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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Who Do you say that I am? Part III

(for parts I and II of this argument, see below.)

We now come to the crucial point of why Jesus's messiahship comes at his death. What it means, from the point-of-view of Mark's story, is that Jesus' life as a human being was not only real, but possible. That is, the death of Jesus shows us not how we become God, but rather how we are human. The point of the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus (and I will get to that in some later posts) is to reveal to us the gift of our humanity. Jesus is the messiah, not because he was divine, but because he lived a human life at its highest level. In fact, we call Jesus "the perfect human," not because he never made mistakes, but because no one--real or imagined--has lived a better human life than him. Because Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive human, he is the Christ of God...and the order matters.

Because only after he is the Christ of God, can Jesus deliver on his promise to you and I that we too will live with God forever. Death is conquered, and that as we live in that promise we live as  HUMAN BEINGS, not as some kind of gods. Basically, Jesus says to us: I showed you what it means to be human, believe in me (because Jesus' living cannot be spearated from his person), and that means be HUMAN, and death will not be the final word. I (Jesus) promise.

Whether you trust Jesus' promise or not becomes for us humans the question of faith. (Remember: whether you trust the promise or not has no bearing on the promise itself--if I promise to give you ten dollars someday, and you choose not to believe it, doesn't mean that I won't keep my promise. It's my promise, and I'll deliver on it when I deliver on it.) The promise is not for us to be God, but rather, that human life--lived as human life (and not as something else, like trying to be godly or pure or something idiotic like that)--conquers death.

So, now, after seeing how Jesus died, we have an idea of what it means to die well. Dying well involves acceptance, gratitude, sacrifice, forgiveness, love, and probably humor. Dying well has nothing to do with hanging on because the technology is available, it has nothing to do with getting all your affairs arranged, dying well has nothing to do with surviving just because you are afraid of the future. The battles for food, shelter, love, a good glass of whiskey, and a decent conversation are our attempts to die well. For a lot of us, that is not dying well--but living well. And now you see...

Because when you see Jesus as the messiah, the Christ of God--there is no difference between living well and dying well. They are all part of the same life, the life you have with God.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Who Do you say that I am? Part 2

(to review the first part of the argument see the post below.)

Remember, the question Jesus asks, "Who do you say that I am?" comes in the middle of Mark's story about Jesus. It doesn't seem to be a test question, but rather a testing question, sort of like querying whether the weather outside is cold enough to take a jacket. Peter answers the question quite profoundly, but Jesus immediately tells Peter and the others around to "tell no one."

The secrecy issue aside (and there are some good books by Donald Juel on this messianic secret), I am of the mind that Jesus doesn't want to spread this news around because there is no proof--at this point in the story (or story of his life according to Mark)--but there is no proof that Jesus is the messiah. Yet. And the evidence does arrive, both in the story and the life of Jesus.

It comes when Jesus dies. At that point in Mark's story my favorite verse from this gospel appears. The soldier who was guarding Jesus so that he could die in agony, looks upon his dead body and utters "Truly, this man was a Son of God." (Mark 15.39). NOW we have some evidence that Jesus is the messiah, Jesus is the Christ of God, the Son of God in this sense. Of course, in irony of ironies, the evidence comes in the one thing all humans do--die. So the evidence that Jesus is divine comes about as he does the most human thing of all.

From which Christianity has drawn one fairly obvious conclusion: how you die matters. The gospel of Mark, indeed the whole story of Christianity since the resurrection of Jesus, places great emphasis on how you die as evidence that Jesus is the one sent by God to make sense of the world amidst all its suffering, pain, and death. How you die, in essence, is the story of your faith.

That message is not very tasty these days. No one wants to hear about death, about pain, about unjust suffering. We know that's all bad stuff...who wants to think, much less talk about it? So we don't. And Christians spend a lot of time avoiding talking about how they are going to die because "there are so many people suffering," or "so much work to do for justice," or songs to sing about God's awesomeness or prayers to wander around in circles trying to "be still." All those things only matter if you familiarize yourself with dying well.

What Jesus is asking of Peter when he asks about who people say "I am?" shows why and what they think about death. The messiah, at least in Mark's gospel, does save us from death as being our final answer, but only because we die, and even moreso, only because Jesus died. The Christian tradition has always held that unless you understand that dying matters more than anything else you can do, all the faith, all the prayers, all the beautiful music, all the charitable giving, all the sharing, all the stuff that makes life worth living in other words--all that stuff cannot stop you from dying. In fact, as the story of Jesus shows, NOTHING can stop you from dying. Dying well is the only way to conquer death.

Over the years many and various Christians have proposed this way or that way of dying well as the ONLY way die...I am not sure there is only one way to die well. As a pastor it has been a great privilege to see many people die well (and a few, not-so-well). And when you die well about the only thing I can say is "Truly, this was a child of God." Fortunately, it's all the evidence we need, because it's all the evidence we have.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Who do you say that I am?

I am pondering this question of Jesus to his disciples...
                     "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark.8.29)

I remember when I first came upon that passage studying Greek (over 30 years ago now!), and how I learned that it was the middle of Mark's story about Jesus. In other words, you (as the reader) had learned about 1/2 of the story, and you were asked to answer that question. But you only knew 1/2 the story (imagine it was your first time reading it, just go with me...), so how could you know?

