Friday, January 31, 2014

Authentic Discipleship is Both Costly and Liberating

Tuesday, February 4, would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 108th birthday.  Bonhoeffer’s story is familiar to many; a story about his resistance to a Hitler controlled Germany and his participation in the plot to assassinate the Nazi leader.  It was this public resistance and criticism that eventually led to Bonhoeffer’s execution on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Yet, even though his story is familiar to many, it is his writings that still serve to penetrate our hearts and minds concerning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps his most popular book is The Cost of Discipleship, a deep and challenging assessment of what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ. 

It is in this book that we find the author state very powerfully that grace cannot be cheap.  “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.”  Instead, Bonhoeffer coins an almost paradoxical phrase to describe the experience of salvation and discipleship: costly grace.  In his words, costly grace is “costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

In the Gospels, we find Jesus calling those who would become his followers.  In the first chapter of Mark’s story, Jesus calls two sets of brothers, all of whom are fishermen.  He calls them to leave their nets, to leave their families, and to follow him.  

In this story, and other call stories, we discover the tension that Bonhoeffer points out as that which epitomizes the gospel: Discipleship is both costly and liberating. 

When Jesus comes upon these fishermen they are doing what they normally do on any given day; they are fishing.  Indeed, this was their life; this was their existence.  Fishing was what was routine and comfortable for them.  While their occupation as fishermen was hard work that brought many challenges, it is what they knew and it is who they were.

Yet, when Jesus calls them, he calls them to leave their lives as they know them.  He calls them to turn away from their normal existence and to let go of what they know best.  How costly is such a decision? 

While leaving fishing may not seem big to us, let’s take into account what Jesus demands from another.  A rich man approached Jesus wanting to know how he might gain eternal life.  Jesus told him to keep the greatest commandments; to love God and to love others.  Jesus then told the man, “Sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”  At this demand, the man turned away, refusing to accept the cost.

We must be careful not to distance ourselves too much from this story.  In calling us to follow him, Jesus always demands that we relinquish our claims; our claims of independence, our claims to security and freedom, our claims to what we own, and our claims to live our lives as we see fit.  To answer the call of discipleship is always costly.  If it is not, it is not discipleship.

Yet, even as we speak of discipleship as costly, we must also view it as liberating.  The call to the two sets of brothers to leave what they know, what gave them comfort and security, is at the same time a call to find liberation and hope in something that is transformative. 

The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, Church of Sant’ Apollinare, Ravenna, Italy
While their lives of fishing certainly gave them a sense of normalcy, they were unknowingly missing what authentic life with God was like.  Jesus’ call for them to leave their nets and follow him was a call to embrace a new liberating existence. 

But true liberation comes through the unadulterated practice of authentic love through service.  Discipleship that liberates us, but that also costs us, is the discipleship through which we take up the cross and follow Jesus.  It is the practice of finding greatness, not through power over others, but through becoming a servant of others.   

Authentic discipleship means that we choose to be last, putting the needs of others before our own.  This is the liberating power of the gospel.

When Jesus calls us to follow, and when we respond to his call, we are responding to and accepting a way of life that is both costly and liberating.  And only when we understand, accept, and welcome this tension, can we truly live out authentic discipleship that is, in the words of Bonhoeffer, “exclusive to his person.”

In order to accept the call of Jesus to follow him, we must relinquish what holds us back from the true gospel and what prevents us from becoming authentic disciples of Jesus.  We must count the cost of discipleship, and we must be willing to move from our status quo existence of comfort, security, and that which we know as normal, to embrace the transforming and liberating power of the gospel.  

This is authentic discipleship that is both costly and liberating.

(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/26/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to the audio version here.)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sharing in Christ’s Baptism is Sharing in Christ’s Death

The most ancient ritual in Christianity is baptism, a practice that served the early Christian community as an initiation rite in which the ones who chose to follow Jesus entered into this new life through the waters of baptism. Believers submitted to baptism in reflection of Jesus’ own baptism.

The early church must have considered Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John to be vitally important. Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate his baptism, and the Gospel of John implies the account of Jesus’ baptism.
The Baptism of Jesus. Arian Baptistery (ca. 5th-6th centuries)

What was the meaning of Jesus’ baptism?

If we consider Jesus’ baptism as it appears in the earliest Gospel, Mark, we find it is this event that introduces the readers to Jesus. Mark says nothing about the birth or the childhood of Jesus. Indeed, from Mark’s Gospel, we know nothing about Jesus before his baptism. He is introduced to the readers at the baptism. What is the purpose of this?

Mark is telling us that the baptism of Jesus is the point at which Jesus is authenticated by God and at which he receives his commission and vocation as God’s Son. The purpose of his baptism was to receive God’s commission which presented Jesus with a new vocation. From that point on, Jesus will follow the ‘way of the Lord.’

