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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lessons from Jesus on how to apply scripture (part 2)

What was behind Jesus’s use of scripture? In my last blog, I noted that there were some scriptures Jesus let go of while others he held on to, some scriptures he ignored while others he emphasized, some scriptures he dismissed while others he applied to his own mission and ministry.
What guided his process of sorting through the inconsistencies, contradictions, different perspectives, and theological views in his Hebrew traditions and scriptures to discover and discern God’s will for his life and for the world? The scriptures themselves that pass on to us the Jesus traditions give us hints. The answer is not explicit, but it is implicit.
In the Synoptic Gospels, before Jesus begins his ministry, he encounters God at his baptism by John. Mark’s version says,
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
I read this metaphorically, not literally, but the description above depicts a vivid, mystical encounter with God, which functions both as a revelation of God and a revelation to Jesus of his true self as a beloved son of God.
John’s Gospel describes Jesus’s baptismal encounter with God from the perspective of John the Baptist,
And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:32-33)
So, from the outset of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus is described as a Jewish mystic, a Spirit-endowed, Spirit-filled person who is capable of immersing others in the same Spirit. The Synoptics speak of Jesus being led and filled with the Spirit, and the Gospel of John (which is sometimes called the mystical Gospel) often speaks of Jesus’s intimate awareness and experience of God employing union language like: “The Father and I are one” (10:30); “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38), etc.
Joachim Jeremias was one of the first scholars to call attention to Jesus’s description of God as Abba, an intimate, personal term for Father that a Jewish child would use affectionately, sometimes paraphrased as “Daddy.” Jeremiah has been proven wrong in his assertion that this term was unique to Jesus. Other scholars have shown that it is a term that was used by other Jews to address God, and was not used exclusively by young children to speak intimately of their father (adult children used the term as well). Nevertheless, it was a term used quite often by Jesus to reflect his intimate experience of God. (Abba is, of course, Aramaic and the very fact that it occurs twice in the Greek New Testament transliterated, rather than translated, demonstrates how important this designation of God was to Jesus’s early followers).
While the Hebrew scriptures speak of God’s tender-loving care for the creation, they most often speak of God in transcendent and monarchical terms as “king,” “ruler,” “almighty,” or “holy.” The common Hebrew admonition is to “fear” God; not in the sense of “be afraid of God,” but rather, reverence or respect God. Some distance between God and the creation is implied.
Jesus never denied the transcendence of God — God as “other” or as “holy,” though he interpreted holiness as a holiness of compassion, rather than purity. (Jesus frequently violated purity laws, which the Hebrew scriptures attributed to God, in favor of compassion toward human need.) Jesus spoke frequently of the closeness and nearness of God. He spoke of the kingdom of God as being “within” or “among” human beings (Luke 17:21) and emphasized God’s intimate care over the creation, especially God’s human children (Matt. 6:25-33). Jesus didn’t learn this from his Hebrew traditions and scriptures as much as he did from his own personal experience of Abba.
Another hint that Jesus drew from his own personal experience of God as much as from his Hebrew traditions and scriptures is seen in his instruction to love enemies,
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:27-36).
Certainly there are many passages in the Hebrew scriptures that speak of God’s steadfast love and compassion for God’s covenant people, Israel, but few texts that extend that same love and compassion toward Israel’s enemies and those outside the covenant relationship. There are exceptions, like the book of Jonah, that challenges the conventional and popular theology of Jewish exceptionalism, but they are clearly a minority voice. The covenant with Abraham contains a universal emphasis stating very clearly that God’s intent is to bless the nations, not just Israel, a blessing that is envisioned in several prophetic texts. Rarely, however, does the reader see this given much emphasis in the overall narrative.
Jesus’s depiction of God as a God who loves those set squarely against God and God’s covenant people was most likely drawn from his own personal experience of God, rather than his Hebrew traditions and scriptures. In other words, his own experience of God led him to side with the minority voice in the Hebrew scriptures rather than the conventional more popular voice that spoke of a God who takes vengeance on Israel’s enemies.
So if we let Jesus’s personal experience of God be the lens through which we read and apply scripture, then we will follow his example of ignoring, dismissing, and relinquishing those scriptures that depict a vengeful, war-mongering, exclusive God, and we will acknowledge, embrace, and cling to those scriptures that describe a compassionate, peace-seeking, inclusive God.
There is a story I love to tell, which I first heard from Richard Rohr, that beautifully illustrates the limitations of scripture for discovering God’s will in a particular context. A Jewish fugitive was fleeing the Nazis who had just overtaken his small village. He fled to the door of the pastor of the village church seeking refuge. The pastor had been warned that any person or family caught hiding a Jew would not only bring the wrath of the Nazis upon their house but upon the whole village. So the pastor had the young man step inside, while he went to pray for guidance and read the scriptures. As the pastor prayed and searched the scriptures, he came upon the verse that read, “It is better for one man to die, than the whole people perish.” Feeling confident that he had his answer, and though it was hard for him to do, he turned the young man out to an almost certain death. That night an angel appeared and confronted the pastor. “What have you done?” asked the angel. The pastor explained how he prayerfully sought guidance through the scriptures. The angel said, “If you would have looked into his eyes, you would have seen that that young man you turned away was the Christ.”
One could say that Jesus did the opposite of the pastor in the story. Jesus looked straight into the eyes of God and met a completely nonviolent, justice-loving, peace-seeking, forgiving, compassionate Abba. Out of that experience he knew what scriptures and traditions were harmful or helpful, life-diminishing or life-enhancing, oppressive or liberating.
I’m not suggesting we excise from our Bibles all the punitive and petty texts we come across. They still have instructive value. What they teach us, however, is not what God is like or what God’s will is for our lives, but how people of God who think they know God can get God so very wrong.
Perhaps the most important value of our sacred scriptures is that they invite us into the struggle to know God and to discern and appropriate God’s will for our lives. They keep God before us on center stage. The scriptures do not offer us easy, simple, or even correct answers, but they confront us with the questions that really matter. If we put our trust in the God of Jesus, then we too like Jesus will gravitate toward the truly enlightened, transformative texts that can help transform our personal lives, communities, and our world.
(This piece first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.)

