Jesus and Scripture

I suppose that all of us at some point in school were assigned a play to read for a literature or English class, probably one of Shakespeare’s classics. Mine was Macbeth. Since the dialogue was so very difficult to understand, the teacher spent considerable time explaining what was happening as we read. We discussed each section and sometimes were asked to attempt a dramatic reading of a portion. All that helped, but it was only when I watched a production of the play that I really understood the story well. I had to see the story acted out and not just read the script.

For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. John 20:9

Scripture here refers to the Hebrew writings that we call the Old Testament, because for Jesus and his disciples that was their Scripture. Notice how John admits, though they knew the writings actually said, that they did not understand what they meant. 

Perhaps we can compare Scripture to the script of a play. It is difficult to imagine exactly what the whole story only from the script. The sacred writings from Moses, the prophets, and their poets was enough to give the Jews of the first century a rough idea of the messiah and God’s kingdom, of what God wanted for his people, but it was still vague in certain respects. This is why there was controversy over who the messiah would be and what he would do. 

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. John 5:39

Jesus is the living out and full expression of what their Scriptures envisioned. If Scripture is the script, Jesus is the production put on by God. Without the official production of the play, by its author, we are not completely sure what is intended. When the writer of the play directs the actors in their lines, supervises the creation of the sets, and puts on the play, then we know. Only Jesus can open our minds to understand the Scriptures, even two millennia later.

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. Luke 24:45

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The Impossible Task

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. Luke 9:23-24

Related to what it means to bear a cross, which I wrote about last week, is the call to die to oneself. Though Jesus talked about denying oneself, losing one’s life, or even hating one’s life (John 12:25), we call this dying to ourselves.

For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:3

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Galatians 2:20

Throughout the gospels Jesus calls us to this fundamental transformative shift. Our center has to be redefined as something other than self-concern and self-preservation in order to discover and experience the life that comes from God. Our living must be, in order to be like God, a love for the other which necessitates a “dying” to ourselves.

However, we confront a confounding impossibility when we consider how to do this. If I try to die to myself it is still “I” who is attempting to do it! If I am dying to myself there is still a very  active and alive me, the one doing this. Clearly, I cannot die completely to myself solely through my own efforts. As long as I am the one losing or denying my life, I can still take some pride in the effort and therefore further strengthen that same identity that I am denying. 

What do we say then? Do we simply give up the attempt because we cannot do it completely? Of course not. What we are able to do is practice a partial self-denial through the elevation of the concerns and needs of others. We can engage in ever-increasing self-giving love, even though we cannot reach the perfection displayed in the cross of Christ. 

In the cross, the ultimate expression of what we are talking about, Jesus does not die to himself in the sense of taking his own life, but is put to death by others. His death, though he lays down his life willingly (John 10:18), is not his own act any more than our dying to self can be our own act. The only way I can truly and completely die to myself is to allow my self-focussed life to be taken from me. In the end, we must allow God to take that life from us, and give us a true and eternal life. The one he takes is the life we have made about ourselves, sin and all, while the one we receive is the life of Christ in Christ.

We need to work toward a willingness and readiness to give ourselves over to the love of God in all its fullness. We do this by imperfectly denying ourselves and taking up the cross we have to bear. By God’s grace we will arrive at the consummation of our efforts, and this is the mystery of God’s work. We are not able to do the work of God, which is his alone, but we may cooperate and offer ourselves to that work. 

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Our Crosses

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24

What are the crosses we are called to bear as disciples? Are these burdens, trials, or struggles that we receive once we are following Jesus? The answer is both “yes” and “no”. 

Following Jesus will clearly bring new struggles into our lives, most obviously those having to do with confronting our own sinfulness. However, that burden is far less than being a slave to sin. As disciples we experience an estrangement from the world, but living according to this world is death and not life. These are a couple ways in which following Christ gives us new burdens.

