Disciple’s Journey – Service

Pole Steeple trail

I have noticed over the last decade or so a shift within the protestant church.  For years our work in the world had been simply about individual salvation – bringing the gospel to the world one person at a time.  Our goal was to see more sinners become saints and even our mission work had that as its primary objective.  But more and more the shift has been toward serving people in Christ’s name.  We have come around to the understanding that a person cannot hear the gospel when their stomach is growling, when there is nowhere to rest their head, and no place to find security.  Maybe we’ve simply realized that people are hurting in a variety of ways and the hurt has to be addressed so that spiritual healing might follow.  Or maybe it is just my imagination running away with me…

One of our fundamental beliefs is that every professing and baptized member of the church is endowed by the Holy Spirit with a spiritual gift.  This spiritual gift is intended by God to be used in service to the faith community and in the world beyond.  The key is for each of us to know what our gifts are and to be aware of the moments where our gifts can be put to use.

Not long ago ABC News had a series on television titled “What Would You Do?”  It was hosted by John Quinones and the idea was to put people in ethical dilemmas and through a hidden camera film their response or lack thereof.  They tested the unknown public to see how they would respond when thrust into real-life situations of racism, teen trouble, homophobia, bad parenting, elderly abuse, obesity and weight issues, bullying, and on.  The question was “how many people would witness an injustice and actually be bold enough to confront it?”

We don’t need to watch a television show or the news to see injustice in our world – it is around us day in and day out.  There are ample opportunities in our little worlds to witness and respond to situations that are wrong and harmful – if we are moved to do so.

Have you ever wondered why so many people aren’t moved to respond to injustice in the world?  Here are a couple of reasons that I thought of; I’m sure there are more.  Maybe the issue of injustice is simply too big – because of its global nature it is too far spread, in a land that is too far away, or at a scale that it seems insurmountable.  Or it could be that the issue is so deeply rooted that it is incurable (such as poverty, disease, national or interpersonal hostility).  Or maybe we are moved because it doesn’t fit within our religious or political worldview.  There are ample reasons (or excuses) that we can muster up for not getting involved when we encounter injustice in the world.

And yet I would say that our efforts, no matter how great or how small can and would make a difference in the world around us, in the lives that we would encounter.  Bonaro Overstreet, an American poet, wrote these words:  “You say the little efforts that I make will do no good:  they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in the balance.  I don’t think I ever thought they would.  But I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.”  I believe the ethical call of all people who claim the title “Christian” is to let the stubborn ounces of our weight fall on the side of justice.  This is our daily act of acceptable worship of God!

Many of us are under the impression that acceptable worship applies only to the hour we are together on Sunday.  Acceptable worship is the right dress, the right code of conduct, in the right worship style at the right time.  We’ve boiled it down to a particular form and function based upon preferences for a particular group of people and when the leaders uphold the expectation and standard, worship is acceptable.

But the author of Hebrews reminded his audience that acceptable worship is not based upon our judgment but rather on what God finds acceptable.  And that acceptable worship is how we live every second of every minute of every day.  The Hebrews author lists 13 exhortations – a quick list because the original audience knew them well; they were customary things, traditions for them and so they did not need extensive teaching on them.  But they did need reminding because they were missing the mark on acceptable worship.  They were not using their gifts to serve others and thus their worship of God was unacceptable.  The Hebrews like others before them and billions after them were given spiritual gifts to show hospitality, help those in prison or being mistreated, and for doing good while sharing with those in need.  But like so many they had failed to do so, forgotten along the way and needed to be reminded what holistic worship of God is.

So how many of us are living a life of worship that is acceptable to God because we are also using our spiritual gifts to serve when and wherever needed?

John Wesley was a member of a holy club while studying at Oxford.  They were a group who had a particular regimen when it came to reading scripture, praying together, having communion, and holding each other accountable for confession of sins and repentance.  But they also went beyond these acts of personal piety; they were known to have visited the sick at the local hospital, to go and be present with children who resided in the local orphanage and they visited those who had been imprisoned.  This was not normal in Wesley’s day – these were not the activities of the people of the Anglican Church but he and his companions felt that it was all a part of their worship of God.  In the Wesleyan tradition we have a saying – “there is no personal holiness without social holiness; there is no social holiness without personal holiness.”  They are two sides of the same coin and they cannot be divided.  The weight of our stubborn ounces should be generously given to “loving God and loving our neighbor.”

The body of Christ is gifted by the Holy Spirit with all that is necessary for its full life together and for mission in the world.  All of us are exhorted to use our gifts to serve others rounding out our acceptable worship of God.  So, what is your spiritual gift?  If you do not know there are several on-line tests that you can take that will give you immediate results.  On the UMC.org website there is a test that you can use.  Then you can research the definition of your gift, what your gift is intended for and where it can be used to glorify God.

You might not think your gift matters to the church or the world but I would argue that it takes all of us participating in God’s kingdom work for the vision of God to unfold.  We are all a unique piece of God’s puzzle portrait – without our piece in the place God designed us for, there is a gap that no one else can fill.  Your spiritual gift and its presence in the community and world is vital to God’s purposes.  Combined the weight of all our stubborn ounces will make a difference here and beyond.  I know that I want my worship of God to be complete and acceptable; I am confident that you desire the same.  So what are you going to do about it?

Blessings for the journey!

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Disciple’s Journey – Gifts

I am amazed and perplexed at the amount of freedom that we have, especially as a 21st century person who is a citizen of and lives in the United States.  We are free to speak, to pursue our interests, to utilize our time the way we want, and to move about the country and world pretty much as we please and are able.

As Christians we are a people who are free to worship God and as United Methodists we speak of this in relationship to our time, our talent and our treasure.  For those of us who exercise our freedom to generously give of these three elements we do so because we believe that God’s vision and mission emerges through our participation.  We are free to be a part of what God intends and is doing in the world.  But not all of us are convinced of the need personally or globally for generosity and so we exercise our freedom in other ways – many of them focused on ourselves.

A few weeks ago we celebrated the anniversary of our independence as a nation.  In June of 2015 we will mark the anniversary of the ratification of the constitution that was written in 1788.  In this document we are granted freedoms as citizens of this country.  One of those is the freedom of religion (not from religion).  The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law restricting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  The framers of the constitution included this amendment in response to history, notably European history.

Here is an example.  In 1685 the Edict of Fontainebleau was issued making it illegal to be a protestant in France.  The religion of the king was Catholicism and thus it was mandatory that all subjects to the French king convert and practice his religion.  For the next 100 years thousands of protestant men who refused to convert were sentenced to row in the galleys of the French navy.  Thousands of protestant women who refused to convert were sentenced to life in prison.  The children of protestants who refused to convert were sent into foster care to be raised in the home of a practicing Catholic family.  In 1787, the same year the constitution was finalized, affirmed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, the French Reformed Church finally gained recognition and the freedom to practice its traditions after 100 years of persecution.

