• Manual_harvest_in_Tirumayam

    “Whoever Is Not Against Us Is For Us”

    “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

    “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”  ~ Mark 9:38-40

    I have long thought that we Christians would do well to embrace any and all who walk and work on the side of love, regardless of their theology, religion or ideology. God is love and love is what’s left in the end and it never fails, so why not? Why should I not stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with anyone who is on the side of love, regardless of what else we disagree with? Whoever is not against us is for us, right?

    Unfortunately, the church has long chosen to embrace this idea from the opposite side of the coin. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying, “whoever is not for us is against us.” This saying has often been used to reject those who, while perhaps sharing the same devotion to love, are not actively for Christianity. And not only those who are not actively for Christianity, but for the same peculiar form of Christianity.

    This is how we end up with the bizarre spectacle of atheist volunteers being turned away from helping at Christian soup kitchens. Or one group of Christians denouncing another, apparently equally devout group of Christians. It’s how we have so many supposed leaders who are able to convince their followers to see the world in “us vs them” terms. “If you’re not for us, you are against us.”

    But look at the context for Jesus saying “if you are not for us, you are against us”. In both Matthew and Luke, it is spoken in response to people who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus responds by saying:

    “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”

    Now, the first, obvious point that Jesus is making here is about unity. A house that is divided against itself will fall. Satan knows this, but the people of God need to be taught it.

    Beyond that, there’s this somewhat odd bit about a strong man and his house that is often misunderstood. Usually when Jesus speaks of a powerful man like a king or a landowner, he is alluding to God. However, in this case, the strong man is not God, but Beelzebul. What Jesus is saying is that the devil is like a strong man who has been bound up so that his house can be plundered.

    In the early church, it was universally accepted that when Jesus died on the cross, he descended into hell, wrested the keys of death from Satan and plundered his house, taking with him into heaven the souls held prisoner there. This was what Jesus was sent to do: to set the prisoner free and lift oppression.

    Of course, when he tells this story, Jesus has not yet been crucified. Yet here he is already plundering the strong man’s house and taking back those who were possessed by him. Which is why Jesus goes on to say:

    “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

    Prior to his death and resurrection, Jesus is preparing for the ultimate victory over the strongman who holds humanity captive. It is the Holy Spirit who has bound up the strong man, so that Jesus can begin the plunder of his house. The accusation that Jesus was working for the strong man was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because it failed to recognize the power of God at work.

    The reason Jesus says that this sin will not be forgiven is simply because if you do not recognize your Savior’s voice or the hand of God at work, you will not respond to it.

    If you cannot tell the power of God from the power of the devil, how will you be saved? You will turn away from God and towards Satan without even knowing what you are doing. If you are as blind as the Pharisees, you could die and be in the presence of the Holy One and be repulsed by the source of all that is good, thinking it is evil.

    Which is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can’t be forgiven. Forgiveness must be accepted in order to bear fruit, but if you reject the forgiveness God offers because you mistake God for Satan, how can you benefit from it?

    So, it is in this context that Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters.” What he is saying is that anyone who is not with him – recognizing the hand of God and the work of the Holy Spirit when they see it – is against him. Anyone who sees the work of the Holy Spirit and instead of celebrating it, rejects it is against Jesus.

    Labeling someone as against us due to differences in doctrine, religion and ideology is foolish in the extreme. As Jesus says in John’s gospel:

    “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

    The Spirit moves as it will. It will not be contained by human minds, beliefs and expectations. Failing to recognize the Spirit when it is at work ought to be considered far more dangerous than the possibility that those we associate with may not be pure or righteous enough.

    Notice that those who are with Jesus gather, while those who against him scatter. Jesus and his followers are tasked with gathering up the harvest. It is the job of Jesus’ followers to recognize the Spirit moving and claim the harvest for Jesus regardless of where the harvest appears. After all, as with the landowner in the parable of the talents, God “reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he scattered no seed.” The whole harvest belongs to God.

    It is the enemy who scatters and sows division. When we use Jesus’ teaching that “whoever is not for us is against us” to divide between “us and them”, “believer and non-believer”, “orthodox and heretic” and so on, we are playing the role of the one who scatters. Rather than gathering the harvest, we are rejecting it and throwing it aside as not good enough, not pure enough and not holy enough. Which is exactly what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit looks like.

