Jesus is enough

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For a religion that’s centred around grace, Christianity has a curious failing: we’re particularly susceptible to a starvation mindset. Afraid that we’ll never have or be enough, we hoard our things and our selves, living close-fisted lives. We see this in many churches. They either over-invest in showmanship, as if to say, “We sure have enough!”, or they hold on to “tradition” as if to declare, “Because we don’t have enough, we have to look after ourselves.”

I’ve been on more than one diet in my lifetime and let me tell you, nothing ramps up hunger than imagining going without. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has started a diet by eating everything “bad” so that it won’t tempt me later on! Similarly, few things threaten God’s grace more than thinking there isn’t enough of it to go around in the world.

Jesus knew this. In Matthew chapters 14 to 17 he addressed the “starvation mentality” so rampant in his time. He did this in a few ways:

He fed the crowds

Jesus’ ministry rarely divorced the practical from the spiritual. His disciples urged him to send the crowds home after he had taught them (Matthew 14:15), but feeding their physical hunger was as important to Jesus as feeding their spiritual hunger. In doing so he demonstrated a very basic truth: that his “bread”, his body broken on the cross, would be enough for the multitudes under the power of sin.

He fed “the dogs”

The story of the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman (Matthew 15:21-28) has always puzzled me. Here we see a Gentile appeal to Jesus for help, only to be called a “dog” by Jesus – a racial slur. But Jesus used this encounter to turn people’s assumptions on their head: his disciples’ assumption that the Canaanite woman didn’t deserve help or healing for her daughter because she was a Gentile; and her own assumption that she wouldn’t receive help (or salvation) from a Jewish rabbi. Her faith bridged the prejudice behind both assumptions, and so her daughter was freed.

He “Transfigured” people’s need for Moses and Elijah

There’s a sad echo in Matthew 17:1-13: after Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Jesus returns to “normal” – a dusty, itinerant teacher, nobody worth erecting a shrine over (v4). Yet I believe it’s this nondescript moment after his transfiguration that carries the most weight: it showed that Jesus incarnate was enough. He far superseded the old laws and the old ways because he had chosen to live as a human and to die for the sins of humanity.

He paid the temple tax

In Matthew 17:24-27 Jesus paid the temple tax on his and Peter’s behalf, saying as he did so that “children owe nothing”. Jesus demonstrated on a small scale what he would achieve on a global scale: he would “pay the debt of the law” for every person who calls on him. Interestingly, the amount Jesus paid was actually more than he owed, another sign. Far from being stingy with his sacrifice, Jesus’ death paid more than what was due.

All of this is to say that Jesus denounced false nourishment. In Matthew 16:5-12 Jesus warned his disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This yeast of theirs – that there wasn’t enough, and that only being holy by the standards of the law would grant you God’s forgiveness – would continue to threaten the gospel message among the disciples, both when Jesus was alive and after he had ascended.

The same yeast continues to threaten the Good News today. Rather than living as if we have more than enough, we try to hoard God’s immense grace, mercy and love in our personal, congregational and communal lives. But Jesus asks us, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread?” (Matthew 16:7 NRSV). Just as he easily fed thousands physically, he feeds us spiritually with the same abundance. In Jesus we not only have enough; he is enough.

Looking Lectionary: Trinity A/P1 A

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Reading: Matthew 28:16-20

To me, the Great Commission is one of those “guilty shifting in your seat” passages in the Bible. It’s something I know about, something I intellectually understand to be necessary. But I don’t always see evidence of this conviction – that it’s vital – when I look at my life. I think I can trace this – I’m going to say reluctance, but “apathy” would work just as well – to three things:

I doubt Jesus’ (earthly) authority

Terrorism, wars, violence, corruption. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel that Terry Pratchett was right when he wrote,  “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” If God is so good, I think, then… Then.

But I wonder if it shouldn’t be, “Despite God’s goodness…” Despite God’s goodness and greatness, there are those who choose the other things. I don’t even have the luxury of assigning blame here because I’m often one of them. To truly acknowledge Jesus’ authority is to submit to it, and I don’t always want to submit to God.

I don’t think everyone deserves Jesus

It’s not like I walk around, point at people and declare, “You there! Yes, you sir! I don’t think Jesus ought to like you!” And yet… And yet. There are moments when I find myself in some situation where I’m not only judge and jury, I’m jailer too, jailing someone away from Jesus in my thoughts. (Atheists on r/Christianity, for instance.) I do this by withholding – no, hogging – no, hoarding – grace. I so often deny others this thing I get so freely and so abundantly.

