Discipleship: Whose Agenda?

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Text for March 1, 2015: Mark 8:31-38

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

As we have noted the Gospel of Mark is a highly structured narrative. I outline Mark 8:27 to 10:52 this way:

Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah.” (8.27-30)
FIRST PASSION PREDICTION [see 3.6 and 3.19 for early hints] (8.31, 32)
Peter Attempts to “Correct” Jesus (8.33)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (8.34-9.1)
The Transfiguration: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (9.2-13)
The Disciples Unable to Exoricise a Demon (9.14-29)
SECOND PASSION PREDICTION (9.30-32 )
Disciples Argue over “Who’s the Greatest?” Object Lesson: A Little Child (9.33-37)
The Disciples Prohibit an “outsider” from casting out demons in Jesus’ name (9.38)
Jesus Teaches about Discipleship (9.39-50)
Jesus Uses Marriage as Example of Discipleship [may look back to 6.14-29] (10.1-12)
Jesus Accepts Little Children (10.13-16)
The Rich Young Man does not accept Jesus (10.17-23)
The Disciples, through Peter, claim to have accepted Jesus (10.24-31)
THIRD PASSION PREDICTION (10.32-34)
The Request of James and John (10.35-45)
The Request of Barimaeus (10.46-5)

The structural framework of the larger context of our text consists of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering. Three times with increasing clarity Jesus states that he will go to Jerusalem and DIE! Each time the disciples will misunderstand or misdirect the conversation in way that moves the topic away from a Messiah who will die. And each time Jesus will pull them back to the true nature of discipleship.

It’s as if Jesus had said that he had cancer, and his disciples do all they can to avoid the topic. The comedy of it all is seen in the disciples’s misfires that occur directly after Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die. In the text above, after the first prediction, Peter, who just announced that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), now takes the position of leader to rebuke Jesus for his silly thought. After the second prediction, the disciples shift to the more important topic of who is the greatest among them. Then after the third prediction, James and John ask Jesus for the best seats in God’s kingdom. Clearly someone is not listening.

These examples and others in the larger context suggest that the disciples struggle with who is really in charge. As a disciple of Jesus, whose agenda wins? When Peter rebuked Jesus, he came back with some of the strongest words of his ministry: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To have Jesus call you “Satan” had to sting. Jesus’s next comment explains the harsh remark and also clarifies what is at stake in not listening carefully to Jesus. In short, Jesus accused Peter of being interested in human things, not God’s things. Or, said another way, Peter is more interested in what he wants than what his Lord wants.

The rebuke of Peter sets up one of the basic teachings of Jesus on discipleship. To be a disciple of Jesus is to follow in the way of Jesus. What happens to the Jesus will also be the way of his true disciples.

Being led to crucifixion is the language Jesus chose for conveying the cost and nature of discipleship. However, the first step is the hardest. Jesus begins with “Deny yourself.” Here Jesus is not inviting us to take Lent more seriously, nor is he telling us to quit doing bad things. Rather, Jesus is going for the heart of the issue: we must say no to our agenda and be willing to take on God’s. To deny yourself here refers to setting aside a mere human perspective, and taking on the divine perspective. It’s answering the question of “Who is Lord of your life?”

Once we have denied ourselves, that is, decided we are not the center of the universe, then following Jesus is the next move. However, to follow Jesus is to follow Jesus in taking up the cross. The cross here is not our personal troubles or persistent challenges. Though, to be sure, those issues can be deeply connected to our personal experience of being a disciple of Jesus. The cross envisioned here is the cross intimately tied to the Mission of God. Jesus is still modeling what he started in the first chapter of Mark. He is still proclaiming the “Good News of God.” “The Kingdom of God has come near!” Repent, and Believe the Good News.” The paradox of the kingdom is that the path to God is the way of the cross.

The Kingdom of God works with a reverse kind of logic: those who seek to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for Jesus’s sake will save it. What hangs in the balance is our very life! If this is not so, then the logic of the Kingdom fails.

So what happens if you gain the whole world but you miss the call of Jesus? The logic of the Kingdom is that you have gained nothing. So as the logic of the Kingdom would have it, there is something quite shameful about this cross Jesus has invited us to carry. So much so, that Jesus warned his audience: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

These words, often read in isolation of the text to which they belong, are a continuing comment on the call to follow Jesus. Jesus understands that the way of discipleship will be hard, that it may even be something that causes us shame, but yet . . .

