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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Tree of Life I

This past Sunday we began a new message series on four trees that are mentioned in the Christian scriptures.  I began with the tree of life that God planted in the middle of a garden in Eden.  But in order to get to the discussion I started by addressing an unstated tension that most of us live in.

This tension is the result of the two worlds that so many of us are educated in.  There is the rational, scientific world fostered by our education systems and the religious view presented by so many of our churches.  If you aren’t tracking, allow me to go on and describe further.

The Christian view of creation that I was brought up in espoused what is called the “young earth theory.”  It’s fundamentals are:

1) God created the heavens, the earth, water, land, and every living creature in six literal 24 hour days.  Sunday through Friday God created and on Saturday God rested.

2)  Based upon the literal understanding that Adam and Eve where the first two humans,  you can trace the genealogical record of the Old Testament and New Testament.  By doing so you would conclude that the earth is only about 4 to 6 thousand years old or a “young earth.”

The tension is that any other interpretation or view of creation different from this one  is an attack on the truth of holy scripture and therefore heretical.

Of course the scientific view of origins of the universe, earth and species takes a differing view.  Based upon testing, measurements, and proven techniques their conclusions create a conflict with some of my early Christian world view.

1)  Carbon dating while not without its faults should at lease cause us to pause and consider the fact that the earth is older than 4-6 thousand years; it is perhaps several million if not billions of years old.

2)  The fossil record also creates a tension for Biblical literalist because the Bible does not speak about dinosaurs and pre-historic events but there is enough evidence to prove the existence of pre-historic creatures and humans that cannot be discounted.

3)  The veracity of theories like the Big Bang theory is one of many possible and reasonable explanations regarding the cause and effect that were the impetus behind the origins of the earth.

All of these can be tested, measured, and studied in order to determine information regarding the origins of the earth and species that have evolved.  The tension from a purely scientific perspective is that any view of the origins of the earth and living creatures that cannot be tested and verified should be relegated to the realm of mythology.  Science is the only true methodology for rational and reasonable explanations regarding the origins of everything.

Because of these arguments I (and maybe we) have lived in a world that says that we must choose between one or the other – they are exclusive points of view.  Or are they?  I am a firm believer in science and a firm believer in religion  so I happen to think there is a via media between the two.

1)  The creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 isn’t intended to be a scientific treatise on the literal creation of the universe, earth, and living creatures.  There are good and plausible scientific explanations that help us to understand process.

2)  The Genesis account is intended to be revelation – the revealing of God as the sole impetus behind creation.  While science cannot provide us the answer to who, theology tells us that it is God who is the intelligence, determinism, source and force of creation.

3)  Science has the ask of defining how the creative process works; theology answers the question of who and why!

And with this union of the two the Genesis story becomes “an indispensable theological resource and an important paradigm on the way in which to integrate theological and scientific realities in a common search for truth about the world.”  (New Interpreter’s Bible)

As such I truly believe that you can be a person of science and theology; a person of rationality and a person of faith.  So let’s look again at the story of creation to discover what God created and why.

Some people interpret Genesis chapters 1 and 2 as two different creation stories.  I have come to believe that they are different views.  Genesis 1 to 2:4a is a macro-economic view of God’s creative activities from “day 1 to-day 6″ and then God’s assessment that it was “good” so God rested.  Genesis 2:4b and on is a micro-economic view of God, the creation of humanity and the garden.

1)  God created the good realm of creation

2) God created man out of the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life

3)  God created a garden in Eden

4)  God moved man into the garden to cultivate, tend, and eat of the fruit of the trees

5)  God planted two special trees in the middle of the garden – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge and God commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge

6)  God decided that it was not good for man to be alone so God created woman from the rib of Adam

7)  Adam and Eve lived in the garden, cultivated it, ate of the fruit of its trees and walked with the God

This is what God created – the good creation with a garden of delight or bliss where his human creation lived and thrived in His presence.

So why two special trees?

Archie C. C. Lee once observed that “the two trees, the fruits of which are forbidden to Adam and Eve, represent the two aspirations of human beings – a longing for knowledge and a quest for immortality.”

