Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Acts 2:42-47: The Church or the Kingdom of God?

I grew up hearing about the New Testament Church.  While I would never argue against using the Bible to try to discover the practices of the church in the New Testament, I would argue that too often when we speak of the New Testament church our vision is much too narrow.  The discussion always seems to gravitate toward what is done, or not done, during an hour on Sunday mornings.  The conversation almost always deals exclusively with what happens at the church building, rather than what it means to be the church in our communities.  If our convictions about being the New Testament Church only have implications for one or two hours out of the 168 hours in the week, then perhaps it is time to broaden our thinking so that we can discover that most of what the New Testament has to say about the church has nothing to do with an hour on Sunday, and everything to do with the hours we spend in places that look nothing like church.  The quest to imitate the New Testament Church has become stigmatized and bogged down to the extent that, perhaps it is time for a new vocabulary.  A new vocabulary that, paradoxically, is older than the term “church”, or at least its Christian connotation.  I would argue that if we want to imitate the zeal of those first Christians after Pentecost, then we need to focus less on maintaining the “church”, and more on building the kingdom of God.  
What we see at the end of Acts 2 is a group of Jesus’ disciples seeking to live out God’s vision.  This vision is not confined to the area of a church building, or the time-frame of a corporate worship service, but encompasses our entire world.  So what exactly does that look like?
To begin with, God’s vision for us is of a world of universal praise.  This is what it means to live in the kingdom of God.  On Pentecost, the gospel was miraculously proclaimed because of the removal of language barriers.  Today, the deeds of God are routinely praised in languages which cover the globe, an event no less miraculous considering the scorn and derision first shown toward Jesus and his disciples.  Both in the event of Pentecost and in the universal praise offered to God around the world today, we see a reversal of the curse implemented at the Tower of Babel.  Language is no longer a barrier to our worship of the eternal God.  And if language is no longer a barrier, neither should the doors of our churches serve as a line of demarcation between the kingdom of God and the world.  Ask yourself this question, when was the last time you praised God somewhere besides church?  Can you remember the last time the world heard you sing or speak a word of praise to God?  Too often, the church mistakenly sees its only mission as the gathering of Christians for worship, when in fact the most relevant thing we can do in today’s world is send Christians out into the world in worship.  I do think that God is concerned with the hour we spend in corporate worship on Sunday, but I don’t think it’s because he wants that hour or two to be a special time that looks different than the rest of our week.  I think God is concerned with our time worshiping as a church because he desperately desires it to be a continuation of how our lives have been lived in the prior week, and because he longs to see it transform how we think, speak, and act in the days to come.  Our concerns over worship should be much broader than just the events of an hour.  This is vitally important, because when we limit our definition of worship to just a few hours we spend at a church building each week; we limit our ability to see the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our world all around us.  If we want to more closely imitate the enthusiasm of the Christians present at Pentecost, then we must be willing to leave our church buildings more often, and tear down the wall we have erected between “worship” and the rest of the week.   
God’s vision for us is also one of redemption.  The earth could not hold Jesus, because in the words of G. Bertram, “The abyss can no more hold the Redeemer than a pregnant woman can hold the child in her body.” Jesus did not stay dead, and because of that fact, we should no longer be living lives characterized by death.  When Peter is speaking to the crowd, his words in v. 40 are often translated “save yourselves.”  This is unfortunate since the verb is passive, which would make the meaning actually “allow yourselves to be saved.”  It might seem like small potatoes, but our churches are full of people who are haunted by failed attempts to “save themselves.”  When we present the road to salvation as a checklist of things we do, rather than the experiencing of God’s redeeming love, we rob ourselves and others of the opportunity to rest in the sufficiency of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf.  We allow ourselves to be saved precisely by ending our efforts to save ourselves, and instead trusting in the fact that Jesus Christ has already accomplished all that our redemption required.  Similarly, we live lives that reflect our redemption not because we finally succeed in our efforts to become better people, but because we abandon the enterprise of ever being better on our own, and we relinquish control of our lives to the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us.  For too long we have equated being New Testament Christians with doing a list of things that the first Christians did.  The reality is this complicates things far more than is necessary.  We don’t need to duplicate the actions of the New Testament Christians; we need to duplicate their faith.  The kingdom of God comes not because we do certain things, but because we trust in the God to whom the kingdom belongs. 
