Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians - Chapter Five - Part One

Early in the morning of March 19, 2003, several planes took off on a bombing mission to inaugurate a US military effort called Iraqi Freedom. The target was a palace compound called Dora Farms. It was believed that the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, was staying there, that the bombs would kill him, and that American military objectives would be met.

The missiles missed their target. They landed in homes nearby filled with Iraqi civilians. A camera crew filming the removal of the bodies from the remains of the houses came across a man whose son and two nephews were in one of the houses. Sitting among the rubble, the man said, “Due to this behavior, America will fail. She will fail completely among the countries. And another country will rise and take America’s place. America will lose because her behavior is not the behavior of a great nation.

America is an empire – and the Bible has a lot to say about empires. Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It’s a book written from the underside of power. It’s an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egyptian Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire.

This can make the Bible a very difficult book to understand if you are reading it as a citizen of the most powerful empire the world as ever seen. Without careful study and reflection, and humility, it may even be possible to miss central themes of Scriptures. Because what’s true of empires then is true of empires now. What we see in the Bible is that empires naturally accumulate wealth and resources.
(Stats on page 122)

Now, when many people get a glimpse of how the world really is, whether it’s through travel or study or reading statistics like the ones just cited, it can quickly lead to guilt. We have so much, while others have so little. Guilt is not helpful. Honesty is helpful. Awareness is helpful. Knowledge is helpful. Guilt isn’t.

God bless America? God has. And we should be very, very grateful.

Empires accumulate. And that accumulation has consequences. Blessing and abundance can turn into burdens and curses.

Moses spoke of the need to constantly tell the exodus story, the one about rescue from slavery, “otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 8:12-14

How does a person forget God? The answer we’ve seen again and again in the Scriptures is that you forget God when you forget the people God cares about. Over and over God speaks of the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. This is how you remember God: you bless those who need it the most in the same way that God blessed you when you needed it most.

Entitlement leads to immunity to the suffering of others, because “I got what I deserve” and so, apparently did they. Moses warned about his as well in Deuteronomy 8:17-18, when he said, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord you God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” In an empire of entitlement, when the fundamental awareness is lost that this is all a gift, luxuries can begin to seem like necessities. Excess can become normal. And it can be very easy to lose perspective on just how much we have.

In the same way that entitlement can cause us to lose perspective, it can also cause us to resist checks on consumption.

What we saw with Solomon is that his wealth and abundance naturally led to the priority of preservation. He had to allocate a growing portion of his resources to protecting and securing what he had accumulated. And so he built military bases and bought chariots and horses. This is where the propriety of preservation leads: to larger and larger standing armies, stockpiles of weapons, and shows of force. Which cost more and more money. Which have to be maintained with more and more resources.

The US accounts for 48 percent of global military spending.

When it’s written in the Psalms that some trust in chariots and some trust in God, this is a statement about empire and power. It’s a contrast between two different ways of being in the world. Empires accumulate. Accumulation gives birth to entitlement, entitlement demands preservation, preservation has consequences, consequences are a burden – and that burden takes faith to carry. This is the religion, the animating spirit, of empire.

The temptation in an ever-expanding empire is to fail to hear the cries of those who haven’t directly benefited from the abundance that the empire has been blessed with. If the system works for you, it can be quite hard to understand the perspective of people who have the boot of the system on their neck. If you have the power, it can be hard to understand the voice of those who have no power. If you have choice, options, and luxuries, it can be hard to fathom the anger of those who don’t.

Which takes us back to the road to Emmaus. Whatever Jesus taught these disciples from Moses and the Prophets, it changed their belief about what had just happened in Jerusalem. They had been walking home as followers of Jesus possessing an understanding of the Scriptures diametrically opposed to the work of Jesus in the world.

Followers of Christ missing the central message of the Bible? It happened then, and it happens now. And sometimes the reason is, of course, empire.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Last Night's Discussion:

Saw this article today, reminds me of our discussion last night.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians - Chapter Four

Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem, Babylon, and on to another man on the road leaving Jerusalem, a man named Phillip. Phillip, one of the first followers of Jesus, was from a small Jewish village on the north side of the Sea of Galilee called Bethsaida. Bethsaida was part of a region called the Orthodox Triangle, one of the most religiously devout regions outside Jerusalem at the time. In places like Bethsaida, there were strict rules about what you could and couldn’t eat; serious observance of the Sabbath; faithful attendance at the religious feasts in Jerusalem; and prayers every day. Philip came from a very small world of very committed Jewish worshipers of God, doing everything they could to be true to their religion. And then Phillip met Jesus, and everything changed. Philip left his village to follow Jesus, deserted him at the cross, reconnected with him after the resurrection, and now he’s on a road leading out Jerusalem, where he meets a eunuch – a eunuch who’s leaving Jerusalem.

Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Luke tells us that the eunuch wants to know more about Jesus. Luke also tells us that the eunuch is headed home, to Ethiopia, in Africa. Africa is, for a small-town conservative Jewish man like Phillip, “the ends of the earth.” Someone from the ends of the earth is asking questions about the new exodus in Isaiah as he heads home.

The disciples are amazed at and overwhelmed by this new reality in which everybody everywhere can understand the new thing that God is doing through Jesus. People from all over the world understand each other. And on a road leaving Jerusalem, we have an African asking questions about Jesus, hearing the significance of Isaiah’s words explained in a language he can understand.

It makes so much sense to the eunuch that as he and Philip pass a body of water, the eunuch asks if he can be baptized. This question about baptism takes us back to Egypt, to Moses’ leading the Israelites through a body of water, which is referred to as the baptism of Moses. (1 Corinthians 10:2) The water symbolized their death to the old and their birth in the new, the movement from bondage to freedom. Baptism is a picture of exodus.

According to the law, a eunuch is excluded from the assembly. (Duet. 23:1) As a good conservative Jew, Philip should have viewed the eunuch as “damaged goods” and refuses to baptize him on that basis. If Philip baptizes the eunuch, he will be breaking a serious rule that he was raised to respect and follow – a rule that determined your standing with God.

This is the tension throughout the early church. What do you do when your religion isn’t big enough for God? What do you do when your system falls apart because the new thing God is doing is better, beyond, superior, more compelling? This isn’t just a tension for Philip; it’s one of the central struggles of the early church. For many of the first followers of the Way, Jesus was wrapped in layer upon layer of Jewish culture, custom, and lifestyle.

For Paul there are two fundamental modes of existence, two pervasive and ultimate realities in which humanity exists: the old condition of darkness and sin and slavery, and the new reality of light and forgiveness and freedom. Paul uses the phrase “body of sin” in a very communal Jewish sense to refer to the reality of the sinful mode of existence of all humanity. It’s the realm and reality of the powerful’s fearful coercion of the weak, whether they’re using tanks and bombs or “the customs of Moses.” It’s anywhere that power is misused. What he’s against is religious rituals that replace the freedom, the liberation, brought by Christ. When people are manipulated with quilt and fear, when they are told that if they don’t do certain things they’ll be illegitimate, judged, condemned, set to hell forever – that’s violence.

The gospel is leaving its former confines, Luke wants us to know, and it’s heading to the ends of the earth. And that means nothing looks like it used to.

The eunuch was traveling by chariot. Pharaoh, an African had chariots, Solomon bought and sold chariots. In the Scriptures, the chariot is a symbol. It’s symbol of empire. It’s a symbol of oppression and violence. It’s a symbol of wealth used in the priority of preservation.

In the Psalms, it’s written that “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7)

Jesus has been telling the disciples about the kingdom of God – the realm, the reality, the way in which the weak are put first and the widow and the orphan and refugee are remembered and “justice and righteousness” are upheld, as the queen of Sheba would say. But the disciples aren’t asking about that kind of kingdom. Their question is about another kind of kingdom. They want to know if the old kind of kingdom is going to return, the one with horses and military bases and palaces. Their question is essentially, “Are you now going to pick up the sword and start swinging, purging our land of the Roman Empire so that we can have our privileged stat as God’s people back?”

They still don’t get it. They want to take back their nation for God. Jesus urges them to consider “something for everybody” but their question is about what the future will look like for them. Their question about kingdom shows that they have confused blessing with favoritism.

Luke gives another detail about the eunuch: he is in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia. He’s in charge of the wealth of one of the empires of the nations. And he’s just been baptized, he’s said yes to the new exodus, and he’s joined the Jesus movement. The wealth of the nations is entrusted to a Jesus follower.

