Posted in reflections

Who’s the good news for? (Luke 4:18-19)

The “Gospels” are narratives of the life of Jesus Christ, but the “gospel” refers to the “good news” as proclaimed and modeled by Christ. Following Jesus’s temptation by the devil in the wilderness, forty days and forty nights during which the Lord “ate nothing (Luke 4:2), Jesus “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (4:14).

Jesus heals a man born blind.

Of all the places Jesus could have begun his ministry, he chose to return to those who knew him best, the people of Nazareth, his home town. The spiritual rhythms of village life are on display. It’s the Sabbath (Saturday), so where else would people be but at the synagogue?

“And as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read” (4:16).

When Jesus unrolled the scroll, he read Isaiah 61:1-2a. Luke 4:18-19 provides the quotation:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

David Neale notes that “compassion for the disadvantaged is placed at the center of this Gospel” [See Luke 1-9, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill, 2011), 120]. Who is the good news for? It’s for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. Each of these groups receive the compassionate, life-changing ministry of Jesus, some of them already by the end of Luke 4 but all of them before Luke’s Gospel comes to a close.

  1. poor people – Jesus had received the anointing of the “Spirit of the Lord” so that he could “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Jesus never recommended riches as the solution for poverty, since riches are often a spiritual snare (Matthew 19:24). Instead, he underlined our duty to feed the hungry (Matthew 25:35a). Further, he taught the importance of having enough and the dignity it affords. This is the meaning of his prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), which echoes the “neither poverty nor riches” teaching of Proverbs 30:7-9.
  2. imprisoned people – At the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announced that the LORD has sent him “to proclaim release to captives” (4:18). Chains may represent destructive habits or attitudes, deep ruts that sinful practices have carved out in our lives. Jesus can break those chains and give us a fresh start. Yet there is a more literal understanding of Jesus’s words in Luke 4. In 2020, there were 1.8 million people incarcerated in the United States, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. What alternatives to prison exist that can help those convicted of serious crimes pay their debt to those they’ve wronged but also eventually find a fresh start?
  3. blind people – In Luke 4:18, Jesus promised “recovery of sight to the blind.” The story of blind Bartemaeus (Luke 18:35-43) is one example of Jesus restoring vision. In our time, Christian Blind Mission (CBM) helps not only the blind but those with other disabilities in the developing world, a continuation of the ministry of Christ while on earth. Spiritually, “blindness” symbolizes our insensitivity to the things of God prior to our conversion. Only God can restore our spiritual sight. The late songwriter Keith Green (1953-1982) captured it perfectly in his song, “Your Love Broke Through”:

Like a foolish dreamer trying to build a highway to the sky
All my hopes would come tumbling down
And I never knew just why
Until today, when you pulled away the clouds

That hung like curtains on my eyes
Well I’ve been blind all these wasted years
And I thought I was so wise
But then you took me by surprise

Like waking up from the longest dream, how real it seemed
Until your love broke through
I’ve been lost in a fantasy, that blinded me
Until your love broke through

4. oppressed people – Luke 4:18 records Jesus’s promise to “set free those who are oppressed.” Chapter 4 begins with Christ’s victory over the devil in the wilderness, and this victory over the powers of darkness picks up steam as the chapter progresses. In 4:33, Jesus encounters “a man possessed by the spirit of an unclean demon” and Jesus casts the demon out of him, with no lasting harm to the man. This was no anomaly, but happens again in 4:41, this time with demons “coming out of many.” In all cases, demons recognize his authority as the “Holy One of God” (v.34) or the “Son of God” (v. 41). Does our gospel today make a place for delivering those who are oppressed by Satan? This is not a call to see a proverbial “demon under every rock.” However, every Jesus follower must be aware of our authority in Christ to overcome evil forces when they stand in the way of God’s work.

Who is the good news for? Whether poor, imprisoned, blind, or oppressed, Jesus reaches out in love to people! The most important thing about us is not our socio-economic standing, our chains, our inability to see, or our oppression. Rather, the most important thing about us is our humanity. We are people, made in the image of God and for whom Jesus died and rose again. The anointing of the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism, and was confirmed by his wilderness temptations, but the proof of the anointing was his compassion. May you and I – overflowing with love and compassion – share that same gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.

_______________

All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (Holman, 2020).

Image Credit: “Healing of the Man Born Blind”

Orazio de Ferrari, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in reflections

Luke 3:7-20 – The flip side of the gospel

Every coin has two sides. Properly preached, the gospel is no different. If one side of the good news coin is blessings, the flip side is reformation.

