Finding Jesus

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 18, 2015: John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

John in his Gospel tells some stories we don’t get from the other Gospels. In this unique story, we hear of Jesus calling Nathanael. It’s a great story about how Jesus first called Philip and Philip could not keep Jesus to himself. The story moves like this: Jesus found Philip > Philip found Nathanael > We have found him! (The word “find” occurs five times in John 1:41, 43, and 45).

In addition to this movement of finding, the dynamic dialogue moves the story along. The first words are Jesus’.

Jesus (to Philip): Follow me.

 

Philip: We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.

Nathanael: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Philip: Come and see.

 

Jesus: Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael: Where did you get to know me?

Jesus: I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.

Nathanael: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Earlier in the first chapter of his good news, the author has sought to clarify for his hearers the identity of Jesus. John’s view of Jesus is very high: He was God (1:1); he became Human (1:14). He is  the Lamb of God (1:36) and the Son of God (1:43). John is clear from the beginning that he is a believer. Throughout his story, consequently, John seeks to help us experience our own self-discovery of Jesus; in short, he seeks to help us find Jesus.

However, the flip side of us finding Jesus is that Jesus is also seeking us. In the story prior to this one, Jesus found Philip, who in our story, now finds Nathanael. Philip exclaims, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Philip is certain that Jesus is the one that Moses promised. Almost certainly Philip has in mind Deuteronomy 18:15

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

or 18:18

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.

But not just Moses, according to Philip, but also the prophets spoke of this Jesus, this son of Joseph, this one from Nazareth. Philip does not tell us which prophetic texts he is recalling, but they may have well included this text:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1–4 NRSV)

Many other texts could have informed Philip’s view of the coming Messiah—yet there is no doubt that he believed that all of these texts pointed to the very man that he had found.

When Jesus encountered Nathanael, he declared Nathanael to be a good man. Nathanael wanted to know how Jesus knew him. To this, Jesus responded that he had as seen Nathanael when Philip called him, that is, while Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree. While John does not spell out how this “knowing” took place—was it a miracle, insight on the part of Jesus, etc.?—One aspect is clear before Nathanael found Jesus, Jesus had already found Nathanael. That Nathanael understood that Jesus had actually found him first is implicit in his response,

Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

For those of us who believe, it is deeply humbling to remember that God found us first.

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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!

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.

____________

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.

The Five Most Important Questions

When Jesus formed the church, he had at least two aims in mind. Church would first of all be about loving God with heart, soul, mind and body (or strength) and, secondly, that this group of people would love their neighbors as themselves (Mark 12:28-34). While “neighbor” might include other church members, Jesus nearly always used the term to push us toward those who are different from us. Given the centrality of this teaching for Jesus, it would be hard to suggest that the church should be doing something other than fulfilling these commands.

Since Jesus says these are the most important commands, any other command we find in the Bible must somehow fit under these. Additionally, any understanding of any of the lesser command that ignores or bypasses these two must be seen as an misinterpretation of the lesser command.

So, if these are the core values of Jesus for the church, how are we doing?

I have found Peter Drucker, the well-known business specialist, to be helpful in this regard. He once framed what he called “The Five Most Important Questions” any organization must ask if it wanted to remain true to its mission. I think you might find them instructive as we seek God’s specific missional vocation for Tammany Oaks.

  1. What is our mission?
  2. Who is our customer?
  3. What does the customer value?
  4. What are our results?
  5. What is our plan?*

I have found these questions very helpful in thinking out where God might be leading us. While the church is not a business, it is in the business of announcing the kingdom of God and our “success” can be measured in how well we are doing that and lives that are transformed because of it.

So what is our mission? While each congregation needs a specific focus, we can be sure that it involves loving God and loving “other” people. So who are the church’s customers? Again, Jesus helps us here: God and “other” people. When the church views her members as the primary “customers,” her mission will always get redirected to “our” perceived needs. Members should see themselves more as customer service representatives who are eager to please God and serve others.

The final two questions are the hard ones, and as such, deserve more of our attention than I can give here. However, we should be able to see that the answers lie near the two greatest commands.

What are the markers of a “successful” church? Two of the makers, of course, would be that a successful church loves God and other people.

So what is the church’s plan? While the answer to this question needs to have specifics based on where God has placed each congregation, we can be sure the plan should be the outworking of loving God and others.

__________

* Peter F. Drucker, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask about Your Nonprofit Organization (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).

