not sure about the whole God thing?” I asked.

“It’s not that, I mean…I love God, sure…my parents made sure they gave me a name to remind me of that.  And I even hear really great things about this Jesus guy and all.  It’s just…I dunno…the whole church thing…”

I broke the momentary pause.  “What about it?”

“Well, you run with that crowd.  They don’t seem to be able to agree on much of anything.  Besides, it seems like the kind of thing that appeals more to the people who have been, you know, religious all their life.”

“You mean the Jews?”

“Yeah.”  He became more animated on this point.  “I’m not saying I’m against them or anything like that, it’s just…I wasn’t born into that.  And now, who’s to say what it really means to be a ‘Christian?’  Some say you have to go back and follow all their religious practices and all but…gosh, I don’t even know where I’d begin.”

That stung a bit.  Especially since neither of us really got the whole “tradition” thing the same way that so many of Jesus’ followers did.  Even Jesus had come from a Jewish home.   Traveling abroad, I’d gotten to see so many cultures.  And it was strange, you have to admit: no other community was as racially and culturally diverse as Christianity.

“Plus,” he continued.  “I mean, I get it Luke.  You’ve been all over the world.  But Jesus…we all know He died a long time ago.  It’s been what…20, 30 years?  How can we really know how this whole ‘Christian’ thing is supposed to really work?  Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I love Jesus.  The things I hear about Him are great.  And yeah, I’ve even been to some of these churches that have been meeting in homes.  These people…they risk their lives.  I mean, the Jews…people are willing to put up with them, I mean the government’s even helping remodel their temple.

“Well, not everyone’s all that thrilled about that.”

“Yes, but at least they’re respected.  I heard the other day that some people were starting to call Christians atheists, because they don’t follow Jewish or Roman gods.”

“Well, you can’t judge by stereotypes.”

“I know, Luke.”  He wiped his face with his hands.  “But perception is reality you know?  Again, I love Jesus; I think what you’re doing is great, I just…I guess I just don’t see what it has to do with me.” 

I understood right then and there what it was my dear friend needed.  I remember medical school, where we read a dusty textbook by a man named Galen, who used to talk about “carefully investigating” the symptoms of his patients.   And I realized that this is what my friend needed.  Jesus was now a major topic of conversation.  I even heard that whole books were slowly being circulated about Him.  Maybe it was time to add my own voice to the mix – not just for my friend here, but for anyone struggling to understand how to love Jesus and fit into His church.  And we needed this desperately, before people’s ideas about Him began to eclipse who He actually was.  So I committed right then to find out more, and I committed right then to tell my own story along with it.

I asked Theophilus if I might pray for him.  He had already stood up to leave when he nodded vigorously.  He was a busy man.

And right now, so was I.

Discussion Questions:

The following questions could be used for a small group, but they’re also great ways to start spiritual conversations one-on-one with friends or co-workers. Feel free to post responses (yours, or even theirs with their permission) in the comments below.  

(1)    As we see, Theophilus was a well-to-do, educated man who knew some things about Jesus, but didn’t really know how he fit into the culture of the church of his day and so it’s not clear that he was ready to make that next step.  Do you or someone you know fit this description?   What would it take from having good ideas about Jesus to trusting Him totally?

(2)    Part of the barrier that Theophilus encountered was that with all the diversity of the early church, including those who insisted on maintaining Jewish practices, he wasn’t sure what he should believe and why.  Are there “Christian” practices and beliefs that can be a barrier to belief?  Which ones and why?

(3)    Theophilus also had trouble understanding how he fit into the church because of the negative perceptions people had of the church (called “atheists” by the Romans).  What are some negative cultural perceptions of Christians?  Why might these be a barrier for people to believe in Jesus?

(4)    Luke mentions that there were, by this point, there were many other teachings out there about who Jesus was.  What are some of the ways Jesus is portrayed in our culture today?  Where do your own ideas about Jesus come from?

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“The Dirt Under His Nails”

Starting this Sunday, we’ll be starting a new, exciting series at Tri-State Fellowship called “The Dirt Under His Nails,” which is all about Jesus.  In the area?  Don’t have a local church?  We’d love to welcome you.  And don’t forget to hit the “share” button to get the word out over social networks. 

In addition, I’ll be blogging through some of our topics in the next several weeks, so stick around and enjoy.  

JESUS.

No other name is tied to so much emotion, and no other name sparks so many opinions.  Who was Jesus? Many have their opinions formed about Him long before they ever see His face.

For some it’s a stained glass Jesus: a religious figure not terribly concerned about others. For others, it’s a fake-plastic Jesus: a cheap misfit who offers us friendship without ever truly being connected to the world that we live in.

But beneath the stale images of our past, we find a Jesus who walked among His people, a Jesus who swung a hammer with His daddy, a Jesus who laughed, and a Jesus who cried.

In this series of sermons, we’ll be following the ancient writer Luke as we meet a Savior with calloused hands and dirty fingernails. Whether this is your first time meeting Jesus, or even if you’ve known Him for years, we invite you to join us as we experience this vividly fresh portrait of the Savior.

 

Schedule:

February 26 “Half-Price Messiah”
March 4 “No Reservations”
March 11 “How Far is Heaven?”
March 18 “Party Crashers”
March 25 “Character is a Four-Letter-Word”
April 1 “Why Jesus Wants You Dead”
April 8 “Hearing is Believing”

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