The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 6

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Receiving the Gift

Wages, explains theologian Timothy Keller, are inherently different from gifts. To receive a wage, one must simply do an amount of work equal to the compensation. It’s an objective and transparent process. To receive a gift is more complex; accepting a gift means submitting to a narrative that may require a change of perspective.

For instance, if we perceive certain people to be dishonest or manipulative, we will be cautious about accepting a gift from them. In order to accept the gift we would have to have a change of heart, to believe we had misread them, or that they had now become genuine and generous. We must be certain that their gift will not be a Trojan Horse. Or, imagine a scenario where we had experienced class disparity; a gift offered might be seen by us as a slight, pointing to our inability to provide for ourselves. We’ve heard the classic explanation for refusal of this kind of gift: “I don’t take no charity!” In order for us to receive this gift, our pride would have to be replaced with simple thankfulness.

So while Christians commonly exult in spreading the news that God is the great giver of gifts (like salvation), there is a paradigm shift that must happen in an individual’s heart and mind in order for him or her to accept this news as good. If we look closely enough, we might even consider it an almost impossible paradigm shift.

In our passage in Mark 10 that we have been exploring, Jesus has been talking with His disciples about the criterion for entering ‘the kingdom of God’; Jesus explains that He Himself must be preeminent—first priority—in the life of anyone who wants to enter this kingdom. Then He offers the gift.

“No one who has left …(everything)…for me and the gospel will fail to receive…eternal life” (Mark 10:29,30). It is no coincidence that Jesus connects His matchless preeminence (“I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end!”) with the reception of the gift of eternal life (“…whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”). They are both impossibly puzzling, inexplicable, and even peculiar. We are cautious about terms like preeminence and eternal life in the 21st century.

Perhaps hearing a definition of eternal life will help us. In John’s Gospel we get a chance to eavesdrop in on Jesus defining eternal life in a conversation with His Father. “Now this is eternal life:” He considers, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” What? Eternal life is simply knowing the Father and the Son? Intriguing. What is it about knowing them that transmits an extension to our mortal lives both now and beyond the grave?

Jesus helps us understand that too. He claims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”

Knowing the Father and the Son is the ultimate of network connections. If we know, have an integral relationship to, and connect on the deepest level with Jesus—who is the essence of Life—we become recipients of that life. His life extends to us something like a pregnant mother’s life and breath extends to her as yet unborn infant. It’s a sort of divine contagion, a breath-taking ride from the depths to the heights, a simple truth available only to those who simply trust Him.

Yes, the eternal life Jesus offers us is truly that, a gift. It is freely offered to each of us. But in another sense it is the most difficult gift to accept—not because of the nature of the Giver, but because of the nature of the getters. We are impossibly stubborn, too narrow-minded or broad-minded for our own good, and stuck in the mud of our unbending notions. Only His Holy Spirit can help us escape our almost impossible selves and say as one old sinner once said, “Lord…help my unbelief!”

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The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 3

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Love.

We left the rich young man after hearing Jesus give him the terrible diagnosis of his life: in order to follow Jesus he must discard his competing loyalties. In his case it was wealth. In our case it can be any one (or more) of a vast number of things: anything that puts something else before our loyalty to Christ.

But let’s go back one step in this story. The young man has just claimed he is living what he considers to be a good enough life; he maintains he has kept all the requirements of the Jewish Law. He wants confirmation from this rabbi that he can claim eternal life as his just deserts.

How does Jesus respond? Here in Mark 10:21, Mark describes Jesus’ reaction from a point of view that invites us right into Jesus’ heart. It is a moment that deserves our full attention, because it is the story of humanity in a nutshell. We, too, each live our lives by an ethical scale of sorts; we have either transposed it from the principles that our families, our traditions or our society have established, or we have created it from an eclectic collection of any of the above. We may even claim we reject any concept of right and wrong, but honestly, we don’t live that way do we? We all live by some internal classification system of right and wrong.

So here is Jesus, God in the flesh, the One whose character is the basis for all moral excellence —listening to this young man’s proud assertions that he has followed moral law to the letter. How will He respond? –By congratulating the young man? –By slamming him for his pride? –By laughing at him?

