Sermon on the Mount #2

Last week was the first installment in our series that will take us through the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor John set the scene and began to share with us what Jesus taught about what living in the kingdom looks like. If you missed our post from last week, it may be helpful to go back and read it before we dive into the remaining six beatitudes–you can do that here: Sermon on the Mount #1.

Pastor John told us last week–and shared with us again on Sunday–that in this famous sermon, and specifically the Beatitudes, Jesus is telling his followers how to be in the world. We covered the first three:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

(Matthew 5:3-5, NIV)

We pick up this week right where we left off. In the fourth of nine beatitudes, Jesus tells us:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

(Matthew 5:6, NIV)

Pastor John told us that this beatitude has to do with putting God and his kingdom first in our hearts, that it means being “rightly related” to God. When we see the word righteousness, our minds naturally take us somewhere other than where the verse intends for us to go. For a more complete understanding of what this verse communicates, it is helpful to see it in another translation and take a deeper look into what it means.

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.

(Matthew 5:6, NLT)

Richard Rohr, in his daily meditation titled, “Blessed are Those Who Hunger for Justice,” (February 2018) writes:

“This Beatitude is surely both spiritual and social. Most Bibles to this day soften this Beatitude: “hunger and thirst for what is right” or “for righteousness” are the more common faulty translations. But the word in Greek clearly means “justice”. . .”

The word Rohr writes about is the Greek word dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.” There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others. Rohr’s meditation continues:

My friend John Dear, who has spent his life in the struggle against the injustice of violence, writes about this Beatitude:

Righteousness is not just the private practice of doing good; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.

. . . Jesus instructs us to be passionate for social, economic, and racial justice. That’s the real meaning of the Hebrew word for justice and the Jewish insistence on it. Resist systemic, structured, institutionalized injustice with every bone in your body, with all your might, with your very soul, he teaches. Seek justice as if it were your food and drink, your bread and water, as if it were a matter of life and death, which it is. . . . Within our relationship to the God of justice and peace, those who give their lives to that struggle, Jesus promises, will be satisfied. . .”

The next verse reads:

“How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you.” (5:7, TPT)

The word mercy, according to Strong’s definition, means to be compassionate, with the help of divine grace; to desire to help another who is afflicted. It is more than a feeling. It includes action because, as we’ve written about before, compassion is co-suffering with another. It is a visceral, from-the-depths-of-our-guts response. It is empathy that comes alongside another. As Pastor John shared, mercy is moving toward all those who may be far away, with the same mercy we have received from our Jesus who always moves toward us. In Jesus’ kingdom, we don’t push people away. Withholding mercy is not–and has never been–a kingdom principle. We honor the inherent dignity and worth in all others rather than judging them, because this is what we ourselves have experienced from our loving God.

Following mercy, Jesus tells his listeners about the importance of being pure in heart. The Message paraphrases it this way:

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” (5:8, MSG)

I love this particular wording of this beatitude. It communicates the importance of wholeheartedness to readers who may find it all too easy and comfortable to live a duplicitous life. When our minds and hearts are set right, undivided, wholly focused on the One we worship, we’ll see God everywhere. What is alive within us we will see all around us, as we live committed to following the voice of Jesus.

“Blessed [spiritually calm with life-joy in God’s favor] are the makers and maintainers of peace, for they will [express His character and] be called the sons of God.”

(5:9, AMP)

The Amplified Bible really captures what this seventh beatitude means. We often read in more familiar translations, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” In this translation, we read that it is the makers and maintainers of peace who are blessed, for in working for peace, they express the character of Jesus himself, who is the embodiment of peace. Pastor John referred to one of my favorite verses when he reached this point in his sermon. It is Ephesians 2:14, and it reads,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… (emphasis mine)

I have loved this verse for a long time, because in it we find that peace isn’t an elusive feeling or state of mind to chase after. Peace–the Shalom that brings wholeness, equity, and completeness–is a person. The person of Jesus. If we know him, we know peace, peace lives within us, peace is part of who we are. And then we, as we become more and more like the one we follow, become makers and maintainers of that same kind of peace.

Jesus brought all of humanity into the fold. His Shalom breaks down barriers and erases divisions. He did it when he walked the earth, and he is doing it still. It is a kingdom value to connect with one another as equals–equally dependent on the vine that sustains  every branch, each of us. There is no room for hostility, for “us vs. them” mindsets, for attitudes of superiority in the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. Instead of adding to conflict, chaos, and confusion, we are invited to engage in the process of making and maintaining peace–with everyone.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.” (5:10, MSG)

“Blessed [morally courageous and spiritually alive with life-joy in God’s goodness] are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of [your association with] Me. Be glad and exceedingly joyful, for your reward in heaven is great [absolutely inexhaustible]; for in this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (5:11-12, AMP)

The eighth and ninth beatitude are similar, but not the same. Verse 10 relates to verse 6. The persecution the eighth beatitude speaks of is the persecution we face when we work for equity and justice, when we seek to bring the kingdom and its values to all people. Verses 11-12 speak to a more general persecution, the kind that may come simply because we love Jesus and follow his ways.

As Pastor John shared on Sunday, what Jesus is saying in these verses is radical–then, and now. He is flipping the script on what it means to be called blessed. He is elevating the leasts and the lasts, and calling the firsts and the greatest to lives of service and humility. He offers points of connection in these nine kingdom principles–ways to bring equity to unjust systems, structures, and mindsets. Just as many did not take kindly to his words then, many of us may not want to take them at face value now. John articulated the struggle with these words:

“God says through Jesus on the sermon on the mount:

GOD SAYS, Blessed are the poor in Spirit… BUT WE SAY, blessed are the rich.

God says, Blessed are those who mourn. But we say, blessed are the self satisfied.

God says, Blessed are the meek. But we say blessed are the aggressors.

God says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. But we say, blessed are the self fulfilled.

God says, Blessed are the merciful… But we say, blessed are the manipulators.

God says, Blessed are the pure in heart… But we say, blessed are the extreme.

God says, Blessed are the peacemakers… But we say, blessed are the powerful.

God says, Blessed are those who are persecuted… But we say, blessed are those who play it safe.

God says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of him… But we say blessed are those who are not persecuted at all.”

