Friday, August 17, 2018

Luke 9:1-17

Luke 9 is a watershed chapter. We'll see in the next verses the climax of Jesus' ministry followed by a decisive turn toward the cross. It's important to realize that like a good play, the action here is rising and the conflict (which has been present all along) is intensifying.

Jesus sends the twelve out to do what he himself has been doing. This is classic discipleship -- you watch me do it, then you do it with me, then I send you out on your own to do it. By the way, churches could learn a lot from this simple model about equipping leaders for ministry.

I want to riff for a moment on one way the evangelical movement of Christianity has abused language to its detriment. Notice that Jesus sends the twelve out specifically to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (verse 2). That content is very specific. And in verse 6, Luke says that they went out "preaching the gospel" and healing. It is not a stretch to say that Luke equates "the gospel" with "the kingdom of God." Study this throughout the gospels and you will find the same equivalence. But evangelical Christianity has a different definition for "the gospel." We make the gospel = turn your heart over to Jesus so he can forgive your sins so you will go to heaven when you die. I am convinced that much of the weakness and malaise of today's church, especially in the United States and other consumeristic western democracies, is due to this misunderstanding of the gospel. What Jesus proclaimed about the authority and kingship of God -- and his own authority and kingship as God's chosen agent, the "Son of Man" -- and the dynamics of the kingdom he came to inaugurate, including healing for the lepers, recovery of sight for the blind, release for the prisoners, hope for the despairing, life for the dead, has been reduced down to "say a prayer so you don't spend eternity in hell." Instead of being a God-centered kingdom, we've made a self-centered insurance policy. Instead of being a set of values and lifestyles that turns this world upside down (see Acts 17) we have made it about us being eternally safe.

Thus endeth the riff. If you want to dig further into this topic, I strongly recommend N.T. Wright's excellent book, Simply Good News.

Notice the first ripple that happens because of the mission of the twelve: Herod is rocked by the impact of their message. Herod, the king. Herod, who has made his bed with the Romans and has a stranglehold on the Jews and their nation. The kingdom of God shakes the rulers of this world and all their power. It turns their systems and values on their heads.

The next section -- the feeding of the five thousand -- echoes two major themes that would have been obvious to Jesus' original audience. First, it is a major reprise of the Exodus story and the manna God provided the Israelites in the wilderness. In that "desolate place" (verse 12) Jesus provides bread for everyone to eat, and there is more than enough. As God set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, Jesus' movement leads people not to freedom from physical hunger (though that is one element of it) but spiritual hunger and thirst. These themes come back again and again in the gospels. This echo of the Exodus story rings throughout this chapter and will find its climax in the Transfiguration later in the chapter.

The second theme that would have been so obvious to anyone in Jesus' original audience is that of Caesar's claim to godlike kingship. The Caesars won the people of Rome (and the empire) by providing "bread and circuses," though that is a later term. Still, Caesar's claim to be the provider of stability, including trustworthy food supplies (largely due to Rome's domination of the Nile delta and its rich, dependable grain producing fields, along with dependable networks of transportation to get food to various parts of the empire), won the support of famine-fearing people. Jesus' kingship flies in the face of Caesar's claims.

We tend to be amazed by the actual demonstration of divine power in multiplying food, and this story becomes a punch line at church suppers when attendance is greater than expected. But there is so much more going on in this narrative -- Jesus is proclaiming himself the Messiah, the representative of the God of the Exodus, as well as the rightful king in the face of both Herod and Caesar.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Luke 8:40-56

These two stories -- Jesus raising Jairus' daughter and the healing of the woman who seeks to touch Jesus in the crowd -- are woven together in a single unit, in Matthew 9 and Mark 5 and here. They seem like odd stories to weave together, and there may be several reasons for the juxtaposition.

First, both stories confront things that are just beyond human ability to change. The woman has experienced a flow of blood for twelve years and Luke (the physician) makes clear that no human doctor was able to heal her, though she had exhausted all her resources on physicians, no one could help her. Her condition apparently caused her some distress physically, as she could tell immediately that she was healed. What's more, such a flow of blood would have made her perpetually ritually unclean according to the Jewish laws, so this is not only a medical but also a religious / spiritual / social problem for her.