The term ‘way’ is significant in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus and his disciples are often said to be on the way or the road, and while we can take this in the literal sense that they were travelling, it also serves metaphorically for the way of discipleship, which begins at baptism.

The narrative structure of Mark helps us understand this. From the point of when Jesus is baptized, he travels the road of discipleship, preaching the Gospel, teaching the ethics of the kingdom, healing the sick, confronting religious and political powers, and facing temptations and opposition all along the way, until finally he is put to death as a rebel of the state.

How does this structure apply to the disciple, the follower of Jesus who listens to Mark’s story not simply to learn about Jesus, but who are called to respond to Jesus in faithful discipleship?

The life of a disciple begins with baptism, which leads the follower into a new vocation of preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, living the ethics of the kingdom, confronting religious and political powers, facing temptations and opposition all along the way, until finally we reach the end, death.

But there is something interesting about this concept of baptism in the Gospel of Mark. The Greek word for baptism is used five times in Mark, two of which occur in chapter one referring to the baptism John was performing and Jesus’ own baptism, and one in chapter eleven when Jesus asked the religious leaders about the origin of John’s baptism.

The other two occurrences of this word are found in Mark 10, where we find the unusual exchange between Jesus and the brothers, James and John.

James and John come to Jesus seeking seats of authority on the right and left of Jesus when he comes in his glory. In response, Jesus asks them a very daunting question,

 ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10:38)

What does Jesus mean by the use of the word baptism at this point? To get at his meaning, it might be helpful to notice that he draws a parallel between the cup and the baptism, making a connection between the two.

In Mark’s Gospel, the cup that Jesus will drink is his death. He prays in the garden that God would take away the cup of suffering that he is about to endure. Moreover, the tone of his question to the brothers implies something challenging, even feared. So, it is not the case that Jesus is specifically thinking of baptism in the sense of being washed by water.

Jesus is not simply speaking about getting sprinkled or dunked in the setting of a nice church around people who love us. No, the baptism of Jesus that he mentions in the question he puts to the brothers, like that of the cup, is his suffering and death. His death is his baptism.

The Baptism of Christ by Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1304-06)
Indeed, there is literary evidence of the connection between Jesus’ baptism and his death. In the baptism by water that Jesus submits to in the first chapter of Mark, the author tells us that the heavens were ripped open (1:10). When Jesus breathes his last from the cross, the author tells us that the curtain in the temple that schizo, is used to describe each phenomenon, linking Jesus’ baptism with his death.
hid the Holy of Holies was ripped open from top to bottom (15:38). The same Greek word,

Moreover, there is also a connection between the conversation between Jesus and James and John and Mark’s portrayal of the death of Jesus. James and John request seats on the right and left of Jesus (10:37). The only other time the right and left of Jesus is mentioned in Mark is when two other rebels are crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left (15:27).

Thus, baptism for the followers of Jesus is not just participation in his water baptism, but also in his suffering and death. Sharing in Christ’s baptism is sharing in Christ’s death.

(This post is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/12/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to an audio version here.)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Unexpected Guests: An Epiphany Reflection

On Monday, Christians across the world will celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany is the culmination of the Advent/Christmas Season and the Twelve Days of Christmas. This day is also known as Three Kings’ Day, which tells us that the purpose of this day is to remember and celebrate the coming of the Magi to see and pay homage to the Christ Child.

Of course, we are familiar with the traditional images of the Magi. We mostly see these guys in Nativities that blanket home and church yards at Christmas, and we experience them in Christmas productions, sometimes with elaborate fanfare that surely surpasses the original story. But what do we really know about these Magi?

You might be surprised to know that much of what we believe about the Magi has developed through tradition and is not really found in the Gospels. There exists a manuscript from the 8th century, which could possibly be a copy of a text that originated in perhaps the 2nd or 3rd centuries, that claims to be an eyewitness account of the visit of the Magi. And while this text, called the Revelations of the Magi, offers interesting details about these men and their visit to Jesus, it is highly unlikely that we can take it as historical.

Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli (1475)
Nevertheless, the Magi have taken on a bit of mystique of their own that is perhaps unequaled by any of the characters we associate with Jesus’ birth. But, there are some things that we have traditionally believed about the Magi that are certainly up for debate. For example, we do not know how many there were, from where they actually traveled, what exactly the star was, how long it took them to arrive in Bethlehem, and exactly how old Jesus was at the time of their visit.

All of these questions are certainly intriguing, and these are somewhat important issues for historians, but whether their travel to Bethlehem is a historical reality or not, for most of us who desire to find great meaning in this story about these mysterious visitors to Jesus, we are left to read about their visit from Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew's Gospel is the only Gospel to include this story, and in doing so, he must have had some purpose in telling this tale about these unexpected guests; a purpose that perhaps offers something of significance to modern readers.

