Stepped On

One might describe much of the political ferment in our country and the world as an expression of the desire not to get “stepped on.” Whether it is poor whites enraged over declining wages and employment opportunities or people of color voicing fury about centuries of oppression, many people are struggling not to be held down and dominated by others. In other countries people fight and struggle to be free of tyrannical leaders and rulers. No one likes being stepped on.

So we might want to pause and reflect on an image used in our sermon text for Ascension Sunday, Ephesians 1:15-23. Overall the text celebrates the fact that Jesus risen from the dead is currently seated at God’s right hand, ruling over the universe. It’s the ongoing result of the act of Jesus ascending in the Gospel reading, Luke 24:50-53 and in Acts 1:1-11. Then in verse 22 Paul chooses an image for Jesus’ rule which sounds exactly like the kind of oppression people today which to escape. “And he has put all things under his (Jesus’) feet…”

I was surprised to find none of the commentaries on Ephesian bothering to unpack or give some background to that expression about everything under Jesus’ feet. It clearly seems to be based in ancient expressions of rule and victory, kings triumphing over enemies in battle, as in Joshua 10:24 when Joshua calls the victorious commanders of Israel to put their feet on the necks of enemy kings they had defeated.

On one hand, I believe, that image of Jesus stepping on all other “rule and authority and power and dominion” (verse 21) is reassuring to us when we are fearful of oppression and defeat by forces much greater than ourselves. Whether it’s terrorism or our own government that feels threatening, we have the promise and hope of Jesus’ victory over every evil power. That’s some great comfort in troubled times, especially for those who are being dominated by forces beyond their control.

On the other hand, however, it’s worth considering that the image place our own selves beneath Jesus’ feet. Jesus is on top of it all, including us, hence verses 22 and 23 going on to develop another image, not of Jesus as stomping feet, but of Jesus as head over His body, which is the church.

That picture of ourselves beneath the feet of Jesus may have its own comfort. Luke’s image of Mary of Bethany sitting at Jesus’ feet to hear His teaching (Luke 10:39) was taken up and appreciated in the old hymn, “Sitting at the Feet of Jesus.” And many pet owners might appreciate how comfortable and secure their animal companions seem to feel at or even under their masters’ feet.

So that image of the all the powers of the universe subject to Jesus and stepped on by His feet should not tempt us toward any vainglory of our own, imagining that, at least at present, we can share in that domination of such powers. Instead, we may abide in peace at the thought that Jesus rules over every authority, including our own, but as loving Head of it all, “for the church,” as verse 22 says.

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Truth and Love

Aristotle’s definition of truth (and falsity) is famous: “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true” Aristotle’s perspective has typically been called the “correspondence theory” of truth. What is said is true when it corresponds with reality.

If that correspondence theory of truth strikes you as an exercise in the obvious, then hallelujah. You are not far from the kingdom of God, as Jesus said to the scribe. That simple, obvious understanding of the truth as speech and expression which connects to what is real has been distorted and confused in modern times. Perhaps the primary contender to the correspondence theory is a “pragmatic theory” of truth which claims that what is true is what works or is successful and thus changes according to what one desires to accomplish.

Scripture, particularly the writing of John, speaks much about truth, but offers no definitions or theories of truth. John in particular, though, shows us that truth is to be firmly grounded in what is real. Since the height of reality for the Christian believer is God’s love demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus Christ, truth and love are inextricably bound together and both are firmly connected to the facts about Jesus.

As I turn to II John this coming Sunday, which in the American secular calendar is Mother’s Day, we look at what John has to say to “an elect lady and her children.” While, as in the case of III John, the letter could be addressed to an actual individual, it is generally accepted that John is writing to a church, personified as a mother and her children. And John’s primary concern for that church, as is obvious in the first 4 verses, is its adherence to the truth.

