The Son of God or a Nut Case?

The Son of God or a Nut Case?

“But what about you?” [Jesus] asked, “Who do you say I am?”

I had been ordained nearly five years, it was the early 1990’s, and I was driving with a colleague to a retreat center for a meeting of women clergy. I turned to my pastor friend and asked, “So who do you think Jesus is?” She looked at me stunned. “Don’t you think we should’ve figured that out by now?” she asked. Hmmmm … I was terribly embarrassed. Of course, she was right. I was a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. To be ordained I had taken Hebrew and Greek, I successfully passed five ordination exams, I took courses in theology, I wrote a 15 page statement of faith, I confessed my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior so many times … but, there I was, asking, myself really, “who do you think he is?” No, I didn’t have it all figured out, because I have come to realize that it’s something we figure out over and over and over again.

That was the beginning of, what I call, my “Jesus Christ” stage. I had spent most of my faith attention up until then focussing on the first person of the trinity. God, the creator. I had accepted Jesus as God incarnate, but it was an acceptance of a truth, not the uncovering or revelation of the truth. It was what I had learned by heart, a rote and pat answer. For the next ten years I worked at really “fleshing out” my christology. I read all I could find about the historical Jesus. I found myself drawn to the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I reconnected with the humanness of Jesus. I related to the stories of his temptation, his weeping with his friends at the death of Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem. I imagined him tired after a long day of preaching and getting away to a private spot to pray. I felt his anxiety, longing, and fear as he prayed in Gethsemane. And I heard him almost asking himself the question, “who am I?” as he questioned his disciples.

Bono, of U2, shared his answer to the question, “What or who was Jesus?” in a fairly recent interview here. He answered,

I think it’s a defining question for a Christian … who was Christ? And I don’t think you’re let off easily by saying a great thinker or a great philosopher … Because actually he went around saying he was the Messiah. That’s why he was crucified. He was crucified because he said he was the Son of God. So, he either, in my view, was the Son of God, or he was … nuts. Forget rock ‘n roll messianic complexes, this is Charlie Manson type delirium. And, I find it hard to accept that a whole … millions and millions of lives, half the earth, for two thousand years … have felt their lives touched and inspired by some nutter.

Jesus Christ, fully human, fully divine. (see this blog post in the Huffington post on the historical shift from Jesus to God). This chapter of The Story really shows that dichotomy. He is the Messiah, he raises people from the dead, he is the resurrection, he is transfigured into a radiant being and walks with Moses and Elijah. Yet, the religious leaders question his messiahship … because he’s just a man. We know where he’s from. We know his parents. He’s from Nazareth. And we already heard, “can anything good come from Nazareth?”

I believe. I believe the very humanness of Jesus allows him to be an accessible and visible face of God for us. Jesus Christ, fully human, fully divine. And, yet, I think it’s perfectly ok … even a good idea … to ask ourselves the question over and over and over. Because every time we ask the question, we grow in our understanding. The answer may become clearer, it may become muddier. But unless we ask the question, the nature of Jesus Christ is only a rote and pat answer … One we figured out a long time ago … not one that is necessarily real and present with us now.


What Is Dead May Never Die

What Is Dead May Never Die

Jesus makes a remarkable claim this week:

Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.

When Jesus said that, the religious leaders around him were stunned. They said that he must be demon possessed. After all, even Abraham died, and Abraham was revered almost as much as God. How could Jesus make such an extraordinary claim? His audience couldn’t accept it.

Can we?

What do we do with this statement? Does the fact that we all die mean that we’re not obeying Jesus’ word? What about the disciples? They all died. Did they not obey Jesus?

Wendy and I have become hooked recently on the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Religion plays a big part in this fantasy series. There are several different faiths represented: the “old gods” (a nature religion); “the seven;” the “drowned god;” and many others. The picture above is what is essentially a “baptism” into the faith of the drowned god. The phrase that goes along with that ceremony is “What is dead may never die.” The idea is that adherents are symbolically drowned, to keep them safe from harm (this is a very warlike seafaring group).

Of course, I’m not really equating following Jesus with being pirates in some fantasy world. But perhaps we can learn from it anyway. Clearly, Christians do still die. But what about “see death?” Seeing something means looking ahead to it. Maybe, what this means for us is that we don’t “see” death because, for followers of Jesus, we are to see beyond the ending of our physical bodies. What has died (to death) can never die.

Jesus’ words, it seems to me, are all about the kingdom of God. To obey his word is to live for that kingdom. When we live into that attitude, we don’t see our own fate as having any significance. We don’t see death, because it doesn’t register as anything significant. We don’t always live into that ideal, but we have those moments. Few and far between, maybe, but we do have them.