Luke 1-2 is the shiny blessings side of the coin. There, we learn of God’s promises to the people, of angels singing glad tidings and babies born to unlikely mothers. The tone is hopeful, like Isaiah 40:1, where God speaks comfort to the people.

Luke 3 turns the coin over. Blessings recede from view as the tone darkens. The voice of a rugged prophet echoes in the wilderness. Matthew portrays John the Baptist as a character more like Esau than Jacob. This is not a tent-dweller but an outdoorsman “clothed with camel’s hair around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 1:6). Some Jews of John’s day wondered if he was the reincarnation of a desert-dwelling Old Testament prophet like Elijah (Matthew 16:14).

Luke 3:18 sums up John’s preaching: “So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.”

What is this “good news” for John? It is a message of reform, both social and personal. It is repentance that produces the evidence of good fruit (3:8), a turning away from what is wrong and a firm commitment to do what is right.

Social reform

John’s preaching begins with a broad focus. The “salvation of God” (v. 6) shows up in dramatic ways. The “mountains” and “hills” being “lowered” (v. 5) echoes Mary’s song in Luke 1:52, where God “has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.” God’s paths are straight paths (3:4). What is “crooked” must be made “straight.” (3:5). The LORD swings an axe that cuts down trees and throws them into the fire (3:9). Something is wrong on a broad scale, John insists, and social reform is overdue. Despite the apocalyptic images, David Neale cautions that this “reform” does not include rebelling against “the Empire” or “the corrupt Jerusalem temple aristocracy” (see Luke 1-9, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary, p. 96). Nonetheless, the image is of a message so powerful that nothing stands unchanged in its wake.

Personal reform

Reform on the societal level is accompanied by reform on the individual level. Cut to the heart by fiery preaching, the crowds anxiously respond to John: “Then what are we to do?” (3:10). To different groups in the crowd, John tailors a response:

To everyone: generosity — Do you own two shirts? Then give one to someone who has none. Likewise, food is for sharing, not discarding (3:13). The late Nazarene pastor Earl Lee spoke recommended “giving living.” Open hands make for open hearts, while hoarding betrays our lack of trust in God’s daily provision.

To tax collectors: integrity — Surprisingly, tax collectors were among those coming to be baptized. They asked the prophet: “Teacher, what are we to do?” John replied: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to” (3:13). He did not tell them to quit working for the government as if government employ in itself was wrong. John was not against the payment of taxes, nor was Jesus (Matthew 22:21). However, tax collectors were only to require what Rome demanded and not line their own pockets.

To soldiers: upright conduct and contentment — Soldiers kept order, but this legitimate authority carried the illegitimate temptation to extort money (3:14). Policing powers are not given in order to enrich oneself. Abusiveness and repentance are antithetical. John the Baptist encouraged soldiers to be content with their pay.

Applications

The gospel is good news, yet the preaching of John the Baptist reminds us that there are two sides to the gospel coin. Besides the blessings of the Lord, there is also God’s requirement for social and personal reform. Repentance means forsaking sin, wherever it lurks, and cultivating practices demonstrating that where God reigns, darkness flees. Here are some things to consider as we relate John’s preaching to our own time.

  1. Christ transforms culture – In his 1951 Christ & Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr laid out ways that Christianity has traditionally related to society at large. One of the options is that Christ transforms culture. How well does the preaching of John the Baptist fit into that paradigm?
  2. Social and personal reform – While not advocating violent overthrow of Roman rule, there are unmistakable echoes of Old Testament prophecy in John’s preaching, an approach that underscored God’s concern for justice and the social reforms necessary for justice to be realized. Yet John’s message also called for personal reform as the evidence of individual repentance. Has the Church of the 21st century held these dual emphases together? What larger current justice movements have drawn participation from some churchgoers? How do you feel when you see churches asking for participation from its members to combat social wrongs?
  3. What are we to do? This is the question each group coming to John the Baptist to be baptized asked the prophet. As you’ve read Luke 3:7-20, what has the Holy Spirit been saying to you? What areas of your life and conduct is God asking your permission to reform?

_________

All Scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

Posted in reflections

Jesus, boy wonder (Luke 2:41-52)

The familiar stories of Jesus’s birth (Luke 2:1-20) and his presentation at the Temple (2:21-38) lead into the only account that we have from his boyhood. [David Neale, in The New Beacon Bible Commentary (Luke 1-9, p. 84), alludes to a pair of apocryphal stories, including palm trees that bow to Mary on her way to Bethlehem, or a young Jesus making clay pigeons with his friends, and bringing them to life.] This Temple episode of the boy Jesus sitting and holding his own with the teachers of the Jewish Law foreshadows his later ministry as a teacher of the Law unlike any other.