While I think it is a bad idea to attempt to slavishly imitate the Christians of the New Testament, I do think that there should be some similarities between their lives and ours.  Namely, our lives should be oriented toward Christ just as theirs were, and there are several practices that can help us in the process of reorienting ourselves away from the world and toward Christ. 
  •  Study Jesus:  The teaching of the apostles was an important aspect of the New Testament church.  This teaching almost certainly centered on the life of Christ.  It’s not complicated, the apostles simply told the story of who Jesus was, what he said, and how his life, death, and resurrection was the culmination of God’s plan to redeem humanity.  We could, and should, spend a lifetime studying who Jesus is and how he taught us to live. 
  • Live as a family: While the early Christians still had their individual identities, they were far less consumed with those identities, and seem far more willing than we often are to live as a family.  If you have ever gone to church camp or been on a spiritual retreat with other Christians, you know how uplifting it is to spend several days with people who are also striving to follow Christ.  The early church placed a premium on spending time together because they were living in a way that went against the grain of the world around them.  Because they saw themselves as family, they also showed great willingness to bear one another’s burdens.  They did not see their possessions as exclusively theirs, but sought opportunities to use those blessings for the good of the entire community.  Imagine what happens when rather than competing for things, we start freely sharing them?  Others cease to be competitors, and start being family instead.       
  •  Break Bread Together- This is sometimes seen solely as a reference to Communion.  While that is definitely one part of what is meant, Acts is almost certainly telling us that they shared entire meals together.  There are a lot of people we might sit in a sanctuary with, but we would never share a meal with.  Maybe it’s because we still harbor some prejudice in our heart, or maybe it’s just because we don’t like the person.  No doubt there were some socially awkward moments because of the meals that a very diverse group of people were called to share as Christians (see I Corinthians 11).  However, part of being the body of Christ is learning to work past what makes us different, learning to place ultimate importance on our shared identity in Christ.  What better place to do that than around a table, sharing a meal?  After all, everyone likes to eat!
  • Pray- The earliest Christians still shaped the rhythm of their life around set times of prayer, just as the Jews had done for centuries.  This is why we find Peter and John going up to the temple in Acts 3, because it was the “hour of prayer, the ninth hour” (Acts 3:1).  Clearly, the apostles still found great value in participating in set times of prayer.  As Christians we have great freedom to pray whenever we like.  My own experience has taught me though, that if I don’t have some set time or routine for my prayer life, then my prayer life is likely to be minimal at best.  It matters not when or where we pray, but it is imperative that we pray regularly.    
If the New Testament church has taught us anything, it should be that our individual churches are but beachheads through which the kingdom of God moves into the world around us.  Our mission is not to grow the church, but to expand the kingdom.  Growing the church means striving to increase attendance and building bigger facilities, expanding the kingdom means transforming the world around us through the power of the Holy Spirit into the world God intended it to be all along.  While growing the church and expanding the kingdom might overlap in some ways, they are not identical.  I remember reading about a visit to Kessel, Germany by New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall.  In the town was a bombed-out church, a testimony to the violence that the area had experience in the past.  Marshall noted that one spire remained, reaching for the sky and that on the doorway was the inscription, “The Word of God abides forever.”  One day, the buildings in which we worship will be but rubble, and we ourselves will have returned to the dust from whence we came.  If all we care about is “the church”, then more than likely the fact that we ever existed will probably exist as a mere footnote in history.  However, if our heart’s desire is to see God’s kingdom come and to see the name of Christ glorified, then surely the impact we make on the world around us will far outlast the bricks of our buildings, and our bodies in all their frailty.   

