Friday, July 18, 2008

SOTM 15: Reconciling Relationships

21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

I don't think that "peace" is just something you say when you're done smoking your joint and it's time to go home. I'm not a hippie, but I am for peace. World peace. I think Christians should be on the front lines of social and political initiatives to help negotiate national grievances. But as Jesus continues to remind us, global reconciliation is futile as long as we still aren't talking with our next door neighbor. It reminds me of the movie "Traffic" where the U.S. National Drug Czar (played by Michael Douglass) works tirelessly to stop the flow of drugs from coming into the country but realizes the futility of his efforts in light of the fact that he can't even prevent his own daughter from becoming a heroin addict. It's a great lesson. Trying to stop the global drug trade is a good and right thing to do, but it's pointless if we don't start with some solid family values. Similarly, Jesus calls us to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters. He's so serious about it that he even says, don't come and worship me until you've got this taken care of. Why? Because we are making a mockery of what our relationship with God is supposed to do--bring reconciliation with others. If we truly love God, we will love others. And if we aren't loving others it's an indication that we aren't really loving God--so our worship would just be paying lip service.

It is crucial that we see the context in which this command comes. It falls on the heels of the beatitudes. Reconciling relationships almost always means seeking forgiveness, even if the other person was "meaner." It takes one who is poor in spirit, meek, mourning, etc. to face the humiliation often involved in seeking reconciliation. So if you have someone with whom you know things aren't right--go make it right. And if you find it difficult to do so, pray through the beatitudes again and ask God to break you.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

SOTM 14: Christians the New Pharisees?

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

-Mt. 5:20

Jesus could be pretty harsh sometimes. He was no pushover and he wasn't there to tickle people's ears by telling them what they wanted to hear. But when Jesus laid down the smack it was almost always towards his own people--his fellow Jewish religious types. Jesus says that to enter into the Kingdom of heaven our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. Jesus isn't raising the bar from the Old Testament Law, he's trying to get us back on track. Later on Jesus reveals what he means by the righteousness of the Pharisees. He calls them white-washed tombs. He says that their righteousness was only on the outside which is really not righteousness at all. In other words they were hypocrites.

Sadly, the way Jesus viewed the Pharisees is not much different from how our world often views Christians. And I wish I could say they are unjustified but the evidence is conclusive. In virtually every area of behavior that Christians claim to be against, there is virtually no difference between us and everyone else--domestic abuse, viewing pornography, consulting mediums or psychics, lying, revenge, use of illegal drugs. . . the list goes on (see below). Yet at the same time we outshine everyone else in the number of Bibles we own and number of religious services we attend. Let's face it, by-and-large, Christians are the new Pharisees.

As I discussed in the last post, the problem with much of Christianity is that we think, and we come across as thinking, that following rules is what it is all about. The irony here is that the more we think that's what it's about the worse we are at actually doing it! The answer is not to try harder but daily to confess our sins before the one who came to fulfill the law--that through a genuinely growing relationship with Him we might be transformed into the kinds of people who actually do follow the rules.

See "unChristian" by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (p. 47)

Monday, July 14, 2008

SOTM 13: Our Breath Stinks

17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Mt. 5:17

Years ago a friend of mine asked me how my love life was doing. I got really excited because I knew that he knew that we both knew that I had no love life. So I thought maybe this was a clever way of starting in on how he knew about someone who liked me. "Not much going on" I said. "Why?" "Because your breath reeks," he responded. Ouch! One of the 15 books I'm currently reading (I can't stay focused on one book for very long) is about why people don't like Christians. Yeah, that's right. A lot of people don't like us. And it basically feels like the book is telling us that our breath stinks. People don't like us because we aren't very pleasant to be around. The books lists specific things that are often associated with evangelical culture that our society finds so unpleasant. The central theme is clear--we are viewed as being too negative. We are known for what we are AGAINST rather than what we are FOR. This, unfortunately, is what Phariseeism is all about. The problem with the Pharisees wasn't that they wanted to follow a bunch of rules (though some of them were a little wacky) but that it appeared that that's what it was all about. There are many things that we should be against, but if that is what we are known for, then we aren't coming across as much different than the very people with whom the one we claim to follow found himself in so much opposition. This is why verse 17 is so important. In fact, I do not think I'm overstating the case to say that this verse is the key to understanding every other verse in the Bible. In other words, as you read about Moses and the burning bush, David and Goliath, sacrificing pigeons, unclean bodily discharges (it's really in there!! See Leviticus 15:2), etc., the key to understanding it all is to see how it fits into the overall story of Jesus and his fulfillment of the story of the people of Israel. In a similar passage Jesus scorns the Pharisees for missing this point. "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:39-40). We need to be absolutely clear, not first and foremost about what we are against, but about what we are for: Jesus. It is through Him and by Him that the law is and can be fulfilled in our lives.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

SOTM 12: Don't Ever Give Up?

