No Strings Attached…

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds,” – Matthew 11:19

A few days ago, my brother had sent me a text asking how to, in the kindest way possible, tell the door-to-door evangelists that they’re wasting their time. I told him to invite them in to smoke pot or whatever else would make them extremely uncomfortable and walk away (you see, it’s funny because my brother doesn’t smoke pot).

I never heard back as to what happened next, but ever since then I’ve been wondering about evangelism and the typical ways we go about it. Door-to-door, handing out pamphlets or business cards on campus, or simply walking around town telling people to go to a specific church are all common ways we encounter (and maybe even carry out) evangelism. But is this the way Jesus wanted?

Many of my friends attend a church in town that did this sort of evangelizing; they walked around neighborhoods, campuses, or various parts of town handing out business cards. They’re now one of the largest churches in town with at least two different campuses and several services every Sunday. If the goal of the church is to multiply the number of believers, they most certainly succeeded. But what if the goal was relational development? What if Jesus cared more about His church growing emotionally and spiritually together as they grow with Him? Leaving such a thing to a business card, then, might not be what He wants.

Of course, I don’t see things from God’s perspective. And I certainly believe that many people have come to know the Lord because somebody handed them a piece of paper or told them about a specific church in town. But, as in the experience of my brother, I wonder if we’ve begun to trust more in the system of church rather than the personal, relational power of Christ? What I mean is how well do we know our neighbors? How well do we learn about the people we hand our business cards to? How deep does our love go for them?

I know. These are questions you can’t really answer with demographics and polls. But I find asking them to be important not because church-goers are wrong to invite non-believers to their church, but because trusting so much into a system could severely disable opportunities for relational growth with other people. I won’t learn much about them nor will they about me. We’ll all become plagued by comfort and security, trusting only in ourselves and the few closest to us (if our trust even extends that far).

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” – Romans 12:15

Paul gives a difficult exhortation here. In my experience, when other people are happy and overjoyed by something, I might nod and say something like, “Good for you,” but I won’t share in their joy. Why? It’s because I haven’t trained myself to feel what someone else feels. Instead, I let their happiness be their own while I continue on with whatever is going on in my life. I’ve gotten better at this over the years, but there is a lot of room for improvement – improvement that would never happen if I hid behind my business cards.

How, then, are we to share the good news of Jesus without going door-to-door or handing out our church information in public? How are people supposed to know that we belong to God – that we worship Jesus?

Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard because He spent a lot of time in peoples’ houses sharing meals with them. How many parables did He share that talked about feasts and banquets and parties (ex. Luke 14:12)? What was His first miracle (John 2:1-11)? Jesus went door to door not to hand someone a business card or tract outlining His spiritual laws, but to have dinner with them, play games with their kids, and talk about unconditional love. He evangelized this way because that’s what His kingdom about: Kids playing, people eating and drinking, and unconditional love being shared.

As for how people might know that we follow Jesus; “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” – John 13:34-35. The end of Acts 4:13 says, “And [the elders, scribes, and priests] recognized that [Peter and John] had been with Jesus.” Based off of how you act and how you treat people, can people recognize that you belong to Jesus? When I think about this for myself, I’m not sure people can tell by how I treat them.

Remember Matthew 25 and how Jesus says that if we do all those kind things to people that we’re really doing them to Him. Do we want to have Jesus over for dinner or simply hand Him a business card and hope He’s there come Sunday morning?

Jesus was slandered for His method of evangelism. And “yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” May we learn to interact with people with no strings attached – not expecting them to come to church with us (unless they really want to).

God bless.

Rooted and Grounded…

Within the last couple of months, my apartment complex has chopped down two trees because they were dead and rotting. With the winter weather in full swing, the threat of snow actually threatens residents’ cars – like mine. If you were on the U of O campus during the spring of last year, you might have seen several tree limbs having collapsed due to the weight of the snow. And in one part of campus, an entire tree had fallen over. I guess my complex director didn’t want that happening to any of our cars (thankfully).

What I noticed, though, was that even though they chopped the trees down, the trunks are still there. Of course they cut as much of the trees as they could, but the roots are still there. It’d probably take them quite a bit of time and equipment to remove the roots – let alone physical energy and mental sanity – but they’re still there. The trees are gone, but the roots are still seen in the lumps and cracks of the pavement. All of this came to mind during Scott’s message Sunday morning.