He’s right, isn’t he? We do tend to bless the opposite of what God calls blessed. Many of us are used to being comfortable. Our lives are full of good things, things we label as “blessing” or “favor” from God. Even though we all face hardships, if we can read and write these words and access this blog online, we are among the world’s most privileged. That means that we don’t naturally fit into the categories of the blessed that Jesus speaks of in this sermon. But we can be… Luanne wrote last week,

“God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. “This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Jesus came to even the ground for each one who bears his image–that’s all of us. Every single human being. It feels like that comes at a great cost to those of us who have more. But it is actually an opportunity to more fully identify with Jesus and embody his nature, if we’re willing to embrace his ways. This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–

The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

–Laura

In the Old Testament, after God delivered the Israelites from slavery, Moses (their leader), went up on a mountain and received the Ten Commandments from God. These commandments were to be the behaviors that identified God’s people as being different from the nations around them. They were intended to be so different (in a good way) that they would draw those nations to God. Moses received these commandments, came down the mountain and shared them with the people. If we read the commandments with the right heart, we will see that they are all about loving God and loving others. Don’t hold anything else in your life above God, don’t worship anything other than God, don’t misuse God’s name, honor God (and yourself) by having a healthy work/rest balance, honor your parents, don’t kill people, don’t cheat on people, don’t steal from people, don’t lie about people, don’t covet what someone else has. The core message of the commandments is how to live righteously– in right relationship with God and others; however, they became flat rules to follow and were/are used for comparison, exclusion, and oppression.

Quite a few centuries later, God, clothed in flesh, goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach those willing to learn about being. Jesus teaches that the attitudes and behaviors of God’s kingdom people will be formed from the inside out.  The beatitudes are a radical departure from the ways of the world and the common ways of being human.

If we recall what was happening during the time of Jesus’ earthly life, he was born into a people group oppressed by Rome. Rome ruled with power, conquest and violence. They mistreated people just because they could.  And, within Jesus’ own people group, the religious system had also become one of oppression. The religious leaders tried to legislate morality and monitor people’s choices and behaviors. They were the self-appointed gatekeepers who determined who was acceptable to God and who wasn’t; they weren’t afraid to use their power to resort to violence.

Into this environment the Sermon on the Mount is spoken. Jesus, the true Messiah, the King of kings, the Prince of peace, teaches what his kingdom on earth is to look like. It is the antithesis of worldly power, oppression, violence, and force. In referring to the Sermon on the Mount, Brian Zahnd writes in his book Water to Wine: “Unlike all other political agendas, the supreme value of the politics of Jesus is not power but love…..The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need by, martyrdom–but never by force. ….In the politics of Jesus the world will be changed by non-coercive love or not at all.”  

As we move through this sermon over the next few months, we will see Jesus mention some behaviors, but he begins the whole thing by saying–this is how my followers are to be. The “being” comes before the “behaving”.  Our authentic behavior flows from our being.

It’s important to remember that each of the nine beatitudes are connected to the others. None of them is a stand-alone. When they were written, there were no chapters and verses. And, like the Old Testament commandments, the beatitudes are all about loving God and loving others.

Using The Passion Translation, I’m going to write the beatitudes out in reverse order. I chose that version because it’s translated from Aramaic rather than Greek. Its fresh perspective will keep us from skimming due to familiarity. I will include some of TPT’s  footnotes in parenthesis. Consider reading it through one time without paying attention to what’s in parenthesis, and then a second time including the parenthetical parts. This is how Jesus’ followers are to be:

How ecstatic you can be when people insult (criticize) and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted (rejected) for doing what is right (for the Righteous One)! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How blessed you are when you make peace! For then you will be recognized as a true child of God. What bliss you experience when your heart is pure (full of innocence)! For then your eyes will open to see more and more of God. How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you. (Mercy…comes from our innermost being. The [Aramaic] root word for “mercy” is the root word for “womb”.) How enriched you are when you crave righteousness (goodness, justice)! For you will be surrounded with fruitfulness. What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you (implies being both gentle and flexible)! For you will inherit the earth. What delight comes to you when you wait upon the Lord (The Hebrew word for “wait” and for “mourn” is almost identical.) For you will find what you long for. (The Aramaic is see the face of what (or who) you long for. The Greek is be comforted). What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty (humble and totally dependent upon God)! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom.

This morning, my devotional reading was in Acts 7 and was the account of the stoning of Stephen. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but recognize the beatitudes in Stephen’s story.  In Acts 6 we learn that Stephen was chosen to help in the ministry of distributing food to both Hellenistic and Hebraic widows There had been inequitable treatment between these two groups and a dispute had taken place. Stephen was chosen because he was  a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5), and in verse 8 we learn he was a man full of God’s grace and power, [and] performed great wonders and signs among the people. 

Among the religious leaders, opposition rose against Stephen. They argued with him but could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke (6:10) So they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). They produced false witnesses...(6:13). 

While all this craziness was going on the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (6:15) . 

In Acts 7, Stephen is given the opportunity to defend himself, and he shares with the leaders their own history of persecuting the prophets and their role in murdering Jesus. The religious elite don’t like this message at all.  As the frenzy escalates, Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (7:55-56).  The religious leaders lost all self-control; they yelled at the top of their lungs, they rushed him, grabbed him, dragged him outside the city, and began to stone him. (57-59).

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (59-60). 

Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace, full of wisdom, full of the power of God, falsely accused, brutally murdered, asks God to forgive his perpetrators, and dies.

What does this have to do with the beatitudes? Everything. We read Stephen’s story and are inspired by his faith–but do we want to be like him? I’m certainly not implying that there is any part of me that wants Stephen’s story (except for the wisdom, grace, and Holy Spirit part). But blessed are we when people falsely accuse us, persecute us, and  when we make peace, have a pure heart, demonstrate tender mercy, crave rightousness, act with gentleness, mourn (feel deeply for others), wait upon the Lord, and live in utter dependence upon God. All of that is demonstrated in Stephen’s story.

It’s sobering to realize just how very different the principles of God’s kingdom are from the the principles that we’ve adopted from our societal culture. Scroll back up to Laura’s post and read the God says….but we say… statements. Written out like they are really highlights the things we value that are not the same things God values. I’m not sure that we can sort out kingdom culture from worldly culture and kingdom politics from worldly politics without tremendous humility and reliance upon the Holy Spirit to guide us. To live so counter-culturally requires incredible courage. Even in this day, living according to Jesus’ teaching is misunderstood and can lead to division–even (maybe especially) among Christians. So what are we to do?