A family story

The 1976 Nazarene General Assembly in Dallas, Texas, will always live in my memory as the time I nearly lost two brothers. In a crowd of thousands, Jay (6) and Chad (5) wandered away from us. The details remain sketchy, but in this pre-cell phone era, it had something to do with two carefree little boys wanting ice cream. When Mom and Dad realized they were missing, word went out to everyone we saw: Jay and Chad are missing! A family friend hours later corralled them riding up-and-down the elevators in the now defunct Baker Hotel. Reunited, our parents had some choice words for them: “We’ve been so worried about you! Where have you been? Why did you wander away?”

Reflection

I think of the justified anxiety etched on Mom’s and Dad’s face every time I read Luke 2:48, the story of a lost boy at a different religious gathering, the annual Jewish Passover. Unlike our family drama in Dallas, Jesus was not just missing for a few hours, but for three days (v. 46). Finally, someone must have said: “I saw Jesus in the Temple talking with the teachers.” Luke picks up the story:

“When Mary and Joseph saw Him, they were bewildered; and His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have your treated us this way? Behold, Your Father and I have been anxiously looking for You!’ ”

Jesus replied (v. 49): “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?”

There’s the hint of annoyance in the boy’s response, and Luke later takes pains to note that the youthful Jesus “continued to be subject to them” (2:51). Yet his future adult mission would take him far away from family, a mission that caused family strains. (See, for example, Luke 8:19-21). Jesus’s statement – “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” (v. 49) – confounded them. This was not just any Jewish boy. This was a boy wonder, and they didn’t understand (v. 50).

Application

The Japanese proverb warns: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Like Jesus received the “hammer” from Mary and Joseph when they found him in the Temple, I wonder what children today “stick out” and risk getting our collective hammer?

  • Respect intellectually gifted children. There’s pressure in the classroom from peers to “throttle back,” to not “make others look bad.” As the Church, do we encourage the “young Sheldons” among us, or do we squelch them? What will it mean for our brightest children to love God with all their minds? (Luke 10:27)
  • Help youth discover their gifts. Jesus may have been a decent carpenter, but he became an extraordinary Rabbi. For our children to discover their God-given purpose free of inherited family expectations, we must provide the latitude for them to explore widely, to try (and fail) at numerous things until they succeed and shine at one or two. Is it kind or cruel in the long run to pretend a child is gifted as a singer or athlete when truth-be-told they’re mediocre at best? We can gently redirect them to other areas, helping them explore where they do have genuine ability that they can joyfully develop to a high level. After all, talent comes in many shapes and sizes.

What other applications do you see from the story of Jesus, boy wonder?

___________

Note: All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

Image credit

Frabel, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in reflections

The Sunrise from on high (Luke 1:78-79)

Note to the reader

From now until Pentecost Sunday (June 5), we’ll be journeying together through the Gospel of Luke. This Gospel is notable for the attention it pays to the powerless and marginalized of the first century, whether widows, women more generally, the sick and the outcast, or poor people. Likewise, the commentary will allot a large place to God’s care for the “last, the lost, and the least.” How we interact with people who have little to give us in return is a hallmark of the person who bears the title “Christian.”

NOTE: All Scripture is from the New American Standard Bible (Lockman, 2020).

A new commentary will appear each Monday morning, as a point of reflection and action throughout the week.

____________________________________

“The Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78-79)

Background: Luke 1

Luke 1 sets the stage for the remainder of the Gospel. Verse 3 notes: “it seemed fitting to me…” Traditionally, this “me” has been understood to be Luke the physician, a traveling companion of Paul who compiled both a Gospel (i.e. “good news” account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth) and the second volume in the series, the “Acts of the Apostles.”

The hopes and aspirations of the Jewish people are summarized in two prophetic words, one from Mary (1:46-56) and the other from Zechariah (1:67-79). These discourses appear in relation to babies. Elizabeth, the infertile and aged wife of Zechariah (1:7) will give birth to John, a “forerunner” who will “make ready a people prepared for the LORD” (1:17). Her younger cousin, Mary, is to receive the highest honor of all, to become the mother of the “Son of the Most High” (1:32).

