I don’t feel like writing much for today. So, I’m keeping it real simple. Here’s what you need to know: God loves you so much that God keeps coming and coming to each one of us over and over, again. God doesn’t get tired or exhausted. And there is nothing you can do to move closer to God. God’s taking care of it all. Just let that sink in.
I thought it might be helpful to offer a quick lesson in Christianity. We can call it Christianity 101.
But I’m realistic about this too. Unfortunately, the people who should read these lessons probably won’t ever see them. So for all you who are doing the best you can to live out the Christian calling – maybe you’ll find this as an encouragement.
Lesson #1 – Love.
This is really simple. Love is pretty much the basis here. I’m not talking about gushy romantic love. I’m talking about love that knows no limits. This is the love God has for us and empowers us to go and love others – even our enemies. Yes, you heard that right, even our enemies. We are called to love our enemies. Not bomb them, kill them, insult them, swear at them, hit them, attack them, etc. Nope, just love them.
Saying that love is what’s it about is easy. Actually living that out is not easy at all. Why? Because of the last part – loving our enemies. It’s a great idea in theory, but then God gets all in our face and actually calls on us to do it. Whaaaaa???? So what does this mean in a practical sense? Well, it means we love those who would and have hurt us. We love those that would want to kill us. Hello, ISIS comes to mind here. Maybe the North Koreans. All of sudden this whole love your enemy thing gets really difficult.
How do you love someone who wants nothing more than to see you die? I don’t know to be perfectly honest. I do know this much – prayer for our enemies is a good place to start. Prayer that puts our enemies in God’s hands, that asks that our enemies would experience peace and love and grace and mercy. What comes after that? That’s when we listen to what God is calling us to be and do. I know this much – love doesn’t have room for killing.
If your version of Christianity tells you that it’s ok to not love someone because they believe something different from you – well, then you aren’t grasping this whole love thing. Time to reboot and start over.
Here’s the Gospel reading from this past Sunday:
15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
(Source – Matthew 18:15-20, NRSV)
First let me say, I’m not crazy about this translation. When you look at the Greek, you wouldn’t translated the world adelphos as member of the church like the NRSV does. Instead brother or sister is more accurate. The point is that this is someone close that Jesus talking about – someone with which the disciples would have had a long-term, on going interaction/relationship with.
Secondly, the term for sin needs some clarification. The term here is translated as sin, as in missing the mark, bad action, etc. However, it’s a bit off of what Jesus probably would have understood as sin – the same could be said for Paul and other Jewish Christians of the time. In Hebrew, there are nine words for sin – six of which are nouns and three are verbs. And the vast majority of the usage is with a noun. The focus of sin is the broken relationship, the turning away from another/God, revolt, wandering, etc. It’s about a state of being.
That’s all the foundation of what’s going on in this passage.
So what does it mean when it comes to dealing with difficult people? First, Jesus isn’t saying put on rose-colored glasses and walk into something that is going to go bad all on your own. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of community – close-knit community.
Secondly, taken out of context, this passage of Scripture looks like Jesus just made a check list of actions to take followed by the endorsement of casting someone out at the end if they just won’t listen. The problem with that is this is not what Jesus is saying because that would contradict everything we know about Jesus.
How many times did Jesus eat with tax collectors? Tough to say exactly. We all know the story of Zacchaeus – Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector to be one of the 12. Jesus wasn’t taking the typical approach towards tax collectors. Instead what Jesus is saying is that love knows no bounds. If a person who is in a long-term tight-knit community has a broken relationship with others within that community and they won’t listen to correction, Jesus is saying continue to offer love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, just as you would a Gentile or tax collector.
In other words, the point is not to let the other person dictate how we respond to them. Because we had a broken relationship with God, yet Jesus radically reorients us towards God again, we are called on to offer grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness to others who are close to us – even those that are close and have hurt us. Jesus invited many into his close-knit community. The response varied. We invite people to be closer, but we can’t control how they respond.
In the next section of Matthew 18, we’ll hear Peter ask how many times we are to forgive someone who breaks a relationship with us – seven times Peter asks. No Jesus says – 77 times. In other words, we keep offering. Always moving towards others. That’s what love does – it brings people together and moves them in the direction of one another.
I recently read an article that defined love as the absence of power. The fascinating thing about this definition is that it was in relation to an article about politics. Given that information, I’m not surprised that the author defined love that way.
But I think the author was way off. Love isn’t the absence of power at all. In fact, love is very powerful. Maybe part of the difference here as to do with definitions – specifically for love and for power.
I think love is the presence of power. But it is not power that is held over someone or used to force someone into something. That isn’t love at all, but rather coercion, or manipulation.
Love, however, is powerful. Love is the power behind forgiveness. Love is the power behind grace. Love is the power behind freedom. Love is the power behind mercy. Love is the power behind peace. Without love, why would we live any of these things out?
Yesterday’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary were all about feeding. Isaiah 55 spoke of coming to the water, and asked why spend money on that which is not food. Our Gospel story was from Matthew 14 and told of the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5000+ in a desolate place.
