The synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) portray Jesus’ ministry as an inexorable journey of Jesus to Jerusalem where he enters the city in triumph on Palm Sunday. “Hosanna!” the people shout. Their king, the Messiah, has arrived, bringing with him great expectations. Yet, as we know, actual events were not what the people expected. Jesus did not take the throne, nor did he inaugurate a new political structure based in justice and peace. Instead, he was arrested and executed as a common criminal. We can only imagine the disappointment of his followers on Good Friday. Not only were their expectations disappointed, but the man they looked to (yes, they saw him as a human being) died in disgrace. Their hopes for their future and their confidence in this man both lay in tatters before the Cross.
Palm Sunday is thus a day of hope, and yet also a day of impending despair. Through its lens, our hopes for the imminent Kingdom appear to be misplaced.
And yet, to this story of temporal disappointment, John adds an important perspective that offers hope.
The Gospel of John is clearly different from the other three. He focuses not on Jesus’ temporal ministry, but on the spiritual nature of that ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, he tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He emphasizes the eternal presence of Jesus.
John tells us,
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11)
In the very next chapter, Chapter 2, John tells us that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” where he cleansed the temple (John 2:14ff). Yet it is not until Chapter 12 that Jesus enters Jerusalem as King (John 12:12ff). Clearly this diverges from the accounts of the synoptic Gospels. But if we concern ourselves with the historical issue of chronology (Did Jesus go to Jerusalem before Palm Sunday or not?), we miss the point. John is telling us something deeper than names, dates, and historical facts: Though we as humans perceive Jesus’ ministry as linear, though we perceive his entry into Jerusalem as a triumphal and climactic event, he was already there, just as he was already among us before his birth. But we couldn’t recognize him.
Why does this matter? Because it says something important about the Kingdom of God as well. The synoptic Gospels portray Jesus preaching that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (e.g. Mark 1:15). Other translations use the words “at hand” or “nigh.” The implication is that the Kingdom is imminent. We can reach out and touch it. And yet we can’t see it. Clearly the Kingdom is not the driving force in this broken world of ours. Paul expected the Kingdom to be established before his death (e.g. 1 Thess 4:15). And people have been waiting expectantly for it for two millennia.
We’re still waiting.
But John gives us another perspective. He tells 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… 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.“ (John 18:36-37)
John uses the word “kingdom” very infrequently, choosing instead the language of “abiding” and “being.”
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:18-21)
“You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:3-5)
And yet John’s vision is not of a group of disciples who sit around, content to abide in Jesus:
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12)
For John, Jesus is the King, and belief in Jesus brings us into the Kingdom. Yet there is an expectation that being in the Kingdom will motivate and empower us to do the works that Jesus did. He leaves it for the synoptic Gospels to describe those works in detail. The point is, in a very real sense, for John, the Kingdom is now.
We, the readers, are human. We cheer as Jesus enters Jerusalem, waving our palm fronds, anticipating the inauguration of the Kingdom. Our hopes are dashed on Good Friday, and renewed on Easter. We look forward to that day in the future when the Kingdom is fulfilled.
And yet, like Jesus himself, it is already here.
There are bones everywhere. Can you see them?
I see the bones of a 17-year-old girl who overdosed last week in Massachusetts. I see the bones of the lonely man who picked up a gun– and the bones of his victims. I see the bones of the suicides, and the mentally ill. I see the bones of Ammon Bundy and Mark Baumer. I see the bones of those who could not afford health care, and still can’t.
I see the bones of men and women who fought for our leaders– but for what?
I see the bones of Michael Sharp, and of Patrice Lamumba.
We are surrounded by bones. Can you see them?
I see the bones of Lazarus spread across a valley. “I am the Resurrection,” Jesus said– and Lazarus breathed again.
How long will we be a people of death?
“I am the life,” said Jesus.
When will we listen?
My God is a God of life. He stretches out his arm to us, and we slap it away.
When will we learn that greed is death, selfishness is death, and isolation is death? Let those who have ears listen! But we do not listen. The cries are too loud–in the cities, in the rural places, in the nations who plead with us for justice.
