We are stumbling in the dark…we are capable of running in the light

There’s a group of men gathering twice a month here in Norwood.  Our gathering is built around the opportunity and responsibility of deeper relationship with one another, and we are reading small digestable chunks of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline out loud to one another and spending time reflecting on what we hear.  It is a simple series of acts; conversation, listening, reflection, consistent commitment to gather. But that kind of simplicity carries significant power.  A men’s group I was a part of for five years before we moved to Cincinnati was one of the most transformative influences in my life.  We grew in how to be more committed followers of Jesus and we grew in how to be better men.  Different young men passed in and out of the group, but the group consistently got together; week by week, month by month, year by year.  For that I say thank you to Jason Suter, Abe Halterman, Pete Acker, Matt Schwartz, Jamie Hewitt, Ben Dinkle, Mike Gilbert, Andy Hostetler, Jered Simmons, and several others.  I clearly set up the order of names to reflect the sheer masculinity and crushing truthiness of said Jason Suter.  No accident there.  Beyond jokes though, I would not be the man I am today nor the follower of Jesus I am today without this group.

So I know how powerful  the simple acts of conversation, listening, reflection, and a consistent commitment to gather are.

Last night in gathering with my brothers Kenny Havens and Matthew Wheelock (a smaller group than usual, but no less important), I felt some of the same power and potential for change in our time together.  A common thread between the Virginia group and the Cincinnati group thus far has been Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline.  His writing and wise guidance has opened up my world of understanding.  In Virginia, we read through the book; then a workbook entitled Celebrating the Disciplines that led us beyond intellectual understanding and into practice, which is very consistent with Foster’s guidance and, I should say, with the responsibility of the Christian life beyond intellectual belief and into bodily practice.  We read slowly.  Carefully.

One passage from last night struck me again in a powerful way.  I have abandoned now the evangelical belief that human beings are incapable of transformation and unable to do anything other than to cry, “God, save me!”  I have embraced what I believe to be a message much more worthy of evangelizing about, which is that human beings are deeply depraved and desperately in need of God, and upon kneeling before our Creator we first hear, then practice the fact that we are very capable of faithful, joyful, consistent life!  Instead of leading me away from the Scriptures, embracing this message has led me ever deeper into the Scriptures, and I have found this expressed clearly, obviously, beautifully, convictingly, over and over and over again.

I want to quote the passage from Celebration of Discipline in its fullness so you can see how important it is too.

“There is a saying in moral theology that ‘virtue is easy.’ But the maxim is true only to the extent that God’s gracious work has taken over our inner spirit and transformed the ingrained habit patterns of our lives. Until that is accomplished, virtue is hard, very hard indeed. We struggle to exhibit a loving and compassionate spirit, yet it is as if we are bringing something in from the outside. Then bubbling up from the inner depths is the one thing we did not want, a biting and bitter spirit. However, once we live and walk on the path of disciplined grace for a season, we will discover internal changes.

We do no more than receive a gift, yet we know the changes are real. We know they are real because we discover that the spirit of compassion we once found so hard to exhibit is now easy. In fact, to be full of bitterness would be the hard thing. Divine Love has slipped into our inner spirit and taken over our habit patterns. In the unguarded moments there is a spontaneous flow from the inner sanctuary of our lives of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal 5:22,23). There is no longer the tiring need to hide our inner selves from others. We do not have to work hard at being good and kind; we ARE good and kind. To refrain from being good and kind would be the hard work because goodness and kindness are part of our nature. Just as the natural motions of our lives once produced mire and dirt, now they produce ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17).”

Foster, Celebration of Discipline pgs 8-9

Thank you, God, for the influence of all of these men guiding me from a stunted, mostly empty gospel without transformative power to a gospel that proclaims the reconciliation of all creation and the capability of humanity to leave darkness and live joyfully in the light!


The practice of forgiveness

Our Vineyard Central church community is gathering this afternoon for worship, prayer, and fellowship. Through Lent, we are dwelling in Psalm 22 and a “word” of Jesus from the cross to guide our worship. One brother, Greg York, will be reflecting today on the Psalm and Jesus’ word “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

In preparing my spirit for our time together, as I’ve traveled to and from work this week on the bicycle, I’ve tried to be mindful of that word of Jesus.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I have let it repeat over and over in my mind. I have spoken it out loud. I have said it in cadence with the circular strokes of my pedaling. As the phrase has settled in my spirit, I have been impressed at the core commitment it displays. Radical forgiveness.

