Sunday, May 28, 2017
A Quaker proverb says, “If you are very firmly attached at the center, you can dare to be free around the periphery.” This is true in so many ways that we easily see the truth in these words. The more rock-solid our center the freer we can be with the marginal aspects of life.
Imagine yourself trying to retrieve a dish from the topmost shelf of a kitchen cabinet. You’re standing on a stepstool, but you can’t quite reach the object you need. You think, “If I pick up one foot and stretch as far as I can, I can get close enough. But if I pick up one foot and stretch that far, will I lose my balance?”
Now, imagine someone holding on to the leg that remains on the stepstool. The person doesn’t have to be very strong. He or she only has to provide you with enough balance so you can feel free to lift that other foot, stretch yourself out, and pick up that dish.
We need to find the strong center in our emotional lives. We must be emotionally stable before we can add another person to the equation. It’s easy to have casual relationships with other people, but to form lasting attachments we first have to know who we are. Otherwise we can’t give of ourselves to anyone else.
We need to find the strong center in our intellectual lives. I encounter this every semester in the ethics class I teach. Some students only know what they’ve been told all their lives. They believe it, but can’t tell you why. Other students know they are searching for a belief system, but have no idea what it might be. These students don’t have the intellectual freedom to explore other possibilities because their center isn’t strong enough. They may have strong convictions, but they haven’t really absorbed them enough to understand why they believe what they profess to believe.
Most importantly, we need to find the strong center in our spiritual lives. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve had exposure to some system of religious belief. You may or may not be committed to that system, but at least you have been taught some basic principles. Perhaps you have already figured out that what you have been taught has not been completely absorbed. Perhaps you feel you know what you believe, but not why you believe it. Perhaps you are looking for something—or someone—to believe in. How can you develop that strong center?
Last Sunday the congregation at my church sang the hymn, Come and Find the Quiet Center. The first verse says,
Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed:
clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.
Jesus understood the need for a quiet, strong center. This is why he frequently went off by himself to pray. He had to renew his strength through intimate contact with his Father. In his final speech to his disciples he put it this way: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
No branch, separated from the main stem, can stay alive very long. It will quickly wither, die, and be of no further use.
The paradox is that we encounter God at the margins—the periphery—but God must also be at the center. If we are connected with God at the center, we can follow God to the periphery, where we will be free to explore all the avenues of service that will open for us.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
You Shall Be Holy
Let’s face it: Most of us are scared stiff of holiness. We want no part of it.
“Holiness? No thanks. Not me! That’s for those super-religious people, the ones whose noses are so high in the air they point directly at the sky. I just want to lead a good life and make it to heaven some day. Let other people go the holiness route. I’ll take the low road.”
This is surely the wrong definition of holiness. It is not some advanced state of Christian experience that one enters into and remains somehow protected from the world’s influence and the devil’s urgings. Nor is it some holier-than-thou attitude that says to everyone, “I’m better than you!”
Unfortunately, these two images are what first come to mind when we hear the word holiness. I think the word sanctification might even be worse. Both conjure up pictures that make us shudder, that make us want to turn our backs on holiness—to get as far away from “sanctified people” as possible.
Charles Colson may have expressed it best when he said, “Holiness is the everyday business of every Christian.” Holiness is what Christians do, how Christians live. When we make the declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives we begin the path of holiness. Sanctification is not a destination to be achieved, nor a state to be entered into, but a path each Christian must follow.
God gave the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—Torah—to the Israelites to define the God/human relationship for them, and to show them how to live. If you read carefully through these books you will see that every one of God’s instructions has a purpose that will improve the life of the one who chooses to follow. Many of these instructions have a basis in good health procedures. Others are excellent rules for people living together in community. The most important ones are those that delineate how we should relate to God.
We find the word holy several times in the Torah. Most often it is part of a sentence like, “You shall be holy.” There is no equivocation here, no, “If you feel like it…,” or, “Some of you might want to try to…” The instruction is clear: “You are to be holy for I the Lord am holy.” Holiness is the everyday business of every Christian, not just some Christians on some days.
We know we’ll never reach a perfect state of holiness, but that mustn’t stop us from trying. In fact, it should encourage us to make all the progress we can in the short time we have.
Dag Hammarskjold, the beloved secretary general of the United Nations for much of the 1950’s, understood the business of holiness. “In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”
As with every part of the Christian life, holiness is not a “sit in your chair/think about God/contemplate sacred things” sort of experience. Colson said holiness is the business of each Christian. He might just as well have misspelled the word and said it is the busy-ness of every Christian. Christianity is as Christianity does—not a self-righteousness, but a right-ness with God that leads us to work—busily work—to advance God’s kingdom throughout the world around us.
We are to be holy because God is holy. As a hymn written by Albert Orsborn says, our lives are to be Christ’s broken bread and outpoured wine. We are to be consecrated to God, daily exhausting ourselves in God’s service, and daily being renewed with God’s strength.
Sunday, May 14, 2017
“Easter says you can put truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there.”
So says Clarence W. Hall—and he’s right. Easter is about letting light shine so that nothing is left in darkness. Truth, especially, shines through at Easter—the ultimate truth. God is God. God decides what will happen in this universe. God is in charge and is bringing to pass the future that God has envisioned for this world. We may think we’re in charge, or it may seem that Satan is in charge, but ultimately God is in charge.