The twelve year old girl's problem is more straightforward: she is dying. Her father, a man of standing among his neighbors, a leader within the Jewish faith, humbles himself because he has no power over his daughter's sickness. He is hopeless without Jesus. Anyone with any sense of empathy can imagine Jairus' impatience as Jesus pauses to deal with this woman whose condition is sad, tragic, but not immediately life-threatening. Then the dreaded messengers come: "Do not trouble the teacher any more." His daughter is dead. Hope is gone. There is no way back to joy.

Second, this entire narrative points to the authority of Jesus over situations that are beyond human control. Merely touching the fringe on Jesus' garment, even without his intention, brings healing to the woman. And death itself is redefined in his presence. (I love the certainty of the mourners -- probably a mixture of extended family and professionals hired for the purpose, all more than familiar with death -- in verse 53: "they laughed at [Jesus], knowing that she was dead.") Under Jesus' authority, death itself is redefined as a temporary thing. Jesus stands over even the most ironclad of institutions, things that we cannot imagine being altered or changed, and he does it not by supreme effort but simply by his presence.

This is why it is so critically important for Jesus' followers -- in that day and in this -- to remain close to him. Where our human understanding runs down to despair, Jesus brings life and hope. Where we are imprisoned, whether by human institutions or physical constraints or death itself, in the presence of Jesus there is freedom.

Joy is not an illusion. Jairus must have thought that all the brightness had just gone out of his world. One can imagine all the "if-only's" running through his mind: If only I had gone to Jesus earlier. If only I had carried my daughter with me so he could have touched her. If only she hadn't gotten sick. If only. But Jesus says, "Do not fear; only believe." Can we trust in the face of our own hopelessness? Jesus leads Jairus and his wife past the mourners, past the mockers, past those living in their certainty about the permanence of death, and into the house where this girl has woken up each day for twelve years. Jesus takes her lifeless hand, as one can imagine Jairus doing each morning. Jesus speaks the words Jairus has probably spoken each day to wake her up to new life and possibility: "Child, arise." In Jesus' presence, death itself has no sway, no permanence. She opens her eyes and gets out of bed. She is free from her deadly bondage to death, restored to life and relationship and joy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

In the Moments


I live among the satisfactions of the mad farmer
in homage to Berry’s archetypal crazy
-- the plenitude and pulchritude of all the heat
and height of summer: fawns and berries,
waves and friends laughing on the lakeshore.


How then these always moments, me restless
and pining, looking to the horizon discontent?
Dog days among the thriving plenty but me
longing -- for what? November, the setting moon
over new snow, howl in the firelit dark evening?


Not just that. More. Always more.
I worry I, hungry hearted, thumb my nose
at the generosity of God, though I see
and thank him for the weight of voice,
harmony, harvest, hope. How am I unsatisfied?


Evenings, mornings I read the paragraphs that
run in my mind. I am a wanted man, desperate,
one text away: the books flung upon my shelves
judge and jury over my silence? Or nodding
at my patience? Which one? Is it each one?


Half smile, stare at the sun on restless water.
Focus on the moment. Wrestle eyes inward,
swallow desire for the starlight that still seems
light years away. Stand. Still on the shore.
Wade, neck deep. Hold your breath. Soak.

Luke 8:22-39

These two stories are usually handled separately but they are a unit, both with the same theme. The key verses are 25 ("Who is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?") and 39, where Luke draws an explicit verbal conclusion that Jesus is God, or at least that is the witness of the man who has been delivered from a legion of demons. The focus of both stories is on Jesus.

In both stories, Jesus upsets the established order. He is, in Jackson Browne's memorable words, "the rebel Jesus" in that his authority overturns what we have come to expect as normal. We know that the weather is beyond our control, but Jesus stills the storm. Who is he? We know that demon possession is beyond our control, but Jesus deals with a legion of demons out of hand. Who is he? The stories return again and again to this question, implicitly and explicitly.

People today tend to evaluate Christianity based on the behavior of the church. While the church needs to regulate and monitor itself, and there is an enormous responsibility for the church to reflect Jesus' character -- not letting anyone off the hook here -- judging Christianity based on the church is a little like judging a restaurant based on its website. (And yes, people do that often.) The real test is Jesus himself, and he alone lies at the heart of the movement he began. Churches, structures, hypocrisy, liturgies, factions, boredom -- none of this sticks to Jesus.