Just as there are nine beatitudes, there is another list in the New Testament that contains nine elements. It’s found in Galatians 5:22-23 and says: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

As we ponder the words of Jesus, as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our inner beings, as our attitudes become more and more like the attitude of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will flow out of us and we will live in the realm of God’s kingdom, seeing more and more of the face of the One we long for, and changing the world by the non-coercive love of God.  Blessed are…

Laura asked: Do we really want to live like this?  

Do we?

–Luanne

The Beatitudes – Ipswich Catholic Community

Sermon on the Mount #1

I am extremely excited about the new series Pastor John began on Sunday. For the next 22 weeks will be diving into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  For those of us desiring to follow Jesus (his way) on planet earth, the words he spoke in this sermon are of utmost importance.

With that being said, today we are going to look at the first 5 verses of the fifth chapter in Matthew. Before we hit our passage, let’s briefly skim over what Matthew covered in Chapters 1-4 of his gospel: Chapter 1 contains the genealogy of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit conceiving Jesus in Mary’s womb. Chapter 2 contains his birth story including the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt, the return from Egypt; Chapter 3 contains Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son. Chapter 4 contains the temptation Jesus endured in the wilderness, the calling of his first disciples; we learn that “From that time Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent (change the way you think), for the Kingdom of heaven is here” ( Mt. 4:17). Matthew 4:23 tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom“. Matthew 4 goes on to say Jesus traveled, healed the sick and freed the demon-possessed. If I counted correctly, in these four chapters there are seven verses in which Matthew mentions that Jesus’ life and actions were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, so before we ever get to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has established Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

One more detour before we get into the sermon itself–Jesus is doing a new thing. Everything Matthew has told us so far is mind-blowing as he establishes the true identity of Jesus. Large crowds from lots of regions can’t get enough. So Jesus goes up on a mountainside, he sits down (as was the posture of rabbis in that day when teaching). The disciples drew near (disciples are students—those who wanted to learn from what Jesus had to say, not just experience what he could “do” for them).

“Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he opened his mouth to teach them saying…”(4:25, 5:1-2)

He opened his mouth (that’s the literal Greek phrase)–I believe this is very intentional because in the Old Testament we learn:

Isaiah 55:10-11As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

And he taught them saying…(Mt. 5:2).  

It’s important to note that Matthew ends his entire gospel with these words of Jesus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

Teaching is different from telling. Teaching is interactive; teaching requires relationship; good teaching requires modeling, good communication, and willingness to come alongside the student. The goal of teaching is for the student to learn something that will affect his/her life. We know that we have “learned” when the lesson becomes part of us and we can teach it to someone else. A good teacher loves his/her subject and loves his/her students. A good French teacher not only knows and loves French but knows how to help his/her students to learn French. Students don’t leave that teacher “doing” French. French becomes part of them.  Jesus, the Son of God, not only knows what the kingdom of heaven on earth looks like, he knows how to help us learn so the kingdom of God can become part of us and flow out of us like language flows out of the French speaker. Learning requires being challenged; learning requires watching, listening, practicing, making mistakes, correcting mistakes; learning requires humility.

…he taught them saying…

Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3 NIV), or worded another way: What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom. (TPT). 

Right away we see that the word “blessed” in the NIV is translated very differently in The Passion Translation. Pastor John informed us that “blessed” is a very difficult word to translate…it’s much larger in concept than our traditional understanding conveys.

The Passion Translation has a footnote regarding how they translated the Aramaic word which teaches us: “The Aramaic word toowayhon means “enriched, happy, fortunate, delighted, blissful, content, blessed.” Our English word blessed can indeed fit here, but toowayhon implies more—great happiness, prosperity, abundant goodness, and delight! The word bliss captures all of this meaning. Toowayhon means to have the capacity to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Bliss means perfect happiness, great joy…hmmm.

The Greek word translated “blessed” is makarios. Lutheran commentator Brian Stoffregen helps us to grasp its significance by writing: “In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people…”

Hmmm.

Pastor John shared with us that “blessed” is the essence of wholeness–being made whole.

This first of the nine beatitudes about the “poor in spirit” being blissful, being made whole, living beyond all the cares of life–is the subject of the first “be like attitude” for kingdom of heaven people. It’s the first phrase of this sermon from the open mouth of Jesus that will water the earth and not return empty. Paul wrote about this poor in spirit attitude in Philippians 2, when he wrote:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privilegeshe took the humble position of a slave…he humbled himself in obedience to God…(NLT)

Going back to The Passion Translation’s footnote we are reminded again that in translating “blessed”: The word bliss captures all of this meaning… to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

There are many who are born into poverty who must truly depend on God for every morsel of food. Yet, if you’ve been graced with the opportunity to be among the poorest of the poor, you will observe that even in the midst of great hardship–enviable, abundant joy and rich generosity exist in their communities. It makes no logical sense–but Jesus didn’t tell us to look for logic in the kingdom of heaven on earth.  It’s beyond logic and goes into the beautiful realm of mystery.

There are others who are born into privilege. God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. “This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Aaagh….there’s so much more to write, and I’m barely even scratching the surface of the first of the three beatitudes Pastor John talked about on Sunday, but I must leave room for Laura to write, so I humbly close my portion here with one final thought. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us are sheltering at home these days. We aren’t able to hug our friends, to meet together as a body of Christ, to visit family. Some of us are not able to work, have lost jobs that seemed secure, have become sick, or have lost loved ones to this virus. Things that we thought we had some form of control over we’ve discovered we have no control over. This is a perfect time to humble ourselves before God, confess our true and total dependence upon him, allow him to meet us where we are and teach us about reliance during this time.

Blissful are those who recognize that we are all in this together; we can’t depend upon ourselves for our material lives, physical lives or spiritual lives; we are utterly dependent upon God for every heartbeat, every breath. Living with the humility of our acknowledged utter dependence opens the doorway to living in and living out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. (my paraphrase)

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am bursting with excitement about out new series. I have been enamored with the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes for a few years now, ever since I was challenged to read through scripture differently. I attended a conference–one Luanne and I have each referenced in previous posts–that stirred a hunger in me to read the Bible in a new light. We were challenged to look for the leasts, to see from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed, and to think deeply about the setting and culture. Most importantly, we were invited to set aside our default way of looking at the text and to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see all of scripture through the lens of Jesus alone.