Now don’t get me wrong – this is simply one example out of many and the persecution crosses both ways.  It was not just Catholics persecuting protestants – the protestants had their turn as well.  There is a phrase that describes this time in European history regarding church and state – “the religion of the prince was the religion of the people.”  And no other religion was tolerated.

It was this and hundreds more years of the history of this practice that may have influenced our founding fathers in the writing of the religion clause – so that we might have freedom of religion regardless of which political party was in charge.  What I hope we gain is a sense that we should not take for granted a right that our fore fathers intentionally designed for us.  And that we have the freedom to accept God’s invitation to live intentionally for his mission and purposes.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addressed a large crowd of people and during his teaching he addressed a number of topics – one of them was the focus on treasure.  Ben Worthington, a biblical professor and author suggests that we look at Matthew 6:19ff in light of the prayer that Jesus had taught to his followers; the prayer is an outline for what was taught and 6:19-24 serves as an amplification of the first 3 petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

1) Hallowed by your name

2) Thy kingdom come

3) Thy will be done

I would posit that Jesus’ point of emphasis is to answer the question, “what are you focusing on in life?”  Here is a key idea for you to remember - focus defines purpose which defines action or as Matthew records Jesus as saying “whatever your eye focuses on becomes your ‘master.’”  For many of us our treasure is what we are focused on and it is our master and we use our freedom to pursue whatever our heart desire is.

Historians who study culture, practices and beliefs have determined that the idea of “heart” had a much different meaning in Ancient Near Eastern Semitic anthropology than it does today.  The heart was not used to talk about how we express feelings alone; it was understood as the center of thought, conscience, will and the control center for personality.  Jesus point was that whatever your “heart” focused on would define your purpose which would define your actions.  Thus his additional comment that you cannot serve God and treasure simultaneously makes sense.  You can only focus on one or the other – not both.  Jesus invited his audience then to focus on God who is to be honored (hallowed is thy name), whose kingdom should be sought after (thy kingdom come), and whose will should be given preference (thy will be done).  I think the invitation is the same for us – to freely choose to focus on God and to utilize our time, talents, and treasure as an expression of this choice.

I can see how John Wesley might have been influenced as well by what was transpiring in the world during his time.  Wesley lived and served in the Anglican Church of England during the time of the protestant persecution in France.  Maybe he understood the value of being free to choose and teaching on many different subjects he also taught on treasure.  Wesley is noted for saying “gain all that you can, save all that you can, and give all that you can.”

Wesley believed that we should be fully employed in our lives; he did not believe in wasting time or energy.  But that does not mean that we have to be workaholics in our field of endeavor.  Pastor James Harnish adds three notes to this maximum to be diligent in your employment.

1) Gain all you can without hurting your health – try to be balanced between work and rest

2) Gain all you can without hurting your mind – don’t cheat, lie or do anything illegal to get ahead

3) Gain all you can without hurting your neighbor – always consider how you impact others

Wesley also believed that we should save all that we could but he was not talking about having the security of a nice pension, 401K or savings account.  He believed that we needed to be conscientious about how we used our treasure; thoughtful about our purchases.  When he spoke of saving he meant from waste and inappropriate use.

Finally Wesley also taught that we should give all that we can – to take measurable steps in our lives to be generous.  As a pastor and leader I take serious the need to teach committed Christians the discipline of routine giving starting first with a percentage commitment and then working toward the tithe.  (The tithe is an ancient Hebrew model of giving 10% of your income to God’s mission and offerings are anything you give over and above the tithe.)  Unfortunately this is a discipline that is lost on many of us mainly because we are free to choose to do something else.

I would like to encourage you to see this freedom in a different light – that the heart of the matter is that God has blessed us so that we might be a blessing to others.  Our generosity should help transform the world around us into the vision God intends.  Whether it is through helping to pay for pesticide treated bed nets so that we can eradicate malaria in Africa, or to help fund a missionary in Mongolia, or to help a local agency in their efforts to stomp out the commercial sex trade and human trafficking, our generosity is intended to make the world a better place.

I hope that many of you have come to better understand the practice and discipline of generosity and a narrower group of you from our Methodist tradition.  My desire is for this to be a time of reflection and invitation – for you to focus on God’s kingdom and will for this world and to let your generosity be a reflection of the priorities in your life.

You have the freedom to focus on what you want, for that to define your purpose and your actions.  My prayer and invitation is that you will focus on being generous with your time, your talent and your treasure – generous to God’s vision and mission for this world.  May you see God’s name honored, his kingdom come and his will being done through your generosity.

Blessings for the journey.

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Disciple’s Journey – Presence

I believe that the central part of our identity as Christ followers is that we belong to a local expression of the body of Christ.  It is an image that we gain from the writings of the Apostle Paul that shows how we are linked or connected to one another and that we cannot deny or do without one another.  Thus our presence is vital to the health and well-being of the body of Christ globally and locally.

My church experience growing up was different from today’s norms.  From late grade school through my first year after high school I attended a Baptist church in south Kansas City.  Attendance looked like this:  Sunday School at 10am, church at 11am, Sunday evening service at 6:30pm, Wednesday night prayer service at 6:30pm and visitation at 7pm on Thursday.  This was my routine week in and week out for several years.  Over the years that I spent at this church I surmise that I was present at the church well over 1,000 different times between Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

At one time in our society we thought differently about our social and religious participation.  I’ve been told that when you moved to a new area you did three things:

1) You found a place for you and your family to live

2) You found a bank to do business with

3) You found a church and you attended 50 Sundays a year, Ash Wednesday and Christmas Eve (if your tradition worshipped on these two days)

George Barna who is a researcher on all things church and culture related recently a survey of Protestant Christians asking them to quantify what it meant to be a “faithful” attender in a local church.  The category most widely chosen to answer this was 14-17 Sundays per year – the majority of respondents believe that attending worship a little over once per month is faithful participation.

I don’t believe that God is concerned about our numerical attendance record.  I’m not really sure that a perfect attendance record will count for righteousness in God’s kingdom now or to come.  Rather I would like to propose a different concept about presence and hope that you might agree with it.  Here is what I believe presence is:

“If you are in town, healthy and the weather permits it, there is nowhere else you could be on a Sunday morning than participating in the body of Christ as a worship community.  It is the place that you are drawn to by the leading of the Holy Spirit; it is the place you belong; the place where everyone – well at least someone knows your name!  It is the place to get away from the distractions of the world so that you might focus on being present with Christ and his people.”