    So, how are we to avoid rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit? Well, we can go back to what Jesus said about those who were casting out demons in his name: “whoever is not against us is for us”. If someone is driven by love, they are for us. If someone wants more peace, joy, patience, justice, mercy and grace in the world, they are for us. Even if they are, as the disciples put it “not one of us”. After all, the Spirit moves where it will. And it is our job to gather the harvest, claiming it for the one who is the source of all good things.

  • Jesus and the Rich Young Man

    Jesus’ Gift to a Young Rich Man

    As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. “You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

    I remember years ago hearing someone say that morals are for rich people. Which I didn’t understand. I mean, I can understand how a lack of money could drive you to stealing or fraud. But otherwise, why would morals be optional for people just because they didn’t have money? You don’t need money to be a good person, after all.

    I, of course, still don’t think that poor people don’t have morals and that morals are for people with money. But what I have come to understand two things. First, that having good morals does not make you a good person. I know plenty of people who never break any of the 10 commandments and are terrible people. The second thing I’ve learned is that it takes much more to hang onto morality when you are already depleted by a ridiculously stressful life.

    When there’s no comfort or pleasure in your life, it’s much harder to turn away from the comfort found in the arms of someone you are not in a covenant relationship with. When your mother and father were so desperate and depleted by the time that they came home, that they lashed out at you, it’s much harder to honor them than it is when you have a mom who greets you after school with a plate of cookies and a smile and a dad who wants to play catch in the yard after work while you tell him about your day. When a shady mortgage broker has defrauded you and you’ve lost your home and are living out of a cheap motel room, it’s much harder to convince yourself to stick to the rules just on principle. Life’s just different when you’re just struggling to survive.

    While we may admire the upstanding, morally sound, financially comfortable person, the truth is that many of those people wouldn’t have held up any better under trying circumstances than anyone else. Which is part of why we can’t judge people. Only God knows the heart. And sometimes even a good heart gets overwhelmed, depleted and despairs. Which isn’t an excuse for immorality, but it is an explanation. God knows this.

    The thing is that while we see morality as something that is just expected of us, it was given as something to struggle with. We’re actually meant to fail at it. In Romans, Paul says, “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” If we can follow the law, without fail, then the law is not having the effect God intends it to have in our lives.

    Now, does this mean that God has set us up for failure so that he can then show up and play the super-hero who graciously saves us? I can certainly understand why someone would think that. However, this isn’t the case. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains about the law, “therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

    As Brene Brown says, “we are wired for struggle.” The law was meant to cause us to struggle. It is in struggling that we learn, grow and change. Struggle is like weightlifting for the soul. It tears us down and builds up back up, shaping us in the process. By placing demands on us that we will struggle and fail to meet, the law becomes our teacher, showing us the way towards Christ.

    If we never fail, we don’t need forgiveness. If we never rebel, we don’t need grace. If we never fall under our heavy load, we don’t need our burdens lifted. If we never rail against an unfair world and a seemingly uncaring God, we don’t need comfort. If we have no need of forgiveness, grace, burdens lifted or comfort, then we have no need for God. We all need God. But without struggling, we will never know just how much. Nor will we understand the value of what God has to offer us.

    When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying that rich people are worse people than everyone else. That they love money more than everyone else. Or that they care less about other people than everyone else. He says that it’s harder for rich people because the whole point of wealth is to protect us from struggles. The whole point of the law is to cause us to struggle. Which is why money and following God are so often in conflict.

    Now, consider what Jesus does in his interaction with the young rich man. When the young man approaches, Jesus starts by disarming him. “Only God is good.” If the point of the law is to follow it, then those who are good at following it are completely justified in thinking that they are themselves good. But if only God is good and even Jesus refuses to accept that descriptor, then this young man knows he cannot stand on his own goodness. We are not good because of our morality, but any goodness we have comes from our connection with the one who is good – God alone.

    Jesus then brings up the commandments in order to draw out the young man’s relationship with them. When the young man responds that he has kept to them from his youth, we see the problem; he’s never struggled. Sure, he may have faced temptation. But he’s never had to struggle with the law to the point of failure. Which means that the law has not had the intended effect in his life.

    The story says that Jesus looked at this young man who has sought righteousness the only way he knew how and loved him. Jesus loves us all, of course. But he looked at this young man in particular and saw something in him that he loved in that moment. I suspect that what he saw was a young man who had done all of the right things and yet knew somehow that it was inadequate. Something in him knew that he needed more than to keep to the commandments in order to attain what he sought.