A Good Revelation (a sermon from Acts 11:1-18 and John 13:31-35)

In Flannery O’Connor’s story titled “Revelation” Ruby Turpin has the habit of judging and classifying people based on how they look, how they talk, and the color of their skin. In the opening scene, Mrs Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, forming judgments about all present. Among those in the room there is a mother in a sweat shirt and bedroom slippers whom she regards as “white trash.” Across from her is a teenage girl in Girl Scout shoes, reading the book Human Development. There is another young looking woman present that Mrs. Turpin judges as not white trash, but just common. And there is a well-dressed woman as well, with suede shoes whom she considers her peer. (Mrs Turpin always noticed people’s feet.)

The story’s narrator tells us that Mrs Turpin would sometimes occupy herself at night, when she couldn’t go to sleep, with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. She developed an entire “pecking order” of societal worth, with herself and her husband Claude positioned comfortably near the top.

In the conversation that ensues between Mrs Turpin and the well-dressed woman, there are many subtleties that reflect her classism and racism. She tells the woman that she is grateful for who she is. She says, “When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is.”

The girl reading the book becomes more and more irritated as the conversation goes on. Finally, she loses control. She hurls the book across the room, hitting Mrs Turpin above her eye. Then she lunges at her, grasping her neck in a death grip. The doctor rushes in to separate them and sedate the girl. But before the girl becomes unconscious, she stares directly at Mrs Turpin, Mrs Turpin feeling as if the girl “knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and condition.”

Mrs’ Turpin says to the girl hoarsely, “What you got to say to me?” The girl raised her head and locked her eyes onto Mrs Turpin’s. She whispered, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Her voice was low but clear. And her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target. Mrs Turpin senses that she has been singled out for the message. Of all people, she thinks, why me? She was a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. And she couldn’t let go of it.
Back home she decides to go out and hose down the hogs. As she aggressively squirts the hogs she begins to argue and rave against God. “Why do you send me a message like that for?” she says. She raises a fist with one hand and grips the water hose tightly with other and as she blasts the poor old hogs she says to God, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” “Why me?” There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me. If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,” she rails. “It’s no trash around here, black or white that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. . . Who do you think you are?”

Then it came. In the midst of her raving the revelation came. (Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus). She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. And out in front were all the folks that Mrs. Turpin had relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. Flannery O’Conner writes: “And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.” As she makes her way back to her house in the woods O’Conner writes “around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

O’Conner doesn’t tell us what happens next, what she does with the “revelation.” We are left to wonder what impact, if any, it makes. Would she deny it? Repress it? Ignore it? Rave against it? Or would she learn and grow from it, would she become more? We don’t know. But it completely altered her world.

Talk about reversal. In the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of Luke in particular a major feature of the kingdom of God embodied and proclaimed by Jesus is reversal. This could have been a vision in the Gospel of Luke who preaches reversal – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – from beginning to end. Mary sings in her Magnificat that in God’s new world God scatters the proud, but gives strength to the weak. God brings down the powerful, but lifts up the lowly. God sends the rich away empty, but fills the hungry with good things. In the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14 the house is filled with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” In God’s household everything is turned upside down. 

The woman in O’Conner’s story must face the truth that her elistist world where she carefully distinguishes between the blessed and the passed over, between who is “in” and who is “out” is a social construct that is false and erroneous. This proud woman is made to face the reality that her foundation for life is based on lies, prejudices, and deceptions. That’s hard to face – confronting the reality that your life has not been based on the truth at all, but on lies and illusions. Most of us are too afraid too even entertain the thought, so we never ask the hard questions.

Will she ever be able to settle back down into the same arrogant, respectable, self-righteous worldview again? Will she be able to go back to hiding behind her self-delusions? Will she be able to continue to shamelessly and self-confidently judge others based on her comparisons and classifications and categories of worth and value? I don’t see how. The message from the girl and the vision in the field turned her world upside down. The question now is: Will she allow the revelation to crack open her blind and deluded and hardened heart, so that the light of God’s grace can get in and transform the darkness? And that’s a question we all should ask.  

In our passage from Acts today Peter tells the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem about a revelation he received. How important was this vision? Well, Luke narrates it twice. Luke tells the story in chapter 10 and then has Peter repeat it in chapter 11. In his vision a large sheet descends from above with all sorts of unclean animals. Peter is told to prepare the meat of the animals and eat, in direct violation of the laws of purity that Peter’s Bible said came straight from God. This rocks his boat. And apparently Peter needed some persuading because this scene with the sheet dropping and Peter being told to eat occurs three times in the vision. Slow of heart we all are.  

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who would have been regarded by many Jews as an enemy of the Jewish people also had a vision, and was led by the Spirit to request that Peter come to his house. Under normal circumstances Peter would not have dared associate himself with an unclean Roman military leader who had a hand in the oppression of his people. But these are not normal circumstances are they? So Peter goes with them to Cornelius’ house and shares with Cornelius and all present the good news. As Peter speaks the Spirit comes upon all of them. Then Peter draws this conclusion from his revelation: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him (respects him, reverences him – one does that by respecting and reverencing all human life) and does what is right (that is, what is merciful and just) is acceptable to him” (10:35). That’s what Peter learns from the revelation. The revelation turned Peter’s world upside down and broke down deeply entrenched longstanding prejudices and boundaries.

I believe that God is always trying to prod us along, to get us to evolve, to move us  forward, and that inevitably involves letting go of some belief, some idea, some practice, some attitude, or some behavior that has become deeply embedded in our souls. The story of Peter’s evolution from exclusion of non-Jews to inclusion based on the universal Lordship of Christ does not come without struggle. For Peter it took a revelation, it took a vision. But let’s give Peter some credit. Peter was open to the vision. He trusted the vision. He followed the vision. And he arrived at a new place. The Spirit is continually coaxing us, enticing us, luring us to new places. But of course, the Spirit can only prompt, not force; the Spirit can only invite, not coerce. We must be willing to go where the Spirit is leading us, even if it means we have to leave what is comfortable and familiar behind.

