Friday, March 30, 2012

John 14

     In the ancient Hebrew betrothal ceremony the groom would visit the family home of the bride. Even though the marriage was arranged between the fathers, the bride still had the right to refuse. The groom would arrive and the family would gather in a separate room within hearing distance. The groom would pour a glass of wine for his future bride and if she set it on the table she was refusing the marriage proposal. However, is she took and drank from the cup she was accepting the proposal. The groom would then announce out loud: "I go now to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am , there you may be also." He would then go and build an addition on his family's home and when it was completed to his father's satisfaction he would return and the marriage would begin. In John 14:2-3 Jesus uses the language of the marriage proposal to announce to his closest followers that his going is not an abandonment but is part of a greater proposal and a deeper relationship. There are many dwelling spaces (many rooms) in the Father's house. There is room for everyone.
     Jesus leaving (that is his death, resurrection and ascension) is a necessary part of his purpose. In John 13 through 17 Jesus is preparing his followers for this imminent departure. He is speaking words of comfort and strength. Notice in 14:18 "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you." 14:18 is another of a list of words of hope and expectation. In 14:15 and following Jesus promises the "Holy Spirit. In verse 16 this Holy Spirit is called the "Advocate". One of my pet peeves is this translation. Sometimes it gets translated "Counselor" sometimes "Comforter". The Greek word here is "paracletus" (if I got my Greek spelling correct) which literally means "one called along side to help". Helper, Counselor, comforter are inadequate translations. I want the divine Paraclete -- the Holy Spirit along side of me to help me on this journey. The point Jesus is making is that the Holy Spirit will not be sent until Jesus has completed his purpose and journey. These words should be comforting to the Disciples -- but if one does not know the "Holy Spirit" or has no frame of reference for understanding it can be difficult.
     Jesus does not give peace like the world does (14:27). The world understands peace as the absence of conflict. Peace (shalom in the Hebrew) conveys the much broader concept of wholeness, completeness. Jesus does not just offer us the absence of conflict . . . Jesus offers us the opportunity to be complete, fulfilled, whole. All too often we settle for the trivial answers to life and the world's even more trivial solutions: take this pill, do this dance, drink this beverage, look like this, attend this school, drive this car, shop this store, have this life style, ad infinitum ad nauseam (Latin spelling is correct: I looked it up!). What Jesus offers, as seen in 14:2-3 and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, is a wholeness born of essential relationship. Or, to put it another way, he offers, as the way the truth and the life (14:6), the fundamental, essential purpose for which we were created: that is living life in a loving relationship with our creator and with our fellow humans.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

John 13

     First century foot ware consisted of a leather bottom with leather straps to hold it on your foot. The streets were dirt or cobblestone with multiple animals (horses, cows, goats, sheep) utilizing the roads as much as the human traffic. Needless to say, one's feet got dirty, smelly (dare I say nasty) walking in that environment. It was the expected practice of hospitality to have a basin of water and towels for one's guests. The "lowest" person in the household (typically a household servant or slave) had the task of washing the feet of the guests. The feet would be washed and dried, a dollop of perfumed oil was put on the head of the guest and the guest was greeted by the host with that classic kiss on the cheek we see in all of the videos of the middle east.
    Jesus removes his outer robe, wraps a towel around himself (13:4) and does the work of the slave, the household servant; he proceeds to wash the feet of his disciples. He does this to set an example for the disciples to be servants for one another. Christian leadership is not about power over others it is about power with others. The Christian leader chooses to use his/her power in the service of others. Imagine a community where everyone treated everyone else with this level of profound deference and service. This exercise in foot-washing becomes a demonstration (dare I say a parable) for the focus of chapter 13 which is found in verses 34 and 35.
     Jesus gives a new commandment. It is not a paint by the numbers do this don't do that commandment. It is a command to "love one another as I have loved you". Which is to say if our Lord and Teacher have chosen to serve all of us, it necessarily follows that we will choose to serve one another. The kicker in the passage for me is verse 35 that reads "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." The ultimate mark of Christian community is not seen in the "good works" we do -- we do the good works because it is an outgrowth of God's love for us and our love for the people of the world. Rather, the ultimate mark of the Christian community is COMMUNITY. A living, vibrant, energized, loving community that seeks what is best for one another. A community that loves each other is a Christ like community.
     Instead, all to often, churches have the reputation for being armed camps, agenda and issue driven gatherings of humans. All too often, Christian community is a myth or a bad joke and church people devour one another, fighting to win at all costs . . . instead of showing and living sacrificial love for one another. I dream of Christian community that so profoundly cares for each other on the inside it becomes compellingly magnetic to those who are yet on the outside. I believe that is the life to which Jesus calls us. It is life that exhibits a radical commitment to living life in community.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