The context of the “word” is the interactions of two dying men being crucified with Jesus. One mocks him, and the other defends him. In response to the basic defense of the one (being “rightly” executed for being a violent threat to the Roman regime), Jesus, in the midst of his intense physical and emotional pain, reaches out in forgiveness to the man. Without making a statement on the man’s depravity, Jesus draws the man into an embrace that will transcend the death they both are about to experience. What a gift!

This reminded me of a story I had heard awhile ago that illustrated the powerful embrace of forgiveness. The story was first told to psychologist Jack Kornfield by the director of a nearby rehabilitation program for violent juvenile offenders.

One 14-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.

After the first half-year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor (in jail) he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.

Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job.

Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.” “Well, I did it,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother he never had.

This story reminds me that forgiveness is not an emotional decision, where one must emotionally feel at peace before forgiving someone we believe has wronged us and/or others. Forgiveness is a posture toward others that transcends our emotion. We make a decision, which establishes firmly within us that our emotions will not rule us. We let our decision lead us. The emotions catch up later. May I pursue such a commitment.

The power of “naming”

I love it (in a very painful kind of way) when wise leaders remind me of the danger of considering and valuing only my perspective and that of those most like me. I honestly can’t help it that I spend all day with me, so that’s that. As my father in law would say, “It is what it is,” and that is true. Being with me all day long is not ever a negative thing because it’s as involuntary as my heart beating. But the other half of the above reminder is much more wounding, because it’s SO much more comfortable and easy to be with those most like me; and it unfortunately is not involuntary but chosen every day. It does feel natural, but Jesus has already informed me in a million different ways the scathing truth that so much of what feels natural to me is that way because I’m rebellious and depraved and don’t know better until I humble myself and listen.

The danger, you see, of only being around and listening to those most like us is how we marginalize the perspectives, challenges, and needs of those not like us. When these other voices consistently remain outside our self-built walls to maintain group identity, we can be tempted to believe they do not exist. At the very least, the longer we ignore others in this way, the more their voice fades in importance for us.

In the below quote from his book The Dangerous Act of Loving your Neighbor, Mark Labberton lays bare the temptation of tribalism and calls us to see others as Jesus did; being willing to honor those must unlike us (like the Samaritan woman at the well), believing that in thoughtful listening, we will be affected and changed. There is much power in naming, and much positive, redemptive, painful value in being careful of how and who we name that which we see.

We name what we see in terms that reflect value, meaning, position, relationship…the problem is that you and I name without caution, justification or reason – let alone justice – as we move through life every day. Most naming occurs in ordinary moments, It happens as we respond to fellow drivers, as we stand in line, as we meet people, as we watch tv, as we read the newspaper, as we look at our peers…it is the most ordinary stuff of daily human interaction. In our name for one another for better and for worse, lies the evidence of what is in our hearts. Our distorted sight of God, ourselves and our neighbors leads us to name wrongly…when a human being is mis-seen and then mis-named, the soil of injustice reveals its destructive fertility.” (111-112)
– Mark Labberton –

This quote stands in a long line of others testifying to me like a living crowd of witnesses, leading me to change what I have always considered to be true. One of the things I am now coming to believe is that a church’s legacy is best defined by asking the questions,

“If our presence ceased to exist in this neighborhood tomorrow, how would we be remembered? Would we be remembered as a subculture that required others taking the risky step of approaching us to become like us, or as an open culture of embrace defined by simple acts of care and companionship?”

Kingdoms in conflict

Terra Nova Matthew 1

This is installment two in posts serving as a living history for our house church as we live life together.  My reflections are based on our Scriptural focus for the week, since the Scriptures are the primary authority for our understanding of the kind of God-centered life that shows what is meaningful, true, and worth devoting our lives to.  As another aside before I get started here, my thoughts in this post are very similar to previous thoughts on Jesus and Kingship, if you’d like to take a look there as well.

Sunday, January 23rd, our house church spent some time in Matthew 2.  This chapter of the gospel, maybe more than any other section of the gospel, could seem like “old hat” to those familiar with the Scriptures.  This section follows the birth of Jesus, the arrival of Magi from far-off lands, some king’s courtroom intrigue, a major family move to Egypt, some regional genocide, and then a family move back into Palestine.  With all of those factors considered, the story doesn’t seem so “old hat,” but I would suggest most people read and/or value this section for two reasons:

1) The birth of Jesus, and
2) the focus of the author on the fulfillment of prophecy

When we focus the meaning of the passage on those two things, other facets of the story tend to fade to the background where we either outright ignore them or we see them as deeply secondary to the prime (important) thrust of the passage.

