It is difficult to wait for the promise of some good bit of news to come to pass. Whether it’s a vacation, a love, a promotion, a Messiah, or dessert – the waiting itself can make the wished for thing seem unreal and distant. Scripture acknowledges this common human experience by saying: Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick…Proverbs 13:12a Christian hope is one of the virtues. Hope hangs on in the face of contrary emotions and the slow tick of the clock.
As the disciples listen to Jesus he does nothing to invalidate the very tortured emotions involved with waiting. He says this: “When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar. When I see you again, you’ll be full of joy, and it will be a joy no one can rob from you.” ~John 16:21,22 At the risk of sounding insensitive to the agony of childbirth, I’ll march ahead. However, I shall wisely hide behind Jesus since it is his analogy!
Hope is what gives a mother the stamina to endure the pain. At the end of the ordeal is a precious, innocent child that has been knit together in his or her mother’s womb. As the pain subsides it loses its power to define the moment. It now doesn’t matter. The face, contorted with misery just a few moments earlier, is now transformed with joy. The mother has met this remarkable creation for the first time. As Jesus said, “This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain.”
Jesus has just delivered quite a lot of labor pain news to his disciples. He has told them that they are probably not going to live to enjoy their golden years. He himself is about to exit the stage. And yet, at the end of it, a new life will come forth that will produce an unspeakable, unshakable, and everlasting joy. Within the space of just a few days they will witness Christ’s crucifixion followed soon after by his resurrection. This will be a serious inoculation against future hopelessness. They’ll each have witnessed the dress rehearsal for their own impending encounter with death. And the resurrection will prove to them Jesus’ promise that this labor-like ordeal will have been worth it.
Earlier, I only gave the first portion of that passage from Proverbs. Let’s read the whole verse and it will make our point for today: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:12
We can be certain that there will be thousands of deaths that must take place for a follower of Jesus. And yet unfortunately, for most of us, those deaths will often be accompanied by a resurrection! Just when we think we’ve wrestled a bad habit or ill virtue into the grave, poof – it reappears once more. Those bad habits or ill virtues are once again amongst us – the curse of the zombie. The novel thing here is that the zombie is me! That’s my old man, my old nature breaking out to run amok with its own frat-boy campaign of self-centered ruin.
Hear the Apostle Paul’s angst as he writes about this own struggle with the undead: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. ~Romans 7:15-20
Anybody relate to that?
In other places Paul will tell us that the old man is dead. He tells us this more as a legal reality than as a consistently observable truth. It is, again according to Paul and others, God’s view of us – heaven’s perspective on the believer. We are considered righteous before God because of the virtue of another. It’s a legal pronouncement. It is up to us to live up to that declaration – to claim our inheritance as it were.
This battle of putting down the old nature will last a lifetime. We will enter heaven unfinished. Such progress we make will necessarily be measured against the one whom we follow. But to keep at it is the thing. To remain steadfast in ordering the zombies back to their grave is part of our daily bread. The repetitious effort will keep us humble on the way and humble has a powerful and deleterious effect on zombies.
A Thousand Deaths
If nothing else has stuck with you this past year, I do hope that yesterday’s post chastened you to ponder treating the waitstaff with kindness. Something as simple as the consideration of how we use our words, how we feel, the tone of our voice, the look on our face – in others words, our situational awareness – provides the necessary connection of our spirit back to heaven…His kingdom come to earth and all that. While we might be concerned with the perfect latte, Jesus is concerned with the imperfect barista. And he’s concerned with the imperfect you…and me. And that’s how it’s all supposed to work.
Why is that important? The most obvious answer is because the insignificant moments are ubiquitous. We have way more of those than we have of momentous moments. It’s easy to attend a rally, march in a protest, or place a “Like” under some affecting post on Facebook. Virtue signaling becomes almost effortless in our connected world. But are we really virtuous? We put more effort into making sure we’re seen to be caring than actually caring. The Scriptures call that hypocrisy. Virtue signalers really don’t care to be called out on that. But we’re easily fooled. We catch the wave of some popular meme about saving the planet, or loving the world or some such, yet easily transition to hateful words about our neighbor. Jesus sees it all.
All of this bends back to Jesus talking earnestly to his disciples about what lies ahead for (he, himself, or him) and for them. He will die. They will die. They will die because the world hates what it is they have to say. It will not be a debate on the merits of the message. Each disciple will become a strawman worthy of the torch.