Assignment … Chapter 25

assignment_icon This week we’ll be reading the story of Jesus as the Messiah or Son of God.  That’s Chapter 25: Jesus, Son of God.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 1721Mark 8-1214Luke 922John 7-811-12. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.

The Kingdom of God is Like …

The Kingdom of God is Like …

There is an old story about the devil watching a man who is walking down the road and stumbling upon a piece of Truth. When asked if he is afraid that the man will pick it up, the devil responds, “oh, no, because he’ll undoubtedly make it into a doctrine.”

How do you explain something that is always bigger and better than what we can comprehend? How do you describe the Kingdom of God when the concept is both the truth we’re stumbling upon, yet still beyond our expectation? Isn’t it true that the moment we think we understand God, God becomes manageable and, therefore, less God-like? I believe that’s why Jesus taught in parables. The power of the story is that it is incredibly true, it deeply resonates with our human longing, yet it’s still completely ineffable. Each hearer hears and sees something more. Each time we hear, we hear something new. The story itself invites us to imagine with it, play with it, dwell in it … To deeply experience, but not to fully understand.

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” [Mark 4:10-13 NIV]

Jesus taught to the masses, to the everyday people. He brought his message to the common people, not the learned or “churched” people. He referenced scripture, like he did above by quoting Isaiah, but he didn’t explain scripture. He taught a truth that was just beyond the words themselves; he taught them to listen between the lines and to live into the creative realm of the story.

“The kingdom of God is like …” The parable is even more complex than metaphor, because the likeness is not to a concept or an image, but a whole story complete with characters, props, and plot. And when Jesus is accused of ungodliness because he’s associating with unclean, unholy, un-good people (sinners and tax collectors) … he responds with three more stories about the true nature of God. God is like the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, the woman searching for a lost coin, the father who welcomed his wayward son.

The problem with teaching Truth in this way is that it’s uncontrollable. There is always space in the stories for the Spirit to show up. There is an authority in Jesus’ words that goes beyond teaching the traditional explanations. This authority is scandalous to the powers that be. It topples the religious structures and attacks the politics of “church order.” He asks people to think, to engage, to enter into a new way of living, not just understanding. And this … this “kingdom of God is like …” talk … this is liberation for the people and an attack on the establishment which proves to be … well … quite dangerous.

P.S. This song by Chris Tomlin was singing in my head as I wrote this post … I need to share it with you.

Holy, Holy, Holy?

Holy, Holy, Holy?

This week’s chapter is rich with stories that we “church people” know well. The Beatitudes. Casting out of demons, Many, many, healings. And the parables: the sower and the seeds; the prodigal son; the good Samaritan. One of the common threads that I see throughout all of this week is a turning of the tables. Those in strength are brought low, while the weak and powerless are elevated. Jesus himself stated this explicitly when he said

But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matthew 19:30 NRSV)

As I said, “church people” know and love these stories. But I think we need to look more closely. I want to focus on the story of the good Samaritan.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend. ’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-38 NRSV)

On it’s surface, of course, this is a story of those who should do what is right vs the one who does what is right. But it goes deeper than that. Clearly, Jesus was lampooning the powerful of his day — the priest, who was the intermediary between the people and God, and a Levite. The Levites were responsible for the care of the temple. Both positions of power.I’m sure that Jesus’ audience would have enjoyed taking them down a notch or two. Of course, the next part wouldn’t have gone over quite as well. While anyone who’s been reading along in the story will know that the Samaritans were, at best, second class citizens, even among the Jews. And that, I think, is the key to digging under the surface of the story.

Jesus doesn’t give any motivations to the characters in his story. He didn’t say WHY the priest and Levite ignored the plight of the traveler. Nor did he explain why the Samaritan expressed such compassion. But we can make some educated guesses. Both the priest and the Levite would have had responsibilities in the temple. And service in the temple required that participants be ritually clean – something which could not be true if they encountered a dead body. Thus, in order to protect their ability to perform their duties to God, they couldn’t risk that. If we go with that as their motivation, then, in their minds, they are justified in their actions. They are making sure that they remain pure, so they can do the job that God has ordained them to.

Then we come to the Samaritan. Why didn’t Jesus have a shepherd or some other common person do it?

I think we can extend that purity idea here. While a common person wouldn’t have the “need” to remain ritually clean for their daily lives, there was undoubtedly have been a desire to remain clean, to be able to participate in the ritual life of the community. But a Samaritan? They’re already as “unclean” as anyone could get, as far as the Jews were concerned. Almost as outcast as lepers. Without the fear of contamination, the Samaritan is able to meet the needs of the traveler where he is.

Can we learn anything from this perspective? I think so.