Monday, July 1, 2013

Acts 2: Why Pentecost? (Part II)

This is the second of two blog posts asking the question, “why Pentecost?”  Specifically, we are asking the question to examine how Pentecost was more than the sum of that day’s events 2,000 years ago, how it was more than a blip on the radar of history.  We are exploring how the historical roots of Pentecost actually help us point toward the brighter future God envisions for us.  In the first post I mentioned in passing how in Jesus’ time, Pentecost had become a celebration of when Moses received the Law, 50 days after Passover.  This is important to note because it links the giving of the Law of Moses on stone, to the giving of the Spirit, which writes God’s law on our hearts.      

This promise of God acting directly in our hearts was an old one.  It was perhaps most prominently stated by the prophet Jeremiah when he spoke of the new covenant between God and Israel:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

The prophet Joel also spoke of such a time:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.” (Joel 2:28-32)

So there it is; the promise.  It was the promise of a day when God would relate directly with human beings, regardless of their age or gender.  It was the promise of a day when there would be no more privileged religious class.  Despite all the years spent longingly anticipating the fulfillment of said promise God still manages to surprise us in a wonderful way, as our Father seeks to do something extraordinary through his followers.  With the sound of a mighty rushing wind- which is interesting in and of itself since the Greek word pneuma means both wind and Spirit- the Holy Spirit is upon the gathered disciples of Jesus Christ.  Before we know it Peter is speaking words that are not his own, and yet they are words from the heart.  The words of John the Baptist, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), have been fulfilled in their presence.  

If we really want to think about what this means for us today, we should consider Peter’s role in the story.  One of the first things that happens with Peter and this new gift of the Spirit is he must relinquish control.  Jesus tells Nicodemus in the Gospel of John,The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)  Here is Peter, the disgraced apostle, now boldly proclaiming the gospel just weeks after he so publicly denied his Lord in the courtyard of the high priest.  As they listen to Peter’s sermon, the people are undoubtedly asking, “Where did this come from?” and even, “Where is he going with this?”  So it is with the Spirit.  Those who are known for one thing, suddenly find themselves doing the exact opposite.  The silent begin boldly proclaiming, the selfish begin sharing, and those who hate become those who love. 

The Holy Spirit comes and does not just re-model, it re-creates.  In Genesis 2:7 the Spirit breathes life into dust and creates man, but here it does something even more remarkable, it breathes life into a disgraced apostle.  It is more remarkable because what the world needs is not more creation, but for creation to be re-created to resemble more closely God’s vision for our world.  The beauty of Pentecost is not that the Spirit was unleashed on a large group of people that day.  The beauty of Pentecost is found in the promise that God’s Spirit can, and will live inside even us, even today.   God’s Spirit is being unleashed in a broad sense, no longer reserved for kings and prophets.  Men and women, old and young, all united by their faith in God, and by God’s Spirit living inside of them. 

Why Pentecost?  First of all, because Pentecost points back: to God’s promises, to Jesus’ crucifixion, and to Jesus’ resurrection.  But mostly, because Pentecost takes salvation history, and uses that to point to the future: to redemption, to reconciliation, and to a world made in the image that God intended for it all along.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Acts 2: Why Pentecost? (Part I)

The first question you may ask when reading Acts 2 is, “What is Pentecost?”  After you have read the passage a few times over the years, the question might evolve to, “Why Pentecost?”  I have spent most of my life knowing what God did on Pentecost, just a few short weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, but only recently have I asked the question why God chose to act at that particular time?  Of course I lack the divine perspective to answer that question with any real authority, but I think that when we consider what Pentecost meant to the Jews of Jesus’ time we can begin to see more clearly a pattern of how God has acted, continues to act, and will act in the future. 