The two trees represented choice – evidently neither Adam or Eve had eaten of the tree of life.  What they had done was obeyed God’s command to not eat of the tree of knowledge.  The tree of life was a symbol for the eternal presence of God – to eat of it would grant eternal life.  If humanity had chosen to obey God then they would have fulfilled the divine will for vocation, permission and prohibition.  They could have feasted upon the tree of life and lived with God in the garden.

tree out of rock

However humanity made a different choice and as such the tree of life was removed as an option and the garden of Eden was lost. The garden God planted, the fruit of trees that would sustain life, the tree of life that would have granted us eternal peace, purpose and the presence of God were all removed because of human choice and in our brokenness we continue to dwell outside of God’s divine presence and will…but not forever.

Science might be able to tell us about the origins of creation and created beings, it helps us understand the fractured world around us but theology provides us what science cannot – a hope-filled future.  Even though the tree of life is hidden, those of us who are redeemed through Jesus Christ will one day inherit the tree of life – it is our future as God reconciles and restores His creation.  Just as John Milton wrote that paradise was lost, one day paradise will be regained.

Blessings for the journey

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It is Finished

finished (image courtesy of http://www.heirswithchrist.com)

 

As a member of the Christian faith I believe that God’s story in Jesus Christ is intended to inspire hope in all of us!  This is only made possible when we grasp the point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  But at the last moment of Jesus life on earth he says (according to John) “it is finished.”  This being the concluding words of Jesus life though could leave some less than hope-filled.

Personally I am the kind of personality that likes to get the point.  I like the comfort of knowing the point of a story.  I appreciate it when people who I am in conversation with get to the point so that I know the purpose of our conversation.  I like television shows and movies that have a clear point and that wrap up the storyline in a nice neat bow for me.  I really don’t like it when I am left hanging.  Case in point – the movie August:  Osage County by Tracy Letts.  It is by most accounts a brilliant work regarding a husband, wife and their three daughters.  I found the movie pretty entertaining watching the dynamics between mother and her daughters in the aftermath of the father’s suicide.  But I did not like the ending – it left me hanging.  There were too many unresolved questions about the storyline.  And because the movie didn’t wrap up in a nice neat bow I didn’t like the fact that I could name the point.

All of us are people who for the most part like things to come to a nice, neat conclusion.  It is the world that we live in – beginnings, endings, beginnings, and endings.  Each task or project or stage of life having its beginning and its natural ending.  Retired Bishop William Willimon in his book Thank God It’s Friday gives an example of this from his personal experience.

“What a joy it is to have an ending, to be able to say that it is over and done with.  That was one of the things I loved about academic life:  commencement.  No matter how bad the year had been, no matter how many disappointing students I had taught or lousy lectures I had delivered, there was always that day in May when it was over.”

I think that is why so many of us love storytellers like Paul Harvey.  Harvey was an American broadcaster for ABC radio networks and he was on the air workday mornings, mid-day and Saturday’s at noon.  He was noted for personalizing the radio news lacing it with his own trademarks:  a hypnotic timbre, extended pauses for effect, unique catch phrases, and heartwarming tales of average Americans and folksy observations that evoked the heartland, family values, and old-fashioned plain talk that one would hear around the dinner table on Sunday.  In the latter half of his career he was best known for his radio series “The Rest of the Story.”  It premiered on May 10, 1975 and was described as a blend of mystery and history.  It was broadcast 6 times a week until his death in 2009.  He would end each segment with the phrase, “And now you know the rest of the story.”  I am sure that a number of you who are in your 20′s and 30′s have never heard a Paul Harvey broadcast so ask your parents and grandparents – they will help you come to understand how well-respected and trusted he was as a newscaster.

I guess a modern example of Harvey would be Jon Stewart or Steven Colbert – two guys who are trusted by those who watch them.  The only difference is that Paul Harvey was a newscaster who portrayed a newscaster.  Stewart and Colbert are comedians portraying newscasters.  No matter whom you listen to, you hope that you are being told the full story so that you can get the point.

I can only imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the cross.  You can take a moment and read each gospel account noting the differing tone and details regarding Jesus’s death.  But it is only John who records Jesus final words as “it is finished.”  Not “I am finished” but “it is finished.”  Once Jesus took his last breath I can picture the look on people’s faces.  There had to have been puzzlement as people murmured to one another “what, that’s the end?”  Others may have become angry and questioned “what was the point of following him for 3 years if it ends in him dying?  What is the point if this is the end?  What exactly is finished anyway?”