Throughout our time at Emmaus Life, Scott has really hammered home the mission: connecting real people to the real life of Jesus. One of the major verses of inspiration comes from John 10:10; “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” What Scott talked about on Sunday, though, was how the church is supposed to bring this into action. As in, what does it mean to live out this abundant life – this life beyond life?

Acts 2:42-47 was Scott’s passage of choice to highlight exactly how we’re supposed to spread Jesus’ life:
And they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Living out the real life of Christ as the early church did goes directly against the grain of American society. We’re all about individual rights and being self-sufficient and focusing on our own careers and blah, blah, blah. The only time we might want to help someone else is if it somehow benefits us in return. And yet the church as depicted in Acts 2 “had all things in common.” Whatever one person had, they all had. Individual ownership evaporated.

Why was this recorded in Scripture? And of all verses to focus on for a message, why did Scott pick this one? Again, John’s Gospel comes to mind: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Being the church, as Wesley Towne (pastor of Ekklesia-Eugene/Springfield) has often said, is central to receiving the real life of Christ. In fact, I’d go so far to say that one cannot receive the real life of Christ without a church body. My hands cannot type words detached from my body (okay no, I haven’t tested this theory, but I believe the testimonies of the amputees), likewise, Christians can’t really be Christians – followers of Christ, not political labels – without fellow Christians devoting themselves, as the church in Acts did, “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Individual walks with the Lord are essential, but cannot be the sole means to attain the real life of Christ.

As this process goes on, people get to know each other. Nerves are pushed to the limits, trust is tested over and over again, and little by little humility is practiced. Little by little the people devoted to Christ start acting like Him because we have each other to keep ourselves accountable, to keep us on His path. Little by little, we start loving each other just as He commanded.

What does this have to do with tree roots? Scott turned our attention to Ephesians 3, where Paul gives one of his more infamous passages:
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” – 3: 14-19

My goal with and through Emmaus Life is to make impacts in the lives of others – so deeply, in fact, that even if I die in the effort, the roots of Christ through my work would still be there. Surrendering my time, money, energy, comfort zones, and anything else that Christ might ask of me, I aim to share that real life – the life that provides so much more than this one ever could – with those whom I care about, those who care about me, and the strangers I meet along the way. It won’t be easy, but it will be far more peaceful and joyful than if I were to live my own, selfish, American life.

Years may pass before I see the fruit of what Christ is doing through me and my involvement with Emmaus Life – if I get to see them at all. But, as Scott pointed out on Sunday, figures such as Paul and Peter died before they saw what their movement would become. Not only did they die; they were executed. They were martyred for sharing the real life of Christ. And yet, despite dying, they never stopped living that life of Christ.

Trees don’t grow fast, but they do grow strong. And even though they might get chopped down, their roots are still seen. May we all strive for such deeply embedded roots in the life of Christ, His church, and the lives of our neighbors that even when we’ve been chopped down, our roots are still seen and felt by those who knew us.

God bless.

On Easter, Jesus Sat Next to Me…

Easter was awesome, but not in the way I had expected. I went to University Fellowship for the first time and sat in the bleachers next to about a dozen strangers. As I mentioned before, nearly everyone was dressed nicely, which made me in my new favorite hoodie stand out like a Duck fan at a Beaver’s game. We all stood when the worship leader said to, sat when he said to, laughed at the greeter’s jokes even if we didn’t get them, and prayed when the pastor did. Throughout it all, though, I hadn’t noticed Jesus sitting next to me.

Somewhere along the way, He had walked in through the double doors of the rented high school gymnasium in His plaid, button up shirt, shorts, and Velcro sandals. After shaking hands with a few people He hadn’t met yet, He found where I was sitting, and worked His way over. The people next to me politely scooted over as He sat down. He made some light-hearted, sarcastic joke about the worship leader’s cowlick, sang two songs with eyes closed, opened them on the third because He didn’t know the words, and bowed His head when the pastor started in. He was quiet, candid, but sincere – exactly what you’d expect from a guy who’s good at getting by unnoticed. And He sat next to me on Sunday.

It didn’t take a powerful, inspirational sermon. I didn’t need a moment of deep meditation and prayer. And it certainly wasn’t one particular Bible verse that woke me up; it was simply God doing what He does best: sneaking His love in on you. If you aren’t careful, He’ll slip around your worries of debt and unemployment, hop right over that shameful act you did the other day at work, and glide right on through your depression. At that point, He’ll put His arm around you and start talking about baseball or what kind of sauce would go well with some pork ribs – even though He’s Jewish. You see, Christ’s casualness catches you off guard. It gives you what you need just before you realize you need it. And I think the beauty of it is it was meant to be contagious.