So what did Pentecost mean to the Jew of Jesus’ day?  To begin with, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after the first Sunday after Passover, and was also known as the Feast of Weeks.  Its origins go all the way back to the Torah, where the celebration was enshrined in the Mosaic Law:
You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you… You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.” - Deuteronomy 16:9-10, 12
One way of describing it would be as a celebration that took place when the first sheaf of wheat was brought in thanksgiving, with hopes that many more would follow.  For Jews, this festival was one that reminded them of their blessings, and God’s deliverance.  In Jesus’ day, it had also become a celebration of when Moses received the Law, a date traditionally believed to have been fifty days after Passover.  So, we have bound up in the festival the themes of blessing, deliverance, and a divinely ordained way of life.  The intent, however, was not for this to simply be a celebration of God’s past actions on behalf of Israel.  Its purpose was to use the remembrance of God’s past faithfulness as a compass by which Israel might guide its present actions.  To that point, we see that if we only look back on the day of Pentecost, we lose something vital in the formation of our faith.  While Pentecost called the faithful Jew to look back on the past, it was also an invitation for them to set their eyes forward in anticipation of what God might do in the future. 

I would suggest that Pentecost was God’s way of taking ‘salvation history’- the story of how God has brought about salvation in the past- and throwing it forward into the future, so that the church no longer fixes its gaze solely toward the past, but also looks to the future in expectation of how God will continue to act on behalf of humanity.  Take for instance the idea of Pentecost as the Feast of Weeks, complete with the freewill offering of the first fruits of the grain harvest.  Those first fruits were offered with the hope, the desire that God would grant even more.  We often look back on Pentecost and see the church’s high-water mark, though we loathe admitting it.  3,000 people put their faith in Christ through baptism that day!  What chance do we have of replicating that type of response to an invitation or altar call?  What if, instead of the pinnacle of God’s redemptive work, Pentecost was simply just the beginning?  After all, the roots of Pentecost were not in offering the entire harvest, simply the first fruits.  We are on the right track when we consider the words of Peter in this famous sermon that “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  (Acts 2:39)  Peter recognizes that God will act not only in the present, but in the future; and that God will act not just here, but also in every place.  It’s the beginning of the fulfillment of something promised long before, in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, creating the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.”  (Isaiah 57:19)
That is certainly how Paul saw it when he wrote his epistle to the Ephesians.  For Paul, “those who are far off” speaks not to geography, but to the chasm that stands between us and God because of our sin.  Jesus addresses not our geographical placement, but our unrighteous standing before God:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” (Ephesians 2:13-17)

The beauty of Pentecost is not in the success of Peter’s sermon that day, but in the promise that the transformed hearts of those several thousand new believers in Christ was only the beginning of the harvest that God would gather to himself.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Acts 1: Who are you playing your part for?

We all have ways of interpreting things.  What passes as a harmless remark made in jest for one person, is a deeply hurtful insult to another.  The difference between the two ways of seeing it is usually based on what experiences shape our worldview.  For the first disciples of Christ, the period surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was a tumultuous one.  It would have been easy for them to swing on a pendulum from depression to elation and back, and at times that is probably exactly how they felt.  However, the beginning of Acts tells us that despite the variety of emotion that they undoubtedly felt, those earliest followers of Jesus sought to anchor themselves by interpreting all that they experienced through the lens of scripture, and by devoting themselves to prayer.  What is the first thing that the disciples do after being commissioned by Jesus to go to the ends of the earth?   They pray.  They have the knowledge that they need.  They have just had a 40-day intensive course with Jesus’ as their teacher, but clearly more than knowledge is needed.  The disciples have Jesus teaching, but they must also wait for his power.

This power had been promised to the disciples by Jesus, but it had actually been promised long before then.  Several centuries before Jesus’ ministry, the prophet Joel had related a promise from God concerning the time of renewal that he would bring about:
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29)
Jesus hinted during his ministry that the promise was near at hand, for when comforting the disciples concerning their ability to stand up to persecution, Jesus reassures them that “it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:20)  Multiple times in the Gospel of John, Jesus promises them an advocate or comforter who will strengthen and enlighten them in times of trial.  All of this is a fulfillment of what John the Baptist said concerning Jesus:
 “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16) 
So Jesus tells them that the power promised ages ago to their forefathers was about to arrive.  God is about to keep his promise and the words of John the Baptist will ring true.  Jesus sends them out with the assurance that the promise of power is about to become a reality.