So let’s think about this question for a moment and try to answer it – why is it important for us to be present week in and week out?

First response – people are searching for a place to connect and belong.  If we are inconsistent in our presence then it will be difficult for seekers to connect and belong and it will be difficult for us to connect and belong.  Author Elton Trueblood in his 1971 work titled The Future of the Christian said “individual Christianity is a self-contradiction!  Unless there is a sense of ‘one another’ there is no sense of the Living Christ.”  In order to feel the real presence of Christ we must find ourselves in the real presence of one another.  In order for seekers to find the presence of Christ they must experience our presence.

Second response – when the community is gathered together then the vision of God is expressed and the body of Christ set in motion to accomplish it.  United Methodist pastor James Harnish wrote in his book Journey to the Center that “Being ‘saved’ does not mean holding a solitary ticket for a solo flight to heaven.  It means becoming a part of the Body of Christ, living on earth in ways that are consistent with the rule of God that is already fulfilled in heaven.”  The gathered community is meant to be sent forth to express God’s will and ways in the rest of creation, but if we do not gather we cannot be sent forth.

I know that some are skeptical about the need to be consistently present in a worship community.  There is a perception that there is little of value to be gained by spending time in church.  I would agree – I’ve been to churches where I’ve wondered if it was worth my time.  Beyond just physical presence, here is what I believe is truly at the heart of being together – our emotional and spiritual presence with one another.  This is what speaks volumes to our guests and the world beyond – how we are present with one another.  How we encourage, exhort, heal and help to liberate as a community gathered in the name of Christ.

In the New Testament one of its writers confronted a post-ascension community of believers in an attempt to correct and encourage them regarding their practice of presence with one another and in the world.  This gathered community of Christians had fallen into some unhealthy habits.  The author says that they were telling lies about each other, angry with one another, stealing from each other, cursing and verbally abusing each other and had become bitter.  (Take a moment and read Ephesians 4:25 to 5:2)  This was how this ancient church community was acting toward one another – a church all of us would want to join!

The writer encourages them to act differently than the rest of the world; to live into a vision of a community whose presence with one another was marked by characteristics like kindness, tenderheartedness, forgiveness, and love.  These are the characteristics God had shown to them and they should imitate God by fulfilling the image of Christ’s living example.  What I take away from the words of this first century writer is that quantity and quality of presence with one another matters greatly:  it matters to God, it matters to the body of Christ, and it matters to seekers and guests.  Thus I believe that we should take seriously the instruction to consider our presence – that we should make physical presence a priority and the way we are present should imitate Jesus’ living example.

So will you make presence a priority?  The priority of presence is critical to the vitality of the body of Christ we call St. John’s.  It is important for us to be physically present so that we might welcome one another and connect with our guests.  It is important for us to be emotionally and spiritually present imitating the attitudes and behaviors of our Savior, Jesus the Christ (especially for people who are seeking a safe haven from a hostile world.)

Ultimately you have to be convinced of the priority of presence – that it will make a difference in your life and that it matters to others.

Blessings for the journey.

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Disciple’s Journey – Prayer

Pole Steeple trail (Pole Steeple, Pennsylvania)

This is the first of a series of six blogs covering Methodism’s understanding of the journey we covenant to take together.  In our tradition we unite with the local church by vowing to pray, be present, give, serve, and faithfully witness – this is the disciple’s journey.  It is a construct of a disciplined life that will share with the world the good news of God’s love shown to us through Jesus Christ.  In the power of the Holy Spirit I turn this series over to God in hope and assurance that God will use it to speak into you.

God’s empowering Spirit is unleashed upon the community of God and each of us individually through the activity of prayer.  This is how God confirms His will for our lives.  This is how God makes known his vision for the community of faith.  This is how God opens our eyes to the needs of our neighbors and the world.  It is through the activity of prayer.

In June of 1927 four couples gathered together in a hall at 63rd street and Brookside Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri.  They were challenged by the Reverend Dr. J. B. Swinney, the Presiding Elder of the Kansas City District of the Methodist Episcopal Church South to prayerfully consider starting a new church to reach the rapidly growing residential community south of 63rd street.  In September of that same year Reverend L. M. Starkey was appointed as the full-time pastor of the newly formed Brookside Methodist Episcopal Church South.  For the next 23 years this group grew and worshipped together in a building off of Gregory and Main St.  But as history would record, in 1939 the Methodist Episcopal Church North and the Methodist Episcopal Church South united to become one denomination and this precipitated the need for Brookside Methodist Church to begin the process of considering its options because of their close proximity to the historic Broadway Methodist Church.

In the fall of 1940 Reverend John Guice was appointed to lead Brookside Methodist Church and he was charged with helping them envision their future.  In the mid-1940′s and despite opposition, the 300+ members of the church voted to purchase a parcel of land offered to them by the well-known developer, J. C. Nichols.  On Sunday, July 10, 1949 the cornerstone of St. John’s Methodist Church was laid and construction on the hall and sanctuary began.  The following spring on Palm Sunday, April 2, 1950 St. John’s Methodist Church held its inaugural worship service.  December of 1951 plans began for the education wing and by the mid-1950′s the education building and the Morelock Chapel were added to the physical plant of St. John’s.  Over the years other improvements were added like air-conditioning, a clock tower and steeple, the 32 rank McManis pipe organ that we still use today and finally the rotunda that connects the education wing with the narthex and sanctuary.

In short the expansion of the building allowed for the expansion of programs and ministries.  Men’s groups, scouting programs, musical recitals, Sunday School, youth programs, Methodist Women’s Society initiatives, missions trips and local missional efforts and in 1970 the start of a Mother’s Day Out program which still operates today.

I share this snippet of our history with you to say that while much has been accomplished in the past here at St. John’s – God is not done with us yet!  Our greatest work as the people of St. John’s is not a thing of our past – the fulfillment of God’s preferred future for each of us and for St. John’s is still a thing of the future.  A mighty task lies before us.

A colleague of mine is noted for saying that “God does not put his people to a mighty task without first asking them to pray.”  I agree wholeheartedly.  For us to realize God’s vision for out lives and our worship communities, we must be a people dedicated to the practice and discipline of prayer.  Without it we will fall short of God’s preferred future.  So how do we pray?

In the section of the Gospel According to Matthew that is titled “The Sermon on the Mount” Jesus takes a moment to teach about prayer.  He says to his listening audience, when you pray, pray this way.  As I read it and researched the prayer the thought crossed my mind – what makes a prayer effective?