Our Role in the Mission of God

A favorite New Testament book of mine is 1 Peter. I’m drawn to it often because the world it imagines is so much like the one I experience. In this letter, Christians are called to live as a contrast society to the world around them. The world around the Christians consisted of an evil empire, many forms of idolatry, and wild parties every weekend, if not every night.

Living among people committed to empire, idolatry, and indulgence, the author of 1 Peter commissioned his readers with these words:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11–12 NIV)

Framing our relationship to the world, even empire, as “aliens and strangers,” the writer reminds us that we are “only passing through” this world, but more so, since Jesus’ kingdom does not belong to this world, neither do we. If we are indeed “aliens and strangers” to the empires of this world, we should not over-invest in them but rather give much more attention to the kingdom that will never end.

The biblical writer calls on his readers to do two things. 1) Give attention to spiritual formation; and 2) live out that formation among those who live around us. Regarding the first task, God seeks to remove the war within our own lives. Therefore, we should “abstain from sinful desires.” However, there is the second and larger concern here: That our lives (now at peace because of Jesus) might announce the kingdom of God to those who might even accuse us falsely. The end result of our lives, according to this text, is that others might be prepared to worship God when he comes again.

So let’s commit again to live the good life for the good of others.

Reconciliation

What a strange word! Not one I use in casual conversation and I suspect this is true for you as well. We might use it of a shaky marriage that has come back together but outside of that the word does not carry much weight in our daily lives. However, God meant reconciliation to be his primary mission in the world.

Imagine for a moment a life that is shattered into a thousand little pieces, a life that lacks any sense of coherency, filled with unconnected and unmanageable busy-ness, multi-tasking randomly through life. We call the pieces family life, church life, recreational life, work life, educational life, spiritual life, Christian life, etc. Yet, nothing seems to hold the threads together.

This sense of undone-ness is not only an individual thing; it affects our relationships, too. We, though surrounded by people in nearly everything we do, have never felt lonelier. Not only this, we have days when God feels so far away that life does not feel worth living.

However, Jesus came to give a new way of being, under a new covenant, one that gives life not death. In accepting this new covenant, we come into a new mission or ministry of new life and new creation undoing fragmentation and brokenness. To us, as new creations, all things become new and the old, though still present, is already disappearing.

Though we can still feel the tension between the brokenness of the past and the wholeness of the future, we know that we live for the future, not the past—for God’s future. Paul captures this tension well when he speaks of his ministry in these words,

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Cor. 5:8-12)

This life can be ours because Jesus died for us, one for all. This conviction is the center and core of our confession. Since Jesus died for us, he invites us to die to the brokenness of our lives, to repent of holding on to the old world, and allow the new world to invade our lives. This new life, however, does not end with us. God then turns us into agents, or ambassadors, of reconciliation. Our ministry to others brings life to them.

As Paul continues,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:20)

Help the Lost Children

In yesterday’s sermon I told a story from my daughter’s childhood—it is always good to check with your spouse or kids before using them in an illustration, but Rachel signed off on this one years ago.

When Rachel was about two, maybe three, we moved to the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. I was serving as the part-time outreach minister for a church just off the campus of UNC. Pat was seeking whatever work she could find as a teacher. We had just enough to survive so we found ourselves often window-shopping in the malls. On one particular occasion, the mall was hosting a sports card show. Since my wife loves sports, it did not take long for her to lose herself in the moment. Because of her excitement, I was soon there, too.

However, in a short period of time, Rachel slipped away from us. She was gone. We panicked and began a frenzied search for her, enlisting along the way any that would help us. During moments like this, time seems to stop and last forever. To this day, I can’t really tell you how long it took for us to find Rachel. Anxiety had seized us so that we were immobilized. Worse case scenarios began to fill our heads.

Time snapped back to normal when our daughter’s laughter came filtering down across the mall hallway. You can always distinguish your child’s laughter in much the same way that you can hear her in a room full of children. It was a joy to hear her laughter, but we were amazed to see her walking between two women. These strangers had found her and were seeking to help her. I never knew the strangers’ name; I wish I had. On that day they were some of the most important people to have entered our lives. They reunited our lost child with her parents.

Later, as I have reflected on this event, I’ve begun to see it as a parable for the church. In the same way these women restored our daughter to us, so it is God’s mission for the church to bring lost children back to their Father.