And it’s this dying theme which is front and center to our faith. We baptize as a symbol of descending into the grave and arising anew. We take the cup and the bread – symbols of blood and a broken body. It’s why we should do the latter of these on a regular basis. The death of Christ, frequently considered, keeps us centered. He died. We will die. But before that, we must experience a thousand deaths.
Praying At The Restaurant
We spoke yesterday of a battle – of going to war against our narcissistic self. The Scriptures portray this as a death. We must learn to “die to self.” And this battle is played out in the most ordinary of circumstances.
I recently heard a comedian say that he judges the potential of all of his business relationships based upon how the person who is courting his skills treats the waitstaff. I believe him to be, after listening to his comedy sketch, a committed agnostic. But his point is as Christian as they come. He went on to say, “I will judge you based upon how you treat the least of these.” Does that sound like anyone in Scripture we’ve run into this year? He took the words right out of Jesus’ mouth.
It reminded me of a moment from my youth when I was being treated to lunch by a very wealthy man and a respected member of his church. Something about the timing of his order, or the food, was not to his satisfaction and he gave the young waitress an angry earful. Then we prayed over our meal. This was not a one-off. I had occasion to share a few meals with him over the years. He seemed to enjoy working out his aggressions on minimum wage waitstaff. I cringed. I had neither the vernacular nor the spine to challenge him back in the day. I regret not having done so. He’s long gone. I’m not to judge his present whereabouts. But sometimes I wonder if that sort of damaged ego slips into heaven with their britches smoking. We’re told that the streets there are made of gold. Perhaps he’s a street sweeper.
Anyway…it is the little tests of life that summon the worst in us and tell us the most about our spiritual health. And when we feel our indignation rising over some slight, something that doesn’t bend to our taste or convenience, we need to realize that this is the battle. The moment we signed up for heaven we also surrendered our rights to be a despot. We are servants. We are crucified with Christ. We must do practice runs of dying before we die or we may be in for a nasty surprise. And if you can’t manage any of what I’ve just said, then for Christ’s sake (literally) – don’t pray over your meal in public.
Right Little Narcissists
The whole Christian notion of learning to die before we die is neither easy to grasp or to put into practice. Yet, it is a persistent theme throughout the New Testament. Paul said this in I Corinthians: “I die daily.” And this: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet it’s not me, but it’s Christ who lives in me. And the life which I now live out, day by day in the body, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” ~Galatians 2:20 The far-reaching implications of this passage should inspire and pester us all our days.
What does it all mean? I’ve given this dying daily thing a lot of thought over the years. Setting aside for a moment the image of death, let’s think about it from the perspective of the daily struggles within and without that we each face. I shall endeavor to be universal with my next string of insults by keeping it in the first person plural!
We are all self-centered, self-absorbed, self-gratifying, self-flattering, self-indulgent, self-preserving and self-promoting little humanoids. Right little narcissists. And more! I don’t think I’m overstating the case. We want what we want when we want it. Some of us have absorbed a few manners along the way in order that we not come across as some insufferable social pariah. But that notwithstanding, the inner chaos, annoyance or rage we feel when we don’t get what we want when we want it, is the very heart of the issue with which Scripture is concerned. To go to war against the copious “self” list I mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph is the call of Christ. To acknowledge the battle is half the battle. To remain clueless or dismissive of it leaves us Christian in name only.
There’s not much doubt that when Jesus was speaking to his disciples about death, he was not waxing metaphorical. It was a literal and candid message. You will be hated. You will be chased from the social centerpiece of Jewish life – the synagogue. You will die. We understand that this portent of physical death was given to his inner circle, but is there something here for us as well?
We quoted a small portion from Dietrich Bonheoffer’s work yesterday. Now, let’s have a look at the longer quotation: The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. ~The Cost of Discipleship
It is tempting to think of the death that Bonheoffer cites as something merely metaphorical and in so doing, perhaps less momentous than physical death. It may in fact be metaphorical, but it is in no way less momentous. If all we’ve been told in respect to eternity is true, then the physical death for a believer is a welcome promotion. All of everything that is evil, painful and confusing will come undone. Death itself will be dead, unlamented and sentenced to an unmarked grave. All fear, all dread, all remorse will be past tense. We’ll lose touch with those emotions. The ragged attempts we’ve made in this life to follow Christ’s command to “not worry” fall away – both the attempts and the command. When we reach the high country there will simply be nothing to worry about. It is all, in the words of CS Lewis, “Further up and further in.” Thus, the looming physical death Jesus mentions to his disciples, while alarming, is not as consequential as the death of which Bonheoffer speaks. The real challenge for the Christian is to die before we die. And that is momentous. And that is daily.