John 12

     John's version of Palm Sunday. The crowd that gathered at the raising of Lazarus is still following; the crowd that has learned of the other "signs" comes running and we have an instant parade. Palm branches, banners, clothing and Jesus sitting on a young donkey. John 12:19 -- the Pharisees are exasperated and lament, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!".
     Jesus is now openly speaking of his impending death. He admits in 12:27 that his "glorification," which is John's word for Jesus coming crucifixion, is the the very purpose for which he came. There is an affirming voice from heaven and Jesus continuing admonition to "walk in the light!"
     Jesus did not come to judge the world (12:47) but to save the world. In context of the Gospel and in balance with other biblical passages this does not mean that there will not be a day of judgment. But Jesus did not come to condemn but to offer himself as the way to God. It is often difficult for modern believers to understand this very significant difference. It is like a team or an organization that has fallen into disarray when suddenly there comes a player or manager that does things "the right way". Play hard, treat people right, keep focused on the goal. The team or organization often fights and dislikes the intrusion because the intrusion serves as a judgement on what has been going on all along. Jesus, when he comes into a world that is lost and in total disarray, does not need to speak words of judgement. His very presence is judgment on the world lost and broken. He did not come to judge but to invite. He did not come to condemn but to save. But if we refuse the only help offered . . .

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

John 11

     The death and resurrection of Lazarus reveals both Jesus' divine and human selves. It is a amazing study in contrasts. Jesus, the human being, is in a profound relationship of friendship with Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus Jesus the human being is deeply grieved by their sorrow and the death of Lazarus. Jesus the human being is so deeply touched that he weeps with the grievers (11:35). Jesus, Son of God, is revealed in calling Lazarus from the dead. He prays to identify his connection to the Father, he speaks the word of command: "Lazarus, Come out!" (verse 43) and Lazarus comes out and needs to be unbound from the grave cloths.
     The unique nature of Jesus, that he is God and human at the same time, is difficult for the modern mind to grasp. We think he is "neither fish nor fowl" how can he be fully human and fully God at the same time. What we often miss is that this is just an elevated form of ourselves. God made angels who are fully spiritual. God made animals who are fully physical. God made humans "in the image and likeness of God" yet, out of the mire and clay of the earth. All human beings, according to the Bible, are both spiritual and physical beings. Jesus spiritual self as Son of God is a infinite number of magnitudes greater than our own but because of his dual nature we see in Jesus the perfected reflection of our own selves. What he truly is, is what we truly are.

Monday, March 26, 2012

John 10

    The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep because the Good Shepherd "cares for the sheep." This serves not only as a metaphor for Jesus laying down his life for us on the cross, but it also serves as a metaphor for ministry in the name of Jesus. Pastors who view themselves as "hired hands" or working in a profession, seldom engage their congregations on a community building relational level. The best pastors I know see themselves as living out a calling or vocation and the calling is to shepherd, lead, and build the flock.
     Jesus claims in John 10:30 that "The Father and I are one." This infuriates the religious leaders because, once again, Jesus is claiming to be on equal status and standing with God. Jesus responds by once again pointing out the "signs" that is the miracles he has performed. The evidence that Jesus is the Son of God is not in what he teaches nor is it in what he says at other times. The evidence that Jesus is the Son of God is seen in what he actually does. Every miracle of Jesus, as recorded in John, is another sign post indicated that he is the Christ, the savior of the world. Among the religious folks there is some confusion. When some are saying that Jesus has a demon the ask "Can a demon open the eyes of the blind? (John 10:21)"
    In the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, the Judas character sings the song titled "Superstar" wherein he laments: "listen Jesus I don't like what I see . . . you've begun to matter more than the things you say." These words are appropriately put in the mouth of Judas. According to the Gospel according to John, Jesus does, in fact, matter more than his teachings. Someone once said the three important questions are: who is Jesus? what is salvation? and what are the implications for living? That is precisely the point: Jesus' person and the "signs" he performs far outweigh (or should I say the actually give weight?) to what he teaches.

