Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Now That Was a Sabbath! (John 5:1-9)

Nothing could be simpler, we often say, than when the Bible says something plainly and it’s right there in front of us in black and white. Or red and white, perhaps, depending on how some Bibles indicate the words Jesus said.

Like right here at the end of this passage, where John says, “Now, that day was a Sabbath.” This sentence is plain and straightforward, intended to tell us when Jesus healed this man and why it was going to be a problem for the legalists who opposed him. That’s what the Greek means and it just couldn’t be simpler.

Now read it out loud – as we know, once we say words out loud we can emphasize different words and give a simple sentence many meanings. This is the way I happened to see it when I began studying it: “Now that day was a Sabbath.” All of a sudden John’s plain ol’ declarative sentence about when becomes something more. Read that way, this sentence compares this Sabbath to others, and this one comes out looking better.

I don’t know that John meant for me to compare Sabbaths against one another, but now that my brain is working that way I’ll do so, even if it’s only to see what happens.

I do know that my usual way of reading a story where Jesus heals on the Sabbath is to see him as breaking the Sabbath rules. He does so for very good reasons, but most of the time I’ve still seen it as transgressing all of the laws and such the Sabbath has accumulated.

What if we don’t see Jesus as breaking the law, though? What if we see this story in light of his declaration in Matthew that he has come to fulfill the law? What he does on this Sabbath isn’t breaking the law, then. It’s fulfilling the law of the Sabbath. Somehow, what Jesus does here makes this more of a Sabbath than any of the laws anyone could ever dream up might do.

In order to see how that might be, let’s dig into the history of the Sabbath in the lives of the Jewish people. The first Sabbath is the seventh day of creation, when God stops working and contemplates what he has made.

Sabbath observance is a part of the ten commandments given at Mt. Sinai. “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy,” meaning keep that day set apart from other days. Later on in Exodus, that’s spelled out a little more. The people are to do no work, and neither are their servants and slaves. Heck, in Exodus 20:10, even the animals are given the day off.

Remember, this command comes to a culture that doesn’t have a 5-day work week. There is no “weekend.” Work, because much of the time it meant survival, went on all seven days. We work to get money -- the tool we need to buy food and shelter and clothing. They worked to get the food and shelter and clothing.

And nobody would know this better than nomadic wanderers like the Hebrews were when the law came to them. To skip an entire day of work was not normal and for people like them, could become a real problem.

On that day, the people were directed to reflect on God – on what God had done for them, on what God had made, on what God had given them, on how God cared for them. It was to be a Sabbath to the Lord. On that day, people were to set down the many tasks and labors they had in order to focus on God. They did this to show how they understood the reality behind the reality of everyday living. For them, God was in fact the source of their life and even more necessary than food and shelter and clothing.

The Sabbath was a break from all of that. It was a release, which is one reason why God’s command specifically gave servants the day off, too. And it was a sign of faith that one day would come the ultimate release from all of the day-to-day drudgery, at the hand of God.

This guy stuck on his mat knew what he had to do to survive – beg. He knew what he had to do to get healed – get to the water first after it had been stirred. He had been doing those things every day for thirty-eight years. When Jesus told him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk,” he released the man from that endless cycle of labor. Sure, Monday he’d probably have to go get a job, but this was his first day of true rest in nearly four decades. So yeah. That was a Sabbath.

For you and me? Our Sabbaths may come on Sunday, or they may come some other time. We can sort of schedule them, but they come any time we step back from the busy-ness of what we have to do every day and remind ourselves that our true reality isn’t grounded in these things, but in God. Because that is a Sabbath, and that is the good news.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

You Lookin' at Me? (Acts 1:1-11)

Probably one of the questions that has dogged the church since - well, since the passage we read here, I imagine – is why Jesus ascended. Why did he return to be with God after the Resurrection, instead of staying with us and continuing to teach?

After all, Luke says, Jesus gave his apostles “many convincing proofs” he was alive, not as a ghost, but as a human being. Why not remain and offer the rest of the world those same kind of convincing proofs? Why not demonstrate how God had proved the truth of his words with this resurrection?

The crowds that had heard him teach and watched him heal had been huge – but imagine what they would be like now. The multitudes that hailed him as the Son of David when he entered Jerusalem would be small in comparison, and this time, they wouldn’t turn on him five days later.

Everyone who heard the gospel message about the coming Kingdom of God could have living proof right in front of them. Either Jesus would set himself up at the Temple (no need for whips to drive out the moneychangers this time – they’d bail on sight), or he might simply appear to whomever accepted the message, as proof they chose wisely. It all would have been so much easier, so why leave at all?

The church has done God’s work, but people have done things in Jesus’ name that probably wouldn’t have been approved if he’d been managing things in person. Could there have been any division within the body of Christ if Christ himself had been present to arbitrate the disputes? Sure, the disciples bickered about which one of them was the greatest, but that was pre-Resurrection. We’d have the resurrected Christ, and everyone would know which one was the greatest of all.

Jesus himself tells us why he ascended, and the way the disciples act here demonstrates why his reason’s a good one.

Many times during his ministry, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, and often he describes how it will work among us after he has gone. Luke shows us the Spirit’s hand at work in what happens before Jesus is born as well as what happens during his earthly ministry. People see, do and say things because they are “moved by the Spirit” or “led by the Spirit.”