Yet right alongside that concern for the truth is the note which John strikes over and over in what he writes, that truth belongs together with love, as we can see in the surprising ending to a greeting in verse 4 that otherwise sounds much like Paul’s greetings in his letters. The explanation for this constant conjunction can be found in I John 4:8 which says, “God is love.” If the ultimate reality, on which everything else is grounded, is love, then truth firmly based in reality must remain connected to love.

Later in the letter, verses 7-11 may suggest that John is really about something other than love as he asks the “lady,” i.e., that church, to refuse welcome to those who teach something other than the truth. That sounds harsh and inhospitable and contrary to a casual understanding of love. But the reason is that love must remain grounded in truth just as much as truth is grounded in love.

Falsehood must be confronted with truth as well as love, especially when the falsehood is about Jesus, as verse 7 indicates. If Jesus is not the God who demonstrated the highest love by genuinely taking on human flesh and dying for us, then we will be unable to discern either truth or love in reality. It’s only as we meet truth and love in Jesus Christ that we are able to see the world and ourselves for what they really are. But that means some sort of separation from falsehood which denies the truth about Jesus.

As I said last week, one way to deny the truth about Jesus is to behave in a manner inconsistent with His own love and care for others. But His truth is also denied when we reduce His life and work, His actual death and resurrection, to some sort of spiritual lesson or symbol extraneous to the physical world in which we find ourselves. The only way to keep truth and love firmly connected is for them both to be embodied in the world and that embodiment begins with Jesus. By His grace we then participate in His truth in love when we follow Him and “walk in” them, as John says.

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It’s hard to know where to begin with two of the shortest pieces in all Scripture. To my knowledge, I’ve never heard a sermon on II or III John, and again to my knowledge, I’ve never preached one. So a few months ago I committed to that task, planning to do II John this coming Sunday and III John the week after, on Mother’s Day. As I began to unpack that preaching task this week, I found myself somewhat dismayed and in sympathy with all those preachers who never tackle these small books.

After some reflection, I’ve decided to switch the order, starting with III John this Sunday. One reason is that the reverse order leaves the “elect lady and her children” in II John for Mother’s Day, which is a connection and preaching hook to which I will humbly stoop.

So here I am now with the “beloved Gaius” and his hospitality (III John 2-8), which stands in stark contrast to the inhospitable and unfriendly ways of one Diotrephes (verses 9-10).

As can be seen on the national stage, lack of hospitality seems connected to pride and arrogance. “Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.” John contrasts not only Diotrephes and Gaius in this respect, but adds another good example, Demetrius in verse 12, in contrast to the prideful, inhospitable and evil leadership of Diotrephes.

I was put in mind of a Harvard Business Review article my wife Beth passed on to me recently, “If Humble People Make the Best Leaders, Why Do We Fall for Charismatic Narcissists?” One answer the article offers is “High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma.” In other words, uncertainty and fear in regard to the future make us willing to put assertive and grandiose people in charge, hoping they can address the causes of our fears and wanting to believe they can save us. One easy scapegoat for such leadership is people who are different from our own selves. And one easy strategy is denying hospitality to those who are different.

The Scriptures regularly call us away from trust in such over-reaching and inhumane leadership and toward leadership that is humble and other-regarding. Jesus Christ is the supreme example of such leadership. The very people to whom Gaius showed hospitality are said in verse 7 to have begun “their journey for the sake of Christ [literally ‘the Name’].” Thus their purpose was not their own benefit or glory but instead the glory of Jesus.

Following narcissistic examples like Diotrephes will indeed make us inhospitable. We will be focused our own concerns and well-being rather than on others. If we think about Jesus it will be in terms of how He benefits us rather than in regard to how we can follow His example of concern for those who are in need.

So the heart of III John is verse 11, “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.” As simple as it sounds, the surrounding context about conflicting examples in early church leadership shows us that there is much to consider about our choice of examples and leaders.