However, committed Biblical respect should lead us to think about the practical implications of ALL elements of the story, especially focusing more on how people and creation were affected and focusing less on metaphysical thoughts on the supposed meaning of the story.  This is also a helpful practice because the average non-Christian, in reading this story, would be immediately, appallingly aware of the genocide and Herod’s uneasiness as King or at least much more so than random quotations about Jesus fulfilling prophecy.

Our brother Steve led off the discussion by highlighting Jewish perspectives on their Scriptures and how they quoted them for their purposes.  It’s significant that their understanding differs from the average evangelical approach to the Scriptures today. In reading the statements of belief on church websites today, you can almost hear the panting as they clamor to state their belief that the Bible is “inerrant in its original documents,” which is a surprising move on their parts to state because nowhere in the Scriptures is that claim made.  It’s a classic case of taking modern approaches for granted and giving them Scriptural, God-commanded status.  This may sound like an innocuous practice, but it’s precisely the sharpest critique Jesus directed at the Pharisees in his ministry, accusing them of settling for a folk religion of their own comfort rather than the command of God.

Steve suggested the Jewish approach to the Scriptures was instead to value all of the gathered writings as important, even the parts that seemed to matter less over time or seemed to be contradicted by other passages.  The approach of the community was to affirm the importance of all the passages as a testimony of God’s interaction with them over time; and worthy of returning to time and time again.  Just for repetition’s sake, this practice does not place all Scriptures on the same level of “truth” or “relevance.”  This is not a textbook (or flat) approach of reading the Bible, but instead a narrative, thoughtful, respectful-to-ancestors way of reading the Scriptures.  In other word, they were less obsessive-compulsive about their handling of Scripture, and used them to help give meaning and substance to life, even if a supposed prophecy seems like a stretch today.

We couldn’t help but focus on the King Herod’s dis-ease and eventual genocide as well. Our brother Robert highlighted the difference he observed between King Herod’s approach to challenge and (King) Jesus’ eventual approach to challenge.  We reflected on for a bit on what that has to say about our humanity, given that Jesus’ actions weren’t just to prove he was the Messiah, but primarily to be a direct example of what we all were created for.  In seeing Jesus, we are to follow him as the example of a human being who “got it,” and in that “getting it,” was a witness to another way of living in the world.

So we confessed together that Jesus’ message was deeply political, meaning that it was intended to bring substantive, radical change to all levels of human society.  The more we enter the social and political context of Jesus and read of his ministry and teaching in that context, the more his life pulses with meaning and substance.  The idea I inherited from my evangelical upbringing that Christ was usually (or exclusively) concerned with personal relationships at the exclusion of other areas of life becomes more and more hollow, lifeless, and meaningless by the day.  It’s just not comprehensive enough.

So Matthew 2 is about contrasting ways of approaching power, about approaching the “other” who may challenge or frighten us, about trusting God’s voice to clarify amidst confusion, about God’s attention to very normal, non-descript people.  This section of the story of Jesus highlights what the gospels highlight again and again and again; the dignity and worth of everyone, and how to appreciate and honor that worth in how we view them.

Family History and its effect…

Last Sunday evening, our  house church launched into our first gathering of a new direction for us.  We’ve oriented our practices around sharing a meal together, a time of prayer following the Common Prayer book, and a journey chapter by chapter through the gospel of Matthew. As it happens, this first week, we focused on the first chapter of Matthew, which immediately leads to sighs from those familiar with the chapter. Those people are aware that the bulk of the chapter is taken up by the author’s genealogy of Jesus, which often leads to one of two options for people,

1) Read until the first name you stumble over (likely Amminadab), then quickly (quickly) move on, or
2) Pretend like it doesn’t exist (becauseit’sobviouslyboringandChristianityshouldn’tbeboring) and jump right into verse 18 and the birth narrative.

If we engage either of these two options, we’re the better for it, right? I mean, what can really be in a genealogical list? Glad you asked! Our study leader for the week, Steve Ring, gave us some important context issues to be aware of that transform the Matthew genealogy from a ho-hum borefest into a really meaningful section of the gospel that foreshadows the focus of the ministry of Jesus.