However, more than our crosses being new struggles that start when we follow Jesus, it is obvious that every person, Christian or not, has difficulties and burdens in life. No one has a care and trouble-free life. Jesus, knowing that we are all beset with confounding struggles, offers to lessen the burdens that we are already bearing. This is part of the invitation to follow him.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

We all have hardships in life, both enormous and difficult as well as small and annoying, simply because we are human beings. In the mystery of grace, Jesus promises to lighten our struggles, providing relief although he does not take away everything that troubles us. To do that would mean we would have to leave this world, for certain difficulties are inherent in this life. Jesus experienced them and so do we. No one has the option to live in this world without any heartache, disappointment, or struggle.

Given the inevitability of burdens, we may try to bear these as fates distributed arbitrarily by an uncaring universe if we do not believe in a spiritual realm, or we may search for a spiritual way to make sense of our suffering and cope with it. The cross is shorthand for how in Christ we accept our burdens, discover that they are transformed by love, and while they certainly are suffering, find a meaningful way to live. 

To take up our crosses involves a new way of living with the same troubles we had before we started following Jesus. The suffering we perhaps fought, trying unsuccessfully to avoid or discard, we now pick up as a cross. In Christ we find a place for our pain. We are participating with Christ in the mystery of our own salvation. Love transforms our burdens instead of us trying futilely to deny, disown, or hurtfully place them on anyone else. Though we do not see how, with respect to each trial or burden, the cross declares that each is leading to resurrection. This is enough to bear our crosses in hope.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10-11

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Unbelievable

If the gospel makes perfect sense to us, it may not be the actual gospel we are hearing. Although we are able to recognize a certain amount of logic and reasonableness in the good news that Jesus preaches, at the very center is a perplexing assertion. Jesus claims that God, who is perfectly holy and good, is willing to receive into his kingdom those who are scarcely recognizable as his children. God welcomes all into his reign simply out of his own delight and not based on who we are, have been, or will be.

Despite all human waywardness, rebellion, corrupted thinking, and ungodly behavior, we are still the ones God loves without reservation. God loves us in an unreasonable way, which, when we truly see how impossible it is, renders the gospel nonsensical at that very point. The love of God is absurd based on our life experiences or own inward inclinations. This is the irrational essence of grace. The uncreated love of God is alien to us.

Because we have fallen into disordered affections, patterns of thinking, and ways of living, perversions of the gospel, forms which are as fallen as we are, make much more sense to our unenlightened minds. These distorted accounts typically involve a view of God which is a projection of ourselves . . . angry, vengeful, offended, and impatient. Such a portrayal is opposed to the God we encounter on the cross. The crucifixion is an act of murder, but the cross is God’s response to that crime. From the cross flows love and forgiveness for God’s enemies, at an unbelievable level of self-cost and generous mercy.

We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness. 1 Corinthians 1:23

We must puzzle in astonished wonder at the cross because it makes no sense. More humanly reasonable versions of the gospel abound in our world, ones which necessitate earning God’s favor, or which declare that we must give God something in exchange for salvation. Most suggest that God is quite stingy about accepting and saving people. Any message that tells me I have to meet some difficult standard to be acceptable to God is far more sensible than the proclamation that everyone is equally and totally acceptable to God because of his unconditional grace and mercy.

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 2 Corinthians 4:4

We can be blinded to the gospel because of its unbelievable claims about God’s generosity. The message is really too good to be true. In some respects, we believe in a gospel we may never truly comprehend, but for which we may become deeply thankful.

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Who God Doesn’t Know

And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:23

This is a really strange statement by Jesus if we really think about it. God obviously knows everyone he has created, so it cannot be literally true that people will come before the Lord and he not know them. Therefore, we wonder in what sense does he not know them?

One way to understand this strange statement is that by “know” Jesus is referring to “true relationship.” These people have not had a close relationship with God, one in which they have been striving to do the will of God (Matthew 7:21). Rather than living in a way which is the expression of love, they were, though they might not have realized it, intent on being lawless.

While this way of thinking about Jesus’ not knowing is certainly true, we may also imagine that this parable of the judgment speaks about our two selves. The self these people present to the Lord, with their litany of religious accomplishments, is one that they have constructed based on their own actions. This is a false self of human achievements, though they believe they deserve a reward. We all build just such an identity and self-perception around ego-achievements, or conversely, failures, but this is not really who we truly are. The real and actual person we are, and have always been, is the beloved of God. This true identity has nothing to do with what we have done either good or evil.