Notice that Jesus inspires fear in both segments of this story. We get entrenched in our own assumptions. As a teacher of mine once said, we like comfortable problems better than uncomfortable solutions. The disciples go from terror over the storm to being afraid about Jesus and his identity. The people of Gerasa are consumed by terror and ask Jesus to leave their area. Even though he has just set free a man they had tried and failed to liberate, they cannot get excited about Jesus remaining among them. They are in every kind of terror -- economic, spiritual, social -- and it prevents them from welcoming the healing Jesus brings.

Perhaps the most chilling thing in the whole story is one word in verse 37: "So". Because of their fear and their rejection of Jesus, he leaves their area. The uncomfortable biblical truth is that Jesus will honor our rejection of him. They have seen his power in undeniable fashion and rather than embrace his authority and the kingdom he announces, they send him home to his own side of the lake.

When Jesus comes to us he will not leave things the same. Jesus will not leave our established idolatries unchallenged. When we settle for "good enough," Jesus challenges us to live for him and for his kingdom. When we give in to the idolatry of our own comfort, Jesus invites us into adventure. But he will not force us to come along.

The good news is that being close to Jesus, while it may be destabilizing to our established orders and our settled expectations, is both the safest and most exciting place to be. It may not feel safe -- Jesus is surrounded by disruption of relationships and hierarchies -- but the abundant life of following Jesus is far better than our good-enough wineskins.

As I ponder this story, that is where my mind so often comes to rest. I think about the death-filled existence of the townspeople, the swineherds, and especially the pre-Jesus demoniac. Mark's description of his life is especially vivid. Maybe the demon-possessed man thought it was good enough to live among the tombs, to gash himself with stones, to occasionally venture into town bound with chains until the powers overcame him and he broke loose to terrorize the neighbors. It was certainly all he could expect, given his spiritual condition. But Jesus wanted so much more for him. At the end of the story, this man is miraculously free precisely because he recognizes that Jesus is the one who has freed him. The townspeople who reject Jesus are the ones left in chains.

So if you are feeling bound today, maybe by social convention or established orders or death-filled existence that doesn't seem to include hope or by economic structures that keep you in chains, imagine yourself a demon possessed man sitting among the gravestones on the hilltop above the lakeshore, watching a boat arrive on the beach below. You watch a dozen or so men get out of the boat and come up the hillside toward you. There is something about the figure leading the procession. Inside your chest where there has only been torment and death and hopelessness for so long, something stirs like a baby kicking in the womb: Hope.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Luke 8:1-21

So often we take Jesus' parables, his miracles, the other narratives like distinct little nuggets, each to be consumed in isolation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luke (and the other New Testament writers) are carefully crafting their work to a) be faithful witnesses to the actual events of Jesus' ministry, his death and resurrection, but they also b) use their artistic abilities as writers to make the narrative into more than a collection of stories on a string. So it is in this chapter: The handful of verses that open chapter eight highlight some women who are incredibly important to the story. Each deserves to be researched in her own right, but together they stand with the lepers being healed, the demoniacs being delivered, the blind receiving their sight. In a society where women had roughly the same rights as cattle, Jesus makes them a key part of his entourage. They are individuals, people, precious children of God. This is part of the new wineskin into which Jesus pours the wine of his message about the kingdom of God. What's more, these women by their following faithfully demonstrate that they are good soil -- and what's more, they will join the men in becoming faithful sowers of the gospel seed.

That's really the point of the story Jesus tells next. Most sermons on this text delve into the question, "What kind of soil am I?" But Jesus is telling this story from a very different perspective. He's positing the disciples as seed-sowers, and the parable functions as a cautionary tale: Most of the seeds you plant won't bear fruit.

Notice that this -- bearing fruit -- and not "going to heaven" or "getting saved" is Jesus' concern. Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples that the goal of their discipleship is bearing fruit (see John 15, for example). Sowing the seed into good soil should produce fruit. That's the entire point of this parable and so many others Jesus tells. We make "the gospel" a narrative about how we can get to heaven only by doing terrible violence to Jesus' own teaching. By the New Testament's logic, a believer who is unfruitful might in fact enter heaven, but they would do so only in some kind of disgrace. This seems to be exactly Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 3, for example, when he talks about building on a foundation with various materials -- and how poorer materials (wood, hay, straw) one might use would be burned up in a judgment. The builder might be saved, he says, but only through fire. Their unfruitful work is consumed in the judgment.

