Two Don’ts and One Do
The high expectations of heaven for the Christian are also those of earth. As we mentioned a couple of days ago, unbelievers have a few Scriptural arrows stored in their quivers to pierce the hides of Christians who blithely ignore Christ’s teaching. They know that Christ’s followers are supposed to love and bless their enemies. When we fail in that practice, they nock their arrows and let them fly. And, quite frankly, we deserve the stab of being called out. It is a high moniker we’ve assumed of taking on the name Christian – i.e. Christ-like. Being a greedy, grumpy, cursing, resentful and merciless Christian checks the box of phony with a big bold, X. It would seem to be more than enough that Jesus asks us to bless our enemies, but he is just getting warmed up: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” ~Luke 6:37
Guess what? That’s another passage of Scripture that the world seems to know quite well. There are two negative commands followed by a positive: Don’t judge; Don’t condemn; and DO forgive. With each comes a promise: we will not be judged; we will not be condemned; and, we will be forgiven.
These are high mountains. For the record, I am relatively certain I fail one or more of these daily. Sometimes it is merely reactive in the heat of the moment. I suppose that is somewhat less offensive to heaven than my carefully reasoned judgments, condemnations and unforgiveness. But either way – accidental or deliberate – failure is failure. These commands are not difficult for our minds to grasp; however, reason will only take us to the front step. We must pound on the door of heaven and plead for supernatural assistance. In mercy he brings us to helplessness that we might seek help.
Despicable You (and ME)!
The logic of heaven pours through the teaching of Jesus. What he asks of us is always set in the context of the grace received. Thus, what makes these commands less ethereal and more tolerable is that grace has been decreed from heaven to earth to the heart that is wise and humble enough to admit to the need and to accept it: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “ ~Luke 6:35,36
We can do this because it has already been done to and for us. In these commands to love and bless our enemies, we are not left to thrash about and make it up on our own. These commands of our Lord are directed to those who have recognized their own inclinations toward the despicable. We cannot practice grace unless we’ve received grace. And those who’ve received grace gladly and freely admit that they have been amongst the throng of those who have been, in the words of Jesus,” …ungrateful and wicked.” In fact, once a person crosses over to the redemption offered by Christ, he or she discovers the true power of darkness in new and profound ways. The tyranny of sin is only truly known to those who try and resist it. As CS Lewis once said: No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it not by lying down. A man who gives into the temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it; and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation really means – the only complete realist.
To begin to bless our enemies we must first admit that we too have been enemies of heaven. But thankfully, grace has trumped our hostilities. If we keep that in mind, Christ’s commands become not only doable, but rather winsome.
The Authenticating Commands
It’s surprising how much Scriptural knowledge people possess who have no particular interest in faith. It comes in handy when a person who does have an interest in faith fails to measure up to their beliefs because it provides a lovely opportunity for the unbeliever to gleefully cry: “Hypocrite!” It seems that every unbelieving friend I have – and I have a bunch – is familiar with the passage we looked at yesterday: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.” Granted, this is a tough slog for the Christian. We’ve before us a numbing task that runs counterintuitive to both mind and gut. By any reasonable earthly standard this sounds more like the sentiments of a greeting card than the harsh reality of the life that confronts us come Monday morning. We face friends, fools and family each and every day who provide real time prospects for abject failure – to adorn our necks with the moniker, “Hypocrite!”
And Jesus wasn’t quite finished. There was more: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.” ~Luke 6:32-34
It is odd. Heaven and earth have many points of disagreement, but not with this bit from Luke 6. It’s the authenticating standard expected of us by an unbelieving world. It also happens to be the authenticating standard of heaven: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” ~Luke 6:35
In Case Anyone Missed The Point
Shortly after all the excitement surrounding the man who had walked away from his Jesus encounter with a brand new hand, the Lord took to the wilds to do a bit of open-air preaching. Just in case anyone had missed the point of the miracle, it was now time to ornament his actions with words. Something as beautiful as the Sabbath had been twisted about to become a burdensome and joyless task. Such is the way of spiritless religion. Jesus would use the Sabbath – time and again – as ground zero where the onerous legalism and the gospel of grace would be contested. A radical teaching was about to be introduced that would set in motion this polar distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this earth. For those who would become followers of Jesus, they would have to learn how not to curse: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” ~Luke 6:27-31
There are a number of commands in this brief section: love, do good, bless, pray, don’t retaliate, be generous, give up on the word “mine.” Yet the novelty of this instruction is that all of these undeniably good things are to be done towards one’s enemies. Prior to this moment, it was not only theologically permissible but theologically correct to do just the opposite. He was now saying that cursed and cursing people are in desperate need of a blessing, not further cursing.