In the story of Mark, Peter blurts out the answer...but he got lucky, because the second part of the story shows us the answer to the question. Jesus is the Son of God, the messiah, as Peter rightly notes back in chapter 8 there. ("You are the Messiah.") But the problem is, other than guesssing, there is no evidence to this point in the story that Jesus actually IS the messiah. People treat him as such, like Peter and others, but he hasn't done anything messiah-like to this point in the story. So at this point in the story to call him "messiah" like Peter does is as much wishful thinking as it is anything--and it certainly is NOT reasoning from the available evidence.

In fact, if the story of Jesus went on for the next 8 chapters exactly like the first 8, anyone who claimed Jesus as the messiah would be a bona-fide nut-case. Or, at least, someone who does not have anything but wishful thinking to stand as evidence for your belief.

Now, I understand that some people might say "What about the miracles? Certainly no human can do miracles. He must be something special. He must be the messiah or something." But are miracles evidence that Jesus was special? Are they evidence that he was the messiah? I say No.

For one, as David Hume noted centuries ago, you can't use miracles to prove something because they cannot be repeated so as to test your hypothesis. In other words, since miracles have no more evidence behind them than the original assertion, you might as well just stick with your original assertion. So, using Hume, if you believe Jesus was the messiah because of the miracles, you can no more prove to me the miracles than the claim Jesus is the messiah. And, since I do not believe--at this point in the story--that Jesus is the messiah, your miracle-claim doesn't do much for me either.

Secondly, historians have shown pretty convincingly that there were miracle-workers all over the place in Jesus' time, and Jesus seems to be one of many. Now, for me, as I think Jesus was a pretty smart guy, he probably knew there were other miracle workers too. Notice how he never says--Hey, these miracles are pretty impressive, I must be something special! In fact, no one, not even Peter, uses Jesus' miracles as a way to convince somebody that Jesus is special. I mean, if raising someone like Jairus' daughter was so special, so unique, so unheard of in the world, then why doesn't someone somewhere say--Hey, isn't he the guy that raised her from the dead? (Mark 5.21-43) as a way to argue that Jesus IS the messiah? No one, it seems, thought the miracles were that special, except the people who were grateful he performed them for their health and salvation, like Jairus who got his daughter back from the dead.

What Peter, the Church, and even Jesus knows is that you can't believe Jesus is the messiah because he did miracles. You have to believe he is the messiah because of something else, you need some other kind of evidence to believe he is the messiah...and that's the last half of Mark's story. Stay tuned.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rights are love in action

I remember a friend of mine musing decades ago that there is no such thing as a human "right." Such an idea at the time was a bit counter-cultural, but as we have moved through the years more and more people are seeing it his way. We still have to fight for our right, as the song says, but few people have much energy for those fights unless it is their own right that is being disturbed...

Here in Omaha a few months ago they passed a ordinance in the city that one cannot be fired from a job simply because you are gay or lesbian. People opposed this. Apparently being gay or lesbian around here is a fireable offense. But I wonder what the chances are of Omaha ever extending to gays and lesbians any rights? That is, say, a right to a job, or a spousal (partner) employment benefit? A right to healthcare, housing, and education? Well, it seems, we have to argue for rights first...let's begin!

A right is a way to show God's love this side of heaven. Extending someone a right (say to employment benefits for non-married partners or even marriage itself) is a way to show someone you love them. If I let someone who is not like me do something that I do, I am admitting there are other people who do things I do. Other people NOT like me. So I extend someone a "right" not because they deserve it, but rather because I love what I do (or have, as in the case of marriage.) In other words, the stuff that I value, the relationships I cherish, the freedoms I have, the delusions I cannot live without are valuable only when they can be shared with others who are not like me. That is what love is.

Love is valuable--in a Christian sense--because God shared it with those of us who are not like God. Few of us aspire to ominpotence or omniscience, and the main reason is because God hasn't shared that with us. Have you ever known someone omnipotent? Probably not, and it's hard to have heroes that you've never seen or known. But you probably know someone who's loved...and been loved...

And chances are that love came about because someone granted it to someone else...your grandparents, your friends, even your sister...in other words they gave you a right...they gave you love. A right is God's love in action this side of heaven.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

A Hopeful Future

As my professor used to say, "unless you believe this is as good as it's gonna get, you've got some kind of eschatology working." Eschatology is the study about "last things," and usually this is heaven, although for the past 100 years or so a few Christians have obsessed about the apocalypse. For those of the more liberal tradition, eschatology often becomes a way about talking of the future we have with God; or, the hope we have in God. It's the hope that interests me these days...

Do you have hope? I am not talking about dreams of retirement here, but a sense that the world will be a better place tomorrow than it is today? Almost everyone seems to think not. Young and old, rich and poor, just about everybody doesn't see a real positive future for tomorrow. What's interesting--at least in my experience--is that everyone thinks it will be worse tomorrow, but not for them. But I wonder why not?

Are our hopes for a better tomorrow really so tied to how much money we may or may not have? I had a conversation with a retired person who suffered a great loss of income with the recession of 2008. He was losing hope because so much of what he valued in life--his money--was losing value. There is little I can offer him except to show him another God, one who doesn't lose value when the stock market does. A God whose value is tied not to feelings of self-worth, but rather to a passion for a better tomorrow.

I do believe this world is God's way of working towards "heaven." (I don't care if you call it that or not, but I'm old-school, and that's the term I'm used to.) That is, this great globe, this universe of space is God's way of living into our final future (our "eschaton.") And it's not always easy to be full of hope when things get difficult...

But I refuse to believe that we are in the best possible place--a world where people are denied rights of freedom and self-expression, a world where children die of poverty, a world where hatred triumphs over peace--there is something for better tomorrow...and in ironies of ironies it's here today.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.