Easter: The Story that Shapes all Stories

 

christ-the-conqueror-of-hell1

Featured Image -- 3527

Holy Week for Newbies

A few years back an international student from China named Peter spent his senior year of high school living with us. Growing up in an atheist country, Peter had no spiritual upbringing except to think that religion was something for silly people. After about six months of living with us (and attending church out of respect), we took a road trip to California. Peter was staring at the passing desert when he turned and blurted, “I think every hero movie is really just a metaphor for Jesus!”

I thought about Peter’s insight and realized that whether we are talking Lord of the Rings, Raiders, or Narnia; MIB, or the Matrix, an end of the world series streaming on Netflix or every Western ever, our epics are all variations on a theme. You can hear the deep voiced announcer on the trailer, “Dark forces hold the world in its’ grip. One man can deliver us. One solitary, misunderstood man.” And, just when all seems lost, a miraculous turn of events in the climactic showdown carries the day…and all is saved. And while this may have happened long, long ago, it was certainly not in a galaxy far, far away. The epics that captivate our imaginations all channel the same day: The day when God’s deliverer overcame the marshaled forces of evil, defeated the dark overlord, kicked down the gates of a prison called hell, and set a captive cosmos free.

Like a great movie, the timeline of the narrative can get complex …Time melds together: The victory may have been won, long, long ago, but it is a victory that transcends time, culture, and distance. It is a victory that is here. Now. Today.

But how does the resurrection of Jesus save us? Jesus making things right is called “atonement,” literally, “at-one-ment.” All Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves humanity by making us “at one” with God. But how those actions save has been the subject of centuries of study and contemplation. It is a complicated thing for an infinite God to communicate an infinite rescue to finite humans. To do that takes analogy. And finite analogies, by definition, all fall short somewhere.

I live in Texas these days. Texans, as good Bible-belters, generally see the cross and empty tomb in terms of the substitution analogy. You know this analogy: God sends his son to take our punishment to satisfy the legal debt of sin to God. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that’s wrong. I am simply saying that it is an analogy, and like all analogies, incomplete. The analogy of Jesus’ death satisfying a debt was first explored by Anselm in the 11th century, and developed in the Reformation. It is biblical, occurring most clearly in Paul, Hebrews, and places like 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This analogy works for us; Jesus satisfying the law resonates with people under the rule of law. And with today’s student loan balances, I suspect the idea of debt forgiveness isn’t going away anytime soon either.

But a penalty paid for laws broken is not the only way to understand the atonement. The analogy with a profound place in the early church was the Passover (from Exodus 12). You hear echoes of this in the ancient Communion prayers when they quote 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You see this in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil from the 4th century, “He is the true paschal lamb…” (“pascha” being Greek for Passover).

It is interesting that the Jewish calendar had a day dedicated to forgiving sins through sacrifice, the Day of Atonement. One might expect that Jesus would have chosen The Day of Atonement to lay down his life…but he didn’t. God set Jesus’ redeeming work in motion at the Passover.  The Passover.

Same lamb. Different purpose.

Both Jewish feasts involve sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the lamb’s death substituted for the sinner’s death. In Passover, a lamb also dies, but the lamb’s blood isn’t applied to the doorposts to cover sin, but rather to mark relationship. The blood notified the death angel to “pass over” as that family belonged to God. The Passover sacrifice had another ritual attached: The children of Israel ate the Passover lamb, a meal of belonging and communion. Then God used Moses to deliver His people from bondage and slavery through the Red Sea, from death to life.

The problem being solved at Passover was not of a lawless people, but a captive one. How Israel came to be in bondage was not addressed. God says to the captors, “Let my people go.” 

The New Testament describes Jesus as the New Moses who delivers God’s people. The people of God, are in bondage to sin and death, so Jesus intervenes. He forgives our sins and sets humanity free. At the last supper, Jesus becomes our New (wait for it) Passover meal, our meal of belonging and communion.

Unlike the Day of Atonement, the imagery in Passover is not legal. Sin is more than a legal infraction demanding God’s justice. Sin is primarily a heart condition: a life lived out of communion with God, the giver of life. We are not sinners because we do sinful stuff, we do sinful stuff because we seek life apart from God. Life apart from the source of life is death (Rom. 6:23 “the wages of sin”). Sin is deeper than a legal consequence (like getting a ticket for going too fast); sin is a natural consequence (like skidding off the road for going too fast).