In the scene depicted in this story, the people put forward a false self they have created themselves rather than coming as the true person God created. The Lord may therefore literally say “I never knew you” when he looks at the self they created. He could say, “I never created you. I formed you out of the dust, but this ‘you’ is someone you put together out of your own works. I don’t recognize this ‘you’ at all.”

When reading the story this way, their lawlessness involves how they have been engaged in the prideful endeavor of self-creation. God resists such behavior and instead gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). The will of God is not for us to make a false self, but having made one (which we all do), to learn to die to this work of our ego. We need to find the life we have been given, and the false self needs to go away into the fire. Until we lose that life, we will never find our true life in God.

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Attentiveness

During the season of Lent we are learning to be actively attentive, that is, carefully aware of many things. We strive to be more cognizant of our weaknesses, our vulnerability to temptation, the way in which our disordered desires and thinking draw us away from God, and our own mortality. We hope to see ourselves in the humility of the finite before the infinite.

Additionally, we are attempting to be more thoroughly mindful of God and God’s working. We seek through prayer and fasting a more constant and regular thoughtfulness about God being with us, in us, over and around us. Thus, we imagine ourselves to be with Christ in his temptations, and he with us in ours. His desert becomes the way to understand and accept our own times in the bleakness.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5

With all these emphases on what we need to be doing, while also being aware of our meek and vulnerable state, we may sense a contradiction. How can I be so actively involved in all of this if at the same time I am deeply and profoundly aware of my impoverished condition, that I can do nothing for and of myself? Isn’t this Lenten activity somehow implying that I am able to do something?

Perhaps a way to think about the type of active attention and involvement we need to have in all spiritual matters, when in fact only God in Christ through his Spirit can actually do anything, is to imagine ourselves as people intently watching the sunrise. We are doing nothing to make the sun come up over the eastern horizon, but we can be actively participating, thoroughly present, and engaged. Conversely, we could ignore the dawning light entirely and not pay any attention to it. We are people at a concert listening to musicians performing. We are not creating the music, but we may either be fully engaged or instead distracted by checking emails on our phones.

All our activity regarding spiritual matters is, in some respects, passive. We are unable to manufacture from within ourselves, despite any amount of effort we might put forth, the growth or progress that is needed. However, for God to complete God’s work in us we must be intentionally and actively attentive to what God is doing, the melody of his music and the dawning of uncreated light. May these 40 days be a time in which we are actively attentive.

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Emptied

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:6-8

When we read Paul’s poetic reflection on the incarnation, the shocking humbling of the Son that he might be a human being, central to the drama is “kenosis”, the Greek word for “emptied”. Equality with God is not something for the Son to grasp or cling to, Paul says. His point is to urge the Philippians to imitate the humility of Christ, his far greater emptying exceeds any we might need to do for each other as we consider the needs of others more important than our own (Philippians 2:4).

We may imagine that because of this language of “emptying” that Jesus is in some way becoming less God in order to become a man and to take on our full human condition. While this might be true in the limited sense that Jesus, the eternal Son, clearly empties himself of what we think of as divine attributes, such as omnipresence and immortality. The explicit point is made that he subjects himself to death, thus taking on our mortality.

However, in another figurative sense Jesus actually becomes more like God by emptying himself and not clinging to “equality with God”, not that we ought to think of him actually being more and less true God. In humbling himself, Jesus exhibits and reveals the eternal God. The divine oneness that the Father, Son, and Spirit share is the very nature of God to empty himself, freely and willingly. Doing what is not to his advantage, but acting for the sake of self-giving love, this is the true nature of God. Were Jesus not to empty himself and take on human form, he would not actually be like his Father. The emptying is what the Father wills, and the Father and Son do this in perfect oneness. God has always been the God of kenosis. Jesus empties himself because he is God. The emptying is the nature of God. This is what God does and who God is.

