TagLine Here

The Second Lenten Talk: The four Gospels, the Ministry of Jesus, Jesus’ Prayer life and What He Taught About Prayer. (Outline)

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 11:54 pm on Friday, April 14, 2017

Second Lenten Talk: The four Gospels.  The Ministry of Jesus.  Jesus’ prayer life and what he taught about prayer.

1) We have four Gospels (“Good News”) – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — which tell the story of Jesus ministry, death and resurrection.

A) There are some other surviving “Gospels” though they are believed to have been written significantly later. The two most famous are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  They have interesting and mysterious things to say – sayings inviting reflection.

1) Never reached the stature that the other four did in large part because they were associated with what was called the “Gnostic” movement. “Gnosis” is a Greek word for knowledge, and they portray Jesus as the teacher of a special divine knowledge found deep within.  Gnosticism attempted to move the church away from its Jewish roots.  The material world – believed to have been made by a lesser god — was seen as something to be escaped from.  Gnosticism tended to be elitist – only the elite few were privy to this special knowledge — whereas the four Gospels in our Bible make it clear that the first disciples were no sense “elite”; they were ordinary fishermen and such.

2) The Gospel of Mary Magdalene presents her as having had a much more significant relationship to Jesus and important role in the early church than the Gospels in our Bible portray, which may have in fact between true.  Perhaps the other Gospel writers edited her out because of the patriarchal assumptions of the culture. But we really don’t know for sure.

B) The first of the four Gospels to be written down was Mark, which scholars think took place around 70 AD — 35 years or more after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Why so long?  Most people couldn’t read, and the stories were passed along orally.  The earliest Christians believed they were living at the end of human history — that Jesus would return any day – so there didn’t seem to be a need for written documents.

1) Mark might have been inspired to write his Gospel in response to interpret an event that rocked the Jewish world in 70 AD:   an uprising against Rome led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  To grasp the significance of that event imagine 9/11 and multiply it by a factor of ten.   The world as Jews and Jewish Christians had known it was coming unhinged, and Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel as having predicting it.

2) Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, establishing an outline that Luke and Matthew would basically follow.

a) It starts with the ministry of John the Baptist (no Christmas story) and moves very rapidly.  After his baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus leaves Judea in the southern region of Palestine – the region where Jerusalem, the capital city is located, and returns to the region of Galilee in the north where he had grown up.  There he begins his ministry, proclaiming that “the time has come.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the good news.”

b) Jesus stations himself in the town of Capernaum, (where the story of the paralyzed man lowered from roof takes place) but wanders from town to town teaching and amazing people with his power to heal, drawing large crowds.  We are not told much regarding what he taught.

c) Early on Jesus calls disciples to follow him, but throughout the Gospel they aren’t portrayed well.  Jesus often berates them for their lack of faith, and they struggle to understand him at every turn.  For instance they turn the children away, unable to grasp how in the kingdom of God notions of who matters are reversed from world’s way of viewing life. (The struggle of the disciples reminds us that our journey to make God the first love of their hearts – the journey towards true freedom and the ability to love others – isn’t easy.)

d) When Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, it doesn’t go well.  The people seem to see him as being too big for his britches.  We are told that Jesus could do very few miracles there, and that Jesus was amazed by their lack of faith.

e) Elsewhere, however Jesus is a portrayed as a man of action with extraordinary power.

1) He silences a storm when they are in a boat at night, and walks on water.

2) He heals all the physical afflictions of people brought to him, and has authority over the “unclean spirits” that are understood to be the source of peoples’ mental afflictions.  For instance, encounters the “Gerasene Demoniac”, a lonely, agitated man tormented by a great many violent, self-destructive impulses – a legion of demons – and casts out the demons, which leads to the man sitting calmly, serenely at the feet of Jesus, restored to his true self.

a) Curiously, the unclean spirits recognize that Jesus is the messiah – the anointed one of God — before human being do.

f) Early on, Jesus comes in conflict with the local religious authorities, the Pharisees and scribes, because he seems to play fast and loose with Holiness Laws by healing on the Sabbath, and keeping the company of publicly identifiable sinners, and that he claims to have the authority to God to forgive sin. The common folk marvel that he speaks “with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees.”

g) Midway through the Gospel Jesus asks, “who do you say that I am?” and Peter becomes the first person who answers publicly that he is the messiah.

1) Here and elsewhere Jesus tells people not to talk about the fact he is the Messiah because he will not be the messiah they expect.

2) Right after Peter makes his confession, Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die at the hands of the religious authorities.  And if they are going to be his followers they must be willing to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow; none of which the disciples understand and are afraid to ask him about. They are portrayed as reluctantly following as he makes his way towards Jerusalem.

h) Things slow down in Mark’s Gospel once they arrive in Jerusalem; the last third of Mark’s Gospel is devoted to describing the last week of his life with particular detail given to what happens the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life.

C) Luke and Matthew were written perhaps 15 years later.  They both use Mark as their central source and follow his basic outline, but they add material, much of it teaching material, some of which they share in common, and some unique to themselves.

1) A simple example:  The temptation story in Mark is very simple; in Matthew and Luke the three temptations of the devil are added. Matthew and Luke switch the order of the last two temptations..

2) Both Gospels have stories about the birth of Jesus, but they are different.

D) Luke tells the story from the point of view of Jesus’ mother Mary, and Jesus is born in a barn when the holy family is homeless in Bethlehem.  Word of his birth first comes to poor, outcaste shepherds.

1) Throughout the Gospel Luke will give more attention to women than Mark or Matthew, reminding us on several occasions that there were women among those who followed him, and in fact, supported his ministry financially.

2) Throughout the Gospel the needs of the poor are emphasized and the dangers of wealth.

3) In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus visit to his hometown of Nazareth is one of the first things to happen.  Invited to read scripture in the synagogue,  Jesus selects a passage from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… to preach good news to the poor…”  The passage references the “Jubilee year”, where every fifty years land was returned to the original owners, breaking the cycle of the rich getting rich, and the poor poorer.  The hometown folk don’t respond well, and then Jesus points out that there were times in the past when God passed over Jews and blessed Gentiles   In Luke’s version they come very close to killing Jesus.

4) Parables:  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ teaching in parables is limited to a few stories about seeds. Matthew and Luke have far more parables, with Luke telling some of the best known parables:   The Prodigal Son and Elder Brother, and the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus has a despised outsider be the hero of neighborliness.

5) Luke makes it all the more clearly that this isn’t a solo act.  Where as Mark and Matthew have Jesus sending out the twelve disciples two by two out to proclaim the kingdom, Luke has Jesus send and additional 72 such followers.

6) Luke pays more attention to Jesus’ prayer life, which will turn to later.

E) Matthew’s Gospel is the most self-consciously Jewish.  For instance Matthew’s Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of “Heaven” rather “God” because of the Jewish reluctance to speak the name of God.

1) Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses.

a) Matthew’s birth story has the wise men from the east alerting King Herod to the birth of the new King, which leads to the slaughter of all the boys under two, reminding us of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew children.   The birth story is told from the point of view of Joseph, who is led by God to take his family to Egypt, where later they will return home from – a quick replay of the history of the Jewish people.

b) Early in his adult ministry, Jesus goes up on a mountain like Moses who delivered the ten commandments.  Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount, saying he hasn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  He pushes us to further, challenging us to examine our hearts for anger, lust and greed.

2) In ch. 25 there is the famous teaching of the Sheep and the Goats, indicating that Jesus is served whenever we welcome the stranger, care for the hungry and those in prisons.

3) Matthew’s Jesus concludes that teaching, and many others, with threats of harsh judgment: being cast out into the darkness to gnash teeth eternally.  This language is rarely found in the other Gospels.

F) The first three Gospels are unanimous that at the center of Jesus’ message was the Kingdom of God, which, Jesus says, is at hand.  His ministry is revealing this kingdom, and he is blazing a path for others to follow. Although Jesus has a crucial role, he himself is not at the center of the message.  In all three Gospels when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he responds by giving two:  loving God with heart, soul and mind, and loving our neighbor.

G) John’s Gospel is believed to have been written last, perhaps 100 AD.  In this Gospel, we enter a distinctly different world from that of the other three Gospels.

1) There are frequent references to the “Beloved disciple” who can do no wrong and who isn’t named but is assumed to be John, and the Gospel is associated with a separate Christian community that identified itself with the Apostle John.  This Gospel is farthest removed from the Jewish roots — in fact – at times it has an anti-semitic tone when the “Jews” are lumped together as the bad guys, rather than just the religious authorities.

2) Whereas the 1st three Gospels have many stories in common, the only story from the ministry of Jesus (as opposed to the story of his last week) that is clearly found in all four is the feeding of the 5000.

3)  At the outset, the language and thought world of Greek philosophy is embraced.  Jesus is the Word – the “logos” – the underlying rational structure out of which the universe was created – made flesh.   In a certain sense it uses the style of the Gnostics, ultimately rebuking them by saying “God became flesh.”

4) The Kingdom of God is rarely mentioned:  rather we hear about “eternal life” – a quality of life that can be entered into now rather than simply at the end of this life.

5) John’s Jesus doesn’t tell parables, but he does use these big metaphors in speaking directly about himself: the “I am” statements:  “I am the bread of life, the light of the world, the door of the sheep, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the true vine.”

6) Repeatedly there is confusion, almost comic, as Jesus speaks on one level with a metaphor, and his listeners take him literally on a lower level.

a) Samaritan woman at the well – living water.

b) Nicodemus — birth.  “Born again.”

7) Jesus’ miracles are called signs, revealing God’s glory, and water into wine is the first.

8) Jesus often seems to float above everybody else, but then we are reminding of his humanity, as in the story of the raising of Lazarus where we hear that, “Jesus wept.” With the woman at the well, Jesus is described as tired and thirsty after walking under the heat of the sun.

9) If John’s Gospel is the furthest removed from the “historical Jesus”, what are we to make of it?  Is this deception on the author’s part?  Is it less authoritative?

a) John’s community believed that the Holy Spirit was present with them, and as Jesus declares, ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:25 – 26)

b) They believed the Holy Spirit was guiding what amounts to a profound theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus.

H) What do we mean when we say the Bible is divinely inspired?

1)   The authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they were still sinful, imperfect people writing in particular contexts, with particular concerns, occasional biases.      When do we take words literally, and when do we take them metaphorically?

2)   As the reader, this can be hard.  What do we take literally, and what metaphorically.  Lois used to say, “This is why I don’t read the Bible; it just confuses me!”