Easter people are never defeated, not by culture, not by physical or spiritual opponents, not by the grave. Nothing can beat us as long as God is with us. Too many Christians act as if they are already beaten, as if they’re going under for the third time with no rescue in sight. The schools are against them. The courts are against them. The government is against them. They’re being swept under by the cultural tide.
On the first Easter morning, early in the day, the women went to the tomb. They knew where they were going, even in the semi-darkness of pre-dawn. They had followed the funeral procession the previous afternoon as it made its way from Golgotha to the waiting grave. They had seen Joseph of Arimathea and the others place Jesus in the tomb hewn out of solid rock. They had watched as a huge stone was rolled into place and sealed. Now, after an undoubtedly sleepless night, they wanted to be where their slain Lord was—to be near him—and to mourn in the stillness and silence of the early morning.
They were as far from being Easter people as it is possible to be. They were defeated, with no hope. Nothing they could do could bring their Lord back. The future was as bleak as it could possibly be. There was nothing left for them but weeping.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. The stone was rolled away. The guards were as still as dead men. An angel assured them that the tomb was empty, that Jesus wasn’t there. They should return to Jerusalem and tell the disciples what they had seen and heard. Jesus was going on ahead of them to Galilee.
Matthew says, “So they departed from the tomb with fear and great joy.” Fear? Of course! Who wouldn’t be afraid? Angels always say, “Fear not!” trying to be as reassuring as possible—but how would you react if you saw an angel?
They also ran with “great joy.” I find it interesting that, while they felt fear, they felt greater joy. I think this is also an expected reaction. Their Lord was alive! The future was no longer bleak. They were not defeated and hope was not lost. Who knew what might happen from this point forward?
Then Jesus was there, standing before them. They fell at his feet (the perfect place to be in front of Jesus). He also reassured them and told them to deliver the same message, this time not to his disciples, but to his brothers.
In just a few moments these women had become Easter people. Instead of mourners they were now messengers. Instead of hopeless, they were now hope-filled. Instead of being at the end of their future, their future was now endless. Fear? A little, but just enough to be human. Joy? Great joy. Boundless joy. Unfettered and unimaginable joy. Whatever happened to them from this time forward could not harm them, for they were now Easter people.
Isn’t this how we should live? Perhaps a small element of fear because we are human and we can’t help it; but overarching and overwhelming any fears we have joy—joy unspeakable and full of glory. Our Lord is risen, and our lives will never be the same.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
When did Jesus Ascend?
How long was Jesus on earth after the resurrection? The season of Easter lasts from Easter Day to Pentecost—a period of seven weeks. This is based on the Jewish calendar. In the first century, the Christian event we call Pentecost coincided with the Jewish celebration of Shavuot, one of the harvest festivals. It came fifty days after the Sabbath during Passover.
We know Jesus was executed on the Friday of Passover week. The following day would have been Saturday (the Sabbath). Fifty days later would be a Sunday (you do the math), so Shavuot and Pentecost should always fall on the same day. They don’t. The difference is that the Jewish liturgical year follows the lunar calendar while the Christian liturgical year follows the Julian calendar. Easter and Passover don’t necessarily come at the same time.
Knowing all this still doesn’t settle the question of when Jesus ascended. To complicate matters, we have three versions of the ascension. Matthew (28:16-20) places the ascension in Galilee. He doesn’t give us any clues as to how long after the resurrection Jesus met his disciples on a mountain there, but we get the idea that there wasn’t much time between the two events. Matthew moves right from the resurrection story (28:1-10) to the interaction between the Jewish elders and the guards (28:11-15), to the meeting on the Galilean mountain. It would have taken the disciples a while to get from Jerusalem to Galilee, but certainly not fifty days. What we know from Matthew’s account is that on some unspecified day, Jesus took his leave of the disciples somewhere in Galilee.
John doesn’t mention the ascension at all. It is included in the extended version of Mark’s gospel, but most experts agree that these verses were added by the early church at some later date in order to give the account a more satisfying ending.
Luke gives us two versions of the ascension. In his gospel, we read the events of Easter Sunday: the women at the tomb; The story of the Emmaus disciples; their meeting with the disciples who had remained in Jerusalem; and Jesus’ appearance to them all. Then Luke says Jesus led them out to Bethany, blessed them, and was taken up from their sight.
In his second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a very different picture. At some unspecified time, Jesus took his disciples out of Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives. There he told them to return to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, “not many days from now.” Jesus was then taken up by a cloud. The disciples returned to Jerusalem and waited. While Luke doesn’t say how long they waited, if it was the few days Jesus mentioned at Olivet, it had to be close to Shavuot/Pentecost.
The Christian liturgical calendar for 2017 indicates that Ascension Day will be celebrated on Wednesday, May 25, and Pentecost on Sunday, June 4, a difference of ten days. This time period reflects Luke’s timetable in Acts.
We might be tempted to say, “Well, since there is no agreement by the four evangelists as to when Jesus ascended, perhaps it never happened. Perhaps this was a made-up story just to remove Jesus from the earth so the disciples could get on with their lives.”
Perhaps—but the disagreement on details doesn’t negate the event. Even the fact that Luke can’t agree with himself isn’t necessarily proof of the falseness of the ascension. Many people witnessed the event even if they didn’t all write it down. We know there were gospel accounts not written down, as well as written ones which have been lost. The truth is that something happened, either on the Mount of Olives or on a mountain in Galilee.
That “something” took the risen Savior out of men’s sight, but not out of their hearts. Whatever happened, it changed their lives forever. It continues to change lives today.