Instead of building towers and forcing others to make storehouses out of bricks so that some are stockpiling while others are slaves, this new movement is ruled by generosity, and compassion, and sharing. The gospel for these first Christians is an economic reality. It’s holistic and affects all areas of their lives. It’s an alternative to the greed and coercion of empire.

Luke writes that the eunuch “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:39) Acts is a story of movement, motion, and progress. It’s people being caught up in something that simply must expand, and stretch, and go. Because no one city, no one religion, no one perspective, no one worldview can contain it.

Luke wraps up the story of Acts with Paul in Rome, miles from Jerusalem, at the center of a thoroughly non-Jewish world, sharing the message with whoever is interested. He “welcomed all who came to see him.” All – that’s who this Jesus is for.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians - Chapter Three

After years in exile, a significant number of Israelites eventually do come home to Israel. They return to Jerusalem, rebuild its walls, and construct another temple. But when those who had seen Solomon’s temple see the new one, they’re heartbroken, because it’s nothing like its former glory. Things just aren’t what they were.

They’re not in Babylon anymore. They’re now home, but it isn’t what it used to be. The Roman Empire, the superpower of their day, conquers Israel and begins a long, oppressive occupation of their nation. Instead of being hauled away to a foreign land by a conquering army like before, this time a foreign army has come to them. Roman soldiers march through their villages, ordering people to carry their packs while taxes are collected so the Romans can build an even bigger army to conquer more nations.

Imagine going to Jerusalem for the festivals and gathering with thousands of other Jews and singing together the great songs of David about the days when things were better. Songs about victory, songs about the power of God, songs about all of the nations bowing down to your God. Imagine growing up with that history, that heritage, that story, and then trying to explain to your children just what these Roman soldiers, who don’t even believe in your God, are doing in the streets of your village.

This is Israel at the beginning of the first century. Occupation, oppression, shame, and humiliation. A nation of people wondering where their God is, asking, Why is this happening to us again? Home, and yet still in a sort of exile. Clinging to the suspended promises of the prophets, looking forward to the day, the day of hope, the day when another son of David would come and lead then in a new exodus.

430 of slavery in Egypt – 430 years in exile – 430 back in Jerusalem, but still in some form of exile – and then Jesus is born.

Here is the new son of David, one who can hear the cry of the oppressed, and he’s inaugurating a new marriage covenant as he leads them in a new exodus. At one point Jesus even says, “I am the way”, which is a new exodus term.

Jesus keeps insisting that a new kind of kingdom is “coming” and he’s forever explaining to his hearers what this kingdom is “like,” that it is “upon you”, and that it is “near”. Power is flowing through Jesus to the broken, blind, and lame – those who need it the most, who have no power. Jesus is a servant who uses his power in the service of compassion and love – that’s what a servant does.

Isaiah (42) had said this would happen. A son of Davis, who uses power purely, leading a new exodus, showing the way to a new city and a new temple, displaying a new humanity.

Jesus insists that his work will lead to a renewal of all things. Anticipation grows as Jesus travels from town to town, village to village, teaching and healing and comforting and explaining and announcing that God is doing something new, something big, and that God is doing it through him. Massive crowds listen to him, people give up everything to follow him, children line the streets and sing about him as the new son of David.

And then it’s over. Jesus is arrested – and tried like a criminal – and then killed.

Luke tells the story of two of his disciples heading home after his death. (Luke 24:13-35) They’re walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, the village they left to follow him. How embarrassing. Can you imagine returning to your hometown after having made an error in judgment this large? Dropping everything to follow a man because you thought he was something that apparently he wasn’t?

For these disciples, Jesus’ death is the end of hope. For their fellow traveler, Jesus’ death isn’t the end of hope; it’s actually the beginning of hope. It’s as if Jesus says, “If I do it like everybody has done it since the beginning of time, how would that change anything?” If evil always takes some form of violence, then more violence isn’t going to solve anything.

The only way to break that cycle is for someone to absorb it. A true leader of a new exodus would have to resist ever using power in the form of violence against another human being. Isaiah called the one to come a suffering servant. (Isaiah 52:13-15) Someone would have to have the courage to put away the sword, forever, regardless of the consequences for his own security. No matter how tempting it is to pick it up and start swinging, someone would have to say, “Forgive them, Father, because they just don’t’ get it.”