3) There is a distinction between putting our faith in “the Bible” vs. in God/Jesus.  If our faith is hinged on the “inerrancy” of Scripture, our faith will be threatened by the contradictions, etc.

4) The four Gospels are all we have in regard to knowing about Jesus, who Christians believe reveals the heart of God.  The Scriptures are the one common thread that has tied the Christians together for 2000 years. We are under an obligation to grapple with the Bible, including the passages we don’t at first glance care for.

5) Obviously, different people interpret the Bible in quite different ways.  Though some are slow to acknowledge it, everybody who reads and interprets the Bible chooses certain passages to give more authority than others, with these passage becoming the key by which we interpret the rest of the Bible.

a) If you elevate those passages in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is presented as talking about severe punishment, gnashing of teeth you get a pretty punitive Jesus/God. But why is that not also in Mark and Luke?
I)  If we believe that Jesus reveals the heart of God, what themes can we identify consistently throughout the four Gospels regarding the ministry of Jesus?

1) Jesus’ compassion for the outcast — those personsothers might find unlovable. The woman who crashed the Pharisee’s dinner.  The Samaritan woman at the well.

2) Love.  Loving enemies.   Forgiveness.  Luke’s Good Samaritan.  Matthew’s the care of the least.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you.  This is how people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

3)      The kingdom of God implies the need for, and the care of community.  Though John’s Gospel doesn’t often mention the Kingdom of God, Jesus is often picturing praying for our unity – “that we would be one.”

4)      The danger of pride, and the importance of humility.  The last will be first and the first will be last.  In John the religious authorities think they see, when in fact they are actually blind.

5)      Embracing vulnerability.  Jesus sending out his disciples without protection.  The story of the feeding of the five thousand. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes himself vulnerable to the woman at the well, and praises the vulnerability of Mary who pours her heart out with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment she uses to anoint Jesus, and getting criticized by Judas.  Jesus weeps.

6)      Servanthood, and the reversal of the power/status order of this world.  John’s Gospel Jesus gets down on his knees and bathes his disciples feet.

7)      That at the heart of the faith is joy.  Jesus’ love of parties.  John’s Jesus:  “I have come that you may have joy.”  Luke’s Angel speaks to the poor shepherds of “good news of great joy.”

8)      Grace and mercy.  Love not earned, but bestowed.

9)      That faith showing up in unexpected places.  The Gentile Woman seeking healing for daughter.

J) Jesus and prayer.

1) Although we know Jesus spent a lot of time alone in prayer, we don’t actually know how he spent that time.

a) Mark 1:35a   “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” When the disciples find him, Jesus seems to have reached clarity that what he needs to do isn’t what people think he should do.

b) Luke in particular portrays Jesus praying several moments.

1) After baptism, when Holy Spirit descends.

2) In the desert for forty days.

3) He spends a night in prayer before calling his twelve disciples.

4) It is after praying alone that Jesus asks his disciples about who they say he is, and then

first speaks about his intention to go to Jerusalem.

5)  He prays on the mountain of transfiguration.

6) He is described as having finished praying alone when the disciples ask him to teach

them to pray as John taught his disciples.

7) At the Last Supper, Jesus mentions specifically praying for Simon Peter because the

devil was after him.

8) In the Garden of Gethsemene.  “If possible, let this cup pass from me… But not my

will, but thy will be done.”

2)  Teachings on prayer.

1) Don’t use a lot of words: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:7

2) He gave us a simple model for prayer – The Lord’s Prayer.

a) Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

1) Center on God and give God glory.

b) Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

2) God’s will is love, and it is already done fully in heaven; we pray for that love to

be lived out on earth, and that we would conform our lives to that will.

c) Give us this day our daily bread.

1) We are encouraged to ask for our needs – but it assumes a process of
distinguishing what are our true needs as opposed to what we might desire.

2) This also a focus on the present moment.  “This day.”

d) And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

1) The hard places in our hearts soften in prayer.  (Pray for your enemies.)  In prayer we find freedom from the bondage of resentment and inner rage.

e) And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

1) We embrace humility; acknowledge our frailty. I may feel strong in the present, but

it wouldn’t take much for my world to fall apart, and me to be tempted to despair

or hatred.

2) That evil is real… And one can succumb to it.

3) Cultivating a childlike trust of God, letting go of fear.  God as Abba…

a)  Go ahead and ask, but prayer is a process, and persistence is important, and in the

course of prayer we are changed, and in the end, what Jesus promises is the gift of

the Holy Spirit – God’s self.

4) John’s Gospel

a) Jesus says to Nicodemus:  “The wind blows where it wills.” Prayer as paying attention to

where the Spirit is moving, and where it isn’t, and acting accordingly.

b) “Abiding in Jesus.”  Hanging out with the one we love.  (You can pray to Jesus or to God,

whichever you feel more comfortable.)

1) Eventually more listening

5) Mary and Martha and my new thought.  There are two types of persons, and in Luke’s story Martha comes off badly here, but perhaps if Mary had complained about the noise Martha was making in her serving because it was keeping her from praying/listening to Jesus, Jesus would have rebuked her.

6) In prayer, we seek to becoming a free, open vessel of God’s love.

First Lenten Talk: The Human Condition (Outline)

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 11:51 pm on Friday, April 14, 2017

Session One Outline:  What is the Human Condition?

1) Jesus was a Jew.  The Old Testament is our Jewish inheritance – our Jewish roots.

2) Stories of the creation of the universe are in first 3 chapters of OT in Genesis.

a) Two stories.  Although both attribute creation to God, they contradict each other in the order of creation.

b) Stories evolved, passed along orally over generations because people recognized truth about life in the stories — not “historical scientific.”

c) Eventually some ancient editor wove them together.

d) Contradictions challenge the notion of the “inerrancy of Scripture.”

3) 1st Creation story: Chap. 1  Six days.  Some get hung up on conflict with “evolution.”

a) Creation is very, very good.  Not all religions affirm this.

b) Our Jewish  roots.  Jesus truly enjoyed life in this world.

4) Interesting harmonies with what Science has concluded.
a) There was a “beginning” to creation – the “Big Bang.”

b) Human beings are the last act of creation (so far we appear to be the most highly evolved creatures.)

c) Curious fact noted by astro-physicists that 13.5 billion years ago the physical laws governing universe were precisely calibrated in such a way to make it possible for intelligent life to eventually exist.  Creation has an intention writ into it?

d) Human Beings:  Made in the image of God.  What does that mean?

1) Capacity to stand in awe, to create.

2) Some degree of freedom to choose.  In contrast to rest of animal kingdom, we have the capacity to act not merely out of instinct.  To choose.  We are capable of a profounder kind of love that mirrors God’s love.

e) 7th Day God rests:  4th Commandment:  Keep Sabbath holy.

1) The rhythm of work and rest… Modern world’s compulsive quality.

2) “Human beings” rather “human doings.”

3) Brief experiment in sitting in silence in hope of experiencing Sabbath rest.  1) Use of mantra – repeated phrase, to quiet the mind.

4) Talk about experience.

5) 2nd story of creation, 2:4 Before other creatures, human made out dust & breath of God.

a) 2:15  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it

and take care of it.”  (corrective to misinterpretation of “have dominion” in 1:26)

b) Not good to be alone; created as social beings, need relationship.

c) Beautiful garden, harmony. No Shame.   Just one rule: Don’t eat of tree at the center of the garden — tree of the knowledge of good & evil…

d) Serpent mysteriously appears: evil in otherwise good creation. Mystery — not explained.  Yet, when a creature evolves to the point of “free will,” for the choice for good to have meaning another possible choice has to be present.  And it has to have some appeal.  The fruit looks good to eat.

a) They eat.  What happens? Self-consciousness.  Shame.  A failure to take responsibility.  Blaming others.

b) Not a literal story, but

1) Acted out in every human life, from innocence of infancy on up.

2) Also the evolution of human beings; there had to have been a point at which a certain level of consciousness emerged.

e) In Christian theology this is traditionally called:  The “Fall” or “original sin”.

a) Distinction between committing “sins” and “Sin as a state of being.”

b) Seeming sinlessness of Pharisees.

f) The different ways in Bible/tradition to talk about sin.

a) Augustine: “life turned in on itself.”

b) Pride – a self-centeredness that we are helpless to overcome.

c) Hardened heart.

d) Sin as separation: from God/neighbor/true self

1) False self –

2) Broken – not whole

e) Language of Addiction/Idolatry: Attachments to things other than God.

g) 4th century/Catholic 7 deadly sins:  Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth (Sloth identifies sin in an opposite direction from pride – being less than what you could be.)

h) What does sin feel like for you?  What words resonate with you?  Discuss

6) Paradox. Two seemingly contradictory truths held together in tension.  We are paradoxical creatures.

a) Made in image of God and fallen creatures overtaken by power of sin.

b) Dust/divine breath.

c) What happens when one side of paradox is overemphasized?

1) Sinner: Pathetic wretches.  Not much hope, particularly apart from Christ/Church.  Finger pointing.

2) Image of God:  Idealism about human reason, and potential for progress.  The shock of WW1 and Hitler.  The Germans were among the most scholarly, educated, “cultured” people. The darkness of the Holocaust

7) Underneath all this is question of “What is freedom?”

a) Most common answer freedom from bondage like the Hebrew slaves.

b) But what happens in wilderness? “murmuring.”

c) Freedom is not just external; it is internal.

d) Discussion Questions:  What is free will?  To what extent do we have it?

1) Example of a developing addiction:   Free choice at beginning. But over time, freedom to choose gets lost. The freedom that remains is the to choose to reach out for help.  (1st two steps of AA)

2) Paul in Romans 7 talking about how the power of sin has taken away his freedom to choose the good he would.   (Was he describing before or after conversion?)

3) Our difficulty controlling our thoughts when we want to be still.

4) Jesus’ command: Love and forgive your enemies.

a) But we say, “I can’t!”

b) Other people determine how I will relate to them

8) True freedom isn’t just freedom from, but freedom for… Love.

a) Jesus’ two great commandments of Torah:  Love God/Love neighbor.

b) Jesus in the wilderness – demonstrating freedom

c) Jesus’ rejection of Devil’s temptations represents value placed on freedom:  He refuses to compel people to follow.

d) Fyodor Dostoyevsky    “The Grand Inquisitor”  Jesus told by head of church that they have “corrected” the mistake he made when he turned down the Devil.