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Some of my best memories involve walks. I vividly recall hiking with the Scouts in the Sierras, meandering around the twin lakes at Notre Dame with my wife-to-be, and watching my daughters take their first tottering steps. For most people (and may God be very near to those who are not able), moving along on two legs is a fundamental human experience. And it is often a metaphor for other aspects of life.

We find that happening with our text this Sunday from Luke 24:13-35. That meeting of Jesus with two disciples on the road to Emmaus and their subsequent walk together is both an actual historical physical event involving three human bodies in motion and a symbol of what Christian life is meant to be.

One of the key features of that Emmaus road stroll is the instruction which the two walkers with Jesus received upon the way. I can’t count the times I’ve heard someone express the wish to have been in on what verse 27 depicts, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” The thought is often how much better we might ourselves understand those Scriptures if we had only been able to walk along and hear Jesus explain them.

The truth of it is that what we have in the New Testament is the fruit of that conversation and many others that Jesus must have had with His followers. What the Hebrew Scriptures say about Jesus is interpreted for us in what the New Testament writers set down for we who’ve come after them. Though our own sandals may not be covered in the dust of Palestine, we are blessed to walk with Jesus and be instructed whenever we take up and read what was written by those who did literally step alongside Him.

Walking also involves choosing a direction. Walking with Jesus means going where He is going. For some that may mean a long journey, either literally or metaphorically. But like the two on that Easter evening, I think we find the destination Jesus has in mind is actually our own home, the place in which we already live. Jesus wants to come with us there and make Himself known to us in all the ordinary and usual walks of our lives. Let us meet Him there, on the road home.

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This Caravaggio painting of doubting Thomas has become well-known thanks to the Internet, and I do like its graphic, realistic portrayal of the Lord’s submission to Thomas’s probing finger. However, a visually less realistic portrayal by de’ Rossi may be more true to our text for this week, John 20:19-31. Though Jesus invites him, it does not say that Thomas actually touched the holy wounds. And the apostle’s kneeling poster reflects the spirit of the words we are told he did say, “My Lord and my God!”

As I’ve thought about the text this week, I’ve reflected not just about what it teaches regarding the role of doubt in the lives of active believers, but about what it may have to say to Christian communities about the way we treat doubters among us. Before Jesus even appeared to Thomas, the rest of the apostolic fellowship, the whole church at that time, made a place for him to be with them and among them. In other words, Thomas was not ostracized or excluded because his faith did not quite measure up to that of the rest of the community.

I think there is something to learn here as we respond to doubts among us, especially from our young people, who seem to be struggling with faith in increasing numbers. There is also something to learn from Jesus’ own willingness to provide Thomas a satisfying answer and from Thomas’s reaction, which was a deep and life-transforming affirmation of Jesus as Lord and God.

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No End, No Fear

This painting used to hang over our couch, a fitting piece for a couple of philosophers to display. It when was there many years ago when our oldest daughter was 3 years old. She looked up on it and asked, “Daddy, is your beard like that?” I guessed that she was noting the difference between my trim reddish brown beard and the old philosopher’s shaggy white beard, so I said, “Maybe someday when I’m old I’ll have a beard like that.” Susan replied, “Daddy, don’t get old!”

Well, here I am nearly three decades later, and though my beard is still fairly trim, it’s just as white as the one in the painting. As the T. S. Eliot poem says, “I grow old, I grow old.”

From my perspective now, I would say I am “only” 61, but that is old enough that I think I can catch a glimpse of the end of my life now and then. Both my wife and I have buried our parents and before that went through the messy business of working with our siblings to clean out their homes and help both our mothers find “retirement” accommodations. Now when I look at all the boxes in our garage I occasionally joke that it will be up to our daughters to clean it all out someday. The end, as they say, is in sight, at least a little bit.

That end in sight can make me a little afraid sometimes. There’s much I had hoped to do that hasn’t happened, and at least a few things I’d still like to do someday, like visit Greece again or see some grandchildren. Occasionally I worry that time is running out.