I wrestle with that as well because reading John 19 you don’t really get a well-defined rationale or point to the death.  And Jesus really doesn’t say what was finished.  Interpreter’s lead us to conclude the following meaning in these words:

1)  The public proclamation of Jesus concludes his public ministry on earth; he has fulfilled the Father’s mission.  That mission was:

a)  Make God known to a hostile world

b)  Establish God’s kingdom on earth that is marked by love and justice, especially for those who are marginalized or oppressed.

2)  And it was completed by:

a)  Jesus’ teachings that revealed the truth of God

b) Jesus’ miracles and healings that expressed God’s love for all people

c) Jesus’ calling of the disciples to form a new community that would represent the truth of God through self-sacrificing love and service

But this is the point that I came to realize – “it is finished” is not the end of story, it is merely the end of a chapter – the life and now death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and of Man.  And because it is not the end of the story, it signifies the beginning of something else and that is the next chapter which is God’s resurrection of the Only Begotten Son – the chapter of hope.

Jesus’ proclamation “it is finished” points us, orients us to the rest of the story and it is the rest of the story that gives us hope!  The point is simply this – death is not the final answer; it was not Jesus final chapter and it is not our final chapter.  Death did not have victory over Jesus Christ and it will not have victory over those of us who believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior!  And the point of this is not only to foster faith and belief but also for the transformation of our lives – that we might finish our God ordained mission – to tell the world the rest of the story – God’s story of hope!

We live in a world that desperately needs to hear the rest of the story!  A week and a half ago we had a deranged man filled with anti-Semitic hate kill a grandfather and his grandson at the local Jewish Community Center.  He then drover over to a retirement area called Village Shalom and shot and killed a woman there.  This man is just one of many examples of how we don’t get the point of the story.  And these examples remind us that we need to continue to be a beacon, an example of Christ’s love that can heal and transform; we have to continue to tell the rest of the story till all the world gets the point!

It is a story of hope – the point of God’s story in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the only true story of hope for this world.  God is inviting us to participate in the transformation of the world through this powerful story of hope.  It can be done if we would simply imitate Jesus in our words and deeds as we conform to the image of Christ.

So may all that we say and do each and every day, from this moment on be an imitation of Jesus Christ so that the world might come to know the point of his life, death and resurrection – that the world might come to know and have hope!

Blessings for the journey.

 

 

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I Thirst

thirst1 (image courtesy of airmaria.com)

Traditionally we count seven last words or sayings of Jesus spoken while being crucified on a cross.  Three of those sayings are prayers – “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” and “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  One of them is a promise spoken to a thief who is hanging on a cross next to him – “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Another are words spoken to his mother and the beloved disciple that established a new community when he said “woman behold your son; son behold your mother.”  The sixth phrase is a statement which on the surface seems natural but upon deeper reflection has powerful implications.

Thirst is a natural part of our human existence.  I have two grandsons and when you send them out to play they will go at for hours and have a blast, especially on a beautiful late spring/early summer day.  But eventually they get to the point that they are thirsty – they need water or something to hydrate their bodies.  It is the mechanism within us to replenish the moisture we need for our bodies to properly function.

But let’s take this a step further – we not only have a physical thirst, we also have a thirst that cannot be quenched with mere water.  It is a thirst for meaning, purpose, contentment – it is a deep longing within our souls that requires satisfaction.  It is a space that we try in a variety of ways to fill; a thirst that we strive to quench and it is usually with material possessions or physical pleasures.  And yet we also discover that there is a well that we usually drink from but which cannot quench that burning thirst in our souls.  It is the well of this world – of consumption, pleasure, and self.

In the middle 1600′s a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Christian philosopher named Blaise Pascal wrote these words:

“What else does this craving and this helplessness proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?  This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help.  Since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

Modern interpreters have rephrased Pascal’s words to describe a hole in our soul that only God can fill; the thirst that only God can quench.  If this is true is it any wonder that our striving to quench our thirst with all the wrong things leaves us parched, dry?  But like runners after a long race or people who have walked a long distance over dry, arid lands we continue to drink from a fountain that may temporarily quench our thirst but will not eternally.

So what does it mean for Jesus to say “I am thirsty”?

