This is Love: The Death of Jesus

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”  Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  Mark 15:33-41

After typing the scripture above, I’ve found myself sitting quietly for a few minutes taking it all in. There is too much in this passage to do all of it justice in one blog post. As I think through the four signs that Pastor John highlighted from this passage (Eschatological, Christological, Revelational, and Redemptive), and the words in the passage itself, I keep coming back to “darkness covered the whole land”. What must that have been like–three hours of darkness in the middle of the day? For those at the crucifixion, and for those at home completely unaware that a significant execution was taking place, what was going through their minds? Was it like heavy cloud cover, or did if feel more supernatural in nature? Was it scary?

I recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark. There were a lot of things that I treasured in that book, but the point she made that I keep finding myself coming back to is the stark difference between what she calls “Solar Christians” and “Lunar Christians”. I’m going to be paraphrase here and interject my own interpretations of what she wrote, but she said Solar Christians are afraid of the dark. They try to avoid it at all costs, they interpret dark as “bad”, and try to either ignore it or explain it away using spiritual terms. Lunar Christians, on the other hand, embrace cycles in life, including the dark ones, realizing that just like the moon has cycles, so do our lives. Some seasons are bright, like the full moon, some dark, like the new moon, and others that happen in between those extremes. Taylor also pointed out, (and this blew my mind), that the new moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) lasts for three nights, and then light begins to appear. She equated that to a constant cycle of death and resurrection. I had never heard that before. I looked it up and learned that depending upon one’s location in relationship to the horizon, sure enough, there are three moonless nights. Three nights when we can’t see the moon reflecting the sun’s light. Three–what a significant number. And on the fourth night light begins to appear. Death. Resurrection. Every month.

We don’t always know what to do with the dark. It doesn’t feel safe. But just as God is in the light, God is in the dark. God is never absent–including that dark day when Jesus hung on the cross.

There is an interpretation of these events, especially when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that teaches God abandoned Jesus in this moment of his deepest need. It goes something like this: God can’t look on our sin, so as Jesus bore our sin on the cross, God had to turn away. There are two problems with this interpretation. 1: Jesus is God. 2: It’s absolutely inconsistent with the character of God that we see throughout scripture.

What was God’s response when Adam sinned and hid from Him? God sought Adam out. When Cain killed his brother, God showed up and even put a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. In the New Testament, Jesus was in trouble with the religious leaders all the time because he hung out with “sinners”. The father of the prodigal son ran to his son, embraced him and threw a party. Romans 5:8 tells us that God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Amp). God is not distant from our stories, from our weaknesses, from our sin. He meets us in the middle of our mess and says “I love you.” His very nature and character is love. Always. 

So if God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, why did Jesus say that?

When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”,  Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22–a psalm which truly mirrors all that was happening as he hung on the cross. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety)  As with many of the Psalms, the Psalmist wrote what he was feeling, and then wrote what was true.  The Psalm begins with “My God…why have you forsaken me?”,  and goes on to express other feelings of being abandoned, forgotten, unheard. Then in verse 9 the little word “yet” appears and the Psalmist reminds himself of what is true:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 
The Psalmist cycles back into what he is feeling and experiencing until verse 19, where the word “but” appears, and he again declares what is true:
But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… 
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD will praise him—may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. 
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (19, 22-31)
Jesus cried out the first line, but had no strength or breath left to finish the Psalm; he died shortly after he gasped out those words, but it was enough. It was enough for those in the crowd who knew the Hebrew scriptures to know what he was saying. Without a doubt the religious leaders who were present knew that Psalm. Could Jesus have once again been inviting them in?
Was the crucifixion dark? Absolutely. I can’t imagine what Jesus was experiencing, what  his followers were experiencing. The women who showed up, who loved Jesus dearly—what was going through their minds? The disciples who ran, hid, feared–what was going through their minds? They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming. All they knew in that moment was darkness–physical darkness, spiritual darkness, and emotional darkness.
Darkness. In the Genesis 1 creation account, darkness was present. God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
In Isaiah 45:3 we read:
I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.
In the Passover account recorded in the book of Exodus, God’s salvation happens during a dark, scary night. In Matthew 24 when Jesus talks about the end of time, he says that after the sun goes dark, then will appear the sign of the Son of Man (v. 30) . 
And on that day, that crucifixion day, while the sun was hidden for three hours, God’s love and presence were on full display in the dark.
I don’t love dark seasons, but in my darkest seasons, I’ve learned that God is present in a different way. In my solar seasons, I see him and his glory in everything around me, and it’s easy to be awestruck by him. In the dark, I don’t see as well, yet he is there. He shows up. He sits with me. He grieves with me. He hurts with me. He suffers with me. He loves me. He transforms me. There are treasures in the dark. There are riches in the dark. God is there, in the dark. And when the dark season ends, I know Him better than I did before. As I type these last words, the sky is just beginning to indicate that dawn is on the way…dark, light, death, resurrection, seasons, cycles– our forever loving God is with us in them all.
–Luanne
Darkness. 
What comes to your mind as you read that word?
My thoughts circle around what occurred in our home last night. One of my sons was up several times, scared with no solid explanation of why. This is not an unusual occurrence in our home. This boy of mine has always hated the dark. He used to have nightmares that would lead to him screaming in his sleep and waking up only partially, then not remembering the event at all when morning came. Over time, he has come to expect to be afraid at night. He tries to fall asleep before the rest of us, because if he is the last person awake in our home, fear overtakes him. He is most afraid of being alone. 
Last night was no different. The only part of his fear that he can put words to is the fear of being alone. I don’t know why this makes him afraid, but to him, it’s very real. In the middle of the night, to him, it is his truest reality. His stomach contorts in pain, his heart races. He has tools, things we’ve taught him to help him get through the overwhelming fear, but in the dark, he feels powerless to overcome what he is most afraid of. He has become accustomed to the presence of fear when darkness falls. And he has been, by the voice of his own fear, conditioned to believe lies about what darkness means.
So have we.
Luanne wrote:
“God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
They both have their place and their purpose. Both. Not one or the other. Both. We humans struggle with “both”. We live in an either/or, right/wrong, good/evil, dualistic culture. This makes faith more than a little difficult… Because faith, to qualify as faith, includes believing in what we can’t see. Yet, we’ve attempted (‘we’ being all of us, the whole of humanity, especially those who would identify as followers of Jesus) to explain the unexplainable, to define the mystery, to understand what is beyond our minds’ capacities, and to fit it all into a neat, tidy box. We’ve sealed the box so that nothing old can get out and nothing new can get in. The box is marked with words like “truth”, “right”, “perfect”, “inerrant” and it’s contents include rules and laws built upon the interpretation and understanding of those who constructed the box. One thing that made it into the box is light. One thing that didn’t is darkness.
Our theology of darkness is a lot like my son’s fear of it. We have been conditioned to believe certain things about it, what it represents, why we should fear it. We have learned to think of it as the opposite of light rather than the companion of light. A dance partner, if you will. Light’s perfect pairing. Instead of seeing the place and purpose of each, we’ve labeled one good and one bad. One safe and one dangerous. One represents God, and one represents evil.
Like my son, I was afraid of the dark as a child. In fact, I was afraid into even into early adulthood. As I grew in my understanding, though–and began to heal from childhood wounds–my fears dissipated. I am no longer afraid of the dark, and in fact rather enjoy sitting in the dark now, because it allows me to see differently than I do in the light.
I am afraid that our theology of darkness, as a whole, has not grown from our first, childish understanding. Our either/or, good/bad mindset kept darkness out of our box and launched us into what Luanne wrote about above–solar Christianity. We’ve lived “in the light”, and it has cost us.
In the gorgeous book Luanne referenced, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words:
“From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention…”
If we have never learned how to see in the dark, we will live inside our box of light and miss all that darkness has to offer. We can choose this–and be completely and totally loved and held by God, in our ignorance and unconsciousness. God doesn’t require that we make room within our theological boxes for darkness in order to accept us or love us fully. He doesn’t have a checklist through which we can earn his love. He just loves. Because he is love. We get to be exactly where we are and we can be fully guaranteed that the heart of God is full of love toward us.
But–what if there is so much more to God, to life, to our own journeys, than what can fit inside that box? What if there are vast expanses to explore, adventures beyond our wildest imaginations–if we would just get out of the box?
Outside the safety of our illuminated boxes, though, we will encounter the darkness. It’s why so many of us just can’t bear the thought of even lifting the lid, let alone climbing out. Everything we’ve learned, all that we’ve been conditioned to believe, things we regard as absolute truth–all of it comes into question when we step outside of our boxes. And rather than being excited or even curious about what we might find, our default response is almost always fear. Of the unknown, of being wrong, of being disappointed, of sliding down a slippery slope into oblivion… So rather than lift the lid, we often reinforce it instead. We lock it down and set guards around it so we can keep out anything that might challenge our belief about what’s inside. As long as we don’t actually encounter it, we can think what we choose to think, what we’ve learned to think. And that feels safe…
Until the darkness somehow gets in. Until it crashes in around us and we either have to face it, or run the other way. If we have the courage to face it, to stop seeing it as the enemy, but rather an opportunity to experience God anew, we’ll see things we’ve never seen before. Our right/wrong, us/them, either/or ways of seeing the world will begin to fall away, and the ability to see with a both/and perspective will begin to grow. We’ll begin to see the beauty of mystery and learn to be more at peace with our partial understanding. We’ll begin to see beyond the surface of things, beyond how they appear.
I’ve strayed a long way from the message we heard on Sunday… I didn’t know my words would walk me in this direction today. But I’m grateful I was led here. Because when I sat down to write, I had no idea where I was going. I read over my notes, studied multiple scriptures, looked up some Greek words. I read no less than six or seven different articles and commentaries related to this week’s passage. For three hours. I was up at 4:30 a.m. today, hoping to have this written and published by 6:00. Instead, I found myself drowning in opinions framed as certitudes, fear–and shame–based theology, and assumptions presented as facts. All were sure of their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. It was a showcase of dualism. Not one of the authors I came across was willing to admit that there could be other correct interpretations, other ways of seeing. Not one admitted that sometimes there is no black and white explanation or that we can’t always understand the ways of God. All of their explanations fit nicely into the safe box.
I was exhausted and frustrated before I typed my first word. My morning had been full of prayers for direction, guidance about what to write. And I stopped again to pray–with a heavy sigh–for inspiration from the Spirit. It was at that point, three hours in, that I thought about my boy and his aversion to the dark. How he’s learning to navigate the rugged terrain of his own fear, and how his beliefs about the dark aren’t yet well-informed, but he’s getting there. Right now, he equates darkness with what scares him most. Eventually, I hope he’ll move from this understanding to one that allows him to befriend the dark, to find peace in the quiet of being alone with his thoughts. But that day is not today.
I can’t help but think about the darkness that Luanne wrote about, the darkness that crashed in around the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus. For whatever reason, I had always pictured the darkness happening as Jesus breathed his last. That as he died, the skies went dark and the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke and their accounts, that’s not how it happened. Darkness fell while Jesus hung, alive, on the cross. In the middle of the day, darkness came and obscured what those present could see. I wonder how dark the darkness was? Could the women who were there still see Jesus in front of them? He was still with them physically, yet their ability to see him was diminished in the dark. I wonder if they felt alone in the dark, the way that my son does… Jesus was very much with them, but could they sense his presence in the dark?
Three hours later, the darkness broke. Light returned. The scene was illuminated once again in the light of day. And it’s here, in the light, that Jesus cried out and breathed his last. He died in the light. The eyes of all around him witnessed his last moments in broad daylight. Why did I always assume Jesus took his last breath as darkness fell? Because, I think, for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated darkness with death. And life with light. We know that faith is confidence in what we cannot see, yet we live according to what we can see.
They watched Jesus give up his life in the middle of the day. They saw that he was gone. Their light became as darkness to them because, as Luanne wrote, “They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming.” 
What we now know… What do we now know? Do we know that God’s presence never left Jesus–or anyone else–alone on that dark day? Do we know that his presence is with us now, on the other side of resurrection, on our darkest days the same as our brightest? Pastor John asked us a question on Sunday, one that we do have to answer, each of us for ourselves. He asked us, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” But after spending time here, reading Luanne’s words and writing my own, I think there is a second question we need to ask ourselves…
Where do you believe Jesus is?
Does your Jesus only exist in the light? Do you have a “darkness” closet where you store all that doesn’t align with “solar Christianity”? How do you see the death of Jesus? What do you believe about the presence of God in those final moments before Jesus breathed his last? How we see matters. As Luanne wrote last week, “How we see is how we love.”
–Laura
Image result for learning to walk in the dark

This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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This Is Love: Suffering & Silence

“What if love was greater than…hate, war, fear, failure, brokenness, loss? What if love… came down? Gave hope to the broken? Came to die? Came to save?”

