Who do you say Jesus is?

meaningful-advent

December 14

Read Mark 8:11 – 9:1

“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Mark 8:29

Caesarea Philippi provides an interesting backdrop for this scene.  There was a cavern in the hillside there which was believed to be the birthplace of the Greek god, Pan, the god of nature.  There was also a cave in the hillside from which waters came forth that were believed to be the source of the Jordan River.  Further up the hillside, looking down over it all, there was a marble temple dedicated to Caesar, ruler of the Roman Empire, who claimed himself to be a god.

There, in the shadow of Greek and Roman religion, and in the shadow of Jewish history, Jesus asked His disciples the most searching question: Who do you say that I am?

People gave various answers.  Some said John the Baptist come back to life, others pointed to Elijah, still others to the prophets.  They reacted to His authority as they would react to a prophet, a spokesman for God.  I think we would hear different answers today.  Some say a great teacher, others a healing therapist, still others a tolerant lover who accepts us as we are.

The problem with all these answers, both old and new, is that they fall short, they are deficient.  That deficiency also has consequences.

Karl Barth once wrote, “Tell me how it stands with your Christology, and I shall tell you who you are…For here we are standing at the centre” (Dogmatics in Outline, 66).  How we answer Jesus’ question stands at the center of everything.

I would suggest it does so in two ways.

First, the core deficiency in all of these answers, old and new, is that they are not in line with who Jesus is.  Peter got the answer right, “You are the Christ.”  But Jesus still had to explain what that meant.  It didn’t mean a warrior-king who would destroy Rome and make Israel great again.  It meant being the Suffering Servant promised through Isaiah who would go to the Cross to die as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  Yes, Jesus is the promised Savior, but He comes to save by laying down His life.

That has consequences.  To accept the gift of salvation Jesus gives, one must first admit, or confess, the need for it.  The problem with all the other answers is that they leave us at the center, they leave us in control, they give us the power over our salvation.  But Jesus and His Cross don’t do that.  They expose us and our need for the salvation that only He can give.

This is part of Barth’s insight.  If we are willing to accept Jesus for who He claims to be, it tells us who we are.  If He is our Lord and Savior, then our lives must conform to His will.

Secondly, though, how we answer the question tells the world who we are.  If He is our Lord and Savior, we will seek to live in loving obedience and He will transform our lives to become like His.  As uncomfortable as it may be, our lives are always serving as a witness to the world.  In many ways, then, we should be answering the question of who Jesus is by the way we live.  If people only had your life to go on, what does your life say about who Jesus is?  Our lives tell who we believe Jesus to be.

So what about you?  Who do you say, and show, that Jesus is?

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Finding Food for a Hungry Heart

meaningful-advent

December 13

Read Mark 7:24 – 8:10

But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them? Mark 8:4

This is now the second miraculous feeding that Jesus provided in the wilderness.  In Mark 6, Jesus fed five thousand in the wilderness, and here, He fed four thousand.  When we hold the two accounts side by side, some important differences emerge that speak to the growth of Jesus’ disciples and speak to the question of where one can find sustenance in the wilderness.

In the account of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus challenged the disciples to feed the crowd.  Their response was essentially, “That’s not possible! They didn’t have enough money to buy that much food.”  Jesus patiently asked them to bring what they did have.  Five loaves of bread and two fish then went on, in the hands of Jesus, to feed the entire crowd and even yield leftovers!

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn something incredibly important: to look to Him for direction and provision.  Their first response to Jesus came from looking at themselves and their own resources.  They should have instead simply turned to Jesus to ask what He wanted them to do.  What we see in the feeding of the four thousand, then, is that they learned the lesson!

“But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

Where?  Jesus.  How?  Jesus.  They looked to Jesus for direction and provision, and He provided both.

Do you ever feel like the disciples?  Out in the wilderness.  Low on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual resources.  Unsure of what to do.  Wondering how all of this can work out.