In the Passover analogy…

God’s Son enters death, not to do our time, but to destroy our jail!

Jesus entered death itself to rescue us. In the resurrection, Christ defeats death, the last bondage. In the New Passover, God Himself becomes our sacrifice. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not only called the lamb of God, but to make his point, John actually moves the date of the Last Supper so that Jesus is killed on Passover…literally becoming our Passover lamb, slain for God to proclaim, “Mine” over you and me.

So when Jesus burst from the tomb, leaving an angel to tell the women “go find the disciples and Peter,” (Mark 16:7) the message may have been mystifying, but it was unmistakable: Death is destroyed. The evil forces defeated.

Because of the resurrection, we can live in God’s presence as designed. We can assume the vocations we were created for in the garden; image bearers of the creator, Gospel proclaimers, kings and priests, representing God to the creation, and representing the creation to God. All of this makes Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” a great movie for Easter, because the Passover helps us understand what all our hero movies point to: the amazing news of Easter.

Peter understood that our great stories are but variations on a theme – riffs on the one great story, the life-changing story of stories. And you and I are not only invited to the premier, we hold complementary tickets for our family, friends and colleagues.

Living as stewards of the story

How do we live as the freed captives God declares us to be? (And as those with pockets full of tickets?)

 

First, Love God. Love God by rediscovering worship. Real worship. In worship we represent the creation to God.

Second, Love people: Love them by serving them. In service we represent God to the creation.

Prisoner, the hero has done his part. You have been released. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a proof of concept, or the trump card in the argument for God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proclamation: We are delivered from the evil forces. The gates are open. The chains released. That is why when we hear, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We cannot help but reply, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

Chrystostom’s Paschal Sermon

Gangsta Easter

Advertisements

The In Between Day

C9czOOKXoAAoF6L

Featured Image -- 3527Holy Saturday

Today is the quiet day.

In the church historic, the art for today portrays the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus making proclamation to the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-22), trampling the devil, destroying the gates of Hades, and leading Adam and the dead patriarchs from the tomb.

christ-the-conqueror-of-hell1

Unfortunately, life is not lived from eternity backwards. We aren’t with Jesus as he, as the Apostle’s Creed says, descends “to the dead.”  We experience life from the perspective of those living between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Years ago, before being president of Eastern Seminary, Tony Campolo was a comedian. He had a memorable bit about the brilliance of Black preaching. He said something to the effect that while white pastors waxed eloquent for thousands of unmemorable words, Black preachers might build a sermon around a single sentence, but it would pack a spiritual punch. Campolo’s example was, “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s a comin’.” It may have been comedy, but it was terrific preaching. (a link of Campolo reprising bits of it 25 years later.) Unfortunately, we do not spend most of our lives in Good Friday, where the wheels come off our hopes and dreams. And we do not, most of us, spend the lion’s share of our life rejoicing in the power of God on Easter Sunday. We spend most of our days in between, in the day with no name, Saturday.

Good Friday is “good” because of Easter. But it gets hard to remember and difficult to believe a dawn is coming stuck in Saturday.

Years ago I read a book by Philip Yancey, an author I knew from excellent devotions he had written in a youth Bible. In the book he relayed a story of a friend’s grandmother who was buried in an Episcopal church yard under an ancient oak tree. She had a single word engraved on her tombstone: “Waiting”.

For God alone my soul in silence waits.” -Ps. 62:5

*If you are a fan of the preaching of the early church, click the photo below for a fantastic sermon attributed to Ephipanius…

cemetery_memories_by_estruda-d5qxwj5

Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

crucifixion-620x250Featured Image -- 3527

Holy Week for Newbies

Have you ever wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday?

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well. The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth is the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

The cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates.

I was a leader for 25 years with Young Life, a ministry that focusses on explaining Jesus to unchurched high school kids. Every semester leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe more than a million high school kids will hang on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that night. When the message was finished kids sat in stunned silence. Except for a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran up to my face and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life. I have NEVER heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh missed my accidental brilliance. “I don’t know about that,” He turned toward the door, “I’m going Starbucks.” He pulls open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slammed and Josh was gone.