These words are from the video that introduced our new series. We’re staying in the book of Mark, but now we’re looking at the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. The goal of this series is to show us what love looks like. But before we look at what love is, we have to see what it is not.

We picked up the story in Mark 15:1-20, with a quick glance back to 14:61-62. In these verses, we see Jesus questioned by the high priest before all of the gathered religious authorities reach their decision about him. He is then handed over to Pilate for questioning, and, before the end of the passage, sentenced to crucifixion.

Pastor John highlighted four main points from these verses, and a fifth that we’ll look at later. He talked to us about:

The malice of the chief priests… We saw the religious leaders gathered at night, initially, but no decision could be made at night, according to their laws and codes. So they waited until “very early in the morning” to declare what they’d already decided to do with Jesus. But their code-keeping stopped there. Their anger toward Jesus caused them to rewrite codes that they lived by in the moment. They managed to twist the charge of blasphemy (which was not grounds for execution) into a charge of treason–an offense punishable by death. And we see them act immediately once they make a decision, rather than waiting the required 24 hours between sentencing and carrying out the sentence. We see throughout the gospels that the religious leaders had been looking for grounds to kill Jesus for a while. They never really found the grounds they searched for, but we see them here, finally overtaken by their hatred, anger, jealousy–and something else we’ll look at in a moment that I believe might have driven these more obvious emotions.

The political expediency of Pilate… Pilate was available so quickly because he had moved into Jerusalem during this time of Passover. He did this because it tended to be during Passover that riots and rebel activity were more likely to happen. His job depended on his ability to contain the community he oversaw, so he got closer to them during this time. Once Jesus was brought before him, he questioned him briefly, but then relinquished his authority to the masses, though he believed in Jesus’ innocence. Interesting side note–if anyone had grounds to be enraged by Jesus’ supposed acts of treason, it was Pilate. It was the Roman  government he worked for that would have ultimately been threatened by a new “king” rising up onto the scene. And yet… we don’t see anger from Pilate. I believe he, too, was driven by something else…

The fury of the crowd… Pastor John said that there is a good chance of fatal error when the masses are left to make a decision. It is vital that we pay attention to this point. Crowds can be swayed. This crowd was. We see in Mark’s account that the chief priests “stirred up the crowd.” The Greek word for ‘stirred up’, as John pointed out, has the same root word as “earthquake”. The religious leaders (who this particular crowd was pretty loyal to) incited the crowd, and it was like an earthquake as their fury rose. What did the chief priests say that caused this reaction? We don’t know for sure–but we can make an educated guess…

It appears that part of Pilate’s decision to leave Jesus’ fate in the crowd’s hands had to do with his belief that they would surely choose his release over that of a known insurrectionist and murderer, the one called Barabbas. See, it was the custom for him to release a prisoner that the people requested during the Feast each year. Before they made their request, they were stirred up by the chief priests. It ended up that the crowd didn’t want Jesus–they surprised Pilate by, instead, asking for Barabbas.

Many of us have seen movies that depict Barabbas as a bit of a crazed lunatic, which makes it difficult to see what was really going on. A more accurate description of this man would be that he was a political leader to many who wanted to see some changes for the Jewish people. He was all about, as Pastor John articulated, “Making Israel Great Again.” He represented loyalty to their people, their ways–he was their nationalistic hope. He led an insurrection, during which he committed murder. He was not a bloodthirsty serial killer, as some of the images of him that have been painted would lead us to believe. The people were not concerned about his crimes–after all, it happened in the name of nationalistic pride, and riots and wars naturally come with casualties…

With this knowledge, it makes sense to assume that the priests stirred the crowd by playing on their political leanings. It is the fastest way to get a rise out of people. We experienced this as we listened to Pastor John on Sunday… He asked us to listen to him describe a few things and rate where our reactions landed on a 1-10 scale. He began by talking about spiritual things, the activity of our church and such. We were attentive as we listened, but the reaction landed within the lowest numbers on our scale. He moved to talking about personal things, how we feel when someone speaks negatively about who we are, our physical attributes and such. This topic moved us up the scale, but not too much.

Then, he began to speak politically. He brought up President Trump, the state of our nation, our feelings about our flag, etc… and the temperature of the room changed. The moment he mentioned politics, there was a palpable electricity in the air around us. People shifted in their seats, cleared their throats, whispered to those near them, laughed nervously… He didn’t take a position, or even speak specifically about a particular policy. All he had to do was mention politics, and we were stirred. (I don’t have time to go into this here, sadly,  but the question begs answering–Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?)

Now, imagine the crowd standing before Pilate being reminded of the nationalistic hope Barabbas represented. Perhaps they contrasted the direction Barabbas wanted to take their nation with the kingdom Jesus talked about bringing–an upside-down, inclusive kingdom that looked nothing like what they expected their Messiah would establish–where the last would be first and the meek and marginalized would be blessed. Could this have stirred them up? Absolutely. Because, once again, they preyed on something that lived beneath their outward fury, something that drove them–whether they knew it or not.

The “humor” of the soldiers… This group tortured and humiliated their prisoners. They represented the military might that people believed then–and believe still–was necessary to establish a kingdom. They replaced their humanity with humor as they mocked and mutilated Jesus. Once again, I believe there was something else driving them.

So what is it? What is this thing that I’ve eluded to in every character I’ve described?

FEAR.

Fear is powerful. And often, it is driving more obvious emotions. These groups may have been afraid for different reasons, but I believe they were all acting out of their fears. Fear, left unchecked, is deadly

The chief priests and all of the other religious leaders saw what was happening as Jesus taught. His following grew, the loyalty of many was shifting from them and their laws to this new way that Jesus introduced. They heard him speak about establishing a new kingdom–one that threatened their power and control and everything they held dear. He introduced a new way of thinking, a way of living that they had never done before. If Jesus took over, everything would change. Do you think it’s a stretch to say that this stirred up their fears? How do we feel when the way we’re used to living is threatened? Is anger our first response, or is it driven by deeper fears?

Pilate appears to be fairly nonchalant during the whole process. But I don’t think he was–not really. His position and his own well-being depended on him keeping the Jews he presided over quiet. It’s why he moved closer to them during Passover. If he failed to put out the fires that started among them, he could be removed from his post…and worse. So, while he disagreed with the crowd’s decision, he knew that agreeing to do what they asked would appease the earthquake of their emotion, and maintain the “peace”.

The crowd… We would be wise to see ourselves in this group, though we might also identify with the religious leaders who were so afraid of change. When the chief priests stirred up the people, they were preying on their fears first. Their fear led to their fire and fury. Fire and fury is never the starting point. It is an expression of a deeper emotion. Sometimes, it is loyalty or love that leads us to anger. In this case, however, I believe the culprit is fear. The chief priests were not fans of Barabbas. He was a rebel, a problem. But not as big of a problem for them as Jesus. And they knew that they could work with what he stood for, and use it to provoke the emotions of the people. Jesus threatened the belief system that their lives were built upon. His new way felt, to many of them, like a betrayal of the religion they held dear, and of them as a nation. Because Jesus’ allegiance was not to Israel. His way would bring a new kingdom in an upside-down way–he was a threat to those who built their lives on power, success, and control. They were afraid. And the fear of the leaders certainly inflated the fears of the people. Anytime a leader operates out of a place of fear, it influences their followers–especially those most loyal to them.

Lastly, we have the soldiers. They had a job to do. A terrible job. Not doing any part of the job they were given would have cost them. Part of their job included carrying out executions. Maybe these men were bloodthirsty sadists who actually delighted in the taking of life. But maybe they weren’t… Maybe they were people who bore the image of God the same as everyone else–including the criminals they had to kill. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t carry out their orders. Maybe they were afraid that if they didn’t trade their own humanity for tortuous humor, they wouldn’t be able to carry out the inhumane act of taking life from another human being. I’ve known many soldiers throughout my life. I’ve never known one who doesn’t deal with some amount of fear, no matter how brave and strong they might be. I have to assume these soldiers who mocked and humiliated Jesus also dealt with fear.

Why did I spend so much time talking about fear? Because it’s dangerous. Because it changes how we see, it drives our decisions, and it robs us of our humanity when we let it overtake us. We cannot see the image of God in another–or in ourselves–when fear steers our ship. It leads to blind hatred without reason, and it changes us at our cores. It feeds on our vulnerability and grows like a ravenous weed in the soil of our souls. It leads us to say and do the unimaginable. We’ve seen how, over the last few years, fear of the “other” has led to growing hatred and violence in our own nation. Fear is powerful.

But there is a place where fear can’t live… something that drives it out. Every. Time.

Love. 

Love… it is absent in this story… until we look at the fifth and final point Pastor John spoke about:

The silence of Jesus… The mystifying silence of Jesus in this passage speaks volumes. How was he able to stay silent, and to speak no words in his own defense? How was he able to stand as a suffering servant, with humble dignity, in the face of false accusation, humiliation, and eventually torture and even death? In a recent podcast, Father Richard Rohr said of Jesus, “He neither plays the victim, nor does he create victims. That is liberation–first of all from the self…” This is love. Self-emptying love that pours out for others. It is the only force powerful enough to scatter fear. Fear is always connected to self in some way. Loving like Jesus frees us from our fears by freeing us from ourselves. Jesus’ silence was the depths of love on display. And it spoke louder than the chief priests, louder than Pilate, louder than the furious crowd, and louder than the mocking soldiers. Because their voices were driven by fear. Jesus was driven by love…

–Laura

Religious leaders,

Pilate,

The crowd,

Barabbas,

The soldiers,

Jesus.

Earthly power,

Anger,

Fear,

Violence,

Shouting,

Silence,

Love.

Pastor John’s sermon, and Laura’s post above took a familiar passage and broke it down causing us to have to take a closer look. Most of us are familiar with this account of Jesus before Pilate. Nothing in the story was a surprise to us, but like we do with many familiar things, we read it from a detached place. The way that Pastor John broke it down made it impossible to stay detached….and it happened when he mentioned politics. Laura asked Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?

These are good questions to sit with. What are your initial reactions to political things? If anger comes up frequently–why?  When I was in counseling a few years ago, my counselor pointed out that anger is often a secondary emotion and that underneath it is typically fear or sadness. We don’t often take the time to get to the underlying emotion because anger feels more powerful. Power can be addictive, yet Laura pointed out above that the power of the Religious Leaders, Pilate, the crowd, and the soldiers was actually a cover up for their fear. Uninvestigated anger, and uninvestigated fear leads to violence.

As I was listening to the sermon, I found myself wondering who I am in the story. I think that’s a good exercise for all of us. We each have within us the capacity for tremendous good, or evil. Sometimes we don’t recognize the evil for what it is, and because of our human nature, we typically like to paint ourselves in a favorable light, but we must be willing to look at ourselves truthfully, see those areas that are not in line with the character of Jesus, and lean into the Holy Spirit’s power to be convicted, counseled, and led into truth.

Are we the religious leaders? Have our traditions led us to a place where there are concrete barriers around our understanding of faith and of God, and anything outside those barriers is a threat to the foundation upon which we’ve built our lives?

Are we Pilate? We, like Pilate, can see that Jesus is unlike anyone else. We know deep within ourselves that to really follow Him will cost us something, and we’re not willing because we’d rather please our leaders and our crowd, yet at the same time we try to excuse ourselves from any responsibility in that decision.

Are we the crowd? Have we become followers of humans rather than followers of Christ? Have we fallen victim to “group think” which is defined as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”(Miriam Webster Dictionary)? There is much published material about “group think” and one of the characteristics is that it leads to irrational or dysfunctional decision making. People who fall prey to “group think” make group decisions without critical evaluation of different view points; they believe that whatever decision their group makes is the right decision,  even if they have questions, they don’t feel like they can bring up a dissenting view point and therefore they justify the behaviors of whomever they are following in order to feel less inner conflict. Group think is easy for all of us to fall victim to, which is why it is so very important that we follow the advice of Jesus’ brother James who says “if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to you…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1: 5, 19-20).  We never see in Jesus’ ministry that He was “mainstream”. We must be willing to evaluate ourselves.

