Friday, August 15, 2014

Jesus Defined Life as Living in the Presence of the Living God


Jesus consistently engaged in debate with Israel’s two main religious-political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups, both important to first century Judaism, were similar in many aspects, but they did differ on several issues. One crucial theological point on which they certainly disagreed was the idea of resurrection. While the Pharisees did hold to a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not believe that such a resurrection would occur.

In Mark 12:18-27 we are specifically told that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in being told this, we know exactly why this group of religious leaders come to debate theology with Jesus. They come to argue with Jesus not in an attempt to discover theological truth.  They come to Jesus for the sole purpose of entrapping Jesus by forcing him to answer a conundrum about brothers, marriage, death, and resurrection.

When I read about these encounters Jesus has with religious leaders, encounters he surely knows are motivated by aims of trickery, I often wonder why he would even give them the time of day. After all, was his mission as the one sent from God to waste time debating with theologians who remained embedded in their traditions and who refused to believe that God could speak and work outside of those traditions? Was not his mission toward the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the oppressed, and if so, why does he spend any time debating and arguing with either the Sadducees or Pharisees?

There is a fundamental question that underlies every debate Jesus had with any group of religious leaders. Every discussion, every debate, every argument, whether instigated by Jesus or the religious leaders, centers on this one question: Who speaks with the authority of Israel’s God? And over and over, every one of the debates raises the next logical question concerning the nature of God. Whether the debate is over the Sabbath, purity laws, or paying taxes to Caesar, the underlying argument is over who speaks for God and who defines the nature and purposes of God.

I think this helps us see why Jesus engages in debates and arguments with these religious leaders when he certainly had better and more important things to do with his time. He argues with them about the nature of God, because for him, God is the ultimate reality that gives meaning to human existence, and he understood this not simply because of his place among the people of Israel, but perhaps more fully through his own experience of God.

Let’s suppose Jesus did not believe God to be the ultimate reality that defines human existence. Suppose he was just another good person with certain powers to heal people, which he chose to do frequently. Yet, in healing these people, what life would he be offering to them if he was not also offering them the essence of what it means to be human? 

In other words, while his healings would have been physically beneficial to those who were sick, if such physical healings did not also encompass the reality of God as the one who gives, sustains, and blesses life, such healings would fall short of the restoration to full humanity. Healing is not simply the absence of physical amelioration. Healing is the holistic union of a person’s body, mind, and soul that returns them to the unity and peace of the original creation. Healing involves the whole of a person restored to wholeness.

And this is why this particular debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is so important. They have not come to discover theological truth from Jesus. Nor have they come with open hearts and open minds. Indeed, they have come only to trap Jesus into admitting there is no resurrection. Yet, in a turn of events even Jesus’ interrogators could not foresee, Jesus offers a rebuttal to which they have no answer, and which defines the true meaning of life.

The problem in this debate is a disagreement over definition. While the Sadducees defined life as living as flesh and blood humans in this world until death ends this life, Jesus defined life in terms of relationship to God. For the Sadducees, life ends at death. But in their preoccupation with the dead, they have missed the theological truth that God is not the God of the dead; God is the God of the living.

When Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, he is not saying that God has stopped being God to those who have experienced physical death. He is saying that God cannot be God of that which is dead, for God is not dead; God is living. Likewise, God is not the God of the living because the living are alive. God is the God of the living because God is the living God.

Jesus once stated that he had come to give life more abundantly. In other words, he defined his mission not only as imparting life to all who believed, but also as imparting a life of fullness and wholeness. And for Jesus, who believed and followed the God of the living, this meant not only the absence of death, but the presence of the living God in the life of the believer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Importance of Jesus' Faith in God for Discipleship



