Jesus has a different definition of leadership. It is for him to work with others so that together good things happen. He has commitment to service. He can be the king of love without a crown of gold. Even his thorns and painful death remind us that life is not about the people we lord over but the humility we live under.
"Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)
What do we do if we lose our preacher, our organist, our choir? How will we go on if our church building is torn down, or worse yet, made into a beer hall? (which is what often happens in Pittsburgh) How can I worship God in without my holy stuff?
Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.
When his disciples needed a rest, Jesus didn’t snap his fingers and heal them of their stress and exhaustion. Instead he tried, unsuccessfully, to find them a place to rest. God will never give us a red bull energy drink when we need to take a day off for our own sanity. There are no cheap fixes for the over-committed life. Even Jesus had to look for a place to hide his disciples so that they could recover their inner calm
We recently watched the movie, Molly’s Game. Not to spoil it, but Molly’s story runs on two levels; there is her rise and fall in the competitive world of Olympic ski competition. Then there is her rise and fall — fall, as in criminal indictment — as the runner of a high stakes poker game. In both stories, Molly has the rush of victory and the agony of defeat. While going for a medal at the winter Olympics, she has a fall that nearly kills her. She spent many months in the wilderness of a hospital. Jesus is baptized, sees heaven open up. God claims him as his son (scholars debate about how much he knew before this event described in Mark 1:9-12) and then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the agony of the wilderness, fasting for forty days and being harassed by wild animals and demons.
What are we to learn from this? The higher your jump, the more profound your fall? That is what you think you are seeing when you go to a movie like Molly’s Game. But two greater truths emerge: 1) That her inner sense of character, her soul, comes to the front because of her fall. She has the opportunity to “sell out” and shorten her stay in the wilderness, but she chooses instead the moral high ground. 2) We don’t know ourselves until we go into the dark place. We must either walk through the wilderness or live forever in the shallows of life.
What do we learn from Jesus being driven out into the wilderness? 1) That Jesus chose it. He chose fasting. He completed the full forty days that he had signed up for. We too must choose to be spiritual people, and that means suffering. 2) That the fullness of who we are as people only emerges after we go where we are totally empty.
Jesus calls people to follow him. I am always amazed that the first people he called “left everything.” I put myself in their sandals and say, “I wouldn’t follow Jesus today, because it snowed three inches overnight and I have to shovel us out first.” Peter and James may not have had snow, but they had fish to be taken to market, nets to be mended, elderly parents, households to take care of, etc. Looking closely at the story (Mark 1:14-20), I see that John the Baptist had already prepared these people. When we listen to Jesus, our hearts have already been prepared by the scriptures we have learned, the people who lived as Christians before us, the dark traumas of our own lives when God was our only help and consolation. These things are in our past, Jesus is before us, do we follow him?
When people follow him they join up for the same experience the first disciples had:
They become a part of a small group working together to know Jesus. Think the Hobbit. Think of the tightest team you’ve ever been a part of — I ran cross-country and had a very close relationship with the guys on my high school team the year before I became a Christian. If you follow Jesus, he will call you to be a part of a small group.
Hands on experience of helping people. Jesus didn’t ask people to give money to a mission project. He asked people to follow him and do as he did as he met the needs of people.
A journey to the cross. Lent is coming. Will you follow Jesus more intentionally this year, even if it put some of what you value now at risk?
In the classic Sci-Fi book, Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein imagines a world where people train to become “fair witnesses.” A fair witness is prohibited from speculating or repeating what they haven't seen for themselves. They only speak about what they know from direct experience. For example, when asked to describe the color of a house seen in the distance, the fair witness responds, “It’s white on this side.”
The blind man who is healed and made to see by Jesus is a “fair witness.” When asked by the Pharisees to explain how he came to see, he says, “Jesus put mud on my eyes. I washed. Now I see.” The Pharisees don’t like this. Mud hasn’t been approved as a treatment for blindness by the FDA. Nor was Jesus a healer they could believed in.
Jesus seems to be disrespecting his mother at the wedding in Cana (John 2:4). She asks him to do a miracle in front of everyone. “Jesus this is your cue,” Mary says. “The wine has run out and our family is responsible.” His response is, “Not my wine, not my time.” Later in John 7, he will tell his disciples that everyone expects him to do miracles on cue, but it really isn’t his time, yet. There is a messianic kingdom coming. We won’t always be scrambling to keep our kids fed. In the world to come, the lion will lay down with the lamb, we will feast in the presence of our enemies, and death shall be no more. That time hasn’t come yet.
