Saturday, January 26, 2008

In Whose Name? (First Corinthians 1:10-18)

The story is told of a village where the synagogue was divided over the matter of prayer.

One group believed people should stand to pray, reaching up to the Lord with out-stretched hands. The other believed that people must kneel when they prayed, to show proper submission to the Lord. Neither side would budge an inch, and the argument grew worse each week.

Eventually they decided to seek out the oldest and wisest rabbi of the region, Rabbi Shlomo, to tell them which group was right. They reasoned that he would know the oldest traditions and could tell them which way they should pray.

“Rabbi Shlomo,” the delegation leader said after they had walked to his hut. “The synagogue is divided over the matter of prayer. Some of us believe we should stand to pray, while others insist we should kneel. Which is right? Which way is the tradition?”

Rabbi Shlomo stroked his beard and thought. He turned to one group. “You say that people must stand to pray?” he asked. “That is not the tradition.” The other group started to celebrate but the rabbi called for quiet. “You say that people must kneel to pray? That is not the tradition.” Everyone was stunned.

“But Rabbi,” the spokesman said. “We need an answer. This matter divides us and we argue about it all the time and we can’t get anything done.”

“Aha! That is the tradition,” the rabbi said.

No telling how old that story is, because judging by Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, churches divided themselves up pretty quickly, just like the synagogue in the story. Some kind of factionalism sprang up in Corinth, and the different groups identified themselves by their different teachers. One chose Apollos, another chose Cephas or Peter, another Paul, another Christ, and so on.

Their squabbling disgusts Paul so much he actually thanks God he’s not responsible for all that many of this bunch of bickering Christians. His answer to them is blunt – Christ died for them and they were baptized in Christ’s name. All of them. None of these other names they follow did that for them. Sure, those teachers brought them the gospel, but they brought the gospel of Christ, and that is the bedrock foundation of any teaching they have heard or repeated.

We don’t know anything about the doctrines that divided these people, beyond the fact that they seemed to claim their individual teachers had proclaimed them.

Paul’s answer gets at the root of the real issue for the Corinthians. For one, he doesn’t pretend these groups are all the same. They have real differences with one another. Today, we have differences among religions, between denominations, between churches in those denominations and even between people in the same church. Shocked, shocked we are to learn there is disagreement going on here.

Those differences are real. Someone who says all religions are the same hasn’t looked very closely at any of them. What I believe as an evangelical Christian differs from what a Buddhist believes, and neither of us is particularly well-described by those people who say we’re all the same.

But Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christ gave his life to save all of them. What unites them is greater by far than what divides them.

Go back to me and my hypothetical Buddhist friend. We believe very different things about the divine and how God is at work, but we both believe there’s something more to the world than what we can see and measure. In other words, when someone says to us, “Your religions are the same,” we would look at each other and say, “Well, I believe this and he believes that. But we both believe you’re nuts.”

Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that real division among them can only happen along the fault lines of the truth about Christ. They can honor their teachers and make their cases for this or that doctrine, but at the end of the day they are Christians and must remember that first. True followers of Christ are brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they happen to get along like real brothers and sisters do, which is sometimes not so well.

Today we might fuss over things like baptism, music in the church, who can take communion, which version of the Bible to read, whether women can be preachers and who knows what else. And we might even worship in different places because of that, but if we agree with Paul’s teaching here, we can’t reject those other people as “not Christian” just because of those things. The only thing that can make someone “not Christian” is that they’re, well, not Christians.

And the only thing that makes them – as well as us – Christians is Christ.

Thank God for that good news.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Come and See (John 1:29-42)

Since the disciples were human beings, I imagine they had this thought from time to time:

“What were we thinking?”

At least, they had that thought if they were anything like real people, such as myself, are today. Every now and again during my Christian journey, I wonder about why I chose like I did. Why do I follow Christ and ground my life’s meaning in God, rather than something else? It’s hard work and sometimes it’s plenty weird, and what the heck was I thinking when I made this choice?

Not about ministry – in that case, I have to wonder what God was thinking – but about everyday Christian life.

So stories that remind me of how I came to follow Jesus for real help me out in those times. And this one, where we learn how Andrew came to follow Jesus, is one of those. When we read it, we see the path to following Christ outlined for us, and some characteristics common to the way we all began to follow him.

As soon as Jesus has been baptized by John, John describes him in such a way that his own disciples now want to see about Jesus. Two of them follow him right after the baptism, until he calls to them. All three go to where Jesus is staying, and the next day one of them brings a third person into the group.

Let’s unpack this quick tale. First, let’s remind ourselves about hospitality customs in the Ancient Near East.