If anyone wishes to be my disciples . . .

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This is Why I Came

Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for Feb 8, 2015: Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Unlike what scholars once thought about Mark’s arrangement of materials, Mark is actually highly organized as the following outline illustrates for Mark 1:16–2:14.

1.16-20 Jesus Calls the Four Fishermen
1.21-28 Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Man
1.29-32 Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law
1.32-34 Summary of Jesus’s Healings
1.35-39 JESUS PRAYS, IDENTIFIES HIS MISSION: TO PREACH
1.40-45 Jesus Heals a Leper
2.1-12 Jesus Heals the Paralytic
2.13, 14 Jesus Calls Levi

Verses 35–39 is what I call a centerpiece text. Notice that at each extreme we have the calling of disciples, the calling of the four fishers and the calling of Levi. Between these calling stories, we have a series of healing stories, balanced with two on each side of the centerpiece. The centerpiece texts serve to orient the texts around them. One could get the impression without the centerpiece that Jesus was primary a healer, a miracle worker. However, with the centerpiece, we are pushed to see that Jesus was up to something more, something deeper.

In the text selected above, the first paragraph tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Once healed, she “ministers to” or “serves” them. In Mark’s use of minister/serve words (διακονέω and related words) more may be implied than just she went about her domestic duties. This notion first occurs earlier when throughout the temptation of Jesus, angels “were serving” him. The comment about serving occurs as the final thought in each story. That angels and Peter’s mother-in-law both participate in the act of service suggesting that service is highly valued in the Kingdom of God. This becomes clearer in Mark 10:43–45, where Jesus makes “service” a prominent trait of what it means to be his disciple.

… but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

A summary statement of Jesus’ ministry follows this story. Another will occur in Mark 3:7–12. These summaries allow Mark to compress the story, yet fill it out. This compression allows him to keep the story moving at breakneck speed.

At the end of this paragraph Mark notes that Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” Rather than being some kind of Messianic Secret motif, as earlier scholars theorized, Mark is cleverly showing that those from the “other world” clearly know who Jesus is. On the other hand, throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples seem not to know him at all. In his literary strategy, then, Mark is asking his readers if they know who Jesus is.

In the centerpiece text (vv.35–39), Mark carefully paints the scene: very early, still dark, deserted place, Jesus prays. This all sounds a bit like the ending of the story. Very early in the morning the women came to the tomb. And it is very dark when Jesus prayed in the Garden alone.

When Simon and the others find Jesus, they say,

Everyone is searching for you.

To which Jesus gives the unexpected reply,

Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do

Simon and the others supposed their need should set the agenda for Jesus’ ministry. However, Jesus’ kingdom vision was much bigger than their desires. This is not unlike what we find in churches today. Too easily churches become organizations that consume energy, talent, and finance for their own self-preservation. Jesus, rather, has an outward focus. Who else might benefit from the presence of the kingdom of God?

More central to this text, though, is that Jesus makes a purpose statement: I have come to proclaim the message! Though this centerpiece text is surround by miraculous healing stories, this text focuses Jesus’ central ministry task: preaching. More important than the healings is the Message. Jesus states clearly that he came to preach! It is in the message that the power of God is released. Said another way, the story of Jesus has the power to change lives. The story of Jesus is what invites us to participate in the kingdom of God.

Our text closes with a comment on how Jesus moved forward. He continued to do powerful works showing that the kingdom was here, but Mark notes that Jesus did what he said he came to do: proclaim the message.

As we seek to do good in the name of Jesus, let us to remember the centrality of proclaiming the message and not be afraid to do it somewhere else.

Reflecting on Pentecost

Working among the Disciples of Christ now for past two years has given me a greater appreciation for the liturgical calendar. Having grown up among those who “judge all days to be alike,” it has been enlightening to work with those who “judge one day to be better than another.”

Yesterday was one of those “better days.” It was Pentecost and so I found myself thinking more about the meaning of that special day. And preaching on it only made me think even more about its meaning.