It isn’t the length of the prayer.  It isn’t the amount of time that you pray.  It isn’t even the body posture that makes your prayer legitimate or effective.  The prayer that Jesus recited was a simple, straight to the heart of the matter prayer.

In Jesus’ day the people who practiced Judaism were accustomed to praying – as a matter of fact they prayed multiple times a day.  They also prayed a variety of prayers of which some of them were public and some private.  They were a pious, ritualistic, and a duty bound community and sometimes they were show-offs.  Jesus encouraged his followers then and now to make prayer a matter between them and God; for it to be an intimate moment where we seek God’s will and God’s activity in our lives.  One commentator noted that the “Lord’s Prayer” or “Disciples Prayer” (you pick) is actually constructed from bits and pieces of other Jewish prayers.  Jesus took them and created a simple prayer that:

1) acknowledges God as sovereign and to be revered

2) acknowledges God’s vision for his kingdom on earth

3) acknowledges God as sustainer, forgiver, and protector

That is what Jesus taught his disciples then.  Reading different authors who have taught the discipline of prayer for modern disciples, I would like to offer to you one way for us to be focused in our prayer lives as we seek God’s will and way today.

One pattern of prayer follows the acronym ACTS.  The “a” stands for adoration which orients us to first know who God is and what God wants from us.  As a starting point in our prayers we express to God our adoration for his creative, sustaining, redeeming and restoring power.  Personally I know that it is hard to start my prayer time with this so I often look to the Psalms where David captured the art of adoring God.

The “c” stands for confession which is the way that we face the hard truth about who we are and where we are on the disciple’s journey.  Confession is the way we name the stuff that clutters our souls and gets in the way of a vibrant relationship with God.  As the people in Alcoholics Anonymous put it, it is time for a “searching and fearless moral inventory.”

The “t” stands for thanksgiving and in a world where we are surrounded by cynicism, fear, anger, and just plain meanness, it can make a huge difference in your life if you are grounded in the joyousness of thanksgiving.  Again a great place to find language for this part of the prayer is the Psalms; they will help you count your blessings, name them one by one, and see what God has done for you.

The last letter is “s” and it stands for supplication or what we often call intercession.  This is the way that we draw near to the very real concerns of our lives, our community and the world beyond.  This is the way that God invites us to do something about the injustice in the world.  It is a time of sharing and receiving.

This is just one model of simple prayer that will enable you to pray in the power of the Holy Spirit so that you might seek God’s vision – the one that God wants to unleash upon you and the faith community.  The real question is this – do you believe in the power of prayer and the necessity to pray?

A short story – a Methodist church prayed for years that the Lord would do something about a disreputable bar that was literally across the street.  One night the bar was hit by lighting and it burnt to the ground.  The bar owner promptly sued the Methodist church because he knew that the church people had been praying for the demise of his bar.  Of course the church contested the lawsuit.  After hearing both sides of the case the judge said these words:  “I’m not sure how I’ll rule in this case, but one thing is clear.  The bar owner believes in the power of prayer, and the church people don’t.”

I hope that you’ve actually seen the power of prayer in your life and that you know the value of praying daily.  If you don’t, I want to invite you to try praying each day for the next week.  If you’re not sure what to say follow the “ACTS” model that I described above.  It’s important that all of us be praying – God has a mighty task for us to accomplish – a task that still lies ahead of us!

Blessings for the journey.

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Tree of Life II

Tree of Life (art by Vallejo painted in 2012)

This is the concluding message from our series titled The 4 Trees of the Bible.  Having considered the tree of life in Genesis, the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the same text, and the tree of salvation from the perspective of the Gospel According to Matthew we come full circle to the tree of life depicted in the Revelation – a book that is John’s perplexing vision of a different world than he knew and we know.

More and more I am convinced that the future is something that should not cause us to worry.  My statement is supported by a growing understanding and belief that God has a vision and plan regarding the future.  It is a vision and a plan that we should trust in; a vision that should orient us to participate in God’s work that is happening now and in the future.  But how many of us make plans for this future?

All of us make plans.  Some of us are preparing for this afternoon or the rest of the week.  Our school aged kids are planning their summer break while those transitioning from high school to college are making different plans.  Some of us are planning to start a new career, some for career change, and others to wind down our careers and retire.  For those in retirement you may be planning for next stages.  The mundane among us are simply planning for lunch.  All of us spend time, each and every one of us planning for things yet to transpire.  Some of these things will bring us joy, some of them peace of mind, and others of them worry.  My wife and I have felt the tension of all three of these over the past several weeks.  We are preparing for two weddings – one of them this Memorial Day weekend.  We’ve talked about our aging parents.  We’ve talked about our future.

But I would also say that we don’t simply plan for the future as a purely temporal, worldly exercise.  Many of us think about and plan for the future from a spiritual perspective as well.  And what you have been taught in your religious system will influence your planning for the future.

I was raised in the conservative evangelical tradition which promotes a very specific interpretation of the future.  First we live in the time between the ascension of Jesus and his second coming or what current scholars call the “now, but not yet.”  The (what seems to be) interminable in between.  But somewhere in the future Jesus will return again as he stated to his disciples.  The Greek word for this is the “parousia” meaning coming or presence; the label I was taught was the second coming or rapture because Paul reports that the dead in Christ will rise first to meet Jesus in the sky and then those who are alive in Christ will go next to meet him.  Of course no one knows exactly when this will happen – it is a mystery to all of us, including Jesus.  After the rapture is the seven years of tribulation where Satan and his proxy will usher in a literal hell on earth.  At the end of seven years Jesus and his heavenly army come back to do battle with Satan and his followers.  Jesus subdues them and cast them into the prison of hell and a thousand-year reign of peace on earth begins.  Jesus sits upon the throne ruling all of the kingdoms but at the end of this millennia of peace, Satan and his minions get loose for one final cosmic battle.  They are utterly destroyed by Jesus and God’s eternal kingdom of peace and justice is established here on earth where God rules as sovereign in harmony with humanity and creation.

This doctrine of eschatology (or the future) is based upon a literal interpretation of Jesus, the Apostle Paul and the Revelation.  It is a view with a distinct vision of what will transpire but nobody knows when.  It is a teaching made prominent in pop culture with the release of Tim Lehay and Jerry Jenkins “Left Behind” book series.  They actually made a movie by the same title and I own a VHS copy of it (but I have nothing at home to play it on though…)  And this view of the future still dominates much of conservative evangelical Christianity.

I realize that there are a number of people who believe this to be the literal truth regarding our human destiny.  I also know that there are folks who are skeptical about parts of this interpretation and others who full on reject it.  There is an alternative view of this material that is vastly different from the one I just outlined.  The alternative is purely historical.

