Sunday, August 26, 2012

Meditations in John Chapter 8 – XI

“Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death…Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.”

Three of the primary colors of the kaleidoscope which is the Gospel of John are the Divinity of Jesus, eternal life, and the resurrection. The latter two flow out of the first one; it is because Jesus is God that those who come into a relationship with Him have eternal life, a life that is fully expressed in the resurrection of the dead. This is a resurrection that begins today and ends, at God’s appointed time, tomorrow; the tomorrow in which the resurrection trumpet is blown is the last tomorrow, for beyond that tomorrow is a new day without end, without tomorrows. The new day is both the previous day’s tomorrow and a new eternal never-ending day.  

In Jesus Christ we experience eternal life today because we are in Him and He is in us. This life is Jesus, being joined to Jesus. The relationship of Eden is more than restored, its consummation is inaugurated, its fullness is initiated. Jesus’ point to Martha and Mary is, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life, he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” Yes, Jesus is the Resurrection tomorrow, but He is first the Resurrection right now. Mary and Martha believe that if Jesus had been there that Lazarus would not have died; they also believe that Lazarus would be raised on the last day. What they have not yet seen is that Jesus is the Resurrection, that He is I AM; that “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.”

Jesus comes to offer a dying people life and is rejected by most of them. He can offer them life because of who He is – God. Only God can give eternal life, and here is the God of Sinai, here is the God of Abraham, condescending to men and women, fulfilling the promises to the Fathers, and He is rejected. The fulfillment of the covenants and promises, the One who Moses and the prophets spoke of, is before their very eyes and He is rejected. The Burning Bush is before them, for if a bush on fire and not consumed is a miracle, how much greater the miracle of Jesus Christ; a man without sin; without sin of action or sin of motive or sin of thought; a man pure and holy; a man in whom His ever-watchful enemies can find no fault; a man with the compassion of God, the righteousness of God, the love of God, the truth of God, the light of God, the judgment of God – God Incarnate, oh what a Man! Surely this exceeds the Burning Bush in majesty and mystery.

Jesus begins in verse 12 with, “I Am the light of the world”, He ends in verse 58 with, “Before Abraham was, I Am.”

The Creator of the Universe, the Creator and Father of mankind, the Giver of the covenants, appears in Jerusalem and proclaims Himself just as He proclaimed Himself on Sinai, and we attempt to stone Him. He offers us life and we offer Him death.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Meditations in John Chapter 8 – X

“Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’…Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My Father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him; and if I say that I do not know Him, I will be a liar like you, but I do know Him and keep His word.” [From John Chapter 8.]

The Jews reiterate the charge that Jesus has a demon (vv. 48 and 52). His claims are too much for them, and since they cannot convict Him of sin, they charge Him with having a demon. Does this make sense? They can find nothing actually wrong with Jesus; in verse 46 Jesus asks, “Which of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak the truth, why do you not believe me?” They’ve been watching Him for three years, scrutinizing Him, having Him under surveillance; yet they can find no fault in Him so they turn to groundless accusation, name-calling – when there is nothing substantive to accuse a person of name-calling is the fallback position. Surely if Jesus had a demon they would have a ground of accusation.

The first 11 verses of the chapter fit nicely into the trajectory of verses 12 – 59, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” (verse 7). In the first 11 verses the woman’s accusers admit by their refusal to stone her that they have sin, and then we have the Sinless One setting her free to sin no more. In verses 12 – 59 those around Jesus, and specially those who had unconsummated belief in Him, when confronted with their own sin adamantly refused to admit they were in slavery to sin, and in rejecting their need for deliverance from sin attacked the One they were believing in; first attacked Him with accusation and then sought to attack Him with stones. The first 11 verses provide the first bracket of an inclusio in that the woman’s accusers sought to stone her (v. 5) just as the accusers of Jesus sought to stone Him (v. 59). The chapter begins with one in sin threatened with stoning by others in sin; the chapter ends with sinful accusers attempting to stone the One without sin. Fallen humanity stones one another and it stones God. God’s offense? He is holy. We accuse God of being a devil because He is holy and righteous and pure and we can’t stand Him; we treat the devil like God because the wicked one gives us what we want and feeds our self-righteousness. We would rather be in slavery and self-righteous than be free and live by the righteousness of Another.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Meditations in John Chapter 8 – IX

The Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not rightly say that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me,” John 8:48 – 49.