Are we Barabbas? Have we tried to force our nationalistic beliefs into becoming reality? Have we been willing to use or justify violence as a means to an end?  Have we usurped the role of God and His ways and His timing in order to make anything “great again”? Have we viewed ourselves and our interests as superior to those of other image bearers? Have we lost our minds and hearts to nationalism?

Are we the soldiers?  Whether the soldiers enjoyed what they did or not, they were quite obviously detached from seeing the image of God–the value, the divinity, and the preciousness of their victims. Whether they detached themselves as a means of self-protection, or sheer contempt because they thought they were superior, it did not appear to bother them to laugh inappropriately as they inflicted pain. What is our response to the pain of others, especially those who are different from us? Do they deserve it? Are we able to detach ourselves emotionally? Are we able to see the unique image of God in others? Do we value every human equally?

Are we Jesus? Jesus who didn’t fight back against the system–the earthly system. Jesus, who didn’t defend himself. Jesus who could have wiped everyone out in an instant and made himself King. (Remember the temptations at the beginning of his ministry?) Jesus who could have chosen earth’s violent corrupt ways, but instead chose the crazy way of unconditional love.

This morning in my devotional reading I read:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love...” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I have pictured myself many times at the foot of the cross. I have not, until this morning, pictured myself looking out from the cross. It changes everything.  If I have been crucified with Christ (Galations 2:20), the vantage point of the cross is one I need to look through.  We know that Jesus was looking at the crowd, the soldiers, his mother, his friends, all of them with love–with grace–with all encompassing forgiveness–no malice, no grasping for earthly power, no harsh words–just love and a desire for each one to be forgiven. Wow. Is that how I see? Is that how I love?

We can all be any of the human characters in Mark 15, it comes naturally. We absolutely can’t “be” Jesus in our own strength, but we have everything that we need in the Holy Spirit to live with godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). It’s His gift to us. May we seek the face, the wisdom, the ways of Jesus and look at those around us from the vantage point of the cross choosing to be instruments of peace in an incredibly divided world.

–Luanne

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Grace (Like Never Before)

This week, we jumped back into Mark to continue exploring the stories of Jesus and how, when he showed up, he began to do things differently–like they had never been done before. We’ve taken a long look at joy, compassion, forgiveness, and hope. This week, we turned our attention to grace. This concept may have been the most shocking one of all, because it stood as an affront to everything they’d been taught–their entire way of life under the law. In the gospel of John, John writes it this way:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”     (John 1:17)

But the people around Jesus, especially those who had built their lives upon the law, struggled to see this beautiful new way of being that Jesus brought into the world. The story we looked at on Sunday highlights the Pharisees’ focus on the law, and their lack of understanding about grace…

One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-28)

We find this story immediately following the one in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why his disciples weren’t fasting. Do you recall how that story ended, the words that Jesus said? He said, in verse 22,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We have already seen, in the first two chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduce a whole new way of thinking and a whole new way of being in the world. He calls it the kingdom–and he takes his listeners one step further with every encounter they witness. The stories build upon each other (Jesus is a brilliant teacher!), but few were able to listen and learn in such a way that they could follow the plot line. In the verse above, Jesus eluded to the new that he brought into the world not being able to fit within the old containers they were accustomed to. John 1:17, the verse I started with, highlights the tension. The old way was the law of Moses. The new way, the way of the kingdom, included the perfect balance of grace and truth–grace that is only possible through Jesus, outside of the constraints of religious laws and rituals.

The Pharisees, though, weren’t interested in the new wine Jesus was offering…

…And sometimes we aren’t, either.

It’s not fun to look for ourselves in the personalities we’ve come to disdain on the pages of scripture. We’d much rather see ourselves in the faces of those Jesus healed, in his disciples who (albeit, imperfectly a lot of the time) followed him, and sometimes, in Jesus, himself. But if we’re honest, we might look a little more like the religious elite of the day–those who were considered expert and accurate expositors of the law. Those who followed Jesus and his disciples around looking for one misstep, pointing out each failure, and highlighting all the places the less-informed were falling short–

Those who really did not understand the power and the gift of grace.

This is the fourth story found in the second chapter of Mark. In each story we’ve seen the Pharisees in close proximity to Jesus and his followers, and repeatedly questioning them. First, they questioned Jesus’ authority in their minds when Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then, they questioned Jesus’ followers about why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners after the calling of Levi. Notice that they asked his followers about him, rather than asking Jesus himself. After that, they questioned Jesus about why his followers weren’t fasting in the way others were. Again, they didn’t go to the ones their questions were about–this time they went to Jesus regarding his followers. And here, in the final story in this chapter, they question Jesus about his followers again, this time making sure he sees what they see:

“…the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

They begin their accusation with the word ‘Look’, alerting Jesus to what they are finding fault with, in case he is somehow unaware of the lawbreakers in his midst…

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Why were the Pharisees watching?” It’s an interesting question, especially as we look deeper into the story. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the teachers of Mosaic law as well as other traditional laws not found in the scriptures. Their strict adherence to laws regarding fasting, purity of food, and the observance of the Sabbath set them apart. Their focus was on the rules and the traditions–especially in regard to the holiness of the Sabbath. The one original law, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, NLT), had become 39 individual laws. In the disciples grain-picking actions, they had broken four of the 39 laws.

The really sad part of this is, the Sabbath was given to humanity by God as a gift–not as a burden or a ritual. It was intended to be a day of rest, a day with no work, for the purpose of resetting our focus and connecting with our Creator. We see in this story that it had become something very different to the religious elite of that day. It had become a day of duty, ritual, rules, and control. The Pharisees may have been resting from their regular jobs that they held in society, but they were in full-blown work mode when it came to their religious duties. They weren’t resting and focusing on God. They were focused instead on the rules, and on critiquing and judging the followers of Jesus (and probably everyone else, too), pointing out the ways in which others were falling short of the law.

Sometimes, our attention to the law is the very thing that causes us to break it…

Jesus responded to their question. He responded a few different ways… He reminded them of a story that they certainly knew, about David, one of their hero-Kings. And then he said this:

 “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

He reminded them of the original intention behind the Sabbath commandment–rest from work and time to connect, refocus. He flipped what had become their script regarding the rules about this holy day. And then he tells them plainly that he has authority–even over the laws that they held so dear. Because he brought into our world new wine–the wine of the kingdom, wine that could not be held within the containers of the law–especially the impossible laws that had been added by the religious to God’s original instructions for his people. And this kingdom ushered in an era where grace would take over where the law had failed; where grace would make up for shortcomings and failures, and all the ways we could never get it right.

How sad that their focus on the traditions they held as sacred and holy prevented the Pharisees from seeing the Holy one standing among them…

How heartbreaking that religious duty and rule-following had so consumed their hearts and minds that their vision had become clouded with judgement and accusation, and they could not experience–much less offer–the extravagant beauty of grace…

Can we see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes? Can we identify where church obligations and rule-following have become our focus, and ripped our vision away from the One we say we’re serving? Can we be honest about our judgement and critiques of other followers of Jesus who practice their faith differently than we do? Rigid respect of rituals will replace relationship–every time. Relationship with others–those we are to love–and relationship with Jesus–the One who calls us to that higher love and empowers us to live it.

We may not readily identify as those who hold fast to rituals and traditions, but many of us are consumed and controlled by our understanding of how things should be done–or how they’ve always been done before. We’ve talked since the first week of this series about the importance of being willing to “repent”–to change our minds. And this week, we have the same opportunity. To set aside our incomplete understanding and align our thinking with the mind of Christ. To allow his Holy Spirit to renew our minds. To accept that growing things change–and if we’re willing to embrace that, we’ll be changed day by day into those who look more and more like the One we follow.

Are we brave enough to take an honest look at ourselves, friends? To see where we look more like the ones focused on the law than like the One who offers grace? I pray that we can do this. I believe we have to do this–for the sake of the Church of Jesus everywhere, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote. Every word. We so easily forget how powerful grace is. We appoint ourselves as judge and ruler forgetting that in the new wineskin there is no place for that. Many in our church family have been through a study that begins by reminding us that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads to death. Jesus came to bring life, and in His life there is no room for judgement. That’s not our role in His Kingdom. Our role is to love God, to love ourselves with godly love, and to love all others as we carry this message of love everywhere we go. We get to choose which tree to live from, and sometimes we (I) swing back and forth between those trees multiple times in a quick minute. However, I’m probably not alone in being able to recognize that there is different fruit both in and around me based on which tree I choose to eat from.

What does that have to do with the message of grace?  Everything. I think that we all have a tendency to want the 39 rules that make everything black and white–do this, don’t do that. It feels easier to us that way. But it requires zero faith. We can follow rules without having any real relationship with God; however, life doesn’t happen in black and white–there’s a whole lot of gray, a whole lot that we don’t understand and will never understand. We’ve tried to systemize theology and tie it up in a nice neat explainable plan. I don’t think it’s that simple…

I was having a conversation with someone that my son was dating who said we have to learn to offer grace in the gray.  That phrase has stuck with me. Grace in the gray. God’s grace allows us connection with Him, the grace I extend towards others allows for connection with them. I feel fairly confident that picket lines, hateful comments, and feelings of superiority have not drawn people toward the love of God. Love extended, no matter the circumstance, has. We’ve got to do better.

A few days ago, a man with white supremacist ideology entered a mosque in New Zealand during prayer time and killed (as of this moment) 50 people.  That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at it’s worst. The shooter thought that he and his ideology were good, that those who were praying in the mosque were evil, and that to kill them was a good thing to do. Last night I watched a video of Jews in New York lining the sidewalk outside of a mosque holding signs letting their Muslim neighbors know that they stood with them, that they love them, that they care. It’s easy for me to see which action will change the world for the better. It’s easy for me to see which action looks more like Jesus. Grace is love in action, and it showed up on that sidewalk between two faith groups that the world would like for us to believe hate one another. A few months ago when someone with white supremacist ideology shot Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, their Muslim neighbors showed up with signs, and support, and love. Grace is love in action. A year and a half ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a white supremacist’s life was changed because, as he spewed hate toward black clergy people, they responded by telling him that they loved him, that God loved him, and they attended to his injuries. A few days after the rally he sought out an African-American neighbor for a conversation, which eventually led to a friendship and a relationship with Christ. He is now trying to share the message of love with other people enslaved to white supremacy. Grace is when love shows up with feet, and hands, and heart, and tears, and joy, and solidarity, without judging, full of forgiveness, full of grace and truth. And what is truth? Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s truth looks like Jesus. It doesn’t look like anger. It doesn’t look like condemnation. It looks like Jesus.

Sabbath is a gift of grace. Sabbath is a gift of life. Our culture doesn’t receive this gift well. In 2010 I attended an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality conference in Queens, New York, and one of the sessions was on the beauty and the importance of Sabbath. I found myself longing for it and purchased a book about it. For a season, I very intentionally set aside time on Saturday from noon on to “Sabbath”.  I loved it. The author of the book that I read (I’m not home so I can’t reference the book or author), was in Israel with her husband and talked about how beautiful the Sabbath day was there. No commercial businesses were open but parks were full of families having picnics, couples strolling by lakes, groups of friends fellowshipping and communing with one another. It was a day of community and connection. Sabbath begins on Friday evening and goes until Saturday evening, so on Friday evening they would have had their time to light candles and connect with God. There is a lot of beauty in that rhythm.

One of the things that I learned is that our work is never done. Sabbath doesn’t begin when all of our projects are neatly wrapped up. Sabbath is an awareness that the world will not stop turning if I don’t get my work finished. Sabbath is a surrender of my “to do” list, an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign and in control, and it’s okay for me to stop. It’s life giving to stop and enjoy God and those He has placed in my life. I believe that if we figure out how to have a few hours of Sabbath for rest, connection, and enjoyment, that we will become more grace-filled people.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God makes us to lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls. Grace comes from people whose souls have been restored by resting with (and enjoying ) God.