17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Mt 5:17-21

If hell was your worse nightmare, then hell for me would be a graduation ceremony. I went to one recently where I had to listen to 4 different commencement addresses in a row. And it didn't seem that public speaking ability was one of the criteria for selection. What were they about? I brought a book. Anyway, I heard once about a speaker who stood up and before people like me had even gotten through the first paragraph of our read, he was done. He stood up and all he said was, "Don't ever, ever, ever, ever give up." And then he sat down. Honestly, that might be one of the best commencement addresses I've ever heard of. It's exactly what we need to hear as we move from the safe, dependable library to the frightening, chaotic world of real life. But it's a good thing that Jesus didn't say the same thing-- though v. 20 sure sounds like it. There are some things in life that we are good at, and some things that we aren't, and being good just isn't one of them. I'm 5'7 and no more than 125 pounds. When I was growing up if I'd told my parents I wanted to be a linebacker I think the stupidest think they could have told me is to never give up. Such advice would have left me in a lot of pain. It's the same thing when we try to be good people. We just aren't any good at it. This is really a bummer because Jesus tells us here that the fullness of life he desires for us both now and in eternity is inextricably linked with who we are as people. But the good news is found verse 17-- Jesus came to fulfill the law. What we can't do, Jesus came to do for us and through us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

SOTM 11: Enlightenment

13"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

14"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:13-16

I would love to own an Olson Acoustic guitar, a beach house in Hawaii, and travel to Europe a couple of times a year. Maybe you would too. Very few people can really have whatever they want. But one of the great facts of life is that as fun as luxury is, the things in life that make life worth living--friends, relationships, health—-are all, more or less, equally accessible to all.

I would also love to be brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m pretty smart. But I’m not brilliant--you know, C.S. Lewis brilliant. Mozart, Einstein, Weird Al brilliant. I’m just not. The Enlightenment era has tried to tell me that my deficiency in intelligence is really a great detriment. Only the wise men and scholars REALLY know what’s going on. And for those of us who can’t hang, well too bad. But Jesus tells us that true wisdom is accessible to all. The true “enlightenment” occurs when his followers reveal the goodness of our heavenly Father through their loving behavior.

Monday, July 7, 2008

SOMT 10: Persecution

10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Mt. 5:10-12

Once again we see that one of the things the world tells us we should try to avoid is exactly something that Jesus says will be a part of following him. If your life meets little opposition, there is reason to believe you are not walking in the light of the Kingdom. One central theme that runs through the lives of Jesus and his faithful followers is persecution. A Christianity that ruffles no feathers is a Christianity that is no different from that which it purports to change. And if it's no different than the rest of the world, why should the rest of the world be interested?

Yet this passage doesn't say that all who are persecuted are blessed, but those who are persecuted BECAUSE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. There is an unfortunate tendency within Christian circles to seek out persecution as a way of validating their faith. If people hate me I must be doing the work of God. But there are all kinds of other reasons why people might not like you. You might, for example, be annoying or insensitive. It is not uncommon for us to think that people are rejecting the Gospel when in reality they are simply rejecting our mode of delivery. Other times it isn't the Gospel they are rejecting, but some other conviction we've pontificated about and assumed all gospel believers share (political views for instance), thinking rather irresponsibly that they are inseparably linked. But to be persecuted for righteousness is to be persecuted for setting a lifestyle example that challenges at the core our inherent cravings for domination and self-gratification. To refuse to exercise unethical business practices, for example, challenges the unspoken dogma of the survival of the fittest--truth is what I can get away with and is what gets me what I want. If you challenge what is increasingly viewed as our evolutionary right and the key to success, you will surely be met with resistance.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