Brett Gilchrist, pastor of University Fellowship, spoke about what Christianity has become from his perspective. He said it’s more like a coffee-table sort of faith where you can pick it up like a magazine, get what you want out of it, and then move on to something else. It’ll give you health, wealth, and success all the while demanding next to nothing. Here in America, this is the perfect brand of Christianity.

What I’ve come to see as the problem for this particular brand, though, is that it doesn’t bring about lasting change. This kind of faith, like consumerism, needs the next big thing in order to survive. It needs something new, something fresh, to keep it going. A new pastor, a new devotional, a new worship song, a new whatever – only until something cooler comes along and then it gets put on the shelf as a souvenir, forever fated to collect dust.

I think Brett knew what kind of crowd he was speaking to on Sunday morning. I think he knew that quite a few of them weren’t regular church-goers; just bi-annual ones showing up on the important Christian days (Easter and the Sunday before Christmas). I think he knew because he talked about the true gospel of Jesus and what its call for us is. He chose Easter morning to remind everyone what it really means to follow Christ. And how it is not always convenient.

Jesus rose not so that two thousand years later we can eat a bunch of candy and chase after plastic eggs that some bunny laid (which is biologically confusing). He died, as Brett said, so that we could be saved. And it’s not just a spiritual salvation – Jesus didn’t die just for my soul. It isn’t like we can be “saved,” we can be with the “in” crowd, and then do whatever we want for the rest of our lives. Jesus died so that we could be a different kind of people – a new kind of man.

What is this new kind of man? Is it that Bible-thumping freak standing in public places calling people all sorts of names? Or how about that spiritual snob who emphasizes their church only and talks about other churches and Christians (or other lifestyles in general) in a condescending tone? Or what about the super spiritual person who’s always praying, reading Scripture, or worshipping? Is any one of these the new kind of man God is creating?

Not quite.

It’s often a human thing to say, “Well if it isn’t this, then it’s this.” We want to clarify and define with absolute certainty what “it” is, but we really can’t. We know it’s Jesus to some degree, but the moment we venture to say “Jesus hates gays,” He’ll be there drinking coffee with gay men and women the next morning. Whenever we so arrogantly say Jesus wouldn’t do this or that, He does it – not only to prove us wrong, but to spread His contagious love in spite of what we’re doing.

So what does Easter mean for the Christ-follower? Does it mean we have to amp up our knowledge of doctrines and Bible verses? Does it mean we have to constantly defend our theological beliefs? Does it mean we have to go on missions trips to convert the masses? Does it mean we have to commit ourselves to several Bible studies each week and attend multiple services every Sunday morning? Does it mean we have to become some sort of extreme Christians? It might… but I doubt it.

If you want to be a follower of Christ, then know this: You do not have to be excessive to be effective. Christ’s example from the Scriptures shows us that much. He sat with people, had meals with them, washed their feet, fed them, healed them – no matter the situation, He saw each individual’s unmet need. And He simply met that need.

And if you think this is something that can only be done by Jesus, then you’re entirely wrong:

“In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet.’ And the man sprang up and began to walk,” – Acts 14:8-10

Paul “intently” saw this man’s need and simply met it. What’s most important, though, is that Paul didn’t do this under his own power. He did this as a product of Christ being revealed to him. In other words, once Paul truly met Jesus, his world was changed, but so was the way he saw the world around him.

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else,” – C.S. Lewis

Committing (or re-committing) to Christ need not begin with an extreme experience; His fire does not require fireworks, but rather a match – something small, but with incredible capabilities. Such a match-sized experience could be simply opening your home for a meal, bringing some blankets to those homeless fellows on the corner, or even something so little as asking a coworker how their day has gone. It’s casual, but intentional – not prone to backing off when things get uncomfortable, but rather seeing them through. If you ask someone how you can help them, be ready to help – whatever that may require.

Easter is the simply the day Jesus proved His casual, intentional nature of love could conquer all. We celebrate it not just because “it’s what Christians do,” but because it reminds us of what we’re supposed to do. It reminds us why we’re even here in the first place. The only question we have remaining is: Do we want to wait until sunset to do something with our lives or do want to take advantage of the light while we have it?