Friday, March 23, 2012

John 9

     Light and darkness, sight and blindness are metaphors that Jesus uses to show whether or not people are "getting it". In the story of the man born blind John contrasts the physical blindness and now sightedness of the unnamed man with the physical sightedness and spiritual blindness of the religious leaders. Spiritual blindness is a consistent theme in the gospels. Jesus welcomes and encourages those who know they are in darkness. He challenges and castigates those who, though claiming to be in the light are, in fact, walking in darkness. To put it another way, Jesus generally only has trouble with those who insist they have it all figured out. Doubt and asking questions is not the enemy of faith -- fear is.
     For the religious mind, being right trumps all other options. The state of a person, his/her potential salvation, their gifts, etc. are secondary. Jesus deals with individuals and leads them out of darkness and into light. The simple responses of the man born blind become increasingly infuriating to the Pharisees. I watched an old Steve Martin film called "Leap of Faith" over the weekend. Martin plays a corrupt and crooked traveling "evangelist" who makes no bones about the fact that he is in it for the money and has no faith of his own. In the film there is an authentic healing and Martin's character is flabbergasted and angry. The authentic healing of the man born blind calls into question all of their assumptions. The worse thing in the world for the religious (or the huckster) is to come face to face with the real thing. When we are AUTHENTIC followers of Christ and not just putting on the face, the talk and the correct view points, the world notices and comes to look.
     The end of the story contains a significant moment. In verse 38 it says "He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. This is the first instance of someone "worshiping Jesus" in John's gospel. We have, up to this point, see people call Jesus "Son of God" and have acknowledged his divinity (John 6: You are the Christ, son of the Living God!). Verse 38 is the first instance of someone acting on that understanding and offering to Jesus worship.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

John 8

   John 8 begins with a textual controversy. It is the story of the woman caught in adultery. According to Biblical scholars, this story does not appear in earliest manuscripts of John (or it appears elsewhere in the book and some ancient texts have this story in Luke 21). With these textual difficulties there are a variety of responses. The most likely option is that this is an authentic story of Jesus ministry (it certainly fits the character and flavor of the rest of the Gospel stories) that circulated independently of the Gospel and was attached to John (or Luke) for its preservation.
   The story itself presents an interesting dilemma: according to the Old Testament law, if a couple is caught in the act of adultery BOTH parties are to be stoned to death (see Leviticus 20:10). So the question rises: where is the man? If the Pharisees are actually interested in keeping the law . . . there should be two people in front of Jesus. Jesus response is let the one without sin cast the first stone. This is consistent with Jesus saying "don't take the speck out of your brother/sister's eye when you have a log in your own (Matthew 7:3-5)." And, "Judge not and you will not be judged (Matthew 7:1)." Why do we condemn the behaviors of others and so seldom condemn our own behaviors.
     I once preached a series of sermons titled "Jesus said: 'I am.'" As we seek to understand our Lord and Savior, notice the times he identifies himself with the words "I am". The name for God that is given in Exodus 3 (at the burning bush with Moses) when translated from the Hebrew translates into: "I am who I am". Jesus, in using this phrasing is identifying himself in the same way. He says "I am the door . . . the way, truth, life . . . here in John 8:12 "I am the light of the world". And, the one that really riles up the religious folks, "before Abraham was, I am (8:58)." In the 8:58 reference Jesus claims to be precede Abraham. Remember that each story in John comes to the same conclusion: Jesus is the Son of God the Savior of the world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

John 7

     In the festival of tabernacles there is a moment where the high priest circles the altar with freshly drawn water. This is called the water-libation. The libation offering of water came at the end of the last day of the festival (note "on the last day of the festival, the great day" in verse 37). It is at this moment, when the priest has returned from the pool of Siloam with the freshly drawn water and is pouring the water out onto the alter as a libation offering and the participants are celebrating with flutes, and thew waving of branches, singing and dancing that Jesus calls out: "let anyone who is thirsty come to me . . . out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water." What follows is a discussion of whether or not Jesus is the prophet.
     In John's gospel, Jesus is engaging the existing festivals and reinterpreting them. Much as Jesus takes the Passover and shifts the emphasis to "this is my body and this is my blood" so with the feast of the tabernacles, Jesus takes the pouring of the water libation (the high holy moment on the 7th day of the festival) and transforms it into a fresh understanding of the giving of the Holy Spirit. For the believer, coming to Jesus will mean an infilling of the Holy Spirit, a fresh pouring out of God's presence and power.
     I notice in Verse 50 that our old friend, Nicodemus, is back. Remember John 3, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and left somewhat confused. It appears that by chapter 7, Nicodemus is in the position of defending Jesus and reminding the Sanhedrin council that their procedures do not allow them to judge a person without a fair hearing. The council's response is to accuse Nicodemus of being a follower of Jesus (see verse 52). We know, later in the gospel, that Nicodemus IS a follower of Jesus when he comes to help Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus' burial. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John 6

