30 October 2013

New Testament Eschatology—Introduction

From time to time, I hear a lot about the early church’s understanding of the “end of the world” or their belief that the “Second Coming of Jesus” would take place within their generation. And it’s usually not in a very good light. “They were obviously mistaken,” is often the remark I hear most. I know it’s hard to imagine but what if we’re mistaken? What if we’ve misunderstood what they meant? I’m hoping that this series on some of the major statements from the New Testament about the “end of the world” will show that they weren’t mistaken in their understanding of the “signs of the times.”


Before we begin, however, let’s look at some terms that will have to be used. As most of you know, I try to refrain from using big “church” words. My reason for this is because those words are like suitcases where ideas and thoughts and understandings are packed into them. To explain the words would mean a long time spent unpacking the suitcases and explaining their contents. While such a pilgrimage would be very rewarding, doing so usually takes one far off course from the original journey. From time to time, however, they’re necessary. And this is one of those times.


The first word is the word “eschatology.” It means the study of “last things.” Usually these “last things” include the “Second Coming” of Jesus, the “Judgment,” the “Resurrection of the dead,” etc. And, truth be told, even those terms and phrases probably need to be “unpacked” for some of us. While this will be a study of eschatological statements in the New Testament, we won’t be looking too deeply into those terms and phrases, though we will brush over them from time to time. Maybe in a follow up series.


Another term we’ll encounter will be “apocalyptic.” Apocalyptic is the name of a certain type of literature. This genre usually contains many cataclysmic images—the moon turning to blood, stars falling from heaven, etc. There’ve been many movies about the “end of the world” and this term is usually the catalyst for them. Actually, though, a better understanding of the word is “revelation” or “revealing.” The idea is that something hidden has been “uncovered” or “revealed.” This genre is usually found in prophetic books like Daniel or Isaiah. And since most of us aren’t very familiar with those types of books in the Old Testament (and the imagery they use), we stumble with what they could possibly mean. But a proper understanding of them is crucial to comprehend the New Testament’s use of the genre.


So, there’s our brief introduction. Click here for the next post in this series.





~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,


Br. Jack+, LC

27 October 2013

Weekly Gospel Reflection—27 October 2013


Luke 18.9-14: Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Since the Reformation (at least) a lot of Christian thought has painted the Jewish religion as a religion based on works. That is to say, if someone does certain things—keep the Sabbath, circumcision, and the dietary laws, etc.—one will become “right with G_d,” or, as the Common English Bible states it here, “justified.” But this isn’t really accurate.

The Mosaic Law was given, not as a list of works to justify oneself before Yahweh, but to show one’s faithfulness to Yahweh for what Yahweh had already done. That is, Yahweh had already rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. They had already been “justified” or “vindicated.” The Law was given to show them how to live out that vindication.

So, in this story, both people are children of Sarah and Abraham. That’s one of the points Jesus is making. Over and over again, he points out that the people whom the Religious Elite have marginalized are just as much children of Sarah and Abraham as they are (see Luke 13.10-17; 19.1-10).

But what about Luke’s commentary? That this story is about those who think themselves righteous and look down on others?

That’s another point. Again and again, the Religious Elite (the Pharisee in the story) see themselves superior to everyone else. This could also be said about the Sadducees or the Zealots or the Essenes or even the Sicarii, too. All of these factions saw themselves as the ultimate representation of what being faithful to Yahweh looked like. Everyone else, since they didn’t belong to their group, was looked down upon. The irony, here, is that this story is being told by Jesus, the True Israelite. The Truly Faithful One (see Romans 3.25; 5.1; 1 Peter 1.5).

Within Christianity, denominationalism is the most obvious example of this idea that a particular group is superior to another. The idea that one’s own stream of Christianity is the only proper one. This can be seen quite clearly when reading or listening to some of the Protestant churches—of how they look down upon the Roman Catholic church.

Further out, we can see this within the Protestant traditions—some Baptists think themselves “right” and others Protestant traditions are “wrong.” The same can be said about some Churches of Christ see their church as the “only true church.” The list goes on and on.

