Thursday, July 30, 2015

All Set Up

Matthew, the gospel author,  was quite a skillful writer. In the first chapter we find this famous quote:

"She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us,” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 1 verses 21-23).

Then he bookends that with another statement in the last chapter from Jesus himself: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age," (Matthew chapter 28 verses 19-21).

The prophetic promise of "God with us" is confirmed and fulfilled by the risen Jesus of Nazareth to whom "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given."

Set Up

Nope
So we should be all set up, right? The Messiah whom we follow now has all power and is High King of the universe. And we are constantly being told that we are "in Christ" (e.g., 2nd Letter to the Corinthians chapter 5 verse 17) -- that we belong to and are in union with the Messiah. From now on it'll be smooth sailing, the best of everything -- riches, mansions, perfect health, a Rolex and a Lamborghini or two. All to be used in the spread of the gospel, of course. What better way to attract people to Jesus than to show how blessed Christians are?

C. S. Lewis was once asked, "Which of all the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness?"

"The greatest happiness?" he replied, "While it lasts the religion of worshiping oneself is best!... If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity." (God in the Dock, "Answers to Questions on Christianity," question 11).

The Christian movement is a group of people who have thrown in our lot with the King of the universe alright, but he is a King who walked a hard road and was executed in a particularly gruesome way. By his own choice he lived among the poor, the hungry, the ill, the downtrodden. And he did not set himself up as a special case; Jesus makes living the same way a test of our Christianity.

So we don't find the leaders of the early Christian movement living in marble palaces overlooking Nazareth and spending their days in strategy sessions moving little gold crosses around on a map. Instead we find them constantly on the move, being beheaded, enduring beatings, stonings, and shipwrecks. We find them in ragged clothes and considered the dregs of the earth.

Jesus' later followers got much the same, both the leaders and the rank and file. The movement continued to follow Jesus' demand that we care for the suffering, poor, and imprisoned. Interestingly, they also took on the job of freeing slaves wherever they could.

With Us

God is with us, just as he promised, down to the very end. But for those who want to find out what Christianity really is (the purpose of this site), it's important to know what you're getting into. The Christian way is full of joy too, and joy of an intensity and endurance unavailable anywhere else. But it is not designed to make us rich, popular, and happy.

If  you happen to live in a well off culture with a social safety net and the expectation of iPads and smartphones, it is possible to think of joining the Christian movement as rather like joining a Gym. You pay your dues, you try to attend on a regular basis and focus while you're there, and you reap the benefits. Maybe it helps you to have "your best life now." But the focus is on what it does for you. Which is entirely appropriate for a gym membership, but not for following Jesus of Nazareth.

Hardships and pain can and do happen to Jesus' followers and he honestly is always with us, but he is with us through the events of life, not insulating us from them.

As St. Paul put it, “If we are to enter God’s kingdom, we must pass through many troubles.



Sunday, July 26, 2015

Seeing the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God, which is the main subject of the Gospel (see here and here for more), is not a far future thing. If you are reigned over by the Messiah Jesus from his throne in Heaven, then you are a citizen of that Kingdom now. Yes, there is a time still future when every knee will bow whether they accept his reign or not, but his reign as High King of the Universe exists in the present.

____________________

Some Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. 

Jesus: The kingdom of God comes—but not with signs that you can observe. People are not going to say, “Look! Here it is!” They’re not going to say, “Look! It’s over there!” You want to see the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is already here among you.  (Luke 17.20-21, Voice)


He says, “Do not ask about the times in which the season of the kingdom of heaven will again arise and come. Rather, be eager that you may be found worthy of it. It is within you. That is, it depends on your own wills and is in your own power, whether or not you receive it. Everyone that has attained to justification by means of faith in Christ and decorated by every virtue is counted worthy of the kingdom of heaven."

Cyril of Alexandria (AD 375-444)
Commentary on Luke, Homily 117.


If the devil has been driven out and sin no longer reigns, then the kingdom of God is established in us... St. Paul described the nature of this kingdom in this way: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” If the kingdom of God is within us and is righteousness, peace and joy, then someone that remains in these is surely within the kingdom of God. Someone that remains in unrighteousness, conflict and the melancholy that kills the life of the spirit is already a citizen of the devil’s kingdom, of hell and of death. These are the signs whether it is God’s kingdom or the devil’s.

John Cassian  (AD 360-435)
Conference 1.13.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Great Announcement - Part 2

Hi, I'm still on vacation but as promised on Tuesday here is the 2nd installment of our series on what the Gospel truly is, The Great Announcement. On Sunday there will be the usual mini-sermon from a past champion of the Christian Movement, then next week, heaven willing, I hope to post part 3.