Among these people, the obligation to welcome a stranger was a custom so strong it was almost a law. Their history had roots in desert nomad culture. To turn a stranger away from their tents out into the wilderness might endanger the stranger’s life. Even today, the lifelong villagers of the area will welcome a guest in much the same way. Stay as long as you like, and when you come back, stay with us again, for you are part of our family once you’ve eaten at our table.

So when Andrew and the other disciple ask Jesus where he is staying, they aren’t just making small talk. If Jesus answers “No place,” then either Andrew or the other disciple will offer him a place in their homes, or wherever they are staying themselves.

When they ask “Where are you staying,” they mean two things. One is that they really do ask where he lives right now, and they invite him to live with either of them if he doesn’t have a place of his own.

Jesus matches their invitation with one of his own. “Come and see,” he says. They invite him to stay with them and he responds by inviting them to stay with him.

Does this describe, at least in some ways, how some of us came to follow Christ?

At first, we hear about him or learn about him some way. Maybe we read about him, maybe someone talks about him or maybe we experience him in some way. But something about what we learn makes us want to know more, so we approach him with an invitation. Somehow we know that if we want to know more of him, we have to offer him the chance to know us.

Most of the time I think we get that part. We seem to understand it, especially when we quote Revelation’s passage about Jesus who stands at the door of our lives and knocks while he waits for us to let him in.

But I know that I, at least, overlook a very important part of what should happen next in our lives. I suspect many people do.

Notice that Jesus answers Andrew’s invitation with an invitation of his own. As much as he waits to come in and be a part of our lives, he wants us to come and be a part of his. Had the two disciples decided not to go with Jesus, they would have been stuck with only a partial relationship with him.

Even though we invite Jesus into our lives, there’s really no question about whether or not he will say yes. We ask God if he will be a part of our limited existence as his creatures, and he has already shown that he will be, by coming as a human being to live among us.

The question that has yet to be answered, of course, is how we in turn answer Jesus’ invitation. “Will I live in your life?” Jesus says when we invite him in. “Of course I will. And now, will you come and live in mine as well?”

We have the chance to say, “Yes!” And that is the good news.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptized! (Matthew 3:13-17)

Oh, the arguments people in seminary can have about Jesus’ baptism!

Why was Jesus baptized? Because it is “proper for righteousness,” according to the answer he gives John. So as far as we can tell, something about Jesus’ baptism fulfills something God desires. We don’t know just what that is, but we know there’s some purpose to it, so we’re baptized as well.

And why are we baptized? As a sign we’re washed clean of our sins and made right with God, of course. So, waitaminute…Jesus needed to be washed clean of his sins? But Jesus has no sin, so he couldn’t possibly need cleansing. Then why was he baptized again?

You can see where someone with an ornery streak might enjoy bringing up this idea.

But baptism is a serious matter, and Jesus’ baptism has something to teach us. I don’t believe we’ll ever fully understand it in this life, but then I don’t fully understand the complete impact of my own baptism either.

Let’s look at a couple of things we understand baptism to be for us and see if they are somehow reflected or dealt with when Jesus is baptized as well.

For one, we do talk about being cleansed of our sin. But we understand the cleansing isn’t just something over and done with as soon as we dry off. My cousin Kim’s daughter was baptized a few years ago and when she came home she announced she didn’t have sin anymore. Kim noted this condition was not permanent.

And it isn’t, is it? Doesn’t matter whether how old we were, how sincere we were or how much we believed ourselves cleansed from sin. We have all sinned since our baptism – so were we cleansed or weren’t we?

We were in fact cleansed of the damage sin has done to us – of Sin with a capital “s,” if you like. But our human limitations remain and they lead us to the many sins we still commit. John Wesley reminds us baptism symbolizes God’s grace at work it us. He suggests it gives us the opportunity to act out of love and obedience to God instead of our own sinful desire.

Before God’s grace worked in us, we couldn’t even choose that. But like Ron White said of his right to remain silent following his drunk-in-public arrest, having it doesn’t guarantee we can use it. So we still mess up and we sin, even if we aren’t lost to sin the way we once were.

There’s a key thought about baptism – it signals some kind of change in us. God’s grace is at work in us to make us something different from what we used to be. Some churches focus on this idea when they say that only adults or people old enough to make their own commitment to Jesus can be baptized.

I disagree with them. Both views understand God to be at work in baptism, but for me that means no limitations. Baptize a three-minute-old baby or a hundred-year-old woman and the same God is at work, and the person being baptized needs God’s grace just as much. Of course we need to be old enough to understand certain things in order to ground our life in God rather than the world, but all we do then is accept what God has already done for us so it matters to our lives.