Further still, this points the finger to those who think that the Christian Religion is the “only true religion.” They look down upon those of other religious traditions—Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc., as misled or deceived. Of course, the same can be said of some of those traditions, too.

And further still again, some atheists and agnostics look with disdain upon those people who have any type of religion at all. “They’re superstitious and hate-filled people. Religion is what’s wrong with the world and we would be better off without it.”

Lastly, there’s some of us who think, “I’m sure glad I’m not like that Pharisee! I’m more like the ‘tax-collector’.” But isn’t that the same thing the Pharisee said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like...this tax collector”? Perhaps we’re not so different, after all.

This is where my first point ties in. The moment we look down upon the other, we have forgotten that she is our sister. He is our brother. How can we possibly think we are superior to our own flesh and blood? It’s because we have fallen for the great American lie that being reconciled to G_d is about us as individuals. That Jesus came to set us free individually. Nothing could be further from the truth. The images of reconciliation in the Bible are based in community—we’re either all condemned or we’re all vindicated. Think about the exile of Israel. Surely, there were some “righteous” individuals when Assyria or Babylon destroyed the city and Temple and enslaved the survivors. Most certainly there were. But that wasn’t the point. The point is the whole nation was “judged” together. Each one must take care of their neighbor. What happened was some (most) people started thinking only of themselves. They lost sight that they’re responsible for the well-being of their families and other people in their community. Loving G_d and one another is the only thing that will “save” us.

The artist, musician, and poet Trevor Hall (heck, I think he’s a prophet) speaks to this in his song, “Good Rain”:

If there’s a hole in your soul you gotta fill it
If your cup is overflowin’ don’t spill it
You better hold it while the whole world’s spinnin’ around

And when your eyes look down on another
Just remember that he’s your own brother
This kind of love ain’t gonna go under I've found
That when you love one another only good rain comes down

And if you feel like you’ve stopped learnin’
If the wood in your fire ain’t burnin’
Better spark another match start turning your wheel

Better turn it towards righteous livin’
Stop taking and start your givin’
Yeah, this is the one thing missing I feel
That loving one another is the only thing real

Don’t let your blessings turn into stone
That kind of living will leave you all alone

If there’s a hole in your soul you gotta fill it
If your cup is overflowin’ don’t spill it
You better hold it while the whole world’s spinning around

Don’t let your blessings turn into stone
That kind of living will leave you all alone

When you heart is troubled by feelin’
Yeah, remember there’s a way to spark healin’
Yeah, the first step is when you start believing it’s real
Yeah, this is the one thing missin’ I feel
That loving one another is the only thing real






~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

25 October 2013

Didache—Chapter 8

8 Your Fasts and prayers

8:1 Your fasts should not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays. You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.

8:2 And do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in the gospel: Our Father in heaven, holy be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us enough bread day-by-day. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

8:3 Pray this three times each day.

How many of us fast a regular basis? Sure, some of us may fast for special occasions, but what about a weekly discipline? And not just once a week—twice a week! From what I can gather, this is the oldest reference to fasting on Wednesday and Friday. Of course, the fact that followers of Jesus would fast is evident from the Gospel of Matthew. And to my knowledge, the Eastern Orthodox are the only Christian tradition that still practices fasting this way (of course, I’m sure there are other groups—monastics and solitaries—who follow this practice, too). The reason given for fasting on Wednesday and Friday is in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, respectively.

In the Didache, this was part of the disciplined life, of what it meant to follow The Way of Jesus. And yet, there are so many of us today who don’t follow this practice. I wonder why?

And notice the prayer a new follower was instructed to pray three times a day—the Lord’s Prayer.  There are several Christians traditions which follow daily prayer three times a day (although a lot of Western Protestant denominations don’t follow this practice).

