Saturday, April 21, 2012

What We Are

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. (1 John 3.1)

Scripture can sometimes provoke a stray thought of such force that we hurry to put it away—not aside, but as far from us as we can send it, because it shows us something that changes how we see everything. Sunday’s New Testament reading, 1 John 3.1-7, triggered one of these thoughts. The shock came in the first three verses: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when He [Jesus Christ] is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is. And all who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He is pure.”

It’s obvious John isn’t writing to Sunday Christians—religious hangers-on and casual traditionalists. He’s speaking to people who’ve undergone total transformation, believers who’ve allowed faith in Christ to redefine their entire existence. They’ve experienced baptism in its truest sense, not only as a symbolic rite that identifies them as Jesus’s followers, but in a spiritually immersive manner that saturates their very lives. Their encounter with God’s love made manifest in Christ leads them to call themselves “children of God,” which they believe themselves to be—even though they’re not sure what it all means.

The lifestyle John describes is, in every way, unnatural. It’s a life founded on familial ties and resemblance to the Creator, a life unhampered by biological inevitabilities, worldly success drives, and survival mandates. Ageing, illness, security, death, and every other concern that naturally points to a hard stop are merely commas and semicolons to John’s readers. Something beyond present life calls to them—the hope in a day when the life they’re given and life they choose will come together and the truth of their faith-lighted existence will be irrevocably self-evident. As I pondered the ferocity of such faith, I wondered what it would look like today. The answer hit me with such a blow I may never recover.

Above the Mundane

Were we to live out John’s unnatural lifestyle to the fullest, many (probably most) would think we joined a cult. We’d been seen as radical extremists besotted by a starry-eyed Dreamer. If that were so, the modern version of Holy Week events we just revisited would be cast in inflammatory headlines: 


Somewhere in the flurry of the weeklong news cycle, cult “experts” would connect the dots: “Hardcore disciples of Jesus distance themselves from ordinary life by identifying as ‘children of God.’ They say God’s love for them is so great it literally alters them. They invest all their hope in their Leader’s supposed ability to release them from fear and death. So while their reality testing is very low, their faith in Christ’s promises lifts them above the mundane. And that’s why they’re dangerous.”

Because of God’s love, we can confidently say we’re God’s children. But John won’t leave it there. “And that’s what we are,” he stresses, adding that the reason why others don’t recognize us as children of God is because they don’t know Christ. Thus, being viewed as “different”—whether favorably or not—is in itself confirmation of the transformative power of God’s unconditional love; it is the sign that we do, in fact, belong to God. And we should own everything that’s different about us with the same intensity we observe in cult members who subscribe to the most outlandish philosophies and ideas imaginable. Nothing ever hatched by human minds can possibly compare to the outrageous truth of Christ’s gospel. No human cult leader has, or ever will, equal Jesus’s audacity to preach selfless love of God and others. No ordinary man or woman has, or ever will, promise new life and dare to do as Jesus did: demonstrably make good on the promise. Our faith not only secures our identity as children of God. It lifts us above the mundane and makes us dangerous.

Life Now Lived in God

Belief in Jesus testifies to blatant defiance of conventional wisdom and natural order. Jesus explicitly says this in Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 24.36-48): “’These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about Me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’” (v44-48; emphasis added)

What we witness in Jesus is what we hope for in us—the revelation of something bigger, richer, and purer than anything found in this world’s ways: the fulfillment of divine promise. Greater love. Truer honesty. Higher justice. Deeper commitment. Freer forgiveness. Wider acceptance. Eternal life that surpasses life hereafter to become life now lived in God, given by God, understood and pursued as a reflection of God. We witness all of this in Jesus, the perfect Child, and we follow His example as children of God. That’s why we’re dangerous. Living as God’s children, we devote our lives to hope that constantly pushes us over the line, that ignores manmade boundaries and definitions, that abides by principles and customs of what the Hebrews writer called “a building not made by hands.” (11.9)

We inhabit a divine state of becoming, of steadily growing into our resemblance to Christ. In 1 John 3.7 we read, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous.” We do what’s right because we’ve witnessed what’s right in Jesus. It’s what we do, regardless how others may view us, what they may say about us, and whether or not they ever acknowledge, accept, or believe us. What love God has given us that we should be called God’s children. If ever a scripture cried for an exclamation point, this one does. That we should be called God’s children!

And that’s what we are!

 Faith in Christ’s promises lifts us above the mundane.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mere Mortals

Hear Me, you who know what is right, you people who have taken My instructions to heart: Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals or be terrified by their insults. (Isaiah 51.7; NIV)

Self-Elimination and Zombie Faith

I’ve not yet seen Bully, the documentary prompting a lot of conversation about this crisis among our youth. But in the trailer, one parent says, “Be the difference. Go out and find that one child, that new kid standing over there by himself. Be willing to stand up for him.” And while the urgency of aligning ourselves with—and protecting—children who are abused as outsiders has never been greater, the comment brought to mind how many adults also suffer from bullying.