Chapter 16 opens with more of the same: All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. ~John 16:1,2
I believe I may have grumbled with you before about the sometimes unfortunate placement of chapters and verses. If not, then allow me to do so now. These are artificial additions to the text and well intentioned, but I sometimes think the lad who put some of these in place may have been hitting the communion wine a mite hard. This is one of those moments. There is no break in what Jesus has been talking about. The scene is the same. The disciples are gathered in a living room, still glum at all this talk of being hated. They couldn’t recall having signed up for that. Now Jesus continues with even more grim news by telling them that they’ll be booted out of synagogues and murdered.
I am writing this evening near a toasty fire and sipping some interesting spiced tea. It is difficult for this passage to hit me with the force that it hit the disciples. All of what we’ve said up to this point – the hate part, the detestari – is certainly true. But for the most part, the antipathy toward the Christian faith remains masked and below the surface. There have been a few who, upon discovering I’m a Pastor, immediately begin with a goading cross-examination: “What do YOU believe about THIS or about THAT?” It’s usually some explosive social topic that has charged to the forefront – the cause célèbre of some newly minted, correct-thinking meme. I don’t shy from the moment and try always to give a courteous response. But the point is this – while I have been cussed I’ve not been slaughtered. Moreover, I speak only as a pampered, sequestered westerner. Sadly this passage rings true throughout a great part of the world.
As the disciples listen to Jesus, they know they are hearing more than a warning. They are listening to a prophetic promise. It is deadly serious and consequential. It is interesting the logic that Jesus shares for this full disclosure: All this I have told you so that you will not fall away… Jesus knows that loving those who demonstrate hate in return is a tall order. It’s best to be up front about the cost of discipleship. The question for them and for us comes down to this: Is truth worth dying for? There is no corporate answer to this question. It is exceedingly personal. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the WWII Christian martyr said it this way: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We’ll linger here for a bit.
It is a beautiful thing to watch the transformation of the Apostle Peter from his rough-stock days as a fisherman. We’ve said in these writings that he was an impulsive lad given to braggadocios displays of vanity. On more than one occasion he overpromised his fidelity to Christ. We find in the Book of Galatians that the Apostle Paul was forced to confront Peter’s hypocrisy in respect to munching on pork with the Gentiles while dismissing those same Gentiles out of hand when important Jewish Christians entered the room. I like the Apostle Peter not only for the fact that he was, in a sense, an “every man” sinner, but also because he allowed grace to do its great work over time. He would one day be crucified for his apostolic work. In other words, he was given a “do over” with his failed promise to follow Jesus to the death. He did. And church history tells us that he requested to be crucified upside down so that people wouldn’t confuse the image of his death with that of Jesus’. He experienced to the full what Jesus said about being hated.
I mention all of this to direct our attention to something Peter said in his first epistle: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” I Peter 3:15 Had John written these words we would not have been surprised. But for Peter, a man who comes across in his early days as boisterous and contentious – definitely an eye for an eye man – this is significant. Peter is giving instructions to believers on how best to carry on in a hostile culture. It seems that he is saying that we are to lead with our lives, and that in so doing, it might occasion an opportunity for our words to follow. And the words that follow are to be given with gentleness and respect. One quick look at the Greek gives us pause. We are told to speak with gentleness and respect. There’s not a lot to mine from the word “gentleness.” It is a great translation. But the word translated here as “respect” is old our friend φόβος (fo’-bos) which means “to fear.” That seems odd. The word is often used in reference to God, which of course makes sense. It is also used in the face of experiencing the fury of mother nature. That too makes sense. But in the case of sharing our faith? What is Peter getting at? Are we to fear the people who’ve asked us to share a bit about our hope? I don’t think so. Go back and look at the very beginning of verse 15: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. I think what Peter is getting at is to be in fear, or better, in awe of the moment. When these moments come, when our lives have earned us the right to be heard, the presence of the Lord has arranged the appointment – both for us to share and for them to listen. It is a holy moment, a Divine wrinkle in time and He is with us.