The ways of Jesus, those beautiful, gray, incomprehensible, grace-filled, faith requiring,  life-giving ways that we will never fully understand, will change the world for the better. Are we willing to let go of all of the “rules”—except for the rule of love—and move forward in the rhythm of grace?

–Luanne

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JOY II (Like Never Before)

Joy. We found it last week–unnamed as such, yet present in a story that connected fasting with a wedding celebration, fabric, and wineskins. We began looking at what joy is–and what it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from last week’s post to remind you where we ended up:

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. JOY (Like Never Before)

Joy cannot be experienced apart from Jesus. Last week Pastor John laid the foundation for our understanding of joy, and this week Pastor Beau built upon it. Our exploration of joy took us away from the book of Mark for a week and into a story found only in the book of Luke. More than likely, you are familiar with this story in Luke 19:1-10. It is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. If you don’t remember the actual story, maybe these lyrics will jog your memory:

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, And a wee little man was he… He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Do you remember the song? Likely, many of us sang it as children. Pastor Beau pointed out that while the song serves its purpose to help us remember the story, we have sadly reduced this complex, beautiful story into a sing-along song. And we’ve probably missed some key points.

Take a moment to read the story the way Luke recorded it in his gospel:

Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.”  Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

There are so many directions to go in discussion of this story, but our focus this week is joy, so we’ll start there. The word joy shows up about midway through the story. In some translations, the word joy is replaced with words like gladness or excitement, but the original Greek word in this passage is “chairo”, which does mean “joy” or “rejoice”.  When does joy show up in the story? When Jesus shows up, sees Zacchaeus–the one who was desperate to see Him, calls him by name, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Pastor Beau highlighted for us that “The joy didn’t come until Jesus showed up.” Zacchaeus had been living a joyless existence–we’ll look at why in a moment–but as soon as Jesus showed up, joy was present, too. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11)–Wherever you find Jesus, you find joy also.

But what about the others who were with Jesus? Those in the crowd? Their response to Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus was not joyful. The text tells us that they were “displeased”, and that they “grumbled”. How is this possible if there is fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence? In another gospel, the book of Matthew, Jesus addresses a similar situation:

For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ But                    blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:15-16 NIV)

The crowd was with Jesus physically, but they couldn’t see him or hear him the way Zacchaeus was able to. Because Zacchaeus was looking for him. He was desperate to see this One he had heard so much about. I imagine he had ideas about him, ponderings… But the crowd had expectations. We know this because the parable Jesus tells immediately after the story of Zacchaeus is told to address the crowd’s expectation that He would, in his power and glory, soon set up an earthly kingdom that would defeat their political and military enemies. Their expectations got in the way of them seeing and hearing him rightly. So when he spoke and acted in ways that were contrary to their expectations, their response was one of anger and confusion–not joy.

In this particular story, I think the peoples’ anger hinged not so much on Jesus choosing to stop to talk with Zacchaeus, but on one of the words Jesus chose to use. We have learned as we’ve studied the ministry of Jesus that nothing he says or does is by accident. His words are carefully chosen–always. In this story, Jesus uses a word that shows up as “must” in our English translations. This one tiny word packed a punch in the original language. When Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today”, he is saying, “it is necessary, right and proper, a necessity of duty and equity for me to come to your house today. 

Right? Proper? Did Jesus know who he was talking to? Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector. A filthy sinner guilty of grievous crimes. A thief among thieves. Certainly it’s not right or proper for Jesus to dine with his kind… I imagine they bristled. Maybe their mouths fell open and they took a step back. While these words may have agitated and confused them, I belief it was the sense of equity that the word carried that stirred the crowd’s anger most of all.

We haven’t written about equity in a while, but it is crucial that we understand what it is if we want to see the bigger picture of the upside-down kingdom of Jesus. Equity is the quality of being impartial, doing whatever it takes to set things right for each one individually. It is not equality. Equality treats every person the same regardless of circumstance. Equality can create further injustice, whereas equity is synonymous with biblical justice–the justice that is about wholeness and making things right, the restorative justice that is at the heart of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.

So when the crowd heard Jesus speak a word that implied the necessity of setting things right for Zacchaeus–the one who acted unjustly (and with impunity) toward their community, they were mad. They had in mind the kind of justice that we broken humans have a proclivity toward–the retributive kind. This desire for retributive justice is what fueled the people’s expectation of Jesus setting up a powerful, enemy-crushing kingdom rather than the one he actually brought with him.

Back to Zacchaeus… his joy was uncontainable. He hurried to the ground and hosted Jesus in his home. We even see Jesus’ equitable treatment of him extend through Zacchaeus as he changed his mind about how he’d been living and vowed to set things right with those he’d treated unjustly.

This is the power of the presence of Jesus.

An encounter with him changes everything. Zacchaeus had been living a life of marked by stealing from others. And it was stealing any sense of joy he may have had prior. Pastor Beau told us there are five “Joy Stealers” present in this story. Maybe some of these are familiar to us, too…

Secrets: What we think/say/do that no one else sees; what you decide isn’t necessary to share. Zacchaeus made up charges as he taxed his community. How he came up with each charge was hidden from them.

Separation: Being pushed out or isolated from your family, friends, community; a sense of being disconnected from what you were once connected to. It feels like rejection or abandonment, and once it happens, it can get historical when it happens again. Zacchaeus lived a life of isolation from everyone in his community. He lived among them, but was not included as one of them. He was more than disconnected–he was hated.

Shadows: Different than separation. You live in the shadows when you refuse to step in. This is a place of invisibility, a life of being unseen. It is hiding who you are, backing out of the picture and refusing to let others in. (Side note that Beau highlighted: Jesus is always willing to step into the shadows to find you. Always.)

Shame: This one is connected to all the others, and can cause you to move into the shadows. Shame is when you form a negative identity (who you are) based on your mistakes (what you’ve done). It’s complex, and it is brutal. It is trying to separate yourself from what God sees in you. Interestingly, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure”. Not a word that anyone would have chosen to describe the life he was living before he saw Jesus. But what he’d been doing didn’t define him–it wasn’t his identity. After meeting Jesus, he lived into the meaning of his name.

Status Quo: The antithesis of growth. Sameness. No change. Living in the status quo, holding tightly to “normal” can feel safer than changing. Change is hard. It’s scary. It means stepping out of our own neat and tidy boxes into a space where Jesus can reframe the picture we see. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there is joy in our static, unmoving, safe existence. But there can’t be. Because life with Jesus is ever-changing, always growing, and completely uncontainable. We simply cannot box him in. If we try, we end up following (and worshiping) our idea of him and the safety that we’ve slapped his name on as “blessing” or “favor” rather than following Jesus himself.

Zacchaeus sees Jesus. Hears him speak his name. And in a moment, he trades in all these joy-stealers for the fullness of joy found in Jesus alone.

It’s important to note that we don’t have evidence in these verses of Zacchaeus acknowledging his many sins and asking for forgiveness prior to his salvation. We do see that he changes his mind (repents) and decides to make amends, but that’s all we are given. Yet… Jesus says, “salvation has come to your house today”. This is one of many stories that Luke includes in his gospel that stands in opposition to a formulaic plan for forgiveness and salvation. And it’s interesting to ponder. We don’t have time to dive into theological debate here, but I think passages like this one challenge us to look outside of the theological structure we were handed and explore for ourselves what the often familiar words mean.

Jesus gives us one more thing to chew on in this story before he moves on. He says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” This is fascinating, because again, if we take a closer look, it challenges some of what we think we “know”. Pastor Beau asked us to remember the parables of the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son… In all of these stories, the word “lost” implies prior possession. These things belonged to the one who was looking for them. Before they were lost. While they were lost. After they were found. Being lost didn’t remove their belonging. I’m not going to walk that out further this week–I’ve already written a lot of words. But I hope all of us will think about it, pray about it, and read Jesus’ words with fresh eyes–eyes that are seeking him rather than focused on our expectations of him. 

Where have you lost your way? What is stealing your joy? Look up at Jesus. He’s already looking for you.

–Laura

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JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

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Like Never Before: Hope

What comes to mind when you think of the word “hope”? When you use the word in a phrase, what types of phrases come out of your mouth? Do you say/think things like “I don’t want to get my hopes up”–or “I hope that ___________ happens”, or “I was hoping for ___________”?  Do most of your thoughts around hope have to do with your own desires? Could words like “wish” or “longing” be substituted for “hope” in some of your sentences?  Do we really know what hope means, especially in the Biblical sense?

Let’s explore hope as we continue our journey through the book of Mark in our Like Never Before series. In this passage we find Jesus teaching by the lake with large crowds still seeking him out. Mark 2:14 tells us “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.”

That one verse is packed with implication. Verse 13 let us know that there were crowds following Jesus, but he saw Levi and singled him out. Levi–whose father’s name was Alphaeus. Levi–a Hebrew name, the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel–the priestly tribe; the tribe set apart for ministry in the temple, the tribe that did not receive their own inheritance of land but who were sustained by the offerings of the other tribes. The tribe set apart for God’s holy purpose. Levi. When Alphaeus gave him that name, I wonder what his dreams for his son were? I don’t imagine those dreams included being in cahoots with Roman power and ripping off his own people. How did Levi come to be a tax collector? We don’t know. What we do know, is that in order to be a tax collector, he was willing to take advantage of others in order to be financially well off. Tax collectors, as we will learn in a few verses, were not well thought of. They were thieves, extortionists, receivers of bribes, etc. They could charge what they wanted by whatever means they chose. They could make up false charges and blackmail people. They could charge double or triple what the Roman government required and pocket the overage.

Again, I don’t know how Levi came to be a tax collector, but would assume that greed had to be part of it. It’s interesting to think that he was in cahoots with Rome, but had no actual power. He was still at the mercy of Roman soldiers and Roman authority. Had he sold his soul for money and the perception of power? Did he feel trapped by his choices? We don’t know, but we do know that it didn’t satisfy the deep longings of his heart.

Jesus “told” him, follow me. And Levi got up, left his booth, and followed.  Levi’s Greek name is Matthew and he became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He left money and comfort to follow Jesus. The call of Jesus was more compelling than anything material wealth could offer-and Levi knew it the moment Jesus singled him out.

Levi, who already sensed that nothing in his life would ever be the same,  invited Jesus and his followers to have dinner in his home. In addition to Jesus, Levi invited his group of friends to dine with them as well. I love this. He met Jesus, and knew immediately that he wanted all of his friends to meet him as well.

As we’ve already seen in the book of Mark, the teachers of the law were never too far away from Jesus, and certainly didn’t approve of the way Jesus did things. However, they did not confront Jesus directly at this point, so they tried to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of his disciples by asking, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16)

But–just like he did when he knew their thoughts in the home where the paralytic man was dropped through the ceiling–Jesus responded to them, and what he said was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (v. 17)

Tax collectors and sinners. In the minds of the religious elite, tax collectors and sinners were in the same category as lepers. They were outcasts.  They were hopeless. They had messed up their lives by making bad choices, they had excluded themselves from the promises of God, from the religious community, and there was no forgiveness available to them in that system.

This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.

Jesus, when he responded to the Pharisees and used the word call was being very intentional–and I love this about him. The word call means to invite. It can also mean to name, to give a name to…

I have not come to invite the righteous, but sinners.

 “I have not come to name the righteous, but sinners.” 

“I have not come to give a name to the righteous, but sinners.

He is telling the religious leaders, and I believe giving them an invitation as well, saying I am here to invite those who know that they are hopeless, who know they fall short, to take my name, to be healed by my name, to walk with me and carry my name, to follow me, to trust me. The “sick”  know they have a need. They were hopeless, and now they have hope.

Jesus offers hope, becomes our hope by connecting himself to sinners and outcasts. It’s risky business. He offers hope in the form of an invitation–a call. It’s inclusive. Sometimes in the language of “christianese” we use the phrase, so and so has a call on his/her life.” as if that’s not true of all of us. He has called, he has invited, he has given us his name, and we get to be bearers of hope–not hope as a wish, but hope that is grounded in Jesus, that leans into Him and all that he offers. Hope that is inclusive toward all those who we might consider outcasts; who we might consider “sick”.

Returning to Levi’s father Alphaeus–Alphaeus means “change” or “exchange”.  Levi had exchanged the meaning and implications of his name by choosing to serve self instead of serving God. Jesus gave him the opportunity to change again–to find his purpose, his calling, his hope. We, too are offered this same invitation, an invitation of hope–but we must understand that:

Hope is not about the preservation of my life, but about the elevation of His. 