Jesus announces God's Kingdom
In our first installment we found that, as Messiah, Jesus himself preached the gospel (or 'Good News.' On this blog it's usually called 'the Great Announcement'). Its subject was that, "The right time is now here. God's kingdom is very near. Change your hearts and lives, and believe the Good News," (Gospel of Mark chapter 1 verses 14-15 and Gospel of Matthew chapter 4 verse 17Easy-to-Read Version. ). 

Now, we as get into the Gospel accounts, Jesus continues spreading this message about God's Kingdom and how close it is. Please remember that, as we learned last time, the gospel we usually hear today doesn't have much about a kingdom in it.  In fact one respected site defines it this way: "There is a God, he loves you, and you can know him personally." 


Jesus announces this Kingdom in the towns and synagogues of his home district of Galilee, (Matthew chapter 9 verse 35 ERV), eventually moving into the southern Judean synagogues near Jerusalem as well, (Gospel of Luke chapter 4 verse 44 ERV). Later, he sends out his Apostles (Luke chapter 9 verses 1-2 ERV) and then a larger group (Luke chapter 10 verse 1-10 ERV) to spread the same message: "God’s kingdom is now very near you!"  (Luke chapter 10 verse 9 ERV).

And one must admit, if the Messiah were to canvas Palestine with an important message, God's Kingdom would be the most logical subject. After all, he's supposed to set it up. 


Closer

Continuing through the Gospels, we start to see the time until this Kingdom comes shrinking! Now instead of being "very near you," Jesus begins to announce that it is here. Once, after performing an exorcism, he makes this startling claim: "But I use the power of God (literally, "the finger of God") to force out demons. This shows that God’s kingdom has now come to you," (Luke chapter 11 verse 20 and Matthew chapter12 verse 28 ERV). A few chapters later a group of Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom he talks about will come. Instead of giving them a timetable or list of signs to look for, he tells them this:


“God’s kingdom is coming, but not in a way that you can see it. People will not say, ‘Look, God’s kingdom is here!’ or ‘There it is!’ No, God’s kingdom is here with you."

 (Luke chapter 17 verse 21 ERV)


In Luke's Gospel Jesus sums it up this way:



Before John the Baptizer came, people were taught the Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. But since the time of John, the Good News about God’s kingdom is being told.

  (Luke chapter 16 verse 16 ERV)



Last Days

During his last few days teaching in the Jerusalem temple, his constant theme is God's Kingdom (read Matthew chapters 21 through 24 ).  The last time Jesus mentions the gospel before he is executed is to remind his students one more time what to teach: "The Good News I have shared about God’s kingdom will be told throughout the world. It will be spread to every nation. Then the end will come," (Matthew chapter 24 verse 14 ERV).

(Well, not exactly the last time. Being Jesus of Nazareth, friend of babies and fishermen, he made sure that Mary of Bethany's loving and possibly prophetic act would be remembered forever whenever the Great Announcement is made. And it has been, hasn't it. Another prophecy of his come true.)

My main point this time was to show that when Jesus said "gospel" he meant "Kingdom," and that this is rather different from what we mean when we say "gospel" today. In part 3 we'll cross through the Messiah's execution and resurrection to see how that pivot of history affected -- and did not affect -- the message Jesus proclaimed.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Great Announcement - Part 1

(I'm on vacation this week.  Since I've almost finished the 3rd installment of my series The Great Announcement (about what the gospel really is) I thought it might be helpful if I reprint parts 1 and 2 while I'm gone. Here is the first; Part 2 will follow on Thursday.)


(Photo courtesy of Hannahmw)
God has a message for us, one that is so important and powerful that accepting it can transform the very nature of your existence -- not just in a nice metaphorical way, but a real, actual change. The Christian Movement was founded in large part to spread this message. I'm talking about the Gospel, of course. Anyone who's ever taken a cursory glance at Christianity knows it teaches that to "be saved" (whatever that means) you have to believe "the Gospel."

So what is the message? What does it say? That's what this occasional series will be about: What the Gospel is.

Probably the most common answer to the question runs something like this (which I'm taking from a site that named itself after this message): "So what is it? Here it is: There is a God, he loves you, and you can know him personally. That's it."

But, not to be a spoil sport or anything, that's not really it. 'It' is in there, it's part of the gospel and it's wonderful, but wonderful as it is it's almost a side issue to the main thing God wants said. It's not the "point" of the Gospel "spear."