Often what is needed is a new revelation, a new vision that enables us to see our world - our relationships, our work, our understanding of God, our connection to all creation, our calling and vocation, our gifts, our community – in a whole new way, from a new perspective. This revelation can come to us in a multitude of ways and through diverse means. The revelation can come through the reading or proclamation of scripture, through the lyrics of a song or a passage in a book (you know, so much of my evolution/growth over the years has come through reading, I often wonder how preachers who don’t read have anything helpful to say). A revelation can come through a conversation with a friend, or through a scene in a movie or a novel, or through a dream, like Jacob had in the night about a stairway to heaven.

I guess for you and me the question is: Are we ready to receive it? Are we open to new insights, fresh perspectives, new revelations? Or are we stuck? Are we too afraid to move on? Have we dug our trenches so deep we can’t see a way up and over them? Have we become too defensive and too proud to admit we could be wrong? (I’m sure I am wrong about a whole bunch of stuff) Can we admit that we have a lot to learn and a lot more evolving/growing to do? Are we willing to pursue truth wherever truth can be found, and not automatically assume that we have some special corner on the truth?

Peter Enns, who teaches at Eastern University has a new book out titled, “The Sin of Certainty.” I love that title. I haven’t read the book yet, though I have read a couple of reviews. Here is a quote, “All Christians I’ve ever met who take their faith seriously sooner or later get caught up in thinking that God really is what we think God is, that there is little more worth learning about the Creator of the cosmos. God becomes the face in the mirror. By his mercy, God doesn’t leave us there.”

God doesn’t leave us there – that should be good news. God gives us new revelations. The Apostle Paul called his encounter with the living Christ a revelation of grace. We all need such revelations because we all have blind spots. We may not think we have blind spots,  but of course, if we knew where our  blind spots were, then we wouldn’t be blind would we? We don’t know, and that’s why we need grace, we need help, we need new visions and revelations that will enable us to see what we haven’t been able to see up untill now.

Maybe our Gospel reading today could function as a revelation of the essential nature and activity of God in the world and in our lives. This passage in John 13 gets to the heart of what authentic religion is about: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” By the way it’s not really new. This has always been basic to who God is and what God wants. It’s new in the sense that we have a human teacher who beautifully embodied and incarnated this love. Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How did this basic, foundational reality of authentic discipleship ever get pushed out to the edge of Christendom, which is what has exactly happened in institutional Christianity? If more Christians would awaken to the primacy of this reality we could make a huge difference for good in our world.

Our Good God, sometimes we become so entrenched in negative attitudes and hurtful beliefs and destructive behaviors that it takes a revelation to get us on a more positive, constructive path. Let us be open to such revelations. Let us be teachable, moldable, formable. Give us the courage and capacity to trust that you will provide the grace we need to leave old, familiar ways and find a new way that is more centered in and expressive of your love. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lessons from Jesus on how to apply scripture (part 1)

What can Jesus teach us about appropriating scripture for the purpose of discovering and fulfilling God’s will today?
The passage in Luke 4:16-30, which sets forth Jesus’s program, is very instructive in this regard. It’s difficult to know how much of this passage, if any, is historical and how much is purely theological, since the passage is unique to Luke. Luke is setting forth the mission and agenda of Jesus as he understands it. What I find fascinating is how Luke presents Jesus’s use of scripture and what we can learn from it.
First, we learn from Jesus that there are scriptures we need to let go of because they simply do not apply to us and they have nothing to do with God’s will for us today. Luke says,
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:14-21).
Actually the reading from Isaiah above combines both Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 (here we clearly see Luke’s hand). In the Isaiah 61 passage Jesus stops mid-sentence. Jesus ends his application of the scripture to himself with the phrase, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which some scholars think is a kind of veiled reference to the year of Jubilee. On the year of Jubilee, which was to take place every fiftieth year, debts were forgiven and the land reverted back to the original owners. It was designed to prevent a wealthy class from emerging and to keep some equity in the economic system.
Jesus completely eliminates the next phrase in Isaiah 61 which reads, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus doesn’t cut it out of his Bible, but he does indeed dismiss it when speaking of his mission. Why? Very simply because Jesus (and Luke) did not believe that his mission was to execute the vengeance of God. That was not on his agenda. Jesus was all about forgiving sins and debts, bringing good news to the poor, healing the hurting, and liberating the oppressed, not executing vengeance.
I do not mean to imply, however, that Jesus never spoke of judgment. In fact, his language could be quite shockingly harsh when speaking about those who neglect and abuse the “little ones.” However, judgment was a sub-theme. A good case can be made that Jesus viewed God’s judgment as corrective, restorative, and redemptive, never simply as retributive or punitive.
The late brilliant Jewish scholar and mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel said this of the classical prophetic understanding of God’s anger, which could be applied to Jesus,
The anger of the Lord [in the prophets] is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional, and subject to His will. Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear. . . . The call of anger is a call to cancer anger. . . . There is no divine anger for anger’s sake. Its meaning is, as already said, instrumental: to bring about repentance; its purpose and consummation is its own disappearance.
The Prophets, 66
In addition to learning from Jesus that there are scriptures that do not apply to us and we can simply let go of, we learn second, that there are scriptures that do apply to us which we need to lay hold of.
In addition to claiming the two texts in Isaiah as central to his agenda it’s also fascinating to observe how Jesus makes use of scripture as his talk unfolds to challenge his own people’s religious and national exceptionalism (Luke 4:25-27). Drawing from 1 Kings 17:8-16, Jesus first points out that Elijah was sent to bless a Gentile woman in Sidon outside the bounds of God’s covenant with Israel.
Next, referencing the story in 2 Kings 5:1-14, Jesus emphasizes that Elisha healed the Syrian Naaman of his leprosy. To drive the point home Jesus points out that there were many widows in Israel God could have blessed and many lepers in Israel God could have healed, but instead God sent Elijah and Elisha to two non-Jews.
The people of Jesus’s hometown who heard him at first thought his words “gracious” when they thought that his mission exclusively focused on them. But when Jesus employed their own scriptures to confront their exceptionalism they were outraged and Luke says would have killed him if they could.
So what do we learn from Jesus about applying scripture to our lives today?
We learn first that all scriptures that relate to retribution, vengeance, and exclusion can be disregarded and dismissed when it comes to discovering God’s will for our personal lives and for the church. That was not Jesus’s agenda and should not be ours.
Second, we learn that we should give our utmost attention and devotion to those scriptures that highlight what Jesus was about, namely, care for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, enlightenment for the blind, freedom for the downtrodden, inclusion of the outcasts and marginalized, forgiveness for sins and debts, and compassion for all people.
Clearly for Jesus not all scripture carried equal authority and weight. Some scriptures could be intentionally neglected and dismissed, while other scriptures needed to be appropriated. If Jesus is our guide for applying scripture today, then it is clear what our focus should be and what we need to give our attention to.
(This post was originally published at the Unfundamenalists Christians blog)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Stop Clinging and Start Living (a sermon from John 20:1-18 and Acts 10:34-43)