The conversation between Jesus and “those Jews who had believed Him” (verses 30 – 31) continues its downward trajectory; the anger builds against Jesus – they accuse Jesus of having a demon, they also accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan. Jesus rejects the charge of having a demon and reiterates His identification with the Father; Jesus does not respond directly to the assertion that He is a Samaritan – for no response is needed; in fact, by allowing the assertion to stand Jesus is responding.

Every society, every subgroup in every society, has some element, some social group, which is looked down upon by others. This is the nature of sin in fallen humanity. Fallen man needs someone to look down upon in order to feel self-righteous, in order to feel justified, in order to feel better. Other groups can be perceived as threats to social or economic stability; their customs and traditions can be seen as strange and threatening. When religion is thrown into the mix differences can become volatile. The Jews looked down upon the Samaritans and would have nothing to do with them; interesting that Jesus uses a Samaritan as the good neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan; interesting that we have Good Samaritan laws that protect people who in good faith render assistance to those in need. Jesus chose to use a member of the untouchables (from the Jewish point-of-view) to portray what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

In John Chapter 8 Jesus is accused of having a demon and being a Samaritan; Jesus rejects the charge of having a demon, He does not reject the accusation of being a Samaritan.

The Samaritan accusation by the Jews is a logical result of the discussion’s trajectory, it stems from a denial by the Jews that they are in slavery to sin; it stems from their self-righteous insistence that they are Abraham’s children and have never been in slavery to anyone. Self-righteousness breeds judgment of others, and since the Samaritans were the lowest of the low the Jews accuse and judge Jesus as having not only a demon, but also of being a Samaritan. Jesus does not counter by saying, “I am not a Samaritan, I am descended from Abraham and David, I was born in Bethlehem.”

Jesus does not reject the Samaritan accusation because He is, of course, a Samaritan, just as He is an Arab, or an Iranian, or Irish, or German, or Zulu, or Navaho, or Korean – Jesus is the Son of Man, He came to indentify with all of us and each of us. To reject the Samaritan accusation would be to reject His mission and His incarnation and His Father – for His Father is the Father of us all (Ephesians 3:14 – 15).

But what about us? What about me? What about you? Do we identify with others outside our socioeconomic class? Outside our racial and ethnic class? Outside our religious tradition and thinking? Our political thinking? Or do we use various divides to justify ourselves, to protect ourselves, to isolate ourselves? Do we paint others as evil, as undesirable, as unlovable – and ourselves as good and righteous? If we were accused of being the equivalent of a Samaritan would we refute the charge or let it stand, knowing that in Christ we are called to identify with all humanity and to be broken bread and poured out wine to every person?

The following is something I’ve shared more than once over the years; it bears repeating:

When I was in seminary and Vickie and I lived in Beverly, MA, north of Boston, we both used to take the commuter train into Boston; Vickie on a daily basis and I on those days when I worked in the city (I had part-time jobs throughout seminary). The regulars on the train platform were generally men and women either dressed in suits or dressed “business casual”. The same women and men were there day after day, traveling to and from Boston. There was, however, a marked exception to the suit and business-casual crowd, his name was George. George was disheveled, often wore clothes that appeared to be strangers to soap and water…and perhaps worst of all…it wasn’t unusual for George to smell…stink is a better word. George’s scent radiated a good six feet or more, it was a danger zone to the nicely-dressed crowd.

I still see the platform, George on one end, the crowd on the other. But wait, there is someone else over there by George, over by him on a regular basis. The person is talking to him and listening to him. Who is it? Let’s take a closer look, it must be the seminary student, he must be working today. But no, it isn’t him, he is over with the crowd; well then, who is with George? Why it’s Vickie, the seminary student’s wife, she’s the one over by George on a regular basis, even though she’s wearing a suit or is business casual everyday on the platform. Doesn’t she know? Doesn’t she get it? She belongs back with the crowd, what’s wrong with her?