There is a great deal debate over this reading – did Jesus do a real miracle by multiplying the loaves and fishes, or was the real miracle that people saw Jesus sharing what little there was and they began to share. I don’t think it matters – regardless of the how, thousands were fed – that’s a miracle.
Instead, I would rather focus on the fact that this was a desolate place – that’s the terminology we are given. Desolate, deserted, empty – they all mean the same thing ultimately. These terms signify that there is no life, nothing of value. And this is where Jesus goes.
The people go to where Jesus is. I think it’s quite fitting that the crowd would search out Jesus in a desolate place. Desolation isn’t just a physical place – it’s a state of being for some people, maybe for many people. So many people are empty, exhausted, and their state of being is desolate. There is no life where they are. Yet, if they are searching, they are hungry. They are hungry for food, for love, for attention, for care, for mercy, for forgiveness.
But where there is desolation, Jesus shows up and amazing things happen. Jesus shows up and people are fed. Not just enough to kill the hunger pains, but we are told to their fill. But it doesn’t stop there – the disciples collected the leftovers and found 12 baskets full. That’s because when Jesus shows up, there is overflowing abundance – never to run out.
Jesus shows up and amazing things happen. People are fed love – in overwhelming ways. Where they had only received conditional love, Jesus gives unconditional love – to the point of death. We are overwhelmed by God’s love and have more than enough to give to others.
Jesus shows up and we receive forgiveness. Forgiveness that we don’t deserve and can’t possibly do enough to earn. Yet, it is given – in overflowing abundance. So much so that we take the extra and give it our to others who need forgiveness.
Jesus shows up and we receive mercy and grace and so much more. And we receive these things in overwhelming abundance. So much so that we give it away.
The miracle isn’t that God is this good. The miracle is that we are invited to participate in handing out God’s overwhelming abundance to others. The miracle is that it doesn’t run out – ever. When Jesus shows up to places where there is desolation – to lives where desolation runs rampant – lives change in overwhelming and abundant ways. Thanks be to God!
So recently I’ve watch a couple of movies that involve angels – you know messengers of God. The first movie was called “Gabriel.” Take a wild guess about which angel this is about. The movie is described as a mix between Western and the Matrix. Which is pretty accurate. The other movie was called “Legion.” it’s like the end times meet zombie movie.
I’ll spare you the details of both of these movies and tell you that both movies had really bad theology. Let’s just put it this way – when you movie makes Michael the archangel into a fallen angel or disobeying God’s command, where you get the theology around Purgatory wrong, and where God is so ticked off at humanity that God decides to use angels to destroy humanity, you’ve got some bad theology going on.
Regardless, the benefit of watching these movies is to see how God is popularly displayed for entertainment purposes.
The message that is put out is that God is angry and ready to kick butt and take names.
The message is that the forces of good will use evil means, as if those means were the only option available.
The message is that might makes right.
These of course are the messages that our culture and world live by and have for most of human history.
Last week was Holy Week, which is a big contrast with these messages. Holy Week shows us Jesus who carries a different message. A message of Good News, even if the message is often misunderstood or ignored. That doesn’t matter, Jesus kept on spreading the message anyway.
It’s a message that Jesus didn’t conquer through force, but rather love – self-emptying love. To the point of death.
Evil uses force in order to get its way. It has to. But here’s the thing, in the end, it is that very same use of force that destroys evil. It is self-destructive.
Love on the other hand is different. It’s expansive. Which is exactly what God is.
But I don’t expect there to be a movie that focuses on God’s love. It wouldn’t fit into a popular movie theme. There wouldn’t be a good guy and bad guy. There wouldn’t be fallen angels. There wouldn’t be the use of force to win.
But that’s ok because God’s love isn’t made for a movie. It’s made for life. For us to experience it and for us to live it out and share it with others.
Let’s hop in the way back machine, or TARDIS if you prefer, and head all the way back a couple of weeks to February 19, 2017. So long ago, I know. The lectionary reading for that Sunday had quoted Jesus as saying:
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
This is from Matthew 5:43-45 (NRSV).
Here’s a few really practical questions – what in the world does Jesus mean by this? And what would it look like to actually live this out?
First, let’s just cut to the chase – we’re all guilty of not following this. In some sense, it’s impossible for us mere mortals to follow this. We all have enemies, whether we want to admit it or not. Jesus isn’t dismissing this fact. What’s he’s saying here is about how we treat our enemies. Do we treat them like enemies, or do we treat them differently?
When I read this, I see Jesus saying that we are to treat our enemies with love. That’s not easy. In fact, it sucks! Royally! What fun is having an enemy if we can’t blame them for everything bad in the world? Who are we supposed to demean and dehumanize? Who are we supposed to call names to? Who are we supposed to direct our irrational rage and anger at?
