(Note: After having written this and gone back and reviewed it, I realize that it feels that once again I have not communicated as clearly as I wish. One recognized problem is that I am attempting not to make a single point, but a series of related points. Basically what I’m getting at is this: Our actions (which sometimes includes words) show our true character. The actions I’ve observed recently have made me question if people are really following Christ, and whether Christianity is real at all. After that I suggest ways in which we can follow Christ.)
Last Sunday was the day known as Palm Sunday. This commemorates the day Jesus entered Jerusalem to much fanfare. A large crowd came out and literally gave Jesus the welcome of a king. This obviously created a stir. Imagine your Sunday school teacher visiting New York City, and receiving the kind of welcome due the Pope. “The whole city [of Jerusalem] was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?'” (Matthew 21:10, NIV). The people declared that Jesus from Nazareth was their king!
Pause for a moment and consider that. Now, imagine a few days going by. It’s currently Friday, less than a week later. Over night the religious leaders of Jerusalem have arrested Jesus, held a trial, convicted him and have been bouncing him between the Roman officials, trying to get him executed. Friday morning comes around, and a crowd gathers outside of Pilate’s palace in order to ask for the release of a prisoner, as was the custom. Pilate expected the crowd to ask for the release of Jesus, but the religious leaders had stirred up the crowd to seek Jesus’ death. For what sounds like hours, Pilate wants to release Jesus, but the crowd becomes more and more demanding, to the point where they say, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
Does anything strike you as odd about this situation? Days ago a large crowd was hailing Jesus as their king, and now a large crowd is demanding his blood! Were these some of the same people in both crowds? Or if not, where were all of the people who claimed Jesus to be their king?
Last week I was disturbed and upset by some things I became aware of. These piled on top of and confirmed some things which I had already been sensing. I feel that we have been quite divided in our actions. We’ll be very course in our conversation and joking, then take communion. There have even been course joking about and during communion! Brothers and sisters, this should not be! It feels as though we’re trying to co-exist on opposing poles. It feels like we have to make a dramatic and awkward shift in order to began talking about something spiritual.
There is another interesting story involving Jesus at this time. The day after his triumphal entry, as he is returning to Jerusalem, he sees a fig tree with leaves. The leaves are an important detail, because when a fig tree has leaves, it should also have figs. Or in other words, leaves on a fig tree are a message that the tree has figs. Jesus goes to check this out, because he is hungry. However the tree does not have any figs! Jesus curses the tree for “bearing false witness” so to speak, or in other words, for declaring that it is a fig tree, but not producing any fruit to substantiate that claim. The fig tree had withered by the following morning.
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43-45, NIV)
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. … For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37, NIV)
Here and elsewhere in the Bible, it is said that you can know a tree by it’s fruit. This metaphor is saying that you can know what kind of person a man or woman is by their actions. The way some people have been acting and talking recently makes me question the authenticity of Christianity. To act in such a manner—participating nominally in a couple of religious rituals, but to not have affect on one’s life overall—says that there is no real substance or depth to that religion. Are we just fooling ourselves? Is that all there is to Christ?
There are two equal mistakes we can make in our view of God. The first is to think of God as either the unloving, cruel, cold authority figure, who is just waiting for us to make a mistake so that he can condemn us, or similarly, to see God as being so holy and perfect that he couldn’t possibly have anything thing to do with us when we make mistakes. But there is another mistake on the opposite extreme too.
Jesus said to the Jews, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'”
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ …The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’.” (Matthew 15:3-11, 18-20, NIV)
The error here is that the Jews had changed what God said in order to fit their own views. Going back to what I was speaking about above, the second error we can have in our view of God is to see God as one of our “buddies” so to speak. Especially for those of us who are not legalistic and understand that the teachings of the new covenant aren’t a list of rules, we can fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus doesn’t really have any standards. We may think that if Jesus were here, he’d just be doing the same things we’re doing, and understands the mistakes and bad choices we make, so he doesn’t mind. Or if he isn’t one of our buddies, he still has the attitude of, “Oh that’s OK, don’t worry about it, I understand.” In other words, it’s kind of the “pushover” Jesus, who lets us get away with what we’re doing, either because he doesn’t think it’s a big deal, or is too weak for discipline. Sure, he may even condemn other people for doing the things we don’t like them doing, but he doesn’t get on our case for what we’re doing.