God used my wife to deal with my pride and vanity on that platform, it wasn’t the first time and I pray it won’t be the last. Hopefully we all have Georges in our lives, I say hopefully because hopefully we are not isolated from humanity. Will we identify with others no matter what rest of society may think of them? Will we bear the jeers and sneers and snobbery and judgments of others to identify with the Samaritans of this world? Will we be the Presence of Christ in a broken world?  If we were accused of being the equivalent of a Samaritan would we refute the charge or let it stand, knowing that in Christ we are called to identify with all humanity and to be broken bread and poured out wine to every person?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Learning and Study Bibles

As I awoke this morning in contemplation of tonight’s small group focus on the Gospel of John it occurred to me that in school, whether elementary or graduate, no teacher ever gave us the answers. No textbook ever had the answers. Oh I suppose some books had answers to exercise questions in the back of the book or of the chapter, but those answers were to be consulted after the exercises. The point is that we weren’t taught by being given the answers and we didn’t learn by being provided answers before doing our work.

Also, simply giving the teacher an answer often wasn’t enough, we had to either demonstrate the answer, as in math or science, or we had to give a reason for our answer, as in civics or history or literature.

And yet…and yet…we encourage Christians to use Study Bibles that have the answers. I’m not speaking of historical or geographical notations, I’m talking about interpretative answers. This approach is not designed to encourage learning and engagement it is often designed to sell books. Its result is monetary success for publishers and arrested development for the reader. How can it be that Christians who have been reading the Bible for decades haven’t been reading the Bible? Often it is because they have never read the Bible except through the lens of someone else’s commentary. The benchmark is not growth in Christ, it is not learning the Bible in fellowship with other Christians; it is rather whether or not the Christian spouts the correct answers to questions; the correct answers are often defined by the subculture in which the Christian finds himself.

We don’t just want instant coffee and microwave pizza (ugh!), we want instant Biblical understanding. This is nuts. One may learn data this way, but one does not develop this way. Speaking of coffee, some folks take longer to brew a nice carafe of French Press than they take to ponder a Biblical passage. They’ve learned that French Press is better than instant coffee but they haven’t learned that direct engagement with the Scripture is better than instant interpretive answers to Biblical passages.

When is the last time a Sunday School class or a small group engaged the Scripture without an intermediary in the form of a Study Bible or a Bible study book driving the interaction? It is rare, chances are we’ll sight Nessie before we sit in a group of Christians who are willing to wrestle with the Biblical text. We really don’t have Bible studies, we have studies of books or notes about the Bible.

I suppose I should say, to try to mitigate misunderstanding, that I am not opposed to commentaries and other Bible helps. What I am opposed to is using “helps” prior to engagement with the Scripture. It is only after we have wrestled and struggled and submitted ourselves to the Biblical text that we should consult the writings of others and then those writings should be in context – not in the form of “notes” – how can someone touch the depth and sacredness of Scripture with a note here and a note there?

Nor am I suggesting that learning is individual and isolated; while we need individual engagement with Scripture we also desperately need collective engagement for we are the Body of Christ. We grow individually and we grow collectively – they are reciprocal. One of the beauties of life is to witness people learning and growing together – it is wonderful outside the Kingdom, it is exhilarating within the Kingdom.

Psalm 1
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers!  But his delight is in the law of the Lord,  and in His law he meditates day and night.  He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but they are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Danger of Chapter Breaks

More than once I’ve been amazed at how I miss context by stopping at a chapter break. Here is one for you:

John 13:38: Jesus answered, Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.

Then the chapter ends. Of course the original New Testament did not have chapter breaks, no chapters, no verses – those came centuries later. While chapters and verses have their place in that they give us a system of coordinates to refer to, I’m not sure that they haven’t done more harm than good. Perhaps better to have numbered paragraphs or lines or sentences? Or maybe perhaps better not to have any system of coordinates – that might make us actually learn the Scriptures.