SOTM 9: Peacemakers

9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
-Mt. 5:9

"Peace" in the Jewish mindset was an all-encompassing concept referring to the way things are supposed to be. Shalom is what everything is headed for. When peace is achieved everything is at rest, everything is calm, there is a collective sigh of relief. Jesus is called the prince of peace. He is the one who has come to make things the way they are supposed to be. Spiritual, physical, psychological--all the various categories we use to evaluate the person--he has come to make right all that has gone wrong. As his children, we too are to be his agents of peace, seeking to make right what is wrong at every level. We must seek to tackle the largest and most insurmountable of problems--genocide, famine, poverty. But we must begin with you and me. Making peace means restoring all relationships. You don't have to be fighting to be at war. Each one of us may secretly be fighting cold wars on many fronts, in many relationships. Sometimes we don't even notice. Trade and diplomacy continue. There are no official embargoes. But inside our minds and maybe even behind their backs secret agents are doing their work. Sometimes covert attacks are launched, perhaps through a subtly manipulative word or cold shoulder. It isn't official, but we are at war. But the peacemaker says no. She identifies and focuses on the speck in her own eye even if the other is sporting a plank. She seeks forgiveness, and makes amends. Is there someone out there with whom you need to make peace?

Friday, July 4, 2008

SOTM 8: Pure?

8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Mt. 5:8

This might be one of the most frustrating verses in the Bible. Remember the SNL skit where the fat guy speaks of the deplorable cycle he's in? "I'm fat because I eat, and I eat because I'm fat," he cries. Similar is the human condition itself. I can't see God because I have an impure heart. And I have an impure heart because I can't see God. To walk in the light is the only way to be purged, transformed, renewed. But it is that which must be purged that prevents us from walking in the light. We stumble in darkness crying out "create in me a clean heart" to a God whose face has been hidden from us because of our sin. It is at the cross that this cycle is broken. It is here that light penetrates a darkness that should hide it. It is here that as we turn in repentance we discover that we weren't the ones doing the turning. God help us.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Didn't Constantine Write The Bible?

If you think the Bible descended out of heaven in a red letter edition complete with concordance, leather binding, and dedicated to your grandmother, you're going to be disappointed. The Bible is through and through the product of human cultures. It was written at particular times in history with the particular idiosyncrasies of particular cultures. So when I hear people say things like "the Bible is the product of the political forces -- you know, Constantine's rise to power, and all of that" my response is "So what? What did you expect?" To say that the fact that the Bible is the product of human society (with its personal, political, and social factors) somehow makes it less divine is to make the same mistake as saying that the fact that Jesus was a Jewish carpenter precludes his divinity. The central mystery of the Christian faith (in which lies the hope of humanity) is that God condescended himself and came to this earth as one of us. Not the condescending of the rich kid who decides to play homeless for a few days but always keeps his daddy's credit card in his back pocket in case things get bad, but the kind of condescending that leads to the cross. The kind where he realizes there's no way out because he really has become one of us. In the same sense that God became fully human in the person of Jesus, so the word of God became fully human in Scripture. Conservative Christians are often guilty of scriptural docetism. In the same way that gnostic Christians of the early church thought that Jesus only "seemed" to be human, some of us try to ignore the obvious human elements in scripture. It's understandable, it stems from the desire to protect the divinity of scripture against a secular culture that makes the opposite error of seeing only its humanness. In the same way that we can look at Jesus and see him as 100 percent human we can also look at the development of the canon of scripture from a 100 percent sociological perspective. But no matter how many political or social agendas one may find as she traces the history of the canonization of scripture over its several hundred year course I believe she will still find such a purely sociological explanation wanting. Scripture has always had an incredible power over the lives of those who faithfully follow it, and time and time again has called them to action in ways that secularists will never quite be able to understand--in just the same way that for all his humanness, Jesus' life on earth has all the marks of divinity.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

SOTM 7: Total Loser

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Mt. 5:7

Maybe you're like me and helping others doesn't always come naturally. And from time to time you find yourself in that awkward situation of realizing that you just can't justify not helping out. Maybe a friend just bought a new sofa and they've asked you to come over and help move it in. You wish you'd already made other plans, but you haven't. And you're totally busted because the previous week you had 500 people spend the day helping you move into your new house. If you don't help out, face the facts. You're a total loser. That's the basic gist of the parable of the unmerciful servant. When you've been shown mercy--when you've been in great need and received help and you don't respond in kind to others--you're a total loser. Of course Jesus' scope is much bigger. He's not just getting at who the cool and lame friends are. He's addressing the question of who really knows where they stand with God--who has the keys to the Kingdom. The bottom line is that God is a merciful and forgiving God. What he's telling us is that that day when you had 500 people over to help you move in, that is every day. That day when you were shown mercy, that's every day. Every single moment of our existence is a merciful gift from God. And every time we don't show others mercy it is an indication that we've forgotten what God has done and continues to do for us. The unmerciful servant loses his opportunity for mercy because in forgetting his need for it he has refused it.