Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Transformative Power of Forgiveness

Each Sunday Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer.  Yet, like many of the recitations we memorize and repeat, especially those that proclaim what we believe, reciting the Lord’s Prayer can become a somewhat inattentive practice.  This does not mean that we should end this important part of worship.  Rather, it means that we must become more conscious of what we are praying when we pray the prayer Jesus gave his followers to pray.
But being conscious of what we are praying when we recite the model prayer means that we realize we are not simply casting a wish list before God as if something magical will happen.  Instead, praying the Lord’s Prayer is an act through which we are confessing what we believe about the gospel and how we are committing ourselves to living that gospel.
There are several lines within the prayer that deserve our attention, but perhaps the one that is most troubling for many of us is the portion in which we not only ask God to forgive us, but more seriously, we commit ourselves to forgiving others.  It is comforting to believe that God forgives us, and many of us would have wanted Jesus to leave it at that.  But to confess that we must also forgive others is uncomfortable, especially when we think about what that really means.

The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” might be viewed as a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, although they are essentially making the same basic point.  Yet, in Matthew’s account, the statement expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them.  Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

Yet, we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts.  In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before, or at least simultaneous to our seeking God’s forgiveness.

The serious question for us, then, is what does it mean to forgive our debtors, those who sin against us?  It means that we must not only forgive those who sin against us in minor ways, but perhaps more importantly, we must also forgive those who commit the most horrendous acts against us.  In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. If God’s forgiveness has no limits, then the forgiveness we must offer to others should have no boundaries.

Why does this part of Jesus’ prayer seem so difficult for us?  The simple answer is that when we are wronged it is our human nature to seek punishment and even revenge.  We rightly desire justice, but we wrongly assume that justice is better served through vengeance and punishment.  From our perspectives, we view justice as making someone pay for what they have done.

But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness.  By commanding us to forgive, Jesus was calling us to wield the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends.  Moreover, Jesus understood that to forgive someone, especially to forgive them of a heinous action, is to free one’s self from the debilitating power of hatred and revenge.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the justice that is centered in the gospel of grace.  It is not justice that seeks to make the other pay for their sins.  Rather, it is justice that forgives them of their sins, thereby offering freedom to both the perpetrator and the victim.  This is not retributive justice. It is restorative justice.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Our Response to the Immigrant Children is Our Response to Jesus

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Mary laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. Both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus gathered a small following, in most cases, he was rejected.

The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger.

Even though most Americans support immigration reform, Congress fails to do its job by working across political party lines and pass any kind of reform. I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Coupled with this lack of action on the part of our nation’s leaders is the growing crisis involving over 50,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, crossing the border and being taken into custody. A majority of these children are fleeing for their safety, hoping to find it here. While groups protest assistance being given to these children, wanting them to simply be sent back home, fortunately many faith groups are responding to this humanitarian crisis by ministering to the needs of these children, some of whom are very young.

Children suffering should appall every one of us, regardless of how that suffering came about. It is unconscionable to me both as an American, but especially as one who tries to follow Christ, that Americans, some of whom most likely claim to be Christian, are protesting that any aid be given to these children.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

Moreover, Jesus tells us in that famous passage from Matthew 25:31-46 that when the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will separate the faithful and the unfaithful. The only criteria for which we will be judged is how we treated others.

Jesus will not ask, “What did you believe about me?” He will not ask, “How often did you go to church.” He will not ask, “Which political party did you support?” He will simply judge us by how we treated the least of these. Certainly the 50,000 plus children fit Jesus’ definition of the least of these.

If we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, especially the children, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?’ only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Church: The Broken Body of Jesus, Not the Powerful People of God