Knowing what Jesus did on the cross in detail, Josh connected the dots to what he did know, that Jesus went to the cross to satisfy a debt that only God could pay. That night Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do, why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. All of the wandering, brokenness, and idolatry, taken in one awful fell swoop. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha on a cross between two thieves. And the universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said,  “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That as well, finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” Finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what, that, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet Satan stood in hell and clapped. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh, uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Why is an execution a “Good” Friday? Because, since that Friday, regardless of what you see or hear or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won, won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

*How does one commemorate Good Friday? Generally there are two ways: The Good Friday liturgy and by walking the Stations of the Cross. At St. John the Divine, Houston we have the Good Friday liturgy at noon, and stations at 7am, 1 and 6pm. We also have a very powerful 7-7:45 pm service called “The Service of Shadows” that is an adaptation of a medieval service that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering at the cross through Old Testament prophecy, chant, shared responses, and growing darkness.

28508736_6087307320360_6928442337676754944_n

 

Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

crucifixion-620x250Featured Image -- 3527

Holy Week for Newbies

Have you ever wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday?

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well. The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth is the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

The cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates.

I was a leader for 25 years with Young Life, a ministry that focusses on explaining Jesus to unchurched high school kids. Every semester leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe more than a million high school kids will hang on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that night. When the message was finished kids sat in stunned silence. Except for a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran up to my face and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life. I have NEVER heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh missed my accidental brilliance. “I don’t know about that,” He turned toward the door, “I’m going Starbucks.” He pulls open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slammed and Josh was gone.

Knowing what Jesus did on the cross in detail, Josh connected the dots to what he did know, that Jesus went to the cross to satisfy a debt that only God could pay. That night Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do, why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. All of the wandering, brokenness, and idolatry, taken in one awful fell swoop. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha on a cross between two thieves. And the universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said,  “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That as well, finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” Finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what, that, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet Satan stood in hell and clapped. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh, uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Why is an execution a “Good” Friday? Because, since that Friday, regardless of what you see or hear or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won, won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

*How does one commemorate Good Friday? Generally there are two ways: The Good Friday liturgy and by walking the Stations of the Cross. At St. John the Divine, Houston we have the Good Friday liturgy at noon, and stations at 7am, 1 and 6pm. We also have a very powerful 7-7:45 pm service called “The Service of Shadows” that is an adaptation of a medieval service that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering at the cross through Old Testament prophecy, chant, shared responses, and growing darkness.

 

Why are y’all calling Thursday “Monday” and going to church?

6a00d8345304b969e20133ec61e44c970b-320wi.jpg

Featured Image -- 3527

Holy Week for Newbies

Several friends have asked this. I think they suspect Christians of being so out of touch with reality that we are intentionally self-trolling. “Maundy,” however, is the English-ification of “mandatum” (as in “mandate”). Latin for “command,” it comes from John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”

Christians head to church on Maundy Thursday for services commemorating the events of Jesus’ final night on earth – the “Last Supper.” It was essentially a going away party in which Jesus hosted a passover dinner for his disciples and altered and reinterpreted the traditional Jewish seder by saying that the bread is his body, the wine is his blood, and that his followers should continue sharing that meal until he returns. No one present came anywhere close to understanding what he was talking about. (The event is recorded in great detail in John’s gospel, chapters 13-17, five chapters worth of text!)

Two events happen at Maundy Thursday services: A foot washing (Jesus washed the disciples feet in John 13:1-20), and after the Lord’s Supper (communion), the altar area is stripped of all ornamentation, greenery, books, symbols, and linen. The lights are then extinguished and the congregation exits in quietly. The uglification of the church in silence is a stark reminder of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death was portrayed by each New Testament writer as a self-sacrificial act explained using a variety of analogies, among them; a substitution (not unlike that of Arnaud Beltrame this week), a great moral example, a ransom paid to redeem humans, and the victorious king over death and the grave. The scriptures use each of these analogies. Together they seem to me to be the many facets of a gemstone; take one away and the brilliance ceases, add them all together and beauty shines forth.

The question my non-church friends usually ask at this point is: “So, how are you guys doing with that new commandment Jesus gave you to love one another? It is a fair question. Are we washing one another’s feet?

And are we allowing God to strip bare the altars of our lives of all of the idolatrous stuff, inclinations, and ideas that we fill our hearts with?

History’s First Courtroom Drama: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

Advent 3 2017.001.jpeg

Snark MeterrealMID.003

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

Lawyers have gotten a bad rap ever since wisecracking bad guy Dick the Butcher uttered his famous line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Most of us must admit, however, that we appreciate a good courtroom saga. Did you know the Gospel of John might be histories’ first legal drama?