We’re told, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This is how Jesus looks at each of us. We may prattle on about how good we are, or we may keep silent about our personal convictions. We may regularly leave hints for others to observe and come to the conclusion that we are pretty good people. Or we may march in parades proudly displaying our ideologies and daring others to contradict us. It doesn’t matter. Jesus still looks at each of us and loves us. Does that mean He condones our self-made rules for living? No.

Jesus knew that not many days after this meeting with the rich young ruler He would be walking the path from Jerusalem’s Praetorium, his back in bleeding shreds from a scourging, his scalp dripping from the piercing, humiliating crown of thorns. He would be walking toward the most egregious form of execution the Roman Empire could devise, and He would be taking the punishment the totality of humanity deserves for the crux of our moral flaw—our hatred of God and His sovereignty. He would be buying our freedom from an eternity of self-destruction each of us face upon our own deaths. And it was in this knowledge that Jesus looked at the rich, self-satisfied young man and loved him.

What do we do with this? How do you and I respond to this same Jesus who even now looks at you and me, and loves, loves, LOVES us? This is the quintessential issue of life. Nothing else matters but this. Jesus knows about our foolish attempts at morality (mostly used by us to earn a sense of self-esteem). He knows only His ransom-paying death and death-defying resurrection can supply us with the eternal life we all ultimately long for. And He longs to love us into His kingdom of eternity.

But it comes down to this: Do we look at Him and love Him in return?

The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 19

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Mission Impossible.

“Hell on earth…something like Armageddon” is how it is described. Fort McMurray, Alberta is ablaze and the fire is growing by leaps and bounds. A war zone of charred homes, abandoned vehicles, and blackened tree-trunks mark the fire’s passage. More than 2000 square kilometres of tinder-dry land have fallen prey to the fire’s limitless appetite and the destruction is not finished yet. Stopping an inferno of this magnitude seems impossible.

When natural disasters like this wildfire assault us we are shocked. The enormity of the force surprises us because we are more familiar with order and organization than with chaos, with human mastery than with powerlessness.

As Jesus traveled by foot throughout the Jordan River region described in Matthew 19 he observed similar phenomena within people’s lives. He saw not external wildfires observable by flame, smoke or blackened arboreal remains, but internal conflagrations. Wildfires of the human spirit beneath façades of social etiquette—natural disasters of an internal type—are not hidden to the One who sees the heart of man.

“Now a man came up to Jesus,” we’re told, “and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’”

That seems like an honest and innocent enough question. The man had a desire for immortality and he figured it was in connection with doing good. Coming to Jesus for an expert opinion seems like a good choice. But listen to Jesus’ response.

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good..”

Why is Jesus challenging this seeker? What misconception, what perspective or worldview does this seeker embrace that Jesus needs to clear up before the man is ready for an answer to his ‘eternal life’ query?

Jesus seems to be trying to shift the man’s focus from self (“…what good thing must I do…”)—to God (“…only One who is good…”). Did you catch that? The man is entirely preoccupied with himself and has forgotten God. He goes on to claim (according to the gospel accounts by Mark and Luke) to have kept, flawlessly, every one of the Ten Commandments—but Jesus observes it to be a focus on what the man himself has accomplished; what is conspicuously absent is his awareness of God—of any relationship with God.

Somehow, Jesus has spotted this distortion in the man’s thinking and wants to help the man see for himself where he has gone wrong. He has diverged from loving God to loving self, driven and obsessed by what he can accumulate for himself.

“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus finally seems to acquiesce, “go sell your possessions…then come, follow me.” This was not what the young man had wanted to hear. No other prospective follower had been presented with this criteria. But Jesus knows individual hearts—yours and mine included. We’re told the man “had great wealth.” The penny has dropped. The heart of the matter has come to the surface. The man not only owns many things, but his identity is wrapped up in what he owns. Even his pursuit of eternal life is revealed as another quest to accumulate something for himself. And so he turns away, because he is not willing to leave his first love—self—for love of God.

We may use labels like hedonist, narcissist, self-absorbed egoist, but those labels distance us from associating ourselves with this one man’s fault. Honest self-evaluation can be painful. If we look carefully enough at our own lives, many of us will see something in ourselves that is not pretty. We thought we were on track with our spiritual lives, but something has slipped in, turning our focus from loving God first—dare we admit it—to loving ourselves first.

“Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ disciples ask him, seeing the rich young man turn away. They are still distracted and sidetracked by the picture of success that had radiated from the wealthy urbanite. They could not see the inner chaos beneath the slick exterior the young man presented.

“With man this is impossible,” Jesus answers with a penetrating look at each of his disciples. Perhaps at that moment each of them saw themselves a little more clearly. They too were self-centred. They too loved themselves more than they loved God. They too housed an internal inferno of chaos carefully hidden from others. Was it hopeless?

But Jesus was not finished. “With man this is impossible,” he had begun, “but with God all things are possible.” This was and is and will always and only be the answer to all our pursuits: God. God is the One who is strong enough and good enough to extend His life to us, transforming us from the inside out, making us fit for immortality. It is all about Him. And what He wants is a loving one-on-one relationship with you and with me that puts everything into perspective. Selfishness, then, will naturally give way to selflessness, hedonism to a God-honouring lifestyle. This is the mission Jesus was employed to perform and continues today in the lives of people like you and me—people who are tired of working with the impossible. Thank God that with Him all things are possible.

(Photo Credit: [[File:By DarrenRD [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.jpg|thumb|Landscape view of wildfire near Highway 63 in south Fort McMurray (cropped)]])

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 4

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Unique Life

It was forty hours since Jesus’ excruciating death and hurried burial late that Friday afternoon. The Sabbath day had begun that evening, preventing anyone from visiting His tomb all the next day. Now it was Sunday, the dawning of the first day of a new week.

We’re told it was women who first came to the tomb that morning—two Marys and a Salome, followed by some others. There had not been time to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial on the Friday, but two of His friends had done their best. A man named Joseph had purchased a linen wrap and Nicodemus had brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, fragrant spices meant to camouflage the odour of a decaying body. It seems the women wanted to do more for Jesus’ body, though, and were coming to anoint it. They weren’t sure how they could perform this final act of service, because a large stone blocked the tomb’s entrance and Roman guards stood on patrol ensuring no one got in or out.

As they approached the tomb site, the women felt the ground beneath their feet give a violent heave and shudder. Looking up they saw the tomb’s entrance opening as the weighty, tomb-sealing boulder was shifted aside by a shining figure. With a muffled clatter the guards fell to the ground in a terrified faint leaving the women alone to face this otherworldly vision.

“Do not be afraid,” the messenger reassured the women, “for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here;” Seeing their confusion, he added, “he is risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” Peering obediently into the tomb lit by two other shining beings, the women saw the empty burial wrappings lying on the rocky mantel – but no body. “Go quickly and tell his disciples: He has risen from the dead.”

And with that, an ever-widening body of witnesses has come to recognize the occurrence of the world’s most significant event. Jesus is alive. His death was more real than you or I will ever be able to comprehend, but it didn’t finish Him. Just as His death was unique – the author of life submits Himself to His own righteous condemnation in order to proffer life for us – His life is unique too. He cannot be held down. No grave is deep enough to restrict His victorious and powerful life beyond what He allows.

“After the suffering of his soul,” foretold the prophet Isaiah, “he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Nothing less than providing complete exoneration for rebellious humanity and eternal existence for those who will accept the gift would satisfy Jesus. His life is unique, His love is unique, and His offer is unique.

Today, Easter Sunday, is the anniversary of the greatest event planet earth could ever celebrate. Today, the unique life of Jesus, Son of God, gives us our one and only opportunity to live the way He designed us to live. We can be like the Roman sentries and turn away in fear, in disbelief, in the deception of rejecting Jesus’ resurrection life; or we can be like those first women and thousands of others who rejoice that He is risen. His eternal life gives us eternal life, forever. This is Easter!

(Photo Credit: >The Athenaeum<Thomas Cole>. Licensed under Public Domain via <a href=”//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/”>Wikimedia Commons</a>.)

A NEW CREATION, Part 8

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New Life

There was no morphine for the pain. There were no antibiotics for the infection. The discomfort of his dehydration could not be remedied by intravenous saline. There were only herbal remedies, and these had proved ineffective. As he lay there dying, one hope came to his mind, hazy with fever; he tried to whisper it, but by then his throat was so swollen no sound would escape from his parched lips. So he died. His family buried him in the customary way, and life for everyone else would have just carried on if it weren’t for his friend.