Again, note the disciplined life that’s outlined in these short verses. A new follower of Jesus was expected to fast (at least) twice a week and pray (at least) three times a day. Nowadays, a lot of us can’t seem to find time to pray at all! We have come such a long way from this early community of disciplined followers, and I don’t mean in a good way.

May G_d grant us the strength and courage to step out in faith and action and seek a deeper discipline that resembles these first followers of The Way.




~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

23 October 2013

The Goodness of Humanity—Part 5

As we conclude this series on the goodness of humanity (Part 1 is here), I want to look at the obvious signs—all of the “bad things” that happen in the world—that point in the opposite direction of what I’m advocating. That is, if Jesus has really reconciled all things to God, then why aren’t things getting better?

For a lot of Western Christianity, the answer to that question would be, “Because of sin. We’re still sinful people. That this is who we are at the core. We will never be free from sin this side of heaven.” But, obviously, I disagree.

I remember being in a men’s Bible study group once. We were reading the “Sermon on the Mount” from Matthew’s Gospel. We had just finished reading this passage:

Matthew 5.38ff: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

The question we were discussing is how viable is this to actually do? One person stated that he thought it was a goal, but it was an unobtainable goal. That was the general consensus with most of the other men. That’s the same position that people have with what I’ve been advocating in this series. “Sure,” they’ll say, “we should strive to be those things but, again, we won’t be able to obtain them this side of heaven.”

My response to both is the same, “Rubbish!”

Another interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is talking about preaching the gospel or standing up for Christ, you know, missionary work. When you encounter hostility from someone while doing missionary work, “turn the other cheek.” That this only relates to individual safety concerns.

Hogwash!

The context is clearly about what’s expected from people—of how they are supposed to act, to be—when following Jesus. In this passage, Jesus is seen as the New Moses (John 1.45; Acts 3.22ff), sitting on the mountain, giving out the laws of the New Covenant. These laws, like the Law of Moses, are not given to prove someone is worthy of rescue. No. They’re given to a people who are already rescued. Therefore, it would be ridiculous for Jesus to tell us to do something if we aren’t expected to do it.

Furthermore, as we saw previously humanity has been perfected and sinless (Romans 6.22; 1 Corinthians 6.11; Ephesians 5.27; etc.), so that’s clearly not the case anymore, not if we take the work of Christ and the Scriptures seriously. So what gives?

I’m reminded of something my wife says, “We find what we’re looking for.” So, if we’re constantly telling people they’re evil, full of sin, wicked, enemies of God, ad nauseum, what do we expect we’ll find? Of course they’re going to act that way!

That, in turn, reminds of the Native American story about two wolves:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

“The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

From television, to news, to movies, to video games, etc., we are continually “feeding” the evil wolf—reinforcing the notion that we are desperately wicked. Take news as one example. What used to be an occasional story of something horrible happening, thus pointing out that certain types of human behavior are exceptions, we’re constantly showcasing those types of stories—sensationalizing the stories to get better ratings (also known as “yellow journalism”). And because of that, we expect people to be thieves, rapists, murderers, etc. However, when a story of a “good samaritan” is ran, we’re left saying things like, “I’m glad there are a few decent people left in the world.”

Any psychologist will tell you that if you incessantly berate someone—“You’re stupid! You’ll never amount to anything! No one will ever love you!”—one’ll start to feel that those words are true. It may take years to recover a good sense of one’s self after a lifetime of abuse. If one’s lucky. Some people are so damaged that they never truly recover. And that’s what’s happening to society. We’re objurgated at almost every turn. It’s no wonder we think our neighbor’s are axe murderers! We look with suspicion at the people we encounter every day. We simply don’t think the best of them; we think the worst. Yet, as we’ve already noted, Paul wrote:

Philippians 2.1-4 (emphasis added): Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.

The only way that Paul could write such a thing is because he is seeing humanity through the resurrection of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5.13-17). In the Lindisfarne Community we seek to find Christ in others (Understanding 1). And we find him. The way I interpret our first Understanding is, because of Jesus, we strive to see the world differently. To see that the Realm of God is ever growing, ever increasing, until the time when God’s Realm and our realm become one (Revelation 21.1-5). Instead of focusing on the falseness that still manifests itself, we should be focusing on seeing the way Yahweh sees the world—already complete. Already One. For that’s the way it truly is.