Writing five or so decades after Jesus, John sought to answer an obvious question: Why should folk place their faith in a religious leader who made astounding self-claims, was executed as an enemy of the state, and whose followers, (with claims Jesus rose from the grave) seemed unhinged? John provides Jesus a gripping defense:

The Prosecution

Jesus had been nabbed by Jewish religious authorities and tried at night for blasphemy (John 10:33). He was then turned over to the governor of the occupying Romans and killed on a different charge (John 18:29-31), insurrection, a charge that allowed the Romans to keep the peace by eliminating Jesus.

The Accused Pleas? Guilty.

John’s Gospel opens with “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory of the only begotten of the father full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). John opens his book by equating Jesus with God at the creation of the universe. That is a pretty tall claim. In fact, it is such a stunning claim John can’t really have been serious. Surely, we must have misheard him.

Just to make sure we are picking up what Jesus is laying down, John tells us that Jesus made a habit of equating himself with deity by referring to himself using God’s covenant check-signing name, a name given when God told Moses, “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). And this isn’t a one-off. Jesus repeats it at least seven times:

  • I am the bread of life. (6:35)
  • I am the light of the world. (8:12)
  • I am the gate for the sheep. (10:7)
  • I am the good shepherd. (10:11)
  • I am the resurrection and the life. (11:25)
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. (14:6)
  • I am the true vine. (15:1)

For Jews, monotheistic then and now, were so serious about the holiness of God they substitute the generic “God” for “Yahweh” even to this day. Jesus’ “I am” statements were an unmistakable gauntlet thrown. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, playing their own version of C.S. Lewis’ classic, “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument, vacillated between questioning Jesus’ sanity (“He has a demon, and is insane…” 10:19), and trying to kill him for blasphemous lies (10:33) before they finally grabbed him in a garden and had him executed.

The Defense 

But what of Jesus’ astounding self-claims? John never tries to shrink from the statements or lesson their blow. Instead he seeks to prove Jesus’ claim of divinity with 7 miraculous signs recorded in escalating levels of difficulty:

  • Changing water into wine (2:1-11) – “the first of the signs.”
  • Healing an official’s sick son remotely (4:46-54)
  • Healing a paralyzed man (5:1-15)
  • Feeding 5000 (6:5-14)
  • Walking on water (6:16-24)
  • Healing a man blind from birth (9:1-7)
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-45)

Jesus makes 7 Claims to be God. John provides 7 Signs to support Jesus’ claim.

The Witness List: A legal showdown occurs in John chapter 5. Again attacked for his claims to be God in human form (5:18), Jesus lays out his witness list to corroborate his identity: Jesus himself (5:31), John the Baptist (5:33), Jesus’ miracles (5:36), God the Father (5:37), and the Old Testament scriptures (5:39). Jesus calls two more witnesses in later chapters: the Holy Spirit (15:26), and his followers (15:27), giving us a witness list numbering…wait for it…seven.

An airtight Case

 Seven is the number of divine completeness: Seven claims to deity. Seven miracles to support his claim. Seven witnesses. Jesus’ case is perfect. John is arguing that the case for the deity of Jesus is airtight.

A Star Witness

3/4 of the times the verb “witness” (the Greek martureo) occurs in the NT it occurs in the Gospel of John (28 of 39 occurrences). In all its’ forms (witness, witnessing, bearing witness), the word “witness” occurs 90 times in the New Testament. Half of them are in John. This legal emphasis in the Gospel of John gives us different perspectives on biblical characters from the other Gospels. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is a good example. In the other Gospels John appears as a preacher of repentance and baptizer of multitudes. In John he is witness for the defense. John 1:6-8 introduces John saying, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.He came as a witness, tobear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”  In the Gospel of John, baptizing is mentioned, but barely. His important role is witness. And not any witness, but a key witness, a star character witness. Appearing more frequently in the Gospel of John than in the other Gospels, John the Baptizer shows up in four places in John (ch. 1, 3, 5, 10), each time specifically labelled a “witness.”