First, the author of Matthew emphasizes, right from the beginning, Jesus as Christ (Greek for the Hebrew term Messiah—meaning anointed, in the sense of an anointed king). Jesus is presented as the long-awaited Messiah, expected to be a descendant and heir of King David, so the genealogy seeks to demonstrate this line of descent. Thus, Matthew begins by calling Jesus son of David, indicating his royal origin, and also son of Abraham, indicating that he was a Jew.  Son more broadly means descendant, so the author is trying to establish that Jesus is the “Jew’s Jew” by invoking those two significant names.  If this is all we could learn about the genealogy, it would still be pretty vanilla (and still worth skipping?).  But, on two points, it isn’t.  Not by a long-shot.

First, the genealogy is grouped in three parallel groups of fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen.  And for those interested in the names embedded in the genealogy, strictly speaking, it is inaccurate, it would not pass muster in a historical textbook. And this is important because it gives us a moment to be aware of the difference between ancient histories and modern histories.  And the fundamental difference is that ancient documents weren’t written like today’s textbooks, and it would be a mistake to interpret them as such (are you listening, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis?)  Instead they were written more often to make a statement or have a purposeful meaning.  In Matthew’s genealogy, he leaves out four kings of Judah in the middle, and in the last group, somehow pulls off only thirteen generations in 620ish years, which, given that ancient near eastern folks *ahem* got busy often, isn’t likely.

Second, and I would say  most important, in a genealogy that is supposed to establish from the beginning Jesus’ cred as the one who will rescue Israel from their enemies (the main task of the Messiah), the author commits two atrocious, unpardonable “sins.”  One, he mentions women in the genealogy.  And two, all of those women are from *ahem* unsavory backgrounds.  In Jesus’ lineage are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.  Tamar was a prostitute with unknown ethnicity, Rahab was a Canaanite, Ruth was a Moabite, Bathsheba was a Hittite, and Mary was an unwed virgin? woman with a fantastical story about where the baby came from.

Genealogies, if seeking to be effective in establishing someone’s claim to a title to a specific group (especially a nationalistic title), went out of their way to present their line as pure and unadulterated by any foreign or lesser influence.  And yet, in what seems like a commitment to shooting himself in the foot, the author weaves in unnecessary (women) and impure (nationality and moral choices) elements.

So it seems the author is intentionally ineffective in making his case for the sake of establishing a larger point; that women deeply matter and that Israel’s job isn’t to celebrate or seek some pure national identity, but rather to pay attention to an old command of God to Isaiah from their history,

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)

That passage from Isaiah was a reminder of an even more ancient word from God to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)

What is invoked in general in those two passages is given specific form in the commands of God to the people of Israel in how they are to treat foreigners in their society over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Maybe the most comprehensive command comes from Deuteronomy 10:17-19

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

The focus is always on how Israel’s habits and lifestyle as a society witness to God’s love for the whole world; of how the created can re-connect with the Creator in meaningful ways.

So the vision for Israel was an ancient one of a people saved from slavery to create a society that would be a living example for others to view and imitate; one that would lead the world out of rebellion and into faithful care. The major trouble with this vision is how easily we humans forget this call and settle for a lesser, what seems “more natural” vision of a society where we only embrace people like us and honor those with the most wealth, those who “have it all together,” and celebrate some mythically “pure” ethnic identity. Israel, historically, fell deeply into that temptation and even invented their own folk religion that marginalized other ethnicities, elevated the wealthy religious and social elite, and sought to purify their society through purging it of the sick, the prostitutes, the addicted.

Jesus in his ministry cast down the idol of Israel’s false religion, invoked some ancient commands of God for a different vision, and gave new teachings about how we pursue God’s great society of blessing. And so even here, even in this boring genealogy of Jesus, we see the author (who likely had his own idols of religious and social purity painfully exposed by Jesus) embedding in this story the “new” way of Christian being (that’s really an ancient way intensified and reinterpreted).

So I ask, is our Christian faith one determined by Jesus, one defined by an openness to the margins of our society, one with habits of giving our lives for those not like us, or is it one of seeking an ever intensified expression of ethnic and religious purity? Do we spend more time defining ourselves over against “those people over there” or serving and living life alongside “those people we are among”?

These are troubling, deeply challenging questions for me that call me to place the whole of my life under the gaze of God and cast off all that hinders what God desires to bring about.