Scripture focus: 1:78-79

Zechariah’s discourse begins with a short description of the task of his son, John. He would “go on before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1:76). Importantly, Zechariah doesn’t stop there. He quickly turns his attention to the “Sunrise from on high” (1:78), a poetic description of the Messiah. According to 1:79, this One anointed by God will:

  1. “Shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” and
  2. “Guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Reflection

The Holy Spirit who lives inside of us propels us to engage our world, not to sequester ourselves from it. Our mission as disciples of Christ takes us into every nook and cranny of our world and culture. This is symbolized by the imagery from 1:78. Christ is a “sunrise.” At dawn, the rising sun gradually illuminates the sky more and more, incrementally dispersing the darkness of night. This is a positive vision, one filled with anticipation of the change that is possible. The beneficiaries of our light – lives lived in the integrity and hopefulness of Christ himself – are those who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Look around you. Who are the people sitting in darkness? Who is living in the shadow of death? We as light-bearers go to them where they are.

Secondly, Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” The image is of a journey. Our feet are moving along a path, toward a destination. As disciples of Christ, we must pause and ask ourselves:

Will this path, if we follow it, foster greater animosity and destruction in our world, or will it lead to greater tranquility and flourishing for all?

If a decision results in greater misery, then how can Christ be in it?

Action

These applications are suggestive, not exhaustive. You may have other ideas. Use those below either individually or in groups as ways to spark your creativity.

  1. Wrongful convictions — Estimates vary, but a minimum of 1% of those currently in prison have been wrongfully convicted. (See innocenceproject.org). Contact the innocence project in your state to find out ways you can help.
  2. Assistance for those with unwanted pregnancies – Many communities operate a crisis pregnancy center, offering compassionate alternatives to abortion. Contact a center near you to discover ways that you can assist, whether through a donation or just a listening ear for someone who needs it.
  3. Food bank — Many churches operate food banks to provide healthy nourishment to hungry people. Find out which church in your community could use a volunteer of time or groceries.

Posted in discipleship, reflections

Radical love and the church

We holiness folks sometimes have looked askance at love. It seems too simple. There must be more to it; it has to be more complex than that.

One of my seminary professors in the 1980s derided love as “too soft.” Notably, his book on entire sanctification hardly contained the word.

But what Mildred Wynkoop in her A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism (Beacon Hill Press, 1972) did was make it safe for holiness preachers to talk about love again. For too long, the emphasis had been on the negative side of the equation, of how sin is cleansed away and how a holy person should behave. Legalism was always lurking at the door. But Wynkoop portrayed a positive holiness, a holiness that cannot be understood apart from love.

What would happen if love became the lens through which we saw everything?

The epistle of 1 John does exactly that. Again and again, John returns to love as the glue that holds it all together. For all the verses that touch on love, 1 John 4:7 (NRSV) is the most striking:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

In junior high, when we played basketball or soccer, Mr. Davis would break out his box of red and blue jerseys. It was the easiest way to know who was on your team. If you were on the blue team, you’d look for players wearing a blue jersey before you pass them the ball.

John is saying: Do you want to know who’s on your team? Look for the “jersey” of love. If they’re clothed in love, you’re playing on the same side.

So what does love look like?

First, love places the interests of others above our own. Jesus modeled this when he went to the cross, putting our well-being above his own. The same self-sacrificial nature of love showed up on August 3, 2019 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Jordan Anchondo covered her baby boy with her body, cradling him protectively while a gunman’s bullets rained down on her. She died, but her boy lived, escaping with only broken bones.

Besides placing the interest of others above our own, secondly, love includes. Jesus spoke of this in his Parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24). When those whom the master had invited to the feast started making flimsy excuses for not coming, the master said to his servants:

“Go out at once into the streets and the lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (v. 21).

These were the supposed “undesirables,” those who were not included in the original invitation, yet here they are, invited and offered a place at the table. In the Kingdom of God, the norm is radical inclusion.

Edwin Markham (1852-1940) captured the sentiment brilliantly in a few lines:

He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

I drew a circle and took him in!

The first time I heard that poem, it was read by one of my lecturers at college. He criticized it roundly. But my fifty-something ears hear the poem differently than the ears of an 18-year-old.

I’ve heard many criticisms of others:

“He is so selfish.”

“She just doesn’t care.”

“I can’t believe how hateful he is towards everyone.”

One critique I’ve never heard is this: “She is just too loving toward others.”

Let’s face it: Love is radical. Love, when practiced the Jesus way, puts the interest of others first. Love, the kind that looks like Jesus, includes the so-called “undesirables,” inviting them to the party.

What would churches look like if we practiced this kind of love? What about our polity would need to change? Watch out! Love – the radical, Jesus kind of love – may just lead to revival.