God bless.

Uncharted Territory of Philosophy…

I am not a very philosophically-minded person. Studying English literature was a perfect fit because I feel I need textual evidence to lead and guide whatever ideas I may have. For almost all of my Christian walk, a certain text that has acted as the rudder to my ship has been, quite obviously, the Bible.

Yes, I disregard inerrancy as an essential lens through which to view Scripture, but I have not cast out Scripture altogether. I’ve always returned to the text for discussions about the text. Today, when I sat down for my bi-monthly Bible study with my pastor, I did not expect the indirect challenge I received.

For the past 2,000 years or so, there has been an on-going debate about whether or not God has absolute sovereignty or if free will reigns. I don’t know why, but I have never really seen the point of such a debate because no matter what I don’t ever see myself coming down conclusively on one side of the issue. So therefore, I usually never think through the issue because I believe it has no conclusion. It has nothing concrete to land on. But it was this very subject that came up in our discussion of Acts 12.

About in the middle of the chapter, Peter is freed from the prison guards. In verse 19, we see Herod punish the guards with a death sentence and, as one might be able to tell, it begged the question of why an all-knowing God would allow these prisoners to die (in fact, cause them to die!) so that Peter might escape? If God is truly all-knowing and all-powerful – as is assumed with the role of being completely sovereign – then surely there could have been another way and these prison guards didn’t have to die, did they?

An alternative outlook to passages such as this is to say that perhaps God, being all-powerful, forsook His omniscience and was therefore subject to making choices out of free will. What this says about this particular passage is that God gambled a little; He rescued Peter from the guards knowing their lives were at stake. But how could He have done so if He is truly an all-loving God? God being a gambler means He knowingly put these prison guards to death so that Peter could live on.

I have always believed there is a way where both free will and omniscience are present at the same time. I think of it kind of like the “already-not-yet” tension within the New Testament; God’s Kingdom is already here, but not yet completely here. There’s a difference between “contradiction” and “paradox”; one means two things are diametrically opposed while the other means two things merely appear to be opposed.

From our perspective as humans contemplating on the nature of the divine, I find there is a very large gap into understanding God’s full nature completely. I agree with my pastor that we should never stop trying to understand the way God works, but I find there is only so far one can go in this world – and Paul would agree:

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” – 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Philosophical questions give me headaches mostly because I cannot find much of an answer on my own. I need textual support. Drifting from certain lenses in how to interpret the Bible is one thing; drifting from the Bible altogether is entirely another. As I said to my pastor, it undermines Scripture’s authority; it suggests that it matters very little in the “real” things of life. He then suggested to me that I was being intellectually hypocritical.

I was attempting to differentiate denying inerrancy and denying Scripture; they are not the same thing to me. He pointed out that to many Christians it would be the same thing – that, in the act of denying inerrancy, you’re denying Scripture altogether, and, therefore, probably denying God! But now that I think about it, I’m wondering if I might have been a little hypocritical because I was being challenged to step outside my literary-fixed mind.

Essentially, this challenge boils down to Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” When I step away from Scripture to consider a question about God’s nature, I have a sudden feeling that I’m in danger of trusting my own opinion more than God’s Word (and by “Word” here, I’m referring to the Word which resides in our hearts and minds and is matched by proclamations and declarations in Scripture – that inner impression of God’s presence upon our hearts and souls that gets fed from when we read and study Scripture).

But what if it was the other way around? What if I was trusting in my own understanding in the act of sticking to the text of Scripture? What if God is waving me off the beaten path once more and I’m digging my heels in where I stand? And yet all the while I cannot help but notice that in considering where God is leading me, I’m using a passage from Scripture (Proverbs 3:5)!

Hopefully you see my dilemma. What do philosophical questions do for you? Questions like, “Can God create a rock He cannot lift?” or “Can God create a box He can’t look into?” Like nails scratching a chalk board, my soul cringes at the thought and compels me to say, “Who cares? God is God and you are but a man!” But some might say this is ignorance. And now I turn to my fellow bloggers: What do you think?

And please, help. These headaches do not go away very easily…

Was Philip Abducted by Aliens?

Studying the book of Acts has been refreshing. When I usually read through Scripture, Acts is one of those books that I know little about and doesn’t seem to have too much to impact my faith. Sure, there are plenty of passages I find moving and uplifting, but for the most part, I’d rather read a Gospel or one of Paul’s epistles.