A thousand channels is not freedom. A thousand restaurants is not prosperity. The best doctor is not health. A broken dream is not life. The body is not the soul.
There are bones everywhere. When will we preach the breath of life?
This post is for a friend of mine who is an atheist, who believes in science, and who is currently suffering. He is resistant to the idea of God. My purpose in writing is to suggest some thoughts that may encourage speculation beyond science. Let me be clear: I believe in science. I accept that evolution is real, since the scientific evidence seems to suggest it. I find anti-evolutionist arguments occasionally thought provoking, but rarely convincing.
On the other hand, I don’t believe that science is the last word. It explains our physical world–for the most part. It surely has gaps in it that may or may not be filled some day. But it fails to explain why some of the amazing aspects of creation came into being. And it fails to explain anything beyond the physical world.
Let me start with an example: how is it that the material on which life depends is “coincidentally” the only material I am aware of that has the property of being lighter as a solid than as a liquid at temperatures that support life (as we know it). That material is, of course, water, and this property allows complex ecosystems to survive in temperatures at which water freezes. If it didn’t do this, lakes would freeze from the bottom up, killing much of what lived in their waters. A partial list of other materials with this property are silicon, gallium, germanium, bismuth, plutonium, and sand, which do not in any way lend this property to the support of life as we know it.
Is consciousness really just a series of chemical reactions in the brain? How, then, do we explain the experience many of have had of a dog or cat sensing our mood changes, even from another room? (We once had a goat that had this ability, too.)
How do we explain people who can read another person’s thoughts, and those who sometimes know the future?
Science itself admits that it can’t explain some of what it sees. A team once did a long-term study of nuns in an attempt to discover why they didn’t get Alzheimer’s Disease with the same frequency as the general population. Over the course of many years, they discovered (through autopsies) that the nuns did in fact get Alzheimer’s with the same frequency, or at least their brains showed the physical effects of deterioration. Yet they didn’t manifest symptoms. The only explanation they could find was the effect of constant prayer, which of course they could neither define nor measure in a scientific way.
Moreover, the majority of double-blind studies on intercessory prayer have shown that it improves healing. A fascinating article on the NIH website suggests:
Although the very consideration of such a possibility may appear scientifically bizarre, it cannot be denied that, across the planet, people pray for health and for relief of symptoms in times of sickness. Healing through prayer, healing through religious rituals, healing at places of pilgrimage and healing through related forms of intervention are well-established traditions in many religions.
Cha et al. found that the women who had been prayed for had nearly twice as high a pregnancy rate as those who had not been prayed for (50 vs. 26%; P <0.005). Furthermore, the women who had been prayed for showed a higher implantation rate than those who had not been prayed for (16.3 vs. 8%; P <0.001). Finally, the benefits of prayer were independent of clinical or laboratory providers and clinical variables. Thus, this study showed that distant prayer facilitates implantation and pregnancy…
Lesniak found that the prayer group animals had a greater reduction in wound size and a greater improvement in hematological parameters than the control animals. This study is important because it was conducted in a nonhuman species; therefore, the likelihood of a placebo effect was removed.
The authors raise some important issues on the study of prayer within scientific context, some of which have a theological nature (i.e. does it matter which God is prayed to; does God have limitations?). They conclude that a satisfactory scientific study is virtually impossible because of the variety of religions, assumptions, and theological questions. Nevertheless, they do not discount the idea that prayer is beneficial.
And how do we explain noncorporeal entities? In my own life, I’ve encountered two ghosts, dozens of earth spirits (I call them fairies), and innumerable dark spirits that I refer to as demons. My wife tells of encountering a skinwalker. At present, there is no means in science to explain (or even study) these, because so far as I know there is no way to empirically measure them. And yet my experience, even as an infant when I didn’t yet know what such things were, is that they exist.