As creatures we’re no different than other social species; we fall into a pecking order that establishes who among us has the upper hand and who’s expendable. It’s a pack mentality one can arguably explain as part of our DNA—the jungle law that spurs alpha types on our playgrounds to intimidate classmates who don’t fit the accepted mold. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing the call of the wild play out among our children much like it does in nature. With increasing regularity, kids labeled as worthless misfits withdraw into debilitating depression and, in the most extreme cases, eliminate themselves by suicide. Yet we don’t seem capable of outgrowing this phenomenon on our own. We see it in adults everywhere: in families, at work, in politics, in communities, and, most distressingly, in arenas of faith.

The whole point of faith, as I see it, is to correct our penchant for jungle law by transforming our natures to reflect God’s perfect love and acceptance. Faith is designed to defy nature, to reestablish a law of life that defeats fear and death. In Romans 7.5-6 we read, “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” So how is it, then, that the halls of Christianity are strewn with corpses of people who’ve been bullied as outsiders—precious souls who’ve been convinced that they’re worthless misfits? How can a faith that hangs on the promise of resurrection tolerate a culture that breeds debilitating depression and, in the most tragic cases, encourages self-elimination from the Body of Christ?

And we should be very frank about this. When those who’ve been rejected withdraw from the community of believers, they’re essentially committing faith suicide. Furthermore, while some may not go so far as turning away, to survive a climate governed by exclusion necessitates rejecting “new life in the Spirit.” Like bullied children, they’re held captive by powers that “bear fruit for death.” It’s not enough to call them the walking wounded. They’re viewed and treated—and thus perceive themselves—as the living dead. In being pushed aside and bullied for not fitting the mold, they’re consigned to a life of zombie faith, a hollow belief that yields no life-giving love, joy, and acceptance.

Perfect Gifts

As we ponder the despicable doctrines and practices that foster self-elimination and zombie faith, we listen closely to God’s voice in Isaiah 51.7: “Hear Me, you who know what is right, you people who have taken My instructions to heart: Do not fear the reproach of mere mortals or be terrified by their insults.” In context, God is addressing a bullied nation. His word comes to a people who’ve been overpowered and taken captive by Babylon—the top dog of their age. They’re forced to live as outsiders in a strange land, not by choice as expatriates, but without recourse as exiles. With no end in sight, no doubt many toy with suicidal thinking, while the rest attempt to endure by clinging to zombie faith. Yet God reminds them they know better. How it looks is not how it is. “You know what’s right,” God says. “You’ve taken My instructions to heart.” Knowledge of Who God is and what God expects is given to bolster them against jungle-law bullying. “Remember, bullies are mere mortals,” God says. They’re not to be feared.

In daily life—and, in particular, in the realm of faith—we have to know that. We cannot forget what is right, or lose sight of Who God is and what God expects. Our worthiness isn’t measured by pecking order and primal nature. It’s decreed by our Maker. James 1.17 tells us, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Created in the image of a perfect God, we are perfect gifts of lasting value and the only way we can alter that perfection is by rejecting it—by submitting to bullies who insist we are less than God made us to be. We must be very canny in our awareness that not everyone who reaches prominent positions in our churches has reached Paul’s understanding that the Body of Christ isn’t governed by laws of sin and death. Not everyone who says we’re wrong knows what’s right. Not everyone who preaches has taken God’s instruction to heart. God has opened this amazing opportunity for us to experience new life in the Spirit. We’ve been freed from captivity and fear. How it looks is not how it is. Self-elimination is not an option. Zombie faith is no way to live. We are perfect gifts.

Find Them

As we take this liberating message to heart, we open our hearts to those who’ve not heard it, or struggle to believe it. Within our families, workplaces, and communities—especially our faith communities—we know people who’ve been bullied into rejecting their self-worth. They battle self-eliminating urges of every imaginable type. They’re held captive by lies and libels that promote negative self-images bearing no likeness to their perfect Creator. They are afraid.

Yet, monumental though the forces convened against them may seem, it is in our power to do as the parent in Bully pleads: “Be the difference. Go out and find that one child, that new kid standing over there by himself. Be willing to stand up for him.” Find the believers who opt out of community. Convince them self-elimination is unnecessary. Find the believers who’ve settled for zombie faith. Show them love and speak words that restore their confidence that they too can experience new life in the Spirit. Find the believers who’ve lost sight of who they are because others have told them they’re not who they should be. Assure them that how it looks is not how it is. Find them. Be willing to stand up for them.

A very wise person said, “The things we fear the most have already happened to us.” And therein lies resurrection’s power over fear. It gives birth to newness of promise. It loosens the grip of past defeats and injuries so that we’re free to live as God wants us to. Whether on the playground or in the church, jungle law and the bullying it creates are the work of mere mortals. They’re nothing to fear. We have to believe that message for ourselves. And then we have to pass it along to others.

Bullying isn’t confined to the playground. Nor is it limited to children. It is equally prevalent in adult life, most corrosively in the realm of faith. We have power to change that.