    He could have gone to the Pharisees and asked them what he needed to do and explained that he kept to the commandments and always had. They would have been happy to tell him that he was right with God, especially in light of the financial support his family provided to the religious establishment. But he didn’t. For whatever reason, he sought Jesus. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what the law is supposed to do – lead us to Jesus.

    So Jesus looked at this young man and loved him for whatever was in him that knew he was lacking. And he says, “sell all you own and give it away.”

    Jesus knows perfectly well that he’s asking this young man to do something he cannot do. It wasn’t just love of money, comfort and security that made it impossible for this young man to do as Jesus instructs. It would have been terribly destructive and irresponsible for him to sell everything and give it away. It would have meant casting his entire family into the streets, for one thing.

    Jesus had other followers who were wealthy. He never asks any of them to sell everything to follow him. But he loved this young man and so gave to him what the law could not – something to struggle with.

  • When Bible Study Steals Your Voice

    I’ve been thinking lately my voice. And I don’t mean my odd grammar, the random gibberish, swearing, slightly off colored jokes or any other matter of style. I mean my ability to simply say what I think. Can I do that? It is even allowed? Do they still burn heretics at the stake? Can I get some big name person to call me out as a heretic and use it for publicity?

    It seems like such a simple thing, just saying what you think. Yet we are indoctrinated practically from the first time we dare to say “no” that saying what we think is wrong. I have heard parents come right out and say to their kids, “you are not allowed to disagree with me.” When you tell someone that simply having an opinion which does not agree with your own is forbidden and subject to punishment, that’s a pretty powerful way to stop them from owning their own voice.

    Now, using your own voice doesn’t require that you spew out everything you think without regard for others. As we often tell our kids, “just because it comes into your head doesn’t mean it needs to come out of your mouth.” I’m not a fan of “I’m going to say whatever I want and if you don’t like it, bite me” when it’s really a cover for being rude, immature and nasty. The bible says that the tongue holds the power of life and death. How we express ourselves is a responsibility.

    When you are part of a community which demonizes people for simply sharing their own thoughts, ideas and opinions, it really does work like a form of brainwashing. You may not even realize that you’ve been silenced. You may not realize that you have a right to speak that extends beyond the boundaries that others have imposed on you. And you probably don’t realize how important it is for everyone to hear what the world looks like from where you’re sitting.

    This silencing of people goes on in families where everyone knows just what the rules are about what can and cannot be said and relationships are put on the line should you break those rules. But it’s even worse in the church. And what’s particularly evil about the way this happens in the church is that the bible is the tool by which it is done and your relationship with God is what is on the line, should you resist.

    Now, the particulars of how this works vary wildly, but when it comes to how the bible gets used to steal our voice, it’s pretty simple. First, you are told what the bible says. Then you read the bible. And it doesn’t say what you’ve been told it says. If you go looking for an explanation, you are usually given a “what it really means” explanation. If you accept it, then life goes on. If you don’t, this could mean the beginning of the end of your faith.

    There’s actually a word for this: gaslighting. Gaslighting is when you convince someone that they are crazy. And the most common tool used by people who gaslight is to cause you to continually doubt your own perceptions. It’s a nasty thing to do to people. Continue reading

  • Compromise, Convictions and the Good Samaritan

    Yesterday, a Christian friend put a quote from a famous pastor up on facebook which ended with this little gem:

    You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.

    Which is what we like to tell ourselves, but it’s not true. Jesus even told us a story to show that it’s not true. You know, the story of the good Samaritan. That story is Jesus telling us that sometimes we do have to compromise our convictions in order to be compassionate.

    You see, we read the story and understand right away that the priest and the Levite who walked by the injured man are wrong. They should have stopped and helped. Except we’re wrong. They behaved just the way they were supposed to.

    Stopping and helping the injured man would have required breaking purity laws, especially if it turned out he was dead or he died while they were trying to help him. The man would have been stripped of his clothing by the bandits so there was no way to know if he was a fellow Jew, a hated Roman soldier or Gentile or some other sort of unclean person. There were certain policies and procedures to be observed.

    If they did stop to help the man, they would have been putting themselves at risk. Bandits weren’t above waiting to ambush anyone who came to help on of their victims. They were a constant danger on that section of road. It was foolish to put yourself in danger for a potentially unclean man who may well be too far gone to help.