     Following the feeding of the 5000 (the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all 4 of the Gospels) and Jesus walking on the water, we come to the extended "Bread of Life" teaching. Jesus is clearly speaking in Eucharistic terms when he speaks of eating his body and drinking his blood. His listeners think he has gone completely mad and is inviting them to participate in some cannibalistic ritual. In the early years of the Christian movement (at least into the 4th century) one of the accusations against the Christian movement was that the Christians got together and ate children. The religious people do not understand what he is talking about and, frankly the language Jesus uses: referring to himself as Manna, calling himself "living bread", etc. does not leave much room for a broader understanding. Without knowledge of the Lord's supper his listeners would be clueless.
     The best exchange in the passage comes at the end. Because of this teaching many of his disciples left him (verse 66) and when Jesus confronts the 12 (and the inner circle) and asks them: "do you also wish to go away?" (verse 67) Simon Peter, speaking for the group, says: "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life!" Often times Jesus expects certain attitudes, certain beliefs, certain behaviors that run contrary to the world around us. There have been times in my life when following Jesus has been difficult and being faithful to his call on my life nigh unto impossible. . . in these difficult times I remember when he claimed my life, and called me out of darkness. Every time I remember that he has the words to eternal life and I push on.

Monday, March 19, 2012

John 5

     Jesus is a rule breaker. He breaks the rules with purpose and intentionality. He breaks the rules because they rules themselves have become toxic. In the first century the religious people were not following the 10 commandments, they were following the traditions and "hedges" that rose up to protect the 10 commandments. The 4th commandment says "no work on the Sabbath". That seems pretty clear to most of us but the ancient Rabbi's believed it worth exploring further and so an interpretative layer was added to define "work". Some of these are obvious: plowing, cleaning, cooking, harvesting and the like were clearly work. Over the centuries layer upon layer of interpretation was piled onto the original commandment. Even though the man in John 5 had been healed of paralysis, the religious people are shouting at him for carrying his mat home.
     This over reaction reveals legalism at its worse. Modern Churches fall into the same kinds of traps. When things have to be done in a certain way or when the style of worship becomes more important than the substance of worship we have fallen into this same trap. When the outward practice and appearance takes precedence over the inward transformation of the heart we are living in a legalistic situation.
     Jesus, of course, does all this intentionally. It is his intent to break their sabbath understandings. It is his intent to show that as the "son of God" (see verses 17/18) he has the authority to challenge them. In the other Gospels Jesus calls himself "Lord of the Sabbath". Chapter 5 ends with an important message in John. The truth about Jesus and what Jesus came to do is already known by the religious people: it is spelled out in the books of Moses (verse 46).

Friday, March 16, 2012

John 4

     The woman at the well is often misunderstood. I have heard preachers call her a prostitute or at least a "loose woman." There are elements in the story, when translated with a modern understanding, that might give that impression. In the division labor women carried the water.  Women drew water in the morning and the evening (because it was cooler). This was a social event, chatter and gossip and getting caught up with each other. There are two wells in Sychar: one in the village proper and the one mentioned in John 4. Clearly the point of coming to the well outside of town and at noon is to avoid the other village women. We note that she has had 5 husbands and is currently living with another man. What the modern reader fails to miss is that the woman cannot get a divorce (under the law she has to be divorced by her husband). Her situation is not entirely her making. Now, we might want to explore how it is she gets divorced 5 times, but that speculation, though interesting, is not going to be productive. Is it possible she is a victim of her culture and desperately in need of a word of hope and a word of grace. She is disrespected by her community and stunned when a Jewish man strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman. Whatever her situation, Jesus crosses all of the boundaries that divide us, finds us where we are and invites us to take a new adventure.
     The really interesting thing to do is to compare the stories of John 3 and John 4. They are complete negative images of each other. In John 3 we have Nicodemus: male, Jewish, rich, educated, respected, leader, who comes to Jesus by night. In John 4 we have unnamed woman, female, Samaritan, poor, disrespected, outcast to whom Jesus comes at Noon. The author of John arranges these stories this way so that we can see in an instant that Jesus came for everyone -- rich or poor, male or female, righteous or unrighteous. . . etc. It is a wonderful comparison and a keen visual reminder of the unfathomable grace and mercy of God.
     I am encouraged to read, here and other places, the reminder that the harvest is ripe. The church needs to learn to communicate in the language of the time and help the message of the good news of Jesus get outside the walls of our buildings and back onto the streets, the market places, the business, the public arenas wherein the gospel has always flourished. Look up (look outside) when the spring arrives it touches every corner of the land . . . and when we look we will see that the harvest is indeed ripe!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