But to what end?  It is not enough to know that the Holy Spirit came; we must know why it came.  The short answer to ‘why’ is because we need to play our part, and play it well, and for that we need power.  It is easy to get so caught up in the miraculous work of Peter, James, John, and Paul that we forget the Holy Spirit descended on all the followers of Jesus who had gathered together.   
Only Peter, James, and John are mentioned again in Acts, or any other New Testament book other than the gospels.  We are not even sure what happened to Justus and Matthias, the two finalists for Judas old position as a member of the twelve apostles, after Matthias is chosen.  It is not that they did not do anything; it is just that their acts were not known to the world, and in many cases their lives have been lost to history.  What a stark reminder that our deeds in this life are not done for our own glory!  Should the Lord tarry, it is likely that within a hundred years no one will remember who we were.  However, God can be glorified if the impact of our life is felt, albeit anonymously.  While it may seem that the purpose of the Holy Spirit was to work miracles through a few apostles, in reality its purpose is broader and deeper than isolated acts of miraculous healing.  The Spirit’s purpose is to work from the inside out, dwelling in the heart of every Christian, and remaking that person into the image of God.  That is why we must remember that the whole reason behind our faith is not to serve or glorify ourselves, but to serve others and glorify God.  Jesus had reminded his followers of this when he was with them:      
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” - Mark 10:45
The Holy Spirit inaugurates a kingdom where greatness is judged not based on who takes the most, but on who gives the most; and because giving is not always easy, Jesus sends the Spirit to lend us a hand.  Hopefully we will all learn something from these earliest Christians.  When speaking of them, the theologian N. T. Wright makes the observation that:
“Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame.”
Do you take pride because you seemingly have all the power?  Are you ashamed because you seemingly have none?  The Holy Spirit comes to convict you, to convict me, to convict all of us that none of that matters.  It comes to tell us that the question is not what part are we playing, but who are we playing our part for?   

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Acts 1: This isn't goodbye

Why did Jesus leave?  It’s a question we don’t ask ourselves very often, because 2,000 years after the Ascension we just take for granted that things had to be that way.  But imagine for a minute that you are one of Jesus’ disciples.  You have seen the man you thought was the Messiah nailed to a cross; you have grieved the death of not only your friend, but also your dream of a restored Israel; and then seemingly out of nowhere your friend is returned to you from the grave, having conquered death itself.  Things seem as if they are finally going to work out the way you had hoped, and after a forty-day strategy session with the man you now know is the Messiah he tells you that…he has to leave??

There are a few things about the Ascension that we must grasp in order to understand how all of this fits into the plan.  First of all, unless Jesus leaves, the Holy Spirit will not come and descend upon Jesus’ followers.  He has told them this before, but not until now does the meaning of Jesus’ words sink in.  Back before his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and then resurrection, Jesus’ mentioned in his farewell speech that his departure was actually a good thing for the disciples:

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Jesus physical presence was necessary for a certain stage of God’s redemptive plan.  Jesus had to be physically present to live among us, to teach us, and to go to the cross on our behalf.  However, in the next stage it is the Holy Spirit, or Helper as Jesus’ refers to it, that takes over as the active force in God’s redemptive drama.  For the next stage to begin, the Holy Spirit has to arrive, and for the Holy Spirit to arrive, Jesus must leave…at least physically. 

This brings us to the other aspect of the Ascension which is crucial we understand: Jesus physical absence does not mean he is not present.  In our minds we often limit the discussion of “heaven and earth” to geographic terms, but Jesus’ farewell to the disciples implies that divine presence is not limited to physicality.  When he gives them the great commission, Jesus also utters words of great hope:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

The disciples had spent forty days with Jesus post-resurrection, just like Moses spent forty days on the mountain with God.  Moses was being prepared to form a nation of God’s on choosing, complete with laws to govern their relationship with the Lord, and with one another.  The disciples are being prepared not to form a nation, but to take back a world that has rebelled against God.  And so it is comforting that Jesus describes his own ascension not as an upward movement through the atmosphere, but rather a transferring of himself into the heavenly realm which is always close at hand.  Jesus ascension was not something that NORAD could have tracked, much as they track Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve.  Consider what comes after the aforementioned passage from John:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.”  (John 16:8-11)