The glory of God is God not caring at all about glory. The greatness of God is that the divine nature has no concern for being great. When Jesus tells us that the greatest will be the servant of all (Matthew 23:11) this is the imitation of the Eternal One who is unattached to his own exalted status. His majesty is not something to protect, keep for himself, or jealously cling to. That we should save our lives by losing them is not a feat we attempt in order to please God, nor a test to prove our faithfulness, but loving imitation which leads to union. There is no way to be one with the God who empties himself unless we do the same, even if we do so imperfectly and on the small scale of our own mortal existence.

God cares little about being God, which is astounding since we want to be gods in the worst way. We want to control everything, while God, who could conceivably do so, instead chooses to love, patiently waiting for our willingness to respond.

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Detachment and Love

The spiritual posture of maintaining an appropriate degree of detachment from the world is not to be confused with disinterest, neglect, or lack of engagement. We are a royal priesthood to the world (1 Peter 2:9), just as it is, and are to imitate how it is loved by God in our service for the sake of His love.

No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 2 Timothy 2:4

Paul reminds Timothy not to become entangled in the world’s affairs, though his service to God is definitely in the world. This distinction between being fully engaged in loving the world and becoming caught in the ways of the world is at the heart of practicing detachment. Paul is not warning Timothy against falling into personal sinfulness, but against becoming entrapped in the world’s ways of thinking, its systems, ideologies, and standard and prescribed ways of responding to the enmity it fosters. We are to be in the world with a purpose and calling that is dictated by the the Kingdom of God, and not according to the typical worldly perspectives.

I would suggest that without a proper sense of detachment from worldly affairs we cannot love our neighbors well, and certainly not our enemies. When we are entangled within the controversies, rivalries, factions, and polarization that humans inevitably create and sustain in order to define themselves over and against others, we will struggle to love like God loves. Trapped within narratives that define others as dangerous, the enemy, the ones we must fight against, whether over religious differences, disparate political or social ideologies, the strangeness of their culture, or their particular manifestations of our common fallenness, self-giving love for all will be impossible. But, this is the love of God.

Having a detachment from the entanglements of the world gives us the opportunity to live in the grace of God’s reign, and each and every difference, real or imagined, are nothing in light of God’s love and forgiveness for every human being, as ultimately demonstrated in the cross of Christ. We cannot participate in worldly thinking and comprehend Christ as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Rather than being the royal priesthood serving all humanity, we will remain a factious and divisive people fighting in the sectarian battles that evil has instigated ever since Cain rose up against Abel. It is from this very perspective we have been saved and are called to repent.

The only people who can participate as fellow workers with God in the healing of the world are those who are not sorely infected with its diseases. By no means does this detachment imply disinterest or distancing ourselves from others, but actually being able to draw close without becoming corrupted with that from which we were cleansed, and they must be as well.

For whoever has been born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith. 1 John 5:4

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More to Remember

This is a second piece I wrote in 2016 after the last election. As far as I can tell, we still need to embrace truth lest love become the casualty.

At the heart of the practice of our life of faith is an unflinching willingness to embrace truth. In confession we admit to what is actually true about ourselves, even when unflattering, to say the least. In repentance we are constantly turning toward what is true and bears the weight of godliness, when the truth becomes evident to us. We believe that Jesus bears witness to this reality, this truth, in the manner of His life and through His teachings, as together these portray the love of God. Christians are those who above all ought to ground all things in what is true, as best as we are able.

We live in a world where honesty about the “other” is frequently less important than what may be achieved through slander and demonization. The practice of magnifying and distorting the “evils” of the enemy, while concealing any of our own shortcomings, is common rhetorical fare. The “other” has no good or truth, and we have no faults. Jesus spoke to this truth of human behavior when he described how we focus on the speck in another’s eye and ignore the log in our own. We have seen this through our national political process, and it is not about to stop now. The other side is wholly wicked and we are thoroughly righteous!

I pray that we will not become the pawns of those who would distort truth to make us afraid and recruit us to less-than-Kingdom allegiance, namely, loyalty to their agenda. With our flood of media sources, and the constant need to fill a vacuum with anything, speculation runs rampant. We speculate about the motives of others which are truly unknown to us, further making them a group to be feared. The scenarios of what will happen are more numerous than what could possibly occur. Fear is amplified by truthless conjecture, and love is the casualty.