This coming Sunday, Easter, addresses that fear and worry. In Matthew 28:1-10, the women who come to Jesus’ tomb are told, not once but twice, “Do not be afraid.” They had thought they had come for the end of things, to prepare Jesus’ body for its final rest. Surely they must have feared the future without Him, without the direction He had given them. But suddenly they find that He is not there, but risen, and what had appeared to be the end was actually the beginning. And it all meant they did not have to be afraid.

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Poking around for a catchy image for this post, I came across what you see here, the banner for a satirical comic book critiquing faith in a deity. It’s the perfect illustration of what our faith in Jesus Christ is not about. Our Lord is the God-man, but He did not come to us as an all-powerful deity, wearing His divinity on His sleeve. Instead, as our text for this Sunday, Philippians 2:5-11, states in verse 6, He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

Since last fall I’ve been reading in Exploring Kenotic Christology, edited by C. Stephen Evans. The essays consider the theological idea that in becoming human the second person of the Trinity actually “emptied Himself” of at least some divine attributes, like omniscience and omnipotence. Thus Jesus, though the God-man, by His own choice was not all-powerful or all-knowing during His life on earth. Instead, the works of power and knowledge which He exhibits were all the work of the other two persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Spirit. So Jesus did miracles in the way that is possible for other faith-filled human beings, by praying for them or by being the vehicle through which the Spirit operated. His own divine power was voluntarily laid aside.

The theology is complex and a number of Christians can’t see how Jesus could be God if He were not fully in possession of all the divine attributes. But the notion that Jesus’ “emptying” was a very deep and drastic self-limitation captures my heart and imagination. It explains how Jesus can say that He does not know the day or hour of His return and how His temptations and suffering were a genuine human experience such that Hebrews 4:15 is true, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…”

Whatever the correct interpretation of “emptied” in our text, Paul clearly holds out to us as an example for our own lives the humility of our Savior who in becoming human submitted to being like a slave. That model of abject humility is to govern our relationships with each other in a way that, if practiced, would utterly transform our interactions with each other.

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Security is a pretty hefty value in today’s world. In America there seems to be a strong sense that we have lost some of the security we enjoyed in the best, whether economic or social or military, and that it needs to be recovered. Anxiety seems high in many directions. I just read a Christianity Today article which says that Hispanic church attendance is down because even documented green card holders are fearful of exposing themselves to immigration officers who might be watching for them entering or leaving worship services.

In such an anxious atmosphere, Jesus words which open our text from Matthew 6:25-34 seem pretty naive and unrealistic, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” Jesus goes on to focus particularly on matters of food and clothing, so we might be tempted to think He is not talking about other sorts of worries. But it’s good to recognize that many of our security fears, especially about the economy or for immigrants about their status in this country, boil down to concern about being able to feed and clothe ourselves and our families.

Is Jesus asking us to simply put aside our fears and worries, throw caution to the winds, and let the chips fall where they may in regard to the necessities of this life and our future? Is there a place in what He tells us in this text for having a savings account, seeking job security, and planning for retirement? Is there room here for wanting to live in a community that has police and fire protection?

Jesus’ in verses 26-30, inviting us to consider the birds and the lilies of the field as models of non-anxious living, are often felt to be especially comforting. But if His point is more than just a simplistic and often unrealistic assurance that everything is going to turn out O.K. in this life, then the comfort needs more contemplation. The practical application is not simple and seems fraught with questions and ways to go awry.

So let’s think more together about all this and for what it means for us if we want to take these words of Jesus seriously in the world in which we live now. I’d be glad to hear thoughts from others.

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Faith and Money

It’s commonplace to hear preachers and Bible teachers say that Jesus talked about money more than any other single subject. Here’s a quote from an on-line collection of sermon illustrations that tries to address it statistically, without claiming that Jesus’ most frequent subject was money.

“Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.”

One could easily question this sort of thing (even the number of parables is disputable). Jesus often just mentions money or uses it to illustrate other things, as in His parables about the payment of debts. Those parables are concerned more with grace and forgiveness than with the money that appears in the stories.