But with my work schedule slowing down and no longer being heavily involved with a church, I’ve had some free time to study through Acts thoroughly. With at least three study Bibles and one commentary opened before me, I’ve strolled through the first eight chapters taking every detail in bit by bit. And then today, right at the end of chapter 8, something caught my attention:

“And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea,” – 8:39-40

Blame it on all the episodes of “X-Files” I watched as a kid or blame my ridiculous imagination, but when I read this verse I pictured Philip being abducted by a UFO and transplanted over in Azotus. Ancient versions of Skully and Mulder would arrive where he landed, ask him a few questions about what he saw, and then move on to the next piece of the mysterious puzzle. Maybe that’s what got Luke started on his investigation in the first place? Maybe he was just hanging out in Azotus one day, doing whatever it was ancient physicians did back then, and then saw Philip come out of nowhere? Unlikely and a bit ridiculous, but possible. Right?

In all seriousness, however, I’ve always wondered about this passage and what it does for one’s faith. Personally, I question whether or not it happened since, like Dr. Bart Ehrman writes in his Brief Introduction, ancient historians “generally had little concern for, and less chance of, getting everything ‘right,’ at least in terms of the high level of historical accuracy expected by modern readers,” (164). But beyond its historicity, a question I can try to answer is: What does it mean for Luke’s message in Acts?

Here is where I’m hoping you could help me out. I have little invested into the book of Acts, so I’m trying to see what spiritual value there might be in having Philip miraculously transported from one place to another (roughly twenty-some miles apart). What does this passage mean to you? How do you interpret what happened? Was it like Elijah being carried away or was it Luke’s simple explanation of how Philip got from one place to another so quickly?

Or was it aliens (insert audio file of the “X-Files” theme music)?

Thoughts?

Our Problem, God’s Solution…

Dr. Bart Ehrman has a book titled, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. I’ve never read this book, so I’m not going to make a counter-argument to what I think Ehrman would say after a title like this (although, I have read much of his other works and I know his perspective on the issue). What’s been on my mind for a while is the subject of human suffering while an all-powerful, loving God sits on the sidelines.

I alluded to this in my other post from today, but I wanted to expand a bit more here. The basic question that trips many people up – myself included – is why is there pain? Why is there so much suffering throughout the world if the God of the Bible is an all-powerful, loving God who could bring about absolute peace in an instant? It really is a frustrating question.

For me, I see it as more of a philosophical question than an argumentative one, though it could be both. At any rate, finding an answer to this question is extremely difficult because 1. It isn’t explicitly dealt with in Scripture and 2. To thoroughly answer it, we must have access to the foreknowledge of God, which – if we have any access at all – is extremely limited. Nevertheless, the question remains and we can’t avoid it.

A traditional way of answering this question breaks it into two parts; why is there suffering and why isn’t God doing anything about it?

Why is there suffering?

In general, many Christians refer back to the Fall of Man in Genesis 3; where Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and sin entered the world. At this point, many Christians say, “There’s your answer; that’s why human suffering exists.” I would say it’s a little more nuanced than this. For one thing, Genesis 1-11 may not be an historical account of the world’s beginnings. Nevertheless, the metaphor from this story is just as true and gives, essentially, the same answer: Humans can be selfish. Our selfishness, if consciously gratified, can bring about devastating consequences.

There is suffering because humanity has had a history of acting out of selfish desires here and there and the consequences have gotten worse and worse over a long period of time. We are part of the problem. Every time we gratify our carnal desires for money, food, sex, drugs, or whatever else our inclinations may be, we bring about consequences of pain and suffering not only for ourselves, but for the people around us as well. It may take years for these consequences to surface, but they do. And they hurt.

Why isn’t God doing anything about it?

In short, I believe He is. But, obviously, not in the way we want Him to. This entire issue of human suffering and God’s fix to the problem delves into the existence of free will. We are part of the problem because we have made terrible choices with our free will. God’s solution to the problem, however, also comes through our choices with our free will.

Right now I’m studying through the book of Acts. It’s a strange book when you consider all the others and their genres. Acts is in its own category altogether. It’s not entirely a Gospel because it doesn’t narrate the life and teachings of Jesus. And yet it’s not entirely a doctrinal or theological treatise like the epistles, either. What is it then?

