Sunday, July 31, 2011

Feeding Multitudes (Matthew 14:13-21)

Nearly every familiar Bible story has what I like to call "orphan" verses in it. We may notice them and even read them instead of skimming past them, but when it comes time to get the meaning of the story we usually don't emphasize them very much because they don't really add to that meaning.

The feeding of the multitudes emphasizes some important things about Jesus -- his concern for those who followed him, for example. Probably nobody in the crowd would have perished from hunger, but they'd probably wind up pretty miserable by the time they got home or found someplace to buy food. That mattered to Jesus, so he dealt with it.

We also see a physical example of the spiritual truth that when we depend on Jesus, we will find more than we need. Though he began with a handful of loaves and fish, he wound up with twelve baskets of leftovers.

We need these important lessons, so we shouldn't ignore them. But because they're tied so closely to the big event of the story, we can miss some meanings that attach to those orphan verses, and they have something to teach us as well. In this case, Jesus' words to the disciples when they first approached him with the problem stick out to me: "You give them something to eat."

I'm sure this response confused the disciples -- after all, a whole lot of what Jesus said confused the disciples. But especially since they had just said there was no food. "Ha ha! Good one, Teacher! No, seriously, this is a lot of people and we need to get them on their way before the villages close up for the night and they can't get anything to eat."

Matthew doesn't offer us any more to this conversation, so we don't know exactly what Jesus wanted to do when he said this to the disciples. I think he wanted to teach them something or to see if they had learned something yet, but I can't be sure. If I'm right, a fuller version of the conversation might have gone like this:

"You give them something to eat."

"Ah, Lord, we don't have any food here," one disciple says.

"And we don't really have enough money to buy enough food for this many people," says another.

"Which even if we did we don't have any way of getting it back here for them," adds another.

"You give them something to eat," Jesus repeats.

The disciples mutter amongst themselves. "Is he not listening to us? Are we mute or something? What's going on." One speaks to Jesus. "Lord, we really don't have what it takes to feed all these people."

"I understand," Jesus says. "You don't have any food." They nod. "You don't have any money." They nod again. "You don't have any way of getting the food from where it is to here." They nod again, relieved. He gets it.

"What do you have?" he asks. Now they are mute. They don't know what he's talking about. In order to feed people, you need food, and they don't have and can't get food. What else could possibly have an impact on this situation?

A quick side note -- by this time, the disciples have seen Jesus heal more people than Matthew can count -- some he cites specifically, like the man with the withered hand or the centurion's servant. They've seen him heal a woman who touched his robe and raise a young girl from the dead. They've seen him still a storm and compel demonic spirits to release their victims.

Back to the story -- what do the disciples have available to them that might affect this lack of food? No food, no cash, no way to move the food if they had it. If only they had access to something that could overcome this problem, some greater force that could handle the lack of supplies, funds and viable mass transport systems. If only they had, say, followed around a man who had done spectacular things that seemed to defy natural law and might be persuaded, if asked, to provide food for people who'd followed him out into the middle of nowhere.

Which of course they had done and had been doing now for some time. They had nothing that they thought they needed, but all along they had the one thing they needed most of all -- Jesus himself.

Our parallels ought to be fairly obvious. Jesus called each Christian to share the gospel, regardless of ordination or overly expensive graduate education. He pretty much said it's our mandate. And it ought to be a natural response. To paraphrase Penn Jillette, who do you hate so much you don't want to tell them about eternal life? We've been given the best, most amazing gift in the history of gifts and there's no person in the world I could justify keeping that from. And I've Scots heritage, meaning I know how to hold grudges.

But it's not that we don't want to share the gospel, it's just that we aren't equipped for it, with us not having the training or knowledge or courage or whatever else it is we can think up. See "mandate" above. We have all we need, all we'll ever need, which is the presence of Christ in our lives. It's all the disciples needed, even if they didn't know it, and it's all we need too.

Well, we might say, if we go about sharing the gospel with people we know and doing God's work and all, what will the pastor we hired do? Trust me, he or she will be just fine. Augustine may have formulated the doctrine of original sin as a way of explaining the necessity of Christ's atoning sacrifice, but it works out fine as job security for pastors, too. There are always people who need to hear the gospel. Even if we somehow managed to run out of them, I know I can always benefit from a reminder and I bet most other folks could as well.

Again, to paraphrase: It's still 106 miles to Chicago, it's still dark and we may be wearing sunglasses, but we haven't got a full tank of gas or a half a pack of cigarettes. What we do have is our Lord and Savior, and his grace that's changed our lives.

Hit it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wise Asking (First Kings 3:5-12)

Sometimes it seems like we speak of gifts from God as though they come to us completely apart from anything else that's already in our lives. "God, please give me the gift of discernment." "God, please give me the gift of helping others." "God, please give me the gift of patience, and could you make that a rush job, please?"