Maybe Jesus is getting us to see our enemy different for a reason. Yes, to force us to deal with the fact that we are called to be peacemakers. But there is more. Maybe to examine what it is that makes our enemy an enemy. Maybe if we did that we’d see something really ugly – a piece of ourselves that we really don’t like. Maybe that’s part of what makes our enemies an enemy.
When Jesus calls on us to love our enemy, maybe it’s more than just faking it until we make it. Maybe it’s Jesus putting a mirror in front of our face and saying “look.” Look and see what you don’t like about this enemy. We’re probably projecting a crap load of bad stuff on them, and judging them. We personify the bad crap into someone else and then blame them for this. Maybe Jesus saying to love our enemy is about seeing the person for who they really are, and detaching all the crap that we project and assume on them.
So the second question is how do we actually live this command out? It depends on context – you and your enemy. The idea is that this won’t be easy or short. It’s a long-term commitment. I think it starts with praying for our enemies and what we do and say will grow out of that. But the point is that there is movement in the direction of love towards another person. And in the process, there is love of self and God. But really, it starts with love of God. When we start with God as the foundation, then our wants and focus changes. How we see others start to change. We’re not looking for perfection here – ain’t gonna happen.
Instead, we are responding to something else – God changing our status from an enemy of God, to a child of God. And you know what – so is that person we call an enemy.
I don’t think Jesus is calling on us to make our enemies into best buds. I think the point is that we aren’t harboring ill will against someone else, we place them in God’s hands, and we treat them with the human dignity they deserve – they too are children of God.
So what does it mean to be a Christian at the end of 2016 in America?
Have you ever really thought about this question?
For many, being a Christian is just another identity to add to other secular identities. Apparently, many seem to think that Christian is just another moniker to add to the list of how a person defines themselves – adding to the list that includes their political party loyalty, nationality, and a host of other things I’m not going to get into here. Because that’s not the point of why I write this.
What does it mean to be a Christian?
It’s something that transforms who we are. Our loyalties lie with God and the Kingdom of God first. A Christian follows the way of Christ – attempting to follow out what he told us to do and be. Forgiving as we are forgiven. Living peace, as are instruments of peace. Showing mercy, as mercy has been shown to us. Offering love, as we have been loved. Giving grace, as we have received grace. And when we screw up and break relationships with God, one another, ourselves, and the rest of creation – then acknowledging that, and receiving forgiveness so we can go at it again.
That’s one answer to what it means. But not “the” answer.
It seems easier to define what being a Christian is not. But what’s the point of talking about that – there are plenty of voices who argue about this already.
Being a Christian isn’t about fighting over what being a Christian is not. It’s about how Christ transforms us and changes us to be something different in a world that is more interested in power, being right, control, violence, dominance, might, and more.
Being a Christian is attempting to live out an ideal – one we will never live up. Yet, that doesn’t mean we give up on it. If Christians kept trying to live into what we were called into, the world would change.
However, here’s the rub. It’s not about what we do. That should be apparent. We’ve been trying for centuries – and the result has been a ton of death and destruction and lives ruined. Most of the time because it’s our version of what we think Christianity is and using Christ to support our way of thinking and believing.
Yet, being a Christian isn’t about that at all. It’s about dying to self. It’s not using God for our advantage. It’s being conformed to God’s will. It’s surrendering. It’s being in a right relationship with God. It’s not about rules. It’s about joyful living. It’s about accompanying people in the crap of life. It’s about so much more than most of us even come close to knowing.
What would it mean for your life if you actually lived out what Jesus calls us to?
How would that change your life? What are you waiting for?
How would it affect the world?
Being a Christian today is more than a political party sub-label. If that’s all it is, it’s worthless.
But if it’s something that changes lives – then watch out. Christ might just call us to live differently. Christ might just call on us to interact with other differently – especially those we consider our enemies and opponents. Christ might just call on us to give up some things so there is room for us to receive other, better, things.
What does it mean to be a Christian today? I would guess it looks a lot different than what most people think it does.
Take the first step…
That’s the anthem that is going through my head these days.
Take the first step…
We Christians claim to believe in and have faith in faith, hope, and love. Yet, how often do we wait to receive these things before we step out in faith, hope, and love?
Take the first step…
We Christians claim to follow Jesus, one who lived his life by way of peace. Yet, how often are we clamoring for war, violence, and revenge? How often are we more concerned with being right and making everyone else agree with our ideas – beating them into submission?
Take the first step…
We Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas. Yet, how often do we not want that to change our lives? How often would we rather just mouth the words, rather than live them because Jesus would be too inconvenient to our schedules and plans?
Take the first step…
We are called to live a Christ-like life, not wait and respond. We are called to act first, not wait until our lives are in perfect order. We are called to walk by faith, not by sight. We are called to follow Jesus, not shove our version of him down others throats.
Take the first step…
It’s a step of faith to be the first to stop the circle of violence when we respond with prayer, when we show love, when we speak words of forgiveness, when serve our neighbors.
Take the first step…
That is the only way the world will ever change. If we wait for someone else to start, it will never happen. God calls on us to take the first step…
Walk with me, we’ll take the first step together.