Hope is grounded in our confident relationship with Jesus. Hebrews 6 exhorts us to grow up in our faith, to move beyond immaturity which makes us susceptible to every fear, every doubt, every storm. Being mature in Jesus means that there is a confidence, a steadfastness in him–no matter what life throws at us. The chapter ends with verse 19 telling us that We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and steadfast. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus our forerunner has entered on our behalf. 

Our hope, in Him, is anchored in the inner sanctuary–the very presence of God. Our hope is in the presence of God. Ponder that thought for a moment.

Romans 15:13, one of my favorite verses of all time says: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hope. It comes from God. It can overflow in us by the Spirit’s power. As we trust God, we are filled with joy and peace, which gives us the ability to overflow with hope. Hope that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hope that he calls previously hopeless people like me to walk with him and become one that carries his inclusive message of hope to the world–like never before.

–Luanne

It seems Jesus was bent on staying “unclean” during his years of ministry. Seriously. A few weeks ago, we looked at his encounter with the leper and how touching that man moved Jesus into isolated places for the remainder of his time on earth. But that was only the beginning…

Eating with Levi (Matthew) and his group of sinful friends was considered unclean, too. Later, he would be touched by a woman whose issue with blood made her, and him by contact, unclean. He would touch the hands of a dead girl as he raised her to life. He would associate with prostitutes and Gentiles and a Samaritan woman–groups that would further tarnish him and his reputation as a devout Jew. One disreputable woman would anoint him with perfume, and wash his feet with her tears and her hair, as well as kiss his feet. Over and over and over again, Jesus chose to identify with the outsiders. And his invitation to them to come close to him was an invitation to those who disapproved to repent–to change their thinking–so they could come near to him, and to them, too.

In reference to this week’s story, Luanne wrote:

“This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.”

The religious leaders thought they had it figured out. We see throughout the gospels that even Jesus’ disciples, at times, had the same proclivity toward pride that separates “us” and “them”. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples were surprised because the Samaritans were “half-breeds”, second-class citizens. They didn’t question Jesus outright, but they certainly had questions. There were other times that they questioned his judgement, because they, like the religious leaders, had biases and precious prejudices that they weren’t aware needed to change. I include this as a reminder to myself and all of us to not read ourselves into the role of the outcasts that Jesus chose to dine with and forget that we often identify more with the role of the Pharisee.

See, the Pharisees had this idea that everyone else needed to look like them, the ones who were keeping the rules and doing the “right” thing. Later, in the account of the early church in the book of Acts, we see the apostles and church leaders struggling with the same thing, as they argued among themselves about what the requirements for new Gentile believers should be. How “Jewish” did they have to become to be included? There was an assumption made by some that the only acceptable way to come to Jesus was to become Jewish first, to look like them, and then they could come and be part of them.

The example of Jesus responds to these scenarios with an emphatic, “NO!” He says, essentially, through both his words and his actions, “You think THEY need to look like YOU. But  I want YOU and THEM to look like ME.”

And what did Jesus look like?

Well, the majority of his ministry, he looked unclean. Because there was no one he wouldn’t touch, or allow to touch him. No one so low they escaped his gaze. No one so high that he couldn’t reach them. No one he didn’t want to connect with.

To the leper, to the Samaritans, to the woman caught in adultery, to those who set up and accused her, to the high priests, to Roman officials, to little children and women, to traitors and tax collectors, to prostitutes, to Pharisees, to the demon-possessed and all in need of healing–including those who didn’t think they needed healing at all; to all of these, Jesus brought the hope of himself.

We hear that Jesus spent time engaging the sick, the hopeless, the least–and we have our own ideas about what that means, a picture of who those words describe. But let me ask you this–

Who is sicker? The one who recognizes the depth of their own need, or the one who denies having any need at all? The one whose heart is open and willing to be changed, or the one with a heart made of self-righteous, immovable stone? The one who knows every letter of the ancient scriptures and keeps the law perfectly, or the one who doesn’t know a single verse but soaks in the presence of this one they call Jesus?

I am not a theologian. I have no authority to decipher the original intent and meaning of the verses we study each week. What I know, and what I’m coming to know more and more as I grow in Jesus, is that he is good. And kind. And completely loving. And brilliant.

And he is all of these things for all of us all of the time. I don’t write a single word of this to make light of the impact of the stories we are studying. On the contrary, my heart has been so gripped by the unconditional love of Jesus that it compels me to read every story I thought I knew differently.

I want to identify with the ones Jesus hung out with and look at the Pharisees with arrogant eyes. But my growing understanding of the ways of Jesus won’t allow me to do that. Not only because I’ve more often been the Pharisee than the outcast, though that is probably very true, but because, as we continue to see, Jesus never did something for one group without there being application for all groups present. Luanne brought up a verse in recent weeks that I’m going to reference again here. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says this:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus knew that the Pharisees regarded themselves as clean, whole, healthy, righteous. That they would hear the words “sick” and “sinner” and immediately think of others, definitely not themselves. So he gives them an opportunity to share in the hope that the “others” had already readily received. He gives them an invitation too, just like we saw him do when we studied the story of the paralytic–when he responded to their thoughts with an opportunity to change their minds. He brings up an ancient scripture (Hosea 6:6), one they had “learned”, one they certainly “knew”, and he says: Go and learn what this means… 

I imagine they were pretty offended. I bet they felt… Indignant? Defensive? Furious?

…The way we feel when we’re told we’re wrong about something we’ve “known” as truth?

I’m pretty sure they weren’t happy. I think it’s safe to make that assertion, because they continue to plot against him and slander his character to all who will listen.

But… 

Because we know the rest of the story, we know that many among the Pharisees and teachers of the law eventually did recognize their need, their “sickness” if you will, and not only followed him, but became leaders in the early church.

I love that so much. Jesus came to bring hope–to bring himself–to ALL. Some were more starving and ran to the feast he offered. Some couldn’t recognize their hunger pangs and were slower coming to the table. Some still haven’t come, and continue to mock the Hope-bringer. And he continues to go to them. And asks us who have tasted and seen the hope he offers to embody it and carry it to ALL the ones who need it. The “obvious” “sinners” don’t have the corner market on hopelessness–sometimes the most hopeless are sitting in church, completely unaware of our need to encounter the “God of all hope” who longs for all of us to “overflow with hope”.

May we ask ourselves hard questions, and give honest answers, about who we see as “sick”. May we think long and hard about whether we want to look like Jesus, live like Jesus, love like Jesus–because doing that his way will lead us to places we may not want to go… Sometimes, as the ones carrying hope to the sick… And sometimes as those receiving hope from those we consider “sick” and “sinful” because, often, they’re the first to respond to Jesus’ invitation–and we have much yet to learn.

–Laura

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Selah

“Let Me teach you something about what you think you know.”

There were many lines from Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday that stood out to me, but this one most of all. He was recapping the story of Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1 and commenting on the words Jesus said to these men. When he saw Simon (Peter) and Andrew fishing, Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17, NLT) In other words, “I know you fish for a living, but there’s more to learn about fishing. You know a lot about it—it’s your livelihood—but what you think you know only scratches the surface of what I can teach you.”

As Beau talked to us about this, I couldn’t help but think about another verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes these words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (NLT)

Paul understood that in everything, we are only seeing a partial picture. I think it’s pertinent to mention that this particular verse falls within the famous “love chapter” that is so often quoted at weddings. This verse, in which Paul admits his own incomplete understanding is directly followed by one thing that he is absolutely certain of—the enduring greatness of love above all other things. I believe that what we’ve been learning from Jesus in the book of Mark as we study what he said and did during his ministry absolutely confirms Paul’s assertion about the greatness of love. It also confirms how imperfect our vision is, and how much we need to be transformed by Jesus so that we can see the way he sees.

For the last six weeks, we’ve been traveling what, to many of us, is a very familiar road. These are the gospel “stories” that more than a few of us grew up hearing. Yet… we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. Pastor John has taken a small section of verses each of the last six weeks and taken us deeper into the familiar stories, stories we thought we knew. As we’ve listened to these messages, Jesus has shown up to teach us something new about what we thought we had figured out.

On Sunday, Pastor Beau brought us a “Selah” moment. A pause, if you will. His intention was to slow down and recap what we’ve been learning, to combine the individual images that have been painted for us over the last six weeks into one big picture that connects them all. He reminded us of what we’ve been learning, reiterated the main points, and offered us a bit of his own thoughts and perspective.

You know what happened during this “Selah” message?

Jesus showed up to teach me something more about things I thought I knew.

Through Beau’s teaching and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heart was filled with new insight, and I learned new things even as we recapped the new things we’ve learned these last weeks. There were still things we had missed, more to learn from Jesus in depths we thought we’d fully plumbed. How was there still more?

Because Jesus is brilliant, as Beau said on Sunday. In fact, Beau commented that the word “brilliant” doesn’t come close to defining Jesus—he said the only word that really describes Jesus is, well, “Jesus”. Brilliant only scratches the surface. Which is why, friends, it’s so important that we slow down and let him teach us. When have I last checked what’s in my suitcase as I walk out my journey of faith? Do I even know what I’m carrying? Do you know what you’re carrying? Have we packed in our bags rules we learned in Sunday School? Maybe our parents’ faith is in there. Are our bags full of “righteous anger” and judgement? Did love of neighbor ever make it in? How about love? Compassion? Forgiveness? Are we carrying fear and shame in our bags because we were taught that we would only ever be “unclean”, like the leper in our story from a couple of weeks ago? What have we packed? I think somewhere in each of our bags is some form of the belief that we know the “truth” and that our way of believing is “right”. We walk through life believing that there are some things we pretty much have figured out.

Jesus is speaking to each of us, just like he spoke to his first disciples, “Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Paul understood that until the day his finite human body crossed into the eternal, he would only ever see imperfectly. He knew a whole lot about a whole of things. But he remained teachable—fully dependent on the only One whose teaching had ever transformed his soul. We have the same opportunity. But it requires from us a willingness to admit that maybe we’ve packed some things in our bag that don’t belong there and omitted some necessities along the way. And it means acknowledging that we can not possibly expect to get it all right and have it all figured out while we walk the earth in our finite bodies. Not because we are defective or lacking some essential part of our make-up. But because we are disciples of One whose brilliance we cannot contain within any man-made boxes, One whose thoughts and ways are beyond what our limited humanity can fathom. This should not make us feel sad, frustrated, or disappointed. On the contrary, this knowledge can lead us into freedom, delight, and childlike expectation as we continue to be enlightened and enchanted by this Teacher whom we follow.

Sometimes our pride, our desire to be right and respected as wise gets in the way… Sometimes, we’re not content to introduce others to our brilliant Teacher so that they can follow Him alongside us… because what we actually want is for them to follow us. The more followers we have, the bigger our platform becomes. The bigger our platform gets, the more sure we become about what we know. And we get more and more addicted to our own greatness. So we run after the next big thing, then the bigger thing, and so on…

This brings me to one of the things Jesus showed me on Sunday, one of the things I hadn’t paused to see before…

Jesus began his ministry in front of large crowds, traveling from town to town and teaching to packed out synagogues. As his ministry grew, however, his platform got smaller. As he got more proximate to individuals and more personal with his connections, he lived a more isolated and lonely life. As his name got bigger, his opportunities in public became fewer.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

We often resent small beginnings but see them as a means to an end—an end that is bigger and more visible than wherever we had to start. We long for our platforms—and our number of followers—to grow, because somehow that will show that we’ve “made it”, that we are important.

Not so with Jesus. He started at the pinnacle—as the Word that spoke Creation, who had only ever known the communion of the Trinity and the full-faced love and intimacy that they shared. The Beloved of the Almighty, shrouded in glory and love and light.

Then he chose to get smaller.

He was born a helpless baby in a dirty manger to a poor, unmarried couple. The limitless King of Heaven willingly stepped into the confines of newborn flesh, willingly breathed in the air and dust His very mouth created. Coming to us was a huge step down from where He started.

At least when he was born, a star appeared and angels sang—Magi traveled to him bearing fine gifts fit for a King. But then he lived thirty years in absolute obscurity in nowhere Nazareth. If you could get lower than being born in a manger in Bethlehem, this was it. Another step down.