    Plus, the process of becoming ritually pure could be long and even expensive. If they were traveling on business, having to go through ritual purification could interfere with their ability to execute their other duties and responsibilities.

    It wouldn’t have occurred to many in Jesus’ audience until the end of the story that either the priest or the Levite had acted improperly. They had important teachings to uphold and no greater duty than to faithfully execute their duties under the law. Far from doing anything wrong, the priest and the Levite behaved just as they were expected to as faithful keepers of the Torah.

    It’s entirely possible that the priest and the Levite had compassion on the beaten man as they passed by. Maybe each man sent up a prayer or meant to bring up the problem with safety on the road with government officials or resolved to put a few extra coins into the widow’s fund in honor of the man. They may well have done any or all of those things. Or thought about doing them. Perhaps they had compassion in their hearts, but it certainly did the injured man no good.

    Into this story walks a Samaritan. A person whose religious credentials were seriously questionable. Just the sort of person who would compromise convictions when it served their purpose to do so. And that’s exactly what he does. He crosses over the boundaries the priest and the Levite respected in order to take care of the man. He did it at great cost and inconvenience. He even went so far as to make himself vulnerable to the robbers who continually prowled that road looking for victims. He behaved very irresponsibly, really.

    But as Jesus said when he told the story, “who showed love to their neighbor?” It wasn’t the ones who kept to their convictions. It was the one who loved his neighbor as himself. Even when it meant compromising his convictions.

     

  • Let’s Talk Prophecy and End Times

    The parts of the bible which deal with “end times” prophecies are something I’ve always shied away from dealing with directly. Studying and researching those parts of scripture can be very entertaining, but it’s a dangerous past time. Nearly everyone who gives it a go winds up lost and led astray. And sadly, some of these people have managed to warp many people’s entire understanding of Christianity.

    Part of the problem is a pervasive, fundamental misunderstanding of what prophecy is and what it does. In the bible, a prophet doesn’t predict the far-off future. Instead, their gift is an ability to see and explain the reality of what they see happening all around them. These are the people who have heard the voices of those who are being silenced. They see through the agreed upon lies and narratives for why things are the way they are. They are able to look at their present with spiritual eyes and recognize what others are blind to. Further, they understand God and his ways well enough to easily see where it’s all heading.

    Which is not to say that they have nothing at all to say about the future. The ancient Hebrews viewed time as circular. What has happened before, will happened again. When a prophet shares a vision, it is a symbolic description of what they see happening in the spiritual realm. It’s purpose is to illuminate of the archetypal patterns at work in their world. That way, when a time cycles back and a time such as the prophet’s comes around again, we might better understand the spiritual reality of what we are seeing.

    This is why, bible prophecies which clearly refer to a specific person or set of events in the past continue to inform us about what we see going on around us today. For example, the whore of Babylon in Revelation obviously refers to the Roman Empire. And also bears a striking resemblance to the corrupt Roman Catholic Church of the late middle ages. And is arguably a good illustration of a certain super power at work in the world today. It’s an archetype of empire at work in the world. So long as empires which rely on violence, greed, fear, idolatry and control continue to arise, the whore of Babylon will also continue to arise. Continue reading

  • What Jesus and Paul Left Out

    Let’s do some bible study, shall we? I look to do that sort of thing around here, donchano. Today I want to show you something kind of amazing about how both Jesus and Paul used scripture. And if we’re honest, it doesn’t fit with either liberal or conservative preferences for how to use scripture.

    First, let’s look at these quotes from the Old Testament:

    The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
        because the Lord has anointed me
        to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
        to proclaim freedom for the captives
        and release from darkness for the prisoners,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and the day of vengeance of our God.

    ~ Isaiah 61:1-2

    Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
        for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
    he will take vengeance on his enemies
        and make atonement for his land and people.

    ~Deuteronomy 32:43

    Continue reading

  • On Poverty and Doing All Things

    Today Ben Irwin gives us a closer look at two frequently quoted bible verses:

    “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13, New Revised Standard Version)

    . . . For some, “I can do all things” means scoring touchdowns and clearing the bases. But that’s not exactly what Paul had in mind. Paul was sharing that he’d learned to be content no matter what his circumstances – rich or poor, hungry or well fed, in prison or out. What Paul was saying is not so much “I can achieve anything,” but “I can endure anything” – which, in his case, included prison.