Regardless of what you or I or any Christian believes about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection or what a resurrected state of existence might look like, I think the real message of Easter has to do with what it means to trust in and be faithful to the reality and power of Christ in our lives today. Easter is not simply about God raising a human being from the dead, which I personally don’t think is that big of a deal for God to do. I think the big deal of Easter is what it says to you and me right now. And what it says is that the faith, hope, and love of Jesus, the goodness and grace of Jesus, the compassion and comfort of Jesus, the courage and prophetic critique and challenge of Jesus is present right now and accessible right now.

I love this image in John’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene clinging to Jesus once she realizes it is Jesus. It calls to mind all the ways I try to keep Jesus in my little box and all the ways I cling to the same old tired and worn ways of thinking and reacting to life. If we could see with a deeper sense of what constitutes the reality and truth of things we would be liberated to live in the power of Christ, the power of love that is available to all of us. We would be free to dream, and we would find the courage and faith to break out of old negative habits and patterns that have us trapped. Surely, the message of Easter compels us to imagine new categories, new possibilities, new ways of thinking, feeling, and doing life. 

If we would allow the power of resurrection, the power of love to impact our lives now then we would be able to stop clinging to the failures and regrets of our past.

One of the beautiful images in the resurrection stories is the way Jesus comes to his disciples. Several of the stories mention the fear of the disciples when they hear the message that he is alive or when he first appears to them. Why would they be afraid? Well, consider what resurrection signified. It meant that God had vindicated Jesus and appointed him lord and judge, as the passage we read in Acts points out. Now think about their final dealings with Jesus. They had deserted and denied him. We highlight Peter’s denial because it is given special emphasis in the tradition and because he was so outspoken about his willingness to die with Jesus, but they all abandoned Jesus. They all failed Jesus and fled.

So when Jesus appears to them who has been appointed Lord and judge we can expect them to fearful. But what does Jesus say? How does he greet them? “Peace be with you.” That is so Jesus! He doesn’t come as their judge, but as their friend. Like the father in the parable of Luke 15 who runs to embrace his returning son, Jesus has already forgiven them. Jesus has no interest at all in dwelling on their past failures and fears. He wants them to be filled with courage and hope so they might proclaim and share the good news of the kingdom of God.  

I can’t relate to someone who says, “I have no regrets.” Maybe they don’t, but my first thoughts are: I bet they have lots of regrets they have pushed down in the unconscious because they are too painful. I bet they have repressed them. I can think of many situations where I would respond differently today. There are confrontations that I would handle much differently. I would respond differently in any number of situations with my wife and family, my church family, with friends and colleagues. I would hope I would respond more positively and more wisely and I believe I would because I’m in a different place today. So while I have many regrets, I refuse to dwell on them or cling to them, to give them any time or attention because of the power of forgiveness, because of the power of love and life that draws me into the vision and passion of Christ. So these regrets over past failures and mistakes and poor decisions do not define me or deflate me or disillusion me, because I choose to live in the power of Christ’s love right now which brings healing and hope. I can let these regrets go. Maybe some of you here today need to let go of your past failures and regrets that are hindering you from thriving in the present.  

Jesus greets the disciples who failed him, who forsook him with forgiveness and peace. And he expects them to pass his peace on. He doesn’t want them wallowing in guilt. He wants them to proclaim the good news and live in the joy of forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, as I say often always flows in two directions at once. Anytime I refuse to forgive someone who has hurt and offended me I block the flow of God’s grace into my life. And that’s when I become bitter and angry and resentful and selfish. But when the power of resurrection flows through us we are able to let go and break free from the resentments and petty jealousies and bitterness that hold us down.

God would have us embody the gratitude and generosity and grace of Christ right now. God would have us live with vibrancy and vitality, to be conduits of God’s grace, and we can’t do that if we are still clinging to our failures and regrets or to our anger and lack of forgiveness. The living Christ is saying to you and me: stop clinging and start living.

Some of us may be clinging to our dogmatism and certitudes that foster exceptionalism and elitism. Some of us may be of the notion that God takes our side and favors us over other religious groups or those who do not profess faith. Some of us may be clinging to a message of exclusion that leaves many people out in the cold and no place for them at the table.

Philip Newell tells about one of the teachers he has worked closely with over the years, a rabbi whose name is Nahum. Several summers ago he and Philip were teaching separate classes at a Conference in New Mexico. One morning Philip’s group was reflecting on this passage that is our Gospel reading today from John’s Gospel. As Philip reflected on the passage with his group, he kept thinking of Nahum and felt like he had to speak to him about the story. He wanted to make a theological comment about how Christianity has tried to “hold on to” Jesus and make him exclusively ours.

When Philip found Nahum after class in the lunch line they proceeded to find a picnic table where Philip began to share his observation with him. But as he shared with his Jewish rabbi friend, he began to weep. Instead of being just a theological observation, it became a confession to his Jewish friend how we Christians have tried to make Jesus an exclusive Christian possession, when in reality he belongs to all of us. Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, and died as a faithful Jew. He was not a Christian. Christianity came later. Philip asks, “How can we both love him and, at the same time, not clutch him possessively? How can we cherish the gift of his teachings and not claim them solely as ours?

In the passage in Acts that Lisa read earlier, that text begins with Peter saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” To fear God, in this context, does not mean “be afraid of” God, but rather it means to give reverence or respect to God. This is how “fear” is used in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible. We could actually paraphrase this to read, “anyone who fears God by doing what is right is acceptable to Gold.” Regardless of what one believes intellectually, mentally, conceptually about God, one respects God, one honors God when one does what is good, just, fair, and right. This is how we honor God, by honoring the creation and working for peace and restorative justice – that is, justice that restores relationships, restores freedoms, restores rights, restores equity and equality. When we do what is compassionate and loving and good, when we care for the creation and each other, we are fearing God, honoring God, respecting God.