The story can be read as having various intentions and layers of meanings that could lead readers to different understandings of this narrative. For one thing, these are the first Gentiles to receive the news of Jesus’ birth, which says a great deal about what the author of Matthew believes about the scope of God’s love for the world.

Moreover, the stark difference between the Magi’s response to Jesus and that of Herod says something about Jesus as a polarizing figure even before he becomes an adult.

Yet, I find one element of the story to be both intriguing and also relevant to the question of what God thinks about those who seek places of power.

In reading Matthew’s story about the Magi, we should note with some curiosity that when these men arrive in Bethlehem, they visit first with King Herod instead of making their way to Jesus. This seems to me to be a strange twist in the story. After all, if the star has led them this far, why does it not lead them directly to the place where Jesus is, without them having to stop by to visit King Herod?

Of course, these "wise men" eventually see the star again, and it does lead them to the exact spot where the Christ Child is, but not before they stop off at Herod’s Palace to see what he knows. Is Matthew perhaps saying something through this little narrative twist? It is certainly not the case that Herod has information about the birth of Jesus, so what purpose does Matthew have in telling us that the Magi go to Herod before they find Jesus?

To get at the answer to this question, we need first to understand who Herod was. Herod was the appointed king of Judea; appointed to this post by the Roman authorities. His rule over Judea, however, was illegitimate in the eyes of many Jews, and, at least from the perspectives of both John and Jesus, he was also not legitimate in the eyes of God.

From the narrator’s point of view, it seems that the purpose of the Magi’s visit to Herod may have been more than just to inquire into the whereabouts of Jesus, the one who is the born king of the Jews.

Indeed, by their very mention of one who is born king of the Jews, these Magi serve as mouthpieces for the narrator, who speaks from God’s point of view. Their declaration to Herod, the so-called appointed king of the Jews, is that his time on the throne is coming to an end. One who is born as king is certainly a more legitimate king than one who has been appointed. Herod’s response is one of fear, and rightly so.

We should also notice that when the Magi come to Herod, Matthew twice calls Herod, “king”. But, after the prophecy about the ruler from Judah who will come from Bethlehem to shepherd God’s people is read, Matthew drops the title “king” from Herod’s name. He is simply Herod.

This switch in the way the narrator refers to Herod seems to be no accident. By dropping the title king from Herod’s name, the Gospel writer is demonstrating that Herod is no longer the king of the Jews; indeed he really never was. Even though he still acts as a ruthless ruler, his kingship is illegitimate in the eyes of God.

The Adoration of the Kings by Niccolo di Massio (1423)
Thus, these Magi are unexpected and unwelcomed guests in Herod’s Palace, for they bring him news that his time as the ruler of the Jews is coming to an end, for the one they seek by the sign of the star is the born and legitimate king of the Jews.

Moreover, the prophecy that Matthew mentions speaks of a ruler who will shepherd God’s people. The image of the shepherd should not be overlooked at this point, as it carries with it rich meaning throughout the biblical narrative.

The long standing command of God to those in leadership over God’s people was for leaders to be shepherds over the people, which meant that they were to lead and guide with compassion and justice. It meant that rulers were charged with making sure that those on the margins of society were cared for.

Israel’s leaders, however, like Herod, did not always heed the command of God to lead with justice. At times they ruled for selfish gain, failing in their God-ordained role as shepherds over the people. I am reminded of Ezekiel’s prophecy against the rulers of Israel when he declares that they had failed to be shepherds, and thus they had fallen under the judgment of God.

The visit of the Magi reminds us that the rulers and powers of this world are not the true authorities over God’s cosmos, and this is particularly true for governments, kings, dictators, and anyone who seeks to rule with illegitimate, unjust, and oppressive power.

Herod had failed as king, for he was simply the appointed king, placed there as the illegitimate king by an illegitimate empire. He was no shepherd over God’s people, and his rule was one of injustice and ruthless power, which Matthew represents through his story of Herod ordering the killing of all male children under the age of two; an event that cannot be verified, but a story that nevertheless illustrates what the author thought of Herod as king.

For Matthew, the one who has been born, the Christ Child, is the legitimate king of God’s people. He is the Good Shepherd who will shepherd God’s flock.

Whatever we might think about the historicity of the Magi’s visit, from the perspective of the only Gospel writer that tells of their journey, these unexpected guests were not the bearers of good news to Herod. They were messengers of doom for Herod and any ruler that does not rule with compassion and justice.

(This is a shorter version of a sermon preached on 1/5/14 at First Presbyterian Church, Monticello, Arkansas. You can listen to an audio version here.)