Is that how God always works? Does he take people who completely lack a certain quality and just drop it on them full and complete? If you remember the movie The Matrix, you may remember that when our heroes were conscious in the computer-generated virtual reality simulation of the title, they could gain any new ability by having it uploaded into their brains. In one scene, the woman Trinity needs to be able to fly a helicopter inside the simulation, so she calls up her Operator and has him upload that skill. A quick blink and a headshake later, and Trinity is an expert chopper pilot. Does God give us gifts like that?

Sometimes, of course, it would be nice if he did. If we are dealing with some really heavy troubles, it would be nice to have the patience or foresight or compassion or whatever else we need to deal with them just sort of uploaded to us like Trinity's new piloting skills. "God, I'm always glum. Could you upload me some happiness? Thanks!"

The problem for the people in The Matrix was that these abilities were limited to the virtual world. In real life, Trinity didn't know how to fly that specific kind of helicopter, even if she could have found one. She never learned how to do it, so she didn't have the actual information, skills and practice she would have needed if she had to fly that kind of helicopter for real. She would have been stuck with kicking people's heads in, which was a skill she definitely had learned and was pretty good at.

Obviously, if God were to give us a gift of something like happiness or some other quality we'd asked for, then we would have it. But would we have learned it? Would we appreciate it? Human nature tends to treat things better when they cost more, either in resources or time or effort. Even as a kid I treated something I'd bought with lawn-mowing money better than some of the things I got for free. The Habitat for Humanity organization was founded on the idea that people without homes need to earn those homes with their own money and work so that they will truly be their homes. I'd hope we would recognize the great value of some gift from God like that and treat it appropriately, but I'm not optimistic.

On the other hand, what if God gives gifts differently? What if he gives in a way that magnifies what is already there? I ask that in relation to Solomon because it seems to me when I study this story that Solomon was no dummy to start with. His father David helped build the nation of Israel, forging it from what Saul had started and combining the northern and southern groups of tribes into one country. His battles fought off Israel's enemies and united the people under his leadership and God's authority which he honored.

But there will be no battles for Solomon to fight. The enemies are defeated, or at least cowed enough they'll stay away for awhile. The people have come together, they want to be lead. But how? And to what? Creating a nation is never easy, but in a way it's easier than managing one. Even in our own nation's history, we had to erase the unworkable Articles of Confederation to replace them with our great Constitution, and we had to spill a lot of blood in order to ensure that our country would stay united and its people would be no one's slaves. What will Solomon do? How will he lead the people when they battles they face are not against outside enemies but against their own tendencies to turn from God and grow complacent? He doesn't know.

He does, however, know that he doesn't know. To me, this is a sign of wisdom that a lot of people, including me, display far too rarely. So when God asks him, "What should I give you?" he immediately points out that he's not at all sure how he could possibly lead any kingdom, let alone one populated by God's people, and he needs the wisdom to be able to do that. So God grants his request -- I believe that he magnified, or amplified or whatever you'd like to call it, wisdom that was already there in Solomon, so that Solomon was equal to the task he faced.

When we ask God for the gifts we need in order to deal with our lives -- because face it, we can't deal with them on our own -- we should realize that those gifts are multiplications of what's already there. Do we want God to help us be more compassionate? Then let's start being more compassionate and give the Great Potter some clay to mold! Do we want God to grant us wisdom? Then let's pay attention to what's going on around us and do some exploration and thinking of our own so that our brains have information to process and God can magnify it!

When I read this story of Solomon, who has the wisdom to see what he lacks and the wisdom to ask for more, I am reminded, of course, that God will provide. But I can also be reminded, if I care to think about it, that God has provided, and I can ask in faith that he will continue to do what he has promised.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Imperishability (First Corinthians 15:50-58)

When we say we believe in an afterlife, it prompts several questions. What will we do? Where will it be? What will it be like?

And what are we going to look like in it? On the one hand, that may sound really superficial -- we're getting eternal life and we're going to wonder about how we look? Sure, I'd like to be a little taller and have a tuck here and there, but if I show up and that hasn't happened it's not like I'm going to turn down eternal life because of it: "What? I'm still five-nine? That's it, Lord, I'm walkin'!"

But on the other hand, there is a real question there for people who might suffer from different conditions that limit their movement, or illnesses that cause them problems. A person who passes away from emphysema probably wouldn't think much of eternal life if they're raised with the same hardened lung tissue that killed them.

There's also a real question in there that connects with an important Christian understanding of the afterlife and the life eternal that follows Christ's return. We will have bodies. We won't be disembodied spirits and lack all physical presence. We won't be merged-together souls all crammed up somehow or fused into some sort of combo spirit like a Power Ranger Mega Zord. We may not know what those bodies will look like -- who would guess that an oak tree is just the grown-up version of the acorn, after all -- and we may not even be able to conceive some of the ways life in that state will be different from life in this one, but if Paul's words are true we know we will have bodies of some kind.

That's important because it tells us we can't be who we really are if we don't have some kind of physical existence. We make a mistake if we teach that we have bodies and we have spirits, and our spirits or souls -- which are the real us -- survive the death of our physical bodies -- which are not the real us. This philosophy of "dualism" was popular in Greek thinking, but the Jewish roots of Christianity taught that God made our physical bodies and we didn't become living beings until God combined that body with his spirit of life. We combine body and spirit, and we're not the real us without both of them.