Jesus is not saving souls for a distant heaven. He is gathering followers to tell the world that God is king, and his kingdom is being enacted, built, inaugurated, at last. This is the startling good news. This is the message the disciples are sent to scatter on all kinds of soil. This is the message that shines like a lamp on a stand, that redefines family such that Jesus says even his own mother and brothers are redefined by the king and his kingdom. God's rule changes everything.

So Jesus seems to say to us, be careful how you hear. Don't listen within the stale categories of that old time religion you've always found boring. Recognize that I am doing something new, and I'm calling you to be a part of it. Let that seed sprout and put down deep roots into your soul, into your heart. Come, follow me.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

Luke 7:36-50

Certain factions of Christians have made a cornerstone of their faith that the holiness of God cannot tolerate sin. This "principle" then drives the need for the cross and Jesus' vicarious atonement for us. Unfortunately for them, the Bible doesn't seem to share their view of how God's holiness functions. This story of Jesus welcoming the sinful woman in the home of Simon the Pharisee is Exhibit A.

Simon seems to have this same understanding of the holiness of God. If Jesus was a prophet, in other words if Jesus had access to the perspective of God's holiness, he would never tolerate this woman's presence, let alone touch. She's a sinner. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to delight in keeping company with sinful humans. This mystifies us. How could this be? His parable provides a beginning. It is forgiveness, not sinlessness, that opens the door to fellowship with Jesus. The woman's desire to be with Jesus is driven by the sense she has that she is acceptable to Jesus. As far as we read, she pays zero attention to Simon the Pharisee, though he is a powerful, upstanding member of the community. She is not currying favor or looking to advance her own cause. She is a grateful heart desiring the fellowship into which being forgiven has ushered her.

We must constantly be on guard against making Jesus and his message about sin management. Simon seems to be operating from the assumption that the less sin you commit the better. Most of us would agree with that, but Jesus seems to contradict it. If loving much is the goal, then being forgiven much seems to be the pathway toward that goal.

Be careful here. This hairline we are trying to walk is precisely why Paul, at the beginning of Romans 6, has to put out a disclaimer: "Shall we continue in sin so that God's grace may abound? By no means!" The issue is not that we should make sure we are sinful enough. Rather, the issue is that we should make sure we recognize the depth of our own depravity. The trouble with Simon is that he doesn't know his own sinfulness, and so he doesn't recognize the magnitude of his own forgiveness, so he doesn't throw himself at Jesus' feet. Our churches are full of Simons who engage in tepid, self-righteous worship because they don't really believe they need much forgiveness and they look down their noses at those who do.

There's another interesting facet to this story. Given Luke's penchant for detail and accuracy, well attested by everyone who has ever studied Luke & Acts in depth, it's hard to reconcile this version of the story with those in Matthew, Mark, & John. In those three gospels, the woman is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus out of gratitude for his raising her brother Lazarus and who does so immediately before Jesus' betrayal and arrest. Luke places the story much earlier in Jesus' ministry, and the woman is a prostitute. The entire incident functions differently in Luke's gospel. While it's not necessary or helpful to try to reconcile the gospels at every turn -- different witnesses to the same events often tell slightly different versions -- this story has stuck in my craw over the years. I've come to the belief that a few interesting possibilities are in fact likely:

  • I believe Simon the Pharisee, referred to elsewhere as Simon the Leper, was the father of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and they all lived in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem.
  • I believe that Simon came to be a follower of Jesus and opened his home to Jesus. Lazarus and his sisters seem to have continued this practice. 
  • I believe that Simon died sometime during the course of Jesus' ministry, leaving Lazarus in charge of his household. 
  • Luke's version of this story of the sinful woman takes place early in Jesus' ministry when Simon and Jesus are first getting acquainted. 
  • Matthew, Mark, and John tell about another incident entirely. When Mary, overcome with gratitude, is looking for a way to express her devotion to Jesus, she intentionally imitates what she saw this woman do.
Other explanations are possible, but there are numerous elements in the biblical story that make sense this way. Just for fun a few years ago I wrote a version of what the event might have looked like from Mary's perspective that you can read here

Friday, August 10, 2018

Luke 7:24-35

John the Baptist created a massive quake in Jewish circles in the first century. Today we'd describe his movement as something between a Billy Graham revival and a Lady Gaga concert. He had both the fascination of a strangely dressed rock star and the awe of a judgmental preacher. Biblical and secular historians are consistent in describing massive crowds headed out of the cities into the desert when John started preaching and baptizing. Jesus echoes these descriptions by asking three times, "What did you go out in the desert to see?" The assumption is all the people listening, or at least the vast majority, had actually gone to see John and to be baptized by him. No one in those days would have denied that there was something big happening in John's ministry. The question was, what authority was behind John the Baptist, and was his movement legitimate?