It’s an account (sometimes a theological one, sometimes an historical one, etc.) of Jesus’ movement through His disciples after He has disappeared. It highlights the choices His disciples make (after walking with Him for only about 3 years) with their free will. They argued, backslid, and even sinned in their effort to consciously follow Jesus, but overall they began a movement that, whether you believe in Jesus or not, changed the world forever. What were the consequences of this movement? Well, not all of them were good, obviously. But a solution to human suffering is in motion.

The Book of Acts encapsulates God’s war on human suffering by utilizing the powerful weapon of human compassion. Jesus (or Emmanuel, “God With Us”) arrives into human history, as the Gospels portray, to live the life God wants each of His followers to consciously live. He loves the unlovable, serves the servants, touches the untouchables, and feeds the people no one, not even His disciples (they ask Jesus to “Send them away” – Mark 6:36), would dare to feed. He taught us to love God and love our neighbor.

But then He was crucified – killed by the very people He had shown compassion, mercy, and reckless love to. Why did God allow this to happen? So that the consequences of our sinful actions may no longer be passed down to human generation after human generation, but to Himself. He took what we deserved because He knew that if He didn’t, His solution to the problem would never have a chance of coming about.

Something else then happens: Jesus is raised from the dead. What happens here is that God defeated the consequences of sin (death) in His own death. As John Mark McMillan sings, He put “Death in his grave.” What this then enabled is what we see in the Book of Acts: God’s people empowered by His Spirit conquering the world not with violence and blood, but with service and love.

One might ask, “Well that’s all well and good, but God could just end human suffering, couldn’t He? He’s all-powerful, isn’t He?” True, but there’s a major oversight in this kind of questioning. It assumes, as far as I can see anyway, that the person asking it isn’t part of the problem. It assumes that he or she is, in fact, on the good side of it all – not partaking in causing someone else pain. But that is far from the truth. We all sin, therefore we are all part of the problem.

But the weapon that sin used to bring about this pain and suffering can be used to end it.

It’s a matter of choice.

“Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating. …

“Of course, God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently He thought it worth the risk. …If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings – then we may take it it is worth paying,” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

God pushed His chips all in when He created creatures with free will. But, ironically, in paying everything He had, He also set in motion the only possible way of ending this thing called pain. If left to ourselves, we are hopeless. We will all suffer even worse than what we have in the past and it will never end. But God has snuck in through the back door and has launched an underground attack using us as His double-agents: Though we once provoked sin and all its consequences, we can now end it entirely.

Why the delay? Why doesn’t God somehow accelerate the process? The way I see it, as Lewis says, God wants us willingly on board. He wants us to be part of the solution. He doesn’t want us to root for His team as band-wagon fans, but because we truly believe and have faith in what He can accomplish. He doesn’t want us to just root for His team, either; He wants us playing for it. He wants us getting our hands dirty with the work His mission requires. And if you pay any attention at all to the amount of human suffering in the world, you can tell there is quite a bit of work to do.

All of this, of course, is my best guess at the problem of pain and God’s delay in solving it. To me it remains a frustrating issue, but that might be because I, in my selfish desires, would rather have someone else do the dirty work instead of me. This is exactly the problem and in order for anything to change, it begins with the disease growing in our hearts.

Thankfully, though, we know a good Physician.

God bless.

Christian Baptism Part 1: John the Baptist…

“The Jews asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,’” – John 1:25-27

Baptism carried a great deal of significance in Jesus’ time. Notice, though, that “the Jews” aren’t questioning John because he is baptizing, but because he’s not “the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.” They don’t ask him, “Why are you dunking people in water?” This indicates to me that somewhere along the way the practice of baptizing people became the norm.

John the Baptist has stood as a seemingly-pivotal character in Christianity; he’s the forerunner for Christ – clearing the paths for Him, so to speak. The Gospel authors interpreted Isaiah 40:3 as speaking of John (while the small sect of Essenes located at Qumran interpreted this verse for themselves and their movement); “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” To the Gospel authors, John was a game-changer.

But what does his baptism mean? Can Christianity exist without it? Does John the Baptist even need to be a historical character in the Christian narrative? These are questions that drove most of my research for my Early Christianity class last winter. When it came time to write my paper, I didn’t get to talk much about John or his baptism since I was more focused on Christian baptism as a whole. But looking back over what I’ve studied, what I’ve written, and what I’ve read since last winter, I would have to say that John the Baptist is a fascinating character in Christianity.