Several things “coincided” to open my ears and eyes to a deeper reading of the Pentecost story. First, on Saturday, I led our monthly Re-Reading Scripture study which “happened” to be on Joel. Second, of course, was that the following day, Pentecost. Thirdly, Pentecost as a theological reference point has always been important regardless of which side of the holy day divide you find yourself. It is the church’s birthday, so it should be important to every Christian. Finally, the egalitarian ring of Joel’s prophecy was louder for me this time than it had been before. Thus, I was drawn to Peter’s use of Joel 2.28 and following:

28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit…
32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved…

Even though “all flesh” should be clear enough that Joel intends to include all humanity, this prophecy from Joel seems intent on clarifying how inclusive it seeks to be.

All flesh includes both men and women. The notion that the Spirit of God would come to both men and women in the OT was a novel concept. I can’t think of a single time in the OT where God’s spirit is said to come to a woman, though there are clearly several notable “Spirit-led” women in the Old Testament. Moreover, it was even a rare man who had God’s Spirit come upon him and then often for a limited time to get a certain job done. Once the Spirit came upon seventy elders at one time, but generally it was on this man or that man. So what Joel is predicting is quite unprecedented in the Old Testament and remained so to the time of Jesus. Luke, who wrote Acts, saw this being fulfilled in the early church and will often point out to readers where women are participants, patrons, or even prophets. Unfortunately some in the church still denies the full meaning of Pentecost.

All flesh includes the young and the old. In our culture, it is a good thing to be young; in ancient culture and non-western cultures, it is a good thing to be old. However, in light of the ancient culture where age was valued, the young could be devalued. Regardless of which culture one is in, this text suggest that God has a use for both the young and the old. One of the tragedies of our time is the disintegration of generational connectedness. This brokenness is often brought into the life of the church and we find churches offering contemporary vs. traditional services. We all know what this means. Young people this way; old people that way. I find this part of Joel’s prophecy challenging to the way we sometimes go about ministry to the old and the young. The “need” for multiple services may underlie a deeper fissure: that we have missed the meaning of Pentecost. I once heard Marva Dawn say something like this: “When we can’t sing each others songs, what does it say about us?”

All flesh includes both the free and the oppressed. One might think that gender is the hot-button issue raised by Joel’s prophecy and for some it is the only Gospel. However, this one should perhaps convict us more than the others. Back in 1929 Richard Niebuhr wrote an insightful study called “The Social Sources of Denominationalism.” When I first read it, I was floored. Niebuhr argued successfully that denominations represented the social class system of the lively experiment called America. Could it be then that our churches today still separate those who are free (read: rich) from those who are poor (read: oppressed). It is not hard to document that this is the case and I have been in way too many if-we-could-just-get-so-and-so-as-a-member and we-need-to-get-the-right-kind-of-members conversations than I care to admit. All this talk misses the grand vision that God gave Joel and then Peter: I will pour out my spirit on ALL flesh.

May we always accept those on whom God has poured out his spirit, regardless of gender, age, or social status. May we all get the Spirit of Pentecost!

Disciples are Learners

Disciples are, or should be, by definition learners. Beyond the denominational tag, Disciples should be disciples. When Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission, his marching orders to the church was to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19-20) Trying to find the right English word to translate the word mathētēs is not easy. Some attempts include student, pupil, trainee, or the like. Each of these fall short because these words tend to stress book-learning over character formation. They are good translations, but like many translations, none of them can catch the full nuance of the original word. A word I think comes closer is apprentice.

Once a common practice for a young person wanting to learn a trade or craft, an apprenticeship was very serious internship. As an apprentice, a young person would attach herself to a master artisan to become, in terms of that skill, just like the master. At one time, ministers were trained much in this way. A young person would attach himself to an accomplished minister to learn from that minister. In both of these previous examples, the young person would often live with the master and his family. In a similar way Jesus trained his first followers who lived, ate, slept and traveled with him. At the heart of being a disciple, then, is being close enough to the master teacher to become like that person.

Learning however was never limited to information. Rather learning was about transformation. The goal of being a disciples of Jesus is not just to learn what he can teach us about God and good living but to become more like him. Jesus once said to his followers, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). Loving one another goes way beyond mere information. The pivotal question for disciples of Jesus is not “What do we know?” but “What kind of people are we?