I returned home with a desire to dig into the words of Jesus like I had never had before, and I started in the book of Matthew. The Holy Spirit reveals truth, and Jesus is the truth. And when I began to search for the truth, for the treasures that lie beneath surface readings of scripture, the Spirit opened the floodgates!!! I began to see Jesus, his ways, his priorities, and mostly his kingdom–the thing he spoke about more than anything else--everywhere!!

There may be no better illustration anywhere in scripture of the upside-down ways of Jesus’ kingdom than what we see in the sermon on the mount. It’s that good, that telling of the heart of the one who opened his mouth to teach it to his followers. It’s a bold assertion to make, I know. At the end of these 22 weeks, you may agree with me, or you may not. But for now, at this point in my journey with Jesus, nothing illustrates kingdom principles better than the words recorded in these three chapters.

Luanne did a masterful job of setting the scene for this new series. There is nothing I feel like I can add to her introduction, so I’ll pick up where she left off. Before I do that, though, I wanted to share some thoughts from some people you have probably heard of regarding the importance of the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes.

“The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the sermon on the mount.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dallas Willard defines the discipleship Bonhoeffer referenced this way,

“Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.”

The process of becoming includes–according to Jesus–becoming like a child, and also includes the humility Luanne wrote about:

“Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in. Whoever continually humbles himself to become like this gentle child is the greatest one in heaven’s kingdom realm.” -Matthew 18:3-4, TPT

How do we become like children again? Henri Nouwen said,

“Becoming like a child is living the Beatitudes and so finding the narrow gate into the kingdom.” 

James Bryan Smith asserts that,

“The Beatitudes, far from being a new set of virtues that further divide the religious haves and have nots, are words of hope and healing to those who have been marginalized.”

Regarding these marginalized that Smith speaks of, Mother Teresa believed that, “In the poor, we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.”

How do we find our way into living in this upside-down way Jesus presented in the sermon on the mount? Pope Francis believes it’s by way of the Agape love we extend to one another. He said,

“Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.”

High praise indeed from well-respected, faithful voices. But what difference would it actually make if we reorganized our lives around the principles Jesus teaches in this sermon? Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think it would make all the difference. He said,

“I doubt if there is any problem in the world today–social, political, or economic–that would not find happy solution if approached in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Do we have social, political or economic problems in the world today? Perhaps more than ever before, especially now, in these challenging days… What if all of these voices are right? What if this upside-down kingdom ushered in by the one we say we follow actually made a difference in the way we live our lives? What if we listen to his words, but more than simply listening, allow ourselves to be taught, changed–so that the words become part of us? So that we embody the ways of Jesus and his kingdom in a way that changes the church and the world?

There is power in the self-emptying, others-seeing, humble, upside-down way of Jesus. It will never line up with the power-grabbing ways of the kingdoms of this world–that’s not who our God is. Are we willing to take a closer look, to lean in and learn, to let ourselves soften and be changed? I hope so. Because I happen to agree with those whose words I listed above–this sermon has the power to change the world, because it is the heart of Jesus. But before it can change the world, it must come to life within us.

Luanne covered the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The second is,Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

(Matthew 5:4, NIV)

Have you mourned? Grieved? My guess is we have all felt the ache of mourning. A deep dive into root words and etymology reveals that the Greek word used here that was translated “mourn” in English means, “to lament, wail; to feel grief and sorrow; to suffer.” Blessed are those who experience this kind of ache?

Yes.

Why?

“…for they will be comforted.”

If you’ve been in the throes of grief–perhaps you’re there now–you have likely experienced the inexplicable comfort, the withness that seems to come into our lives as a companion to grief. This comfort that Jesus speaks of here, it is the Greek word parakaleo. This word means to come alongside, to encourage, exhort; to be with.  It is strikingly similar to another Greek word, parakletos. Jesus uses this word four times in scripture, and each time he is referring to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter he promised would come once he was no longer physically with his disciples.

We are blessed because we do not grieve alone. We are blessed because the same deep, caring comfort we receive from the Spirit in our darkest moments lives in us and empowers us to extend that same comfort to others. Have you been the recipient of love that moves toward you in your sorrow? Have you had the opportunity to move toward others in their grief? I have been fortunate to experience both, and I can say with no hesitation, I have felt blessed by these Spirit-filled moments of comfort–the receiving and the giving.

This mourning goes beyond grieving a personal loss. It is also our response to the needs around us; it is what drives us to move toward suffering, injustice, corruption, brokenness. We are able to respond to all that is hard because we are empowered by the Comforter, the Spirit who lives within us and leads us on.

The last beatitude Pastor John covered on Sunday is, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” ( Matthew 5:5, NIV) Meek can be a tricky word for us. We tend to think of it as a synonym for weak. It can conjure thoughts of smallness, timidity; of one who is fearful, shy and quiet. Let’s look at it how it is phrased in the Passion Translation:

“What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you! For you will inherit the earth.”

The word gentle can carry some of the same connotations in our minds as the word meek. But what it means might surprise you. The footnote in the Passion Translation tells us,

“Jesus is saying that when you claim nothing as yours, everything will be given to you. The Aramaic word, makeekheh, implies being both gentle and flexible.” 

Pastor John reminded us that gentleness is a response somewhere between anger and apathy. He shared that it is both a posture and an implied action. It is a fruit of the Spirit that moves us to engage, challenges our indifference and empowers us to respond with both flexibility and restraint.

In this beatitude, we are told that those in whom gentleness dwells will “inherit the earth.” In the original language, this is quite the gift. It means, “to become a partaker of, to receive their allotted portion of the land as an heir; to receive a place to stand on the ground of this earth.” Wow. The gentle, the flexible, those who are moved to act but not out of anger, those who don’t take anything for themselves–these “meek” ones will receive what is set aside for them as heirs. Those with no ground to stand on will be given a place of their own to stand. I don’t know how this one plays out in Jesus’ kingdom, but it is beautiful. Especially when I consider those who are driven from their lands, who are refugees in a foreign land, and all those who exist between two lands, waiting for a place to call home. Jesus says these gentle ones, they are heirs that have ground to stand on in his kingdom.