Finally, his ministry began. His cousin, John, prepared the way and proclaimed his greatness. The voice of God thundered from the heavens at his baptism. He was beginning to teach, to gain followers, to fill the synagogues with people eager to hear his voice and to be healed by his touch. People were beginning to wonder if he might be the one they’d been waiting for. They began to get excited about the Kingdom he might establish among them. Things were looking up—

Until he got proximate to one leper. He knew what it would cost him to touch this man, to enter in to his suffering. It would change the trajectory of his whole ministry—no longer would he be welcome in the synagogues. His platform would get smaller, even while his renown would grow.

And he chose to touch him anyway. Because the kingdom he carried, the one he proclaimed as “here and now” is an upside-down kingdom. He would never satisfy the peoples’ expectations for a political superpower kind of kingdom that would rule with violence and vengeance over their enemies. No. His kingdom, his way of “ruling” would continue to cost him—not only his platform, but his very life.

He knew the cost. And he chose it anyway. And because he didn’t perform to earn the next big platform, because he chose the lonely places, the hurting people, the way of compassion and sacrificial love, His name and renown remain unmatched to this day. And we grasp for words to try to describe his greatness…

We long for reach, for influence, for followers. We long to grow our platforms and make a name for ourselves. Maybe Jesus wants to teach us something about the way we define success—in ministry and otherwise. His platform got smaller and smaller the more he loved and went against what those of his day thought they “knew” to be right. What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

There are a few more things I learned on Sunday that I hadn’t seen before, adjustments that needed to be made in the way I think and understand. I was going to write about more of them, but it’s about time I wrap this up. I’ll finish with this… When Jesus spoke forgiveness and healing over the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of the house where he was teaching; when he allowed the disruption to redirect his teaching to all who were present, Mark tells us, They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12b) Everyone in that home learned something new that day—about things they already thought they knew. From the man on the mat to the disciples, to the religious leaders occupying the front-row seats, they all left that house changed. Because brilliant Jesus got personal and proximate to each of them and invited them to learn.

Our brilliant Jesus gets personal and proximate to each of us as well. He is inviting us to set aside our “wisdom” and to examine what we’ve put in our bags. He calls out to us the same way he called to his first followers…

“Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Will we let him?

–Laura

I love the question that Laura asked us:

What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

Is it possible that there’s more to learn? My answer to that question is a huge, resounding yes!!! It renews my desire to give the Holy Spirit full access to every part of me.

When I was a child and gave my life to Jesus, my dad said the following when he was presenting me before the church– he said, “Luanne is giving as much of herself as she can to as much of Jesus as she understands.”  That phrase has stuck with with me, and this morning as I write, it came back in full force. Isn’t this the daily journey? My understanding of Jesus is deeper than it was when I was nine years old, and because He is who He is, I will never fully understand Him, which is the beauty of it all. It’s a relationship that will never grow stale, as long as I continue to knock, to ask, to seek, and grow. And when He reveals new things to me, will I give as much of myself as I am able to give (I want that to be all of me!) to the new revelation, the new understanding of Jesus? Yes. There is always more to learn.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing boats behind, they were following what they knew of Jesus in that moment. Scripture is kind to us and shows us some of their blunders along the way, but in the book of Acts we see men who are very different from who they were at the first part of the book of Mark–and they continued to give as much of themselves as they could to as much of Jesus as they understood, which eventually cost three of the four of them their lives.

Before they walked personally with Jesus, they thought they knew what God was about. They “knew” that women and Gentiles were inferior, that lepers and paralytics were being punished and had no place in the religious system, that there were rules to follow in order to stay in God’s good graces, and that religious power was not to be questioned. Then, God in flesh took them under His wing for three years in the form of Jesus and every bit of what they thought they knew was changed. Every bit of it was “like never before”. And they were teachable. Are we?

Pastor Beau used the analogy of foundations. In Jesus day, the foundation of a building was not under the ground, the cornerstone upon which everything else would be built was visible. In our day, foundations are dug below the dirt, they remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t stand the test of time, they get cracks in them, or begin to “settle” in ways that make the entire structure built upon them unstable. Do our spiritual foundations have cracks in them? Do they need to be inspected? Do we need to do some wrestling with our foundations? Are we built upon Jesus, our cornerstone, or something else?

The Apostle Peter, the one who began as a fisherman, quoting the prophet Isaiah wrote in his first letter:

“’See, I lay a stone in Zion,  a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” .           (1st Peter 2:6-7)

Do we trust our chosen, precious,  like never before Savior–or do we reject Him? Do we trust that his Kingdom is here right now? Do we trust His spiritual, intellectual, and physical authority? Do we trust Him enough to be teachable, intentional, available? Do we trust Him enough to  remember that compassion means to connect ourselves to those who are suffering as if we ourselves are suffering? Do we trust Him enough to touch the untouchable? Do we trust Him enough for forgiveness to be as natural to us as breathing? Do we trust Him enough to lovingly challenge the religious culture of the day? Do we trust Him enough to let our attitude toward all people be one of love? Do we trust Him enough to let Him live through us? Do we trust Him enough to be misunderstood?  Is He our precious cornerstone? Do we believe that His ways are right? Do we trust Him enough to live like Him and to be like never before people? What foundation are we building on?

I’m going to throw out some current events, not to be controversial but to give us opportunity to let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts. Transformation requires intentionality. Let’s be intentional in knowing where we land, and why we land there. If something makes us squirm or feel defensive, let’s sit with and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.  Let’s wrestle with which foundation we land on in each of these situations–is it Jesus our cornerstone, or something man made that is vulnerable to cracks?  The situation at our border, people seeking asylum, children living in cages, refugees and immigrants as a whole–which foundation? Women who have had abortions–which foundation? Our politicians and the way they model how to treat people–which foundation? The LGBTQ community-which foundation? Muslims–which foundation? The injustices that our fellow citizens who represent our nation’s ethnic minorities try to raise awareness of–which foundation?  Families who’ve lost children to gun violence–which foundation?  Hurting, angry disenfranchised white males who become mass shooters–which foundation? Religious leaders who’ve used their power to sexually abuse others and the cover ups that have followed–which foundation? If Jesus were standing right here in the flesh, where would he be? Let’s wrestle. Let’s let Him teach us. He is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Tea Party –He is Jesus. He is not American–He is Jesus. He is not Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, or non-denominational–He is Jesus. The only way He can be described, as Laura highlighted above, is by Himself. Jesus is Jesus.

Pastor Beau reminded us that Jesus will never ever, ever use His authority and power to be abusive–ever. His authority and power teach us how to fight battles in the spiritual realm. His way of relating to people teaches us how to relate to people–and that even as he pushed back against the thoughts of the religious leaders, he wasn’t taking jabs at them; he was giving them opportunities to change their way of thinking (repenting) about who God is and what His mission is. He loved them all. He loves us all. He. Is. Love.

Beau reminded us that the ministry of Jesus was a monumental shift between the Old Testament and New Testament which can also be called Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant–a covenant in His blood. A new wine skin into which the old wine could not be poured.  New. Different. Like never before.

In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom is within us.

We can’t miss this if we are going to live as like never before people. The Kingdom that is not of this world is within usthis very Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray would come to earth, the very Kingdom that takes over the world and becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Rev. 11:15)-this Kingdom is our mission. This is what we are to be about. His Kingdom coming on earth, His will being done on earth.

Every current event that I listed above would not exist if His Kingdom was reigning here. There would be no need to seek asylum, there would be no need to escape violence, there would be no “us and them”, there would be no abortion because women and children would be cared for by all of us, there would be no violence at all, there would be no injustice, no disenfranchised, no hate, no abuse of power, no pre-judging (also known as prejudice), no hateful rhetoric–there would be love. His kind of love. 

The Apostle Peter told us:  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st. Peter 2:5). 

We are living stones being built on the foundation of Jesus, our cornerstone. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mt. 9:13 NLT)

Knowing that we are all in this together, that none of us is righteous in our own strength–the spiritual sacrifice which we are to offer to God is mercy. Mercy is a noun which means kindness, compassion, especially toward those undeserving of it,  and whose synonyms include grace, favor, goodness, gentleness, tenderness, love. (www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/mercy). We are all undeserving of His mercy, yet we have received it and continue to receive it in overflowing abundance from our like never before Jesus. Do we, in turn,  offer mercy as a spiritual sacrifice to the people of the world?

As we pause in our series for this Selah moment, may we reflect on what we’ve heard so far, may we be committed to presenting our like never before Savior to the world around us by being like never before followers of the one who lives in us.

Let’s enter in like never before.

–Luanne

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Like Never Before: Forgiveness

As we continue our series through the Gospel of Mark and discover how Jesus did things like never before, we get to experience his encounters with real people who were seen and touched and loved by him while he was here in the flesh. These are beautiful encounters that are packed with more nuance than we will ever be able to grasp. Our encounter in Mark 2:1-12 is one of these.

Last week, we looked at Jesus’ compassion in his encounter with the leper. We saw how in that encounter, Jesus actually exchanged places with the leper. The leper went away healed. Jesus, because he had touched the leper, stayed in solitary and lonely places.

This week’s encounter finds Jesus heading back home to Capernaum.  He no longer goes to the synagogue to teach like he had done before. Instead, he goes to a house, and as was the case when he was in solitary and lonely places-the people came to him, so the house was full and the space outside the house was full. As Jesus was sharing his message with those gathered in the house, four friends of a paralyzed man tried to get their friend to Jesus. They realized that they were not going to be able to carry him through the crowd, so they came up with a plan. They climbed the stairs to the roof, dismantled the roof, and lowered their friend to the feet of Jesus.

There are so many things that I love about this moment. One, the faith and determination that the friends demonstrated; Jesus was in town and they were not going to miss this opportunity. Two, they dismantled the roof of the house and made a hole large enough to lower their friend and his mat through the roof. Picture in your mind the crowded house, Jesus teaching, and all of a sudden debris begins to fall on them as the hole in the roof appears. I wonder if Jesus laughed. I imagine that he was delighted with this demonstration of friendship and of faith. I imagine the homeowner wasn’t quite as thrilled.

And then, the like never before happens…

But before we get to that part of the story, let’s look at three biblical mindsets.

Romans 12:2 addresses a fixed mindset–it’s our default mindset. Scripture challenges us  to get rid of that mindset and replace it with a new one. I like the way that J.B. Phillips words it, he says, Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within…, the NIV says Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…the NLT states it this way, Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.  

We are getting ready to encounter some fixed mindsets in our story, and fixed mindsets have a tendency to be reactive. We can probably all think of someone, or maybe even ourselves, who have reactive tendencies. Is it because our mindsets are fixed?

The second mindset is one that “leans toward” that bends toward a certain direction. Philippians 2:5 demonstrates this one when it says,  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (NIV). Pastor John put it this way, he said let the leanings of your mind lean in the same direction as the mind of Jesus. As long as we know Jesus well enough to see how he treated people, we can know that his mind is not self-serving, that it always leans in the direction of love.

The third mindset is highlighted in 1 Corinthians 14:20 which states do not be children in your thinking… in your thinking be mature. (ESV)  In this verse, the word for thinking comes from the word “diaphragm” which is the membrane in the body that helps us breathe. Breathing is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal. Thinking is natural to us, we don’t focus on it a great deal, yet our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.

Back to Mark 2.  The friends of the paralyzed man lower him down and he lands in front of Jesus. It would have been impossible for the people in the house to ignore this moment. Do you wonder how they were responding? Were they talking about it, or has this moment rendered them silent? Were they laughing or were they mad? We know that there are “teachers of the law” in close proximity. (How did they get the front seats in this crowded house?)

Before the paralyzed man has said a word, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” Hmmm. What must the paralytic have been thinking in that moment? Is that why his friends went to such great lengths to get him to Jesus?  What is going on here?

Jesus knows our greatest need, and Jesus often times acts in unpredictable ways. In just a moment we are going to get to the part of the story where we know that Jesus knew the thoughts of the teachers of the law. Did he know the thoughts of the paralytic man? Was the man thinking to himself, “I’m not worthy to be in the presence of Jesus?” “I’m not worthy to be the center of attention?”  “I shouldn’t be here?”  We don’t know. But what if that was the case, and Jesus was addressing that mindset by letting the man know that nothing in his life was being held against him, that he could let go of guilt and shame, and that Jesus deemed him forgiven and worthy to be exactly where he was in that moment. If, as was the religious custom of the day, the man was being blamed for being a paralytic because of his sins, Jesus was taking care of that mindset as well.