Both of these positions deal with guilt. In the former case, too much guilt is piled on oneself, in the latter, guilt is dodged altogether. Guilt is important and has a proper place. It is good to feel guilt for wrongs we have done. The purpose of guilt is to lead to repentance (that is, changing of our actions), which leads to spiritual growth. But once the issue has been dealt with, it’s time to let go of the guilt, accept God’s forgiveness and to forgive ourselves.
“If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:26-27, NIV) “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt (Greek: ‘bitter’) water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:9-12).
Another similar thing that bothers me is when people “take things in the wrong way” or “have their mind in the gutter”, and make it known to those around them. (I’m basically talking about people twisting words to make them mean something sexually explicit.)
“To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:15-16, NIV)
To me, this passage speaks of what I am talking about. Didn’t Paul say elsewhere, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)? I personally believe that those who are pure won’t “take things the wrong way”. Now none of us are perfectly pure, and we may at times think about things the wrong way, but in most cases it’s best to keep this to ourselves. Aren’t we supposed to be building one another up? Try not to laugh, giggle, make a comment, or smirk, etc. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV)
So what are the solutions?
“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:22-26, NIV)
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual (or reasonable) act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)
It’s often said that as Christians we’re supposed to try and be like Christ. But we’re also told that if we try on our own, we will fail, and that we can only be like Christ though means of the Spirit’s power. Huh? If you are honest like I am being, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. The words may be true, but they are nonsensical. Live through the Spirit’s power? What does that mean? How do I do that? It seems like the only options are for me to try myself, or for the Holy Spirit to somehow magically make me so I don’t do wrong anymore. I don’t know about your experience, but the latter doesn’t seem to happen. Don’t expect to suddenly and magically be made a perfect person. But maybe there is another option. Maybe there is a way to receive the divine life…
Pilate finally gives into the crowd, sends Jesus off to be executed, and indeed Jesus is dead by the end of the day. But of course the story doesn’t end there. Jesus isn’t still dead. We’re not left with only memories and teachings, left trying to imitate him. Jesus rises from the dead, and having defeated death, continues to live forever. What is your gospel (good news)? Is it merely that Jesus died for your sins so that you can go to “heaven”? Is that it or is there more? If that’s all, then my reaction is, “Great, I’m glad that my afterlife is taken care of, now I’ll get back to my regularly scheduled life.” But there is more.
All things were created through Jesus, and he sustains all things (Hebrews 1). Through his incarnation (birth), he unites humanity with God. Through his death he provides atonement and purification. Through his resurrection, he becomes our leader and frees us from death. Through his ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit, he allows us opportunity to join in his life, to participate in the divine life. In other words we are not left merely with the past, trying to imitate a good teacher. We can be a part of what he is doing now!
And what is Jesus doing now? I believe he sums up the gospel, his good news, when he quotes Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, NIV)
Freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed, sight for the blind, good news for the poor! Not just in the afterlife, but now! God’s kingdom is already here, breaking into this world! And we have a chance to participate!
How can we be transformed? By participating in the divine life. How do we join? How do we participate? The answer is once again the church. We join into Christ’s life by joining into his body. I’m not talking about merely attending a weekly service or two at an organized institution where a crowd of mostly strangers gather and participate in some religious rituals. Joining Christs body doesn’t come through a prayer or attending a service. It is very practical. It comes through living life with those around you who are also seeking to follow Christ. “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20). We do a poor job of trying to follow Christ on own our, by ourselves. But when we try to follow him with others, encouraging one another, we tap into his divine life.
Christ rose not just to save us individually, not just for our future, but for everyone, beginning in the present—right now. He rose as part of God’s over-arching, beautiful plan for all creation. Start living in that reality now!