9) A big piece of the “Fall” is shame – hiding out.  Shame is a prison.

a) Jesus with woman at Pharisee’s party – healing her shame.

1. AA:  “Only as sick as our secrets.”

2. Church as a place where Jesus’ presence allows us to find healing from our shame.

10) Jesus:  “Come follow me.”    A journey into true freedom.

Fifth Lenten Talk: The Meaning of the Cross, Resurrection, and How Should Christians Relate to Persons of Other Beliefs?

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 11:31 pm on Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lenten Talk on the Meaning of the Cross, Resurrection and Christians in Relation to other Beliefs.

Last week we reviewed the four sources of truth about God for Wesley:  Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, with “experience” being his unique addition to what he had inherited from the Church of England.   Scripture comes first, but as I said two weeks ago, part of the challenge of Scripture involves acknowledging that Scripture speaks in different voices, and that all of us who read and interpret Scripture make choices regarding which passages we will give more authority to — which passages we will use to interpret the rest of Scripture.

When it comes to the question of how Christians are to relate to persons of other religions, or to no faith at all, some Christians will invariably lift up the following words of Jesus from the Gospel of John as THE authoritative text:  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 14:6) You can’t get any more clear than that, they will say.  Unless you confess Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior — you are cut off from God, and you can’t get to heaven. Perhaps they will also quote John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life” where the implication seems to be, unless you believe in Jesus you WILL perish and NOT have eternal life.

But if we stop and consider the words of Jesus:  “I am the way…” the question becomes, “what is the ‘way’?”  You may remember that the Book of Acts tells us that in the earliest church Christians were called simply the people of “the way.” The way centered on a simple profession: “Jesus is our crucified and risen Lord,” but what truly distinguished the “way” was the quality of life lived together that revealed the ‘Kingdom of God” — a way of life involving sacrificial love, sharing and caring for the least among us, and mercy and grace.  When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” he was responding to a specific question of Thomas.  It was Jesus’ last night with the disciples and he was speaking in veiled language about going to the Father, and frustrated, Thomas says, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’  And the way, quite literally was through death.  Jesus was about to die, and we, in following him are called to die daily, sacrificing our little egos that want to sit on the throne of our lives, so that we may embody God’s love in this world.   Baptism, the sacrament through which one entered the way was a symbol of death and resurrection – dying to self to live for Christ.

Elsewhere during that same last night with his disciples, Jesus said, “This is how people will know that you are my disciples… (what? That you will go around and ask people if they have taken Jesus as their personal Lord and savior? No.) “that you love one another.” That we love as He has loved us.

The biggest problem with “Christendom” was that too often the Christians were understood to be who knew the code to unlock heaven’s door. The distinctive way of life that necessarily was lived if Jesus was the Lord of your life was lost.

So again: Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

The funny thing about reason is that it isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be — it isn’t always truly reasonable.  We’re all familiar with the term “rationalize.” Here is the way our religious beliefs often work: We choose certain scriptures to elevate, deciding what you believe to be true.  We then rationalize an argument to support what you already decided was true.  What often that avoid contact (perhaps unconsciously) with persons through whom we might have experiences that would challenge what we have decided to be true. 

Such avoidance doesn’t sound like the way of Jesus, because one of the extraordinary things about him was his willingness to be in relationship with whomever was willing to be in relationship with him.  He accepted the invitation to go to the house of Simon the Pharisee, and then allowed a relationship to arise with the “sinful” woman who crashed the party who wept at his feet.  Perhaps the most striking example of Jesus willingness of Jesus’ part was the intimate conversation he opened up with the Samaritan woman at the well, an outcast from her own Gentile community.

There are two reasons why you will not find gay and lesbian persons in churches that condemn them for embracing the sexuality God gave them, and the first is obvious:  the gay and lesbian persons don’t feel welcomed there.  The second though is more subtle:  if they actually entered relationships with gay and lesbian persons that allowed them to intimately know them would invariably lead them past the stereotypes they had been holding, threatening their unquestioned belief system.

I think there can be something similar at work when we talk about being in relationship with Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists.  If we are willing to be vulnerable (another distinguishing quality of the way of Jesus) and enter into relationship with an open mind and heart with people who believe differently from what we believe, with at least some of these people our hearts will tell us that we are in the presence of a rather “Christ-like” person — or at least someone who is closer to living like Christ than we are.

Now the comeback we will likely hear from people who have convinced themselves that there is no room in the Kingdom of God for anyone except believing Christians is,  “Your suggesting “works righteousness.” Sure, there are plenty of Moslems and atheists and such who do a lot of good works in this world, but you can’t get to heaven by good works.  That’s what God’s word in Paul’s epistles declares:  “We are saved by grace through faith and not by works of the Law.”

To which I would push back by pointing to a couple of other sayings of Jesus that on the surface contradict the fundamentalist interpretation.  One is parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel (10:25 – 37).  Jesus tells the parable in response to a specific question:  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus initial response is to affirm the questioner’s interpretation of the Torah on this point.  He says, love God, and love neighbor.  “Do this, and you will live,” says Jesus, at which point the question arises, “Who is my neighbor?”   A Samaritan (read ‘despised other’) acts out of compassion – no apparent desire for reward – to help a man left half dead at the side of the road, while a priest and Levite (apparently following the Levitical law which says to have contact with a corpse would render them unclean) pass on by on the side of the road.

The other is are the words Jesus says regarding the judgment at the end of the age that determines some to be Sheep (receiving eternal life” and the Goats (those who don’t) (Matt 25:31 – 46) The Sheep are surprised when Jesus rewards them because, he says, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…” (etc.)  because they weren’t doing these deeds for the sake of a reward.  They lost themselves, their self-centeredness, to be able to feel the pain of the other.  The point in both of those stories is that the people doing the good deeds were NOT doing them out of a misguided attempt to win brownie points to get them into heaven.  They did them purely out of compassion.

So there is common ground in all major religions (and with this I would include certain variations of “secular humanism”) in that in some form you find in all of them a version of the golden rule.  You find teachings on humility, and concern for those less fortunate than yourselves.

My knowledge of other religions is extremely limited.  But I think that there are things we can learn from other faith traditions.  From Jews, we can learn the value of keeping Sabbath.  From Islam, the practice of five times a day stopping whatever you’re doing and spending five minutes in prayer facing Mecca to re-center your heart.  My mechanic running is own little garage keeps himself sane and centered by retreating into a back room in his garage for this very purpose.

There is a distinction to be made between having your heart converted and your mind converted; and though ultimately both are to be desired, the conversion of the heart is ultimately more important, and we who honor the example of John Wesley and his strangely warmed heart should particularly appreciate this.   It makes sense to me that there could be all kinds of people in this world who have had their hearts “strangely warmed” by the invisible grace revealed in Jesus Christ, and yet their minds remain unconverted for any number of valid reasons, including that the Christians they know don’t act particularly Christ-like.

Now having said there is common ground, I don’t want to give the impression that in the end all religions are ultimately the same. The differences between Christianity and all other religions are highlighted in the events we remember in this week we call Holy.

I read a book by a scholar on Mohammed, and the impression I was left with was that he was a truly good and great man, who taught many wise and loving things including hospitality to non Moslems, and who, contrary than a frequent perception treated women with more respect than was the norm of his culture. But Mohammed’s religion was a “sensible” religion in the sense that he recognized there are points when the sensible person will set aside this obligation to love people – times to take up the sword and go into battle.  Mohammed never said love your enemies and return good for evil, like Jesus said, and he especially didn’t allow himself to get nailed to a cross as an act of love for the whole world. And I suspect that without the emphasis on salvation through grace, it might be easier to fall into the trap of viewing the spiritual life as a matter of racking up brownie points to earn heaven.

And I don’t know much about Buddha, though I do know he emphasized compassion.  But in my superficial understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and he identified the cause of the inevitable suffering of life to be our natural inclination to attach ourselves to things, and so the path he saw to enlightenment involved detaching yourself from this world There is something similar in the teachings of Jesus when he says “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.”  We get attached to the wrong things.  But we refer to the “passion of the Christ” – that in loving God and neighbor there can be a passionate attachment to this world and the people in it that will break our hearts.   But the heartbreak isn’t the end of the story.

So what distinguishes Christianity are the events that take place in Holy Week, so lets take a quick review of the story as told in the Gospels, in particular Matthew, Mark and Luke.

A quick backup:  Jesus began his ministry in the north country of Galilee in villages where poor peasants lived.  Over the centuries, the farm land had come into possession of the rich, so the peasants worked for the owners of the land who moved to the big cities.  The religious/political/economic elite conspired together to have money flow from the country side to the big cities.  And Jesus threatened the system when he claimed the authority to forgive sin, releasing people from the obligation to make the strenuous trip to Jerusalem where they were required to purchase the unblemished animals to make sacrifice in the Temple to atone for their sin.

Demonic forces recognize Jesus as the anointed one of God, but otherwise he seemed somewhat ambiguous in regard to embracing the identity of the messiah, telling people not to talk about it.   At a certain point he began making his way to Jerusalem, speaking repeatedly to his disciples that he would suffer and die there at the hands of the religious authorities, and rise on the third day.  As he drew near to Jerusalem, he seemed to allow the talk of himself being the messiah to come out into the open, even as it remains clear that his disciples are having a hard time grasping “his way.”  (Of particular note, James and John ask for the top two seats in the kingdom they imagine Jesus is about to bring about.)

His arrival in Jerusalem on a Sunday occurred as thousands of pilgrims were flooding the city for the Passover festival.  He entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey – a fulfillment of a messianic prophecy, but one that suggested one who comes to bring peace rather than a warrior king come for conquest.  He is greeted jubiliantly by a great crowd of peasant followers and Passover pilgrims.

His entrance was in striking contrast to a procession that would have occurred on the same day on the other side of the city in which the Roman governor Pilate entered the city with legions of armed Roman soldiers.  Pilate would have realized that the Passover Festival with its theme of liberation from oppressors and the influx of tens of thousands of Jews would be the time that a rebellion might occur, and so he arrives from his luxury residence down by the seashore with a show of force to intimidate any would be rebels.

All four Gospels contain the story of Jesus entering the Temple and driving out the money changers, though John has the story at the beginning of his Gospel.  Although it is hard to find a portrayal of this event in which Jesus’ isn’t pictured with a whip in his hand, only John’s Gospel mentions him using a whip.

Clearly Jesus was attacking the system that combined religion, politics and economics to oppress the poor of the land.  He referenced the “den of robbers”, implying that the Temple had become a hangout for the elite oppressors of the poor, allowing them to deceive themselves with a veneer of holiness.