John 3

     Nicodemus comes at night but eventually sees the light of day. Later in the Gospel Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimathea  is listed as a "follower of Jesus, only secretly for fear." We get all hung up on the "Born Again" language and the word "must". Here's what I think the passage is telling us: we are born with profound spiritual capacity -- physical creatures carrying the broken image of God within us. This spiritual capacity needs to be activated by a touch from God. That touch comes in so may and diverse ways as to be impossible to count. Some are spiritually awakened by a vista view, others by the kindness of strangers, others by beauty of music and art and others through tragedy and disaster. Each of us, to be fully alive, needs to be awakened -- to be born from above (anew!). Don't be surprised, don't be astonished, but look for the grace and love of God to awaken you.
     The New Testament teaches that the world and all its residents are lost. It is a sinking ship. God, in his infinite mercy, has sent a life line. The life line is Jesus. There is no point in complaining that we want other options or don't like the option God has given. There is no point at all. We are drowning, there is a life preserver. Will I grab on with both hands? Or will I go down? (John 3:17-21).
     As a preacher of the gospel and a pastor, one of my favorite sentences in the gospel is John 3:30. John the Baptist says "he must increase, but I must decrease." I once preached in a church that had John 12:21 pasted on the pulpit where only the preacher could read it. It said: "Sir, we would see Jesus!". Good advice for any preacher. I think this is the same idea from John the Baptizer -- Jesus must increase and I must fade to the background. The more of Jesus people see in me the better. Trouble, sorrow and difficulty all arise when we make this journey "all about me" and not about Jesus, his message, his life, HIS story.
    One of my young musician friends Jen, sent me a link on facebook today about a John Waller song titled "Somebody Else's Story". It is this passage in miniature. All I want is to be used by God to matter in the lives of others -- to be the light, the comfort, the challenge, the grace -- the channel of God's love, mercy and grace.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John 2

     Two stories are in Chapter 2. First we encounter the wedding at Cana and Jesus turning water into wine. It is an odd sign and has been used by commentators and preachers over the years to support, encourage and even defend many things. The only clear thing to be said is that Jesus helped save a family from embarrassment by making sure the wine did not run out before the end of the wedding feast. The dynamics of his mother making the request and the "secret" between Jesus and the servers is all part of the fun. The only conclusion I arrive at is that Jesus can change things from ordinary to extraordinary. Water is the most common substance on earth. Transforming common water into uncommon wine is a symbol of what Jesus does for each and every one of us each and every day.
   The second story is a display of emotion. The money changers, the sellers of doves, cattle and sheep are all profiteering on the religion of the people and the sacred place. Sacrifices were only allowed to be offered at the temple in Jerusalem. Everyone had to go there for their family offering and to atone for their sins and other matters. This was further complicated by the Sadducees (who controlled the temple) not allowing "foreign" currency to be used in the Temple area but only allowing the Temple Shekel. The money changers were trading shekels for Greek and Roman coins at a profit The sellers of animals were making a profit -- everyone was profiting from people's spiritual and religious needs.
     There are times when anger is the right response. St. Paul says to "be angry, but do not sin (Ephesians 4:26)". There are things that should make us angry (abuse of a child, injustice in any form). That anger should be channeled into an appropriate response. Jesus response is not violent -- he is not beating people but clearing animals, he is not whipping people but overturning their tables and pouring out their money.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