Jesus provides a wonderful pattern for Christian living here.  We are to keep our eyes on Him, not our own resources, skills, and abilities.  We are to bring what we do have and let Him handle the rest.  When we offer ourselves to Jesus, as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), He will give us everything we need to do what He is calling us to do.  Jesus is where we find bread enough to eat.  Like the disciples, though, we need to learn to turn to Jesus for direction and provision.

But might I make another suggestion?  Jesus, in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, makes a connection between the feeding in the wilderness and the gift of Holy Communion.  The Eucharist is the food of Jesus in the wilderness of life.  In the Eucharist, we receive grace in the very presence of Jesus in the bread and wine.  It is food we can get nowhere else.  Where can we find bread?  At the Lord’s table.  It is grace offered every time we gather for worship.  Do we turn to that incredible and sufficient provision?  Or do we look elsewhere for what only Jesus can provide?

Bring yourself to Jesus – every day with a surrendered heart and when we gather at the Lord’s table – and find bread enough to satisfy your hungry heart.

How to Hunger for Jesus

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December 12

Read Mark 7:1-23

“What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” Mark 7:20-23

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were rigorous in keeping themselves “clean.”  They believed that God wanted them to live in a clean state of ritual purity.  It meant keeping the outward piety of eating the right foods prepared in the right way, not touching certain things, and keeping countless other man-made rules. If they could keep themselves “clean,” God would be pleased with them.  Jesus, though, challenged that understanding, and in His challenge, we have both good news and bad news.

Actually, it would be better to say comforting news and challenging news.  The comforting news is that God’s primary concern is not our outward piety. The challenging news is that He wants more – He wants our hearts.

What Jesus wants His followers to understand is that outward behavior has its beginnings in the heart.  Ultimately, what we love directs how we behave.  We can, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, engage in keeping up appearances of outward piety and in teeth-gritting sin-management.  We can maintain an outward appearance that is not in line with what we really want on the inside.  We do need to overrule the wrong desires of our hearts by not pursuing those false loves, but if we don’t do anything to correct the false loves, it is only a matter of time before we lose control.

What Jesus wants us to understand is that if He can have our hearts, He will get our outward lives as well. The challenge is, how do we stop loving the wrong things and fall more deeply in love with Jesus?

I would suggest two things.

First, you need to starve the wrong appetites.  To stop eating something you love, you need to stop eating it.  That’s the way appetites work.  If you feed them, they grow; if you starve them, they diminish.  Notice I didn’t say disappear – I said diminish.  When we starve appetites for the wrong things, the desire for them will eventually get smaller.  But what appetites are we talking about?

Here’s where we need to go below the surface and get to the root desires.  Like it or not, love and idolatry go hand in hand.  We worship and serve what we love.  The reason we need to get to the root is that if we only manage the outward manifestation of the root desires, the desires will simply manifest themselves in another way.  For example, if we eat to relieve our stress, we can stop eating chocolate only to start eating chips.  We need to starve the appetite from the outward manifestation all the way down to the root.  We need to starve the appetite from the fruit to the idol.

What’s your idol?  Once again, Tim Keller’s categories are helpful. Is it Comfort, wanting to avoid toil and labor, wanting to be entertained?  Is it Control, wanting to make sure that nothing happens to you that isn’t part of your plan or that you can’t take care of?  Is it Acceptance, wanting to feel loved and appreciated and respected?  Is it Power, wanting to exercise dominion over other people and get them to serve you?

Second, we need to feed the right appetites.  To learn to love food that is good for you, you need to start eating it.  To learn to love Jesus, you need to feed upon His life.  How do we do that?  To begin with, we don’t do it by going through the motions.  It has to come from the heart.  We need to open our hearts to Jesus and seek to draw near to Him.  How do we do that?  Through corporate worship, corporate and personal prayer, reading the Bible, and staying in fellowship with other believers.  Through obediently living like Jesus lives: pouring our lives out for others in ministry in the Church and mission to the world.  The more we draw near to Jesus and follow His way of life in His strength, the more we will fall in love with Him.

A heart that feeds on Jesus will produce the fruit of Jesus’ life.  What hungers are you cultivating?