Jesus’ well-born cousin makes a particularly credible witness. A big-city kid from an influential priestly family. While Jesus preached to the ordinary, his cousin garnered audiences with the king. And what does this highly regarded witness say? Look at the first chapter of John:

v20 “I’m not the Messiah.” v21 “I’m not Elijah.” And “I’m not Moses.”

v22 Exasperated the religious leaders ask, “Enough of who you aren’t. Who the heck are you?” John answers with scripture, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘get ready for God!’”

In v26 the religious leaders follow up, “Why then are you baptizing?”  John goes from talking about who he is not, to talking about the one who is, “I am”: “Someone so great, so glorious, is coming that I hesitate even to be his foot-washing servant.”

In v. 29 and 30, John literally points to Jesus: “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I was talking about.”  John the Baptist provides our case with unambiguous testimony.

Will the real John the Baptist please stand up?

John the Baptist has a very different emphasis in John’s Gospel. He is not the bug-eater in a hair-suit. Nor the man of influence speaking truth to power. Nor the powerful preacher waist deep in the waters of baptism immersing an adoring public. Nor the prophet whose end gave us the expression, “getting your head served on a platter.” This John is a simple witness.

-Not the light, but bearing witness to the one who enlightens the world.

-Not the promised deliverer, but crying out to the one who is.

-Not the lamb of God, sacrificed for the world, but pointing to one who would be.

John’s job might have been preaching and baptizing. But John’s vocation was witness. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, “Call.” John’s paying gig was one thing, his call was to witness. That makes John a great model for Advent. While the world follows Santa to the mall and bows at the altar of Amazon Prime, the church follows Advent: a time of preparation, of listening, of remembering that what we need isn’t socks or a sweater, but a savior.

We may have a lot of different jobs: Lawyer or landman, teacher or tradespeople, parent or pediatric nurse, student or stockbroker. But followers of Jesus have a higher calling: Witness. We are sent to testify, as John writes in another place, to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands.”

You Have Been Summoned to Appear

Regardless our business, our true calling is to witness to God’s visitation and redemption of the world in Jesus. In our various roles we are but witnesses, cleverly disguised as lawyers and nurses, stockbrokers and students. We have a high and holy calling: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:27)

John bore witness not to his own gifts and abilities, but God’s. He cried out not of his own power, but God’s. He pointed not to himself, but to the Lamb of God already among them.

That is our call, friends: To bear witness, to cry out, to point others to the savior. We are the final witness Jesus spoke of in John, the ones who believe without seeing (John 20:29). Our task is to continue to bear witness, “thatJesus is the Christ, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Like John in his fractured time, we too live in fractured days – days desperate for the hope of God…desperate for a witness to the light, a cry of hope, to be pointed to Jesus.

Can I get a witness?

Did Jesus just say, “Be nice or go to hell”?

sheep-goats-940x250.jpg

Snark MeterrealMID.003

A leader’s final address always warrants a close listen. The Sheep and Goats judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is just that: The final section of the final sermon in the five sermons Matthew organized his Gospel around.

A laundry list of subjects to avoid at dinner parties

The sheep and the goats is a difficult passage: Heaven and hell and judgment and the poor and imprisoned…a virtual laundry list of topics to avoid in polite circles. When reading this passage religious conservatives tend to take Jesus’ words concerning the afterlife literally and his words concerning the treatment of our fellows figuratively (and often with some sheepish embarrassment and a desire to explain their earthy literalness away), while progressives tend read it seeing Jesus’ words about our fellows literally, glossing over the words about the afterlife with a grain of (embarrassed) salt. The principles of literary interpretation would indicate that the passage is either figurative or literal. In this passage, Jesus, usually the master of parable and simile, uses none of his usual indicators for figurative language, leaving all equally unsettled by his unswerving literalness.[2]

Jesus is sitting on the mount of Olives. The twelve are with him.[1] It is Wednesday, two days before he would be crucified. Jesus shocks them with a description of the way things will play out. Let’s look at the passage:

31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Jesus will be leading angels. His glory” and “his glorious throne” a repetitive emphasis of Jesus’ deity – God alone sits on the heavenly throne.