These are also deeply important social questions in an American society deeply enmeshed in debates and beliefs about the “outsider” and how we engage them. Christian faith is not to be lived in a vacuum, not to focus entirely on the afterlife at the expense of this life, is not to settle for lesser visions. Our world is deeply divided on these very issues of ethnic and religious purity, and lives hang in the balance that will be lost if the Christian gospel has nothing to say about these very “earthy” matters.

May we pursue the answers to these questions together.

Honor the birth of the king by imitating and obeying him

Last month, at the beginning of Advent, I wrote some troubling thoughts I had been having about Jesus’ kingship.  I acknowledged the struggle of Jesus setting an example of kingship that blows my (our) entire concept of kingship right out of the water.  My thoughts reminded of the writing of Richard Hays, who was the first to show Revelation as something different than the methamphetamine dream it always seemed like to me.  He showed how the Jesus of John’s Revelation is revolutionary and consistent with the ministry of Jesus. I can’t think of a better way to honor Christmas than to post an excerpt of Hays’ convicting writing.

As you read, remember
Jesus was born to a teenage mother
was revealed early to lower class shepherds
spent most of his life in relatively lawless, uncouth Nazareth
hung out with prostitutes, tax collectors, fishermen, and the diseased
He taught the powerless they were powerful without using the tools of the powerful
In a pampered society where we are tempted to curry favor from and long to be like the “wealthy” and “powerful,”how does the Incarnation challenge our idea of who we should desire to primarily “be with”?

I leave you with Richard Hays. Read through to the end. It’s totally worth it. Merry Christmas.

“In the book of Revelation, Christ’s lordship stands in flat antithesis to Caesar’s.  The fundamental political claim of this resistance document is shown in the hymn sung by loud voices in heaven at the blowing of the seventh trumpet: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.’  (11:15)

God’s kingdom is not some otherworldly realm; rather, Christ has taken control over “the kingdom of the world.”  Thus, unlike Luke, who presents the conflict between Rome and the gospel as incidental, Revelation makes it inevitable and necessary, for the lordship of Christ necessarily excludes all other claims.  No compromise is possible…No wonder, then, that John has been exiled and his churches are facing persecution; they really do stand against the Roman Empire.

The crucial difference between the Zealots of Israel and that of the church, however, appears clearly when we consider the central Christ-centered metaphor of Revelation:  Jesus is ‘the Lamb that was slaughtered.’  This image, used of Jesus twenty-eight times in Revelation, first appears in the heavenly throne-room scene, where someone is being sought  to open the scroll with seven seals.  John begins to weep because no one is deemed worthy to open the scroll, but he is comforted by one of the ‘elders’ who sits in the presence of God’s throne: ‘Do not weep.  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that  he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ (5:5).  The description leads us to expect Jesus to appear as a glorious figure…but when the ‘lion of Judah’ appears in the heavenly throneroom to open the scroll, he does not come in conquering kingly form; rather, we see his true aspect:  ‘Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…’ (5:6).  The shock of this reversal discloses the central mystery of the Apocalypse:  God overcomes the world not through a show of force but through the suffering and death of Jesus, ‘the faithful witness’ (1:5).  The comments of David L. Barr accurately assess the effect of this image reversal:

A more complete reversal of value would be hard to imagine…the Lamb IS the Lion.  Jesus is the Messiah, but he has performed his messianic office in a most extraordinary way, by his death.  Yet his death is not defeat, for it is just this that makes him worthy to open the scroll revealing the will of God.  Jesus conquered through suffering and weakness rather than by might.  John asks us to see both that Jesus rejects the role of Lion, refuseses to conquer through supernatural power, and that we must now give a radical new valuation to lambs; the sufferer is the conqueror, the victim the victor.

Rome rules by the power of violence, but the one who is the true King of kings and Lord of lords rules by virtue of his submission to death- precisely the opposite of armed violence against the empire.  That is why he alone is worthy.