Musings on Wendell Berry and Church Membership

[Originally appeared in the November Messenger, Trinity’s newsletter.]

Image result for wendell berry

Throughout his various novels and short stories, Wendell Berry chronicles community life in the imagined rural town of Port William, Kentucky. Berry reverently—though not without poking fun, too—explores the themes of rootedness in time and place, rural rhythms of life, the intersection of family and community relationships, and shedding blood, sweat and tears in working the land. ‘Membership’ emerges as a dominant theme, which is especially powerful when conceived as an alternative to the fragmented and hollowed-out communities yielded by Western individualism and voluntarism. Membership means belonging to one another, no less than my right hand belongs to my body. For Berry, my identity is not self-conceived, self-chosen and self-constructed apart from a community; it is not something dredged up out of the murky depths of my individual experience (if there is such a thing, which I doubt very much). My identity is given to me by the communities to which I belong, to which I am bound as a member. Free choice is not eliminated here but rather re-situated: my best hope of ‘freedom’ is by choosing to pour myself into the community that can best shape me into a virtuous man.

‘Church membership’, it must be admitted, fails to conjure up the same rich associations as Wendell Berry’s Port William membership. We think merely of attendance, monetary dues and occasional volunteering. This only shows that we are doing it wrong, which in turn stems from imagining it wrong. Paul, for instance, calls the church a ‘body’ that has Jesus as its head and for which each member is indispensable. I wonder if we simply fail to imagine the church rightly, and so we fail to engage it deeply enough. That is to say, the church could be a ‘membership’ into which we pour ourselves and find that, miraculously, we are given back to ourselves as deeper, more virtuous people than we could have possibly expected. Paul called this phenomenon the Body of Christ, later Christians called it the Communion of Saints, and Wendell Berry calls it Membership.

In Remembering, Andy Catlett, a Port William farmer from generations of farmers, stands a long way from home on a pier overlooking the San Francisco bay. He has grown increasingly estranged from his wife and children, and he is wrestling with the temptation to create a new life for himself on the blank canvass of anonymous coastal California. Free and unconstrained by his membership in the Port William community, he could do or become anything. This, he discovers, is his problem: “All choice is around him, and he knows nothing that he wants. I’ve come to another of thy limits, Lord. Is this the end?” Apart from his Port William membership, Andy does not know who he is and what he ought to do. Realizing this, he chooses to return:

On the verge of his journey, he is thinking about choice and chance, about the disappearance of chance into choice, though choice be as blind as chance. That he is who he is and no one else is the result of a long choosing, chosen and chosen again. He thinks of the long dance of men and women behind him, most of whom he never knew, some he knew, two he yet knows, who, choosing one another, chose him. He thinks of the choices, too, by which he chose himself as he now is…Those choices have formed in time and place the pattern of a membership that chose him, yet left him free until he should choose it, which he did once, and now has done again.

I wonder if we Western Christians aren’t a bit like Andy Catlett. We feel the pull of a consumerist culture that promises that we can fashion for ourselves an existence that will make us and our children happy if only we throw at it enough of our time and money. Andy Catlett finds himself again by choosing to limit himself, to limit his possibilities, and return to the community that created him in the first place. As Christians we will find ourselves again—along with some powerful glimpses of that happiness that we so desire—if we choose to limit ourselves and to pour ourselves into the church, the body of Christ, the communion of saints, the pattern of membership that precedes us, embraces us and could shape us in wonderful ways, if we would but let it.

A Tale of Two Banquets

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December 9

Read Mark 6:14-29

“But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.”

The sixth chapter of Mark intentionally places this episode concerning king Herod side by side with the feeding of the five thousand (tomorrow’s reading) as a study in contrasts. Mark presents us with two banquets, each one presided over by a different king exemplifying a different kingdom. His unvoiced question comes through loud and clear: at which banquet do you feed, that of the world or that of Jesus?