Why do I do this? Aside from the usual prejudice and self-righteousness, it probably has a lot to do with deservingness issues. I think I worry that if Jesus loves others – especially the ones I don’t – he’ll “run short” on grace and there will be less for me. Or, more worringly, he will expect me to love them too…

I don’t really want to obey Jesus

I wanted to write that “it’s hard to submit to Christ when the sins are fun”, but honestly, it’s hard to submit to Christ even when the sins aren’t fun, even when they are life-wrecking and gut-churning and terrible. Obeying all of Jesus’ commands brings out a donkey-like obstinacy in me that I’m usually unaware of and have no reasonable explanation for.

I wonder if my reluctance to do the Great Commission isn’t rooted in the concomitant accountability the work brings. If I am to do the work of the Great Commission, then spiritually-speaking, I have to show up, shoes shined; I have to continually confront my fallen nature with its butt-savedness, I have to constantly revise my assumptions about myself, others and the world around me in light of Jesus’ righteousness and salvation. And that means obeying, and obedience means surrendering to God’s authority.

Service

If one of our “services” as Christians is to encourage people to return to the world’s rightful ruler, to try to reach absolutely everyone, and to do so as an act of faith and obedience, then I wonder if it’s not as much a service to ourselves as it is to God and to other people. You can’t exceed at the Great Commission unless you trust in God, live in close relationship with Jesus and work in the Holy Spirit. And perhaps that’s no accident: wouldn’t it be just like God to give life to those tasked with this life-giving work?

Blessings,

Lee

Looking Lectionary: Pentecost Day A

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Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39

A few years back I was getting chemotherapy at a government hospital in Pretoria. One day an old lady was there for her treatment the same day I was. She asked me a question – something about procedure – but because she had such a heavy Scottish accent I had trouble immediately understanding what she was asking, even though she was speaking English. When I’d run it through my noggin’ and answered her, I could tell it took her a few seconds to process my (Afrikaner) accent in turn, even though I too was speaking English.

I was reminded of this incident when I went through the readings for Pentecost day. In Acts 2 the disciples witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – as a “tongue” of flame that rested on each of them – and they were able to declare God to many different people in their own languages and dialects. The sarcastic comments that they were drunk probably indicates that this wasn’t a staid affair: the disciples were ecstatic and emboldened, as we see in Peter’s subsequent speech. The crowd was astounded.

Beholden to our faith traditions or upbringing, I think we sometimes forget that the Holy Spirit is multilingual. We become used to hearing the cadence of the Holy Spirit’s voice in certain ways, certain places, certain music and rituals. There’s nothing wrong with this: we each have a “faith” mother tongue, a language we understand and speak well, one that expresses us best. But ours isn’t the only language the Holy Spirit speaks, teaches, guides and leads us with, and ours isn’t more or less legitimate than, say, French is to Finnish.

At her heart, the Holy Spirit is an interpreter. She interprets the heart of God for us and interprets our hearts back to God. In John 7 Jesus told his disciples that they had not yet received the Spirit because he had yet to be glorified (crucified). If Jesus had been the heavenly-to-earth dictionary, allowing us to make sense of God, then the Holy Spirit is a Babel fish*.

As an interpreter, however, the Holy Spirit isn’t just limited to heavenly/human conversations. The Holy Spirit is an active participant in human-to-human dialogues as well. In a faith marked by vast differences in practices and adherents, and in a world noisy with different spiritual “speech”, the Holy Spirit helps us to speak each other’s language. Like the Scottish lady and I, it might take us a moment, but if we are committed to hearing and to being heard, the Holy Spirit will “do the talking.”

Blessings,

Lee


* With apologies to Douglas Adams.

Looking Lectionary: Easter 6A

 

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Image source.

 

Reading: John 14:15-21

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” John 14:18 NIV

John 14 is the first chapter of the “Farewell discourses”, John 14 – John 17, in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his death and resurrection and their post-crucifixion life. He delivers these discourses after the “last supper” on the eve of his crucifixion. The major themes include Jesus’ relationship to the Father, the believers’ relationship to the Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the church and persecution.