It interprets Jesus, Paul and the Revelation based upon current events happening at the time of the writings themselves.  They are solely contextual documents that do not have any bearing on the world beyond their original audience, their original time of writing and events of the day.  First if you read Jesus’ words about coming again, they are all (except for one quote in the Gospel of John) statements that he made while he was alive and walking with his disciples.  They were verbalized prior to his arrest, execution, and death.  The historical view says that Jesus was not speaking about some far off second coming.  His second coming was the resurrection.

Paul’s words deal with communities of faith who lived under the shadow of an eminent theology.  Their expectation was that Jesus’ was returning during their lifetime however people in their community began to die.  The death of believers and the power of eminent theology created a tension that Paul dealt with by casting a vision toward the future and what God would accomplish.  But it does not mean that Paul was also speaking to modern believers who have spanned an additional 1,900 years of history.  Does Paul’s words still have veracity and promise considering the passage of time?

The Revelation could be viewed as a declaration against the empire.  History reminds us that Rome put down a rebellion in Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.  They build a rampart around the city completely cutting it off from the outside world.  When the citizens of Jerusalem had weakened they stormed the city killing everyone in sight and they destroyed Herod’s temple.  Revelation was written a little over 20 years later and is viewed by some as a vision of what God would do to get back at the Romans for destroying the holy city and God’s temple.

But the historical view isn’t without its faults.  The primary one is to relegate God’s work through Jesus Christ, the Apostle and the revealer to the pages of history could lead us to believe that God is no longer active in human history.  If this is the assumption or interpretation we want to make then it makes humanity the responsible progenitors of change.  In other words we become solely responsible for going out and creating:

- equal social structures

- equal share of the world’s food supply since we produce enough to feed everyone on the planet

- structures to settle our differences peacefully and structures to disarm everyone

- a society that helps us evolve past strife, power, possessions and oppression

- utopia

However we don’t do any of these things – we can’t control our own human passion for power and material possessions.  We continue to find creative ways to hurt each other, play power games, and allow weapons of mass destruction to be our bargaining tool.  But something else should stir up tension within us and that is the fact that we cannot create harmony with nature.  We cannot stop wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes or flash flooding.  We are virtually powerless against life threatening diseases that attack even the youngest among us and we cannot weed out those who seek to inflict harm on others.  In other words, utopia is out of our reach because we don’t want to do the things and we can’t control the things that will help us reach utopia.

So I choose to believe that God has still got skin in the game.  And what God is inviting us to believe and live is a vision that represents the middle between these two diverse views.

I believe that God has a vision for the future that we can believe and trust in.  We don’t pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” simply because they are nice words.  It is a vision of something that God wants to create among us and that only God can create for us.  Here is what I believe the kingdom of God that is emerging around us looks like:

- A place, a city, a community where God is the source of life – “the angel showed me a river with water of life…flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.”

- A place, a city, a community where the tree of life is central once again – “On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit with a fresh crop each month.”

- A place, a city, a community healed by the leaves from God’s tree of life – “The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.”

- A place, a city, a community where harmony with God is absolute – “No longer will there be a curse upon anything.  For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him.”

If you believe that God has a vision for his kingdom to come now and in the future then the next part is crucial for you – it is a call to move from belief to purposeful mission.

M. Eugene Boring wrote the commentary on Revelation for the Interpretation series.  In it he concludes his thoughts on Revelation 22 by saying “John lets his picture speak for itself.  His language throughout this vision is indicative: ‘this is how it will be.’  And yet as always the indicatives of biblical theology contain an implicit imperative, the gift becomes an assignment.  If this is where the world, under the sovereign grace of God, is finally going, then every thought, move, deed in some other direction is out of step with reality and is finally wasted.  The picture does not attempt to answer speculative questions about the future; it is offered as an orientation for life in the present.”  I would add that God’s vision for the future is an assignment for the present.

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenze in her book titled Revelation:  Vision for a Just World she writes:  “Revelation will elicit a fitting…response…only in those sociopolitical situations that cry out for justice.  When Christian groups are excluded from political power, Revelation’s language of divine kingship and royal reward, as well as its ethical dualism, stands against unjust authority and champions the oppressed and disenfranchised.”

So I believe that God is inviting us to think beyond our plans for the future.  God desires for us to think upon and be moved by God’s vision and plan for the future.  A future that calls us to:

- live daily in God’s grace and to daily share with others God’s grace

- live in and seek to create new communities that generate life in the presence of God

- take the leaves of the tree of life and apply their healing salve to the nations starting with our neighbors on Arno and 69th Terrace

- work for harmony with each other, our neighbors, and the world beyond.

Here is how we plan to be a part of God’s emerging vision for now and the future.

1)  We are just now learning about the effects of human trafficking, especially in the Kansas City area.  We will be partnering with Veronica’s Voice for education, hands on effort to combat this human travesty, and to build relationships with people being liberated from modern slavery.  Our vision is to see God’s grace transform the desperate into scenes of hope.

2) We have a viable Baby Grace ministry supporting under-resourced families who are caring for infants.  Our vision is to broaden our partnership with another advocacy group in Kansas City so that we can provide additional life supporting services to these deserving families.  Our vision is to see families become self-sufficient and to reap the dignity of being able to provide for themselves.

When we focus on our own vision for our own future we can create unnecessary worry.  But when we focus on God’s vision for the future we can live with faith, belief, and hope for a better world.  It is a vision that we can trust because God is trustworthy.  It is a vision that can orient us beyond ourselves and toward the world in need.  It is a vision that can bring us the longed for meaning, purpose, and hope we all desire.

So what will you do to see God’s vision for the future come to pass in your neighborhood, your community, or your town?

Blessings for the journey.

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Tree of Salvation

Some Sundays the sermon is so thick that I realize it is hard for folks to track.  Sunday was the case for some and maybe most.  Hopefully this week’s blog will give you the space to re-read the message and be able to process it in a way that is not only informative but also relevant to your daily world.  So to set the stage let’s do a short recap.

The context of this series begins with the creation story and in particular God’s activities in the good creation, the animation of man, the planting of a garden and living in it.  After this God gave the man vocation when God said “tend and cultivate.”  Then God gave permission to “eat of the trees of the garden.”  But God also established one prohibition – “You shall not eat of the tree in the middle of the garden (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) or touch for on the day that you do you shall die.”  Then God saw that man had no equal partner so God created woman and the two of them became one.  They dwelt in the garden, the tended and cultivated it, they enjoyed the fruit of the trees, and they were naked but did not feel ashamed by this.  But then the plot of Genesis thickens – a character in the story described as a talking serpent strikes up a conversation with Eve (and probably Adam) in which the seed of distrust is planted.  The couple came to distrust that God meant what God said in the command “do not touch or eat.”  Their distrust led to disobedience because they decided that the fruit looked good, touched and ate.  And their disobedience led to disharmony with God, with each other and with creation.  The consequences – estrangement, brokenness, sin, evil and death enter into the world and we continue to perpetuate it even now.