The first banquet is Herod’s birthday, and it is a thoroughly political affair. It takes place in his palace among the upper echelons of society. Herodias, the wife of Herod (and Herod’s brother!), has been patiently nursing a grudge against John the Baptist, who had the audacity to criticize her morality. Herod, meanwhile, has been protecting John the Baptist whom he rightly considers a prophet. At Herod’s birthday banquet among the many high-profile guests, Herodias spots an opportunity. She orchestrates a spectacle in the form of a “pleasing” dance performed by her daughter, eliciting a rash promise from Herod (“Whatever you ask…up to half my kingdom”). The promise, furthermore, is not only rash but very public. Herod can’t go back on his promise without appearing weak. Herodias has leveraged Herod by means of the silent guests. So, out comes the head of John on a platter.

The second banquet takes place not in a palace among the powerful but in a wilderness among the hungry crowds. Jesus orchestrates no spectacle. Rather, he focuses all attention on the central acts of giving thanks and breaking bread, and all are filled. The meal in that desolate place is deeply resonant with the meal Jesus gave us—his own body and blood in the Eucharistic feast.

The one banquet is the gruesome feast of the kingdom of this world; the other the gracious feast of the kingdom of God. Mark intends for us to choose.

In Herod’s banquet power is worshiped and each one looks to his or her own self-interest; in Jesus’ banquet God is thanked and each finds him- or herself in a community. In the one influence is indistinguishable from manipulation; in the other influence is indistinguishable from love. In the one a gift is always more than a gift, because every gift is also a bribe; in the other a gift is always more than a gift, because every gift of bread is also a giving of self. The one is selfish; the other generous. Herod’s feast ends in the taking of life; Jesus’ feast consists in the giving of Life.

When we open our hands to receive the Eucharistic body and blood of Jesus on a Sunday we are sharing in the banquet of the kingdom of God. But when we live our lives on Monday, at what banquet are we feeding? When we go to work; when we talk to our family members; when we drive; when we go shopping; when we talk politics; when we post on facebook—at which banquet are we then?

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast–not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Inoculation

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December 8

Read Mark 6:1-13

“And they took offense at him…And he marveled because of their unbelief.”

The best way to avoid the danger of the flu, my healthcare provider ceaselessly tells me, is the flu shot. Exposure to dead or weakened strains of the flu inoculates the body. When the real thing comes along my body thinks it recognizes it and rejects it. Similarly, inoculation remains the best defense we have against the danger of Jesus Christ. We do well to remember that he poses a significant threat to our freedom and self-determination and our ability to control our own lives. I have found that his idea of a meaningful life doesn’t exactly match up with my idea of a comfortable one—try though I have to persuade him otherwise. He has a habit, moreover, of making greater claims for himself (e.g. Lord) than is generally acceptable in polite, tolerant society. I have tried to make my peace with this habit of his, but then he reminds me that these claims he makes for himself include things like my time, my money, my body and even the deeper desires of my heart. Reasonable people take offense at this. It seems better, all things considered, to take the vaccine: devise a less demanding Jesus, a weakened strain, as protection against the Living Lord.

The folks of Nazareth thought they knew all about Jesus. He had grown up in their midst. He was a simple carpenter. They knew his family well—Nazareth being a small town of, at most, 500 people. Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what it was about Jesus that so offended the people of Nazareth. That is clearly not as important to Mark as the fact that they thought they had a fix on him and that his present actions and teachings were not lining up with their domesticated picture of him. Their over-familiarity with Jesus inoculated them against a risky faith in him. So, they rejected him. Jesus marvels, not at their great sinfulness, but at their unbelief.

More and more people in the Western world are rejecting the Christian faith. Ironically, it appears that fewer and fewer people actually understand the faith that they are rejecting. They think they understand it. (At best: Christianity is about being a good person, right? Well, I don’t need Jesus for that. At worst: Christianity is inherently intolerant, isn’t it? Well, I don’t want Jesus for that.) Something half-understood can be worse than something completely unknown. The Christian faith took the pre-Christian pagan world by storm. Can the same happen in the post-Christian pagan world? Has the West been inoculated? Is Jesus the long-dead teacher a protection against the now-Living Lord?