The narrative structure of Mark’s Gospel has fascinated me for years. Unlike Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels most similar to Mark, Mark does not begin with any birth narrative. Instead, Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism, and then follows Jesus as he proclaims the kingdom of God and offers healing as a sign of God’s coming rule until he reaches Jerusalem, where he is crucified.
Given this structure, it is very conceivable that an early Christian audience of Mark’s Gospel, who are called to follow Jesus, would have recognized the story of Jesus as their own story. Mark seems to serve as a manual of discipleship.
In this sense, the presentation of Jesus by Mark is meant to show him as the example of faithful discipleship. In other words, Jesus is the one to follow, for he sets the example of what it means to live and do the will of God.
One characteristic of Jesus that is communicated by the story is Jesus’ own faith in God. While we tend to focus on faith in Jesus, Mark also places emphasis on the faith of Jesus. All that Jesus does throughout his journey to Jerusalem is made possible by his own faith in God; a faith that is to be emulated by his followers.
Indeed, the power for Jesus to do miracles may be credited to his faith in God to work miracles through him. This is particularly clear in the description of Jesus “looking up to heaven” in Mark 7:34 before healing the deaf mute, an action indicating his looking to God for power to heal the man.
This may also be implied in Jesus’ call for petitioners who seek healing to have faith (Mark 5:36; 9:23). The object of their faith is left unsaid, but it seems likely that Jesus was calling these individuals to have faith in God, or at the very least, to have faith in the power of God at work in him.
In fact, it is unlikely, given Jesus’ submission to God in Mark, that he calls others to have faith in him alone, apart from God. They are to have the same faith in God that Jesus has in God, a faith that recognizes the presence of God in Jesus. 
Jesus also expresses faith in his God regarding the threats against him. The story of the disciples caught in the boat on the storm sea in Mark 4:35-41 presents the disciples in great fear over the raging storm that threatens their lives. Yet Jesus is asleep in the boat, implying his own faith in the sovereign power of God. 
Moreover, Jesus demonstrates his own faith in the power of God to raise him from the dead, (Mark 8:31; 9:9; 9:31; 10:34; 14:28), and vindicate him in glory (Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62), even though he will be put to death.
Yet, one way of demonstrating Jesus’ faith in God that is certainly important for readers of Mark’s story is to show the significance of prayer for Jesus.
While the places in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is at prayer may be few, they can be viewed as occurring at significant events in the life of Jesus that reaffirm his own faith in God. In 1:35 Jesus goes to a solitary place to pray just before he goes out to proclaim the gospel. Jesus’ prayer in solitude sets the stage for his powerful proclamation of the gospel, and serves to show Jesus as a model for the disciples’ own prayer and proclamation. 
In Mark 6:46, Jesus is again seen in prayer, and his choice of venue, the mountain, indicates that he again finds a place of seclusion. Moreover, the mountain may signify Jesus’ desire not only to be in seclusion, but his desire to be in close proximity to God. His mountain prayer precedes an important event in his ministry, his walking on water, an epiphany before his disciples. 
The third and final time Jesus is seen in prayer is the most crucial of the three. The prayer in the garden just prior to Jesus’ death is characterized by his anguish over this ensuing event. Moreover, his call to the disciples to watch and pray, and their failure to follow this command, signifies to the audience that Jesus’ posture of prayer indicates his full reliance on God’s Spirit to empower him for suffering, and it contrasts him with the disciples’ reliance on the “flesh” at a time of testing.
It is true that Jesus’ prayer is offered in hopes that God would rescue him from suffering. Nevertheless, his determination to do the will of God, even if this means to suffer and die, indicates the likelihood that Jesus’ strength in the face of suffering and death is due to his dependence on the power of God through prayer. After coming to find his disciples sleeping yet a third time, Jesus seems to be more determined to carry out the will of God; a true sign of faithfulness to God.
The faith of Jesus expressed through his reliance on God to carry out miracles and his life of prayer is a model faith that the followers of Jesus are to imitate. From our baptism, we are to walk the way of discipleship by not only following the example of Jesus, but by having faith in the God of Jesus.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Jesus and the Radical Rule of God



Over the years that I have spent reading the Gospels, I have come to the conclusion that Jesus was not simply a teacher of spirituality as we like to make him out to be. Nor was he some divine figure who went about Galilee healing people. He was certainly both of these, but Jesus was also a political figure, whose words and deeds challenged the unjust political powers of his time.

This is not to suggest that Jesus was a politician in the way we think about politics today. Nor should we think of Jesus as seeking to involve himself in any political power system of his day, whether the secular power of Rome or the religious power of the temple leadership. Indeed, we know very well that Jesus worked outside and in opposition to the religious leadership of Jerusalem.

What I mean by saying that Jesus was a political figure is that his message and his mission confronted the social structures of his day with the politics of God. In other words, when we talk about Jesus, we need to take very seriously that Jesus’ message was fraught with challenges to the politics of his day; his was a subversive politics.