But God did not and does not desire for estrangement and brokenness to rule humanity.  God does not desire that death linger over us until the day it wins.  God’s mighty acts through Jesus Christ were and are for the singular purpose of reconciliation.  Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 5 and verse 10 states:  “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

Blaise Pascal in his work that would be titled Pensées wrote:  “Jesus Christ did nothing but teach men that they only loved themselves; that they were slaves, blind, sick, unhappy and sinful; that he had come to deliver them, bring them light, sanctify and heal them; that this would come about through their hating themselves and following him to misery and death on the Cross…”

God’s work through Jesus Christ is a portrait of God’s actions towards us and the response God desires from us.  This was accomplished on the cross of Calvary, the tree of salvation.

empty cross  (image from fineartamerica.com)

The gospel writers are all in unison regarding Jesus’ death upon a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  But each of them has a particular point of view.  Matthew’s description tells us about the burden of the cross.  Physically Jesus could not carry the cross all the way to Golgotha.  He falls under the weight of it and the Roman soldiers press into service a man named Simon of Cyrene.  He is given Jesus’ cross to carry the rest of the way.  Metaphorically the cross beam represents the full collection of human brokenness – our sin, our evil, our estrangement past, present, and future.  It was a crushing weight spiritually for Jesus to bear.  But he did and in this act of self-sacrificing love, God overcame our estrangement – God did for us what we could not do for ourselves.  This is the major distinction of Christianity from the rest of the world’s major religions.  We believe that we cannot merit, work for or earn God’s favor.  We are incapable of making restitution for our offenses no matter how good we try to be.  God paid our debt; God liberates each soul; God makes us righteous.  God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  One classical theologian says that the offended made restitution for each offender.  This is hard for us to grasp because it does not fit into our image of justice – we believe that the offender is always responsible for making restitution to the one offended.  But in God’s economy that is not possible – broken humanity (the offenders) are incapable of satisfying divine justice (the offended).  Only God in God’s self could accomplish this.

Here is how we have interpreted this.  The New Testament utilizes 4 images to describe God’s work in Jesus Christ on the tree of salvation.  But keep these two things in mind for the rest of this discussion.

1)  These images interpret what God actually did; they try to make sense of that single 24 hour day where Jesus was tried, beaten, tortured, mocked, nailed to a tree, and died.

2) It is not accidental that the New Testament writers used several images to interpret the meaning of Jesus’s death.  No single image is adequate by itself.  Each has their limitations and needs the others in an attempt to grasp the total picture.

That being said, let’s look at the 4 dominate images utilizing valuable insights from Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.’s text Christian Doctrines.

Image 1 is the financial image.  The scene is a slave market or a prison camp where all of humanity are captives.  God in Jesus Christ steps up and pays the price to purchase the freedom of each slave.  We are prisoners; Jesus is our redeemer.  The ransom price is his life for ours and he willingly lays down his life for each of us.

Here is the main question that lifts up the inadequacy of this image in describing the full work of God’s reconciliation.  To whom is the ransom paid to “redeem us?”

1)  God?  If sin makes us God’s enemies, why would Jesus be the one to save us from God’s righteous hostility?  How can the Son of God become the enemy of God?

2)  Satan?  If we are captives of the devil why would God give Jesus as payment to the devil for our freedom?  It is a strange notion that God would owe Satan anything at all.

The fruit of this image though is that it spoke to a community of people who understood the financial aspect of redemption; it was part of the Mosaic law dealing with property, family and slaves.  It was transactional law and language that made sense to them – its language we still use today.  One of our hymns contains the words “Jesus paid it all…”

The second image is the military one.  The scene is a battlefield where God and Satan are at war for the possession of people whom Satan has stolen from the kingdom of light (God’s kingdom) and carried them off into the kingdom of darkness.  A warrior of God invades Satan’s kingdom to liberate the captives and bring them back to God’s kingdom.  The battle is real; it is deadly.  It is fought on Good Friday and God’s warrior is killed by the kingdom of darkness.  But on Easter morning God’s warrior is resurrected and in the process triumphantly frees the captives.  Jesus is “Christus Victor” who delivers us from Satan’s kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom of light and life.

However there are inadequacies to this image as well.  It seems too mythological for us to grasp.  It can be offensive to people who are sensitive to violence and the devastating consequences of modern warfare.  Finally, it is meant to be something that changes us inside as well, to be transforming.

But the objective of the image is to help us understand that the work of God in Christ is intended to express the seriousness both of our predicament and of God’s love. We cannot free ourselves from the evil forces that dominate us; but God cares enough about each of us to enter into a costly struggle to reconcile with each of us.

The third image is a place of worship with a bloody altar where sacrifices are made.  Guilty people who deserve God’s wrathful punishment stand before this altar.  A priest comes forward who is the mediator between God and the people.  He makes a sacrifice to atone for people’s sin; blood is shed; a life is offered up.  BUT on Good Friday a priest who is different from all the rest steps forward to offer a blood sacrifice– no animal or bird is sacrificed.  Instead the priest offers his life as the sacrifice – his blood is shed to make peace between the people and God. “The Lamb of God is slain to take away the sins of the world.”  This is the dominate atonement image in Christian writing and theology.

There are a couple of objections to this image.  First while animal sacrifices were normative in New Testament culture, it is not normative for us; actually most of us would consider it repulsive.  Second, many reject the idea that the shedding of innocent blood can be done to cover the sins of the guilty.

But what the author intends to point out is our guilt and need for forgiveness, our estrangement from God and need for reconciliation.  The shed blood of Jesus emphasizes in a shockingly realistic way his unlimited love for us and the sacrifice he was willing to make to help and heal us.  Thus talk of Jesus’s sacrifice is empty religiosity if we do not cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, and care for those who like orphans and widows cannot help themselves.  Sacrifice serves to redefine our attitudes and actions for God’s purposes.

The final New Testament image is the legal image.  The scene is a courtroom with God, the just judge sitting on the judgment seat.  We the people who have broken the law, stand before God to be tried and judged.  Satan is our accuser and he easily wins his case against each of us because we have no defense against our sins, our brokenness, and our estrangement.  We hear the call for a guilty verdict and the punishment – death.  But a righteous man who obeyed the law perfectly stands beside the accused and voluntarily takes the death penalty on himself; he suffers the consequences of our guilt and sentence is carried out on Good Friday.  Those who were enemies of the law (and thus of the just judge also) are now acquitted and reconciled; order is restored.  No longer living in fear of the just judge, the condemned are free to go out to begin a new life.