Obviously, my idea about how things would be if Jesus didn’t ascend is speculation. We don’t really know what that life would be like. But we do know that Jesus suggests the Holy Spirit will not fully work within people when Jesus is actually present. It comes on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus leaves.

Is there a turf war? God draws some kind of line down the center of the human heart so Jesus and the Spirit don’t get in each other’s way? Well, that doesn’t make much sense if we really believe that God is a Trinity, one God in three persons. We claim it’s a perfect union, not subject to disagreement.

When I look at the stories of God dealing with people, it seems God limits himself not because he has to, but because people need him to. Moses can only see his reflected glory. He stoops down low to see the “mighty tower” that the people at Babel have made. He limits his direct presence to one inner room of the Temple. He comes as a human baby.

And it’s all because we’re limited.

We need to grow, but we’re limited in how fast we can do that. When we’re kids, we want to be grown up right now, to have the privileges we see in adulthood. But unless we take the whole long weary slog up that hill, we’ll never really understand how responsi-bilities accompany those privileges, or learn how to handle them.

If Jesus was always present, the way he was present to the disciples following his resurrection, then could they have grown? How about if all we ever needed to do to prove his message was real was say, “Well, buy a plane ticket to Jerusalem and meet him if you don’t believe me. Or better yet, I’ll give him a call and he’ll be right over.” Would we ever grow?

Maybe some of us would, but I don’t know about the majority, to be honest with you. I don’t know if I would.

I expect I’d be quite a bit like those disciples, staring into the sky after he’d passed beyond the clouds, still looking up until someone spoke up. Jesus told them what would happen: How they’d receive the Spirit, and how they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But they’re standing on a hill looking at clouds.

The Spirit comes to help us slog our way up the hill of our spiritual journey, growing in faith so that we can do more than just stand around and stare at where Jesus has been. We too can take our part in this work, and share with people the same good news we have received.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Witness of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43)

What’s up with Dorcas?

By which I mean, why do I read about her in my Bible? There’s nothing wrong with her or her story – I’m not suggesting that someone edit her out. But her appearance is kind of curious to me.

It’s curious because I imagine Peter and the other disciples must have done many miracles that Luke doesn’t record. They even may have raised other dead people to life. But Dorcas’ story is singled out. She’s named and we learn a few things about her work as a follower of Christ. What is it about her story that prompted Luke to make his work of hand-writing a story of the early church that much longer by including it?

Well, we know Luke wanted to write his friend Theophilus with accurate information about Jesus and the early church. He wanted Theo to know the truth about Christ and the movement that followed him – that Christ was the Messiah and the church is the continuation of his work. Would Theophilus have learned those things by reading this story? Would the Holy Spirit guide Luke in his writing so that later readers like us would follow suit?

As we examine it, I think we can see he could have. First, the healing itself. Isn’t it kind of odd that Luke uses her Aramaic name, Tabitha, first and then translates it to Greek for the Greek-speaking Theophilus? If I were writing this, I would probably write her name in the language I shared with Theophilus – Greek – first, and then I would write down what that name might be in the woman’s native language.

Unless, of course, I wanted my reader to see that word “Tabitha.” Does it sound like another word? Would it remind Theophilus of another word, and where he might have heard that other word? It reminds us of one, I imagine. In Mark’s version of the story of healing Jairus’ daughter, he includes the Aramaic phrase Jesus spoke to the girl asking her to rise. “Talitha, koum,” or, “Young lady, get up.”

I have no proof Theophilus or other readers would know about Mark’s gospel, but it’s not unreasonable to expect it since Mark’s gospel was probably written first. The name “Tabitha” echoes the Aramaic word talitha, and it draws attention to how the rest of the story echoes the older story as well. The gathered people are weeping and wailing, just as they were in the house of Jairus. Peter asks them all to leave the room, just as Jesus did, and prays, and says, “Tabitha, koum.

Readers like Theophilus may have wondered about this church – perhaps they’ve heard of Jesus and they like what they hear, but who’s to say this movement that claims his name is really about him? Who’s to say its leaders follow his true teachings and are really trying to lead people in the right path? Ah, but see, Luke writes. See how the main leader of this church does almost exactly what Jesus did? How could he do that if he didn’t follow Jesus?

Moreover, this woman Dorcas, whom Luke calls a disciple? See how Luke describes her work and ministry. When she is dead, people gather to mourn her holding the tunics she had made for them with her own hands. When helping the poor, Dorcas didn’t just throw handfuls of money into the street for them to grab at. She took the time to truly know the people she helped – if only to learn the proper size to make the clothes she gave them.

The true work of these disciples, the ones who follow Jesus, was a work of love and not merely generosity. The work valued everyone as a person, because that’s what Jesus had done. In his death and resurrection, taking on the sins of all humanity and casting them away on the cross, he had shown God valued every person individually no matter their wealth or position. He had been teaching what God wanted him to teach, and he lived it out as well.

Dorcas lived out that same message, as did Peter. Peter is on the verge of his meeting with the Gentile Cornelius, when we will see the message of the church begin to spread outside its Jewish beginnings to expand to others all over the world. And like Jesus’ message along those same lines, it begins with a resurrection…