However, the fixed mindset of the teachers of the law couldn’t see the beauty of the moment. Some of them were thinking to themselves  “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

So Jesus in his brilliance, but I also think in his love for the teachers of the law, addresses them in their own language.

They thought, “Why does this fellow talk like that?”  Jesus responds “Why are you thinking like that?”  Question for question.

They thought “He’s blaspheming!” (For a charge of blasphemy to be brought against someone, the blasphemous words had to be spoken.) Jesus responded, Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?

They thought, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus responded, want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. So he said to the man,  “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”

There is so much packed in these verses. When Jesus spoke forgiveness to the paralytic man, he was breathing out what is natural for him. His nature is love, His nature is forgiveness. His ministry is reconciliation. The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him–because Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins. All of them. And He has offered this gift to all of us. No one is excluded. And then he demonstrated his authority over the things of earth by physically healing the man. The man became the living parable that the authority of Jesus to forgive us changes our lives.

Jesus has the unique ability to be fully present with the people he encounters. He was fully present with the paralytic man–but he was also fully present with the teachers of the law. He was for all of them. He met the paralytic man where he was. He also met the teachers of the law where they were. He used questions, reasoning, and logic–their language– to address their thoughts.

Before the man was lowered, Jesus had been sharing his message with those gathered in the house. Earlier in the book of Mark, we learn that the message of Jesus was “Repent”–which literally means ” change your mind…get a new mind”, “because the kingdom of heaven is here.”  So to the group in the house, including the religious authorities of the day–the men who interpreted the religious law for the common people–Jesus is saying there is a new way to think about God. He is full of love, He is ready to forgive, He is here, and He is changing things.

The new covenant that Jesus introduced fulfilled all the requirements of the law in Him. Jesus forgave the paralytic man before he ever went to the cross–he has the authority to forgive- period–and he does not withhold his forgiveness from anyone. He demonstrated his authority to the teachers of the law, to the crowd in the house, to the friends of the paralytic man who were watching from the roof, to the man who was forgiven and healed, and to you. You can know, beyond a shadow of any doubt,  that God is for you. You can be free from legalism and rules. You can be free from the fixed mindset of this world, including the fixed mindset of religious systems. Every single moment in your life that has not measured up to the perfection of God is forgiven, so that, you can have an organic, real, personal relationship with a God who loves you more than you will ever comprehend. You don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Will you allow your mind to think the way Jesus thinks? Will you allow the Spirit to so totally change your mind, mold your mind, transform your mind,  that Christ’s way of thinking becomes as natural to you as breathing? Will you embrace God’s for-give-ness that He demonstrated in His give-for you?  And will you join him in giving for others?

The beautiful result of the rest of our encounter with the paralytic man was, He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this before!”

May we be such pure reflections of the heart, the mind, the sensitivity, feelings, intellect and actions of Jesus that the world sees the beauty of God through us and draws close to Him in praise, because they’ve never encountered anything like Him before…

–Luanne

Last week when we looked at the story of Jesus healing the leper, we remarked that as Jesus touched him, the kingdom came and invaded the life of the leper. In that story, it was a touch from Jesus that caused a collision of the heavens and earth. This week, it was Jesus’ words that carried the weight of the kingdom. His words, unprovoked, gushed out into the paralytic’s reality–and changed his life forever. Luanne wrote:

“The man did not ask for forgiveness, he didn’t have to jump through a number of religious hoops to receive forgiveness–Jesus just spoke it over him…”

Pastor John told us on Sunday that Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralyzed man says nothing about the heart of the man (we have no idea where his heart was) but that it says everything about the heart of Jesus. Luanne wrote about the heart of Jesus being for everyone who was present. His awareness and his focus were on the paralytic AND on everyone else in the room… the owners of the home, the friends on the roof, the teachers of the law in the front row, the others among them who needed healing. He was aware of all of them, and He chose his words accordingly.

I wonder what he was teaching about, what stories he might have been telling, before the roof began to open above them… Surely Jesus knew the thoughts of those around him before the paralytic entered the room. Perhaps his words to the man carried even more impact than we can know based on the record of the story that we have in our Bibles. We know that his thoughts are higher than ours, as are His ways, which, like Luanne said above, are often unpredictable. Regardless of what he’d been talking about, he chose to respond to this interruption by breathing out forgiveness. Forgiveness that was not asked for, earned, merited in any way, or sacrificed for… He washed away this man’s shortcomings not with blood, but with his breath. The same mouth that spoke creation spoke forgiveness. And he had (as he has now) full authority to do so. This is a big deal, and worthy of further study, but I’ll leave you to ponder and pursue that further on your own, if you so desire.

This kingdom collision moment stirred up the crowd. Jesus’ declaration of forgiveness set the minds of the teachers of the law (and probably the minds of everyone else, too) ablaze with questions. What we see in this story from these religious men is the picture of where their minds were fixed.

Luanne wrote about the three different definitions of “mind” that Pastor John spoke to us about on Sunday. The first one referenced is the fixed mindset, the one that is our default. This one is a fortified structure–it’s solid and largely unmoving, as the word “fixed” would infer. Both John and Luanne explained that this is the mindset that needs to be changed, renewed, transformed.

As I thought about this fixed, rigid, frame of mind, I found myself thinking about Ezekiel 36:26:

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

When I looked into this verse a little more deeply, I found that the Hebrew word that is translated “heart” in this verse is the word “leb.” This little word is used over 500 times in the Hebrew scriptures. It is translated “heart” in most cases, but it is translated “mind” or “understanding” a combined 22 times. The definition of the word is interesting… It means “inner person: mind, will, heart, understanding, soul, thinking, knowledge, inclination, determination of will”, and is also used widely to mean “the center” of anything. The Greek English Lexicon of the NT based on Semantic Domains states that the “Hebrew term ‘leb’, though literally meaning ‘heart’, refers primarily to the mind.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty captivating… especially if we replace the word heart in Ezekiel 36:26 with our understanding of what the original word referenced, the idea of the mind.

It gets better. The Hebrew word “leb” has a Greek equivalent that we see all over the New Testament. This word is “kardia”. It is one of many words that is translated “heart” in the NT, and it shows up twice in this week’s passage–both in reference to the teachers of the law:

But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts (kardia)…    (Mark 2:6)

Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your            hearts (kardia)?” (Mark 2:8)

I am using the NASB because it is a more direct translation, but it is very interesting if you read through different translations of these verses how interchangeably the words “heart” and “thinking” are used.

Though we know Jesus was able to speak Greek (evidenced by His exchanges with the woman with the demon-possessed child in Matthew 14, as well as His conversations with Pontius Pilate), it is generally agreed upon by historians and theologians that he most likely spoke Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew. More than likely, given his audience in this week’s passage, he was speaking Aramaic. So we don’t know exactly what words he used. What we know is that whatever words he used, the Greek word that translators chose in these two passages for “heart” is the one that is the equivalent to the Hebrew “leb”. I apologize if I’m being too much of a word-nerd here, but I find this fascinating…

These teachers of the law were working from a fixed, rigid framework–let’s say, a mindset that was set in stone. We know that it is this frame of mind that needs to be changed to become like the mind of Jesus. And when Jesus addresses these men, he uses a word that they would have recognized as interchangeable with the word from the scripture in Ezekiel. Could it be that he was offering to remove their hearts/minds/centers of being that were set in stone and replace them with hearts/minds/centers of being that were instead made of flesh? Able to bend, move, lean toward him rather than away? Is this part of how Jesus was loving these teachers of the law in his midst whilst loving the paralytic into the freedom of forgiveness? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that, like Luanne expressed above, Jesus is always FOR everyone. All of us. Period. So I don’t find it a stretch to imagine that in this moment, Jesus himself was offering to replace their fixed mindsets, inviting them to adopt his way of thinking in place of  their own rigid ones.

This is such an important thing for all of us to understand, to grasp, to see in ourselves. Luanne wrote, “…our mindset–which can be as natural to us as breathing, needs to be transformed so that our mindset becomes like that of Jesus–he wants his mindset in us to be as natural as breathing.” If we are to be vessels that carry the kingdom of Jesus to the world around us, we have to be disciples of Jesus, learning from him constantly, being made more like him every step of the way. This is what the renewing of our minds, and being transformed is all about. Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, says it this way:

“And as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means, we recall, how to live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did… I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.” 

I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I… 

Since I read that passage a couple of weeks ago, that one line won’t leave my consciousness. How would Jesus live my life–in every moment–if he were me? It changes my responses. It refocuses my mind and priorities. It helps me let go and forgive when I don’t want to. It makes me take notice of others who do this well, those around me that I can learn from.

And it reminds me to simply pay attention. How did Jesus live? What did he do and say? How did he love? In this week’s story, we read of how forgiveness is as natural as breathing to Jesus. And we know that we are to be transformed more and more into his likeness. But forgiveness doesn’t always come so easily to us… How are we to get there?

We have to breathe in what Jesus breathes out so that it can then live within us and grow within our hearts and minds. It’s like CPR for our souls. When we inhale the life-giving love and forgiveness of Jesus, we inhale the kingdom. As the kingdom lives and breathes within us, we become more like Jesus, so that we can grow into people to whom forgiveness is as natural as breathing. And then we can exhale this life, love, forgiveness–the ways of the kingdom–to those around us.

As we move forward, I pray that we learn to ask ourselves how Jesus would live our lives if he were us. And I hope that we’ll learn to let our minds lean toward him, to bend toward his way of thinking. Let’s ask him to replace our hearts/minds/centers of being that are fixed and stony with hearts and minds of flesh that are able to love and forgive the way he does. Let’s ask him. His response to us is as natural as breathing for him. We can trust him to exhale love and forgiveness–the kingdom life–into our lives just like he did for those he encountered in our story this week. And as we breathe him in, we’ll grow into people who can love and forgive like never before.

–Laura

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Compassion (Like Never Before)

Leper.

What comes to mind as you read that word?

Leprosy isn’t a disease we hear much about today. Only a handful of cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and with modern medicine, it is absolutely curable. But it wasn’t always that way…

During the time that Jesus walked in human skin, leprosy was a death sentence. It was terminal–there was no cure. But worse than the death sentence was the life sentence it carried… We picked up our story of Jesus in Mark 1:40-45 this week. These verses tell us the story of a leper. Consider this man’s reality with me for a moment…

We don’t know his name, or who he was before the leprosy. We know nothing of the life he’d lived before. He had been banished from human contact, with no hope of being touched by anyone again. Perhaps he’d been a husband, a father. If so, his family was now to regard him as though he were dead–even while he lived. Never again would he embrace his wife or hold his children. In fact, his wife may have already remarried, as she would have been regarded as a widow…

Even if someone dared to touch him, he wouldn’t feel it–the disease affected his nerve endings and destroyed his ability to feel. His leprosy made him numb. For the rest of his life… He was sentenced to a life in the shadows–and even there, people would avoid him, because they believed even his shadow was contagious. He was sentenced to a life of shame and obscurity, and who he used to be mattered not. From here on out, his identity was “leper” and “unclean”. If he dared come near a town, he’d be obligated to shout out that word to warn people to stay away. “Unclean! Unclean!” This was his name now. He lived his life as the walking dead.

Rejected. Unclean. Isolated. Ashamed. Lonely. Broken. Numb. Disgraced. Discarded. Forgotten. Unnamed. Untouchable. Hopeless…

He would live alone. And then die alone. Would anyone notice he was gone? Likely not, for his life ended the day his leprosy appeared. He had been dead to them–all of them–since then.

But Jesus…

Maybe the leper had heard rumors of this man from passers by… Maybe another leper had spoken of him… We don’t know how this man knew about Jesus, but he’d heard enough to recognize when he came near. And one day, as Jesus was traveling throughout the region of Galilee, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, this leper fell at Jesus’ feet. He knelt before the One he had heard of, grasping at hope and brimming with belief…

“If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. (Mark 1:40b, NLT)

Somehow, he knew Jesus could cure the incurable. He believed in His ability to restore him to health.

But maybe he wouldn’t want to…

The paralyzed, blind, demon-possessed, and otherwise afflicted had experienced healing at the hands of Jesus. But him? A leper who was already regarded as dead to his community? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t go that far.