Those in power of Jesus time had grown to feel entitled to the privileges their position brought them. They gave lip service to God, but lost sight of the reasons for the rules. They held onto their holiness, at the expense of a real relationship with God. A fault that I think we share today. We enjoy our position of power far too well. I think Jesus is telling us that we need to be willing to give all of that up. Not that we just be willing to be uncomfortable to assist others — we need to join others where they are. Being “holier than thou” is not what it means to follow God.

Of course, this is all just hypothetical supposition. Does any of this resonate with anyone else?

Assignment … Chapter 24

assignment_icon This week we’ll be reading the story of Jesus’ miracles.  That’s Chapter 24: No Ordinary Man.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Matthew 5-7; 9; 14; Mark 4-6; Luke 10; 15; John 6. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory


Jesus Goes Viral

Jesus Goes Viral

The heavens open and the voice of God descends like a dove saying, “This is My Son …” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Yet, in this chapter we see vignettes, one after another, of people asking who or what Jesus is, beginning with Jesus, himself. After his baptism, Jesus goes on retreat, fasting for forty days, in the wilderness. He is in discernment … what kind of Messiah will he be? What will he do, what is the real purpose of his ministry? The tempter shows him the possibilities. Be rich, be famous, be powerful. Sure, you’re the Son of God … What does that mean? How will you use your power, Jesus?

And then, the wedding. Mom says, “Jesus, it’s a crisis. Your cousin’s out of wine. Use your power, won’t you? It’s just a little miracle.” I can hear the mother’s pleading voice, “Jesus, it’s time to stop hiding in the wilderness. It’s time that people begin to show people who you really are.” It’s time. But Jesus knows there is no “little miracle.” Every miracle, every healing is meant to be a sign … A testimony to the truth.

People need signs, it seems. Something extraordinary to follow. And we have to see for ourselves; we are skeptics. Some saw what Jesus was all about, but when Philip told Nathaniel, it was hard for Nathaniel to fathom. You’ve got to be kidding! “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” When Jesus meets up with him, though, Jesus says just enough to make him believe … “I saw you under the fig tree.”

The Samaritan woman has a long conversation with Jesus. She is intrigued by him, that he would talk to a woman, to a Samaritan … She engages him in theological rhetoric … but she is cynical and only convinced by his ability to read her life. She can’t keep that to herself … He’s the Messiah, the Christ, the promised one, really, “he told me everything I ever did.”

Nicodemus heard about the signs; he concedes that Jesus is from God. He came to him at night saying, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” His questions are deeper, though, as he tries to make sense of who Jesus is.

For Jesus the miracles are not meant to be the main attraction. They are merely tools that allow him to speak and teach with credibility. It’s the revelation of the kingdom of God; teaching and preaching the love of God and the truth of Gods realm — that’s what his ministry is about.

While he’s teaching one day, a man who was possessed by a demon distracted him. The demon called attention to his true nature as the Son of God, so Jesus demanded the spirit leave the man. People began to talk. Afterwards they went to Simon and Andrew’s house, and they find Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Jesus heals her. By the time dinner is eaten, the town’s people are lining up to be healed. Jesus has gone viral. Everyone wants to see him, to witness the miracles, to have their loved ones healed. Popularity, however, isn’t always something to be desired. Crowds demand attention. Jesus needs to get away … at first to a private place to pray, and then to a new town where his viral fame has not yet penetrated … to a place where he can teach and preach. “That is why I have come.”

Now we see Jesus, filled with compassion, still healing … Yet now he implores those he heals, “Please, don’t tell anyone.” Jesus knows his mission is much greater than healing the flu, epilepsy, or schizophrenia. But people are drawn to sensationalism, so what goes viral? The interpretation of the law, the teaching of Isaiah, the teaching about the kingdom of God? No, God doesn’t make headlines like miracles (or scandals) do. “Jesus Heals the Leper!” “Nazarene Casts Out Screaming Demon!” “Thousands Camp Out Hoping Jesus Will Cure Blindness!”

The people are desperate, limited by circumstance but not imagination. Even when there is standing room only at a teaching engagement, security can’t keep away the cure-seekers. Four men climb to the roof, cut a hole in it, and lower their paralyzed friend into the room with Jesus, hoping for a miracle. Jesus not only heals the man, but forgives his sins … Now the headlines shift … “Jesus Claims Priestly Authority!” “Jesus Dines with Corrupt Government Agents!” “Jesus Heals on Sabbath!” Now the headlines capture the scandal. The miracle-worker is a curiosity when he only breaks the laws of physics, but when he threatens the established order, questions the status quo, critiques the religious hierarchy …

Funny isn’t it? What gets our attention?