It seems to me that we exist in a physical world, and yet not only in a physical world. We potentially have access to a realm beyond the physical which is as yet immeasurable through physical science. Yet our post-enlightenment culture discourages us from taking seriously anything that can’t be explained through science and logic. Is that logical? There are enough experiences and enough questions to suggest that it isn’t. By no means do we need to discard science. We don’t discard accounting just because it fails to address the issues of humanity, and neither do most of us suggest that such issues don’t exist because accounting can’t address them. We don’t discard music or art just because they fail to explain science, nor do we deny science on that basis. And we shouldn’t discard our search for knowledge of the physical world. But neither should we presume that the physical world is all we have just because that’s all science can explain.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:34-40
I was reflecting on Matthew 25 today, and something struck me: When the king addresses those on his right hand, commending them for feeding him, those on his right hand give an interesting response:
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
They don’t say, “Yes, Lord, I did as you commanded.” They don’t say, “Yes, Lord, that was a demonstration of my faith.” They don’t say, “Yes, Lord, I did good works expecting your reward.”
No, they ask, “When did I do that?”
If these people didn’t do it to please Jesus, or to get into Heaven, why did they do it? One could argue that they did it because it was right. But I think there’s a more important reason that we can find elsewhere in the Bible.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:8-10
We were born again in Christ precisely to do these things. Or, put another way:
They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts… Romans 2:15a
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds…” Hebrews 10:16
Those on his left do these things because grace causes God’s law to be written on our hearts. We’re not looking for wiggle room. We’re following God’s law because it is the inevitable response to grace.
What can we say, then, when we claim to have received God’s grace but we don’t do as Jesus commanded?
I know my response: When I don’t do as Jesus commanded, I haven’t fully accepted God’s grace. And I want to fully accept it.
Matthew 25 seems to be a benchmark for our grace. It would be easy to run around doing works to prove that we’ve received grace, but that’s not the point. God knows our hearts, and he knows when we’re lying. The point is that when we fully accept God’s grace, we do these things automatically. There’s no thought to reward or glory.
There’s another paradox in the passage: Jesus came to save the world, and yet he rebukes (and condemns those who haven;t done as he commanded:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matthew 25:45-46
There is no expectation here that everyone will be saved. Not everyone has the will to be a Christian.
Now I’m going to make a radical suggestion– radical because we don;t want to hear it, not because it departs from the message of the Bible:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
Contrary to what I’ve sometimes been told, just professing Jesus is not enough. If we fully accept God’s grace, his law will be written on our hearts and we will behave accordingly. We’ll confess our sins, repent and renounce them. And we will serve the Lord and no one else.
I have a confession to make: I only recently became a Christian. It happened on August 11, 2016, to be exact.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been reading the Bible for years. I did my best to follow the teachings of Jesus. I professed Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.
But there was still something missing.
I didn’t know this until last August. My family had been plagued by demons for several years, and in the course of our deliverance, I discovered two things were missing from my faith. One seems obvious now: I had not yet accepted forgiveness for my past sins, some of which I thought were unforgivable.
The other was less obvious: I was still a sinner, and I failed to confess my current sins.
I should rephrase that. I am still a sinner. I continually fall short of what God wants for me. I suffer from sloth, fear, and doubt. Occasionally I fall into greed and gluttony. And selfishness is a regular companion. What’s more, I act on these defects of character with alarming frequency.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
Whether I can, in this life, be cleansed of all unrighteousness is a matter for debate that I will not go into here. My point is, it hasn’t happened yet. And confession is the means by which I bring my sin before God and ask for his forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
Having unconfessed sins separates me from God. It also provides a gateway for demons, those evil spirits whose torment I would in the future like to avoid.
[C]onfess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
Often I find it necessary to confess my sins directly to God, in order to do so in a timely manner. However, I find it much more beneficial to confess in the presence of another Christian. Shared confession, like shared prayer, is powerful. And, so far as I know, each person I have chosen to share my confession with has accepted it with respect and confidentiality. The relationship between sincere believers is also powerful.
As I encounter other Christians in the world, I am often amazed that confession is so little talked about. Most admit to being sinners, yet to hear them talk, it is as if they never sin. They seem to see no need for confession. Maybe they don’t sin. I’m not here to judge, though John’s letter strongly suggests that they may be overlooking something.
Some tell me that their sins are forgiven– as indeed they are, but only after they have been confessed.
Some look at me blankly, as if the idea of sin never occurred to them.