When, in the climactic battle scene in Revelation 19, Jesus appears as the conquering rider on a white horse, he is ‘clothed in a robe dipped in blood.’  Our first inclination is to see this as a mark of the divine warrior splattered with the blood of enemies whom he has killed, as in Isaiah’s symbolic vision of a figure who  comes in ‘garments stained crimson’:

I trampled down peoples in my anger,
I crushed them in my wrath,
and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.  (Isa 63:6)

In Revelation 19:13, however, the rider’s robe is dipped in blood BEFORE the battle, and he is leading ‘the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure’ (19:14).  Thus, once again we are dealing with a  dramatic symbolic reversal:  the rider is the Lamb, and the blood with which he is stained is his own.  He is called ‘the Word of God,’ and the sword with which he strikes down the nations comes from his mouth.  We are to understand that the execution of God’s judgment occurs through the proclamation of the Word…those who read the battle imagery of Revelation with a literalist bent fail to grasp the way in which the symbolic logic of the work as a whole dismantles the symbolism of violence.  Oliver O’Donovan perceptively describes the literary effect:

There is, of course, as has often been observed, something highly paradoxical about the picture of the Prince of Martyrs constituting himself at the head of an army of conquest.  It is an image which negates itself, canceling, rather than confirming, the significance of the political categories on which it draws.

A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion.  God’s ultimate judgment of the wicked is, to be sure, inexorable.  Those who destroy the earth will be destroyed (11:18); those who have shed the blood of the saints and prophets will find their own blood poured out on the earth.  But these events are in the hands of God;  they do not present a program for human military action

As a paradigm for the action of the faithful community, Jesus stands as the faithful witness who conquers through suffering.  The church follows Jesus by bearing prophetic witness against the violence, immorality, and injustice of an earthly empire that claims the authority that belongs rightly to God.

A King born in a cave, who reigned in poverty, who expelled enemies by giving his life for them

I can’t get over the Sunday scriptural reading from November 21st. It was “Christ the King” Sunday, so readings focused on, as you might imagine, the kingship of Jesus. We heard from the prophet Jeremiah, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, from Jesus’ crucifixion at the end of the gospel of Luke, and the “song” of Zechariah from the beginning of Luke. The readings are intentionally set up to trouble the reader, I think, though I’m not sure many people really paid attention in a deeper way to what was going on both in and between the readings. What they set up for us is the disturbing way that Jesus showed his kingship, and most disturbing, how a revolution that is Jesus-centered turns our idea about what is good and worthy to pursue completely on its head. So, so disturbing, and so so deeply challenging to me even more today than ever before.

Consider the passages and what they present to us. Jeremiah speaks of  “a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land,” and “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”

How might the Israelite people, either in their time of exile or their occupation by a series of powerful nations one after another, have heard that passage? They would have expected the Messiah (literally translated “anointed one”) to be another King David. A warrior king. Because that’s what Jeremiah is saying, right? How else can “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” be interpreted? Practically, Israelites would have (and did) expect a warrior king who would kick out the infidels and restore Israel as a kingdom. That’s the Messiah Israelites were led to look for.

Then there’s Zechariah, who had a clear visitation from God and a family member with an equally clear visitation (Joseph and Mary). He knew something special was happening. And he even had the audacity to speak in the present tense, not the future tense. Zechariah said the Lord “has come to his people and redeemed them,” (not “the Lord will come” but the Lord “has come”) and “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah proclaimed that the long-awaited salvation had arrived, and he speaks in the tradition of Jeremiah of salvation, not an ethereal salvation “from sins” Christians often speak of, but instead salvation “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah was expecting a King David, a warrior king who would kick out the infidels and restore Israel as a kingdom.

This is where the story gets dicey and really interesting if we’re familiar with the story of Scripture. Zechariah and his son John (the Baptist) were in the extended family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They had experienced messages from angels themselves. They trusted that Jesus was to be the Messiah. Mary visited Elizabeth and they shared joy over the blessing from God on their lives. There was great expectation in that family system for what would happen. John baptized Jesus as a coronation and a proclamation of who he was, for God’s sake!

Now consider the gravity of a situation that arose midway through Jesus’ ministry. John was imprisoned for his inflammatory statements to the powerful, and while in prison, he did a curious thing.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how shocking this passage is. It may be one of the most shocking passages in the entire Scriptures. John knew Jesus was the Messiah, right?!