Peter didn’t come to this on his own. He needed some help. It took Peter seeing a vision three times before he got it. Sometimes for us it takes a while. It was a vision of all kinds of unclean animals. Peter was told to eat in direct violation of the purity laws of his tradition, the laws of clean and unclean. Peter realized though it wasn’t just about dietary laws, it was about more. He tells the Gentile Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Why? Because everyone is a child of God that’s why.

Later in the book of Acts Paul tells the philosophers and intellectuals at Athens that we are all the offspring of God and that in God we all, each one, move, live, and have our existence. And in our Gospel text today, the risen Christ tells Mary to go tell the others that he is returning to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Jesus, himself, has no exclusive claim on God. The God of Jesus is also the God of creation, the God of all the earth, and the God of you and me.

This should serve as a corrective to the view that only one who believes certain things about Jesus or is in the right group can be made whole and be acceptable to God. We are all God’s children and God is pleased with anyone, regardless of what they believe, who does what is good and right and loving and just. God doesn’t show partiality. God’s grace and gifts, God’s presence and power is not limited to Christians.

The cosmic Christ can take many different forms and can come to us in many different ways. We can’t hold the Christ down and claim the Christ to be exclusively ours. I believe the living Christ would urge us to let go and stop clinging to our narrowness, our prejudices, and our claims that we alone have the truth. The living Christ is saying, “Stop clinging and start living.”

Lastly, some of us may be clinging to grief. Grief is the most natural thing in the world. If we do not grieve our losses then there is a good chance we are not emotionally healthy. Much has been written about what constitutes a healthy grief and the process we go through, and it is not my intention to revisit that here. There are lots of good material available. And some losses are so painful that we will feel the pain the rest of our lives. Healthy grief work does not eliminate all the pain, but it helps us cope and go on and find some measure of peace and joy in our present lives and relationships. But sometimes, we can get stuck in our grief and it can be stifling and smothering. One way out is by sharing with a caring, loving community who can help bear our grief.

I mentioned Philip Newell earlier. Philip has written several books on Celtic Christianity and at one time he was the warden of Iona Abbey in the Western Isles of Scotland. Iona is a kind of “thin” place, sacred place, and one of his responsibilities was to lead guests on a pilgrimage around the Island. One pilgrimage included a couple named Larry and Bunny from Texas. They had been married for over half a century and were still very much in love. During dinner together the first evening a conversation arouse about death. A question posed was: If you could choose, how would you like to die? Bunny, who was the first to respond, said she would like to die in her sleep. That night Bunny died in her sleep.

When Philip found Larry the next morning he was sobbing with grief. His whole being was shaking with the shock of loss. But amid his tears he told Philip that he should continue teaching with the group that day. He also said that he wanted to remain with them on pilgrimage for the rest of the week. That, he said, would be want Bunny would want. Well, this ran completely counter to all of Philip’s pastoral instincts. Philip thought he should immediately return home to be with his family in Texas. But later that day Larry spoke to his children and grandchildren. And they agreed with Larry that he should stay on pilgrimage and when he returned they would all grieve together.

Philip said that Larry did not hide his grief from the group, but vulnerably and beautifully opened his grief to the community on pilgrimage together, making that pilgrimage the most memorable ever. Larry showed the group his brokenness and allowed his fellow pilgrims to share in his brokenness and to share their own brokenness too.

Award winning poet Mary Oliver writes: To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.

What do you and I need to let go of today? What is it that we need to stop clinging too, so that we can start living in the power of love, which is the power of Christ’s resurrection? Do we need to stop clinging to negative attitudes and habits: resentment, bitterness, guilt, or regret? Do we need to stop holding on to our exceptionalism and feelings of superiority? And even though we feel the pain of some losses the rest or our lives, do we need to move on from debilitating grief? Could the living Christ be saying to us today: Stop clinging and start living? There is so much to live for.   

If you will look at a map of Palestine you will notice two bodies of water connected by a single river. The river Jordan flows down from Mount Hermon in the highlands into the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake. It is not a large lake, but it is a fresh, clear lake teeming with fish and its shores are a paradise of orchards, fields, and gardens. Then the water flows out as the river Jordan meanders down to another body of water, the Dead Sea. What a contrast! It’s called the Dead Sea because nothing can live there. Its shores are a desert wasteland. There is no life in the water or around the water. When I was on pilgrimage in Israel several years ago we spent an afternoon there. We got in the water. And guess what? We floated. The water is so salty you can’t sink. It is too deadly for fish and unfit for irrigation. The water of the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea, but unlike the Sea of Galilee it doesn’t flow out again. It just sits there and stagnates.

It is not enough to just stop clinging – to our regrets and resentments, our exclusive claim to have God on our side, and our debilitating grief. We do need to stop clinging, but we also need to start living, we must open our lives to the living water of God’s love and grace and allow the life and love of God to flow through us so that our lives become a blessing to others. So that our lives can be a source of life to others. Life and blessing that stops flowing becomes a curse. So let’s stop clinging and let’s start living by the power of Christ’s love and live. Let’s be an Easter people.