So here is my invitation to you:
Consider the three passages below, honestly asking yourself if your life reflects them as fully as you believe the Bible intends.
[T]he righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:9)
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? (James 2:19-20)
If the answer is yes, ask yourself again. If it is still yes, congratulations. You’re a better Christian than I am.
But if, as I suspect is true with most of us if we get honest, the answer is that we fall short, I invite you to find a suitable person and confess your sins. Because that’s part of the deal God made with us, part of the New Covenant. And it’s also a way to become closer to God.
I’ve tried it both ways. Living in confession is better.
Two weeks ago, I received a powerful vision, both visual and verbal. Some of it was personal, including some specific instructions. Some of it was communal. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but I’ve decided to share the parts that are not personal in nature:
I am the root and the branch; I am the seed and the seedling. I am the dark and the light. At my command, the rains come and the sun appears. I am, and there is no other. Wherefore then do you ask, “Why?” I am the why, and the what, and the how. In the sunset see my hand, and likewise in the dawn. I am the soil and the sky, and I am the flame that burns in all life. Above all, I am love, for without me there can be no love any more than there can be breath. You, created in my image, were made to love. Go, then, and love this world as I do—every person, every beast, every plant, every river, stone, and mountain, for they are mine as you are mine. Love them as I love you, for so I love them also.
The land burns, therefore flee to the water. Immerse yourself in it and let it wash over you. Let it cleanse your heart, for when the fire has passed there will be new life, a new world built on the old foundation. Walk in it with wonder, my children! Walk in it with innocence and awe! For as it once was, so it shall be again: all things made new. For I will burn away the scourge of greed and cunning, of fear and violence, of self-centeredness and self-reliance. I will do a new thing, such as has not been done since the beginning, and you, my children, will have another chance. The slate will be wiped clean of all your sins, if only you will confess them and renounce them.
Look how high they are heaped! Like straw waiting for the fire they choke the fields. Like refuse they clog the streets and even the rivers! Leave them behind! Then you may be spared when the fire does its purifying work.
But woe to you who cling to the old ways, the ways of sin, who say “Lord, I am forgiven” for that which they do not confess aloud! Do you not know that promise goes two ways? Would you not divorce a spouse who is unfaithful time and time again? “I love you,” she says in the morning, but where is she in the evening? When she thinks I am not looking, does she not get drunk on the wine of her lovers? She sings to me, but she dances with them. “But surely,” she says, “he does not know.”
Unfaithful bride! You come to me, and I smell stale wine from when you drank with them, the blood from when together you slaughtered my lambs for your feast, and the scent of a luxurious perfume that I did not give you. You still wear gold jewelry given to you by those you lie with! No, you have no shame.
And yet I love you still, for the bride that you once were.
This, then, is what you shall do if you wish to reclaim my covenant: get up from that soft chair in which you lounge. Strip from your body your soiled clothes and the jewelry given to you by your lovers, and lay them on the straw outside. Walk naked to the water—yes, naked in your shame—and cleanse yourself of the stench of your adulteries.
And as you cleanse, I will burn the straw with all the evidence of your unfaithfulness. Then return to me, washed and born anew—for then your nakedness will be innocence—and I will clothe you. Sit at my table and I will feed you. Embrace me, and I will love you. Look only to me, and my covenant with you shall not be annulled, and it shall last forever.
And as for you, mortal, it is time for you to choose. Too long you have walked the line between us. You see her unfaithfulness, yet you beg me to have mercy. It is by her own hand that mercy will be gained or lost. And you, still by her side, do you excuse her harlotry? You have seen her wear the crown and turban of her lovers, and still you would stay my hand?
Choose, mortal, choose! For if you stand by her in her iniquity, you shall suffer her fate. Beg indeed, but not of me! Beg the drunkard to give up her wine, the harlot to give up her lovers and their gifts. Take her, then, to the water and wash her, if she will. But do not look to me, for her future is of her own choosing.
“What if Jesus is Lord?” I’m not asking whether he is, but rather what does it mean that he is? We’re Americans. We abolished lords over 240 years ago. What does it mean to us to have a lord?