~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC

20 October 2013

Weekly Gospel Reflection—20 October 2013

Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.’ ” The Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

This is one of those stories that seems to be self explanatory. But, given the context, it’s not as clear as we once thought.

The context for this story actually starts in the previous chapter. And, for the record, we would have known that if the lectionary hadn’t left out the last half of that chapter. As we saw from last week’s lesson and reflection, Jesus was demonstrating what G_d’s Realm looks like when it’s fully realized “on earth as in heaven.” Those on the fringes are being welcomed in—the outcast has been made part of the family.

In the left out verses (20ff), the question of G_d’s Realm is front and center. The Pharisees asked Jesus when G_d’s promised Realm would come (verse 20). Why would they ask that question? As we’ve noted before, Jesus’ stories can be understood as lessons about what he’s been doing. In this way, the question of the Pharisees fits quite well. “If G_d’s Realm is coming into our world as you claim,” they ask, “then where is it?” Jesus answers by saying that they are blind to what’s really going on. That they are thinking and looking for G_d’s Realm the way other natural realms operate. Therefore, they can’t see that G_d’s Realm is “already among [them]” (verse 21).

Jesus then turns to his disciples (verse 22) and picks up a seemingly different topic—the supposed “Second Coming.” However, it’s tied directly to his previous comments (which, in my mind, is why Luke included it!). He starts talking to them about his “appear[ing] on his day” (verse 24) and compares the “days of the Human One” (verses 26ff) with the judgements of Noah’s time and Lot’s time. Some mistakenly suppose that Jesus is talking about the “rapture,” but he’s not. He talking about the coming judgement against Israel—the soon coming war with Rome. In the examples he gives, the people “taken” during Noah’s and Lot’s time are the people “taken” by the “flood” and “fire and sulphur” of G_d’s judgement. The disciples, shocked at what they’re hearing, ask, “Where, Lord?” He replies, “The vultures (properly, “eagles”) gather wherever there’s a dead body.” Another coded message that refers to the Roman army (their shields had the Roman eagle emblazoned on them). In other words, the disciples understood that Jesus was talking about something they and their companions would experience. Pointing out the “eagle” that was on the shield of a nearby Roman soldier, made the point all too clear.

With all of this as the backdrop, we can see how the reading for today takes a different twist. Jesus is still talking to the disciples (“them”). He’s telling them to continue to cry out for justice and how they shouldn’t give up in the midst of their persecution. During the first century, the first followers of Jesus were heavily persecuted. At first, this persecution came from the hands of the Jews (see Luke 21.16). Later on (Luke 21.5ff), Jesus will tell them more details about the coming judgment.

Furthermore, John uses poetic language to indicate that this exact scenario was being played out during that first generation of followers:

Revelation 6.9-11: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar those who had been slaughtered on account of the word of God and the witness they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “Holy and true Master, how long will you wait before you pass judgment? How long before you require justice for our blood, which was shed by those who live on earth?” Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to rest a little longer, until their fellow servants and brothers and sisters—who were about to be killed as they were—were finished.

Jesus then ties this passage back to his statements from Luke 17.20ff with the last sentence. That is, when judgement falls, will there be anyone who has remained faithful to him and what G_d has been doing through him?

Does this mean, therefore, that there’s no application for us in this passage? Of course not! I think the message of faithfulness is an important one. But we need to keep in mind the context of the passage. Some of them have specific instructions for those first followers. And while the majority of this passage, and the previous one, is directed specifically to those first followers, the idea of remaining faith to Christ is central to the teaching of the New Testament. The point is that no matter what’s happening to us, what we’re going through, we must continue to cry out to Yahweh, the G_d who rescues people and brings justice and healing.




~~~
In the Love of the Three in One,

Br. Jack+, LC