Fortunately, the change doesn’t stop once it happens. It cleanses us and it keeps cleansing us throughout our lives. Paul reminds us of that when he tells us that where sin is present, grace is present all the more. The grace our baptism symbolizes stays at work in us throughout our lives.

And we’re back to wondering why Jesus was baptized, aren’t we? We certainly believe God’s grace operated through him throughout his life, but what kind of change did it make in him? As the Word of God, he has always existed and is unchanging. As the human being Jesus, he was the Son of God from the moment of his conception by the Holy Spirit.

I think this is where our language loses the ability to fully express what God did in Jesus’ baptism. I think when God responds by affirming Jesus and the Holy Spirit appears, we see a perfect and complete vision of how God responds to us when we accept his way of life as ours. But we only see as much as our human limitations let us.

In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the scientists try to communicate with the alien ship via music – a giant synthesizer plays the notes and lights flash along with them. They repeat the series several times, until finally the alien ship responds by playing the last two notes itself, blowing out windows and almost knocking people over.

When we baptize, we play notes that God has given us, trying in our own limited way to communicate the grace we’ve been given. One day, God will respond – and it will probably blow us away, too.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Meet the New King (Matthew 2:1-12)

Although our manger scenes usually put the wise men there when Jesus is born, chances are they showed up as much as two years later.

Which probably freaked Mary and Joseph out no little bit, if you think about it. The shepherds, angels and star, not to mention giving birth in a stable (which a lot of people would probably do after riding 65 miles on a donkey, whether they were pregnant or not)… I bet they just wanted to have a normal, settled life.

And after a little while of this normal settled life, these guys show up. Rich visitors from far-off countries with weird accents and weird gifts. Wonder what the neighbors will think of that? Or of what all those camels did to their yards.

Ever since then, I think we’ve overlooked the real importance of the wise men. More people probably know they smoked a rubber cigar than know what “traverse afar” means, and almost every Christmas cantata I’ve ever seen gives them the comedy number. But they represent an entirely new dimension of God’s plan and work with humanity.

As the Christ, Jesus represents God entering his creation in ways no one ever anticipated or thought possible. He did it to bring salvation to sinful humanity, we say, but I don’t know if we’re always aware of how that really is a new dimension in God’s work.

Beginning with Abraham, God called a certain people to be “his people.” Originally that means Abraham and his descendants – his son Isaac, his grandsons Jacob and Esau and his great-grandsons who found the 12 tribes of Israel. While in Egypt, those people grow in number until the fearful Egyptians enslave them.

Moses led them from Egypt and they changed from a band of freed slaves to a strong people with a nation of their own under Joshua. Although David and Solomon led them to greatness, later kings weakened them by allying with foreign powers and allowing worship of other gods. Stronger nations conquered them and exiled their leaders for many years, and ever since then they have lived as a part of someone else’s empire except for a brief time under the Maccabee family.

During all this time, though, they have known themselves as God’s chosen people, the ones through whom the Lord, the only real God, would work in the world. Their prophets told of a day when God would make that rule a reality instead of a hope.

Whatever day the wise men show up is that day. Here’s what I mean.

All though the Old Testament, we read how other nations respond to God or God’s people. Lots of times God scares the stuffing out of them. Heck, when the Ninevites hear Jonah’s three-word sermon, everyone and his cow repents and worships God – literally everyone and his cow, too.

These other people all seem to know something about God, but we don’t really know what that might be or where they picked up their information. Whenever and wherever they get it, they head for the hills, usually figuratively but not always.

The wise men, though, do exactly the opposite. They hear about the birth of God’s King and they head straight for him. As astrologers from east of Judea – probably somewhere in modern Iraq – they might have heard of the Hebrew God but I doubt they ever worshipped him or heard much of his story. Yet when the star in the sky shows them God’s son has been born they pack up the myrrh and saddle up the camels. Wonder why.

Rather than be terrified of him like 95 percent of the non-Israelites who heard about him before this, they immediately desire to offer him gifts, praise and worship. Their visit shows us that God is ready to move his work with humanity from the people of Israel into the wider world of everyone else too.

Way back at the first of the story, God promised Abraham many descendents. He also promised the whole earth would be blessed through them. The psalms and prophets promise a day when all the kings and peoples of the earth would know God – not as a terrifying punisher, protector and avenger of his people, but as God. As their protector and their guardian and their redeemer, too, which is what he always wanted to be from the beginning.

In Christ, that happens, and when we see these strangers from the east show up, we see a true sign God’s love of all humanity and all creation is real now and not in some far-off day.

Very, very good news.