We are invited in these first three beatitudes to begin to see differently. Jesus taught differently than the other rabbis of his day. He carried in his words none of the arrogance that marked other prominent teachers. He spoke highly of the downtrodden, the marginalized, those who were used to being at the bottom of the barrel in the eyes of the culture of the day. He elevated the “leasts”, and as we learn from him, we have the opportunity to do the same–“to live in and live out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now,” to borrow Luanne’s beautiful words.

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

–Laura

File:Aerial view of Masada (Israel) 06.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Jesus is Our Rescuer

Every story of rescue we’ve explored during the season of Lent–Hosea & Gomer, the prodigal son & his father, Abram & Lot, Naomi & Ruth, Ruth & Boaz, Moses & the nation of Israel, and the thief on the cross & Jesus–served to set the stage for the ultimate story of rescue: Jesus and each one of us.

On Easter Sunday, Pastor John preached about Jesus. He preached about his death on the cross, his resurrection, his victory over death, and the hope we have in him. It was not an unusual Easter message. In fact, it may be one of the most straightforward, simple messages we have heard in a while. It was the perfect Easter message because it is the message all others must be built upon. It is the story that needs to be told and retold because without it, our faith has no foundation. And even though it is familiar, there is gold yet to mine, treasure yet to be found. Our Jesus–the story of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life now living within us who know him–is a well of inexhaustible riches and mysteries–there is always more to discover.

On Sunday, Trevor, one of our Elders, read a few verses of scripture and prayed before the message. One of the passages he read was John 3:16-17:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Another was John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As he prayed, he thanked Jesus for the death that he died and that he rose again. I found myself silently adding to his prayer once he finished, overwhelmed again by the familiar verses, the story I’ve known all of my life…

Thank you, Jesus, for dying a terrible death at our hands, for choosing to endure the suffering–but thank you, also, for the life that you lived! For showing us how to live, how to love…

As I listened to Pastor John’s message and pondered things later on, it was that simple thought that stayed with me–

In everything he did, from the beginning of the story to that bloody day on the cross and then after he rose from the dead, Jesus showed us how to love. He didn’t just tell us, didn’t simply teach us–he lived it.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

How does he love us? In all the ways that we have learned about throughout this series. His love rescues and forgives, runs toward us, protects us from the judgment of those who seek to harm us, welcomes us home, frees us from our bondage, redeems us, refuses to leave, clings to us. And on the cross, he displayed how far his love will go to show us another way, to show us how his kingdom works, to give us sight and a new way to see the world. On the cross, he endured our violence, and his love absorbed our hate. He set us free from the bondage of our shortsightedness and self-absorption and he offered grace to cover our shame. He reminded us–along with the thieves next to him–that he is the restorer of all things, of paradise lost and our forgotten identities.

As Pastor John said on Sunday, we are in constant need… And Jesus constantly comes to meet us in our need. He brings us hope when all seems lost, and he reminds us how to live and love as we learn from him, walk with him, remember how he did it, and see how he is doing it still. He is, as Brian Zahnd so eloquently phrased it in The Unvarnished Jesus, “the Gardener who touches living things with living hands,” and invites us to follow him and do the same.

As we have explored stories of rescue over the last seven weeks, we have seen that the need for rescue is present when an antagonist is present. That antagonist takes a different form in every story. At times, it shows up in a family member, other times in an entire community. It can be a nation, an accuser, or systems that set themselves up against the weak and the marginalized–creating the need for a rescuer to come. An antagonist is anything that sets itself up against the way of love, anything that stands in opposition to the ways of the kingdom Jesus ushered in. It can be self-imposed bondage, forced captivity, or a mix of the two, but every antagonist in whatever form it takes has one goal: to maintain their power and assert their control. 

But–no antagonist can stop the rescuing love of Jesus. We are never alone in our bondage, never left to fend for ourselves in the face of whatever antagonist has set itself up against us. He always comes. How has he rescued you? Can you recall times his rescuing love has showed up to save you?

I can’t count the times he has rescued me… it would take volumes to document every moment and all that Jesus has saved me from. Here are a few examples…

I was a tiny baby enduring beatings for a spirit I supposedly carried within me. I don’t remember the earliest days, but I lived. My life was protected.

I was a little girl, afraid and ashamed, angry and confused–more than I knew. I lived somewhere between complete chaos and pretend peace, a painted smile set in place. In the midst of it, Jesus spoke kindness to my heart. He stirred my heart toward him with gentle thoughts that weren’t my own. In the flowers I watered, the sun that warmed my face, the grass I rolled in, the creeks I splashed in, the trees I climbed, I saw a God different than the one I had been told of. I longed to know him, this Jesus who showed up in my dreams and in the moments of breathless fear. He protected me from completely believing the lies I was taught about why I should fear him. He pricked the core of me with an awareness of his goodness that would grow later.

As a poor preteen with a broken family, a sick mom, and a growing sense of the injustice around me and the rage within me, he rescued me from hopelessness. He brought people to me who breathed his grace like oxygen into my depleted soul. I wasn’t ready to run all the way to his arms, but he continued to come to me. He kept me tethered to him through the people who loved me well and provided for needs I didn’t yet know how to name.

When that preteen grew into a secretly rebellious teenager, those people who loved me well kept showing up. They continued to carry Jesus to me. There were nights I shouldn’t have awoken to the light of a new day for all of the self-imposed danger I placed myself in… I found out later, those same people had spent those nights awake and on their knees, knowing I needed their intercession more than they needed their rest.

The shame of those wild nights would have overtaken me… but he rescued me with grace.

I was pregnant with my daughter, spinning across four lanes of traffic in the snow during the busiest hour of the morning and came to a complete stop in the face of oncoming traffic. My car was completely untouched and I drove away, heart in my throat, breath held–protected in a very real way.

He has rescued me from fear that used to keep me awake at night.

He has rescued me in grief that threatens to suffocate.

He provided a rescuing embrace in the arms of a friend when guilt called me a killer.

He has rescued me from lying narratives that were taught as truths, from identities devoid of truth, from attacks on my character.

He has rescued me through therapy that helps me find him with me in the midst of the most painful of my memories. He has shown me where he always was, where he always is–with me in the middle of the mess.

He has silenced the voice of the powerful that wielded their might to control me; he has set me free from the shackles of their accusations and condemnation.

He has rescued me in my loneliness with his very own presence.

He has restored my dying hope with painted skies and flowing water. He’s cured my cynicism with delight as I’ve marveled at blue jays, butterflies, rocks and streams that he created.