Postscript: Bully

If you’ve not seen the Bully trailer, here it is. And as you view it, I would encourage you to think about adult bullying—Christian bullying—and how it demeans believers.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Signs of Life

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name. (John 20.30-31)

Under the Radar

The Resurrection hands Jesus’s followers a great big problem that gets even bigger 40 days later, when He vanishes into the heavens. They’re charged with spreading the Gospel—the Good News of God’s kingdom—and the disciples quickly discern that Jesus’s story is a major part of that larger story. For the Good News to stick, it needs to have been delivered by Divine Messenger, the Messiah, God Made Flesh. And the critical proof point that Jesus is God rests in the Resurrection. The disciples have no doubt that Jesus arose from the dead. They saw Him and spoke with Him after He left the tomb. Indeed, the main event in Sunday’s Gospel (John 20.19-31) explains how Jesus allowed Thomas to touch His transformed body to convince him that He’s alive. Yet it appears not many outside Jesus’s close-knit circle encounter Him as the Risen Christ. He appears to two unnamed disciples on the Emmaus Road. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asserts that Jesus was seen by a group of 500, although it isn’t reported in the Gospels. As far as we can tell, Jesus pretty much stays under the radar.

If we were among Jesus’s first disciples tasked with spreading the Good News, declaring His resurrection would be a tough row to hoe. We’d be hard-pressed to respond to comments and ridicule about Jesus’s whereabouts after leaving the tomb. “So where was He, what was He doing, if nobody but a handful of you saw Him? You’d think He’d make at least one token appearance at the Temple, just to set the record straight. This is a lot of baloney.” How would we answer that?

Fortunately, the disciples’ message is so compelling that many believe their word that Jesus arose from the dead. And that’s all the more amazing when we recall that Jesus leaves the world with nothing but His followers’ witness to substantiate He was ever here. First-generation believers have no grave, no relics, no writings, no children—no artifacts of any kind—they can point to as hard evidence Jesus even existed. Yet to this day, all but a very few question that He lived among us, teaching us how to live and presenting a principled Gospel that opens the door to a life in God. How can that be?


John offers a fascinating clue when he closes Chapter 20 with this observation: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name.” (v30-31) Jesus leaves a legacy of signs that He was with us—signs that He stamps in the faith of His followers, who did see and speak with the Risen Christ. And the reason John singles out Thomas’s experience may very well be because it’s the most dramatic of the “many other signs” Jesus leaves.

Thomas, who misses Jesus’s first post-resurrection visit with the disciples, wants to be sure Jesus is alive. Although his insistence on touching Jesus’s wounds has labeled him a doubter, I’m not convinced Thomas questions the Resurrection as much as he distrusts his colleagues’ report. It’s only been 10 days since Jesus’s prediction of His death, resurrection, and ascension troubled Thomas. In John 14, during the Last Supper, Jesus frames what’s about to happen as a departure, return, and second departure. “I’m going away,” Jesus says, “but I’ll come back and show you how to go where I’m headed. And you know the way to the place where I’m going.” (v3-4) But Thomas isn’t content with Jesus’s hazy terminology. He speaks up: “Lord, we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus puts Thomas at ease, reassuring him, “I am the way.”

In light of this exchange, it makes perfect sense for Thomas to wait until He meets Christ for himself to believe Jesus is alive. He won’t be led down a garden path. He won’t risk the possibility the other disciples have mistaken someone else for Jesus. He requests a sign. When Jesus grants his request—revealing Himself to Thomas, as the Christ, the Way—something extraordinary transpires within the disciple. He believes. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaims. (John 20.28) And in that exclamation an even greater thing occurs. Thomas’s faith transforms him into a sign of life. The Risen Christ becomes his reason to live.

A Belief So Strong

John says he records selected signs of Jesus’s resurrection so that we may come to believe that Jesus is “the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name.” In a later letter, he revisits this idea when he writes, “This life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1 John 1.2-3) In both texts, John stresses our role in Jesus’s ongoing story. We are signs of life.

The absence of hard proof that Jesus arose from the dead—indeed, that Jesus ever existed—is our invitation to believe. Our faith must transcend hearsay evidence. It must grow out of a real encounter with Christ that allays all doubts about Him. It’s a belief so strong that it can’t be shaken, even as it shakes us to our core and causes us to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” It’s the confidence one gospel songwriter condensed into the powerful declaration, “I know Him for myself.” That faith transforms us from reasonable doubters into triumphant signs of life. We become walking, talking evidence of Christ’s Resurrection—living witnesses to a life that conquers death in all of its forms.

In her Resurrection sermon last Sunday, our pastor quoted Clarence Jordan, an influential New Testament scholar whose words have stuck with me all week. He wrote: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of His transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that Jesus lives is not a vacant grave, but a Spirit-filled fellowship—not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away Church.” Jesus left no paper trail, made no major post-Resurrection appearances, and vanished without a trace of His earthly existence because it was unnecessary. Instead, He left a self-perpetuating legacy of signs stamped in our faith. You are a sign. I am a sign. Everyone who believes is a sign. We are all signs of life.

 Jesus left no hard proof of His resurrection—indeed, no paper trail or artifacts at all to confirm His existence—because it was unnecessary. Proof that He lives is stamped in our faith. We are walking, talking signs of life.