Our good God, may the faith, hope, and love that Jesus embodied live on in us. May the power of new life surge through us breaking the chains that would bind us to our past failures and old ways of thinking and living. May the life of Christ restore us and heal us and free us to be a blessing to all those around us. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Was Jesus' death necessary for our salvation? (the seventh saying from the cross)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
These words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel are equivalent to Jesus’s words in John’s Gospel, “It is finished.” The Gospels of Mark and Matthew include only one saying of Jesus from the cross: His cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The other six sayings of Jesus are found in Luke and John.
In Mark and Matthew the emphasis is on Jesus as a participant in our suffering. Jesus shares our pain and loss. Jesus knows what it is like to feel forsaken, even by God. Jesus, for the most part, is a passive victim. In Luke and John, Jesus is still a victim, but he is not passive. There is no sense of Jesus feeling forsaken in Luke or John. In Luke’s portrait, Jesus dies as a courageous and faithful martyr. We need both portraits. We need to know that God suffers with us, that God identifies with our experiences of forsakenness and feelings of abandonment. But we also need to know that neither Jesus nor God was surprised by the crucifixion, and that God incorporated Jesus’s death into God’s redemptive plan. In Luke, Jesus is the overcoming victim, offering his life sacrificially.
By sacrifice I do not mean that Jesus died to appease God’s wrath, or satisfy God’s justice, or pay some debt owed to God. I do not mean that Jesus bore a penalty imposed by God. I have said before Jesus did not die to save us from God. We do not need to be saved from God. We need to be saved from our sins, from the hate, greed, prejudice, and violence that have roots in every human heart and found collective expression through the religious and political powers that killed Jesus.
The Apostle Paul and many of the early Christians used sacrificial imagery to talk about the significance of Jesus’s death, but they never attempted to explain the imagery. The New Testament employs several different metaphors drawn from the cultic life and worship of Judaism. The writers spiritualize the images, leaving behind the more primitive ideas associated with religious sacrifice, such as the appeasement or paying off of an angry deity. But they do not expand or offer additional commentary on the metaphors, leaving the readers (the faith community) to make the connection between Jesus’s death and the images.
Paul informs the church at Corinth that he “handed on” to them what he “had received” (as part of the common Christian tradition), namely, that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3­–4). The background for this metaphor of Christ dying for our sins is found in the sacrifices for sins offered in the temple. According to temple theology during the time of Jesus, certain sins and impurities could only be remitted through sacrifice. The temple priests controlled this process and actually held an institutional monopoly on the forgiveness of sins. In other words, the temple system of sacrifice determined who had or did not have access to God.
When the early Christians said that Jesus died for our sins, or that he was the sacrifice for our sins, it had a subversive effect. They were pointing to Christ as the one who broke the temple monopoly on forgiveness. It was their way of saying that whatever might keep one from experiencing God’s love, whatever might alienate one from God or from one’s sisters and brothers in the human family, has been dealt with in Jesus. One does not need to go through the temple ritual of sacrifice. It was a statement of radical grace.
Jesus died sacrificially in that he gave his life for God’s cause, for a vision of a world healed, made whole, and put to right. Jesus died in pursuit of God’s dream for the world, God’s peaceable kingdom. His death marked the culmination of a life of humility, prophetic courage, compassion, nonviolence, and self-giving for the good of others. Jesus died the way he lived.
So was Jesus’s death necessary for our redemption? From God’s end of it did Jesus have to die? Absolutely not. In no sense is God’s forgiveness conditioned upon Jesus’s death. God forgives sin because God is a forgiving God. Nor does our personal transformation into God’s likeness demand Jesus’s death either. Persons of other religious faiths are able to relate to God and pursue other paths of transformation apart from attaching any saving significance to the death of their mediators.
However, I believe God is able to make use of Jesus’s death much the same way God uses suffering in our lives to bring about spiritual enlightenment and growth. God doesn’t require or want human suffering. I believe it breaks God’s heart. However, at this stage in our spiritual evolution we seem to need some degree of suffering to release us from the grip of the ego and move us along the path of spiritual transformation. Spiritual writer Richard Rohr often says that it almost always takes great experiences of love and suffering to change us.
Jesus himself seems to have understood this when he called his disciples to participate with him in his death. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). On one level, Jesus knew he was going to die and he expected his followers to be prepared to give up their lives too. On another level, Jesus knew that to “deny self” (dying to/renouncing the ego) is necessary for spiritual progress and that we all have our own crosses to bear. Luke clearly grasped this when he added the word “daily” to his version of the saying: “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
The only time the Apostle Paul ever elaborated on the redemptive significance of Jesus’s death more than a sentence or two was in his letter to the Romans where he spoke of dying to sin with Christ (not sins plural, but sin singular; sin as an enslaving power) in order to walk in the newness of life through Christ’s Spirit (Rom. 6-8). In his letter to the Philippians Paul spoke of his passion to know the power of Christ’s resurrection by “sharing in his sufferings,” thus “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). In no sense was Jesus’s death ever a substitution, but it became a transformative symbol in the way it called followers of Jesus to participate in the pattern of death and resurrection. Did all the early Christians understand this and did they all interpret Jesus’s death in the same way? Of course not. But clearly, spiritual participation in Jesus’s death was an important way many Christians appropriated it redemptively.
What about today? Are we past that? Can we safely now dispense with the centrality of the cross? I think we would do well to keep it central if we can get past all the primitive and petty ideas associated with God requiring or needing Jesus to die for us. The cross can be a powerful lure and a transformative symbol inviting us to share in Jesus’s death by our willingness to suffer for the good of others and our willingness to die to our ego (our need for power, position, prestige, etc). We can then live in the power of Christ’s Spirit for the good of others and for the cause of God in the world. In this way, the message of the cross is indeed good news.
(Much of the above was adapted from my book on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross titled, Why Call Friday Good: Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Cosmic Cross (the sixth saying of Jesus from the cross)