Our relationship with authority is somewhat different than what people of Jesus’ time experienced. We pledge our allegiance, pay our taxes, and rely on the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”– rights we consider inalienable to us, but which were unknown to anyone in the ancient world. We don’t even have the draft anymore. The vast majority of Americans do not serve and have not served this nation actively in any way. It’s not required. (Note: I didn’t serve in the military, either. I’m not criticizing, I’m just observing.)
But do we take the same attitude when we accept Jesus as Lord? Is it enough to praise him, give to our church, and go on our merry way?
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
“Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:31)
“Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)
Clearly the answer is no. Jesus actually expects us to do something. Moreover, Jesus expects us to put him first, not ourselves. Talk about un-American!
I think this is why Christianity is so difficult for us. Jesus asks us to serve him, and we don’t know what that means. Serve him a hamburger? A tennis ball? A subpoena?
People in the Roman world knew how. To serve meant to give up your freedom, do what you’re told, and die if necessary for your lord. For the privileged, there were reciprocal benefits: the lord would protect your safety and help support you. For the masses, the other 98%, it meant you could be taxed, relocated, accused, and even executed at the whim of a man (and it was always a man) in a distant city, whom you had never and would never meet.
Serving Jesus looked pretty attractive to them because it was an improvement!
To us, serving Jesus starts to sound like a lot of sacrifice.
And it is. We are some of the most privileged people in the history of the world. We don’t like to be told what to do, and we don’t like to share what we’ve accumulated.
Yet serving someone means exactly that.
Paul refers to himself as a slave of Christ (Romans 1:1), and says, “whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22). Can we even imagine such language? I suspect we can’t. Not really. None of us have been slaves, and most of us don’t descend from slaves.
Think about what it means to be a slave: to be considered property, to have no rights whatever, not even the right to life, and to have no opportunity for self-determination. You may want to become educated, but your master may have you working on the farm instead. Or vice versa.
Moreover, you don’t get to argue with your master without risking punishment.
Can we imagine such a relationship with anyone, much less Jesus?
The good news is, what Jesus asks is usually not life threatening. And the reward, peace that passes understanding, is greater than anything our economically-blessed freedom can provide.
The Word came to me today. It is clearly addressed to me, and yet I think not only to me, for it contains a challenge for all who fall short of the promise made in John 14:12:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
This is the Word I received:
Walk with me, my child—do not be afraid to take my hand. You call my name, yet when I answer you turn away, like a child seeking reassurance that I am here. Now I call you. The time for playing is over. Embrace me! Come into my arms! For while you focus on your toys and games, you are still alone. Come to me, my child, that you may be held in my loving arms.
It is as if you live in a fertile valley, and you climb the foothills and marvel at what you can see. Do you look at the far-off mountain peak and imagine how much more glorious it might be there? But it is too far for a day’s journey, and you would not come home for dinner, and so you have never gone.
Look again at that peak, for there you will find me, for I have set my Kingdom on the mountain as a light to all the world! You are the heirs to my Kingdom. Will you not climb and enter? Come claim your inheritance! You are children of the promise—come, let the promise be fulfilled! Yes, you must travel far and leave your comforts behind. I promise you will not regret the journey, for you cannot imagine the glory you shall see.
Would you leave the table after the soup, without eating the meal? Why, then, do you settle for so little in your search for me? Why do you eat little when the table is so abundant that you may be filled beyond measure?
I sent you my Son to show you, and he made you this promise: that your deeds would exceed even his if you believe. Where then are your mighty works, your healings and your miracles? Why are the poor yet hungry and cold? I am the Lord! Will my Spirit not work through you if you will only ask and believe? Why then do you still turn to governments and human will?
Come into my house, for it is your house. Come to my table, for it is your table. Do not fear to embrace your father! As I embraced my Son, so I will embrace all my children—if you but ask. Do not be content to play in the yard, saying “That is my Father’s house, and there is my Father who comforts me.” Do not settle for that! Embrace me and let my love enfold you. For it is time to set aside childish things and learn to do the works that I shall do through you.
A closed heart is like a closed fist: It gives nothing and receives nothing, and is only useful for striking a blow. Open your heart! Let it be filled with my Spirit, and you shall give to all and yet never want.