Image credits

Woman and baby: Beardobot, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Circle of friends: Isabel.Yate, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in reflections

Repurposed

I’m not sure when I started liking instant coffee.

Maybe it’s the simplicity. There’s no need to fuss with fancy machines that clutter up limited kitchen counter space.

This morning I spooned the last of my hazelnut Tejas Café into my Starbucks mug. Reaching under the sink, I nearly tossed the empty container into the trash, then hesitated. It was a well-made plastic jar, with a sturdy top and thick clear plastic sides. Fashioned in a factory, then filled with coffee, it shipped to the HEB grocery warehouse. A driver then delivered it to my neighborhood store. There it had waited on the shelf…for me. Oh, the good times we had! Every morning, I received its aromatic offering. Now, a few weeks later, the jar had nothing left to offer. It was empty. We looked at each other. Was this the end?

Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life asks: “What on earth am I here for?” For a while, my alma mater used the slogan, “Discover Your Purpose.” Like that empty jar of coffee, what do you do when you come to the end of your purpose? Is there a purpose after the purpose? Can we be repurposed?

This can be a challenge for retirees. After an active work life spanning forty plus years, some at the traditional retirement age of 65 are like a Honda Accord with 200,000 miles on the odometer, well-worn for sure but with another 100,000 miles in the engine. My father had served as Corporate Comptroller of a large supermarket chain in the Northeast. He later found purpose in a duet of blue collar jobs, first as a delivery driver for a parts manufacturer, then as a cashier at the local grocery store. Only at age 87 did he turn in his name tag. Other retirees have found new purpose through volunteer work at church or in the community.

Yet it’s more than retirees who face this question. At any age, career change is repurposing. An educational missionary for 23 years, I’d taught pastors from the certificate to the doctoral level. Though fulfilling, the face-to-face and online classrooms with their supplementary administrative and supervisory duties consumed me. My purpose had morphed into my taskmaster. It was time to repurpose, but what next?

As a pastor in Missouri, prior to missionary service, I always looked forward to visiting at the hospital when church members fell sick. I’d also held a weekly Bible study for residents of a nursing home and remembered how they’d brightened up when we prayed and sang hymns together. Teaching at a university in Kenya, an offer arrived to move to Austin, Texas. I’d receive a stipend for one year as a hospital chaplain resident, a combination of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and 1,000 hours clinical work in a network of hospitals. Amy and I said our farewell to African brothers and sisters and jetted West.

Residency was a grueling year. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I’d hurriedly get dressed following an urgent middle-of-the-night page for a Code Blue or to comfort a grieving family in the ICU. In my weaker moments, I wondered if I’d made the right decision to leave a status academic position. But my doubts always evaporated when tearful families said: “Chaplain, we’re so glad that you came.”

Now I’m a hospice chaplain. The listening and comforting skills I honed in hospitals serve me well. Alzheimer’s patients in skilled nursing facilities can be calmed by a prayer, a hymn, or even a silent vigil at their bedside. Exhausted caregivers in private homes – usually a husband, wife, or daughter – need someone to witness their tears and to listen. After a heart-to-heart yesterday, a caregiver smiled and concluded: “I feel peaceful. Thank you, Chaplain.”

The prophet Isaiah writes: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV). My coffee jar is no longer empty. It now sits on a shelf, filling up with coins for the annual missionary offering at church. In the same way, God has repurposed my ministerial vocation. What new purpose will follow your purpose? New directions can unfold slowly, but be at peace. Whatever your age, God still has meaningful work for you to do.

Posted in Bible, reflections

The nature of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness

Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, as described in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt. 4:1-11, Mk. 1:12-13, Lk. 4:1-13). Was this fast:

a) going without both food AND water, or

b) abstaining only from food?

Consider:

1) Luke 4:2b (NIV) – “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” There’s no mention of drinking nothing, only of eating nothing. The text does not say “he ate or drank nothing, and at the end of them he was hungry and thirsty.” Luke’s “he ate nothing” provides clarity missing in Matthew’s and Mark’s account.

2) The devil’s temptation centered around bread, not water. He tempted Jesus to turn stones to bread, focusing on where he knew Jesus’ weakness lie, i.e. his hunger. Otherwise, surely the devil would have said: “If you are the son of God, strike this stone with a rock, and water will come forth,” much as Moses had done in the wilderness (see Exodus 17:1-7). Water is the # 1 requirement for life in any climate, but particularly in an arid one.

