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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Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #14

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Prayer of Blessing (Paraphrasing Psalm 128)

The only blessing worth having comes from You, Lord-from fearing You, from holding You in highest esteem, and from living the nitty-gritty of our lives by Your principles and power.

For one thing, our labour, when it is focused on Your kingdom, results in a grand spiritual harvest; we benefit both now and for eternity. We become more Christ-like and we see others join in on the journey toward holiness.

For another thing, our families produce a social harvest of loving relationships, husbands, wives, sons and daughters complementing and caring for one another with uncommon compassion. It’s like a feast at a dinner table, abundant, nourishing and comforting.

We truly reap what we sow. Fear of You, Lord, produces all this blessing and more. I want this blessing for others too, Lord. I want to say to them:

‘May the Lord bless you with His presence all the days of your life; may you have eyes to see His kingdom come in your life now and for eternity; may you find that life with God is life to the fullest; and may you bless future generations by passing on to them the great inheritance of the gift of Jesus.’

Crossroads, Part 5.

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The ancient Syrian city of Palmyra may be next. The destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq is spreading; from burning the National Library, pillaging the National Museum, and bulldozing Hatra and Nimrud, the Islamic State jihadists have advanced on Syria. It’s a violation of the Hague Convention, the Geneva Convention, social and ethical convention. And that destruction pales in comparison to the human destruction being wreaked. Investigations of one month alone (November, 2014) show that 80% of all death in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and Afghanistan were the result of jihadist violence. That the ISIS-led reign of destruction appalls us is a good sign, though. It reveals that we have deep within us a sense of fair play, a knowledge that although this reign of destruction is all around us, it is somehow foreign to our inner moral code.

There is a more fundamental issue in the realm of earthly reigns and destruction than what ISIS or any violent group or individual is doing, though.

“Death,” explains Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans, “reigned…” He is explaining the moral situation of which all of us, Adam’s hapless descendants, have found ourselves both perpetrators and victims. We are all morally culpable not only for our own personal continuation and version of the Great Rebellion against God. At the time of Moses, Judaic Law was introduced. Was this a crossroad, a solution to the age-old problem? No, explains Paul. “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Our situation was moved from bad to worse. Our problem was simply highlighted to draw our attention to it. So death continued its merciless reign.

Study the history of the human race. Pore over the documents and archives of our sad story. Watch the news. Beneath the innovations and revolutions that emerge intermittently, something deeper permeates the journey of our species: Inequities, cruelties, and atrocities stain the social fabric of our history across time, place and culture. In a word, death reigns. That path is descriptive of the movement of humanity’s masses even today.

Picture it. Imagine a huge highway absolutely plugged with people jostling and rubbing shoulders with one another, fights breaking out occasionally, some being trampled by the many, a rare helping hand reaching out to another. This is the picture that describes us.

Now picture a gift—not a box wrapped in tissue and ribbon, but an opportunity to escape the mad wanderings of the death reign. This gift is mentioned five times in three verses—Paul must be trying to make a point. It’s a “gift…not like the trespass”; it’s a “gift of God (that) is not like the result of the one man’s sin”; it’s a “gift (that) followed many trespasses”; it’s a “gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ”; and it’s a gift that allows “those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness (to) reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

Did you catch that? At this crossroad, we step from the road where death reigns onto the path where life reigns, where those who accept the gift reign in life.

It’s a noteworthy crossroad. It’s the same crossroad we’ve been exploring through the first four chapters of Romans, and now we hear it in yet another way. We’re reminded yet again of this uniquely central intersection Jesus created for us two thousand years ago to be current today. It is no wonder the cross is the paradoxical symbol of life for those who have chosen to follow Him. It pictures death being crossed by life. So take the gift and treasure it – and move into the reign of life.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Voice of America News; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvOZnXeJs3M&feature=plcp)

PROSPECTUS FOR THE PRAYING PERSON, PART 5: Eternal Life

Eternal Life: John 14:8-26              Vs.19 “Because I live, you also will live”.

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C.S. Lewis observes, “…You won’t get eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers or music.”  He goes on to say,

If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die.

Jesus tells us in verse 19 that our access to life is contingent upon His life.  Knowing He was about to die, it’s an interesting comment He makes.  In fact, He’s revealing to His disciples (and us, by extension) the promise every person longs for.  He’s promising eternal life.

He’s showing us how life becomes Life; how the temporal becomes eternal; how creatures of God become children of God.  Tell me this earthly life is enough (that it’s a fluke of chance, and we must make the most of it) and I’ll ask you to explain why we are so bothered by death.

Lewis has understood something core to the concept of this eternal life.  It’s not obtained by talking oneself into the idea that peace and beauty bestow the Life. Eternal life is borne out of the eternal One. It is not an impersonal aura transposed from some cosmic source of energy. Jesus claims it can only be procured through Him.  He is Life.  His resurrection displays what we will someday experience.

But wait a minute.  Who is the ‘we’ that will experience this eternal life?

Jesus is very clear about the extension of His Life to people.  While it is freely given, it was purchased at a dear price (a costly ransom of forgiveness), and is not automatically dispensed at birth or any other time; it is available to those who want it badly enough.  It cannot be bought by money, good works, church attendance, knowing the who’s who of Christendom or any of this world’s religions.  But it will cost me giving up my own plans.  I must give up my own ideas for procuring eternal life and accept His.  I must give up my own ideas of what is sin and what is right. I must give up any hope of self-righteousness and accept that it is only Jesus’ life, given for me, that makes me righteous in the sight of an eternally holy God.

Unending existence is something every human soul is granted by God, but eternal life is His gift only a few will consent to accept.  He promises to give it.  It really is the keynote promise for the praying person.  By prayer we step into the realm of faith that says, “I’m trusting You, God, to make good on your promise. I want to be part of the Life that exudes from You, and I’m willing to give up my pride and independence in order to receive it”.

Amazing Life, this God-borne thing, held out to me, O gift of love. My every thirst and hunger deep, I see is but a symptom of my want of this Eternal Life. Because You Live, I also live, O Christ of God, O Life of life.  And as I take this gift You give, my soul is held in loving grip within Your Self, O Mystery!  Eternal Life, how broad and deep, I would but drown beneath its depth, except You breathe Eternal Breath in me. My Life’s first cry, “O God, I live!” will echo on eternally.