Christianity 201

November 29, 2013

A Sermon for Reign of Christ Day

Luke 23:33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

At my other blog, Thinking Out Loud, you’ll find repeated references to Nadia Bolz-Weber — like this one — but we’ve never used here material here. Nadia, the founder and pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, is a very controversial Lutheran pastor. Actually, let me amend that, she’s controversial-looking, but when you get past the outward appearance, she is surprisingly orthodox in her beliefs and teaching.  This is taken from her most recently-posted sermon text on her blog, there’s also a link where you can click to listen along as you read. Most sermons, like this one, run 11-12 minutes.   Click to read, Losers, Amish and the Reign of Christ.  (Again, please note what follows is only an excerpt.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber…I’ve been obsessed all week with the fact that three times in this text during his crucifixion, people say to Jesus, “save yourself”.

Seriously Jesus, you healed the sick and raised the dead and performed wonders and miracles, so we know you have it in you…for God’s sake man, save yourself. If you are the son of God, if you are the messiah, then why on Earth are you allowing yourself to be humiliated like this. Make it stop.  You’re embarrassing us.  And why are you being such a loser, anyway?

See, we humans tend to be obsessed with winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, good people and bad people. And we can only win if someone else loses. This is the game. Some win, some lose. It’s everywhere.

And that win-lose, good-bad, insider-outsider thing we are all engaged in?…I know this is a little pop-psychology-y but think that it is somehow linked to our own fear of death and loss and fear that we are not loved.  So we fight, and compete and argue based on principle. Or we send passive aggressive emails when we feel wronged.  Or we talk trash about someone who has hurt us.  All of which I have either done or considered doing in just in the past week alone, but none of which will ever fend off loss or convince me I am worth anything in the ways I think they will in the moment.

Which is where Jesus enters the story…annoyingly.

Jesus shows us that these strong at the expense of the weak, rich at the expense of the poor, good at the expense of the bad ways of being together debases everyone involved.  The bully is as dehumanized by bullying as the victim.

In our win-lose way of understanding things it would have made a lot more sense for Jesus to have come and be a superhero, kicking ass and taking names. Showing everyone how strong God is by winning at our game.

Instead, at the cross we see that Jesus came and showed us how strong God is by voluntarily losing at our game.

No wonder people kept yelling “save yourself!” If you are God, then have some self-respect. Because that’s what we would do. But that’s the thing about God.  God doesn’t seem nearly as interested in self-preservation as we are.  God isn’t self-preserving, God is, by nature, self-giving…not in the way that keeps abused women abused.  But in the way that loves the abused and the abuser. Which is to say, God is self-giving in ways that don’t seem to make a lot of sense to our ideas of win-lose, right-wrong, insider-outsider.

And that’s the reign of Christ.

He’d been trying to tell us this the whole time: by having a mom without status, and there being no room in the Inn for his birth, and by gathering around him, not a team of all-stars, but a motley crew of losers…He tried to teach us maddening things – things that destabilize our systems of trying to get-over on people by saying that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  If you want to find your life then lose it. The greatest among you must become servants. If someone slaps you offer them the other cheek as well. If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too.  Why? Because like being right about everything… It doesn’t matter.  All of this losing can happen and we will still be ok.

None of this losing matters because the source of our worth, the source of our dignity, the source of our lovability does not lie in the – who is right who is wrong, who is good who is bad, who wins and who loses game. Our worth, dignity and lovability lies in Genesis 1:26 and our having been created in the image of God.

I think this imago dei, this image of God, creates in us a longing for what is real and beautiful and redemptive. And even as we are drawn to self-preservation and the game of winners and losers, there is something in us that always knows it’s all a lie.

I think this is why, despite the countless stories of revenge that could be told, that story from 2006 of the shooting at an Amish school continues to be told and continues to pull at that place inside all of us, the imago dei, reign of Christ, kingdom of heaven place that longs for the Gospel. On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into a one-room Amish school house and shot 10 young girls before taking his own life. The response of the Amish community was not one of self-preservation, saving themselves, revenge, or winning in any way.  The response was one of pure Gospel and this is why it is still told to this day. We recognize the real thing when we see it.

Amish community members affected by the shooting offered forgiveness.  They refused to hate. Instead they visited and comforted the shooter’s widow.  Reportedly, “one Amish man held the shooters sobbing father in his arms, for as long as an hour, to comfort him”[1].

I may feed my desire to be right, to get over on others, to make people who have harmed me pay for what they’ve done by narcotically consuming movies, TV shows and video games that indulge my revenge fantasies. But it’s an empty high and then I crash. But the reign of Christ is significantly quieter than a Jean Claude Van Dam movie.  Jesus of Nazareth kept saying the kingdom of God is like things that are hidden and small and easily missed. He also said that the kingdom of God is within you. Quiet, hidden, small, easily missed.  But unmistakably THERE. There within the image of God from which you were created, is the kingdom of heaven, wanting to be known, wanting to be expressed, wanting to be lived and absolutely lighting up when it hears the real thing. Within it is your beauty, your value, your dignity. And it has absolutely nothing to do with being right, or making your point, or saving yourself or winning or losing.