3) We believe that Jesus is fully divine, but also fully human. The incarnation means that Christ took on human existence in the flesh, with all its biological limitations and requirements. The human body cannot last more than a few days without water. Therefore, both Jesus and John the Baptist must have found water in the Judea wilderness, perhaps the Jordan river (see Matthew 3:1-6).

Conclusion

The correct answer is (b), that Jesus went without food but did drink water when tempted in the wilderness.

Our mission statement as Nazarenes is to make “Christlike disciples.” If we emulate Jesus in our spiritual practices, then it’s important that we correctly understand how Jesus fasted. To get this wrong may damage our bodies.

_________________________

Image credit:

Signimu & Google & Penubag, Apache License 2.0 http://www.apache.org/licenses/LICENSE-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Christlike justice, reflections

Four confessions of a American Christian

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, a crowd of angry American insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. When the Senators, Representatives, and other staff emerged from hiding, the carnage was appalling. The Capitol had been ransacked and (more importantly), five individuals had lost their lives, including a U.S. Air Force veteran and a U.S. Capitol police officer. Most heartbreaking for people of Christian faith was the presence in the mob of “Jesus Saves” signs. These were hoisted side-by-side with Confederate flags, as if no one thought it strange to carry a deeply divisive symbol of White Supremacy alongside the name of the non-white Savior of the world, the Redeemer of all tribes and nations and peoples and tongues (Revelation 7:9).

What follows are my confessions, those of an American Christian, more specifically, an American ordained minister. I offer these as a mea culpa, an attempt to bring out into the light-of-day some of the unhelpful elements of my own worldview that (in their small way) have contributed to an atmosphere where such acts of animosity like those of January 6 in Washington D.C. are the sad outcome.* These cultural blind spots can easily undermine key principles of Christian faith, such as love for neighbor (Mark 12:31), caring for the poor (Matthew 25: 31-46), or the equal dignity of all human beings as those created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:28). By reading my confessions, perhaps you will see – as in a mirror (James 1:23) – a fleeting reflection of yourself and chart together with me a new direction, with God’s help.

  1. Confusing hard work with white privilege

Because I grew up in a setting with few minorities – Black or Brown – whether at school or at church, I had no life experience to counteract the idea (more caught than taught) that whites are better off economically because we work harder than non-whites. Now I realize how erroneous that idea is, and life experience has been my teacher.

It has been said: “Some are born on third base and think they hit a triple.” I may not have been born on third base, but I was at least born on second. Now 57, I’ve met scores of people on my life journey so far, fellow travelers from various backgrounds who work harder than I ever will, yet they will never know the head-start that I’ve known as a white American. I confess that I’ve been too concerned to guard my own place and comforts and far too little concerned to stand in solidarity with those who were not gifted the same opportunities.

2). Accent upon “independence” rather than “interdependence”

This brings us to a second false idea, the American myth of our “independence,” an idea stemming back to July 4, 1776 when the United States declared its “independence” from England. From the time we are little, we as Americans are socialized to brag about how “I did it myself.” Frank Sinatra even sang the immortal “I did it my way.” There’s the idea that ultimate freedom is the freedom to be an individual, whatever that looks like. The positive side of this cultural value is that Americans have been amazing inventors across two centuries. Individuals have dared break out of group-think and imagine new ways of doing things. But there is a shadow side to that fierce independence and that is overlooking the negative consequences that my actions in the name of “liberty” can have upon others. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of our interdependence, that even our mutual health and survival hinges upon upon the decisions we make together, whether to wear a mask or to roll up our sleeves for a vaccination.

3) America as “God’s Chosen People” or “The Greatest Nation on Earth”

Besides the issues of work vs. white privilege and independence vs. interdependence, a third area of confession relates to how I view my country in relation to other nations. Peter Marshall’s and David Manuel’s 1977 The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? is an important propaganda piece for those who see America as occupying a unique place in God’s affection, a kind of New Israel. (This textbook has been widely used in Christian homeschooling for children). Rather than examining our national sins alongside our national virtues, it’s a one-sided presentation, arguing a 20th century version of “manifest destiny,” the 19th century rationale for U.S. expansionism.

The truth is that God loves the U.S. in the same way and to the same degree that God loves all nations. God sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world (John 1:29, 3:16), not just one country. To love one’s country is patriotic; to believe that God’s special favor resides upon it above all others is ethnocentric and idolatrous. Of this attitude of American exceptionalism, of the idea that we are a nation that is a cut-above, I repent.