The friend arrived by everyone’s reckoning four days too late. He had missed the final rites, the cave-side burial, and the wailing lament of the mourners. He had missed the final moments when the unspoken hope of the dying man might have been voiced. Instead, he was greeted with the family’s accusation.

“If you had been here, (our) brother would not have died.” They believed he could have prevented their brother’s death somehow, but with his death that hope had evaporated. Taking their friend to the burial site they showed him their brother’s tomb, a stone-blocked cave, cold, silent and hopeless. Deeply moved, the tears began to flow down the friend’s cheeks and sobs shook his shoulders. There was no doubt he had loved the brother, but death had had the upper hand.

“Take away the stone”, he said. And then called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

Do you remember the story now? The authority of Jesus’ command broke the spell of death. Lazarus’ life was returned to him and his family was overcome with joy.

Jesus’ claim to be “the resurrection and the life” is not idle talk. He chose to perform this miracle for this one family to illustrate for all what he offers every person on this planet.

“He who believes in me will live, even though he dies….Do you believe this?” he asks you right now. He’s talking about something more significant even than our earthly lives. He’s talking about that part of us that was designed by him to be eternal—our spirit. The sin that came into the world with our first parents, Adam and Eve, has brought mortality to our spirits and we desperately need a resurrection. His miracle illustrated for those people, in that community, what he would accomplish on a much grander scale with his own death, burial and resurrection: a new eternal life for anyone who chooses to believe and accept it.

What is the new life like? It’s full of hope, for one thing. No more fear of death; our bodies will eventually fail us, but that physical death is a great doorway to the eternal life Jesus has given us.

The new life is also full of love. We have a new ability to love God; to do what pleases Him also pleases us. We want to use our lives to further His good plans, to bring Him glory and honour. We also have a new ability to love people around us; not just our friends and family, but even our enemies. We find ourselves called to give up our own desires in order to bring good to others’ lives, to help them find new life in Christ too.

I like the end of this story found in John chapter eleven. Jesus’ command brings Lazarus back into the land of the living, but he’s shuffling out of the tomb because the grave clothes are still binding him. Strips of linen still entangle his hands and feet and his face is still covered in a grave cloth. Jesus wants his friend to live fully. Death has no place for a man given new life. The old rags have to go.

“Take off the grave clothes and let him go,” commands Jesus. He’s talking about you.

 

PROSPECTUS FOR THE PRAYING PERSON: Part 9 Conclusion

John 14:8-26  Part 9: Conclusion

 

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The recto of Rylands Library Papyrus P52 from the Gospel of John. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

PROSPECTUS: A document that advertises an enterprise in order to attract or inform members.

 

This series on the PROSPECTUS FOR PRAYING PERSONS comes to a completion. Today’s wind-up is not so much an ending as a beginning, not so much a conclusion as a commissioning.  Jesus makes the seven promises not only to ‘attract or inform’ us; He wants to TRANSFORM us. He is calling us to place these promises as central to our hopes and dreams, to place them above every plan and intent of our day. Remember what He offers?

 

LIMITLESS POWER, INDWELLING COUNSEL, SPIRITUAL VISION, ETERNAL LIFE, HOLY COMMUNITY, APOCALYPTIC LOVE, and INTIMATE MENTORING.

 

Let’s rise up and take what He promises. Let’s enter into the adventure of daily drawing from the promissory notes God places within our reach. Jesus was vitally concerned to communicate these promises—His final instructions prior to His earthly death must be significant.

 

Jesus closes His discourse with a prayer of intercession for us (see John chapter 17).  He uses words like ‘unity’, ‘love’ and ‘glory’.  He wants very badly to see us actively participate in this great plan of His; He can see something we don’t yet fully see, and it’s good. Very good.

 

So let’s encourage one another to embrace a life that strives after these promises.  He wants to give, so let’s be receivers of the benefits. The prospects are excellent.

 

(Challenge: Find the gospel of John and read through chapters 14-17 every day for a week or more. What does God highlight for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.)