Catholic theologian James Alison puts it this way – he claims that at the cross it is as if God is saying to us:

“I’ll occupy that space of loserdom to show you that I’m not out to get you, that I really do like you. Then you need no longer engage in that awful business of making yourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other. Instead you can relax about being good, and as you relax you will find yourselves becoming something much better, much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine.”[2]

And I have to believe that the Image of God within us, that source of our worth and dignity and lovability from where our longing for truth and beauty comes – is nourished and honored every time we come here and once again hear that we are loved like crazy by this crucified God who doesn’t mind losing…

This, brothers and sister, this is the reign of Christ.  It is within you. And the true source of your dignity, worth and lovability… and nothing else matters. Not really. So relax and find yourselves becoming something much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine. Amen.

[2] James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim; Listening for the Unheard Voice (Raven Foundation)

June 25, 2013

Destination: Heaven Verses in Light of New Earth


As we’ve mentioned before here, in the book Heaven, author Randy Alcorn makes it very clear that we need to unlearn the idea of “going to heaven” in terms of a “place up there” kind of location or destination, and think more in terms of new earth.  So what do we do with the verses that seem to support the idea of a destination, like John 14: 1-6?

John 14:1-6 (NIV)

Jesus Comforts His Disciples

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Jesus the Way to the Father

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Jim McGuiggan has a website called Think Noble Things of God, wherein he deals with possible issues in interpretation of this passage at an article titled What of John 14: 2-3.  C201 readers are encouraged to read these articles at their original source and then look around the rest of the authors’ websites or blogs.

Does John 14:2-3 teach us all the saved are going to heaven when the present phase of human history closes with the return of Jesus?

That’s certainly the prevailing view and it has a long history but I’m not sure that that’s what the passage is meant to tell us.

I don’t doubt that those who die in the Lord “go to heaven”. I think that’s the clear implication of passages like Philippians 1.23 but that text isn’t talking about the post-resurrection experience—it’s speaking of “life after death” rather than “life after the resurrection”. In any case, it’s obvious that Phil 1 and John 14 may not be making the same point.

Here are a few observations that presently come to my mind when I reflect on John 14:2-3 and the entire section.

1. My Father’s “house”. I haven’t looked into this for so long that I’ve forgotten what conclusion I drew when I did. I can’t off-hand think of any text that speaks of the Father’s [or God’s] “house” as heaven though there may be one or two somewhere. Certainly the NT seems to speak of God’s “house” as the temple or the church. At this point I’m simply saying that this needs to be cleared up or at least seriously checked before we construe the phrase as “heaven”.

2. It is easily conceivable that “the place” he goes to prepare is a place in the kingdom. Daniel 7:13-14 speaks of the Son of Man as going to God on the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom which he receives as the representative of his people to whom the dominion is given [note 7:22, 27].

3. This would work well in a context of disappointment [14.1] if they construed his departure as failure of their hopes of the kingdom being restored to Israel in the Messiah [compare Acts 1:6 and Luke 1:32-33].

4. Wherever he’s going doesn’t seem to be a “location” so much as a “meeting” since he says of his going “and you know the way I’m going” [John 14.4-6]. Jesus himself is the essence of the “way” to “where” he is going. “Where” he is going is to his Father [14.28] and this doesn’t suggest to me a “location” so much as a relational type situation that carries out a purpose. When God brings Israel out of Egypt he brings them to himself [Exodus 19:4]. It is true that he brings them to a place [Sinai] but the issue is more a relational event than a location. I suspect this is the case in John 14. In going to the Father, Jesus is obviously not going to Rome but “to heaven” where his Father “is”. But if what I’m thinking is correct the “location” is not at all the issue [again, see 14.28].

5. Later in the section he mentions again his “going away” and his “coming” again but he isn’t talking about his final coming; he refers to his coming in and as the Holy Spirit which would be with them without a parting [John 14:16-29—this entire section needs to be read].

6. He speaks again of their being troubled at his going away but assures them that they should be rejoicing because he goes to the Father. Again, not to a “location” [though we can’t speak of his departure without using spatial and other terms]. Though they don’t fully understand it yet they do know that the Messiah’s dominion is to come from God and we know that Jesus was going to gain dominion.

7. Then in 14.29 he tells them that he has told them of his departure and coming before it would happen so that they will know this was no ad hoc arrangement, it was an integral part of the development of the divine drama and purpose. He tells them that when they see it happen they will know and believe. This suggests to me something they would experience. I think that putting this together with his return in/as the Holy Spirit [mentioned earlier] and their experience of Acts 2:1-36 offers a more coherent understanding of John 14.

In summary I think Jesus has in mind his going to the Father to receive the Messianic dominion and that he [in and as the Holy Spirit] returns to give them their place in God’s kingdom and to dwell in and with them without a parting [do note John 16.7 and that entire section in view of what I’ve suggested here].

Jesus speaks the content of chapters 14—16 in a time of great sorrow [16:4-6] for them, a time of shaking faith and a time of confusion but he is calling them to trust and assures them that their pain will end in joy [16:16, 20-22].