One can hear this concern in the apostle Paul as he was working Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”(Gal 4:19). Or again, in his letter to the Colossians: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ”(Col 1:28). Or perhaps, what Paul tells the Christians in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect(Romans 12:1–2).

Many other texts could be cited but these show how discipleship is about the kind of people we are becoming because of God’s work on our lives. Genuine discipleship is about spiritual formation. Robert Mulholland in Invitation to the Journey (1993) defines Christian spiritual formation this way: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s spirit, for the transformation of the world.” And Dallas Willard adds,“spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God.

Disciples then are transforming learners, that is, attentive apprentices learning the way of Jesus. I’m grateful to be part of a church family committed to learning the way of Jesus.

Copied from my article at http://www.fcchammond.org/APROUTLOOK2013.aspx.

Get Out! Really?

I wrote this when the events related herein were fresh, but I decided not to publish it at that time because frankly when anxiety is up, we don’t hear well. Now that the election is behind us, perhaps we can re-engage in a more civil discourse.

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Perhaps you have seen the recent pontifications of the Rev. Dennis Terry:

“I don’t care what the liberals say, I don’t care what the naysayers say, this nation was founded as a Christian nation…There is only one God and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words.. Listen to me, If you don’t love America, If you don’t like the way we do things I have one thing to say – GET OUT. We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammad, we don’t worship Allah, we worship God, we worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

See it for yourself at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/19/dennis-terry-rick-santorum_n_1364414.html.

When I hear stuff like this from those who openly confess to follow Jesus, I think of the quote attributed to Thomas Linacre (c. 1460 – October 20, 1524) who, upon reading the Gospels in Greek instead of the Latin Vulgate, said:

Either this is not the Gospels… or we are not Christians.

When I hear Christians saying the kind of vitriol Rev. Terry spouted, I think

“If this is the Gospel … I’m not sure I want to be a Christian.”

One would think that as a preacher Rev. Terry’s first commitment should be to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ—first and foremost; all lesser loyalties are idolatrous compared to loyalty to Jesus. What Rev. Terry proclaim was not the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . not even close.

The rhetoric of a Christian America has become so pervasive—and normalized—that indeed the Gospel now sounds odd even to those who think they are Christians. Furthermore, for all the concern that Christians are not allow to speak in America, I find that this kind of pseudo-gospel talk get a lot of public air time.

Given the continued strength of America’s Civic Religion (often cloaked a patriotism), it comes as a surprise to most American Christians that God already has a nation! That nation is the church universal. Every time I hear “God bless America”—and I do want God to bless the country of my birth—something deeper inside me screams, “God bless the Church!” While I don’t disagree that the America is morally bankrupt, a concern closer to the heart of the Gospel is the that church is also wasting away.

Some years ago Gordon Scoville wrote a small critique of the American church in a slender volume called Into the Vacuum: Being the Church in an Age of Barbarism. His thesis was simple: American culture is going down the tube. The American (namely, Protestant) church is deeply intertwined with American culture. Unless the church somehow finds a way to separate itself from American culture and rediscover its true mission, it too will go down the tubes. And so it has happened. Scoville published his little book in 1989. Things have not gotten better.

American evangelicals seem not to see that saving America is simply the wrong mission. The church’s mission has never been to save any country or government. That mission is far too small for the Church. Furthermore for a God who seeks to save people from ” every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6), a church that favors one nation, one race, one language, or one people group, has not caught God’s mission. A hymn that can only be sung in one country is not universal enough to be consistent with the Gospel or God’s mission to save the “world.”

As I said, God already has a nation, the church. This “national” language grows out of the church’s early identity with the people of Israel of whom God said:

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites. (Exodus 19:5–6 NRSV)

The Hebrew Bible offers the vision of Israel being the priestly nation to bear witness of God’s goodness to the world. As such a nation, one of the overriding principles of that nation was to welcome the stranger and the alien and to bear witness to the nations far and wide of God’s goodness. However, the storyline, as it gets played out in the Bible, is that Israel was unfaithful to God’s mission and so at the end of the story, the once proud nation finds itself grasping to hang on to its national identity—while exiled hundreds of miles away from their homeland. Despite this exile, and no doubt, with the help of God, the Jewish people were able maintain a national identity even apart from the physical land.

In the New Testament—which most Christian groups claim as the only guide for the church’s faith and practice—the language of nationhood was applied to those who found themselves exiled in a world often hostile to their faith.