God does not give us grace to deal with our imagination, but with the “evil of each day.” In speculating and worrying about what awful events may occur, we are alone and without divine help. God is present with us in the truth and reality of this day, giving us the grace, wisdom, and strength to shine as lights in the darkness. As people grounded in a desire to live in truth, we cannot trade in speculation – which often turns out to be bearing false witness to what never happens. Such living “beyond the day we have been given” may also become a source of fear that drives out the perfect love of God.

Our task is to live the love of God with a particular attention to the poor and powerless. With either outcome of this week’s election we would still have had the poor with us. The difference might be who the poor and powerless are, but someone always gets neglected, mistreated, and is powerless. With them we find our place to stand and love. Too often, the poor who are told many promises remain neglected when all is said and done. Poverty and powerlessness is very ecumenical, including people in rural areas, in urban cities, those living in America for generations, and those newly arrived. No race is excluded from being mistreated, but those who would manipulate us encourage us to blame others for our plight.

Elections are always filled with outlandish pledges, for good or ill, which are often not implemented in reality. Most likely, some people who need help will in fact receive assistance, but others will be denied dignity and care. This is the way of earthly societies. As the church of the crucified One, we find our place with those who suffer. Jesus was executed by those with political power, and he is always outside the city bearing the sins of the world. We must join him in loving particularly those who are unloved. We will love in truth.

We can pray that the reality of what happens is more humane, loving, inclusive, and compassionate than what has often been said. We will respond faithfully to the truth of what actually happens for God will be with us, and avoid speculation that brings fear and where God is absent. We will sympathize with all who fear, while offering a non-anxious love that can heal all wounds, as God grants us grace.

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Something to Remember

Here is what I wrote in November 2016 after that election. I believe it is worth revisiting.

———————


While some are hopeful, others are frightened by the outcome of this year’s election. Many have tried to convince us over past months that this political contest has been a struggle between good and evil . . . light and darkness. Who and whose policies were to be labelled which, well, that has depended on the ones trying to persuade us.

The temptation, and I use this word with all the malicious connotation it should invoke, is to be deceived by the promise that anything less than Kingdom of God will be the means of the good for which we long in the Spirit. If misled, we may easily misplace our hopes in systems, structures, people, and processes, which are neither the flesh and blood enemy to be fought nor the midwife of heaven’s ways on earth.

As Jesus-people, we know that the incarnation is what saves us, not only as a reality for us, but when the divine-flesh Oneness is in and through us. The Body of Christ is the resurrection of our Lord within this world at the present moment. Though the context may change, and be sometimes more, sometimes less, a difficult place to share the risen life through love, our vocation is unchanged.

We are still called to love our neighbors (even our enemies), to do what is just, to love mercy, and to walk humbly in unity with God. We are to uphold the cause of the powerless, to support the mistreated, and to place the interests of others above those of ourselves. We are to forgive all things, whether requested or not, to pray for all people, and to seek the welfare of the society in which we live. We are to struggle to be witnesses of what cannot be birthed in this world, except through Christ Jesus and God’s Spirit. With a hope that can neither be met by the politics of our world, nor defeated by them either, we seek by faith an unseen home as if we are foreigners.

If the election has made you feel less a foreigner in this land, you are placing too much confidence in what is not truly your source of comfort and rest. If you feel more like an alien after this election, thank God for the grace to recognize your true identity. While we are aliens and our citizenship is in heaven, we also recognize that our King has posted us here as ambassadors who share with all others the blessings of his coming reign – which will ultimately sweep up and obliterate all our failures and miserable enterprises, and instead grant us the home for which we have longed.

In such moments as this, we have the opportunity to testify to another way, truth, and life . . . which sustains the weary when all else fails. Do not mourn what was less than true hope, and do not rejoice in what will not actually satisfy. Continue to embody the presence of the risen Christ through holding to the one new humanity created on the cross, a single race formed in suffering love, as we are directed into the love of God and steadfastness of Christ (2 Thess. 3:5).

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