A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:29).
According to a consensus of scholarship, Mark’s Gospel was written first just before, during, or shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. One to two decades later the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written. Finally, one to two decades after Matthew and Luke came the Gospel of John. All the Gospels are first and foremost spiritual and theological proclamations of the meaning of the story of Jesus, not historical reports. But John’s symbolism, Jesus monologues, and metaphorical storytelling takes it to a new level.
In John the cross of Jesus is the culmination of a cosmic drama. At the cross, the worlds of ungrace and grace collide; the powers of death and life meet with explosive force. As Jesus anticipates his death he says, “Now is the judgment of the world (the domination system), now the ruler of the world will be driven out” (12:31). The ruler of the world, mythical or real, is the representative, the epitome of the power of evil and hate that crucified Jesus. This is the power that entered into the heart of Judas (13:2) and why he is called a devil (6:70). John’s Gospel is cosmic theater, depicting the clash between good and evil as the clash between the world/the Devil and Christ. Jesus, as the light of the world, exposed the world’s darkness, and because the world (the domination system) loved darkness more than light, the world determined to destroy the light.
The irony is that in the very act of destroying the light, the darkness of the domination system is exposed and the light casts its radiance against the darkness in a ray of glory. The irony of the cross is that while this horrible event is the final act of hostility against Jesus by the powers of evil, it is also the final act of Jesus in revealing God’s magnanimous love for the world. The crucifixion reflects both the culmination of hostility against Jesus and the climax of God’s revelation of love for the world through Jesus.
This horrendous outpouring of hate, resulting in the torture and suffering of Jesus, becomes a redemptive event in which the love of God engages and defeats the forces of evil. God defeats it, not by returning evil for evil, hate for hate, blow for blow, but by bearing, absorbing, and exhausting it. This is how the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). In John, the reference is to sin (singular), not sins — the sin of hate that issues in violence. The deadly and destructive nature of violence, prejudice, and hate is exposed at the cross. The capacity to see evil as evil is the first step in overcoming evil. But it is an overcoming through love, not hate.
There must be, however, a lure, a compelling reason, insight, or motivation to abandon evil, and so the cross functions not only as a revelation of our sin (our hate that issues in violence), but as a definitive revelation of God’s love. The cross is the ultimate lure, drawing us to a loving God where the power of love resides. The cross, then, becomes the means of our liberation from the power of sin and death. It becomes our Exodus, a redemptive event, through which we pass from death to life as the children of Israel passed from the bondage of slavery into freedom. In John’s Gospel Jesus’s death corresponds to the time of the death of the Passover lambs in preparation for the commemorative evening meal (19:14). Jesus is slain at the same time the Passover lambs are slain. Christ is being depicted as a new liberator of a new Exodus.
The cross, then, is Jesus’s concluding work. It is Jesus completing (finishing) the work God gave him to do (17:4). It is the crowning event that will eventually draw all people to Christ (12:32). This is why, in John’s Gospel, the death of Jesus is consistently referred to as both Jesus’s glorification and the glorification of God. Speaking of his death Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). It is because the cross reveals the magnitude and expansiveness of God’s love for the world that it can be referred to as Jesus’ glorification or the glorification of God. Christ descended to the darkest place to die a shameful, horrible death, and yet here is where the love of God for the world shines the brightest.
Once we see our complicity in the crucifixion – that we are not just victims but victimizers – then we are ready to experience an exodus from hate into forgiveness and love. We admit first, that while bad things may have happened to us beyond our control, we have, nevertheless, hardened our hearts and chosen to live in an ungracious world. We know that the powers of hate that crucified Jesus reside in us. Once we find the courage to make that good confession, then we are ready to behold God’s love at the cross and experience its liberating power. The cross then becomes a model for us: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:12–13).
When we unite with Jesus on the cross, we draw from his Spirit and find the inner resolve and grace to give up hate and the need for revenge. We pass through the waters of condemnation without the need or want to condemn in return, and we determine to allow love to grow and flourish into gratitude and generosity. John’s Jesus calls this being born again, and we need to be born again and again and again as we cast off the works of this ungracious world and increasingly manifest the fruit of the Spirit. In an exodus through the cross we leave behind a world of selfish grasping and grinding egoism, and enter a vibrant and abundant world of grace.
(The reflections above were adapted from my book on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross titled, Why Call Friday Good: Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What Makes for Peace? (a sermon from Luke 19:28-44)

Holy Week begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem. It seems rather clear from the text that Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on a young colt was intentional and prearranged. He gives very specific instructions to two of his disciples on where to find the colt. As he  processes into Jerusalem with his disciples, Luke tells us that the people kept throwing their cloaks on the road and as he approached the path down the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem his disciples began to proclaim, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven.” Luke’s version differs somewhat from Mark and Matthew. In Mark they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming.” In Matthew they call Jesus “Son of David” and in Luke they say “Blessed is the King.”

While only Luke calls Jesus King and all the accounts are slightly different, in all three accounts Jesus is certainly being honored as the agent and representative of God’s kingdom. But what sort of kingdom is this? And if Jesus is a king what kind of king?

Entrance processions were a familiar ceremony in the first century. But this is certainly not the kind of elaborate ceremony that would accompany the return of a king or a conquering general. Biblical scholars and historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan point out in their book, The Last Week, that about the time Jesus would have made his peaceful entrance into Jerusalem from the east riding a donkey, another very different kind procession would have taken place from the west side of the city. The Roman governor Pilate would have entered leading a procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers coming from Caesarea Maritima about 60 miles west to reinforce the Roman garrison permanently stationed in the Fortress Antonia overlooking the Jewish temple and its courts.

Pilate’s procession, notes Borg and Crossan, would have displayed not only Rome’s imperial power and but Rome’s imperial theology. The emperor of Rome was given such titles as “son of God,” “lord,” “savior” and one who brought “peace on earth.” So here we have in direct contrast two very different kinds of kingdoms reflecting two very different kinds of peace.

The peace that Jesus embodies is a holistic peace that heals, restores, and transforms individuals, communities, and whole societies if actually practiced. It is a peace that begins with forgiveness – force, not violence. There is more to it than forgiveness, but forgiveness is at the very heart of what Christ is about.

Luke’s Gospel particularly highlights this. Two of the three sayings of Jesus from the cross relate directly to forgiveness. He tells one of the criminals hanging beside him who asks Jesus to remember him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And with regard to his torturers and oppressors Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And after he is vindicated and appears to his disciples after his death, he charges his disciples with proclaiming “in his name,” that is, by his authority and in his power (which is the power of love) repentance and the forgiveness of sins. From Luke’s point of view forgiveness is absolutely fundamental to following Christ. Without practicing forgiveness one cannot be faithful to the way of Jesus.

Years ago Sam Mofat was a professor at Princeton Seminary who had served as a missionary in China. He shared on a number of occasions the gripping story of his flight from Communist pursuers. He told how they seized his house and all his possessions, burned the missionary compound, and killed some of his closest friends. Moffat’s own family barely escaped. When he left China, Moffat took with him a deep resentment against the followers of Chairman Mao. He said that it lead him to a crisis in his faith. “I realized,” he said, “that if I have no forgiveness for the Communists, then I have no message at all.” And that, of course, is because forgiveness is basic to the life and message of Jesus and what he calls his followers to do.   