In one place, the New Testament says,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10 NRSV)

These words described not some physical nation with land, leaders, and legislators, but to the church, that is, those who have committed their lives to the way of Jesus. The language of this church is inclusive: people who were once outsiders are now insiders. (Strange, isn’t it, that is only takes a few generations for immigrants to forget they were immigrants?)

When Christians can no longer unmask the rhetoric of power, they will no longer be able to tell when the Christian mission has been compromised. Manifest Destiny was an American doctrine not a biblical one.

Oh, Jesus certainly had imperialistic goals, to be sure, but they took a cross-shaped form where losing is winning. Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world and he stated that before the powerful of his day. Jesus told Pilate,

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asked him, “What is truth? (John 18:36–38 NRSV)

Like Pilate, American Christians have a hard time hearing the truth of God’s way. The way of conquest is not the way of Jesus. Yet, despite what Jesus himself says about the nature of his kingdom, political pundits still tell us we need to take back America for God. (I’m never quite sure who this “we” is: we Americans or we Christians?).

I find it oddly convenient that Rev. Terry’s rhetoric hides certain realities. For example, America was not just a “Christian” nation from the beginning; it was a denominational nation but not a Catholic nation. So, more precisely, America was a Protestant country. Neither Catholics nor Jews necessarily found the New World congenial to their faith.

The early colonial revivalists continually complained about how debased the American populace was. More honest to history, America has always been a mixed nation. Rev. Terry represents Protestants are upset, and perhaps a bit dumbfounded, that they have been marginalized from the mainstream culture. Speaking louder, as Rev. Terry did, will not somehow save the day or the nation.

What is Lent All About?

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” (Matthew 4:1–11 NRSV)

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LENT was originally not a religious word at all. A Teutonic (Germanic) word meaning “long,” it was used to refer to the lengthening days of spring. The word was passed through Anglo-Saxo into English, and finally used to translate the Latin quadragesima (“forty days”) which imitates the Greek name for the season of Lent, tessarakoste, or fortieth. So that is why we call this season Lent.

By the fifth century, church authorities assumed the practice of Lent went back to the apostles. However historians have noted that, in the first three centuries, churches were quite diverse in their practice of the fast before Easter. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius cites a letter from Irenaeus (late second century) who states that there was much confusion over the fast that came before Easter. Some thought it should be one day, others two, and yet others thought forty hours (day and night) as the correct amount. Later when Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, which contains the letter from Irenaeus, was translated from Greek into Latin, the translator punctuated text so that last group fasted for forty days, not forty hours. So, interestingly, Lent became a forty-day preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

If you would like more information about the origin and development of Lent, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09152a.htm.

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LENT is about repenting, reorienting, recalibrating and realigning. Lent provides an opportunity as we approach Resurrection Sunday to bring our lives more in sync with Jesus. Reflecting on the temptation of Jesus (see the Scripture above) provides resources for this time of penitence and prayer.

Henri Nowen in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership made the dynamic  Jesus’ temptations real for me. Jesus responded to each temptation with Scripture;more specifically, Jesus quotes texts from Deuteronomy 6-8.

Deuteronomy 6-8 tells how the “newly minted” nation of Israel was tested in the wilderness; and how at each test the they failed to trust God.

Now comes Jesus’ turn. He too is tested but each time he successfully deflects Satan’s overtures. Where Israel, the nation, had failed, Jesus the Son will succeed. Part of Jesus success was that he knew the story. Because he knew the story of how Israel had failed the test, Jesus knew exactly what he was facing. Now that we have both stories, that of Israel and of Jesus, we know what we need to do when tempted.

Nowen reframes each temptation so we can hear them better. The temptation to turn stone into bread is the temptation to be relevant. The temptation to jump off the temple to be caught by angels is the temptation to be sensational. And the temptation to possess all the kingdoms of the world is the temptation to be powerful.

Each of these are a real temptation because we are all tempted to focus on what we want more than anything else. When we speak of being relevant (particularly in church life) we generally have in mind that notion that if we were more relevant, more people would be interested in church. So the conversation becomes what we need to do to please people and that is where this becomes a problem. Recall another story: when Aaron, the high priest, made a golden calf for the people. The golden calf was relevant but the golden calf was not God.