He continues to show up in the faces that refuse to turn away from my brokenness–he’s saved me through kind eyes, shared tears, and the gift of wild laughter more times than I can even remember.

Every antagonist in my life has met their match in my Jesus. 

Including me. 

Many times, the antagonist in my story is me. I’m not the terrified little girl anymore, or the self-destructive teenager, nor am I the critical, questioning young adult I used to be. My self-imposed bondage looks different today… To maintain some sense of control, some idea of knowing the plan, I put shackles on myself. I limit my thoughts and ponderings and hide them away to “keep the peace.” I lock up my opinions, fears, and needs so I won’t burden those I love. I put myself in the corner and force my eyes to gaze at the floor. I quiet my song and restrain my dancing.

And Jesus comes to me, the captive who is also the captor, the caged bird holding her own key, the little girl in the corner held in place by the glare of the woman who sent her there… He comes to me, cups my chin, lifts my face, speaks gently and softly with words that loosen the grave clothes I’ve re-wrapped around my heart. He breathes grace and peace, courage and the deepest love into my heart until it beats with his again. And then he asks me,

“Are you willing?” 

Am I willing… to fly, to sing, to live in the freedom he gave me long ago–and to carry that freedom, that rescuing love, to others? Will I be to others what others have been to me throughout my life–a life lit up with the love of Jesus, ready and willing to pour out for the sake of others?

I get to choose whether I will be an antagonist or a rescuer. We all have that choice. One stands in opposition to the kingdom life Jesus shows us how to live. The other is impossible without living connected to, abiding in, the love of Jesus, our vine, our life-giving source. I’ve been both, sometimes in the same day, even moment-to-moment. I want the life of Jesus to live through me–to live my life the way Jesus would live it if he were me.

Except for when I don’t… Because power, control, some sense of knowing how things will turn out–these are tempting things to grasp at, to reach for. Especially now, in a season full to the brim with uncertainty, a season where fears seem present in the very air we breathe. We want stability, safety, a promise of “normal” tomorrows. It is tempting to reach for control, for power in these days, to think that’s what we need to make it through. But…

What we really need is rescue.

Will we let Jesus rescue us again–here, now? Can we acknowledge our fears, admit our proclivity toward power-grabbing, and let his arms hold us as we cry out our need for him? We are in constant need, and our Jesus constantly comes to meet us here. He is our rescuer in every season–even now.

–Laura

I was having a phone conversation with my 90-year-old dad last week, and at one point in the conversation, he shared with me that because of a book he’s reading on the Apostle Paul’s teachings, he is seeing some scriptures through a new lens and experiencing a fuller understanding of the ministry of Christ. He expressed that he’s appalled; he’s studied theology all of his adult life and yet still has so much to learn. I responded that I don’t think he needs to be appalled, and encouraged him to embrace the mystery that there is always more to learn, always more to glean, always a deeper a layer to explore.  We will never know the full mystery of God–that’s what makes our faith exciting, sometimes frustrating, beautiful, challenging, transformative and life-changing.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has many layers to explore, many implications for the world and many implications for each of us. Laura did a beautiful job of expressing the many ways that the God of love, who rescued the entire world on the cross, has rescued her in personal ways over and over again. The beauty of her encounters with God, her willingness to see how he was with her in some devastatingly hard seasons, her willingness to let the Spirit “mess in her business”, her willingness to let God continue to shape and re-shape her understanding as she digs in and seeks, her willingness to mine for deeper layers of healing and deeper layers of revelation are beautiful and worth emulating. I hope you’ll spend some time asking God to show you how you have been rescued.  Rescuing love is part of God’s nature.

Brad Jersak, in his book A More Christlike God takes us through scripture, pointing out the ways that God came after people in scripture over and over again. In a very abridged version, I’m going to try to capture some of Jersak’s examples:

After sinning, Adam and Eve tried to hide from God. What does God do? He comes looking for them.

Cain does not heed God’s warning and murders his brother. What does God do? He goes looking for him. He protects him.

Abraham gets tired of waiting on God and has a son by his servant. What does God do? He still honors his promise to Abraham.

Moses takes matters into his own hand, murders an Egyptian and hides in the wilderness for 40 years. What does God do? He comes looking for him and asks him to lead.

David commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband murdered. What does God do? He honors the promise of a royal line that will not end through the second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon. 

Israel, instead of reflecting God’s glory to the world, becomes unjust and corrupt exploiting the poor and oppressing the marginalized. What does God do? He calls Hosea to be his example of rescuing love. 

Then God becomes human, that he might find and heal humanity.

A woman at a well, abandoned by five husbands: What does God do? He sits with her at a well, converses with her, loves her, values her. She, in turn, introduces her entire community, the community she’d been avoiding, to him.

A Jewish tax collector became an oppressor of his own people: What does God do? He singles him out for a dinner date. Declares that salvation has come to his home. What does Zaccheus do? Pays back those he defrauded–becoming generous rather than greedy.

A woman caught in adultery: What does God do? Kneels beside her, writes in the dust, the accusers leave, and then he tells her that he doesn’t condemn her and gives her a fresh start. 

A demoniac man: What does God do? He gives him his mind back, his clothes back, his family back, his life back–he sets him free. The man then tells the entire region about the miraculous, powerful love of God.

A paralytic man: What does God do? He speaks forgiveness to the man, then tells him to take up his pallet and walk, making a spectacle of those who blamed the man for his condition and excluded him from the temple. 

“Finally, here is the whole human race, chosen and dearly loved by the God who is always for us, always toward us, and always in pursuit of us.  Driven by fear and pride, our need to maintain our systems of power, enforced by violence–we arrest, and condemn, torture and crucify this God. …the world’s premier religious system and political empire–conspired to murder the Lord of glory. And what does God do? 

He says, ‘I forgive you. While you hated me, I loved. You who took my life, I give you my life. While you were my enemies, I made you my friends.’

Christ did not come to change the Father, or to appease the wrath of an angry judge, but to reveal the Father. God is like Jesus, exactly like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.” (Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God)

I don’t usually use so many borrowed thoughts and words in my posts, I hope you will forgive me for that this week, but these feel so important right now, and they barely scratch the surface of all the rescuing stories found in scripture. At the crucifixion, God was rescuing us. He was not pouring out wrath upon Jesus. God was not condemning Jesus. God is not pouring out wrath on the world right now during the pandemic. God. Is. Love. God is with us. God is for us. God rescues us. Follow Laura’s leading above and spend some time contemplating how he’s rescued you how he’s been with you, even in the hard. He is so good to us!