Both his triumphant entry, and his driving out of the money changers, are prophetic, symbolic acts, a kind of street theater, providing a sign of the Kingdom of God.  In the immediate present,  Jesus’ procession in no way directly threatened the might on display in Pilate’s procession.  And what Jesus did in the Temple may have briefly shut down business as usual, but by the next day, the status quo would have been back in place.

Nonetheless he represented a threat to the establishment – to the power elite — and his attack on the Temple was essentially the last straw.  But there is a problem.  The crowds love him. And Jerusalem was packed to overflowing during the week of Passover.  The authorities could not “take him out” in the presence of the crowds, or a riot would invariably insued. 

There was an unholy alliance between Jewish religious authorities and the Romans. Both want to keep things quiet, keep the status quo, so business as usual could be carried out.  If the city stayed subservient, paying its tribute to Rome, then Rome would allow the Jewish authorities to do their thing, deriving the wealth and status their positions awarded them.

So every evening, Jesus and his disciples would slip out of the city in the company of thousands of pilgrims to spend the night in villages outside the walls of the city, in their case to the village of Bethany.

And everyday they would come back into the city where Jesus would teach in the Temple. The Religious authorities come to debate him, hoping to trip him up in the eyes of the people.  Their “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Rome” question was a particularly devious one.  Say “pay taxes” and the people would turn against him.  Say “don’t pay” and the Romans would be called in to carry him away.

It was the challenge the authorities faced of not being able to get to Jesus away from the crowds that made Judas’ services so valued.   is to find a way to take him down when Jesus is away from the crowds — which is where Judas comes in.

The Passover Seder meal fell on Thursday evening, and Jesus was determined to hold his Seder in the Holy city of Jerusalem itself.   Jesus directed two of his disciples into the city, where followed pre-arranged plans they inconspicuously followed a man carrying a jar of water (he would stand out because typically women carried water) to an upper room where they would prepare the Seder, so that the authorities would not know the location.

In the midst of the meal, Jesus spoke of a new covenant being established in what was about to happen.  “This is my body broken for you, and this is my blood poured out for many.”  The words are repeated by Paul in 1Corinthians 11:23 -26.  Matthew inserts the words “for the forgiveness of sins”, which is the language of our liturgy of Holy Communion.

At the end of the meal ends, Jesus predicted that the disciples would all fall away. Peter’s vociferously objected, no matter what the others did, he would never abandon Jesus.  Jesus predicted his thrice denial that night.

(To pause to catch up with John’s Gospel:  In his version, Jesus last night is not the Seder meal.  Jesus spends the evening teaching his disciples, preparing him for his departure.  He washes their feet in a sign of His way.  Afterwards, Jesus does not agonize in the Garden of Gethsemane, but from that point on, John closely follows the pattern of the other three Gospels.)

As the meal ends, Judas slipped away to got to the authorities.  He knew where Jesus and the disciples were headed – to the Garden of Gethsemane.  There he prayed.  The disciples fell asleep, unable to keep him company.

Judas led the Temple police to the Garden, where he betrays Jesus with a kiss. All four Gospels report a disciple pulling out a sword and wounding a slave of the High Priest and Luke, Matthew and John portray Jesus telling the disciple to put the sword away.  In Luke Jesus heals the slave.  Jesus points out to those who have come to arrest him that they have done this in the darkness, rather in the daylight in front of the crowds.

They take Jesus first to the High Priest where an emergency session of the Sanhedrin was convened.  They accuse him of threats against the Temple.  They question him as to whether he is in fact the messiah.  Mark says he answered, “I am”, but there is some ambiguity of translation, and it can also be translated, “Am I?”  Matthew and Luke don’t have Jesus giving a straight answer.

He is beaten by the Temple guards and mocked.  While this is happening, all four Gospels portray Peter denying Jesus three times.  This is remarkable.  The leading figure in the movement is portrayed failing Jesus at his hour of greatest need.

In the morning the take Jesus to Pilate.  Legally, it is only Rome that has the authority to execute.  Nailing people to the cross is Rome’s method of execution. Jesus is accused of sedition against Rome.  “Are you the King of the Jews?”  He answers ambiguously.

Luke includes a side trip to the tetrarch of Galilee, a Herod brother.

There was a Passover tradition that the governor would release a prisoner of the crowd’s choosing – an act intended to appease the potentially riotous crowd. The crowd is offered Barrabas or Jesus? We often imagine this crowd to be fickle, made up of the same people who welcomed him on Palm Sunday.  And yet the arrest has all been done in secret to avoid the crowd, so the crowd was more likely a trumped up crowd of followers of the Temple Elite.

Jesus is flogged, mocked and given a crown of thorns to wear.  They begin the march to Golgotha, a hill outside the city gates.  Jesus is too weakened from his beatings to carry the cross, so a Jewish passerby, one Simon of Cyrene is compelled by the Roman soldiers to carry the cross for him.  (In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus had spoken of the imperial right of a Roman soldier to compel a Jew to carry his pack for a mile.  Astonish him, Jesus had said, by your willingness to carry it two miles.)

The sign “King of the Jews” is placed mockingly by the Romans at the top of his cross.  Soldier cast dice to win his garments – of some value in those days.  Two others are crucified with Jesus. They join in mocking Jesus, except in Luke’s Gospel, where one defends him, and asks to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom.  Jesus replies, “this day you will be with me in paradise.”  Luke also has Jesus asking his Father to forgive those who have nailed him to the cross, “for they know not what they do.”  He dies with the words, “into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

Mark and Matthew portray Jesus saying only, “My God, my God, why hast thy forsaken him,” the first verse of the 22nd psalm.  He dies experiencing what it is to feel abandoned by God.  He dies about 3 p.m.  Matthew tells us that the curtain of the Temple was torn in two.

A Centurion present at the foot of the cross declares, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”  In Luke he says, “Truly this man was innocent,” and the crowd beats their breasts in repentance, moved by what they have witnessed in Jesus’ death.

Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man described as a secret disciple offers a tomb for Jesus’ burial.  The women follow as Jesus is placed in the tomb.  The sun is setting, marking the beginning of the Sabbath.  They do not have time to properly anoint his body for burial, but they have seen where his tomb is.

So, what does the story mean?  Why did Jesus end up on a cross?  Clearly he knew he would end up there.  Why did he allow this to happen?

It is universally believed within the Church that with Jesus’ death on the cross, something was accomplished that reconciled people with God.  But how, exactly?

Paul’s phrase perhaps sums it up; it is “the mystery of Christ crucified.” It was the abomination that certain Jews were proclaiming that the messiah was a man who ended up on a cross like a common criminal that led Paul on his journey to Damascus, and it was this crucified but risen Lord that confronted him in a blaze of light, where, to his utter amazement he experienced an outpouring of God’s unmerited love and grace.

There have been various “theories” offered up to “explain” this mystery, which I will get into, but first a quick overview of some relevant passages:

Isaiah 53:4-5 “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

In a story that occurs shortly before Jesus enters Jerusalem, after James and John have shown their cluelessness by asking for the top seats in the kingdom, Jesus concludes his teaching of his way in contrast to the way of this world with this verse:  “For the Son of man also came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Mark 10:45 (repeated in Matthew 20:28)  The word translated “ransom” is the sort that would be paid to win the release of captives.

At the outset of the John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points his followers towards Jesus, twice saying,  “Behold the lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.” In John’s Gospel Jesus dies on the day of Passover.  In the ancient story commemorated on Passover, the Jews were instructed to slaughter an unblemished lamb and to drip the blood over their door frame, so that when the angel of death came to take the first born sons of the Egyptians, it would know to “pass over” the homes of Jews.  For John, Jesus is the ultimate “Passover lamb.”

In John 11:50, the High Priest speaks words that are intended on the level of justifying the execution of Jesus – that if he isn’t executed, the riots that ensue would lead to riots that would lead to the Slaughtering all the people: “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” The author intends for the words to have a deeper meaning.

Paul often speaks of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, but there is debate about how he meant this, and whether if fits into any of what are called “Atonement theories.”  (At-one-ment:  How Jesus’ death makes us one with God.) There are basically three put forth over the history of the church:

First, the “Substitutionary”, or “Satisfaction” Theory of Atonement. God’s justice, and the offence taken at human sin, required that punishment be rendered.  Jesus took the punishment that was due us, winning us forgiveness, once and for all.  At some point this became the dominant theory, but it wasn’t articulated until a thousand years had passed by St. Anselm.  It many Christian circles it remains the primary theory.

If you lived in a culture where it was assumed that animals needed to be sacrificed to atone for sin, then the idea that Jesus has paid the debt once and for would be good news indeed.  But we don’t nor have we for centuries, and the notion that Jesus appeased God’s wrath is, well, frankly appalling.  It doesn’t jive with the image of God Jesus taught of a loving father, “Abba” – “Daddy.  The father who throws the party for the son that comes home after bring shame on the household.  It imagines God is locked into some legal framework that God is powerless to escape.  Where is forgiveness in all this?

Second, there is the “Ransom” theory, and it was put forth earlier than the Substitutionary Theory.  The idea here is that in the “Fall” humanity became subject to the Devil and in order to redeem humanity, a “ransom” had to be paid, and Jesus paid the ransom with his death, setting us free from the devil’s grip.  (In this theory, apparently the Devil didn’t realize the resurrection was a possibility.)

I find this theory more appealing, because Jesus’ death is in some way about the problem of evil in this world.  He spoke of himself as being like a mother hen who would gather her chicks under her wings, referencing a well known phenomenon in which during a fire, hen’s will protect her young, from the heat of the fire, even to the point of death.  John’s image of Jesus as the Passover Lamb suggests that he died protecting us from the consequences of the shared evil of our sin.  That some how he absorbed the evil that otherwise would befall us.

The third is the “Subjective”, or “moral influence theory”.  Christ’s passion was an act of exemplary obedience which affects the intentions of those who come to know about it. Gazing upon the sacrificial love of Jesus dying on the cross for us, our hearts are pierced, moving us to repentance.  This is what happens in Luke’s Gospel with the Centurion and the crowd, and in Acts when Peter preaches about the death of Jesus.  In some form, this theory was present from the start.

Clearly, Jesus came to Jerusalem to confront evil.  One of the problems I have with the “substitutionary theory” is that it can completely takes the story out of the context of justice and oppression that played a big part of the story of Jesus’ death.  The evil Jesus was confronting wasn’t lodged only in individuals; it also resided in institutions, power structures.