Forgiveness is, for the most part, counter cultural. It runs against the grain of normalcy in society that is based on the offender getting what he or she deserves. And yet our lack of forgiveness is destroying families, communities, and whole societies.

Leo Tolstoy thought he was getting his marriage off on the right foot when he asked his teenage fiancĂ©e to read his diaries, which spelled out the details of his past sexual dalliances. He wanted to keep no secrets from Sonya and wanted the marriage to begin with a clean slate. Tolstoy’s confession, however, sowed seeds of resentment and jealousy. Years later she wrote in her diary, “When he kisses me I’m always thinking, ‘I’m not the first woman he has loved.’” For half a century jealousy and resentment and the lack of forgiveness ate away at her like a cancer destroying any love she had for her husband. 

Unfortunately this is not unusual. We nurse wounds, perpetuate family conflicts, punish ourselves and others, and rationalize our harmful actions—all to avoid this unnatural act. C.S Lewis said once, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” It is unnatural because it seems unjust. And it is unjust when we define justice as punitive or retributive justice, as punishment or getting what you deserve. The justice that makes for peace is restorative justice rooted in the practice of forgiveness. 

The reason we must be committed to forgiveness is because Jesus was. And according to Jesus forgiveness is at the very heart of the character of God. So while forgiveness may seem unnatural to us, for God it is the most natural thing in the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with this. He was a German theologian and pastor who chose to stay in Germany and identify with the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany. He was arrested and wrote several of his famous works from prison. He was martyred just before the war ended. Even while he worked to undermine Hitler’s regime, he followed Jesus’ command to pray for his enemies. He wrote, “Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them . . . We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do themselves.” Bonhoeffer contended that we love and pray for our enemies because that is how God loves and acts.

In Luke 6 Jesus taught, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . . But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and [here’s the reason we pursue this unnatural course] you will be children of the Most High [you will live true to who you are]; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

We can think of a hundred excuses and reasons why not to forgive: He needs to learn a lesson. Or I don’t want encourage irresponsible behavior. Or she needs to learn that actions have consequences. Or I was the one wronged—it’s not up to me to make the first move. Or how can I forgive if he’s not even sorry?

Popular Christian writer and journalist Philip Yancey describes his own struggle with forgiveness.  He says, “I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying. Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain. I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago.” That’s true for all of us. Forgiveness is a struggle. It is never easy. Then he says, “I do so because the Gospels make clear the connection: God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors.”

There can be no peace, no healing, no wholeness, no restoration of relationships, no working together for the common good without forgiveness. As a global society we have no future without forgiveness.

Another thing that makes for peace is the practice of compassion. This is equally important and goes hand-in-hand with forgiveness. The kind of holiness that Jesus embodied throughout his ministry was a holiness of compassion, which often led him to clash with the religious establishment and the powers that be who were committed to a different kind of holiness. They practiced a holiness based on the purity laws. It was a holiness formed by the holiness code.

We see something of Jesus’ compassion for his people as he weeps and grieves over the fate of Israel. Jesus cries out as he approaches Jerusalem, “If you had only recognized the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Their spiritual blindness and inability to practice forgiveness and refrain from reacting to violence with violence sealed their fate. Their inability to love their enemies will result in the enemy, Rome, crushing them. The description we have in our text about the Romans surrounding them and hemming them in and crushing them to the ground may have been written after the fact, but there is no question that Jesus anticipated this outcome because of their refusal to relinquish hate and violence. Instead of nurturing compassion and forgiveness, they allowed bitterness and resentment and hate to fester. They gave in to their fears and insecurities, as many Americans are doing right now. Let us pray that the many do not constitute a majority for all our sakes.

What makes for peace? The practice of compassion. I say the practice of compassion because compassion is not really compassion unless we act. Compassion is the capacity to enter into the hurt and pain and suffering of others.

The late Henry Nouwen wrote about one of his most vivid memories as a youth which was connected to a little goat given to him by his father to care for during the last year of the Second World War. The goat’s name was Walter. Nouwen was 13 years old and lived with his family in a part of Holland that was isolated by the great rivers from the D-day armies. People were dying of hunger.

He loved his little goat and spent hours collecting acorns for him, taking him on long walks, and playfully fighting with him. He carried him in his arms, built a pin for him in the garage, and gave him a little wooden wagon to pull. He fed him as soon as he woke up in the morning, and as soon as he returned from school he fed him again and cleaned his pen and talked to him about all sorts of things. 

One day, early in the morning when he entered his pen he discovered Walter missing.  He had been stolen. Nouwen was heartbroken with grief. Years later, when the war was over and they had enough food again, his father told him that their gardener had taken Walter and fed him to his family who had nothing to eat. Nouwen says, “My father knew it was the gardener, but he never confronted him—even though he saw my grief. I now realize that both Walter and my father taught me something about compassion.”

While compassion must be practiced, it may not be very practical at all. Mother Teresa was sometimes challenged about the long-term effects of her humanitarian ministry of compassion. She was asked once, “Why give people fish to eat instead of teaching them how to fish?” Her response was, “But my people can’t even stand. They’re sick, crippled, demented. When I give them fish to eat and they can stand, I’ll turn them over to you and you can show them how to catch fish.” But then she was also quick to respond that she and her sisters gave people a lot more than fish. She said, “If our actions are just useful actions that give no joy to the people, our poor people would never be able to rise up to the call which we want them to hear, the call to come closer to God. We want to make them feel that they are loved.” That’s what the compassion of Christ aims for – to help people see, feel, know in the core of their being they are loved.

Sometimes our hurt and grief is so great that we find it hard to see the hurt and grief others feel. What we must do is learn to channel our own pain in a ministry of healing to others.  And the irony of it is that it is in such ministry to others that we ourselves find healing.  We must allow Jesus to help us “see” through his eyes so that out of our own pain and grief we can minister to the pain and grief of others and in that very ministry we ourselves will be made whole. We must try to see through the eyes of Jesus and if we can, then we will see value of forgiveness and compassion. We will see the things that make for peace.  

Our good God, we can be so blind, just like the folks for whom Jesus grieved and wept, who could not see the things that make for peace. Help us to see. Help our country to see. Help our world to see. In the name of Christ. Amen.