The inadequacies of this image make it incapable of standing alone as a singular way of understanding the tree of salvation.  First, does Christ “taking the rap” for us mean that we are now free to go on living however we please?  Second, can the guilt of humanity be transferred to the innocent Son of God?  Third, is it fair for God to accept Christ’ offer and to punish him for our sins?  Fourth, if the Father and the Son will and do the same thing then how is it possible for the Son to offer himself in self-giving love in opposition to the Father’s wrathful justice?

AGAIN – while this image has its limitation it should invoke in us an appreciation for how desperate our situation is before God and the unreserved love of Christ for us.

No matter how we define, interpret or talk about the tree of salvation, it isn’t intended to be a purely academic exercise.  Our encounter with God’s reconciling work through Jesus Christ is intended to tells us about ourselves, what this work does for us and to us.  Here are four ways in which we can respond to the tree of salvation:

1)  The tree of salvation should convict us of our sinfulness – the cross of Jesus doesn’t just expose the sins of those who denied, betrayed, plotted against, and capitulated – it exposes our sins here and now.  Our response should be a journey of transformation from the people we were to the person God envisions us to become.

2)  The tree of salvation enables us to live as forgiven sinners.  We are forgiven debtors who no longer have to spend our lives with tormented consciences, desperately trying to work off our guilt and shame.  There is no longer a need to try to convince ourselves that we are not so bad after all – to be forgiven enables us to put what we have done and what we have been behind us so that we might be free for a new beginning with God, other and ourselves.  “For there is no more condemnation for those who are found in Christ Jesus.”

3)  The tree of salvation means the death of sinners.  The cross was not a place where Jesus died alone; all of us died on the cross of Christ.  We died to our distrustful and disobedient brokenness that kept us estranged from God, each other, and our true selves.  And in death is rebirth – that we might discard our old inhumanity to pursue the image of God in us; the image that gives us genuine life, vocation, and purpose.

4)  Finally, the tree of salvation changes our relationship with others.  If the cross truly enables us to understand and live by the good news that our debts are forgiven, AND if it means that our old selves are really killed in order that new selves may be born, THEN we are not only reconciled with God but also with fellow human beings.  There is no such thing as reconciliation with God without reconciliation with others.  The truth of this is expressed when we search for ways to heal broken relationships, restore order, and liberate the oppressed for the good of everyone on both sides or all sides.

These images are rich, they have their advantages and their limitations.  But they all show how complex it is to try to understand the work of God in Jesus Christ that provided a means for our salvation.

No matter how we have tried to define, describe or interpret the tree of salvation, it always comes back to the same basic issue – God did for us, what we could not and cannot do for ourselves.  God reconciled us to God’s self and offers this as a gift that can liberate us from sin and death.  The tree of salvation gives you and me the choice to once again pick God – just as God has picked you and me, God desires for us to pick him!

WHY?  Because God did not and does not desire for estrangement and brokenness to rule humanity.  God does not desire that death linger over us until the day it wins.  God desires for us to accept His reconciling work through Jesus Christ and the tree of salvation.

So has the tree of salvation impacted your life?  How?

Blessings for the journey.

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Tree of Knowledge

Usually when I read a book, an article, or a blog my aim is to understand the overarching theme or message.  I hope that I can obtain a balcony perspective that will encapsulate the writer’s vision or goal.  When I read and re-read the early chapters of Genesis this is the balcony perspective that I come away with – God’s original hope, God’s original desire for humanity was a relationship built upon trust.  And not just an attitude of trust, but a living expression of it.  Trust that God created us for meaningful work, that God permitted us to thrive in the fullness of His good creation and especially the garden, and trust that God meant what God said when he established the one boundary for humans to keep.

During the creation story we discover that God is the creative force and that over 6 undefinable “days” all that is came into existence.  Humanity, according to the Genesis author, was the pinnacle of God’s good creation.  But God wasn’t done yet – God decided to plant a garden in Eden and to move humanity there establishing for them meaningful work (vocation), empowering them to thrive in the fullness of God’s good creation (permit), and establishing one boundary (prohibition) – “do not touch or eat of the tree in the center of the garden, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  The consequences of this was:

1) something productive for humanity to invest themselves in – cultivating and tending the garden – because God did not create us to be slothful, leisurely people.  God created us to be co-creators; for our ingenuity and natural inquisitiveness to thrive and produce.

2) dwelling in the garden together, our original human parents also dwelt with God.  They were not only nourished by the garden physically, they were nourished spiritually because of God’s presence.

3) humans had only one boundary to keep – one tree to stay away from – a choice to reject the tree of knowledge and accept the benefits of God’s garden and presence.

Reading a variety of commentators and interpreters one noted that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge did not possess some kind of special essence or nature that would endow humanity with something that God had not already given them.  When God breathed into the man the breath of His life and created woman from the man that God had animated, humanity received at that moment all that God intended for them to know and possess.  The two trees therefore represented choice.  The tree of life represented choosing God, the garden, and the vision of God.  The tree of knowledge represented choosing something other than.

Dwelling in the garden was an exercise of trust that from an anthropological view provided vocation, permit, and prohibition – a framework of harmony and peace between divine and human, human to human, and human to creation.  But if you remove one of the three elements then harmony dissolves and the divine purpose for human life is perverted.  All of this relied upon Adam and Eve understanding that God’s one command (do not touch or eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil) was a serious one.  God meant what God said.  So what happened?

Let’s take a moment to look at the Genesis author’s story and note some things about it.  Almost all of us have heard some version of the serpent in the garden story.  The author describes a moment (we don’t know exactly when) where the crafty serpent started a conversation with Eve.  The NRSV records the serpent’s first words as “Indeed, had God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  The serpent asked if God’s prohibition extended to all of the trees of the garden, not one in particular.  The question tested Eve’s understanding of God’s command and she demonstrated it with her reply:  “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.”  The serpent retorts with an interpretation of God’s command that evidently the woman (and the man) had not thought of themselves.  “You surely will not die!  For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  As several theologians point out this is the moment that the woman and shortly there after the man distrusts what God has said and thus disobeys what God commanded.  Here are some things to also consider:

1)  Was the serpent really Satan?  Walter Bruggemann’s commentary on Genesis for the Interpretation series notes:  “the serpent has been excessively interpreted.  Whatever the serpent may have meant in earlier versions of the story, in the present narrative it has no independent significance.  It serves as a literary device to move the plot along.”  In other words, the serpent is a benign figure without malice or evil – it is simply a fourth party in the conversation.  As much as we try to interpret the serpent as Satan and as the source of evil, this cannot be confidently interpreted when reading the Genesis text – what we can say is that the serpent is a conversation partner that generates and leads its subject(s) to distrust God.