Apostle Paul writes this in Ephesians 6:12:  “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The New Testament scholar Walter Wink coined the phrase “Domination Systems” to speak of the evil that resides not in flesh and blood but in the communal structures within which we live out our lives.

In this fallen world, institutions are also simultaneously created to be good and but are tainted, to various degrees with sin, just like individuals.  The way of the world, as Jesus said, is for rulers to “lord it over others.” To dominate and oppress them.  We have all experienced this.  In certain institutional settings – a work place, for instance – there is a toxic spirit that dehumanizes the people who have to function within it.  Other institutions can promote people flourishing, though there is always some darker dimension to every institution.  You can sense this sort of thing in families, churches, governments, and economies.

Were the people of Germany as a whole – as individuals – better than the American People?  I would suggest not.  They were caught up in a demonic system of domination.   Did the Germans people individually bear some guilt for what their nation did collectively?  Yes.  But as Steve pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the seeds for the evil of the Nazis were planted in part by the injustice of how World War I was resolved, and the degree of retribution the allies sought to bring upon the Germans.  There is plenty of guilt to go around. Perhaps in part Jesus was speaking of the way we unconsciously get caught up in the domination systems in which we exist when he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Jesus was crucified through a conspiracy involving the Jewish Authorities and the Roman powers.  At that point in time, Judaism was the most moral religion the earth had ever known.  And Rome was the most noble and humane Empire the world had ever witnessed. (Severe as it seems from our perspective.)

So why did Jesus come to Jerusalem to die?  To speak truth to power.  To witness to the Kingdom of God, which is opposed by the Kingdoms of this world.

Jesus taught that we are not to return evil for evil, but good for evil.  When we seek to contain evil through the use of violence, we are engaging in evil, even though we are compelled to do so at times.  World War II is the ideal example.

But evil isn’t overcome, isn’t healed, by violence.  Only love can do that.  If, as John’s Gospel said, Jesus is the one who came from heaven, then he had experienced the place where there is only love, and knew that to engage in evil is to contradict the deepest truth of creation.  His death planted seeds of the Kingdom of God.

For me, part of the appeal of Christianity is that it is not polyanna about life in this world.  It recognizes the evil, the violence, the injustice.  The most loving man who ever lived ends up getting crucified, and from the point of view of the world, it seems like a sensible thing to do.  The crucifixion expresses this truth.  And it also says that in some mysterious way, God is right here in the midst of the suffering of this world.  We are not, in fact, abandoned.

But the crucifixion isn’t the final word.  The final word is the Resurrection.

There are challenges to believing in the resurrection of Jesus.  I didn’t believe it when I was a college student. I figured that Christianity was just about Jesus’ teaching living on after him.

It is challenging because nothing like it has ever happened in the history of the human race.  It is challenging because the four Gospels, not to mention Paul in 1Corinthians 15:3 – 8 don’t line up in their accounts of what happened after Jesus arose from the dead.

There are minor reasons for believing the story has at its center truth.  These include the fact that the women were the first witnesses to the resurrection.  If you were making up a story, in that day you never would have had women be the first witnesses.  They weren’t consider reliable witnesses in a court of law.  The fact that the Gospel accounts don’t line up oddly also implies that it didn’t matter to the early Church.  If they had a story they were trying to sell that wasn’t true they would have made it line up.

The major reason to believe that there is truth at the core of the story of Easter is this:  There were plenty of other messiah movements that came and went.  Why should this one be different?  What would empower people who weren’t very impressive to begin with to move from grief and self-contempt in the face of the execution of their leader to suddenly turn the world upside down with brave, joyous proclamations of their Good News? To every man and woman the reason was consistent:  they had experienced him alive again.  If Peter and Paul had had some hallucinations of the appearance of Jesus, that would not have been enough to convinced all the others it was true.

A word about resurrection.  Resurrection is a Jewish concept, because for the Jews, there a person doesn’t exist apart from a body.  For the Jews, the concept of the immortal soul, which is what the Greeks taught, was laughable.  Who wants to be a ghost, unattached to a body?  Hence, the body itself was risen.  But Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 15, there is a physical body that dies, and then spiritual body that is eternal that arises.   This is a mystery – one beyond our comprehension that might make it easier to appreciate how it might be that Jesus wasn’t always recognized at first when he appeared walking about in his new resurrected body.

There is a mystery here beyond our comprehension, but the message for us is that in following the way of Jesus, we need not fear death, for we are in good hands.  We will be safe in the arms of our loving God when we take our last breath on earth.

Here is the last point I want to emphasize.  It wasn’t just anybody that God raised from the dead to demonstrate the “victory won” over death.  It was a specific man, with a “Way” of radical love witnessing to God’s intention for this world.  The resurrection of Jesus was God placing God’s stamp of approval upon the “Way” of Jesus – that all that Jesus taught and lived out and expressed in his death – the wonder of the love – is true in the deepest sense of the word.  To live in any other way is to live in contradiction to the deepest truth of God’s creation.

We are called to follow the way, the truth and the life.

Prologue:  Quotes from a book summarizing Walter Wink’s concept of Domination Systems and the evil of powers and principalities:

“Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form – be it a church, a nation, and economy – and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world.  Neither pole is the cause of the other.  Both come into existence together and cease to exist together” (Naming, 5).

The New Testament offers a crucial insight that should govern how we think about all the Powers.  The Powers are simultaneously (1) a necessary part of the good creation, providing the ligaments of human social existence, the structure and even languages that we require to function, (2) part of creation as fallen, with a tendency to seek to usurp God’s centrality and pervert God’s purposes for the good of the whole, and (3) part of creation as the object of God’s redeeming work, seeking to heal and transform brokenness into wholeness.

“To put the thesis of these three volumes in its simplest form: The Powers are good.  The Powers are fallen.  The Powers must be redeemed.  These three statement must be held together, for each, by itself, is not only untrue but downright mischievous.  We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses to be good unless at the same time we recognize that they are fallen.  We cannot face their malignant intractability and oppressiveness unless we remember that they are simultaneously a part of God’s good creation.  And reflection on their creation and fall will appear only to legitimate these Powers and blast hope for change unless we assert at the same time that these Powers can and must be redeemed” (Engaging, 10).

He coins the useful term “domination system” to help us understand our present context.  Only with the aid of the analysis of the role of the principalities and powers in human culture may we make sense of why it is that our structures are so destructive of human well-being.  The domination system operates according to the myth of redemptive violence, and entraps us all in the amazingly self-destructive dynamic of violence responding with violence to violence and on and on.”

Fourth Lenten Talk: The Early Church, John Wesley and the Methodist Movement, and Life after Christendom

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 5:15 pm on Friday, April 7, 2017

In Acts we hear that Jesus before ascending to heaven told his followers to remain in Jerusalem until the had received power from on high.  In Acts 2 we hear how during the festival of Pentecost which brought Jews from all over the known world back to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, the apostles, gathered together, experienced a mighty and loud wind, and something like tongues of fire descending upon them.  They are gifted with the Holy spirit and empowered to speak in languages they don’t know.  A crowd is drawn, and the apostles spill out onto the streets, and people from all over the world hear the good news of the Gospel being preached in their own native tongue.  The barriers that separate us are being overcome.  Some local residents – insiders who expect to hear their language spoken accuse the apostles of being drunk.  Peter stands up, gives a great speech putting the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection in the context of Jewish history, and at the end 3000 persons repent and are baptized.  The chapter finishes with an idyllic picture of the earliest church members selling their possessions and sharing all they have so that all are provided for.  With great expectation, many signs and wonders are witnessed.  The church had been born.

There soon came, however, a push back against the Church in Jerusalem, beginning with the story of Stephen stoning Acts 7, which marked the beginning of a time of persecution.  This was one of the impulses that led the church to go forth from Jerusalem in to the larger world.

Last week we touched on the story of the jump made into the Gentile world by the Church, with Paul playing a crucial role both with developing the theology that made this possible, and by his missionary trips of preaching and church starting.  In Acts 10 but Peter is given credit for playing a key role in convincing the the earliest Jewish Christian leadership to open the Church to Gentiles.  Up on his rooftop one day praying he enters a trance in which he is given a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven in which a wide range of “unclean” animals were secured.   God speaks to him in the dream, commanding him to “get up, kill and eat,” and after Peter’s resistance, declares that what I have called clean you must not call unclean.  Thereafter he meets a Gentile named Cornelius who has been led by the Holy Spirit to come to Peter and receive a message.  Peter tells him the story of the Gospel, after which the Holy Spirit descends on Cornelius and his companions.  Peter realizes that if God does not withhold the Holy Spirit from those who have not been circumcised, who was he to keep them out of the church?

Think about what a powerful change of world view this was for Peter, particularly in the light of the countless scriptural references to quote in support of keeping every law in the Torah.

Consider other instances in history in which the Church has been challenged by the Holy Spirit to give up world views they’d believe their whole lives.  For instance, white Christians who assumed they were innately superior, and that segregation was God’s will.  Methodists split in 1844 over slavery, and weren’t reunited until 1968. Women weren’t ordained until 1956.

And now we are split over the full inclusion of homosexual persons. Here in our church we believe the Spirit has drawn the circle wide, as do a great many other United Methodist Churches in America.  But unfortunately, the delegates who meet every four years at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church have not yet come to that conclusion.  Many of the delegates come from Africa which tends to have very conservative scriptural interpretations regarding sexuality.

To return to the early church – we know the early church wasn’t perfect because Paul’s letters address problems of disunity.   The first Christians didn’t cease to be sinners.  But nonetheless there was a remarkable diversity in the church.  In the Book of Acts:  the first Christians are called “Followers of the Way” – people living the way that Jesus had pioneered, with a simple but compelling core belief:  That Jesus was the crucified and risen Lord.   .

The community of the church was characterized by the themes we identified in the Gospels of Jesus’ ministry.  Love, grace, the care of those who are rejected.  This was compelling to outsiders – something they couldn’t help noticing.

Aristides, an Athenian statesman, and non-Christian, wrote to Emperor Hadrian (117 to 138 AD) describing the common life of Christians:  “They love one another.  They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who hurt them.  If they have something, they give freely to the person who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home as a brother or sister in the spirit, the Spirit of God.”

These early believers did not have church buildings to meet in. They met mostly in homes. The first church buildings did not start to appear until the early 200s.