4) Trusting in guns and military might more than trusting in God

Finally, I’ve placed too much trust in guns and weapons of war and not enough trust in God. This temptation is nothing new. The Psalmist observed: “Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, NLT). Former President Jimmy Carter – himself a devout Christian – has lamented the warlike posture of our nation over time, claiming in April 2019 that the United States has been at peace for only 16 of our 242 years as a nation. I confess that too often I’ve soft-pedaled the clear teaching of Jesus for Christians to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), thinking it an impossible ideal reserved for some future time after Jesus returns. I’ve remained quiet when our Defense budget is increased yet again, even though it is already larger than the next 10 countries combined. May the Lord forgive me for my silence and give me courage to speak against our war-like ways, even as the number of homeless in my own city explodes in the middle of an historic pandemic. Surely, we can do better, and I would be part of the solution.

Conclusion

Confusing hard work with white privilege, the false notion of “independence,” American exceptionalism, and militarism — These are four areas where I confess my complicity with larger American cultural narratives that, left unchecked, contribute to the chaos like we saw on January 6, 2021. As people of Christian faith, may we go to God in prayer and fasting, asking the Lord to reveal to us these blind spots and others. Once we have knowledge of them, may God give us the grace we need to confess them and repent, changing our thinking and our behavior, becoming like Christ in thought, word, and deed.

*Note: In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m looking at one side of the coin only, that there have been positive contributions of the unique American take on Christian faith, such as the “can do” attitude that can be channeled to make positive change in the world in the name of Christ. Abolition of slavery is just one example.

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Image credits

cross and baseball player: by the author

handshake: Official website of the supreme leader of Iran, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in discipleship

Discipleship vs. the Kingdom of God: The Detrimental Divorce

“What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

This somber warning from the traditional wedding ceremony calls us to respect the permanence of marriage. But the warning could also be applied to two key concepts from Matthew’s Gospel that belong together, namely, discipleship and the Kingdom of God. So when did we divorce them, to the detriment of the Gospel?

Discipleship is Christ’s call for us to follow him. To Simon and Andrew he said, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19, NIV). Disciples make disciples, but is spiritual reproduction our sole end or only a means to a greater end? Is the disciple’s only mission to make more disciples? How does the Kingdom of God fit into the picture?

What we got right

To answer this question, let’s begin by looking at the mission statement of The Church of the Nazarene. It reads:

“Making Christlike Disciples in the Nations.”

Much in our mission statement is spot-on. First, it’s relational rather than transactional. It asks not “Are you saved?” but rather “Are you following Jesus?” Scott, a missionary from another denomination, was church planting in Mozambique. He confided: “I don’t talk about ‘getting saved’ anymore. I talk about being a disciple.” He had learned the hard way that too many thought they had arrived once they’d prayed a “sinner’s prayer.” That approach encouraged them to depend upon a past moment rather than cultivating a living and growing faith in the present. Though he didn’t use the term, Scott realized that the language of discipleship dovetails with God’s work of sanctification.

Secondly, the word “Christlike” evokes holiness, our foundational emphasis. Peter was not content to leave holiness language buried in Leviticus 11:44. Speaking of God’s holiness, Peter reiterates the Old Testament command: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). If Jesus is the picture of what God is like, then to be like Jesus is to fulfill the command to be holy.

Finally, our statement lays out the scope of our mission. We are to make Christlike disciples “in the nations.” Perhaps a day will come when we find intelligent life on other planets. At that time, we’ll need to review the scope of our mission, but for now, the Great Commission from Jesus is for Earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

The missing Kingdom

But let us return to Matthew’s Gospel and broaden the perspective. It contains more than the Great Commission with its talk about making disciples. It also includes the Lord’s Prayer, which holds this crucial line:

“Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

Jesus introduces the eight so-called “Kingdom parables” of Matthew 13 with the formula: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” But Matthew is not alone in using Kingdom language. In Acts, Luke does so as well, ending the book with a portrait of Paul under house arrest in Rome yet still busy with Kingdom work:

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31, NIV).

In Jesus’ ministry and in Paul’s, there’s a happy marriage between discipleship and the Kingdom of heaven (or Kingdom of God). There is an all-consuming mission for disciples to fulfill that is larger that just enlisting more disciples. Disciples – as we make them – are to be deployed in helping to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the implication in the Sermon on the Mount of images like “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).

I’ve been in the Church of the Nazarene since birth. On the rare occasions that we talk about the Kingdom of God, we tend to use it interchangeably with the church. As for “Making Christlike disciples,” for all practical purposes, this has meant adding members by profession of faith to our church membership rolls. At the annual District Assembly, pastors report on how many new members were added. If we have more members to report, then we are fulfilling the mission. But is this sufficient?