First a little background on the gospel narratives about the crucifixion.  All four gospels note that Jesus is offered something to drink during the crucifixion process.  Matthew and Mark state that Jesus was offered something to drink upon arrival at Golgotha but before he is nailed to the cross.  The women disciples offer him a wine mixed with gall or myrrh and one thought is that the wine mixed with one of these two would actually ease the pain and suffering of Jesus.  The women attempted to ease Jesus pain on the cross but the gospel of Matthew adds that once Jesus had tasted the drink, he refused to anymore of it.  Matthew and Mark also record a second moment that Jesus is offered wine – after the cry of dereliction when Jesus asks God why He has abandoned him – someone at the cross went over and dipped a sponge in sour wine, put the sponge on a stick but the drink bearer was stopped short.  Some in the crowd thought that Jesus was actually calling out for Elijah the prophet and so they wanted to see if Elijah would come; Jesus never received the sour wine in Matthew or Mark.  Luke’s account continues his theme of mockery with the Roman soldiers drinking a distilled vinegar wine, a cheap wine and offering perhaps a toast to Jesus who was the “king of the Jews.”  In their mockery a cup of wine is lifted up to Jesus but never delivered to his lips; his physical thirst continues.  The gospel of John approaches this moment simply and in a straightforward way.  Jesus proclaims his thirst, is offered wine from a sponge that is held up by a stick and Jesus simply tastes it.  All four accounts speak of the physical actions around the cross dealing with thirst and drink but it still leaves me wondering what Jesus meant.  Is there something deeper in his statement?

There are a few differing interpretations regarding what Jesus meant by these words.  First is the explanation that John is addressing a heresy of his day.  Greek Docetism was on the rise during the author’s time and they believed that god’s could not take on physical form.  Jesus may have appeared to be human but he was pure spirit being.  Therefore a spirit being could not suffer, be thirsty, or die.  The proclamation “I am thirsty” is John’s way of showing that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  A second view is that Jesus’ statement signifies that the cup from which he was to drink (the cup as the figurative sign of God’s mission and purpose for Jesus) was now completely consumed.  Nothing else could be offered – all that Jesus had to give was given; he was empty.  A third way of looking at these words draws us to reflect on Matthew 25:31-46.  Jesus told his disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and provide drink to those who are thirsty.  That when we do that, they would also serve the Lord himself.  Jesus proclamation of thirst is a reminder to serve – serve those who thirst and you will provide Jesus a drink as well.  These are all legitimate ways of looking at Jesus’ words from the cross but the interpretation that I want to go with is the one where Jesus speaks on behalf of humanity and divinity.

All of us desire for the hole in our soul to be filled; the thirst that we have to be quenched eternally.  Jesus speaks on our behalf for he also desires in that moment for reunion with the Father.  And Jesus speaks on behalf of divinity.  The mission and purpose of God has been and continues to be to at-one-ment.  God’s desire is to be our quenching fountain – “I am thirsty” is God’s statement of longing for us.  Simply put, I believe that God thirst for us – to have a deep and abiding relationship of love, trust and reliance.  If only we would partake of the waters that God offers to us through Jesus Christ – the promise is that we would thirst no longer.  So how might that be a reality in our lives?

thirst (image courtesy of stpaulcanfield.org)

Retired United Methodist Bishop William Willimon in his book “Thank God it’s Friday” put it this way:

“To thirst in Scripture is to yearn, to long for, to be desperate with desire.  Jesus, in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, blessed a sort of holy desperation. ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.’” (Matthew 5:6)

I believe Willimon is suggesting that a pursuit of God’s righteousness will quench that nagging thirst within; it will fill the hole in our souls.  For our community of faith I have used the following as our model for pursuit of God’s righteousness.

First is knowing God – accepting God’s offering of love and forgiveness as redemptive for our lives.  His self-sacrificing love makes it possible for you and me to know God as redeemer and sustainer.

Second is the daily process of learning about God – since no thirst is quenched with just one drink, we know that it is an ongoing process until death.  Learning about God is a life-long journey of reading God’s story, reflecting upon the wisdom of the patriarchs and saints as well as investigating modern thought, interpretation and application.  This daily drink will begin to quench our thirst with more and more of God’s soul satisfying righteousness.

Finally, there is the invitation to serve those who are thirsty – physically and spiritually because serving them is serving the Lord.

So are you thirsty today?  Do you long to drink from a fountain that will ultimately satisfy or are you content with just drinking from the well that will never meet your soul needs?  Jesus speaks for both God and you; in Jesus Christ our mutual needs can be met; God can provide “living water” that will quench the thirst in your soul – come and let us together drink with the Lord.

Blessings for the journey.

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