We only have one childhood story about Jesus, that of his amazing the elders in the temple. I’m not really sure what this story tells us about Jesus, or his Home-Alone-ish family, but its context deserves some reflection. A couple times a year, people would pilgrimage to the temple. Diaspora Jews would make these trips less frequently, perhaps, once or twice in a life-time. We have little in today’s world that is equivalent to this. As someone who cares about mental health, family systems, and healthy transitions, I think this is our loss.
Imagine what it would be like to put your faith into motion by walking seventy-five miles. Parents would be explaining to their children, as they schlepped across the Judean Hills, just how important religion was. People who had lost loved ones, would work through their grief as they walked. Newly weds would explore their new relationship, with each other and with their new extended families. There would be deep discussions about the things that mattered. There would be songs. The fellowship of God’s people would be made visible.
Whatever you speak about this week, take to time to dwell on the Christian’s obligation to be compassionate in all circumstances. All circumstances includes Syrian refugees. The terrorist attacks in Paris have shifted our cultural vision, from pity towards the thousands who are homeless and hungry, to eye-pluckingly-spiteful revenge taking for fear that one or two wolves might be hiding naked among the huddled masses yearning to be free. One political cartoon contrasted the bombing of ISIS with the recruitment of terrorists online and captioned, “An analogue response to a digital threat.” We, as Christians, are always in danger of becoming pre-Jesus and compassionless in our responses to perceived threats in our secular, protect-yourself-first, world.
Something the Dali Lama says is helpful at this point: "Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back ... but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you."
People came to hear Jesus teach and they asked each other, “What’s different about that guy?” The Gospel writers, who are already shifting into an institutional mindset, offer this answer, “He spoke with authority.” Actually, what people sensed was the natural flow of Jesus’ passion for God. Later, the book of Acts tells how the church, as an institution, was formed. The Apostles note that a man named Stephen was really doing a lot of service for others, so they ordained him a deacon (literally, one who serves). Luke wants to us to observe how organizational innovations like this helped the early church to grow.
In John 6, Jesus causes a scandal by claiming to be the bread of life. The word bread itself is problematic today; many people are on gluten-free or low carb diets. This leads to three sticking points around Jesus and bread.
One of the embarrassing things about our faith is that our entire theology can be expressed in three words of less than four letters. This fact, combined with the difficulty many of us have with practicing what we say we know, leads us to want to fancy up Jesus. Maybe my intellect would be happier with Scientology or some contemporary form of Gnosticism. Yet, God is love — and those who know this must also love.
I have been helped lately by hearing W. Craig Gilliam from Perkins and www.justpeaceumc.org, speak about Martin Buber’s I-Thou. It too, is a simple concept. Every social interaction involves either my treating the other as an IT, or my being aware of them as human, endowed with the full range of feelings that I have, and loved by God by the same grace that I depend upon. Take what should be an easy place to practice this, the daily interaction between two people in a long term committed relationship. Dr. Gillian points out that his wife knows when he has treated her as an IT. This is the hitch in our conversations, especially with people who know us well, we expect them to respond to what we have said, instead they respond to the actual I-IT attitude that was behind our speech.
The last line of Luke is, “You are witnesses of the things.” What things? I read backward and find a dead guy eating a fish and saying, “watch me.” So the first thing we as Christians witness to is the fact that God has totally disrupted the natural order of the earth by sending to us an ordinary appearing individual, who happens to have the power to rise from the dead. This changes everything. We’ve all had that speculative conversation, usually late at night with a glass of wine in our hands, about how things would be different if we encountered aliens and that we are not alone in the universe. Now we have proof that, not only are we not alone, but our alien god has inserted itself into a particular moment in time.
Put plainly, the Easter story is startling. It is news worthy. It is worthy of much discussion and suitable for changing lives. It changes everything. So the first thing we must say is, I know someone who has come back from the dead. Then, with this crazy fact out of the way, we can witness to how we discovered the fish-eating one to be God and that God is merciful. We can go on to witness to our own miracle; how we were saved by our own strange encounter with Truth or God-with-Us.