During the American Civil War (1861-65), General George McClellan built up an impressive Army, the Army of the Potomac. He excelled at organizing the men, drilling them, and marching them in rank-and-file. What he never seemed to get around to doing very much was fighting. President Lincoln – tired of waiting for the army to attack the enemy – quipped:

“If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.”

Like McClellan, our mission statement builds up a fine “army” and even talks about how to enlarge it, but where it is silent is clarifying any objective larger than growing its own numbers. But how might our mission statement read if we took into account the grander purpose for which we make Christlike disciples? What if that purpose was tied to the second great theme in Matthew’s Gospel, that of the Kingdom, in answer to Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven”? What would it take to join together again disciple-making and Kingdom building?

A better mission statement?

A mission statement should be grand in scope and audacious in aspiration. Thankfully, we already have an excellent start by emphasizing discipleship, but it needs more. With the “army” of disciples in-place, what’s the army to do?

Here’s a change that would re-unite discipleship and the kingdom of God:

“Making Christlike Disciples Who Change the World”

Matthew’s Gospel pictures disciples as agents of change. We are the light that disperses darkness (Matt. 5:16); we are the yeast that works its quiet change throughout the batch of dough (Matt. 13:33). Likewise, we are those who water a mustard seed that grows into a tree, allowing a place for the birds to nest (Matt. 13:31-32). Jesus portrays the Kingdom of God as the direction history is headed, an outcome inaugurated by his coming into the world but carried forward by his disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Make Disciples? Absolutely, but as we make them, let’s head into the battle, the Kingdom work that is our calling. It’s not a call to build the Church so much as it is to use the Spirit-anointed Church to bring in the Kingdom.

Somewhere along the line, the two ideas that Matthew’s Gospel joins together – discipleship and the Kingdom of God – got a divorce, to the detriment of the Gospel. Isn’t it high time for a reconciliation?

Posted in Christian ethics, discipleship, reflections

Upright, or uptight?

There’s just one letter difference, but what a difference it makes.

To be upright is to be righteous. It refuses moral compromise but does so in a way that attracts rather than repels. It’s the loving, kindhearted, winsome quality of character and integrity epitomized by Jesus.

In the quest to be upright, some become uptight. Uptight religion scolds; it’s suspicious of laughter, always serious, and rarely lets down its hair. Steering clear of the ditch of sin, it ends up in the opposite ditch of joyless austerity. Uptight religion repels rather than attracts. It empties churches, then calls itself persecuted, blaming the “devil” or “the world.”

Uptight religion majors on what good Christians don’t do. In the early editions of my denomination’s Manual, they were called the “special rules.” Here’s a sampling:

Don’t dance.

Don’t go to the movie theater.

Don’t play the lottery.

Don’t swim with members of the opposite sex.

Let’s be clear. There’s a place for prohibitions in the Christian life. After all, the 10 Commandments include multiple “do not” statements including “do not steal,” “do not murder,” and “do not commit adultery.” (See Exodus 20:1-17). But while the church of my youth did plenty right, it also unwittingly sowed in my heart the notion that religion is mostly about keeping rules. Mine was an uptight religion, and I still struggle to see faith through the lens of what God asks me to do rather than what he commands me to avoid.

Uptight religion was certainly not God’s intention for Adam and Eve (See Genesis 2-3). The LORD created an amazing garden, with a dizzying variety of plants and trees. God turned them loose in the garden and said, “Go have fun!” Imagine the freedom they enjoyed. They could drink of the crystal-clear brook, soak-up the sunlight that filtered through the canopy, and – best of all – feast on the fruit of hundreds of trees. There was a single tree that God said was off-limits (Gen. 2:16-17), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We can’t know for sure how many trees were in the garden, but it’s safe to say that (as a percentage) more than 99% of the trees were in-bounds. That’s freedom!

Sadly, uptight religion wants to fence-off more trees in the garden than God ever intended. It forgets that God is much more often the God of “yes” than the God of “no.” This positive outlook is captured by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 (NLT): “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

As the scales of uptight religion fall away from my spiritual eyes, I’m coming to see upright religion in a new light. If uptight religion is negative, emphasizing what we don’t do, upright religion is positive, accentuating what God calls us to do. I’m coming to understand holiness as engagement with the world rather than a rules-based sequestering myself from the world. It’s a confident thrust forward rather than a suspicious step back. It’s Jesus’ attitude as he sends out the 12 apostles in Matthew 7:8-9 (NLT): “Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!”

What about you? Is your Christian faith of the upright or the uptight variety? May God help us to discern this crucial distinction.