We might wonder why it's a big deal whether we have bodies of some kind in the life to come. Well, if we believe that only our spirits survive our deaths, then we might start believing what we do with our bodies doesn't matter. We can do whatever we want to this flesh we're wearing because it won't change our immortal spirits. Some ancient philosophies taught this, and said that satisfying the body's physical desires was the most important goal of life. Some others taught that since the flesh we're wearing is evil, it has to suffer in order to keep us in line. This idea also entered Christianity, and you might read about people who injure themselves in order to help purify their spirits and punish their flesh for its evil desires. Neither way sounds good to me. Both treat the body as unimportant, which doesn't match with what we know of the church's early teachings or its Jewish roots.

It also doesn't seem to match with the work of Jesus. After all, one of the reasons he was our Savior was that he came to live among us like one of us. "The Word was made flesh," John tells us. God's desire was to heal the broken relationship between himself and creation, and in order to do so Jesus became part of creation. God wanted creation restored, not wiped out and replaced with some kind of ghost or spirit world, and by entering creation Jesus made that possible.

Why did God want creation restored? Well, if the Jewish and early Christian teaching was true and our true selves are combinations of body and spirit, then God wanted them both restored in order to have our real selves restored and dwelling with him. When Jesus entered creation as a human being, it's like he grabbed hold of creation so he could take it with him through his death and resurrection, bringing it salvation as well.

He healed us. All of us, and through his life, death and resurrection these flawed perishable bodies will put on imperishability, to dwell with him and with God for all eternity.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15)

Some people shy away from the book of Revelation because of its strange images and visions. Those different creatures, all of those trumpets and seals and numbers and marks -- they confuse us and maybe even frighten us a little. We don't know what they mean, so we feel safer not talking too much about them (a rare humble moment for some, I'm sure).

We might also back away from it because some of the Christians who do and say things we don't like use Revelation as a source for those things we don't like. Harold Camping's prediction of a May 21, 2011 rapture was based in part on what he believed he read in Revelation. If we bring up the book, we might be lumped in with him. Some Christians talk a lot about the final destination of folks' souls -- hell or heaven, smoking or non-smoking. They may be pretty mean about it, too, and draw from images like the one in this passage about the lake of fire. We don't really like what they say and we don't want to be associated with it, so we back off the book those images come from. They're too "judgmental."

Of course, when we say "judgmental" there, we're really talking about condemnation instead of judgment. We have to judge things every day. And we judge people all the time too: This person is my friend, that person is not. This person is dependable, that person is not. This person stays calm in a crisis, that person does not. We judge them and we decide what we do based on those judgments.

What we shouldn't do, of course, is condemn people. What do I mean? Well, judgments can change. New information brings a new understanding. That person who wasn't calm in a crisis before has new skills and now handles troublesome issues quite well, thank you. Even in the legal system, judgments can change. We've all read stories of people convicted and sentenced to jail who were freed many years later when DNA evidence proved that someone else committed the crime. Before, they were judged guilty. Now, they are judged not guilty.

But condemnation is permanent. Back to legal terms for a minute, where we use it to talk about capital punishment: The guilty person is condemned to die. Nothing could be more final than an execution. If we find out later that someone else was guilty, we can't bring the executed person back to life.

So we shouldn't condemn, but we should be aware that developing and using good judgment is important.

The language of Revelation, which talks of a final judgment, looks like it's about condemnation, so if we want to avoid condemning people then that might be another reason we back away from it. This passage, for example. talks about judging the living and the dead according to their deeds "as written in the books." They are all judged "according to what they had done." That sure sounds like some of those mean people we'd rather not be linked with, doesn't it?

It's also a little uncomfortable for us because we realized that we're going to be judged too, and I for one would definitely like to set that notion aside. Sure, like most folks I haven't ever seriously harmed anybody or done anything that bad. So I might like to think I'm OK, really. Not a spotless record, maybe not even a great record, but not all that bad. But what about the people who have done something harmful? People who have, through their words or actions, injured someone else? Being judged according to what they did might give them a lot more reason to worry. Is that fair? Is there a line somewhere that says how much bad is too much? Does God say, "You didn't do so great, but you did some good and that cancels it out?"

See how this gets troublesome? Because most of us are probably also aware of how we haven't measured up to the standard God sets for us. We know, to borrow Paul's words, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If Revelation means a judgment and we're going to be judged for what we did, we'd just as soon not think about that, thank you kindly. Because it's a final judgment and that sounds like we're back to not just being judged, but being condemned.

That's what it says, "anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." That's condemnation for you, right there! The lake of fire, the same lake of fire that Death and Hades are going to be thrown into...waitaminute. How did that go again? "Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life..." Nothing about being judged worthy or unworthy. Nothing about whatever bad or whatever sin was written down in those books. Just being written in the book of life. Well, how does that happen?

And that's when Jesus says, "I'm glad you asked me that question. Let's talk about it a little."