I am frankly more comfortable with these latter questions than I am with this question: to what extent am I inoculated against the claims of the real Jesus, the Living Lord? I sometimes catch myself thinking, “Jesus loves me and therefore he wants me to be happy. Therefore, he wouldn’t ask me to give that up.”

What have I done?

Quite simply, I have devised a less demanding Jesus, a weakened strain, that protects me against the more far-reaching claims of the Living Lord. On a deeper level, this is unbelief, a lack of trust. I would rather devise a Jesus I can control to bolster my own idea of happiness than entrust myself and my happiness to the real Jesus I can’t control, even if the real Jesus could offer me a greater happiness in the long run.

We do this so often and so pervasively that our unbelief is mundane. But we do ourselves no favors when we dose ourselves with a Jesus we can control. We separate ourselves somewhat from a real and vital encounter with the Living Lord who can make us more alive than we could possibly imagine beforehand. Another one of my favorite Anglicans, F.D. Maurice, thought the same:

“The one thought that possesses me most at this time, and, I may say, has always possessed me, is that we have been dosing our people with religion when what they want is not this but the Living God.”

Real Power

meaningful-advent

December 7

Read Mark 5:21-43

“Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’ And immediately the little girl got up…”

This passage from Mark nicely displays two of Jesus’ unique traits. One is that Jesus brings good things out of their opposites. We have already seen this trait previously in Mark. When Jesus calmed the storm he brought order out of chaos, peace out of a raging storm. He then did exactly the same inside the demoniac in the following passage. In our present passage Jesus brings hope out of hopelessness; faith out of faithlessness; life out of death. This is just what Jesus does: he brings good things out of their opposites.

A second unique trait of Jesus is that he does the most extraordinary things in the most ordinary ways–a word or a touch, sometimes both and sometimes without meaning to. Jesus doesn’t trade in hocus pocus, incantations, elaborate arm-waving or long wind-ups before the pitch. He simply speaks into the storm; he merely commands the demons to leave the possessed man; he raises a little girl by taking her by the hand and whispering into her ear that it’s time to get up.

Taken together, these two traits tell us that Jesus has real power, or better yet, divine Power. Only God brings good things out of their opposite. Take the Creation for example: God brought all things into existence out of nothing. By the same token, only God can afford to do such extraordinary things in such effortless, unforced, ordinary ways. Again, take the Creation for example: he brought all things into existence out of nothing by simply speaking a word. As the Word incarnate, Jesus brings this same Power to bear on a desperate and dying world, bringing New Creation, which is to say, life out of death.

The woman with the flow of blood is not dying but she is desperate. She has a chronic condition that has rendered her a social outcast. According to the Law, she is unclean and anyone she touches will be unclean. Therefore, for twelve long years she has been bereft of human touch. She is unnamed and therefore defined only by her shame. In a word, she is hopeless. But when she steals a touch from Jesus, he commends her for her faith. Jesus speaks and brings forth hope out of hopelessness.

Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, is not dying either but he is desperate. You see, he’s a father and his daughter’s dying. He begs Jesus to come and do something about it–he has a modicum of faith. But when Jesus delays, his daughter dies, and that modicum of faith evaporates. Jesus tells him, “Do not be afraid, but keep having faith.” Jesus speaks and brings forth faith out of faithlessness.

The little girl is neither desperate nor dying–she is dead. Jesus kneels down and takes her by the hand. Our Bible translations read that Jesus says, “Talitha cumi,” which means “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” That’s not quite right. Talitha, taken literally, means ‘little girl.’ But it’s a term of endearment and could better be rendered, ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey.’ Likewise, a simpler translation of cumi is ‘get up.’ What’s the point? It is simply that Jesus walks into the room, stares  the great enemy, death, full in the face, and he calmly kneels down , takes a little girl by the hand and whispers, “Sweetie, it’s time to get up.” Jesus speaks and brings life out of death.

What do you need Jesus to speak into reality in your life this Advent? Will you let him calmly and unassumingly speak divine Power into your life? This is just what Jesus does.