Each of us have felt the desire to be sensational. Drama Queen seems to be an art form for some today. How often do we walk the line between “doing our deeds before others” and “doing our deeds before othersso that they might see our Heavenly Father.” Jesus could have stepped off the pinnacle of the temple and floated down to the earth impressing all those who saw him. However, as with the stones, Jesus understood that making himself important or impressive works against the mission of God. All three of the temptations partake of the attitude that it’s-about-me.

Finally, the desire to be powerful is so “natural” that in our culture we assume that is what people should aspire to be. Jesus could have had the whole world without the cross! That is what Satan is offering. However, the way of power without the cross is not the way of God. To be powerful is to bypass the way of suffering and the gospel is clear that for Jesus suffering comes before glory. Those who would follow Jesus must learn this, too. As the apostle Paul will say later when we are weak, we are strong (see 1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 10:10; 12:10; 13:9).

So what is the meaning of Lent? Well, that depends on what you want to do with it. Let me encourage you to use this season as a time to repent, reorient, recalibrate, and realign your life with that of your Lord Jesus. Let’s resist the temptation to be relevantsensational, and powerful and simply moving into being who God has called us to be.

To Begin Again

Can a person really start over?

Isn’t there always baggage?

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change?

The cynic in me wants to see real change as impossible but I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this is the case. No doubt, life is tough and for some and at times really tough. Yet the Bible, which has been around a lot longer than I have, holds out a vision of humanity that has potential. New things can happen!

For example, notice this medley of verses:

[The Lord] put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God (Psalms 40:3); See, I [the Lord] am doing a new thing! (Isaiah 43:19); Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17) “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant ….” (Jeremiah 31:31); Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) … what counts is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15).

The Apostle Paul invited the church at Colossae (in modern day Turkey) to enter into God’s newness. In the third chapter of his letter to that church, Paul points to three areas in which God wants to renew us.

First, God invites us to renew our orientation, to seek what is heavenly, not earthly. Sometimes we live as if the minutia of every moment is the most important issue in our lives. We all—at times—are drama queens. We fail to see that in a few short moments most of what  upset us now will not really matter in the grand scheme of things. However, the Apostle is not just suggesting that we get a better mental attitude; this is not how to think your way into a better way of feeling.

The invitation is for complete reorientation. Because we have been baptized into Christ, we now “seek the things above” and we do this because “Christ is there!” Now, as those united with Christ, we are, in some sense, already with him. Imagine living now as if we were already living in heaven.

Next God calls us to reevaluate our identity. In a (religious) world intent on reminding us often that we are sinners (and we are), the Bible most often strikes another note. In this text, believers in Jesus are those who are hidden in Christ, those who have put on the new self that, according to the Apostle, “is being renewed by the knowledge according to the creator’s image.” Our new identity is not defined by religious or socioeconomic labels but by Christ. Therefore, believers should see themselves as God sees them: as specially chosen, holy and deeply loved.

Consequently, God invites to refresh our way of life. Continuing the language of baptism, Paul reminds us to “put to death” dispositions, habits and tendencies that simply do not belong to heaven-minded people. The laundry list is long and dirty: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying, “since” as Paul adds, “you have taken off your old self with its practices.”

Continuing the baptismal image, Paul is confident that believers have “put on” the new self and the associated dispositions, habits, and tendencies. These virtues include compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, telling the truth, speaking wholesome words, love, unity, peace, and thankfulness.

In summary, Paul is not inviting his readers to embrace the power of positive thinking, but rather of taking hold of a completely different paradigm for reality. The primary feature of this new paradigm is that we are now united with Christ. This union with Christ instigates certain new realities, namely, that we are now “hidden in Christ.” The changes called for grows out of a relationship with Christ. If one belongs to Jesus, then it follows that such a person would think differently about who they are. This, then, would (naturally) lead believers to put off things that work against their new identity and to put on attributes that are consistent with that new identity.

Can a person really start over? Yes, with Jesus they can.

Isn’t there always baggage? Yes, but God can handle your baggage.

Are habits too ingrained—after a certain amount of living—to change? Only if you so choose; it is not the way of Jesus.

Also published at http://www.fcchammond.org/JANNEWSLETTER.aspx.