John 14:1: Do not let your heat be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so I would have told you…

Notice that John 14:1 does not begin with, “Jesus said”. This is a continuation of John 13:38, “Jesus answered…”

Here Peter is hearing about his impending denial, and others are hearing that one of the leading apostles is going to deny Jesus – no matter what their bravado might have been, the words of Jesus must have been disconcerting to Peter and his fellow apostles. But Jesus doesn’t stop with John 13:38, Jesus doesn’t know about the chapter break, Jesus continues: Do not let your heart be troubled…

Whatever our failings in the moment, those whom the Father has drawn to Jesus will remain in Jesus; whether we stumble and fall or worse, yes, even should we in our fear deny Him as He stands before a kangaroo court – He is going to prepare a place for us and He will come again and live in us, and we will live in Him. In the darkness of denial Jesus says: Do not let your heart be troubled.

When we come to a chapter break in Scripture, before we stop at the break, let’s do our best to ensure that we aren’t stopping too soon; let not a chapter break constitute a break in our understanding.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Meditations in John Chapter 8 – VIII

I know that you are Abraham’s descendants….If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God, this Abraham did not do…You are doing the deeds of your father…If God were your father you would love me…You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. [Excerpted from John 8.]

This is a dangerous passage because they contain words that only God can speak but which man too often presumptuously speaks. In only the rarest of rare occasions might we hear a man speak these words, and then in fear and trembling being moved by the Holy Spirit – so it is better to say that only God can speak these words and if a rarest of rare occasion should come upon us let us trust God to help us negotiate it in humility and sorrow knowing that presumption on own part is grounds for our own conviction. Only God knows the hearts of men and women.

It is dangerous enough to judge others, it is far more dangerous to attribute the parentage of others to the devil; these are words only God can speak.

Those whom Jesus is addressing are Abraham’s children one minute and the next minute they are not. Paul helps our understanding in Romans Chapter 9:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendents, but: THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED. That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendents.

Paul also writes to the Galatians: For you are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

If Jesus’ audience had no warrant to trust in its genealogy, perhaps we should take care not to trust in our traditional or current affinities. Being members of a spiritual or religious culture, no matter how correct in doctrine and practice, is not the same as having a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

The evil in the world as expressed in John 8 is clothed in religious garb. This is not evil as we normally think of evil; and indeed evil has many forms – some hideous to the eye, all hideous to the heart. Some forms of evil would have us think that all religion is evil; some religion would have us think that all ways of living other than its particular way are evil. As in this chapter, so in all of life’s chapters, the Person of Jesus Christ is the line of demarcation.

Sometimes things are as they appear; sometimes they are not as they appear. There are those who profess Christ but who perpetrate evil; there are those who make no explicit profession of Christ but who are merciful and gracious. There are those who have heard the Gospel yet who live like devils; there are those who have never heard the Gospel and yet live like saints. There are tensions in life that only find their resolution before God’s judgment seat.

Betsey and Corrie ten Boom, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and others witnessed concentration camp guards with hearts filled with sustained merciless evil turn to Christ in repentance. Despite appearances, those guards had appointments with redemption. And yet there are others, whether appearing in overt wickedness or in the garb of religious or social respectability, that have no such appointment with redemption; while on the one hand we acknowledge this reality on the other we admit it is beyond our understanding. We must never underestimate evil, but we must also never forget that evil is no match for God Almighty.

The context of John 8 is the Temple; it is not a heroin den, nor a sex-slave house, nor a field of genocide, nor an executive board room ruled by the dollar; the context is the Temple. One only has to read the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation if one wants to see what evil looks like in the church; some of the evil is apparent, some of the evil is not – some of the evil in the Seven Churches is only seen by the piercing eyes of Christ. Let us not forget that the Laodicean church was an affluent church – so much for the health and wealth Gospel, but also so much for any Gospel which is defined by economics – including an economic class’s status quo. When Christians speak more of the economy than they do of the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ what do we tell the world about where our hearts are? About where our treasure is?

The words of Jesus Christ in John 8 do not lead me to wonder about others, they confront me with myself.