John 1

     John 1 is the prologue. Whereas Matthew and Luke begin with the birth and infancy narrative of Jesus, John begins with a theological treatise. John's focus is not on what happened but on why. John 1 explains that though Jesus, the human being was born in Bethlehem, The Christ (Son of God) was eternally preexistantly God. The "Word" is the Greek word "Logos". Christians have taught and understood that when God spoke the "Word" in the creation poem of Genesis 1, the Word through which God spoke was the preexistant Son of God. Thus in the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God.
     Verse 14 is the very heart of all Christian theology. It is Incarnation. Matthew and Luke tell us about Incarnation  through the stories of virgin birth and the miracle of the baby Jesus. John tells us simply and plainly: the Word became flesh and lived among us! Eugene Peterson uses the more colorful and God became flesh and "moved into the neighborhood." The Divine and Holy assumed corruptible human flesh and lived among us.
     I love Andrew's behavior in John 35 and follow. When Andrew is shown that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) his first instinct is to share this news with someone close. He immediately goes and gets his brother Simon and when Simon is introduced to Jesus, Jesus changes Simon's name to Cephas (in Greek Petros) usually rendered in English as Peter. The name means "Rock" in all three languages. How much fun would it have been if the first English translators had simply translated Cephas and Petros to Rocky. Later at Caesarea Philipi Jesus could have said "you are Rocky and on this Rock I will build my church!"
    Andrew knows that news like this should not be kept to oneself: he had to tell his brother!

Gospel according to John: Introduction

Below is my introduction to the Gospel according to John that I wrote for Nexus Seminary in Uganda:

John is the last and most unique of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic Gospels. They are called the “synoptic Gospels” because they follow similar stories, patterns, and rhythms. John concentrates on a few stories of Jesus’ life and develops them in detail. John writes to show that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Most of this Gospel happens in and around Jerusalem and Judea (instead of Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem like the other three Gospels.) The Gospel according to John also focuses on Jesus’ activity around the Jewish festivals in Jerusalem. This Gospel was also the last of the gospels, written probably late in the first century (AD 90.)
The Gospel according to John assumes that the reader already knows something of the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Scholars differ on authorship (the book identifies no author) but oldest Christian tradition identifies John, son of Zebedee, as the author. John is often called the “spiritual” Gospel because of its attention to the spiritual importance of the events it reports. John refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs.” These miracles/signs point to the truth of the nature of Jesus.
Key Learning: Every story in John makes the same point: Jesus is the Son of God.

James 5

Hi all -- sorry I'm a day late with this one -- was away from my computer all day yesterday.

     Two things that jump at me in chapter 5 of James -- one is the admonition beginning in verse 7 to be patient in waiting for the return of the Lord and to be patient when we suffer trials. I have heard since my childhood about the patience of Job. Having read Job I am not sure calling him patience really works. He was insistent, stubborn, and occasionally cranky but not too patient. James says to consider the "endurance" of Job, that works better for me. Job endured and hung in there.
     The second thing that jumps at me here is the encouragement regarding prayer that begins in verse 13. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. I agree. The images of prayer from the gospel are pretty consistent -- pray until God either answers your prayer or changes your prayer. Some have used the acronym "push" -- pray until something happens -- to describe this persistence. Either way, prayer should be the first and best thing Christians do.

Friday, March 9, 2012

James 4

    How much pain and suffering is derived from our striving in all of its forms? James reminds us to set our hearts on things of eternal rather than temporal value. To quote a good friend of mind: the best things in life aren't things.
Jesus teaches us to "sent our hearts on the things above". St. Paul tells us to forget what lies behind press on to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. C.S. Lewis quipped that if we set our hearts on the things of earth in the end we get nothing but if we set our hearts on the things of heaven we get earth thrown in. We live in a consumer focused, materialistic culture. I often wonder how many times in my life have I intentionally or unintentionally done damage to others simply because I wanted something I did not have.
    The balance to the above paragraph is a realization that all good gifts come from God. The Bible plainly and consistently teaches that God pours gifts in our lives and blesses us with material things. We are told to enjoy the vineyard we have planted, we are told to be good stewards of the resources we have. I believe the difference has to do with coveting. When I submit to the lust of attaining and hoarding and accumulating whatever my focus has become God to me. When I covet something belonging to another I devalue what I do have. When I want you car . . . what's wrong with the car God gave me? When we covet our neighbors spouse our house or material thing -- we immediately devalue our own. Out of that frustration comes anger, violence and profound discontent.
   Verse 11 -- never speak evil of another. We are not the judge of humanity. Wesley said we "think and let think". How do we engage in conversation without demonizing those who disagree with us? How do we help another discover the grace of God without standing in judgment over them? In the movie Rudy the Notre Dame priest says to young Rudy "in my many years as a priest I have arrived at two incontrovertible facts. There is a God and I am not He."