The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:15-19:

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.  For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation…

Our rescuing God makes us new and invites us to enter into the deep things with him, the counter-cultural things, the kingdom of heaven things, and then join him in his mission to rescue the world–one precious, beloved person at a time.

For God so loved the world…

–Luanne

beautiful name

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue: The Thief and The Garden

If you’ve been reading our blog for the last few weeks, you know that Pastor John has been moving through a series on rescue. We’ve looked at personal rescue, such as Abram rescuing Lot, Boaz rescuing Ruth (and Ruth rescuing Naomi), The reckless love of the father running to his homeward-bound destitute younger son, and going out to his indignant older son, and we’ve looked at God’s rescuing of an entire nation when he led the Israelites out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.

Today’s story of rescue, found in Luke 23:32-43 happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross, gasping for every breath; he is dying. He is hanging between two men who are in the same situation. I imagine neither of them was wearing a crown of thorns, and I don’t know if they’d been beaten almost to death by Roman soldiers prior to their crucifixions, but they were definitely suffering on their crosses. These three men were that day’s example of Rome’s cruelty and violent means to ensure their power–many people were crucified during Rome’s reign.

Before I move on from here, I want to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of people are dying. Most everyone has had life disrupted. Many have lost jobs. In times like these, it is not unusual for people to blame God or ask God where he is and why he has abandoned us, or why he is so cruel. While I certainly don’t understand the ways of God, I do know, because the cross is evidence, that God is in this with us. He loves us. He joins us in our suffering. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus writes:

Jesus doesn’t die as a lone sufferer, but as Immanuel among the sufferers…To see Jesus Christ hung upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, with victims on either side, is perhaps, the most powerful single image of the gospel. Incarnation, forgiveness, and kingdom are all present.  

Immanuel, God with us–even in this. We are not alone.

As Jesus is nailed to the cross he speaks words that many of us are familiar with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)  

There’s a footnote in The Passion Translation regarding this phrase that says: The Greek text implies a repetitive action… As the centurion crushed him to the ground and tied his arms to the crossbeam, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the spikes tore through each quivering palm, he prayed again, “Father, forgive them.” And when the soldiers parted his garments and gambled for the seamless robe, again Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Only heaven knows how many times that prayer was spoken.  

Let that sink in. This is the heart of God. No one was asking for forgiveness, yet God the Son was requesting undeserved forgiveness for his violent perpetrators, as his fully human body was being tortured beyond anything we can imagine. I’m reminded of John 3:17:  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  It’s mind-blowing. God’s unconditional love is mind-blowing.

It makes me wonder, as Jesus intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34),  is he still praying “Father, forgive them.”?  Or was his overarching forgiveness fully accomplished on the cross, and now we live in unconditional forgiveness? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and embrace. Not even the two men who were crucified with Jesus.

The King James version calls the two men “malefactors”. I like that word–I think it captures the essence of their misdeeds. The word basically means “evil-doer”. Etymonline.com says it’s “one who does evil or injury to another” (the opposite of benefactor). There are some commentaries that suggest these two men were partners in crime with Barabbas (the insurrectionist who Pilate set free in exchange for Jesus).  If they were part of an insurrection to overthrow Rome, Rome’s leaders would certainly perceive that as evil. If they had killed Romans while pursuing revolutionary acts, Rome would certainly have perceived that as injury to another. No matter what their actual crimes were, according to the power and structure of Rome, they were malefactors, and therefore worthy of public humiliation, torture and execution. I think it’s important to pause for a moment and remember that like all human beings, these two were more than the descriptive labels placed upon them. They had names, families, friends, personalities, and life stories that led them to this point–real people, not just dehumanizing labels.

And it is here, in the chaos of this moment that one of these men mocks Jesus and the other reaches out to Jesus. Luke describes the moment like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23: 39-43)

We (I) can be either one of these men at any given moment. Sometimes I am asking God to fix a situation, I get frustrated when he doesn’t seem to listen, and doesn’t come through the way I want him to. I can frame it in really lofty language, but the heart is often–come on, God…do this according to my desires. That’s what one of the men was doing—“Come on, Jesus, save yourself and us.” His understanding of salvation was – get me off this cross so I can continue with life as normal.

The other man had eyes to see something different. He recognized Jesus’ innocence;  he knew, that despite what every earthly thing looked like, Jesus had a kingdom and he wanted to be part of it.  His understanding of salvation was union with Jesus.

Jesus said to him…TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.

Paradise–it means “garden”–as in the Garden of Eden before the fall kind of garden. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states: According to the opinion of many of the church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on earth nor in the heavens, but above and beyond the world.

This same word  paradise is used in Revelation 2:7 where the resurrected Jesus says: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious, I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”

Jesus says to the man, labeled malefactor, I will rescue you, and today we’ll be together in the perfect Garden of God.

I’m mIn the Genesis account of the garden, there are trees. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the one tree that they were told not to eat from–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  There was another tree in the garden–the tree of life. They could have chosen to eat from that tree.

God, for whatever reason, allows us to make choices. Some of our choices have devastating consequences. He allows us to experience the consequences of our choices, and he rescues us. Once Adam and Eve see good and evil, everything changes. Blame is almost immediate–I’m good; he/she is bad. That shift is the beginning of all the world’s chaos.

God, in what some see as punishment, didn’t want them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their “good and evil” state, so he removed them from the garden in order to protect them. It was an act of love.

In the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, Jesus died on a tree and paved the way to garden of Eden life.

Revelation 22: 1-2 tells us:

He showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

This Jesus’ life is available now. Our personal rescue is available now. The healing of the nations is available now. We get to choose which tree to eat from–“good and evil” or “life”. They both bear fruit. One harms, one heals.

Today–Jesus rescues us, remembers us and reminds us his kingdom is here. Paradise begins here…

–Luanne

I have read and re-read Luanne’s words, praying for direction, asking what I might add to this week’s post. She reminds us of the hope that we have, the truths that still stand in the midst of the chaos we see and feel pressing in around us:

Jesus’ life is available now.