Nestled in John 14, Easter 6A’s reading has a chiastic structure, leaving John 14:18 (quoted above) as the central thought. I think there are a few things we can tease out from John’s focus on this particular verse:

  • In first-century Palestine and other patriarchal cultures, widows and orphans were incredibly disadvantaged as they were typically outsiders to the large family structures that ordered life, power, position and wealth. Jesus would not leave his disciples and other believers as “outsiders” to the Kingdom of God – rather, they would be heirs (John 14:2).
  • “I will come to you.” John is teasing a few things here. On one hand, he’s probably referring to Jesus’ resurrection appearances (as in v19). But he’s also talking about the Holy Spirit (the Advocate mentioned in v16) and possibly Jesus’ return at a later date.

In a sense, then, it’s as if Jesus doesn’t leave his disciples at all.

But sight, as we saw in Easter 5A, is persuasive and fickle. In the same way that his disciples struggled to acknowledge that in Jesus they saw the reflection of the Father, they would come to struggle with Jesus’ identity as the Son. And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, who “will teach you everything” (v26). He staggers his promises of presence; drawing his disciples into him, into the Father, into the Holy Spirit. Jesus teaches his disciples not to rely on what they see, but on what they know as truth: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

These days we tend to trust what we see rather than what we know. It’s our obsession with what we see that often leads us astray; that leads us to focus on externals, on snap judgments, on laborious theology, on prejudice, on what Jen Wilkin calls the “Instagram subculture of Christianity”. Vision-focussed, we demand bigger and better church services; we demand a kind of “Christian lifestyle” that’s big on visuals but not so big on content; we value presentability rather than honest brokenness, with little room or patience for anything that isn’t an immediate Experience™, that doesn’t play well or easily.

Jesus’ presence, on the other hand – his actually coming to us, his bringing us into his Father’s house – is an unseen, moment-by-moment, truth-by-truth thing. Like the twelve disciples, there will be many times that we doubt it. In these “blind times”, the times that wouldn’t make for a great Instagram post, we rely instead on Jesus’ promise that we won’t be left behind as orphans.

Blessings,

Lee

#CoffeeTimePrayer: A painful choice

 

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Reading: Ruth 1

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

Disappointments are constant. I know, it’s not really the chirpy Monday morning message most people are looking for. To live is to feel, and to feel is to experience pain. Our faith isn’t a safeguard against this, just the opposite, as Brené Brown recently tweeted:

We are all in different stages of labour.

For Ruth the Moabite, her pain – her labour – must have felt like it was at a critical point. Having lost her husband and his brother in quick succession, she was faced with losing both her sister-in-law and beloved mother-in-law as well. All the security and family she had come to know and love would be taken from her in one fell swoop. It’s hard to imagine someone like Ruth being impressed by a chirpy Monday morning message!

In a way, Ruth could have walked away from the pain of the delivery by returning to her own family. There she would find safety and security in her family’s house until she married again. But Ruth decided to stay with Naomi, her mother-in-law, and return with her to Naomi’s family. We often see in the book of Ruth little more than a romance, but Ruth’s decision isn’t motivated by the prospect of Boaz, who wasn’t even in the picture yet; nor just her love for Naomi. Rather, Ruth’s decision was based on her wanting to continue to serve the Lord.

In those days one’s tribal and cultural identities were inextricably woven with religion; all gods were “national gods”, and it wasn’t uncommon for a conquered people to adopt the gods of their conquerors. In Ruth’s mind, staying with Naomi and being part of her people equated to continuing to serve Yahweh, unlike her sister-in-law Orpah, who returned to her people and their gods (Ruth 1:15).

Ruth continued to “labour” in uncertainty and insecurity and poverty, trusting that Naomi’s God – her God – would care for them.

When we’re faced with hurt, we generally want to stitch up the wounds as quickly as possible. I’ve never been in actual labour myself, but I doubt you’d easily find women eager to draw out the experience. We want to expel pain rather than dwell in it. It’s a natural and good impulse.

But I wonder if we sometimes walk away from laborious experiences before we’ve allowed God to midwife them. Rather than deal with our hurts and their causes, we walk away, mistakenly thinking that we’ve dealt with the situation when in reality we’re still carrying it around inside us. A painful but powerful image is that of a woman carrying a stillborn child until labour.

Are we carrying pain around in us instead of allowing God to birth us to new life?

I know: definitely not a chirpy message! But I hope that as this week unfolds, we’ll take a moment to appreciate the relief of delivery, and turn to God to help us through the experience.


Prayer: Lord, I pray that you would bring me delivery from my pain. Help me to release that which burdens me and to experience new life. Amen.