Just as Jesus comes to us by appearing in the womb of Mary, so he leaves us by disappearing if you will, but only in the physical sense.  The apostles understood this, and often referred to Christ return as his appearing.  In writing to the church in Colossae, Paul would say that “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)  John would write to Christians and encourage them with the following words, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) 

As odd as the ascension might seem to modern minds, it made perfect sense to the people of Jesus’ day.  When a Roman emperor died, their soul was often said to be seen ascending into heaven.  Usually some sorcerer or magician was paid to give testimony to the fact that he had seen the spirit of the recently deceased ruler ascending into the heavens like a comet, to join the pantheon of the gods.  It sounds familiar, but there is a very crucial difference between what was claimed to have happened to the emperors, and what happened to Jesus.  Jesus upstages the emperors by ascending into heaven not just as a soul, but in a fully embodied state.  The Romans had to say they had seen the emperor’s soul, because everyone knew that his body had been cremated.  But Jesus ascends both body and soul, because his body is no longer in the tomb.  Though he has ascended he remains accessible, and the disciples continue to commune with him through prayer and worship, which connects them to the reality of heaven.   

So when we speak of Jesus’ Ascension, we speak not of Jesus leaving us as if he is now far removed from the world in which we live.  While Jesus does sit enthroned in heaven, heaven is not as far away as we think.  Indeed, heaven is within reach whenever we see the Helper that Jesus promised, the Holy Spirit, at work in our world.   

Friday, April 19, 2013

Acts 1: The church's marching orders

Did you know that Isaac Newton considered himself a theologian?  In fact, Isaac Newton devoted more words of his writing to discussing God, than he did to discussing science.  It’s a fascinating bit of biography from a bygone era when faith and science did not seem to be at each other’s throats.  One of the laws of motion that Newton is famous for articulating is the idea that an object at rest will stay at rest, and an object in motion will stay in motion, until an exterior force acts upon it.  In other words, if there is a change in an object, look for an external force exerting that change.  Newton applied the concept to physics, but what if we took the same thought and used it to consider the resurrection?

While Acts has often been described as history- and to a large extent it is- it is actually much, much more than that.  In the opening of Acts Luke refers back to the first volume of his work, which we know as the Gospel of Luke, and tells Theophilus that it was a record of all that Jesus “began to do and teach.”  There is an implication here, that though Jesus’ ascension is recorded at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts, the book of Acts is a continuation of the story of what Jesus did and taught.  In fact, the open-ended nature of Acts’ conclusion implies that Luke views the story as far from finished.  Acts is not just the type of history we read, it’s the type of history we write ourselves as Jesus acts and teaches through us, his disciples. 
If we are going to be Jesus’ disciples and act and teach on his behalf, we must first change the way we see the world.  Jesus’ challenges his disciples, and by extension us as well, who have gathered after his resurrection.  The challenge is simple; stop thinking defensively.  While we think small, God thinks big.  The apostles must lose their vision of what “restoring the kingdom to Israel” should mean, and they must do so in order to gain the kingdom.   Just as they had to lose their lives in order to save them, Jesus now expands that vision to include not just us as individuals, but us as a community.  The two languages used to describe what has happened to Christ in Acts, the language of resurrection and ascension, are not languages of defeat, but of victory.  And so, Jesus gives them their marching order.  They are to serve as his witnesses “in Jerusalem” (Acts 1-7), “in Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8-11:18), and “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 11:19-the present).  Jesus is sending them out as heralds, announcing the fact that his reign has begun.  I am reminded of a story from the American Civil War.  In the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg, General Lee was in retreat with the Confederate Army.  Lee’s army was beaten and bloodied, and was doing all it could to make it back into friendly territory.  He had almost made it back to Virginia when he reached the Potomac, and found its banks swollen from the recent rain.  His army was now in a possibly fatal position, with their backs to a swollen river, and a better-equipped army twice their size bearing down on them.  However, General Meade, the commander of the Union Army refused to attack.  He had just won a victory which had repelled the invading Southerners from Northern soil, and he seemed content to allow Lee to return to the South unmolested.  This infuriated President Lincoln, who was said to utter something along the lines of, “when will these people understand that it’s all our soil!”