Our personal rescue is available now.

The healing of the nations is available now

Jesus rescues us.

Jesus remembers us.

Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is here.

Paradise begins here

All true. All beautiful. Even now.

As I typed those last words, I found myself asking, “Really? Do you believe that? Here? Now?” 

I want to. But if I’m honest, there are moments in this present turmoil we’re all facing when it all feels too lofty for my reach.

And yet, I know

I know the truth in those words because over and over, Jesus has come in the beautiful way that only he can to bear witness to my pain. He has come to me in moments of despair and doubt and refused to look away, because his love is the co-suffering kind. He endured our wrath and violence, and chose to love, forgive and welcome the very ones who mocked and maligned him as he hung, murdered unjustly to satisfy the bloodthirsty brood who didn’t have eyes to see the kingdom of peace–the paradise he brought with him when he entered into the story of humanity as one of us. And he comes still today to minister to our soul-amnesia, to stand in solidarity with us as our co-suffering savior, to bear witness to the realities of our lives when we don’t have eyes to see him standing there.

To bear witness is no small thing. It’s more than being willing to look at the hard, to not look away, though it includes that. It means to share, as one’s own, another’s testimony, to enter into pain. It is the embodiment of empathy, support, and love that lightens the load by upholding from below and covering from above.

It hurts to bear witness to another’s agony… It’s much easier to look away, to erect a wall of protection around our hearts that keeps us from feeling the weight of another’s suffering. We can look at pain so long that we become desensitized to it. We “see” it, but it never penetrates our hearts.

When Jesus walked the earth, he did so wholeheartedly. It’s a dangerous way to live because it robs one of the luxury of remaining uninvolved.  Jesus modeled what it means to bear witness to the hard and the ugly, the trauma, the grief, the losses of this life. He didn’t merely look upon pain, he entered into each story. He did not ridicule fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Rather, he acknowledged them and offered himself as the answer. He invited the weary to exchange heavy, ill-fitting yokes for a shared yoke, for his yoke. A yoke that he doesn’t place on anyone, but that he carries with everyone.

Jesus bore witness to the pain of the malefactors on either side of him while his own pain was excruciating. He bore witness to the pain he saw beneath the surface in the executors, the ugliness that lived in the hearts of those shouting, “Crucify him!” as he breathed words of pardon, of forgiveness. The men on either side of him bore witness to his pain as well, as they experienced the dying with him.

Many witnessed the events of that day with their eyes. Few bore witness to the pain Jesus endured. Among those that did were a few women including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and one of his dearest friends and followers, John.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was standing next to his cross, along with Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. So when Jesus looked down and saw the disciple he loved standing with her, he said, “Mother, look–John will be a son to you.” Then he said, “John, look–she will be a mother to you!” (John 19:25-27a)

Can you imagine the grief of these women, the grief of John? What about the grief Jesus felt as he witnessed the sorrow, the anguish his mother and friends experienced as they watched him die?

None of them turned away. Not Jesus. Not his mom. Not his dear friend. They entered into the suffering of one another in the midst of their own pain.

I think that is an important point to note, to remember…

The other night, my husband and I were cooking and doing dishes. I told him that I was sorry for how back and forth, how up and down I had been lately. I told him that my emotions were swinging like crazy, and even I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.

He told me that it was okay, and then he quietly added, “I’ve seen it before…”

What did he mean?

“After we lost your mom.”

He was identifying grief. And he was right. The volatility many of us are experiencing in these days has a name. It is grief. It comes and goes as it will, it offers neither warning nor greeting. It is the heavy blanket that wraps us head to toe and overtakes our senses. It can dampen hope and set joy just out of reach. It is grief that can make it hard to cling to the beautiful truths Luanne wrote above.

We may not all be able to identify our feelings as grief, but we are all experiencing it–individually and collectively. Losses are mounting. They look different to each of us, some stories seem more worthy of grief than others. But as I heard earlier this week, no good comes from comparing losses. The worst loss, I heard it said, is your loss. Whatever you are facing right now. We’re all experiencing loss. And loss brings grief–with or without our permission.

Usually when we face loss, there are people on the outside who can bear witness to our pain, empathize with us in our grief, offer strength to uphold us in our weakness. But right now…

None of us are on the outside. 

Each one of us, everywhere, are part of this unfolding drama. Willing or not, we are members of this cast. None of us are unaffected. This is why the example of Jesus is so important. Just as was modeled by Jesus, the women, and John, we must have the courage to look up, to behold one another even while our own grief sits heavy.

Pastor John said Sunday, “My shoulders are not big enough to carry this.”

He is absolutely right. Neither are mine. Or yours. We are all in this moment in history together, even while we’re apart. The story of Jesus teaches us many things, but one of the most vital is that it shows us our connectedness.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . . I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. (John 15:5, 9-13)

We are all branches on the vine. The vine is Jesus. We grow connected to his life, his love, the nutrients we need for survival. We grow together on this vine. He invites us to make a home inside his love, to stay there, to find that attached to the source, we have all we need. He is the vine that bears the weight of each branch and all the branches. He is the source and the witness to the growth of each one and the fruit they produce. He is the channel through which our lives are nourished, sustained, upheld.
“Love one another the way I love you.”
He invites us to learn from him, and then to do likewise with and for one another. We are connected. Whether we want to be or not. None of us can walk through these days alone. Not one of us is strong enough to carry the burdens of the others. Only the vine can bear the weight of the collective branches… But each branch can bear witness to the branches around it. 
This Easter Sunday will look different. Church buildings will be empty. Family get togethers will be cancelled. Neighborhood egg hunts for the littles won’t be held. Our arms will ache to embrace another, and lonely tears will fall. Unknowns will abound–but don’t they always, anyway? Fear may bubble to the surface, grief may steal our breath.
And–
Our Jesus, who conquered death and holds its keys, is with us in this place. He sees. He knows. He chooses to bear witness to our pain, to suffer alongside us, to grieve our losses as his own– and, as he models the kingdom value of co-suffering love, he invites us to do the same. To lift our eyes and see. To enter in with those around us and allow them to enter in with us. Because he knows what we sometimes forget–
As we lift our eyes to bear witness to the pain, we can’t help but also see the beauty of the kingdom all around. He knows that paradise exists where love presides. He shows us the way–will we follow?
–Laura

 

Wild flowers in lush bright colorful plants