We come away from this teaching wildly conflicted. It sounds right. It feels right. It carries a substance within that makes our hearts glad. Yet…a well-earned lack of trust of others begins to poke at us. We’d be most agreeable to this blessing business if everyone else would sign on to the program. But we know they won’t. And so, as our human logic kicks in, so do all the exception clauses that arise from the many weary years of having been hurt and abused by others. We think our particular case, the unique injuries that have come to us are somehow exempt from the command. “If you only knew so and so and what he did you’d feel the same,” we protest. Along with that, we in the States and Western culture have in our DNA a strong affinity for what we call our rights. The values we hold as citizens of this earth become a strong pull that can easily override the values of a heavenly citizenship. This teaching haunts and hurts. It is meant to. We’re being remade. We’re being reborn.
Who Deserves To Be Blessed?
Imagine for a moment you were the man who entered into the service that day with an infirmity. It is easy to picture his curled and useless hand. There is often a shyness surrounding those with a disability. He may have tried to hide it from others for it conveyed a stigma. In his mind and in the minds of all, he was carrying about the physical evidence of a curse – not from the nether regions of hell mind you – but from God himself. It was settled theology. But there was more. Not only did the teachers of the law find a causative relationship between illness or misfortune and God’s displeasure, they themselves were quite comfortable with piling on. Speaking a curse was a significant part of their mindset. It was an art form. They taught cursing classes – Cursing 101!
The disabled lad probably had a comfortable amount of space to sit and listen to Jesus. No one liked to sit too close to a cursed man. And then suddenly, on this particular Sabbath Day and quite unasked for, he became the center of attention. After a brief mind-game between Jesus and the Pharisees, the Lord stared down at the man’s wasted hand and spoke: “Stretch out your hand.”
“What was that?” He thought to himself. “Did he just tell me to do something that I’ve never been able to do? How embarrassing. I wish everyone would stop staring at me.” But even as those thoughts raced through his mind he felt a warmth and tingling in his hand. (Dr. Luke, the chronicler and medical observer tells us it was his right hand). The entire room was now engrossed with the small space taken up by one shriveled appendage. As they watched, the hand uncurled and grew plump and healthy. The man, 2000 years before it became a thing, began high-fiving and fist-pumping the air. A miracle had occurred…on the Sabbath. Jesus was not only restoring a man’s health, he was restoring sanity to a religion gone off the rails. And, he was answering with actions the question that was hanging over the room, “Who is worthy to be blessed?” By choosing a “cursed” man Jesus was saying, “Pretty much everyone!”
A Prelude to Blessing, Part 2
The great temptation of religious leaders is a skulking desire to control others. I don’t believe for a minute that temptation is limited to religious leaders, but since I am one, I will limit my comments to that profession. The desire to control is somewhat understandable. When we witness people making a wreck of their lives the offer of structure, of limits, of a “knock it off” is a logical and defensible choice. But as Christians we run up against this thing called grace and it appears to be designed to be quite messy. And while it is true that some have used grace as a license to do whatever they please it seems to be a wager that heaven is willing to risk. And one of the reasons that is so is because once rule-making is given its head, new restrictions multiply like rabbits. It is inevitable. Grace goes to war against this profligate progeny.
And so we left off with a bunch of religious leaders throwing a hissy fit because Jesus and his disciples decided to make a meal of a few grains of wheat on the Sabbath. In this, the Pharisees smelled the burning rubber of heresy. Luke immediately follows this story with an additional Sabbath breaking event: On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. ~Luke 6:6,7
We need to understand something very important. The teaching of that day was somewhat “karma” based. Any who suffered from an affliction were considered a “just desserts” recipient of Divine comeuppance. We see this many times as Jesus confronts the callous attitude directed toward the suffering. Such summary judgments even arose from the tongues of his own disciples, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” Such theology would offer a religious pass to disregard the misery of others. If God was giving them what they deserved, then who were they to object?
And so the Pharisees were zeroed in on just two things: Jesus and the Sabbath. Would this eater of grain on the holy day also break the union labor laws by performing a healing on the Sabbath? They didn’t have to wait all that long for an answer: Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. ~Luke 6:9,10
Juxtaposed now was the ultimate conflict between the curse and the blessing. The irony is that the religion of the day was at peace with people living out a diminished life under the bondage and indignity of the curse while at the same time showing hostility toward the blessing. Let’s fix that in our time and with these writings…
A Prelude to Blessing, Part 1
Luke was a physician. He was trained to observe. As he wrote down his thoughts in the Gospel of Luke and later in the Book of Acts he was doing so for an audience relatively unacquainted with the Jewish customs du jour. He chronicled a number of situations where the copious rules that had barnacled themselves on to the original ten commandments would have made little sense to a Gentile. By the time of Jesus they made little sense to the average Jew. But more to the point – the abundant and officious footnoting and naysaying by the religious elites had become offensive to Jesus. The spirit of the law had been lost. It was now covered over by dry and dusty bureaucratic tomes of religious perfidy. None could keep up. It was akin to our present day need to keep an accountant on retainer. Accountants are trained to stay abreast of ever changing and often ambiguous tax laws. They keep us out of trouble. The typical Jew had no such recourse. The religious authorities acted as the writers of the law, the accountants, the judges and the litigators. They held all the cards. On any given day, the common layman was likely to break some vague rule, some latest permutation or interpretation of the law absent any knowledge of having even done so. The very leaders who should have been helping their congregants stay a true course toward loving God and their fellow human beings were acting like odious communist apparatchiks. They had eyes everywhere.