Thursday, March 8, 2012

James 3

     Now James begins to meddle. Taming the tongue. When I was a lad I learned the popular jingle that was supposed to help us resist the onslaught of insults and barbs. You know the jingle, it goes: "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." The cold bitter truth is that this jingle is a lie. Although the wounds of "words" may not be visible like being clubbed with a stick or hit with a rock, they are wounds none the less. What we say and how we say it truly matters. With our words we can build up and encourage others or we can tear down and discourage others. With our words we can speak words of blessings or we can curse. The point James makes so poignantly is that both tearing and building, blessing and cursing, should not come from the same source. If we are disciples of Jesus Christ we are children of light and children of day and darkness should not come forth from our lips.
     Let me put it another way. In Genesis 12:2 father Abraham is called by God and told that God will bless him "so that you will be a blessing." Abraham was blessed so he could be a blessing. I believe this is the essence of the spiritual life. God does not pour out his blessings TO us but THROUGH us. This being the case we have the opportunity with what we do and what we say to others to speak words of grace and hope and blessing. Could it be possible the ultimate example of a Christan's progress is how they control their language?
     We curse others through negative words, through "put-downs", through dismissive language and through gossip. When we speak about others behind their backs with malicious intent that is gossip. All too often, in faith communities, gossip reigns supreme under the disguise of "sharing prayer concerns" and similar forms of sharing. Be careful to not "over share" -- remember that God is omniscient (God already knows everything) and so when I pray for someone I don't need to know all of the intimate details, permutations, possibilities and how it will impact the rest of the known universe. Anything more than pray for Uncle Bob's cancer becomes TMI (too much information) and begins to border on gossip.
    Here's a challenge. Try to get through a day speaking a word of blessing (or a prayer of blessing) on everyone you meet. See if we can't clear out the brackish water around our tongues and speak the sweet water words of healing and grace. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

James 2

     For Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13) . . . to do justice, LOVE mercy and walk humbly with God is the life Micah calls us to. I believe judgment without mercy is tyranny but mercy without judgment is wishful thinking. Without judgment there can be no mercy. Judgment and mercy are flip sides of the same coin. Is there mercy for the unmerciful? Jesus teaches us to pray "forgive us our sins (debts, trespasses) AS WE forgive those who sin (debtors, trespass) against us". That sounds like conditional grace. Is it possible that the evidence of a life in the spirit -- the first evidence that we actually Christ's followers -- is when we begin to extend mercy and forgiveness to others that God has extended to us?  Is it possible that mercy (like love and spiritual gifts and so much more) is not given to me for me to keep but is given to the world by God through me? I heard someone say once: "Salvation only comes to you on the way to someone else: if it stopped with you it wasn't real." I would apply the same to mercy and forgiveness. There is judgment without mercy for those who show no mercy!
     I love the "you believe in God? even the demons believe and tremble" in verse 19. It is not what I say it is what I do that truly matters. All too often Christians are criticized, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not so, by the wider world for being judgmental. How many times does the media portray the Christian who is declaring the love of Jesus and salvation through Christ in one moment and in the very next breath condemning all those other miserable sinners who "haven't got what I got." When all the church preaches is judgment there is no mercy and the world turns a deaf ear to our message. Jesus saved his most judging comments for the RELIGIOUS people and spoke to those who knew they needed grace with words of love, grace and forgiveness. I can profess that I believe and still belong to the devil.
     James: show me your faith apart from you works (your life, your attitudes, your judgmental ism) and I by my works (my life, my attitude, my championing of mercy) will demonstrate my faith in Jesus.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