While eventually crucified in an act of cooperation between the two power centers he confronted, Jesus’ teachings were not principally about sin and salvation, heaven and hell. His central message was a different politic, a different way of existing in human society. His politics were the politics of compassion and justice, and central to his political message was his belief and his proclamation that God’s kingdom was coming into the world; a kingdom that was a subversive revolutionary resistance to the Roman Empire and the religious ruling elite of Judaism.

Thus, instead of seeking worldly political power through violence, domination, and oppression, which Jesus and others witnessed firsthand from the Roman imperial power, and instead of acquiescing with the practice of violence, domination, and oppression as the religious leaders of Israel did as a way of satisfying Rome enough to keep their places of religious power, Jesus called for a new politic, one that was shaped by the character and presence of God’s rule and one that would be manifested in the radical living of his followers.

What we need to understand about the meaning of the phrase, the kingdom of God, as Jesus used it, is that it is not primarily a spiritual realm. It is spiritual in that it comes from God, but it is not heaven, as we might often think, and getting to some place called heaven is not the purpose of following Christ. The kingdom of God is also not primarily about personal salvation. God’s coming kingdom does transform us personally as individuals who come into relationship with God, but the kingdom of God cannot be reduced merely to personal salvation.

The kingdom of God, or perhaps, the empire of God, was, and is a politically charged term. Jesus did not randomly pick this metaphor; he chose it as a challenge to the Roman imperial power that carried out injustice. He viewed the rule of God as coming into the word as the dynamic presence of God in the world. In calling people to enter the kingdom of God and follow him, Jesus was calling people to join an alternative empire, the empire of God, over which God ruled and in which there was an alternative way of living in community with others.

By proclaiming the coming rule of God, Jesus was calling people out of an existence that focused on the power of this world, into a community over which God ruled as king. And he was calling them to offer their allegiance to God and not Caesar.

This was the significance of confessing Jesus as Lord in the Roman Empire. Such a confession in the Roman world signified that one was no longer giving loyalty to Caesar or to the Roman system of domination, oppression, violence, and injustice.

Confession of Jesus as Lord was not just a conversion experience in the way that we think of today as an individualized spiritual transformation; it was much more.

Confessing Jesus as Lord was a transformation of the person from allegiance to one way living to another way of living. It was an act of insubordination against the so-called supremacy of the world’s strongest power and an embrace of the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Joining the Jesus movement meant standing in opposition to worldly powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice.

And yet, the alternative kingdom Jesus was proclaiming could not, in reality, face up to the power of Rome. Jesus and his followers were never significant challengers to Rome’s military power, and Christians in the empire remained outsiders for centuries, and were, at various points, persecuted by the Roman authorities.

In fact, joining the Jesus movement could quite possibly lead a person to death. From a worldly perspective, then, this Jesus movement, and Jesus’ message about God’s kingdom, would be seen as an inevitable failure. After all, was not the movement’s leader put to death on a Roman cross?  

So how does the rule of God, which Jesus proclaimed as near, continue to come into the world, since the bearer of God’s rule was put to death? God’s kingdom continues to manifest itself in the world through the transformed followers of Jesus who seek a radical way of living in community with others that challenges the norms of our own politics.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Following Jesus and Coexisting in a Pluralistic World