Besides being family,
besides knowing one another,
besides visits from angels,
besides miraculous pregnancies and births,
besides booming voices from the heavens
proclaiming “This is my son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased,”
besides all that, John bluntly said, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

Yet this very same John (and, I’m sure, his father) is asking now, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” In essence, John was saying what others who were convinced who the Messiah would be were saying; “This Jesus is not and cannot be the Messiah.” It is even more telling that in his ministry, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to talk him down and he rejects even them. Everyone around Jesus tended toward three basic beliefs:

1) He’s electrifying to listen to even though we know little of what he is saying (crowds)
2) We’re utterly confused but along for the ride because we get to be powerful when he reigns (disciples)
3) He’s disturbingly misguided (with two subheadings under this one)
a. He needs to be corrected of his ways and reminded of his “call” (family)
b. He needs to be eliminated before he leads the nation further into error (Religious authorities, and
eventually, the Roman government)

Jesus’ kingship was revealed in a radical, truly revolutionary way in his ministry, and met its climax in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The last two passages in the lectionary deal with the disturbing end of Jesus’ revolution that we have unfortunately become numb to through talking the cross to death while deeply missing the point for hundreds of years.

Seeking to marry Jeremiah 23 with Luke 23 is a messy, messy thing to do if we take the surface messages of the two seriously. Jeremiah 23 says the Messiah will “reign wisely,” and Luke 23 says he meets his demise like tens of thousands of other would-be agitators against Rome: a grisly death by crucifixion. On the surface, one of the two is dead wrong.   Kings don’t reign by bleeding out beside common criminals.

Deeper, though, at the heart of the passages is the question of power. An apt question might be, “Is it possible to reign not through crushing enemies but by suffering for them?” Another apt question raised by the Zechariah passage is, “Is it possible to be rescued from the hands of enemies while still being occupied and dishonored by them?” These are troubling questions. And they should be even more troubling to those of us who live in America and think we know how to define freedom and power. Our answer is, repeatedly, “No, you can’t be free when under the power of another.” and “No, you cannot reign from a position of weakness.” We think we know how authority is expressed. This goes from childishly naive  to blatantly evil when we claim to be a majority Christian nation and yet our expression of power is diametrically opposed to the one we call Lord, Authority, and Teacher.

“Yes, but, have you not read Revelation?!” some Christians arise to cry out. “Jesus comes back with a robe dipped in blood and with a sword to crush his enemies. The cross was just for forgiveness of sins, a moment with no real teachable truth for our lives today. It was God’s gift to us in place of his wrath.”  As Pastor Mark Driscoll in Seattle (and avowed biblicist) said, “In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.” Sounds straight-forward, right? But for a biblicist (speaking for a host of others who claim to respect the authority of the Scriptures) Pastor Driscoll is extremely sloppy in his reading of Revelation 19. First, Jesus’ sword is not in his hand but “coming out of his mouth.” And second, though his robe is indeed dipped in blood, we are not told where from. I would suggest the second point is intimately related to the first.

What could it possibly mean for the sword to come out of Jesus’ mouth rather than being in his right hand? Is this inconsequential, just a shifting of body parts and the sword being most important? Or is it very consequential, changing the meaning of Jesus’ invasion significantly? To grapple toward an answer, I propose a basic question.

What invader have you ever heard of whose sword either came out of or was grasped by his mouth? When you answer, as you should, with “none,” then we move to the next question.

“This must be a metaphor, then. What is this a metaphor for in the apostle John’s view? What does he mean?”

A hint of an answer comes in Matthew 10 where Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In the immediate literary context, this “sword” refers to families being divided down the middle. In the wider context of Jesus’ ministry, he never picked up a sword to divide anything, instead saying to Peter “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” So the “sword” Jesus is referring to, and the “sword” I’m suggesting John is referring to, is the testimony of Jesus, his word. Jesus’ teachings and adherence to them is what splits people apart, even families, as persons view followers of Jesus as dangerously naive or pitiful idealistic idiots. So, Revelation most likely is not about Jesus’ ultimate violent conquest but instead about how Jesus’ teaching separates those who long for truth, who long for what we were created for, and those who settle for lesser versions that are more comfortable. And the robe dipped in blood may very well be the blood of Jesus, not the wicked. This could be the Apostle John’s statement to the early church about the nature of the conquest of Jesus. It is unlike any other conquest…so unlike any other conquest, in fact, that it looks like dangerous idealism to others captured by another way.

This brings me back to the troubling nature of the passages of Scripture on Christ the King Sunday; which in their troubling nature uncover the troubling nature of Jesus himself. In Jesus we are forced to reconcile

kingship with servant love;
reigning with giving;
revolution with peacemaking;
rescue with the status quo continuing;
“saved from enemies” with continuing occupation and subjugation;
salvation with suffering.

Troubling readings that strike at the root of our humanity and all we find meaningful and true.
A true upside down kingdom that will not let us rest until the day we return to the dust.

Worth it.