How did a movement that began with a rugged band of first century Jewish peasants eventually become the largest institutional religion in the world? How did the preaching of the gospel move from being a prophetic ministry of calling people to faithful discipleship to being a multibillion dollar business that promises blessing, prosperity, and victory over our enemies? 
How did a once inclusive community that welcomed Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, become an exclusive institution that works at its best to shut people out? How did the broken body of Jesus become the instrument of religious power?
Perhaps the most prominent metaphor to describe the church comes from the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ, particularly his exegesis of the metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul’s selection of this metaphor was not haphazard, for the image is so closely related to the center of Christian faith that the sign and that which it signifies cannot be easily distinguished. 
Indeed, the image of the church as the body of Christ signifies that the church is indeed the incarnation of Jesus in the world. The church is the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to a world in need of prophetic voices, serving hands and feet, and hearts of compassion.  Yet, we have forgotten that Jesus’ body was broken for us, and as such, the body of Christ in the world today should also be broken. 
Henri Nouwen wrote, "It is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak or write about other than brokenness". Brokenness, like many other terms that fit within its semantic domain, conjures up images of weakness and failure; images that for some reason we have taken to be far from what it means to be followers of Jesus. 
Yet, for some odd reason, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us Christians because God is on our side. We pray to avoid struggle and pain, and in some sections of the church, we are told that if we have enough faith we can avoid these things and we can even become rich.
But, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do, but we must be reminded that Jesus, the one we follow, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death. His human existence is not a story of victory, but one of brokenness that has meaning for our own humanity.
Thus, for followers of the Crucified, brokenness means that we become and remain vulnerable in our human existence, both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ. 
Despite the false teachings that Christians are blessed, or as we often like to say in an attempt to separate ourselves from others, “we are forgiven”, Christians have no pride of place in God’s creation, and thus, followers of Jesus must embrace brokenness as a faithful way of existing in the world both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ. 
While Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who is all powerful, when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ life and tragic death. Moreover, by coupling the belief that God is all-powerful with the idea that we, as opposed to others, are the blessed and chosen people of God, we mock the cross of Jesus. At no point in his life did Jesus ever suggest that we will be prosperous and secure if we only have faith in God.
Indeed, the church exists in the world as the suffering body of Christ that engages with the pains and struggles of those seeking hope, healing, redemption, and restoration. Jesus took on human brokenness in order to be intimate with those who struggled and suffered in this life. He did not separate himself from pain and brokenness, but he embraced it as a way of being intimate with those who suffer. His compassion was not a feeling of sympathy for the plight of the hurting, while he remained distant from their hurting. His compassion was the force that led him to be intimately bound to those who hurt. 
If the church is ever to return to Jesus’ vision for his followers, then those who claim to be Christian must choose to take up the cross of Jesus by choosing to be broken. Being a Christian does not remove our connectedness to the rest of humanity. Rather following Jesus leads us to be more intimately connected to humanity, especially to humans who are broken.
The church does not exist separate from the world, but lives in solidarity with the world as the broken body of Christ, incarnate and suffering with the rest of humanity.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lent Reflection: “Prepare the Way of the Lord”

There are several parts to a story that make it worth reading or telling. A good plot, interesting characters, and conflict and resolution are just a few of those characteristics that make a story stimulating. Perhaps the most important component that makes a story worth reading is the opening. Any story worth reading must capture the imagination of its readers through a good beginning.

It is well known among readers of the four canonical Gospels that each begins with a different opening. Matthew and Luke narrate the birth narratives of Jesus, although they do so differently. John speaks about the Word that existed with God, was God, and became flesh. Mark begins with a simple introduction and a quote from the Old Testament. But Mark’s beginning is packed with interesting points that contribute to his whole story about Jesus and that inform and move the readers who hear his version.
Gospel of Mark from Lindisfarne Gospels, British Library

Mark pulls no punches when it comes to the subject matter of his story. He is not writing a history of the Roman world or about any leaders in the Roman world. He is not writing a history of the Jewish people or about just any Jew from the first century. No, Mark is writing about this person called Jesus and specifically about the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, many scholars have suggested that verse one is Mark’s title to his whole story, signifying the entire purpose of this Gospel.

Following this opening verse, we read in verses 2-3 words from the Old Testament which Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah. Yet, the statements found here actually comprise a mixture of quotations from the Hebrew Bible. Mark is actually quoting from three different Old Testament passages (Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3), but he clearly credits all of these to Isaiah. 

Why? Was he mistaken? Or, might there be some purpose behind this seeming error?

I think Mark desires that his story of Jesus be understood against the backdrop of themes that are found in Isaiah; specifically the theme of wilderness wandering, especially because the emphasis in Isaiah is on the hope of eschatological salvation in the wilderness.

Isaiah speaks about a new Exodus, which resembles the Exodus from Egypt, and he tells about a messenger of good tidings (Isa. 40:9). Mark has proclaimed that his narrative is about the good news of Jesus, who is God’s messenger of good tidings. Since Mark has introduced his narrative as a “gospel,” and has followed that introduction by naming Isaiah as the source of the quotation to follow, it is likely that he desires his readers to understand this story in light the theme of hope that we find in Isaiah and to see this hope coming to fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. 

It’s as if Mark is using these quotations at this juncture in the story as a way of picking up the story of the past and continuing the hope begun in that former time, in the time of Jesus’ coming. In other words, in the coming of Jesus, God is at work within Mark’s story, fulfilling the promises of the past. By using Isaiah as the backdrop to the story, then, Mark invites us to comprehend God’s presence and activity in the world in Jesus.

This idea is carried forth in the first statement that comes from the Hebrew Bible that Mark quotes, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.” Clearly it is God who is sending God’s messenger ahead of Jesus, who we know is John the Baptist, who will be introduced in verses 4-8. John’s role is very specific; he is sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord” a direct quote from Isaiah 40:3.

Stanzione, Massimo,The Preaching of St John the Baptist in the Desert
c. 1634, Museo del Prado, Madrid
When we read verses 2-3, however, there seems to be one path designated, but under two different names. “Your path” refers to Jesus, and the way/path of the Lord retains its original reference to God. So it appears that Mark is setting out a very close connection between Jesus and God, and he is telling us that the Lord, God, is active in the sending of Jesus to obtain the victory promised in the past, specifically by Isaiah. 