Twenty-first century America is more pluralistic and religiously diverse than any previous time. Although some studies indicate that religiosity in the U.S. has greatly declined, our awareness of the existence of different religions has grown and our personal interactions with folks from other faiths have increased. We, more than any other generation of Americans, are conscious of other religions, though some religious groups are more knowledgeable of other religious groups, and we are often misinformed about other religions. Such misinformation contributes to our seeing them as either a threat to our way of life or as a misguided people in need of salvation. 
To be sure, not all religions are the same. There are significant differences about how we understand God, how we understand humanity, and how humans respond to God. These differences do not need to be pushed aside; indeed they should be embraced. Despite these differences, however, at the heart of the major world religions is a yearning to relate to something beyond the material world, beyond our human existence. The human desire to know and experience God, or an Ultimate Reality, is also a desire to know ourselves and to know how we are to live as humans are intended. 
Likewise, at the heart of these religions is the desire to create a more compassionate and just world that battles against the powers of evil and oppression. Certainly all religions have adherents who have used their religion as a pretext for carrying out evil, but as we cannot prove that one religion is more evil than the others, so we cannot prove that one religion is morally superior or truer than the others.
In applying this idea to our Christian faith, we must recognize that to be a follower of Jesus is not a position of certitude from which we claim to have the eternal truth. Rather, it is a position of humility and a life of discipleship through which we live out the eternal quest of seeking the truth. Being Christian is not about forcing others to view Jesus as the only way to experience God. Being Christian is about being in a relationship with God and living as a person of love, goodness, and justice; virtues which other religions also seek.
Indeed, we can be faithful to our Christian faith, along with its traditions, and not only coexist with people from other faiths, but more importantly, work hand in hand with all people who seek for the common good of all humanity, even though we may disagree on what that common good is. Doing so seems to me to be the more authentic way of being a follower of Jesus as we seek to emulate his humanity.
If the above is true, then why am I a Christian? I can only answer from my perspective, but perhaps some of you will share these ideas with me.
First, I am a Christian because for me Jesus presents an authentic way of being human. The Gospels present Jesus as the Son of Man, the Human One, the one who models for us the way of God. His life was devoted to liberating those who were oppressed, to challenging the political and religious powers that oppressed people, and to seeking God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, and reflection.
For me, Jesus’ teachings resonate with my mind and spirit as that which is true, without my feeling the need to argue that another person’s experience and understanding of God and religious truth is false.
Second, I am Christian because it offers to me a community of faith in which I find meaning and direction. Humans are social beings who seek community, and those who search for meaning in God are also seeking meaning in human relationships. Indeed, while we can experience God as individuals, we more truly find God in the relationships we build with other human beings, perhaps even with those who experience God quite differently from the way we experience God.
Whether I decide to be Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, or any other brand of Christian, I am making a choice to be a member of a community where my faith can be nurtured in loving relationships that challenge me to live out my faith. This is not to say that the choice of a faith community is made haphazardly, as if I am at the local fast food joint choosing which value meal I want. 
No, choosing a faith community is like finding a spouse with whom you connect on various levels, some not even measurable. It is a sense of intuitive peace that you feel when you know you want to commit the rest of your life to this person.
Could I find these things in other religions? I am sure that I would, particularly if I had been born and raised in a different religious tradition. But instead of shopping around for another way to know God, I prefer to explore more deeply how I can know God through my own practice of following Jesus, even if I horribly fall short.
What then is the purpose of evangelism? Christianity has always sought new believers, following the missionary character of Israel’s God and the commands of Jesus. My view of Christianity’s relationship to other religions is not necessarily mutually exclusive to a belief in the missionary purposes of the church, as long as we have a proper understanding of evangelism. 
Simply put, Christians are not called to covert people to their particular religion. Rather, Christians are called to bear witness to the love and character of God in the world that we find definitively expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we are called to invite others to follow him. But, in order to be honest and genuine with those we encounter from other religions, we must also witness the love and character of God in people of other faiths. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why We Must Be Peacemakers



The heart of Jesus’ message is the desire for peace. At one level, Jesus called people to follow him as a path to finding peace with God. Yet, at a more pragmatic level, Jesus called people to be at peace with one another. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount we find one of Jesus’ most forthright statements on the subject, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” 
Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of what has been named the Beatitudes, those pithy sayings that stand as the most important ethical values Jesus lays out, peacemaking must assuredly be a core value and action for Jesus’ followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also mirrors the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?
Simply put, and without qualification, the kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.”
While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling, and perhaps even ridiculous. But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is forthright. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to “turn the other cheek” as an essential part of being non-violent peacemakers?
The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness, not retaliation. The central message of scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.
Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful, both as individuals and as nations. We believe that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a nation, are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers, even to the extent that we make wrongdoers pay for their sins against us in ways that cannot be justified. But is this the message of Jesus? 
Gandhi, an example of one who sought to live Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Jesus, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that lays the groundwork for making peace.
We should not assume, however, that offering forgiveness to others means that those who commit wrongs should not be brought to justice. We cannot simply overlook the wrongs committed by others, and we must name evil as evil. But the passion for seeking justice cannot be fueled by the need for vengeance; it must be empowered by the desire to forgive, to bring reconciliation, and to make peace.
While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us personally, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and wars will never establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus did not call his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies. 
Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” Peacemaking and peace building require us to work for justice.
As we continue to witness the violence and wars across our world, may we pray earnestly for peace. And may these prayers lead us to action to find practical ways to make peace wherever we are.