Just as a side point think about this: Has it ever struck you as odd that the Gospel message we usually hear is, well, rather self-centered? I mean, stripped down to its bare bones, the Gospel is often presented as, "Avoid Hell. Believe this so you can go to Heaven when you die." Jesus and his greatest champions down through history did not do self-centered. His followers do self-sacrifice.  Does it make sense then that the main point of God's message would be about getting something?

So let's take a look through Christianity's founding documents and see what Christ and his messengers said this "Gospel" (a.k.a. "Good News") was really about.

Where Are We?

How Messiahs are supposed to look (Judas
Maccabeus,  a Messiah from a century and a
half before Jesus)
First a bit of background.

The nation of Israel was set up by God so that, "All the nations of the earth will be blessed because of your descendants," (Genesis chapter 22 verse 18 CEB). But by the time Jesus showed up, they had fallen far from the heady days of of David and Solomon. For the last approximately 600 years they had been subject to other nations, the current one being Rome. Although the nation technically had some liberty the Romans kept them them on a very short leash and soldiers were everywhere.

But many Jews believed that their prophetic books promised them a "Messiah" to deliver them from their oppressors and make them an independent kingdom once again. There were a plethora of views on what exactly this Messiah would be like and do, but mainstream opinion included at least this much: That he would be a mighty warrior who would march into town, cleanse the Temple of pagan influences, defeat Israel's enemies, and set up the "Kingdom of God" (or "of Heaven," which was a respectful way to refer to God).

Meet Jesus

So now we encounter Jesus of Nazareth for the first time. He is proclaiming a message that he calls "The Gospel." How does it go? "After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Gospel of Mark chapter 1 verses 14-15, Common English Version).

Interesting. Not much like the Gospel I quoted at the beginning. I used the Common English Version instead of my usual translation so we could feel a little of the impact this would have had on the average oppressed 1st century Jew. It would have been rather incendiary!  Matthew's Gospel tells us that, "Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, (Gospel of Matthew chapter 4 verse 23).

In our next installment we'll follow this gospel message through Christ's resurrection, into the early Christian Movement and see where it takes us.



Sunday, July 19, 2015

'Memento Mori'

For more about the Christian teaching on life and death (the real teaching, the one we started out with and actually still teach without most people noticing) visit our page on 'LIFE.'

memento mori
Photo courtesy of Leo Reynolds
Sorry to bring this up on a nice, relaxing weekend. I know you'd probably rather not hear it, uncomfortable subject that it is. But death, after all, is an integral part of Jesus' teachings. He spoke on it and its ramifications at length. As they used to say during the Middle Ages, "memento mori" -- "Remember, you too must die." So for your Sunday meditations I present one of the great teachers of the Christian Movement, followed by several scriptures to back her up.

_______________

Remember you have but one soul; you will die but once; you have only one life, which is short, and which you must live on your own account; there is only one heaven, which lasts forever—this will make you indifferent to many things.

Teresa of Ávila  (AD 1515 - 1582)
Minor Works of St. Teresa, p. 198


As for me, my days are sprinting by like a runner. Seeing nothing good, they seek escape... Humankind, born of woman, has a few brief years with much suffering.

Book of Job 9.25 and 14.1, Voice


You have determined the length of my days, and my life is nothing compared to You. Even the longest life is only a breath.”

Book of Psalms 39.5, Voice


A voice says, “Declare!” But what shall I declare? All life is like the grass. All of its grace and beauty fades like the wild flowers in a field. The grass withers, the flower fades as the breath of the Eternal One blows away. People are no different from grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; nothing lasts except the word of our God. It will stand forever.

Book of Isaiah the Prophet 40.6-8, Voice



Thursday, July 16, 2015

Jesus and the Toads

A vile toad
Photo by Paul Henjum
I ran across this passage by Richard Baxter, famous puritan teacher, and it just made me laugh with his picture of Christ holding himself back from making fun of all us toads in our little swamp. Sorry, this is what happens to old theology students: we find ourselves snickering at 17th century preachers.

_____________

As a sinner, you are far viler than a toad. Yet Christ was so far from making light of you and your happiness that He came down into the flesh, and lived a life of suffering, and offered Himself a sacrifice to the justice which He has provoked, that your miserable soul might have a remedy. It is no less than miracles of love and mercy that He has showed to us.


Richard Baxter (AD 1615 - 1691),
From his sermon Making Light of Christ and Salvation


Monday, July 13, 2015

Never Out


The Lord is loving to humans beings, and swift to pardon, but slow to punish. Let no one therefore despair of his own salvation.

Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 313 - 386)
Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem

Or as the Salvation Army says, "A man may be down, but he is never out."