So all of creation is in sort of exile, east of Eden, estranged from its maker, far from home, what’s the penalty for that? What would be the payment to end that exile?

The prophets had declared that someone would come who would be willing to pay that price, the price for all of creation breaking covenant with God. And if that price was paid, that would change everything. Everything and everybody could then come home.

In a couple of hours, using nothing but the Hebrew Scriptures, this man converted all of their despair to hope and a vision of a new future.

In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message. In Jesus’ day, people could follow him, learn from him, drop everything to be his disciples, and yet find themselves returning home, thinking Jesus had failed.

Which is a bit like walking with someone for hours, only to discover that you had missed who they really are the whole time. Because the stranger is, of course, Jesus.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Jesus Wants to Save Christians - Chapter two

The descendant of Solomon find themselves enslaved in Babylon. They once had the palace and the temple and slaves and the thriving economy and the massive military. They had wealth, and influence and peace and blessing, but they lost it. They forgot their God, they neglected the widow and the orphans and the refugee, and everything fell apart.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered. There on the poplars we hung our harps… our tormentors demanded songs of joy…How can we sing… while in a foreign land?” Psalm 137:1-4

They hung up their harps. The harp was an instrument of joy and celebration. The harp was a sound you heard when life was good. But the Israelites are not in Jerusalem anymore; they’re in Babylon - Where they hang up their harps. And they weep. They cry out in Babylon.

When the system works for us, when we have the power and choice, when we’re ruling from Jerusalem, when we have no needs to speak of, who needs to cry out? Crying out reminds us of our dependence. Weeping leads us to reconnect with God.

It didn’t take long for these exiles sitting by the side of the river in Babylon to connect their agony with the story of their ancestors who were slaves in Egypt. If God freed our people once before, couldn’t God do it again? And so it’s here, in exile by the river, amid the tears of despair, that God’s people begin to dream again.

Prophets rose up in the midst of all of the despair and hanging of harps and proclaimed not the end but the beginning of something new. On the heels of colossal failure, the Jewish prophets imagined the greatest picture of hope and the future anybody’s ever thought of anywhere.

The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is human slavery to violence, sin, and death. There’s an Egypt that we’re all born into, and that’s what we really need an exodus from.

An exodus is a departure, a leaving, a movement. It’s motion, energy, and action. An exodus is something you do, something you’re caught up in, somewhere you’re going, something you join because you don’t want to stay where you are. The prophets called it “the way”. (Isa. 40:3)

Apparently, anyone can join (Isa. 40:5). Everybody is welcome to come home. People of “the way” headed home. (Isa. 48:20) Now “the way” wasn’t a new idea. (Exodus 13:21)

But in the new exodus, the one in which everything will be different than it was before, the truth will be so deeply etched into people’s consciousness that they will naturally do the right thing. New exodus people, remarried to God, leaving exile, headed home.

They understood the danger of returning. The danger of returning is that we will forget what just happened. And so the way, the prophets insisted, would lead back to some sort of new Jerusalem.

But the prophets didn’t stop here. A new exodus, a new way, a new marriage with a new covenant, a new city, with a new temple, one big enough for the whole world to worship together in – what’s left for the prophets to promise? What’s left is love. (Isa. 29: 19-25)

For the prophets in exile, no vision was too large, no dream too big, no hope too beyond what would happen in the new exodus. A movement bigger than any one nation, bigger than any one ethnic group, bigger than any one religion – all of which raises the question, who will lead it?

Isaiah calls him a “Prince of Peace” and predicts that he’’ “reign on David’s throne… upholding it with justice and righteousness…forever.” (Isa. 9:6-7) Isaiah said that he’d have the Spirit of God on him and would “proclaim good new to the poor.” (Isa. 61:1)

Here by the river, in exile, all of these expectations began to coalesce into one person: a servant, a prophet like Moses, a prince of peace, a way out of exile. What began as hope for a Jewish leader for Jewish people needing an exodus from exile in Babylon evolved over time into the expectation of a leader who would be for everybody.

And this is how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament, end. With all of these suspended promises, hanging there, unfulfilled, undone, waiting. A group of people by a river who have lost it all, asking the questions:
What if we had it all back?
What if we could do it again?
What would we do differently?
What if a child was born and a son was given?
What if David had another son?