Gerd Theissen offers interesting thoughts about John:

“His baptism is a symbolic action. And implicitly it has a political significance. If all Jews have to have themselves baptized again, the whole land is threatened with uncleanness. Here the question of cleanness is pointedly blown up – against a ruler who blatantly violated the commandments relating to cleanness in building his capital. John’s criticism of [Herod] Antipas’ marital politics also fits this picture. For Jewish marriage laws had been violated in this marriage. Here John the Baptist was merely articulating a widespread hostility to rulers who were increasingly alienating themselves from Jewish traditions,” – Pg. 35

To the Gospel authors, John’s baptism was something more than a political statement or a symbolic action; it was the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It was clearing the way for Jesus. But historically speaking, as plenty of scholars have discussed, John the Baptist and Jesus may have never had any contact with each other whatsoever. This idea is shocking to the average Bible-believing Christian, but hypothetically speaking, the Gospel authors could have adopted John and his baptism into the narrative of early (or as Theissen likes to say, “primitive”) Christianity. The encounters we see in the Gospels may have been creative insertions into the historical facts in order to get at the deeper picture: Many thought John was the Messiah or that his baptism was powerful; but Jesus supersedes him.

If it had been the center of my research paper, I would have argued that John didn’t need to be “preparing the way” for Jesus; He could have believed that he was waiting for someone else and Jesus surprised him as well. Case in point, re-read Matthew 11:2-3; “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Many interpret this as John simply doubting his earlier convictions about Jesus (especially if we take Luke 1:41-44 as historically true), but what if he was discovering for the first time, here in Matthew 11 (or in Luke 7:18-35) that Jesus was the Messiah he had been waiting for all along? It changes things a little, doesn’t it? It describes John the Baptist with a little more humanity than what we might have been taught in Sunday school, doesn’t it?

Then what meaning can be found in his baptism if he had little or no communication with Jesus? If he was unaware that he was “preparing the way” for Jesus, then what good is his baptism? Mark’s Gospel (believed to be the earliest of all the Gospels – except for maybe Q, but that’s for another post) gives a pretty clear description of why John was baptizing: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (1:4). Much like his Jewish relatives at Qumran, John was enacting a symbolic action of repentance.

What does it mean, though, for Christianity? I think it means quite a bit: It was the model early Christians used to signify their death with Jesus (and to their sins) and rise to life with Jesus (and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit). Of course this took a long time to get worked out in Christianity because we religious folk like to disagree on a lot of things, but without the model of John’s baptism of repentance, it may not have had much of an affect for the early readers to follow Christ. What I mean is, it’s quite possible that the early readers knew who John the Baptist was and if his work was interpreted as the beginning of Christianity, then the early followers might be much more convinced to follow.

I do not mean to imply that John the Baptist’s role in Christianity was entirely made up by the Gospel authors. John’s historicity is just as probable as Jesus’; Josephus talks (I think) more about John the Baptist than he does Jesus (he barely mentions Jesus). What I do mean to say is that John may not have had contact with Jesus and/or may not have believed Jesus was the Messiah he was prophesying about. Either way; John’s baptism was eventually done away with – even though it was the blueprint to Christian baptism.

Why was it done away with? Jesus had arrived. In John’s Gospel we see John the Baptist’s departure begin very early. Jesus had been teaching His disciples to baptize and happened to be doing so in eyesight of John. John’s disciples asked him why and he famously says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (3:30). To John the Gospel author, John the Baptist knew his time had come and his purpose was fulfilled.

And yet even to the author of Luke and Acts we see John’s baptism superseded by a baptism “into Christ.” In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters former disciples of John and says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus,” and then proceeds to baptize them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (19:4-5). This is one passage I highlighted for discussion in my paper, so I’ll save most of the talk about it for the next post(s) (although, it’s worth pointing out that Paul never talks about this incident in his letters). But suffice it to say, when Jesus had died and then resurrected three days later, John’s baptism was no longer needed. It had served its purpose.

Theissen’s suggestion of political implications is still highly plausible. In fact, all of the elements discussed here (symbolism, political statements, allusions to Jesus, etc.) could be present in John’s baptism. I believe this is the beauty of the Scriptures we read; they’re so incredibly nuanced (layered in meaning) that they never run out of life. And I don’t think God intended them to, either.