32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

The question everyone wants answered: Who are sheep and who are goats? There are two theories: A theological view, proposed by those wanting to avoid a conclusion that Jesus is teaching salvation by good works…a conclusion the arc of Matthew’s Gospel and the rest of the New Testament would argue against.[3] In this view the sheep are Christians and goats are non-Christians, and judgment is based on how non-Christian goats treat Christian sheep. The other theory is the grammatical view – that the difference between sheep and goats is, as the text says, the way “the nations” treat “the least of these.” I can give a plethora of reasons for the grammatical view, including it making little sense that Jesus, on the heels of a series of parables about disciples remaining alert in their faith, would abruptly introduce a new subject in a way he hasn’t done in any of his four previous sermons in Matthew, and besides, the normal grammatical reading leaves us without the necessity of textual gymnastics. Let’s look at the passage, letting the text speak for itself…

33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Notice the passive voice: “have been blessed by my father,” and “inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Grace is always a gift, always received. But what have the recipients of God’s grace been up to? Jesus tells us:

35 …I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Notice what the sheep give: Food & drink. Hospitality & clothing. Visitation & friendship. First, basic needs. Second, shelter and clothing. Finally, existential needs: time and attention. Abraham Maslow wasn’t the first to notice a hierarchy of needs.  “Sheep,” Jesus points out, “open hearts and hands.” When we open heart and hand to those around us, we open our hearts and hands to Jesus. Or as Henrietta Mears said, “Every person we meet is dying for a drop of love.”[4]

Stunned by the personal pronouns… 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Jesus describes all humanity standing before Him, the risen Lord in glory, the leader of the angelic host, a savior who sees all and knows all. 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In Ephesians and Colossians Paul tells us the final judgement will bring a blessed reunion. Jesus tells us, that for some, it will also be a time of awful separation.

42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And the final shocking sentence: 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

A few observations

-Jesus’ first and last sermons tie together. The Sermon on the Mount began with “Blessed are you when you…” The Sermon on the Mount of Olives ends with, “receive now your blessings!

-Judgment is Jesus’ job. Some we think are sheep, apparently are not. Some who appear to be goats, apparently are not. It is not given to us to figure that out. Anyway, other’s status is usually a red herring for our true question.

-Our true question is, “What about me?” What is my responsibility? Answer: To love. Tertullian said, “Have you seen a brother, you’ve seen your Lord.”[5] Do you want to find God? The Lord most high is found in our lowest fellow.

Matthew’s Gospel was written to encourage his Jewish brethren to faith in Jesus. This is not saved by works,but ratherhow faith works.” The formula of scripture is not works lead to grace but grace leads to works.[6] The obvious fruit of receiving grace is to become gracious!

-Our culture’s idea “God accepts everyone as they are” sounds nice, it is just not supported by scripture. God is a holy lover. Jesus welcomes us allAnd bids us all be changed. The difficult truth is that “Depart from me” is part of Jesus’ vocabulary that he says some will hear. As Dale Brunner said, “The Gospel has a two-edged nature: it brings salvation to the repentant and damnation to the obstinate.”

-How does judgement work?[7] I once watched a Palestinian shepherd call his animals out of a pen in the West Bank. He had sheep and goats. As they left the corral they separated themselves. Although mixed in the pen, when the shepherd called them out to take them to pasture, the sheep and the goats naturally separated toward their own, right and left. The shepherd didn’t say, “Sheep, over here. You goat get over there.” They self-selected. I think the disciples would have known that. We will appear before the shepherd/king, and at his glorious presence self-select for eternity based on who we have become. You and I are becoming now, today, who we will be for eternity.

– It is trendy to say, “I can’t believe in a God who would force people into an eternity apart from God.” That does sound like a bad sort of a God. There is only one alternative, one that is infinitely worse: A God who does not trust us to make our own decisions and would coerce folk to spend all eternity with him against their will. Such is the nature of God: His holy love, deep and wide enough to make a path for you and I through his son, yet never coerce us to walk it.

Martin Luther wrote, “O dear Lord God, how are we so blind that we do not take such love to heart! How could we have thought it up that God himself throws himself so deep down into our midst and accepts the works of all those who give themselves to the poor as though they had been done to him. Thus, the world is full of God – in every lane you meet Christ. You find him at your door.”[8]

So did Jesus just say, “Be nice or go to hell? Nope. More, “Become like me now and enjoy me forever.”

 

[1] Matt 24:3

[2] There is no parable language. See Matt 25:1, 14 for examples.

[3] Held by Augustine and many Reformed theologians

[4] Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28. (Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing, 2004) p. 571

[5]Tertullian, Writings Vol. III, Ch 26, Of the Parting of Brethren

[6]Eph 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7

[7] V. 32 “…as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

[8] Luther, Sermons from the year 1526