James 1

     The style of James' letter is a preaching style called "stringing pearls". This missive (letter) is a series of comments, advice, correction, encouragement and teaching from one of the earliest Christian leaders:
     Verse 13 -- we are never tempted by God. The line "lead us not into temptation" from the Lord's prayer is a long standing poor translation. Many modern translators render it "save us in the time of trial" which makes more sense in the context of the rest of the prayer. God does not tempt me, I am perfectly capable in my normal broken self to be drawn away by various and divers temptations. How I handle those temptations is another story. Hebrews reminds us that Jesus was "tempted" in all ways just as we are yet without sin. The temptation is not the problem . . . how we respond can be the problem.
   Verse 19 and following shows that the Wesleyan understanding of the Christian Faith (that personal holiness must be lived out as social holiness) is rooted and grounded not only in the Old Testament prophetic tradition but is the main stream of the New Testament as well. It is not enough to hear the word of God and it is not enough to say we believe the word of God. It is only when we apply the word of God to our lives and take action on it that we are living as Christ called us to live.
    Verse 26/27 -- religion (faith) the life to which we are called is: care for the orphans (powerless) and the widows (powerless) in their distress.
     Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, did not like the book of James. He called it an "Epistle of Straw". The reason for this is that Martin Luther saw in James a "works righteousness" assuming that the focus on deeds was replacing the New Testament principle of Salvation by Faith (Grace) alone. The misunderstanding has to do with James and Paul using the word "Faith" differently. Paul uses the word faith to mean trust and rely on. James appears to be using the word "faith" to mean a belief in a set of principles. Paul does encourage believers to be passive in their lives: he speaks of "faith working through love" and other expressions that show that once we get the language use on the same page they are very much in agreement, indeed.

Monday, March 5, 2012

James Introduction

We begin reading the Epistle of James on Tuesday, March 6, 2012. Below is the brief introduction I wrote for the Nexus Biblical and Theological primer.

James is traditionally attributed to Jesus’ half brother James, a younger son of Joseph and Mary. Matthew reports four brothers of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas in Matthew 13:55. The traditional author is the same James who presided over the Jerusalem Council reported in Acts 15 and was identified as the head of the church in Jerusalem. If James was the author, the letter is dated in the AD 60’s; if not, it could have been written late in the first century. James is a “general epistle”; it is not written to a specific church or person but to the Christian movement as a whole. James is a practical document, not interested in theological speculation but in the practical application of the teachings of Jesus to a normal Christian life. 
     Key Learning: Personal holiness must be lived out in social holiness. Faith without works is dead. Personal holiness that does not see and help people in the real world is not Biblical Christianity.

1 Timothy 6

    Paul concludes his letter to his young protege with some closing teaching and advice. The famous "the love of money is the root of all evil" (10) reminds us that having things is not the problem, it is when our things have us that we run into difficulty. Verses 3-10 is sound teaching on the importance of the teaching ministry in the church and how easy it is to stray into things that are not harmful.
     Persue righteousness godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness -- fight the good fight of the faith (11/12) is Paul's advice to his younger colleague. I used to have a poster that was a communion table laden with a broken loaf of bread and a full chalice of wine. The caption read "Jesus of Nazareth invites you to a banquet held in his honor." This was followed by the middle of verse 12 "take hold of the eternal life to which you were called!"
    His final note is to the "rich". I preached on this passage last Sunday.

Friday, March 2, 2012

1 Timothy 5

     The early Christian church, like the modern Christian church, has both internal and external missions. It is important to not get hung up on the regulations spelled out here in chapter 5 but to focus on the principles outlined. In most of the ancient world women could not hold office, vote or even own property. A woman who had no children and had lost her husband would be totally destitute. The most vulnerable people in the first century were widows, orphans and sojourners (travelers and new comers to a community). The widow because she had no husband to protect her; the orphan because there was no father to protect him/her; the sojourner because there was no family to defend them. The fair treatment of these widowed women was a critical ministry issue in the first century. Notice that the institution of the office of deacon (see Acts 6) was over the issue of the food distribution to the widows in Jerusalem. The church must care for its own -- in 1 Timothy 5 we have this extensive conversation about defining which widows should be cared for by the church. Those widows that have families should be cared for by their families. Those widows who do not have families are cared for under the umbrella of the church. The early Christians did not stop there but were always extending their caring outside the walls. One of the great accusations from extra biblical literature of the first century is a complaint by a Roman official that the Christians not only took care of their own in need but the rest of the village as well (he seemed to think it made the Romans look bad). For the modern world, we have to ask: "who are the completely destitute and powerless in our society, in our churches, in our communities?" How then should the church respond?
     The rest of chapter 5 is practical advice for community living -- treat elders with respect, don't ordain hastily, keep yourself pure. There is even a bit of practical first century medical advice (v 23).