And this witness at times took place in the midst violent persecution, which was compelling in itself.  Persecution began by Rome began in 64 AD when Emperor Nero falsely accused Christians of starting a fire that destroyed a significant part of the city.  Christians fell under his wrath by their unwillingness to offer homage to the Emperor as a god to be worshipped.  The historian Tacitus, not a Christian, said that Nero had the believers “torn by dogs, nailed to crosses, . . . even used as human torches to illumine his gardens at night.”

But Christians were not under persecution everywhere and all the time. There were specific periods of persecution:  One came 249 AD  Certificates were required by all indicating that they had sacrificed to the Roman gods, which Christians wouldn’t do. The last occurred in 303 AD and lasted eight years. Official decrees ordered Christians out of public office, scriptures confiscated, church buildings destroyed, leaders arrested, tortured and executed.  Then in 311 AD, the Emperor Galerius, shortly before his death, weak and diseased, issued an “edict of toleration.” This included the statement that it was the duty of Christians “to pray to their god for our good estate.”

Then in 313 AD the new Emperor, Constantine converted.   The story passed down is that before a major military battle, Constantine looked up at the sun and saw a cross of light and the Greek words “in this sign, conquer!” He commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol, and they went forth and won the battle, inspiring his conversion.

Up until Constantine’s conversion Christians had viewed themselves by the assumptions underlying the New Testament that they were “resident aliens” — in the world, but not of the world. Now, however Christianity became the official state religion.  Diana Butler Bass describes what happened:

“Constantine built churches, sponsored clergy from state funds and freed them from paying taxes, created Christian academies and universities, fostered the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and collected holy relics.  Persecutions stopped, and the martyr faith became a faith only of memory.  Christians were welcomed into the government and army; indeed, in the next century being a Christian became a requirement for serving in the army.

By the end of Constantine’s reign, Christianity had become completely transformed.  Christians no longer had to be ‘resident aliens’… Instead they held dual citizenship in Rome and the heavenly city.  Or, as seemed to any, with a Christian emperor and a court of bishops, Rome was God’s heavenly city and the kingdom of God had taken up earthly residence.” “A People’s History of Christianity”, pp. 77-78)

Constantine convened the first Church Council in 325 in Nicea, hammering out the precise language regarding how the “divinity of Christ.” It wasn’t until the end of the 4th century that the doctrine of the Trinity was fully articulated.

With Constantine, “Christendom” was born:  Definition:  “The system dating from the fourth century by which governments upheld and promoted Christianity.”

In what ways good, and what ways bad?

Good: The values of the Gospel impact the culture.  The monk Telemachus dies in 391 protesting the inhumanity of gladiators fighting to the death as entertainment, impresses Emperor, within 13 years, there were no more gladiators fighting to death.

For your average peasant in living in the Middle Ages, as wracked full of pain as life typically was, there was an unquestioned assumption that there was a deeper meaning.  (Nowadays, post-Christendom, people often assume life is ultimately meaningless.)

You can see the impact of Christendom on the culture with this line from the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  That “all men are created equal” is not a truth that arises from reason.  Scientists can easily point  out the ways we aren’t equal.  The conviction is a faith conviction arising from our Judeo-Christian heritage, that people are made in the image of God.


The Bad:  Christendom essentially meant accepting the temptation the devil offered to Jesus in the wilderness, to possess all the power of this world.  “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus before Pilate.  Christendom made possible the crusades and Inquistion.  The question, “Are you a Christian?” essentially became irrelevant.  Except for a smattering of Jews, and later some Moslems, everybody was Christian.  Being a Christian had for the most part shifted from following “the way of Jesus”, living a life in community that was radically different from the dominant culture’s way of being in the world, to being simply assent to a set of beliefs.

There were, however, always people in every age who heard the higher call: early on some of these retreated into the desert.  The monastic tradition was in part the place where this was expressed.  The monks were often the ones who had access to the scriptures, since it was in the monasteries that the task of making hand written copies of the Bible was carried out.  There was Saint Francis in the early 12th century who arguably lived the most Christ-like life of any person since Jesus.

So as we talked about last week, over time the scriptures and their interpretation ended up exclusively in the hands of those at the top of the religious hierarchy, which set the stage for Martin Luther, who with his rediscovery of Paul – that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works of the law, lest any man boast – leveled the playing field.  He declared the “priesthood of all believers.”  Once he succeeded in breaking off from the RC, the damn broke, and countless separate churches would follow.

John Wesley was born in 1703, the son of an Anglican Church priest named Samuel.  (The Anglican Church had started inauspiciously when King Henry wanted a divorce and the pope wouldn’t grant it, so he broke off from the RC and started his own English Church.) John’s mother was Susanna, a powerful and disciplined woman who gave birth to 19 children, of which only ten survived infancy.  From his mother John would inherit/learn discipline, organization and strength of will.  At the age of five, John was saved from a fire in the parsonage, apparently set by parishioners unhappy with Samuel’s preaching.  This would be significant memory in his life, akin to Luther surviving the lightning storm at the age of 19.

John went off to Oxford University where he latched on to the idea in something he read that you can’t be a half a Christian – you have to go the whole way.  (In certain ways he replays the script of Paul the Pharisee and Martin Luther the monk doing more penance than any other monk.)  He gathers around him other like-minded young me who dedicate themselves to living out their faith in Christ.  They study scripture do good deeds, like helping the poor and visiting in prisons.  They are so “methodical” in the way they go about living out their faith that they are mocked by their fellow Oxford students who call them “Methodists.”  The name sticks.

Upon graduation and ordination as an Anglican priest, John is presented with two options:  take over his father’s parish, or travel across the pond to become the chaplain to the colony of Georgia.  The latter option appeals to him as an opportunity to get away from the corruptions of sophisticated urban life in England, and he imagines going to the simple hearted Native Americans and converting them to Christianity.

Things don’t go well for him in Georgia.  The Indians are not particularly responsive to his preaching, and his controlling personality that leads him to exercise a tight grip over the  European settlers congregation he leads does not win many friends.  He institutes innovations folks don’t care much for.  And… he falls in love with a nineteen year old Sophie Hopkey, a feeling he has little experience with.   His courtship seems to have consisted of teaching her Greek and Hebrew (Terry Germann suggested he would have done better with candy and flowers) and she grows impatient waiting for a marriage proposal and ends up eloping to marry another man.  John does not handle this well, and when she comes to the communion rail to receive from him the Lord’s Supper, he turns her away, stating that she has broken rules in the manner in which she got married.  Sophie’s husband brings a lawsuit against John for defamation of character, and other lawsuits come from other parishioners unhappy with his ministry.

John figures it was better to sneak out of town quietly, so he catches a boat back to England, a defeated, broken man.   In the course of the boat ride there is a great storm and he and others fear for their lives, but on board the boat is a small group of Moravian Christians, a small German sect who ride out the storm calmly singing hymns.  He recognizes that they have something he doesn’t.

John kept a journal throughout his life in which he could be brutally honest.  Upon returning to England he writes, “I want to America to convert the Indians; but oh!  Who shall convert me?  Who, what is He that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief.  I have a fair summer religion.” Spiritually speaking, he has hit rock bottom, seen his darkest, most sinful self in spite of all his efforts to dedicate himself to Godly living.   He begins hanging out with the Moravians.  He describes in his journal about a year after returning to England how he went “unwillingly” to a prayer meeting on a street called Aldersgate.  The leader was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s writings, and John describes in his journal what happened next:

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

In what follows he describes having a love flood into his heart that led him to pray for anybody who had ever wronged him.  John had been reborn.

The Industrial Revolution was just beginning, leading poor people to come to the cities from the farms to work in mines and eventually in factories.  The working poor were in sorry state, and for the most part not found inside Church of England buildings.  An outreach had begun to take the gospel to the people.  About a year after “having his heart strangely warmed,” John accepted an invitation from an old Oxford friend, George Whitfield to come and take leadership in this movement.   The sophisticated man accustomed to living in refined settings embraced the invitation, describing it this way:     “At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the (Bristol) highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”

John had found his calling.  Over the next fifty years it is estimated he rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, and gave away 30,000 pounds to help the poor.  “Earn all you can, save all you can, give away all you can,” was one of his sayings.

“The world is my parish,” was another.  This implied two things.  First, that Christians should get outside of church buildings to go into the world where people were hurting and do what they could to make a difference.  And two, John was bound to end up in conflict with the Anglican Church establishment.  There were parish priests who didn’t appreciate his frequent invasion into their turf.

The concept of the new birth, the theme of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, with central to John’s understanding of the Christian life.  Conversion was necessary.  But John recognized that if you lead people into an experience of the good news — of being born anew — and then  support networks aren’t in place to encourage them on their journey forward, well, you would be “raising up children for the devil.”  They would end up disillusioned and worse off than when they began.

And so John made three requirements of those who were converted, embracing an identity as “Methodists.”  First, they had to attend their local Anglican church for worship and to receive the sacraments.  Second, they had to be a part of a “society” — a gathering of people in their community who met at least monthly for preaching and revival.  And third, within their society that had to join a smaller group of perhaps a dozen people called a “class meeting” in which they would share their experiences with one another – address the question, “how goes it with you and the Lord,” and hold one another accountable to stay on the path of discipleship.

that would meet approximately  join a class meeting.

John had a younger brother Charles who assisted him in his work by writing hymns – 6000 of them – which would be sung at society and class meetings.  It was through singing that the Methodists would learn their theology, which was imbedded into familiar, sing able songs.  Hence, there is a long tradition of Methodist being people who love to sing.

You may recall from our first session regarding the balancing act regarding the paradox that as human beings we are simultaneously “made in the image and likeness of God” and “sinners” help captive to a destructive power associated with the “Fall.”

Luther with his rediscovery of Paul and his personal experience of trying so despairingly to work out his salvation through the framework of the RC of his day came down heavy on the sinner side.  For Luther, the image of God was essentially lost in the Fall.  For Luther in that moment of time his emphasis on “we are all sinners saved by grace” – that we always will be sinners during our life time on earth, leveled the playing field in a way badly needed.  He proclaimed the “priesthood of all believers” bringing the priests down to our level.  In theory, this understanding lifted the burden of wearing yourself out trying to earn God’s love.   But with the emphasis on how we are and always will be sinners, in practice the life that emanated from that belief system often led to a lot of guilt.  Luther declared we have no free will.  His reaction to the abuses of the Catholicism of his day led to a lot of pessimism regarding the capacity for any of us changing in any significant way.