As God has been seen as active in sending the messenger, John the Baptist, so God is seen here as promising to enter into the creation to go the way of victory through the path that Jesus will take. The way of the Lord is the way of the Son and the way of God, which God will take in entering the world. 

The “way of the Lord” finds its fulfillment in the “way of Jesus” who goes to the cross to suffer and die for humankind. It is the way of God bringing about victory over God’s enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the way of Jesus is also our way. We are called to prepare the way of God in our own hearts and lives and in our own word. In doing so, we are called to open ourselves to God by following Jesus’ way of service and self-sacrifice.

As we journey through another Lent, let us allow Mark’s opening to capture our imagination as to how we prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming to all the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as the fulfillment of God’s promises to God’s creation.

Monday, February 3, 2014

“What Are You Looking For?”

The stories of Jesus first meeting his disciples are interesting. Although they differ slightly in the details, Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. He meets them while they are fishing and he calls them to follow him for he will make them fishers of men.

In John’s Gospel (1:29-42), we find Jesus first meeting two of John the Baptist’s disciples. John declares that “Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, and as he and his two disciples are standing there on the next day, Jesus walks by. John once again declares to his two disciples, “here is the Lamb of God”, and John’s disciples begin to follow Jesus.

Ottavio vannini, san giovanni che indica il Cristo a Sant'Andrea,
17th century

The reaction of Jesus once these two begin following him seems somewhat strange. Unlike the stories from the other three Gospels, Jesus does not say to these disciples, “Come and follow me.” Instead, he asks them, “What are you looking for?”

It seems a bit odd that Jesus, who seems inviting to the disciples in the other three Gospels, is, here in John, somewhat put off by these guys who are following him. It’s almost as if he is asking them, “What do you want with me?” “Why are you following me?”

To this question, the disciples give an odd response, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Not only is their answer to Jesus’ question another question, but it does not in any way, at least on the surface, reveal their motives for seeking after Jesus. If anything, it almost suggests that they are stalking Jesus to the extent that they not only follow him, but they also want to know where he is staying so they can stalk him some more.

What exactly were these disciples looking for?

We can say with a great deal of certainty that John’s words to them about Jesus being “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” must have caught their attention, for it was at this point that they begin to follow Jesus. We know that Jews were looking for the Messiah who would usher in a new age in which the rule of God would overthrow the oppressive Roman power, bringing in a time of justice and peace and the restoration of Israel.

Moreover, the idea that Jesus was God’s Lamb would probably have resonated in the hearts of these disciples who were seeking forgiveness and redemption, not only for themselves, but for all of their people. And so, it is John’s words about Jesus that cause these disciples to follow Jesus.

Consider also the answer they give to Jesus’ question he put to them. Although their answer is another question, perhaps buried in that question is the real answer to what they were seeking.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” they ask. The question implies that not only do they want to follow Jesus, but they also want to remain with him. The idea carried in their question suggests that they saw something in Jesus they had not seen in others, and they not only wanted to be associated with him, they wanted to be in intimate friendship with him.

Perhaps this is precisely why Jesus asked them what they were seeking. Maybe he was skeptical of their desires. He may have thought that since they had heard he was God’s Lamb that they might want to follow him to get what they can from him and to use him as a means to an end. Perhaps he was testing them to see if they were going to follow him to find power or something of that nature.

Maybe Jesus asked them what they were looking for just to see what was in their hearts concerning him.

And for all of us who seek to follow Jesus this is the first question we must ask ourselves. What are we looking for from Jesus? What do we want from him?

Some seek after Jesus to find wealth, thinking that the health and wealth gospel will bring them prosperity. Others seek after Jesus as a way to combat against those who are different from them. And still others believe Jesus to be their ever present and personal helper who gets them out of jams.

Jesus does not desire to be any of these to us. Rather, from what we learn from this passage and what we can gather from various stories involving Jesus and those around him, Jesus seeks to be in intimate relationship with those who choose to follow him.

Jesus certainly calls us to follow him in costly and liberating discipleship, but more than anything, he calls us to be with him in intimate relationship.

It is in this relationship that we find our being and our identity. It is in being with Jesus that we find the meaning of our existence and the abundant life he promises. It is in fellowship with Christ where we find hope even in the midst of despair, comfort in the midst of pain, and fullness in the midst of emptiness.

Moreover, in his response to the two disciples’ question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus invites them to “come and see.”

“Come and see” may imply that in their remaining with Jesus they will receive a revelation of him that will change their lives. They will experience a deep sense of the presence of God in Jesus as the Word made flesh. Indeed, this seems to be what happens as Andrew, one of the two who follows Jesus, goes to get his brother Simon, telling Simon that they have found the Messiah.

All of us at some point seek meaning out of life, and there are those who are consistently struggling to find a sense of meaning and worth. What are we looking for? Jesus invites us to come and see and to come and be with him to find that meaning. 

(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/19/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to the audio version here.)