Jesus goes on at length here to challenge people's thinking about John, and to lay out how he himself sees John's ministry. Luke tells us that there is a significant divide between the common people who had been baptized by John and those (religious authorities) who refused his baptism and thus "rejected the purpose of God for themselves." Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus turned this question succinctly on his detractors: The baptism of John, was it from heaven or from man? (See Luke 20:4 and parallels in Matthew and Mark.) The rulers at that time answer Jesus, "We don't know" because they recognize their culpability in rejecting John's baptism, but they also fear the people. In their defensive pride, they dodge the question poorly.

Jesus makes clear that God was behind John's revival, and not only that, but John was the specific individual sent to prepare the way for Jesus, to stir up people's spiritual sensitivities so they were ready for the Messiah. The confusing phraseology of verse 28 is designed to point out that as a divinely chosen agent, John wields great power in purely human terms -- but anyone who submits to God's rule and serves at the pleasure of the King of Kings is far more powerful.

This passage is a great example of the Bible's view of "judgment." We sometimes see Jesus portrayed as a judge, sitting on a throne and passing sentence, with the good people who receive his favor going to one side and the evil people who receive his condemnation going to the other. In fact, judgment -- and Jesus' role as judge -- are much simpler and less dramatic, but equally powerful. The Jewish religious leaders condemned themselves because when God showed up, in their arrogance they sat back in judgment over John and refused his baptism. That's the judgment. They already chose sides. We see people judging themselves throughout Jesus' ministry by their response to him. He is the "judge" in the sense that by representing God and his kingdom, by standing for God and not for any human faction, he provides people an opportunity to choose.

This pattern repeats itself over and over even today. Whenever God shows up, we are judged based on a) whether we have eyes to see him and his activity, and b) how we respond. So in the 1970's and 80's, a massive Christian charismatic renewal swept the world. Churches all over the world responded very differently to this renewal. In East Africa, the Tanzanian Lutheran Church embraced this charismatic dimension while still trying to be theologically responsible about it. Across the border, the Kenyan Lutherans rejected it, claiming that any kind of charismatic activity was inappropriate for Lutheran Christians. The Tanzanian Lutheran churches grew and flourished, multiplying hundreds of times over. The Kenyan Lutheran church to this day is a very small, very rigid affair. Kenya has experienced massive religious revivals, but the Lutheran church there has remained outside this God-given growth.

Whenever God shows up -- in a strong preacher, in a pastor and group of church leaders trying to lead into mission, in a church leader striving to create a strong staff / leadership team, for example -- people have the opportunity to respond. Some will get on board and say, "I see God doing a great thing here." No surprise, others will reject change and along with it, reject these leadership moves. At an extreme, they will rise up to reject these leaders. Accusations fly. Leaders are broken and lambasted. In many cases, people's rejection of a particular leadership agenda for positive change means they are rejecting a God-given opportunity for growth and renewal. The public conversation becomes about personalities and reputations.

We should not be surprised by these sad situations. Jesus himself went to the cross in a very similar chain of events. Given that, how should sinful, imperfect human leaders expect anything less? The miracle in all this is that God gets his own way, no matter how hard he has to work to make it happen. So John ends up imprisoned and executed by Herod, but the revival he initiates paves the way for Jesus' ministry. Jesus goes to the cross, and his crucifixion becomes the ultimate opportunity for us to judge ourselves -- to submit to him and receive the embrace of his nail-scarred hands, or to stand aside and do things our own way, rejecting God's purpose for us. Jesus' resurrection becomes the ultimate example of God enacting his kingdom in spite of our rejection. Our judging God -- and that is really what it comes down to -- cannot prevent him from being king.

In the end, John is an amazing example of what it means to surrender our own human power and authority. In John's gospel, John the Baptist says of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." John, the ultimate revival preacher, submits his agenda and his authority to Jesus. That is not a bad way to start each day -- to simply say, "Jesus, I want your way today. More of you, and less of me in my life."