As we’ve already mentioned, Jesus appears to be leaving the earth just in time to throw his disciples to the wolves: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” ~John 15:18,19 If that is the case, the question before us is how to endure the hate without ourselves becoming hateful.
We begin by reaching back to a sermon preached in 1945 by C.S. Lewis entitled: Christian Apologetics. It is a lovely read and one that I would hope every Christian would spend some time for both the enjoyment and the encouragement. He addresses how to engage with those who are hostile to the faith and, by extension, hostile to us. One perceptive section reads thus: A sense of sin is almost totally lacking. Our situation is thus very different from that of the apostles. The Pagans and still more the Metuentes (i.e. Jewish proselytes) to whom they preached were haunted by a sense of guilt and to them the Gospel was, therefore, “good news.” We address people who have been trained to believe that whatever goes wrong in the world is someone else’s fault–the capitalists’, the government’s, the Nazis, the generals’, etc. They approach God Himself as his judges. They want to know, not whether they can be acquitted for sin, but whether He can be acquitted for creating such a world. In attacking this fatal insensibility it is useless to direct attention (a) To sins your audience do not commit, or (b) To things they do, but do not regard as sins. They are usually not drunkards. They are mostly fornicators, but then they do not feel fornication to be wrong. It is, therefore, useless to dwell on either of these subjects.
Awakening a sense of sin is certainly a part of the gospel and Lewis travels further on some of the “how to’s” in that regard. What I’ve always appreciated about his writing is his fidelity to the ancient faith – to orthodoxy as it were – while maintaining a keen awareness of the cultural proclivities of his audience. In addition, there is a marked self-deprecating tone to all of his work. He is speaking as a wounded healer. This gives to his words a timeless quality regardless of the shifting moral impulses of whatever moment in history one happens to be living. He was known as the “Joyful Christian.” Joy never goes out of style. And I’ve read ahead in my Bible. Joy is not only a birthright of the Christian…it is also a command. We’re to be joyful always. For that to be a possibility our emotions must be fueled by a source other than the spotty offerings of this life. We must be connected to that source of eternal joy which is circumstance resistant. (We’ll continue…)
“They like me! They really like me!”
I could write for a year on Martin Luther. His theological and musical brilliance still lights up the world. He was not without his faults. He was at times rather coarse with his language and carried about a few of the unenlightened prejudices of his day. True historians attempt to take the measure of a past figure within the context of their times and offer some grace in respect to their inevitable surfeit of blemishes. There are others, however, who attempt to judge all history by current benchmarks and dismiss out of hand these flawed figures of antiquity. They expect perfection from history which I find not only remarkable but exceedingly arrogant. I’ve only known one perfect figure in human history – the one I attempt to follow each day. The judgmental, revisionist historians – who fall short of their own standards – feel the freedom to destroy the man and miss the message. Look soon for a toppling of a Martin Luther statue near you.
Okay, that was my curmudgeonly rant for the day. Back to the larger issue at hand: hate. Jesus promised that the world would hate his followers. We translated hate with the perfectly acceptable paraphrase detestari, (detest) which means, de- ‘down’ + testari ‘witness’. To “down the witness” means that it’s a twofer. We get to be hated both for who we are and what we have to say!
That might sound like a bit of an overreach, a martyr’s complex as it were. But, and I rarely say this, trust me. Simmering just beneath the normal good manners of cultural niceties is a fierce sense of loathing for anything so quaint and ancient as the Christian faith. Non-Christians are always wanting to charge in and rework and remodel the church according to their own trendy tastes. Regrettably, they’ve found many needy and complicit clergy willing to do just that – who await them at the narthex handing out the crowbars and hammers. I can almost hear these ministers saying in Sally Field fashion: “They like me! They really like me!”
No, we mustn’t roll over at every bit of cultural meandering. History has proven that culture might accidentally wend its way back to something resembling orthodoxy. What’s left then of the cleric who has panted after popularity over and against the faith? He or she is left looking the fool. We must have a spine. We are advocates of a truth more ancient than even the created universe. Yet, we must share that truth with those who hate without ourselves becoming hateful. That’s the rub. That’s the challenge. And that’s where we’ll land over the next few days.