There was no command more subject to abuse than the 4th one: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. That last word – holy – was ripe for inflation in the hands of religious busybodies. Over time, “holy” became defined by hundreds of things one could or could not do on the Sabbath and with a strong predilection toward the “could nots.”
One day Jesus and his disciples were walking across a field on the Sabbath and their bellies began to growl. They each grabbed a bit of grain and downed it. Standing by were the Pharisees who said this: “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” ~Luke 6:2 This paltry act was considered harvesting; therefore work and therefore “unholy.” Jesus offered them a Bible lesson: “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions…The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” ~Luke 6:3-5
Evidently they had NOT read that bit about old King David the temple trespassing grain thief. The Pharisees thought they had exclusive rights to the Sabbath. Jesus was denying their claims. He would say in another place, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” ~Mark 2:27 In other words, the Sabbath was meant to be a blessing not an affliction. Blessing people was the centerpiece of the Father’s heart. And as we shall soon see, blessing others is the centerpiece of the Father’s purpose for our lives as well.
There was a bunch of chin-wagging going on after the other disciples caught wind of the conversations involving Jesus, Peter and John. Jesus had basically told Peter to mind his own business in respect to whatever plans heaven had in mind for John: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” ~John 21:22 This triggered an uproar of unenlightened speculation: Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?” John 21:23
John would die – eventually. According to church tradition John would live out the length of his days as an exile on the Isle of Patmos. Tertullian, writing around 200 a.d. tells us that John was sent into exile as a result of an extraordinary miracle that took place within the Roman Colosseum under the Emperor Domitian. According to Tertullian, John had been plunged into boiling oil in front of the lusty roar of the crowd and survived the experience with nary a blister. Supposedly everyone in the audience was astonished and immediately converted to Christ as they witnessed this miracle. That would certainly do it for me. It didn’t do it for old Domitian. Whatever happened, he was highly annoyed with John and sent him packing. This event would have occurred in the late 1st century – just a few decades shy of when it was included in Tertullian’s work entitled: The Prescription of Heretics.
John winds down this glorious, incredible and accessible gospel with a few closing remarks: This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. ~John 21:24,25
Indeed. We know John’s testimony is true because his own humanity has shown through from the first chapter. He has revealed Christ in a way no other gospel writer quite matches. He has had an eye for the stories of individuals caught in the confusion of life and who were set free by the touch of the Master’s hand. It’s been quite a ride. I hope you’ve enjoyed our time together in the Gospel of John.
(Up next….I have recently been teaching a series at church entitled: Benedictus, which is the Latin word for Blessing. In the acrimonious times in which we live I thought it might be helpful to bring a few of those thoughts to this wider audience. Read on!)
None of Your Business
Trailing along behind and eavesdropping on the banter between Jesus and Peter was the author of the book we’ve been lingering over this past year. It wasn’t his business to be listening in on the conversation that involved Peter’s restoration to ministry, but John couldn’t help himself. It was how he rolled. And yet, because of his prurience, we’re blessed to have the account of that exchange.
Peter was mildly annoyed at the intrusion. Because John had written rather approvingly of himself throughout his gospel, we can assume that the other disciples were well aware of this tendency. Peter couldn’t even get a moment alone with Jesus absent this ubiquitous fawner. We can feel the tension in this next scene: Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” ~John 21:20,21 And there it is again – the disciple whom Jesus loved. John is true to these fetching self-portrayals right to the end. Peter was irritated for a couple of reasons. First of all, John allowed no personal space. He shadowed Jesus like a bodyguard. ALL were aware that he followed Jesus to the foot of the cross. ALL were aware that Peter had not. And second, Peter had just been told of a macabre end to his own life on this mortal coil. That put him in some bad humors. So Peter asks, “What about that guy?” Peter may have been hoping for an equally forbidding prognostication for his disciple mate!
Jesus cut Peter off: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” ~John 21:22 What Jesus had in mind for Peter wasn’t John’s business. What Jesus had in mind for John wasn’t Peter’s business. All that mattered for each of them was the singular, lonely and unique call to discipleship expressed with the words: “You must follow me.” Those words still hold true for us.