Friday, February 4, 2011

Joining the heavens and the earth

Jesus Christ was put to death for being a rebel.  In John’s Gospel,  Jesus’ enemies claimed that Jesus was rebelling against the Emperor of Rome: “the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’"(9:12). Luke presents a similar theme: “They began to accuse him, saying, "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (23:2). Matthew and Mark concentrate much more narrowly on the question of whether Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews. There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that Jesus’ enemies accused Jesus of being an enemy of Rome, while at the same time threatening to riot against the appointed Roman governor: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves"(Mat 27:24). If Jesus was leading a rebellion against Rome his execution did little to save the Roman Empire. In less than 300 years Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.
            Alternately, Jesus was put to death because he was rebelling against the Temple authorities. As Mark, the earliest gospel, describes, Jesus made a bold entrance to temple:

“Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves;  and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers.’  And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching”(Mark 11:15-18).

The next day, the temple authorities came to Jesus and asked him, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them"(11:28)? These questioners are counting on Jesus to side with either earthly or heavenly authority. If he claims he is authorized by God they can kill him for blasphemy. If he claims he is authorized by earthly authority they can quite plainly make clear that no earthly authority has authorized him. Either way they get to kill him. Jesus wisely answers back with an in kind question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin”(Mark 11:30)? The Pharisees bemoan their entrapment: If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But shall we say, 'Of human origin'?" -- they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet.  So they answered Jesus, "We do not know"(Mark 11:31-33).” The answer that is conspicuously absent from the dialogue is “both.” In the beginning of time, God describes an event in which the heavens and the earth, the creative actions of God and the creative actions of man are fused together: “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens”(Genesis 2:4). Since the fall in Eden, the heavens and the earth were separated. The temple authorities were charged with safely and reverently connecting the Jews to their God in his domain of the heavens. The execution of Jesus Christ did little to preserve the temple or its system. Within a generation, the temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered to all corners of the empire. The Roman governors were charged with maintaining order on the earthly domain. The Jewish revolt in Palestine similarly thwarted the mission of the secular or Hellenistic Roman authorities.
            To ask whether Jesus Christ was murdered by religious or secular authority is like asking whether the Baptism of John was of heavenly or human origin. The answer is clearly both. The more important question, however, is what was Jesus Christ rebelling against? Was his target a less than perfect religious system or an oppressive empire? The answer is both and neither. His target was something more intrinsic to the universe. As Christians we tend to use the shorthand of “sin” to describe the target of Jesus Christ’s rebellion. There are, however, at least three separate connotations to the word “sin.” There is social sin, a failure to observe the most basic societal propriety. There is moral sin, the act of doing wrong, lying, cheating, stealing, killing . . .  There is also spiritual sin, a dysfunctional relationship between a human being and God. Many Evangelical Christians choose to define “sin” as anything that separates the individual from God or other human beings.
             The most glaring separation between God and human beings happens to be the separation between God’s domain of the heavens and the human domain of the earth. Adam and Eve’s trespasses in the Garden of Eden tore apart unity of the heavens and the earth-God’s creativity and human creative activity. Through the incarnation Jesus Christ responds to Adam and Eve’s initial trespasses with his own audacious act of trespass. He, a unified Man-God, enters into to the broken and fractured domain of human beings. Thus Jesus Christ becomes what Paul calls the last Adam (I Corinthians 15:45). “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”(1Corinthians 15:21-22).
            2,000 years later, those who consider themselves disciples of Jesus Christ are still struggling with the nature and form of this struggle to restore the unity of heaven and earth, God and human beings, spirit and flesh. Where does the Christian put his or her time, effort, energy, talents and resources? Is it is building institutions, reaching the lost, ministering to the poor and down-trodden, worshiping with heart or just simply trying to love in everything we do? The Christian church, especially in America, has an embarrassment of resources. With all the buildings, money, staffs, state of the art audio visual and power point technology, Churches make marginal at best, gains in moving the world toward a place where God’s will is done. It’s estimated that for 90% of the people who call themselves Christians, calling Christ Lord or attending church makes absolutely no difference in how they live their lives. In fact having Jesus come and implement the will of his Father would be decidedly uncomfortable for the majority of the “Christians” in the Western World.
            So why do the Christian institutions of the Western World make so little headway in training and motivating their members to actively strive for the reunification of the heavens and the earth, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? E. Stanley Jones suggests that “we inoculate people with a mild form of Christianity, rendering them immune to the real thing.” While Jones’ theory has great merit, it does not speak to the motivation behind such a watering down. As so called Christians, we tend to drastically underestimate the degree to which God is foreign to ourselves, our culture and our world. If God is fishing for human beings, then he is fishing from a domain as different from ours as the above water world is from the underwater world. If someone hooked a fish and somehow communicated that he or she wanted the fish to help bring the air of the above water world to the below water world, there would no doubt be some fear and confusion. In this metaphor of fishing, Jesus Christ is an amphibian who breaths water and air. To those who trust and surrender to Jesus Christ he instills a nascent amphibious capacity. With faith and practice, this capacity grows, like a mustard seed.
            Most Christians understand that at some point their individual ponds are going to dry up and that they will need to breath air. They may accept Jesus or at least the doctrines of Christianity as a hedge against that distant need, but at the same time remain deeply fearful of air and the necessity of breathing air. Breathing air, changes all the laws, structures and comfort zones of those who live as fish. Air breathers are therefore foreigners subject to suspicion, ostracism and persecution. It is also this ability to breath air that allows certain fish to pass on the promise and hope of life after the pond to other fish.
            When Christians recognize the fact that the most salient feature of their faith is its ability to transform them from being creature of this world its rules to being creatures of God’s domain and his will, the powers and principalities of this world tremble. Such a transformation is only possible when we accept the guidance and opportunities provided by the holy spirit.
            What are the natures of these gifts of guidance and opportunity? The guidance of the Holy Spirit is that which allows us to see glimpses of how God sees the world. John gives us some interesting insight into how God sees the world: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (I John 4:16). When God sees the world billions of people all of whom he loves. That is a sharp departure from the way the world trains us to look upon the populace of the world. According to the calculus of the world, there are good people and bad people, friends and enemies, allies and opponents. The world tells us to treat our allies well and our enemies with contempt. The guidance of the Holy Spirit teaches us to look upon each and every person as someone beloved to God. If we abide in God and God abides in us, we have the opportunity to love others as God has loved us.
            It is important to understand that we cannot love through hard work, conviction or determination. God’s grace enables us to love. This same grace, purchased through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, frees us from a world of calculation and self service. It also teaches us to give freely from the love that God has already invested in us.
            The Holy Spirit’s guidance opens our eyes to the opportunities we have to love as God has loved us. Because we are human beings we tend to focus on the most dramatic instances of God’s grace. The dramatic instances, like the time we helped a homeless person, the time we helped someone receive salvation or the time we saw an apparently hopeless resolved through God’s grace, are important because they demonstrate the vast power and majesty of our God and his grace. The life of a Christian, however, is a marathon not a sprint. When I first learned to jog, I would sprint for a couple of hundred yards and then lapse into a walk. My Christian development proceeded in a similar manner. I’d have a couple very dramatic experiences with God and opportunities for service and then lapse into walk during which it seemed there was nothing I could do for God. I am now convinced that God offers us dozens of opportunities each day to serve him and his purpose of love. I’ve made it a goal to spend part of each hour asking God how I can serve him in the next hour. I expect him to present me with small concrete tasks that serve his purpose of love. Please help me and encourage me on this journey.

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