However, it is safe to say that Jesus did talk directly about money and did so fairly often. Our text for this coming Sunday, Matthew 6:19-24, is one of those times. However, in this case, when Jesus does in fact speak clearly about what to do with one’s money and possessions, He still isn’t really talking about “handling” them in the sense we usually mean of exercising wise management of such resources. He’s basically just telling us to give money and possessions away and to seek things of greater value, “treasures in heaven.”

There’s another major misconception about that verse 21 specifically, which shows up in the way an awful lot of fund raising, including Christian fund raising takes place. I learned this first from a faithful, generous gift in my first church. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” but what we often seem to hear is the reverse, “For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”

In other words, we typically let our money follow our hearts. So fund raisers work at drumming up compassion or just plain passion for a cause, in the hope that we will send dollars in the direction that our hearts have gone. They show us pictures of starving children or offer moving visions of what the new building will accomplish, all on the principle that our money will follow our hearts.

Jesus’ genuine words are actually much more difficult, but more realistic about the condition of our hearts. We love our treasures, love our money. Jesus just takes that as a given, so He tells us to “store up,” to put, that treasure where we really want our hearts to be. If we want our hearts to be with God in heaven, then we need to send our money in that direction by using it for heavenly purposes. Our hearts will follow along after those treasures like a dog after a bone.

Somewhere in all his books, Robert Farrar Capon says that the church’s job in relation to money and giving is not to offer Christians some good cause and then to put those donations to good use. It’s just to urge people to give away their money for almost any half-way decent or even silly Christian reason and thus move their hearts in the right direction toward what really matters.

Capon is always a little extreme, but I think he’s on the right track. It’s in line with a lot of what Jesus said about money, especially in that well-known verse 24, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” It’s not about handling money well or even donating it wisely. It’s about freeing ourselves from it so that we can serve God. Pope Francis’s recent remarks on giving to panhandlers with little concern for how they will use the money are along the same lines.

Maybe we need to quit hyping how much Jesus talked about money and just pay a little more attention to what He actually said about it.

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Stuff We Want

Martin Luther once threw an inkwell at the devil as the tempter disturbed his work translating the Bible into German while he was in what we might call “protective custody” at Wartburg Castle. But that inkwell story is merely a legend (although the custody is historical) created a couple generations after Luther. Tourists may still see the Luther room at the Wartburg, with a desk and chair where he was supposed to have worked. Though the legendary status of the story is acknowledged, it’s still suggested that the famous ink spot once existed in plaster now removed from the wall to the right of the picture here.

Regardless of the status of stories of Luther’s battles with Satan (at least one at the level of middle school boys’ humor), the reality of temptation is without a doubt. Our texts for this Sunday, Genesis 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11 show us the first Adam and the “last” Adam, as Jesus is called in I Corinthians 15:45, responding to that temptation. Only Jesus was completely up to the challenge.

The temptations of the devil play upon our desires. We want stuff. That’s part of our nature. God gave us our desires and they are meant to good guides to survival and happiness. We want food and shelter and love and community, all good things. The problem, as Christian thinkers realized early on, is not that wanting stuff is bad. It’s that our wants and desires get misdirected. We are tempted toward wanting things which are inferior to and different from what we were created by God to want.

Our most basic desire is for communion and fellowship with God. The temptation of Adam and Eve and then the temptations of Jesus show that fundamental good desire for God being subverted by desire for food, for security, for power.

Jesus conquers those subversive temptations by looking constantly toward the ultimate desire of human beings, toward God and His will as expressed in His Word. By overcoming the temptations in this way, and as a human being, our Savior sets humanity back on the path of right desire, removing the misdirection of Adam and Eve’s choice, and focusing us again on what really matters, our relationship with God.

That restored focus and direction is the aim of the season of Lent in the church year. We want to freshly receive into our own lives the new direction Christ gives us. May that be your experience throughout these forty days.

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