    “You will always have the poor among you . . .” (Matthew 26:11, New Living Translation)

    It may not be one of the most popular Bible verses, but this is one of the more frequently misunderstood. As a kid growing up in church, I sometimes heard this text used put down other people’s efforts to fight poverty. There’s always going to be poor people. Jesus said as much. So why fight it? Except the context of this verse suggests a rather different picture. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15, which commanded Israel to cancel everyone’s debts every seven years. “There need be no poor people among you,” the writer insisted, “if only you fully obey.” . . . Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15 when he explains why it was okay for a woman to anoint him with expensive perfume shortly before his death, rather than sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. Mark’s gospel offers an extended version of Jesus’ line: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” Maybe we’d be better off focusing on the latter part of Jesus’ statement.

    This comes from an article titled Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing.

  • Driving Out Demons

    I don’t think I’ve mentioned recently how awesome (pastor, teacher, author) John Ortberg is. Or that I got to hear him teach fairly often during my brief stint at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. He was my favorite and I learned so much from him. Unfortunately, I have since forgotten the joke he used to tell about Norwegian girls and chest hair. But it was really funny. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask about it so I can share it with you, k?

    Anyhow, today’s exegesis is by John Ortbrg from his book Who Is This Man? It’s on Mark 5 where Jesus casts the legion of demons out of a wild man:

    “One day Jesus drops a bomb. It’s early in his ministry, things are going well, and he has drawn a crowd so large that he must teach from a boat in a lake so all can hear. That evening he says to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.”

    That’s the bomb. The “other side” is something of a technical term. Jesus is not talking just about geography. The other side of the lake was the region of Decapolis, the “ten cities.” This was largely enemy territory. Its inhabitants were pagan people. . .

    The Jews regarded the other side as the place where Satan lived. It was dark, evil, oppressive, and demonic. No one would go to the other side—especially no rabbi. . .

    Decapolis was also a center of Roman power in Jesus’ time. It housed a legion of six thousand Roman soldiers. The symbol of a Roman legion was a boar’s head. Jesus casually suggested one day, “Let’s go over to the other side.”

    What was he doing? Didn’t he know that the kingdom is for our side? It’s almost as if he didn’t know that this is the other side. It’s almost as if he thought it’s his side. It’s almost as if he thought every side belonged to him, or that he belonged to every side. It’s almost as if he thought that all the peoples of the earth were now going to be blessed through him —even the seven nations of Canaan.

    Continue reading

  • Exegesis and Why Noah Isn’t a Jewish Hero

    So . . . heard any good exegesis lately? What’s an exegesis, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t ask. Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyways.) Exegesis is simply the practice of explaining a section of text from the bible. So, a lot of sermons include exegesis because they start with the text and then offer an explanation as to their meaning.

    A good exegesis is a thing to make the heart sing. My favorite are the ones that show you something in the text you never noticed or understood before. Typically these explanations draw on what the preacher knows about the history, the cultures involved, the language and nuances which aren’t clear in translation, other Christian’s interpretations, the text’s relationship with other texts. It should also be spiritually astute. And it should always be humble enough to offer a possible way to read the text, not the only possible way. That’s not asking much, now is it?

    I’m not sure that the wider public really appreciates what it takes to teach (or explain or exegete) scripture well. But even a two bit preacher with no education and terrible theology has devoted more time to studying scripture than the average person has ever devoted to any idea in their life. Obviously, this is no barrier to preaching some really stupid, dull and idiotic stuff from the pulpit. But we’re all merely human. We’ll have to trust that God can get it all sorted out eventually.

    One of the things I’m going to start doing is passing along clips of really good exegesis that I come across. Because I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ll like them as much as I do. Because we’re geeky like that. No, actually because they’re really good. And if you have to be geeky to see that, so be it.

    Anyhow, I’ll just start with the insight of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the role, character of and errors of Noah in the bible (it’s not your typical exegesis, I suppose. But close enough):

    the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement. . .

    Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. Continue reading

  • The Kingdom of God = Love?

    What if when we read the bible, we substitute the word “Love” for “the Kingdom”,”the Kingdom of God”? What if what Jesus was telling us is “Love is like this” and “Love acts like that”?

    Considered this way, all those parables Jesus told about “the Kingdom of God is like . . . ” take on a different hue.