Wesley came out to a more balanced place in regard to being a sinner and while still being made in the image of God.  Wesley was a brilliant scholar, but he was also pastor/preacher out in the world involved in the Christian walks of many, many people.  He saw in the societies and class meetings the lives of people being transformed – becoming more loving, sacrificial, disciplined, etc.  As a result society as well.  The social conditions at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution had the impact of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.  In France the outcome was the bloody French Revolution, in which the poor rose up with violence to take down the monarchy.  Historians believe that one of the reasons England didn’t suffer a similar fate was because of the Methodist Movement.  On a grass roots level, people were being empowered to stand up for themselves, and in turn, work together to get laws passed that kept workers from having to work twelve hours a day seven days a week, that protected children and led to public education.

One way to see Wesley and his movement is a return to our roots in the early church.

While sharing Luther’s emphasis on the centrality of grace in salvation, but he identified three separate forms of grace.  First, he spoke of “prevenient grace”, which is the love of God that comes to us well before we ever make a conscious move towards God.  It is the love of the Good shepherd out searching for the lost sheep, well before the sheep is found.  Second, there is “justifying grace” – the focus of Luther’s theology – the grace that is ours in repentance that makes us right with even though we are sinners, all because of the graciousness of God’s gift.  It is the grace that brings about the new birth.   Wesley put a lot of emphasis on what he called  “sanctifying grace” – the grace of God that works within us to bring about a transformation of our lives – leading to holiness, which for Wesley was all about love.  He believed in the possibility that in this life a person could be made perfect in love – as Jesus was perfect in love.  He did not claim it for himself, or in other specific individuals, but made it clear that it should be our goal.

Wesley believed that for most people on this journey full sanctification – the perfection of love – doesn’t occur until the moment of our deaths.   This makes sense to me.  I believe that when we die and wondrous light and the unconditional love appears before us – Jesus inviting us to come – we will find the grace to finally truly let go of that which has clung to our hearts through the course of our lifetime, keeping us from being able to love the way Jesus loved.  We will enter that place where God’s will is perfectly done, and there is nothing but love.

John Calvin was a reformer who came short on the heels of Martin Luther.  I said earlier that whether we acknowledge it or not all of us choose certain scripture passages to give more authority and use them to interpret the rest of scripture.  Calvin took note of certain passages – for instance verses in Romans 8 – where it speaks of people being predestined to be justified and sanctified – the chosen few – and built a theology around it.  Hence, the doctrine of predestination that says that from the beginning of time God chose who would be saved and who would be damned.   Pretty absurd, frankly.

Wesley rejected predestination.  God, he said wants all to be saved.

Wesley identified four sources in discerning truth about God:  The first and most important was scripture.  The second was tradition.  (When people say today that “I am spiritual but not religious”, it is an understandable sentiment implying they have found organized religion unhelpful for their spiritual journeys.  It is an understandable sentiment, but there is a bit of arrogance in the sentiment, and for it suggests that they have nothing to learn from 2000 plus years worth of experiences and reflections of the generations of peoples who came before them regarding the nature of God.  The third source is reason.   God gave us brains and God intended us to use them.  We don’t have respond like the church did to Copernicus his reasonable exploration of the night’s sky led him to conclude that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around.  They though the conclusion contradicted the Biblical account and lessened the significance of earth in the big scheme of things, so they locked Copernicus up.  Scripture, tradition, and reason were sources Wesley inherited from the Anglican Church, but he added a fourth, and that is experience.  It references the truth that Wesley recognized when his heart was strangely warmed.  There are certain things we know to be true that come from our heart rather than our reason.  This also affirms that God is not just an abstract idea but a reality that can be experienced.

It was Wesley who coined the phrase, “agree to disagree”, when he was having a disagreement with his old friend George Whitfield in regard to what he called “the inessentials of theology.”  “If your heart is as my heart,” Wesley said, “give me your hand.” There is a tradition of tolerance for varying opinions within the Methodist tradition.

In the conflict over full acceptance of homosexual persons into the life of the United Methodist Church, one of the solutions offered up by the more progressive wing was to change the present language of the Book of Discipline — which says homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching, and outlaws the ordination of openly gay person and clergy officiating at the weddings for gay persons – to a wording that simply stated it is a complex subject that sincere Christians can disagree on.  The conservative wing has rejected this compromise, even though it would seem to be a part of our Wesleyan heritage.

So, let us return to the subject of “Christendom” which we defined as “the system dating from the fourth century by which governments upheld and promoted Christianity.” Christendom no longer holds sway in the West.  When did Christendom come to an end?  One of the first markers of it’s death was the creation of the Bill of Rights in 1791 that endorsed our freedom to choose our religion, and put forth the principle of the separation of church and state.  In spite of this sound principle, Christendom more or less continued for another 160 years or so.   Most people in America identified themselves as Christians who attended Church on Sunday.  Soccer games and shopping and who knows what else was not scheduled for Sunday, the day of Sabbath.  Clergy were highly respected figures in society.  (Much as I might like it otherwise, the society at large doesn’t stop to listen whenever I speak.)

Often people bemoan the fact that we are no longer where we were back in the fifties, when, “If you build it” (a church sanctuary) “they will come.”  Worship attendance has been in steady decline.  But the case can be made that the cultural context we find ourselves is an opportunity.  That it resembles that which the church encountered in the first 280 years or so of its life in the Roman Empire.  The challenge, in this way of seeing things, is for the church to truly carve out an identity like that of the early church – a community that lives together and carries out a mission to the this world and its suffering that distinguishes it from other people and institutions.

Here are a few statistics to end with.  In America in 2014 the religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) accounted for 23% of the population, up from 16% in 2007.  Not surprisingly, young adults are most prominent among the “nones”.  In spite of this, in America 89% of us still say that at least part of the time we believe in God, which is remarkably high among “advanced industrial countries.”

People readily admit to a spiritual longing.  But often they are not finding it in church.  Why is this so?  What would it take for us to come to more closely resemble more early church that so clearly addressed the spiritual hunger of people in the larger society?

Third Lenten Talk: The Apostle Paul and Martin Luther

Filed under: An Overview of Christianity in Five Sessions -- Lent 2017 — Pastor Jeff at 8:14 pm on Wednesday, March 29, 2017

My Presentation of the Apostle Paul (and a Little about Martin Luther.


Thirteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament are attributed to the Apostle Paul, and so it is indisputable to say that next to Jesus, he had the biggest hand in shaping how we understand the Christian faith.  (Scholars disagree on how many of the thirteen letters Paul actually wrote.  Only seven are unanimously agreed on: Romans, 1Corinthians, 2Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1Thessalonians and Philemon.   The others are thought by some scholars to have been written later by what we might call disciples of Paul.

Like many other Jews spread throughout the Roman Empire (the “Diaspora”), Paul (“Saul” was his Hebrew name) grew up outside of Palestine, in the port city of Tarsus, one of the largest trade centers on the Mediterranean coast.  It was known for its university, and so Paul would have exposed to a range of culture and religious and philosophical ideas.  Innately brilliant, Paul wrote and spoke Greek.  In Acts we learn that Paul was a Roman citizen, an inheritance from his father that gave him certain privileges.

The Jewish people have always stood out in their ability to maintain their identity by cherishing their traditions while living far from their homeland, and so it was with Paul. He was raised in a family of devout Jews of the Pharisaical tradition, committed to keeping the laws of the Torah .

In Acts we learn that when he was young, Paul was sent to Jerusalem to receive his education at the school of Gamaliel, one of the most noted rabbis in history.  Along with study of the Torah and the prophets, his education would have involved broad exposure to Greek literature, philosophy and ethics.

So Paul had simultaneously a deeply devout Jewish identity combined with a keen intellect exposed to the higher realms of thought floating through the “Gentile” world, making him uniquely suited for the role he would play in the development of Christian theology and the spread of the Gospel.

Although they were contemporaries, there is no evidence that Paul met Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime.  To get a picture of the time frame, Jesus was crucified around 33 AD, and the first letter we have of Paul’s — 1Thessalonians – was written in 52 AD, and Paul is believed to have been executed in Rome between 64 and 68 AD.   The first Gospel, that of Mark, was written in 70 AD.  Apart from the crucifixion and the resurrection, Paul has essentially no direct reference to material contained in the four Gospels.

Most of what we know regarding Paul’s life is through the Book of Acts, the second book written by Gospel writer Luke, which describes the early years of the Church’s history.  Half of Acts is devoted to Paul’s story.  Paul himself says that he began as persecutor of the earliest Christians.  Paul held the prevailing interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures that declared it a blasphemous idea that the messiah could end up nailed to a cross like a common criminal.

In Acts 7 we hear of “a young man named Saul” who is present when Stephen, the first Christian martyr is stoned to death after preaching a sermon calling people of the city of Jerusalem to repent.  As Stephen dies with a vision of heaven and Christ-like words of forgiveness on his lips, Saul is said to have given his approval to the execution. (8:1)

In Acts 9 Saul sets out for the city of Damascus breathing threats of violence with letters from the high priest in hand authorizing him to arrest any he finds there “belonging to the Way” and bring them back “bound” for trial in Jerusalem.  As Saul approaches the city we hear of the world’s most famous conversion experience:  “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.”  He hears the voice saying “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  After the voice identifies himself as Jesus, Saul is told to proceed into Damascus where he “will be told what to do.”  Saul is left blinded for three days, during which time he neither eats nor drinks.  By supernatural guidance by the glorified Jesus, a Christian name Ananias is led to Saul, overcoming his reluctance because of Saul’s reputation for persecuting Christians.   Ananias places his hands on Saul’s eyes, and “something like scales” falls from his eyes allowing Saul to regain his sight.   Saul is baptized, and shortly thereafter begins preaching that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. The author of Acts begins to refer to him as “Paul,” his Latin name.  Later in Acts the story of Paul’s conversion is retold two more times, with slight variations.

Three years after his conversion, Paul makes a trip to Jerusalem to meet with the original church leaders such as Paul and James, and after some initial conflict he receives from them authorization to preach the Gospel to the Gentile world, and to do so without requiring Gentiles first become Jews — such as for the men to be circumcised — before become Christians.  (More on this later.)  Acts goes on to describe three extensive missionary journeys Paul makes throughout cities in the Roman Empire, preaching the Gospel, making converts and starting churches.

Paul suffers greatly for his faith in Christ, including losing his stature in the Jewish community, calling all that he has lost just so much rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ.   loses rubbish in contrast to knowing Christ.  You can check out in 2Corinthians 12 Paul’s only inventory of various sufferings and persecutions he endured along the way for the cause of Christ.   He ends up a prisoner in Rome, where legend has it he died between 64 and 68 he was put to death by order of Emperor Nero.