“If you are willing…”

I can picture his eyes, pleading, daring to hope–but wide with a bit of fear… Was he crying? Did he look at the ground, or did he glance at the eyes looking back at him? If he did, did he see the deep pools of Jesus’ eyes fill as the emotion within Him surfaced? The vulnerability of this moment–for both men–causes me to pause, to linger, to imagine what each of them might have been feeling…

Have you ever pleaded with anyone? Knowing they had the power to help you, the ability to meet your need, if only they wanted to? Has anyone ever pleaded with you that way? Do you know the desperation of a moment like this one?

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” (Mark 1:41, NLT)

Compassion… Pastor John spoke of compassion as the deepest of human expressions. It is a feeling that originates in the gut, more specifically in the bowels. Something deep within feels the suffering of another. It is more than coming alongside one who is suffering. It isn’t a surface emotion, like sympathy; it doesn’t carry the condescension of pity, and it doesn’t remain detached like empathy. It is entering into the suffering of another as though it was happening to you.

Jesus was filled with compassion for this man, moved by it. In this moment, it was as if he became a leper, too, and felt the hopelessness, the sorrow, the depth of his agony… Again, I imagine Jesus’ eyes as He entered into this man’s existence, knowing the man’s rejection and loneliness would transfer to Him as He granted this request… Did His chest tighten as He realized that what He felt for this man–the rejection and isolation that was headed His way as soon as people heard the news of his healing–would pale in comparison to the rejection, betrayal, and death that He would soon feel? As His compassion and deep love for humanity led Him to the end of His own life on this earth?

I don’t know the answers to the many questions this story provokes. But I do know that Jesus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t count the cost and weigh His options, though the cost to His very well-being would be extremely high. His response was not an emotionally driven knee-jerk reaction, though His emotions were absolutely in play during this interaction. How do I know this? Because of what the word “willing” means here…

In the Greek, the word is distinguished as “an active option”, and differentiated from “subjective impulse”. It means “to will, have in mind, intend; be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure.”

When Jesus said He was willing, it wasn’t a flippant decision. It wasn’t a begrudging yes. It was an expression of deep love and purpose, something He was delighted to do, something that–while the cost to Himself would be very high–He was determined to do.

And He didn’t only say the words. He reached out and touched the man… 

Can you even imagine this moment?

We don’t know how long this man had suffered. How many days, months, years it had been since anyone reached out to touch him… He clearly believed that Jesus was able to heal him. But to be seen, heard, and then touched by the Jewish rabbi/God-man? Touched by this One who knew and understood that to touch him was to violate every social, medical, and religious law, rule, and recommendation regarding people of his kind? I imagine the thought didn’t even cross his mind.

Can you picture the shock on his face as the hand of Jesus moved his direction? Did he flinch, or try to move out of the way so he wouldn’t contaminate Jesus? Did he gasp or try to say something? Did he even see it coming, this collision of heaven and earth? Or was he staring at the ground, ashamed of his need and afraid of the response he would receive? We aren’t given details of the interaction, so we’re left to wonder… Did Jesus gently lift the man’s chin so he could see the love on His face as He voiced His willingness? Did He tenderly cup his face in both hands? Did he reach for his hands and lift him to his feet? Leprosy had robbed this man of the ability to feel touch. Did Jesus’ hands linger on him until he could feel the warmth of the Healer’s hands break through his numbness?

I don’t know. But every possible scenario causes my breath to catch in my chest…

Sweet Jesus, how beautiful you are… How kind… 

Touching him let the leper know that Jesus was willing to accept the cost of compassion. And it would cost Him everything, as it was the beginning of the violence and rejection Jesus would face at the hands of those He came to heal… Touching him told the leper that Jesus was willing to take his place, to share his pain, to connect with him. This went far beyond concern. Jesus got proximate to this man. He took the time to look and see beyond the surface, to listen so that He could really hear. He set aside the “wisdom” of the culture around Him that said this man might as well be dead, that he was hopeless, and beyond the reach of mercy. He chose to engage deeply enough to feel the full extent of this leper’s pain. He got close enough to smell the stench of his disease–and He continued to move toward him, not away. Because compassion takes us all the way. All the way into the pain of the one in front of us. Beyond the judgments, assumptions, and invisible walls of separation. Compassion takes us beyond our comfort zones and often, right into a danger zone. And then it takes us further… Jesus touched him…

The nuance of this story is lost on us if we move through it too quickly. Take a moment to place yourself there. If you had a front-row seat to this interaction, what would you see? Hear? Feel?

Jesus touched the untouchable… In that moment, as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the Kingdom came and invaded the life of this leper. I can’t articulate how much I love that. This story, contained in six short verses, shows us what the kingdom looks like. The way of the kingdom is the way of self-sacrificing love. If we haven’t allowed compassion to move us out beyond ourselves into love that chooses to identify with and take the place of another, we haven’t become carriers of the kingdom. The kingdom has come–Jesus brought it with Him and He modeled what it looks like over and over again. It is here, among us, inviting us to step into it, to carry it to every corner of this earth–but I think we sometimes have the wrong idea of what “Your kingdom come” actually means…

Kingdom love always co-suffers with the “other”–whoever that may be. Kingdom love doesn’t pick and choose who’s worthy to be invited in. Kingdom love doesn’t shame people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t “truth” people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t judge people to Jesus. Kingdom love wears the shoes of compassion–or it isn’t Kingdom love at all. 

Jesus showed us what Kingdom love looks like and what it does. It moves us to go. To go to the ones we’re told to disregard, to be afraid of, to ignore, to disdain, to stay away from. To the ones who could hurt us, infect us, and change our “status”. The Kingdom moves us to go to them, and to engage with their stories. It moves us to enter into their lives, knowing it will cost us. Kingdom love says, “I’ll take your place. My life, given for yours.”

In Jesus’ day, the leper represented the dirtiest of humanity. The leper’s level of “uncleanness” was second only to a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus… He changed everything. He brought the kingdom to this man, fully aware of the cost.

Who are the “lepers” of today? Who are we unwilling to engage with, unwilling to get proximate to? Who do we regard as “unclean”, “hopeless”, even… better off dead? Who do we judge from a distance, post about on social media, and see as less than human? Who, if we choose to enter into their lives and their pain, could cost us? Who are we unwilling to touch because the social, physical, financial, and professional risks are just too high? Who are we afraid of?

Is it the LGBTQ community? 

Women who have had abortions?

Undocumented immigrants?

Muslim refugees? 

Prisoners on death row?

The sick?

The elderly?

The disabled?

Democrats?

Republicans?

People who don’t look like you?

That estranged family member?

Yourself…?

Who are the lepers in your world? Who is hiding in the shadows, hopeless and rejected, asking, “Do I have worth?”, “Is there any hope for me?”, “Are you even willing to look at me, hear me, touch me?” What would it take for you to move toward that person, toward that group?

Jesus isn’t walking the earth in human skin today.

But His Church is.

The Kingdom invaded one leper’s life on an ordinary day that changed both his and Jesus’ life forever. We are invited, and called, as Kingdom-bearers, to be moved by compassion and love and carry that same Kingdom–the one that also invaded and transformed our lives on ordinary days–into the hardest places, to the most broken of lives.

Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain. (Hebrews 13:3, J.B. Phillips)

This verse calls us to remember those who suffer, to think about them constantly. This will cultivate our concern. But Jesus taught us by example that compassion is more than simply thinking of those who suffer. Compassion is concern that has learned how to walk, how to move and get proximate to those we think of and pray for. This is the way of the Kingdom. Walking in compassion identifies us with the One we call Savior.

Friends, we can carry healing, kingdom love to a hurting, dying world… Jesus has entrusted us to carry His kingdom–

Are we willing?

–Laura

A few years ago, I was walking to work and pondering the word “remember”. I was struck by the fact that the opposite of remember is not forget–the opposite is dismember. Hebrews 13:3, that Laura wrote above, in many other translations uses the word remember… The NLT version reads:

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. 

That verse is the very definition of the compassion Jesus modeled. We (I) too easily dismember ourselves from the pain of others–yet Jesus says connect yourself to others, re-member, attach yourself to them. Enter into their story with them. Feel with them. Suffer with them. Become them, as much as you are able to.

Compassion is greater than pity, which can be condescending.

                          Compassion is greater than sympathy, which can be superficial.

                                         Compassion is greater than empathy, which can be too distant.

                                                                           Compassion wants to take their place. 

Is anything about compassion easy? No. Compassion is self-sacrificing. Compassion is loving others so well that we are willing to exchange our lives for theirs. Compassion looks like Jesus.

Laura wrote beautifully about the leper’s encounter with Jesus–she slowed us down, put us in his shoes, caused us to think about what he may have been thinking, feeling, experiencing. Can you imagine what his life was like?

So here he is, this total outcast who is not supposed to come out of the shadows, yet he not only comes out of the shadows but approaches Jesus. Up until this moment  in the book of Mark, Jesus has been ministering to the masses. He’s been teaching in  synagogues, he’s been healing large numbers of people. But Jesus, (I love him so much), in this moment, becomes all about the one man.  The one. The one rejected, isolated, unclean, untouchable man.

Jesus touches him. I wonder if this man who couldn’t feel felt the touch of Jesus immediately, or if Jesus gave him a moment to see that he was being touched, even while he was still diseased, and gradually let the touch become felt?  The moment of Jesus’ touch makes me think of the verse God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8). While we are still diseased, he touches us, while we are still diseased, he takes our place. He didn’t heal the man first and then touch him. He touched him while he was still sick. He does this for us–do we do this for others? If he hadn’t/doesn’t love us in our brokenness, we have no chance to be in relationship with him. We cannot fix ourselves. And compassion like this is the proof of God’s love-if we are the carriers of His love to this broken world, what does compassion look like for us?

Compassion will cost us something. For Jesus, in this encounter, it cost him the ministry that he previously had. After Jesus asked the man not to tell anyone, but to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that were required as a testimony of his healing (vs. 44-45) the man did what we might do as well–he told everyone. The result was that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. (vs. 45)The man, who had previously been isolated, banished to live outside in lonely places, was now free to be part of society again. Jesus was now the one living in lonely places.

There is so much in this encounter. So much. Many of us recognize that Jesus died in our place. He gave His life in exchange for ours–and we are grateful. But what He models in this story is that this very human earth life we live–he is willing to exchange for His.  I think this is a key point in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. If his life now lives in me, do I look like him?

In trying to think of people who model compassion, my mind kept going to the Ten Boom family, Christians who hid Jews in their home during World War 2. They were arrested–they knew all along that arrest was a possibility–but they were willing to show compassion, Jesus’ kind of compassion–the entering in and suffering with kind of compassion. Only one of the Ten Booms survived the concentration camp. Her name was Corrie, and she wrote an incredible book called “The Hiding Place” that tells their story.  They broke the laws of Nazi Germany in order to fulfill the law of Christ–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31),  and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13). Which laws are most important to us?

The call for Jesus-followers— we are to be him by letting him live the life that he exchanged for ours through us.

We just finished our season of 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, and this year many of the needs we were interceding for were heavy and hard. Friday night, as I was praying, a worship song that lifts Jesus up and recognizes that He is on the throne came on. It’s a song that I usually love, but Friday I could not sing it. Instead I was saying to Jesus, I know that you are on the throne–but right now I don’t need to feel that distance. I need to know that you are right here, right now, and that you hear our cries on behalf of these we are praying for. The need felt overwhelming to my heart and I was hurting for so many.

Saturday morning, our last time together for this season, communion was being served. As I was praying, my eyes kept being drawn to the bread and the juice. God reminded me that bread and juice come from the earth–they are elements of earth. He reminded me that Jesus–our bread, our wine–is fully present here, fully human even while being fully divine. I needed to be reminded of his humanity, and I was.

After Jesus went to live in lonely places, Mark concludes this encounter by telling us the people still came to him from everywhere. Jesus had proven that he is in this with us. He touched a leper. He is here. He will touch you, and give you the freedom to touch others–not just the ones who are easy to touch, but the ones who when you touch them, when you speak up for them, when you love them, it may cost you something. It’s the Jesus way–and nothing is more beautiful.

Love so amazing, so divine

                                                                      Demands my soul, 

                                 my life

                                                    my all…

                              (When I Survey, Isaac Watts)

Re–member.

–Luanne

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