We as the church are a lot like General Meade.  We are as well-intentioned as he was, but we also possess the same lack of vision.  We continue to remain on the defensive, huddled inside our church buildings, hoping for the enemy to come to us.  Meanwhile, God desperately wants us to understand that it is all his soil.  Every inch of sand or dirt on all seven continents, and every drop of water in from the smallest stream to the biggest ocean, it all belongs to him.  Every broken home in our community, every addict walking our streets, every neglected and abused child…they all belong to him. God’s desire is that we leave our church buildings, our places of comfort, and that we go and reclaim those broken homes.  God’s desire is that we go and minister to those wayward souls.  God’s desire is that we go and fight to protect the innocence of our children. 

I spoke at the beginning of Isaac Newton and his laws of motion.  An object at rest stays at rest, until acted upon by an outside force.  The church has been at rest for far too long.  We have been huddled together, just trying to survive for far too long.  We need a force to act upon us, to put us in motion.  It’s time we acted, it’s time we moved.  In the next post we will look at the identity of that outside force, which it turns out actually becomes an inside force.  In the meantime, consider our mission as a church, and what we are doing to fulfill that mission.  N. T. Wright says that “the church is either the movement which announces God’s new creation, or it is just another irrelevant religious sect.”  God forbid that our rest becomes irrelevance.    

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Luke 24:1-12: Easter is Seeing the Unseen

When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate the reason for our hope.  Despite the yearly reminder of Jesus resurrection, we are often tempted to look for hope elsewhere.  Easter forces us to ask the question anew, with each passing year, where is our hope found? 

Sometimes upon asking the question, we realize that our hope is placed in things other than God.  We are tempted sometimes to look for hope in our rulers; kings, prime ministers, presidents, rulers of nations and shapers of our world.  It makes sense, at least according to how the world thinks.  After all, rulers have power.  They can conquer other lands, defend us from our enemies, build the roads, schools, and hospitals we need, and create laws to govern our society.  If we have a problem, surely they can find the solution.  This is sound logic until we realize that even good rulers are mere human beings.  To put it plainly, they die before they finish their work.  Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, only to die before he could reign over his consolidated empire.  Our own history provides its own examples.  Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could bring the Civil War to an end, and guide us through Reconstruction.  FDR died before the war in the Pacific was concluded, leaving Truman with the decision whether or not to use “the bomb”.  We can even find examples in our Bible.  Think about how much the early church leaned on the apostles for a direct line to Jesus teaching.  The Gideons’ were not on the street-corners passing out Bibles in those days, so the first Christians relied on the apostles, those who walked with Jesus, to pass on his teaching.  It must have been terrifying for them to think of life without these leaders, as the church witnessed one after the other suffer martyrdom.  Even in the church we tend to put too much stock in our leaders.  We would be wise to consider the words of the psalmist, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3-4)

Maybe we have witnessed enough politics, both in Washington and in the church, that we no longer put a lot of trust in our leaders.  That does not mean that we don’t have other idols in which we seek hope.  How many of us place our wealth above all else?  If we simply see wealth as the ultimate source of security, that is enough for it to supplant God as the center of our universe.  On one level it makes sense.  After all, money buys us food, clothing, shelter, and helps provide the medicines many of us rely on for good health.  But Jesus warns us in that most famous of sermons, the Sermon on the Mount, that when we trust in riches, we trust on something that is temporal.  He reminds us, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:19-21)  And it is not just that money is temporary, but that it also seeks to control us if we allow it, by making it too much of a focus in our lives.  Paul would write to his young disciple Timothy, But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (I Timothy 6:6-10)  If our hope is in our wealth, then sooner or later we will be worshiping our wealth as the god of our life. 