Paul kept in touch with the various churches by writing letters – the letters found in our New Testament.  It is in these letters that Paul’s theology is developed.

So Paul had this mind-blowing experience of the risen Christ, which turns his world upside down.  In his letters Paul does not tell the story of his conversion in the manner told in Acts, other than to say that “God was pleased to reveal to me his son.”  He is insistent that the Gospel he received did not come from some human being but rather directly by revelation from God.

In 2 Corinthians 12 in the midst of getting defensive in response to challenges to his authority put forth by certain teachers who claim ecstatic visions, Paul writes in the third person about an experience he himself underwent – perhaps his conversion:

”I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat….”

He goes on to speak of a “thorn in the flesh” given to him by God to keep him from being too elated, and that he prayed three times to have the thorn taken away.  It didn’t happen.  The answer he got was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So Paul underwent this extraordinary visionary experience that changed him forever, but the experience itself contained little specific content, other than that he was completely wrong in in his previous belief that it was blasphemous to confess Jesus, the crucified one as Lord, and the recognition that what he though was his righteous hatred was straight out sin.  Absolutely humbled, Paul set out to use his powerful intellect to make sense of what he had experienced within the context of his Jewish faith.

He uses the word “mystery” 18 times, and at the heart of the great mystery is “Christ Crucified.”  He acknowledges that it doesn’t make any worldly sense.   1Corinthians 1:22b-25” “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

The central theological truth he comes to is this:  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  He asserts that, “All have fallen short of the glory of God,” that we are all sinners who can only be saved by God’s grace, not by works of the Law.  This is the theology that opens the door to Gentiles.  And it is no small thing, because for the Jews, God’s gift of the Law was everything.

Paul studies the Torah and finds this verse upon which he hinges this claim regarding Abraham, the original patriarch of the Jews.  At an old age Abraham and Sarah, without children of their own leave behind their homeland to follow a call from God to go to land that God promises will be inhabited by a great nation of descendants.  Time passes, and in a moment of doubt, when Sarah still has not conceived a child in her womb, God takes Abraham out under the night sky and tells him to count the stars if he can, for his descendants will be more numerous than the stars.  And then the verse upon which Paul rested his case:  “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) Righteousness was not an achievement earned by works of the law, but a gift received by faith in the Lord.

Paul’s favorite word becomes “grace:” the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

Paul’s letters were written in response to various problems that arose in the churches, one of which was that certain Jewish Christians still insisting on the circumcision of Jewish converts.

“Neither circumcision or non-circumcision matters, but rather a new creation,” declares Paul. He says that it is “No longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In this new creation, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female.  His encounter with Christ has led him to see that all the inequalities that separate people have been done away with.

Paul seems to contradict himself later when he talks about the role of women in the church, saying they should keep quiet and cannot hold leadership positions, adopted the cultural norms of the day and declaring them God-sanctioned.  Some scholars suggest that these passages aren’t the authentic Paul, but only adaptations to the patriarchal culture as time passed.     Paul also states in one place that it is best to stay single like him, but if you have to, go ahead and get married.

In his little letter to Philemon Paul addressed a man he has brought to Christ.  Philemon has had a slave named Onesimus runaway, and he has ended up with Paul, serving him as his assistant.  Although Paul doesn’t seem to challenge the legitimacy of slavery as an institution, he does implore Philemon to welcome back Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother.

A major problem Paul confronted in churches was that in declaring we are free from the requirements of the Law, there was ample opportunity to abuse this freedom.  Our freedom is not for the sake of self-indulgence, but rather for the sake of love.  Hence, the great love chapter — 1Corinthians 13 — describes the more excellent way of exercising one’s freedom.  (In the letter of James, the author seems to debate Paul, or at least challenge the abuses that arise when faith is simply belief, and faith isn’t manifest in good works of compassion on behalf of the poor.

So let us return to the curious fact that although Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, there is no evidence he ever met Jesus and nor do his letters make any reference to what is found in the four Gospels other than the death and resurrection of Jesus.   There are some who have accused Paul of corrupting the message of Jesus.  What connections can we make thematically between Paul’s writings and what we find in the four Gospels?

Although Paul’s favorite word “grace” rarely used in the Gospels, the God revealed in Jesus is clearly gracious.  Jesus kept the company of the public sinners the Pharisees would reject – that’s grace.  His parables – the prodigal son in particular, speaks of grace.  The son that has broken his father’s heart, brought shame on the family, and squandered his inheritance is welcomed back by the father with open arms who throws a party to celebrate the return of the man who remains his son.  That’s grace.

In the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus, seeing that the man had an idolatrous attachment to his wealth tells him, “One thing you lack.  Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” He can’t do it.  Jesus goes on to say it is more likely that a camel will fit through the eye of a needle than a rich man will make it into the Kingdom of God, which stuns the disciples who assume that the man’s prosperity is a sign of God’s favor.  “Who then can be saved?” they ask.  Jesus answers.  “With people it is impossible.  But with God, all things are possible.” We can’t save ourselves; God’s grace saves us.

Paul’s call to follow the more excellent way of love, and his frequent calls for humility echo similar commands of Jesus.  When Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ that lives in me,” he seems to be getting at the same idea as Jesus when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  Luke 9:23,24.

I said when we were talking about the themes of the Gospels is that as time passes I am more and more struck by the presence of the theme of vulnerability.  Jesus sends his disciples out into the world to preach the Gospel without money or weapons, in a completely vulnerable state.  In doing so they will rely on the kindness of strangers, experience grace and learn to live by faith.  And of course Jesus himself goes to Jerusalem in a completely vulnerable state, refusing to defend himself against those who come to arrest him, allowing himself to be tortured and then executed.  Similarly, Paul, as we noted is simply blown away by the “mystery of Christ crucified” and has these frequent statements about God’s power revealed through human weakness. “When I am weak, then am I strong.”

In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus speak to Nicodemus of the need for being born anew, or from above and born from the Spirit.  Paul doesn’t use the metaphor of birth, but he does express the same idea when he speaks of becoming in Christ a “new creation,” because God’s spirit now lives within us.

I want finish talking about Paul by pointing out the combined impact of the Nicodemus story, where the phrase “born again” Christian – a 20th century term – arises, and the example of the dramatic conversion of Paul.  We do need to be born from above, but too often the assumption has been that this necessarily involves a decisive moment of conversion in the pattern of Paul’s conversion.   Sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t.  In John’s Gospel one of the themes is that people come to faith in range of ways, and in stages, and that this often can be thought of as an ongoing process rather than a singular event identifiable in particular moment in time.  Often Christians have been led to feel as though they aren’t the real deal because they didn’t undergo such a dramatic rebirth.  That shouldn’t be the case.

So now we jump forward 1400 years.  For the vast majority of this time the actual Scriptures themselves, as well as their interpretation have been the sole possession of the clergy.  But then Gutenburg (1398 – 1468) builds his printing press that makes books – and in particular the Bible – far more accessible.  The sole translation of the Bible in use was a Latin one, that is until Erasmus (1466 – 1536) goes back to the original Greek and brings forth a more accurate translation.  For instance, the word “repent” used by John the Baptist and Jesus had been translated “do penance.”   Whereas repent means turn your life around — begin walking with God — doing penance suggests paying for your sins.  As the centuries past, the message of Paul had gotten lost in part because of a lack of access to the scriptures themselves.

Gutenburg and Erasmus set the stage for the impact that Martin Luther would make on the Christian world.

Martin Luther’s father was a miner who wanted his intellectually gifted son to be a lawyer.  One night travelling back from the university in a severe storm, lightning nearly struck him.  Certain that he was going to die, cried out to God.  “Save me!  I will become a monk!” He survived the storm and entered a monastery 1506, much to his father’s displeasure.

He understood God to be wrathful and judgmental.   The Church led him to believe that God forgave sins only from works of penance.  With a rather obsessive, perfectionist personality he set out to outwork all the other monks. He out-fasted them. He out-prayed them. He slept in his cold cell without blankets. His mind was set on escaping purgatory and hell.  But in spite of all his effort, he could not escape a perpetual guilty conscience and an absence of peace.

A wise superior in the monastery responded to his spiritual agony by directing him to focus his attention on the study of the Bible.  And so over the next few years he devoted his obsessive nature towards becoming a Bible Scholar, eventually becoming a professor at the University in Wittenburg.  In time his attention got focused on Paul, whose writing he struggled over endlessly.  He locked onto Paul’s usage of the phrase “the righteousness of God.”

“I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which . . . [I had understood as that] with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. . . . I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. . . . Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted!” (Luther’s Works, vol. 34, pp. 336–37)

Eventually the breakthrough came when he realized that God counts us righteous by virtue of faith in Christ.  It is a gift of grace.

With this discovery he began to preach against the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church of the time, in particular, the practice of “indulgences.”  In 1507 Pope Julius II commissioned indulgences to be sold moving forward to generate funds to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.  The leader of the effort to sell indulgences was a monk named John Tetzel.  “Indulgences,” he would say, “are God’s precious gifts. When your money rattles in the chest, your sins are forgiven. Pay for the sins of loved ones who are dead, and they will escape from purgatory to heaven.”

Luther wrote and preached against indulgences, attracting the attention of Tetzel.    On October 31, 1517, intent on disciplining Luther, Tetzel traveled to Wittenberg.  As Tetzel approached, Luther responded by nailing to the door of the church his 95 “theses” or statements that spoke out against indulgences and other false teachings of the church.  He declared, “Pardon for sin is from Christ, full and free!” The Protestant Reformation had officially begun.

Other issues Luther had the church included doing penance, the veneration of saints, purgatory, and the supremacy of the Pope.  Commanded to retract his teaching, Luther responded,

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and reason—for I neither trust in popes nor in councils since they have often erred and contradicted themselves—unless I am thus convinced, I am bound by the texts of the Bible. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”

In response to the hierarchy of the church, Luther’s bold reclamation of Paul’s teaching led to a level playing field.  We are all sinners saved by grace.

A consequence of this leveling of the playing field was that there was within Luther’s theology a severe pessimism about human nature.  He stated straight out that as fallen creatures, we possess no free will.

Next week we will turn our attention to John Wesley.  Though he followed Luther’s the emphasis upon the centrality of grace in salvation, Wesley managed to come out in a place of greater optimism about the possibilities of we human beings actually changing and becoming more truly loving in the manner of Jesus.