2)  The Hebrew word for “you” is not the singular form but rather the plural form.  According to the Genesis author God gave the prohibition to the man; woman had not yet been created.  The text does not say that God later instructed the woman regarding the prohibition but she is aware of it; it is assumed that Adam was the conveyor of the information and Eve heard the prohibition secondhand.  And based upon the plural form of “you” in the Hebrew text it is reasonable to conclude that the serpent was carrying on a conversation with Eve while Adam was present.  Thus Adam could have chimed in at any time, but he didn’t.

3)  This is the first theological conversation in the Holy Bible.  Eve repeated what she understood to be the prohibition of God – “do not eat or touch, or you will die.”  The serpent simply re-framed the meaning of God’s prohibition from the consequences to humanity to the consequences God would experience.  Now instead of it being a command that God gave to Adam and subsequently to Eve, the serpent has led Eve (and Adam) to see it as an option.  What makes the conversation a theological one is that it is not speech to God or with God; it is conversation about God.  God has now been objectified just like the fruit.

The result of the conversation was that Eve was convinced that it was okay to take the fruit and eat of it – she does and Adam willingly and without question follows her lead, takes a bite of the fruit, and their eyes were opened to the first experience of distrust and disobedience.

Centuries ago Saint Augustine penned these words:  “O greedy men, what will satisfy you if God himself will not?”

Because Adam and Eve distrusted and disobeyed God, sin and death entered into God’s good creation and with it perversion of God’s intentions:

- the prohibition is violated

- permission is perverted

- vocation is neglected

And as Charles Sherlock noted in his book titled The Doctrine of Humanity our relationship with God is now “corrupted from freedom to estrangement.”  And this estrangement continues.

One of my favorite modern theologians is Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr.  He wrote a book titled Christian Doctrines in which he noted that “Evil comes into our lives and in the world around us because we freely choose evil rather than good.”

This continuation of estrangement, sin, and evil has been described in a variety of ways but it all goes back to thoughts, interpretations, and understanding regarding what is called “original sin.”

The original sin is understood to be the first act of distrust and disobedience by Adam and Eve that brought sin, evil, and death into the realm of God’s good creation.  But it is also understood that each of us are under the power of original sin.  How this is manifest is a matter of interpretation.  There are at least 4 that I have come across and read about:

1)  Soul corruption – we are all part of one collective soul and when Eve and Adam distrusted and disobeyed God, we all inherited in our souls the nature to distrust and disobey.

2) Genetic – the broken nature to distrust and disobey is actually passed on in the procreation process – it is embedded in our DNA and genetically transmitted through the seed of the man that penetrates and impregnates the woman’s egg.  At conception, the nature to sin is passed on.

3) Relational – Eve is interpreted as the original temptress and Adam was sexually seduced into distrust and disobedience.  Early theologians linked this interpretation with sexual activity and thus sex was considered immoral beyond the act of procreation – sex was not something to be enjoyed as a good gift between consenting adult partners; sin was propagated through evil sexual attraction between men and women, even ones who were married.

4) Brokenness – Adam and Eve’s sin of distrust and disobedience resulted in brokenness; our relationship with the divine, each other, and the created order is a distortion of God’s original design.  And because we continue to live in an attitude of distrust and actions of disobedience, we perpetuate sin, evil, and death – brokenness.

Guthrie promotes the fourth interpretation.  Sin, evil, and death “…comes from the rebellious, hostile, destructive thoughts, attitudes, and desires that are in our hearts before we choose – before we act…the problem of evil is precisely where these thoughts, attitudes, and desires come from that enslave our wills.”  Distrust of God and disobedience begins as an attitude that is manifested into an action and we are slaves to this perpetual cycle of sin that will result in death.

So what did we gain by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil?

tree of knowledge  (image courtesy of gnosticwarrior.com)

We think that we gained freedom.  We think that we gained the freedom to trust ourselves more than we trust the wisdom and knowledge of anyone who would be an authority figure over us.  We gained the freedom to question, doubt, distrust, and determine for ourselves.  We think we are free to choose our own course for our lives.  We are free to decide our relationships and we are free to decide what is good or bad for us.  We gained the freedom to exercise our will.  But did we really gain freedom?

Guthrie notes that “the notion of free will is…somewhat misleading; will is an essential aspect of being human, yet the will is not free but enslaved.”  What we got is slavery!  The prohibition of God that would have granted us freedom to follow God with our entire being has been traded for slavery to sin and death.  We are not free to pursue pleasures, material possessions, power and prominence – we are slaves to our appetites that feed our distrustful attitude.  We traded our freedom to live in harmony with God, each other, and creation for the freedom to pursue things that will not satisfy.  The result is continued estrangement from God, each other, and creation.  Estrangement isn’t freedom – it is our slavery.  This is what will ensure that evil and death continues to thrive in our world today – the attitude that we know better than God does.

So is there any hope?  Knowing that we can’t jump into Mr. Peabody’s way back machine so that we can go back and swat the fruit out of the hands of Eve and Adam, is there any hope for us?

A final word from Guthrie can lead us to a life of hope in action.  “We may be free to choose to be moral or immoral, be law-abiding or lawless, go to church or stay home, do all kinds of ‘good works’ or not.  But the good God requires of us and wills for us is more than just morality, piety and good deeds.  We must [choose] to love, trust, and obey God with glad thanksgiving in all we do.  We [must choose] to love and help, and let ourselves be loved and helped, by other people.”

I think that hope is a daily choice:

1) to let our words be the words of Jesus – to speak words of life and forgiveness to people who are desperate for grace in a harsh world

2) to let our actions be the action of Jesus who said “I have commanded that you should love one another.”  This is manifested in our care for our neighbors around us and our neighbor in the pews.

So who do you trust more?  God or yourself?  The new life that God desires for us to have in Jesus Christ is first built upon trust – not in ourselves, but in the redeeming work of God through Jesus that is for us.  And second through obedience – to be missional in caring for people in our worship community, in our neighborhoods, and the world beyond.

God still desires for us to have meaningful work for His kingdom.  God still desires that we thrive in the fullness of his good creation.  And God still desires that we trust that God knows best by choosing to respect his law, his boundaries.

So let’s shed our slavery to our distrustful attitude and our disobedience; let’s gain the freedom to do God’s good work, to live in harmony with each other and creation, and to obey God’s life-giving commands.  I think this is better than the alternative!

Blessings for the journey.

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