Maybe we don’t trust in our leaders, or in our wealth.  Maybe we trust in our own power, whether it is ours individually or collectively.  Power does have a way of making us seem less vulnerable.  In Jesus’ day, there was something referred to as the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace”.  In essence, it was a way of referring to the internal stability, and security from external threats that was a result of Roman military might.  In a post-Cold War, pre-9/11 world, American citizens had much the same feeling of peace and security.  However, a group of determined terrorists showed that no matter a nation’s military might, no country is invincible.  There are other issues with seeking hope in our own strength.  For instance, what happens when power is in the hands of the unrighteous?  Right does not make might, and often it is the righteous who lack the power.  Even if power is in the hands of the righteous, if such a group exists is highly debatable, power is never permanent.  There was a time when no one envisioned a world without the Roman Empire.  There was a time when the “sun never set on the British Empire.”  History tells us that if the Lord tarries, there will almost certainly come a day when America is no longer the world’s super-power.  If we live to see that day, will all hope be lost? 
David writes that “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7)  Chariots and horses were the tanks and fighter jets of ancient times.  It would be easy to try to amass as many as possible as a source of strength.  And yet, David reminds us that the Lord our God is the only one capable to giving us hope.  He is the only one in whom we should trust. 

So what does all of this have to do with Easter?  We have looked at a lot of things that claim to provide hope.  Leaders, wealth, and even power are seductive options when considering where to put our trust.  The Resurrection however, reminds us that real hope is in seeing the unseen.  Our hope is found in what the women don’t see in the tomb.  The word find is used twice in the story; once it refers to a stone that has been rolled away, and once it refers to what they did not find- a body.  It was simply referred to as the body of Jesus when Joseph of Arimathea asked for it from Pilate, but when it cannot be found in the tomb, it is suddenly referred to as the body of the Lord Jesus.  Jesus has conquered death, and his lordship is now beyond dispute.  It’s a scene that transforms the women into angels.  The root word for “told” is the same as that of angel, which is from the Greek word for messenger.  While they don’t have wings, harps, or halos, these women return to the disciples to speak a word worthy of announcement by an angelic chorus.  It’s a word that sends Peter running to the tomb to see, or not see, for himself the truth of what he has heard.  Our encounter with the risen Lord must be a personal one.  Our faith cannot be sustained on the testimony of others, so like Peter we run to the tomb each year, to discover all over again that it is indeed empty.  It is true that unlike Peter, we cannot see the scene for ourselves, but then again, that has never been the definition of faith.  We have read our Bible from an early age, and whether it has sunk in or not, we have been told that faith is different from knowledge.  The author of Hebrews would say that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)  In some sense this makes it difficult for us, even more difficult than it was for the apostles.  Jesus acknowledges as much when he tells “doubting” Thomas, “You believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

The Resurrection invites us to enter the story of God’s goodness and work in our world.  It invites us to find our place in God’s story.  It challenges us to read the Bible, the story of Jesus Christ not as a history book, but as our story.  John Steinbeck provides some insight into how that might be done in a passage from his book The Winter of Our Discontent.  He writes:

“That Saturday morning seemed to have a pattern.  I wonder whether all days have.  It was a withdrawn day.  The little gray whisper of my Aunt Deborah came to me, ‘Of course, Jesus is dead.  This is the only day in the world's days that he is dead.  And all men and women are dead too…But tomorrow.  Just wait until tomorrow.  Then you’ll see something.’
I don’t remember her very clearly, the way you don’t remember someone too close to look at.  But she read the Scripture to me like a daily newspaper and I suppose that’s the way she thought of it, as something going on happening eternally but always exciting and new.  Every Easter, Jesus really rose from the dead, an explosion, expected but nonetheless new.  It wasn’t two thousand years ago to her; it was now.  And she planted something of that in me.”

Easter reminds us that God’s work is something happening eternally, always exciting and new.

The challenge of Easter is to see Jesus’ resurrection not just as an event that happened 2,000 years ago, but as something that is happening now, and to take that way of viewing the world, and to plant it in as many other people as we can through the way we speak, through the way we act, and through the way we love.